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Oscar snubs: The eternal conundrum

This news story was published on February 25, 2012.
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By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune –

Each new Oscars season binds us all together as one, in a collective, sputtering state of exasperation. How could they fail to nominate so-and-so? Are you telling me that so-and-so deserved a best actress or best supporting actor Academy Award nomination any less than thus-and-so? Say it isn’t so.

I have three names, chief among many others, to throw in the ring of the unnominated.

No. 1: Robert Forster, “The Descendants.” The beauty of director Alexander Payne’s film, which he co-adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, lies in its underlying generosity even when the characters are being foolish or ridiculous. Forster portrays the gruff father of the woman in a coma, the woman married to George Clooney’s prosperous but fraught lawyer/landowner. In other hands, and with a less astute character actor, the father figure would be just that: a figure, a foil, rather than a dimensional creation.

But when Forster finds his moments to reveal the man’s breaking heart — he is losing a daughter, and he blames his son-in-law — without shoveling the pathos, Payne and Forster conspire to complicate our feelings about the man. Also, he’s very funny. The way he states “I’m going to hit you now” before popping his granddaughter’s wastrel pal Sid in the face is so perfect, it’s actually a step beyond perfect.

Forster received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his career-resurrecting role as the bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997). But his work in “The Descendants” is no less choice.

No. 2: Yun Jung-hee, “Poetry.” The South Korean actress, whose name and face you probably don’t know, hadn’t worked (by choice) in nearly 20 years when she starred in my favorite film of 2011. In writer-director Lee Chang-dong’s drama, she plays a pensioner raising her teenage grandson. The woman is coping with early-onset Alzheimer’s, as well as the news that her grandson is guilty of a terrible crime. Yun delineates the crisscrossing lines of her character’s psyche with such gorgeous ease that a potentially melodramatic series of crises becomes an occasion for something like true catharsis.

Yun hadn’t a chance in hell at an Oscar nomination for “Poetry.” The academy’s nominating percentages for non-English-language performances are pretty pathetic. The film got a scant release and found a scant U.S. audience, and even in the film’s world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago, Yun lost out to Juliette Binoche for”Certified Copy.”

Whatever. I’ll never forget her performance, or the film, which explores — more expressively than most filmmakers or actresses achieve in an entire career — what it means to do the right thing under extreme duress.

No. 3: Anna Paquin, “Margaret.” Well before she took on Sookie Stackhouse in the HBO series “True Blood,” Paquin filmed Kenneth Lonergan’s ambitious Manhattan-set character study about a high school senior, a few years after 9/11, dealing with her mother’s post-divorce life, her lurch toward adulthood and most of all her inadvertent role in a fatal bus accident. Paquin’s character is a nerve ending — reckless, hurting, hurtful, real. After the film’s barely released release in the U.S. last year, after several years of litigation and delay, “Margaret” was buoyed by a strong show of U.S. critical support. In London, it was hailed as a modern masterwork; Paquin was one of two winners of the best actress award from the London film critics. The other? Meryl Streep.

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