Now the Oscar Glow is Gone: Time to Award the Passover Prize
By Aviva Kempner
For the last two years, I have been meaning to compose an essay listing those films or talent that I thought were unfairly ignored for Oscar nominations.
Although the Oscar glow has faded, I am still going to evoke those winners today because spring break gives people time to catch up on missed movies on DVD or digitally. Plus, we need some relief from tent pole action movies or the stormy and who’s fired nightly news.
Let’s call these entries, the Passover Prizes. Obviously, it’s a timely distinction as these honors are being announced just before the start of Passover, my favorite Jewish holiday commemorating the liberation from slavery in Egypt.
In the spirit of being ecumenical, I am declaring the prizes to be a decorated egg in honor of Easter, which is also celebrated this weekend. Being sensitive to the feminist wave that has finally swept Hollywood, we all know that only females produce eggs.
Rest assured these winners are going to capture your heart, make you cry or squirm in your seats, and make you feel that your lives are easy or calm in comparison. Not to worry they will only encompass a few names, akin to those lovers who got away or the crushes that never materialized but one cannot forget.
Starting back two years ago, I want to award Passover Prizes to two fine actors starring in roles that have not escaped my memory and I could watch time and time again.
I cannot forget the outstanding performance that Dev Patel gave in Matt Brown’s illuminating The Man Who knew Infinity as Srinivasa Ramanujan, the genius, Indian-born mathematician who faced racism while studying in England during World War I. I can still picture the scenes of this committed vegan trying to sustain a healthy diet during wartime rationing and pursuing his studies among the skepticism of bigoted British scholars. Infinity was plagued by coming out early in 2016, which everyone knows hurts Oscar chances. It was also released before Lion, another Patel starred film set in India, which garnered the steam of the Weinstein machine driven Oscar campaign.
No actress riveted me more to my seat than Jessica Chastain as the tyrannical lobbyist in John Madden’s driven Miss Sloane in 2016. Playing a ruthless commander of the political system that allowed her to switch sides at the drop of a cause, Chastain surprisingly evoked both anger and respect from her audience. Her expertise in plotting strategy in meetings and the cold use of a male escort testified to her superb acting chops. She showed us that equality meant not being a “nice guy,” but showing humanity when it counted.
Moving forward to 2017, two of the best supporting actor nominations should have been bestowed onto Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell in Dee Rees’ heart wrenching Mudbound. Playing celebrated Southern white and black veterans in the Jim Crow South, their common World War II experiences bind them. The scenes of them sharing their wartime wounds are a hallmark in celluloid depictions of wartime trauma. The terrifying racism faced by Mitchell and the compassion shown by Hedlund made me wish that not only both had been nominated but had won in a tie. That award fantasy would have been a rich healing tool for co-existence that we so need in our present American political climate.
This movie is a must for understanding the difficulties of those returning from war to so-called normality. Nor is it a just a World War II phenomena. It should be required viewing for the new head of the VA and relatives of today’s vulnerable vets.
As I reveal my list of three 2017 foreign film titles that I thought deserved to be nominated, I realize how fixated I am on the power of war movies. It is not surprising to me as my all-time favorites range from Casablanca to The Bridge on the River Kwai and Schindler’s List.
From England to Hungary to contemporary Israel these trifecta of war themed movies explore serious themes and make you scream out of empathy and sorrow. Set in wartime London before the US joined the Allied forces, Lone Scherfig’s romantic Their Finest celebrates a screen writing team of British writers who is developing a feature intended to convince Americans to join the battle against the Nazis. Working and living amidst the constant German air attacks, life in London never looked more harrowing. The growing bond between the female writer, positioned in a secondary role, and the male screenwriter is a joy to watch as their unrequited love blossoms. But remember the best war movies do not have happy endings.
Foxtrot and 1945 are also war themed movies full of powerful and memorable scenes. Ferenc Török’s evocative 1945, which unfairly did not even receive the nod from Hungary to be an Oscar contender, is a black and white masterpiece that feels like a classic murder mystery.
Set right after the end of World War II, the film intercuts between the reaction of the non-Jewish occupants of a small Hungarian town terrified by the surprise arrival of two Orthodox Jewish men at the train station. As the elder and younger men transport their long boxes, the village people scurry around hiding obviously deserted Jewish religious items because they are worried that the two are coming back to reclaim their businesses or homes that have been taken over by the townspeople after the Nazi deportations. As the plot unfolds like a nuanced murder mystery, the inhabitants demonstrate contradictory reactions. 1945 gives the word homecoming a whole new mysterious meaning.
And the Israeli entry for the Oscars, Samuel Maoz’s challenging Foxtrot, was also overlooked. Starting with the story of a parent’s grief upon hearing of a son’s death, the film’s editing, photography and acting contribute to its poignancy. The movie moves to sometimes humorous scenes depicting the monotony of combat life as well as the moral challenges of wartime in the Middle East. The film challenges the glamour of heroism and duty often found in American action flicks.
So sorry these roles or movies missed being nominated, since they received less fanfare and smaller viewing audiences. I hope that by giving these performances or gems the Passover Prizes your interest will be peaked to watch what you probably missed.
Hoping some politicians will also see these films so they are reminded that war is hell, and prejudice is so damaging.
Just don’t forget to have Kleenex nearby. I assure you that there is not a rotten egg among them.