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ISSUE 119 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/24/2006

Oscar buzz flies over praise-worthy films

By Jason Zencka
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 24, 2006

With a little over a week until the Oscars, the parade of predictions is becoming about as clamorous and inexorable as a procession of siren blasts. For those of you who aspire to find your one true movie love in a place outside the red carpet, here are a few films and film performances that the Academy, in its finite wisdom, passed over.

Grizzly Man

For 13 summers, Timothy Treadwell lived among a band of Alaskan grizzly bears, gingerly patting their noses, admiring their every move, and staring them down with starry-eyed, reverential confidence. Over the course of that time, he recorded over 100 hours of bear-themed musings on video camera.

Werner Herzog, the master German filmmaker, edits this footage into a sad and scrutinizing meditation on nature, man, and their tricky and tenuous relationship. Herzog looks at Treadwell and sees a kind of mad genius - a captivating but ultimately delusional man who mistook the indifference of nature for benevolence. And at first, Herzog seems to win the day. We soon learn that at the end of his 13th summer Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled to death.

But the footage of Treadwell as the wild-eyed, lonesome bear mystic is so enchanting, so weird and joyous, both Herzog and his audience are eventually silenced into a kind of stunned admiration. Certainly Treadwell was half-mad, but does that mean he was not also inspired? At the end of the day, it is impossible to say which fact has the final word: that Treadwell was able to fall hopelessly in love with a small part of the natural world, or that the very thing that gave his life purpose and transcendence ultimately devoured him.

King Kong

This film, Peter Jackson’s swollen follow-up to his magisterial “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, languished at the box-office when it was supposed to dominate. In the post-“Jurassic Park” age, it seems that humongous animated primates just don’t wow like they used to. Granted, Kong was a monster of a movie, at least an act too long and about as stable as a 12-layer cake, but at its heart was a real human dilemma, ape notwithstanding. Actress Naomi Watts and the animated monkey (through the wizardry of computers, the actor Andy Serkis was involved somehow) fashion a wordless and nuanced parable about the impossibility of love and the inability of persons to articulate their deepest and most fragile needs.

Somewhere in the three-hour-plus behemoth is another spectacular film about the danger and seduction of spectacle. Jackson is able to spin the Kong movie-myth into a reflexive jab at his own recent style of epic filmmaking. That is two movies, and there are at least a few other more or less striking films wrestling for attention in this mess, but ultimately “King Kong” gives you more than enough filling for a good movie meal, despite the unwieldy serving size. Watch it at least once in the theaters if you can, then rent it so you can skip through the excess icing.

The Performances of Viggo Mortenson and Elijah Wood

Both of these actors escaped the gravitational tug of the recent “Lord of the Rings” trilogy this year by playing characters almost completely antithetical to their “Rings” images. Elijah Wood became a nightmarish anti-Frodo in the awful but intoxicating “Sin City.” His character was a silent and spooky serial killer in a Charlie Brown costume whose unflappable stoicism was nicely complimented by a penchant for acrobatic kung-fu. Also, unlike Frodo Baggins, he ate people.

Viggo Mortenson also shed his epic wardrobe for the lead role in David Cronenburg’s magnetic and disturbing “A History of Violence.” His role as the multifaceted home-town hero with a dubious past was taut, complex, and expertly rendered. We wanted to love him, were told to hate him, and thanks to Mortenson’s subtle and deliberate changes in inflection, spent most of the film eating out of his hand.

Other films that flew just under the Academy’s radar include Gore Verbinski’s hilarious and thoroughly depressing “The Weather Man,” the careful and resonant “Junebug,” and Gus Van Sant’s trippy and lyrical “Last Days.” These number only a portion of the excellent films releassed this year that were ultimately deemed too quirky or misanthropic for the pageantry of the Oscars. Rent them today and cherish them despite their lack of Oscar attention: these gems are their own reward.

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