The reel underdogs

The reel underdogs

Race to the oscars

The reel underdogs

It happens every year. Some actor stands next to another performer or the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and they take turns telling you what’s up for an Oscar. Which means they’re also telling you what’s not.

And “what’s not” tends to be as important as what is. Sometimes nomination day — which this year is January 14 — brings a happy surprise or two. I, at least, never saw Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) or Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) coming. The bellwethers — so-called Oscar bait — tend to garner attention because they are generally released near the end of the year, and represent some ideal of the high-minded and the middlebrow, some ideal of importance.

There are always exceptions. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has suddenly blasted its way into the conversation, a development that shall receive no dissent from me. But there’s a kind of movie that gets singed. It’s often small, was only sort of seen, and came out eons — I mean, months — ago. Something like Woman in Gold leaps to mind.

It’s a tough, funny, infuriating piece of business, in which a Vienna-born Los Angeles dress-shop owner (Helen Mirren) and a boyishly polite lawyer (Ryan Reynolds) fight the Austrian government for a Klimt painting the Nazis stole from her family. The story is based in truth, for what it’s worth. Woman in Gold might be the epitome of middlebrow moviemaking, but it was released far enough outside the scrum that that classification wasn’t worth making.

A few weeks before, I saw Danny Collins. I should say that I dragged myself because Al Pacino as a still-vital pop-star superstud who moves into a hotel and reconnects with a long-lost son and his family is an embarrassing idea. But everything about this movie, which Dan Fogelman wrote and directed, made me beyond happy, starting with Pacino, who explores new neighbourhoods of his legendary excess. He’d seemed musty recently. Here, he’s a must.

His is a shameless piece of acting, but it’s driven by so much confidence, so much sexiness, that all that’s really embarrassing is how you ever doubted that he could still teem with this much louche charisma. Whatever an “Oscar movie” is, this isn’t it, which is all the more reason to consider it.

The same goes for Results, a loose, idiosyncratic, uncommonly warm romantic comedy from late spring. It presented two personal trainers in Austin, Texas, and the miserable New Yorker they can’t get into shape. Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce play Kat and Trevor, the romantically dysfunctional trainers; Kevin Corrigan is Danny, the client; and none of those three have been better.

The credit for the crispness of their comedy goes to the writer and director, Andrew Bujalski, who’s happy to fill dead space with awkward behaviour. He began as a director of so-called mumblecore. Bujalski has come up with a movie that understands the peculiar chemistry of personality and occupation. The movie wasn’t built for awards, but it deserves them, anyway. None are likely to come from the Academy, for the Oscar tail winds blow elsewhere.

And if you’re giving out prizes, must the recipients all be moral heavyweights? Couldn’t a few just feature a heavyweight? Couldn’t a few be Creed? On the one hand, it’s just a boxing movie. On the other, it is the best boxing movie I’ve seen in a long time. Director Ryan Coogler understands how bodies in motion can tell a story as well as George Miller understands how to harness frenetic motion as a narrative device in Fury Road. But Coogler’s achievement suffers a comparative disadvantage with Miller’s. No one’s seen anything like Fury Road. Anyone who’s seen Rocky has basically seen Creed, especially the Academy. In 1977, it gave Rocky the best picture Oscar, paving the way for generations of boxing fantasies with great white heroes.

Setting aside Coogler’s intelligent adjustment of the racial temperature — it’s a reconsidering of the original movie rather than a rebuke — there is the rousing fact of his skill. The script takes the simple premise of an underrated light-heavyweight and doesn’t oversell melodrama. Adonis is the son of Rocky’s late foil-turned-friend, Apollo Creed. And there is honour in his compulsion to box. Coogler gives the compulsion emotional contour.
The movie’s got two wildly convincing fights, one done in a single take, another done to take your breath away. Then there’s the hard grace of the acting. What Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone bring out in each other is funny, tender, earnest and not the least bit flamboyant. No one’s leaning on nostalgia to move you. Your excitement is earned.

Is there something undignified in pleading with 6,000 or so strangers to make room on their Oscar nomination ballots for movies they’ve skipped or never heard of? Of course. But discovery is one of the joys of moviegoing. You just never know — even when the pundits insist that you do.