Oscar Watch: Nebraska

 

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Nebraska is probably too smart to win many Oscars, but I hope its original screenplay is at least recognized.

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

Nebraska is the little engine that could of this year’s awards race. And it’s a brilliant film to boot. Soulfully nostalgic and achingly sad all at once, it’s the best Oscar-nominated movie you haven’t seen. That needs to be rectified.

Director Alexander Payne is no stranger to Oscar. His unique slice-of-American life outlook has resulted in Oscar gold for films Sideways (Best Original Screenplay) and The Descendants (Best Adapted Screenplay) as well as nominations for the likes of George Clooney and Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt).

For Nebraska, Payne returns to his home state for the story of an elderly man (Bruce Dern) who thinks he’s won $1 million and, whether its true or not, decides to travel from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize, at any cost. Eventually he ropes his two adult sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk) into the adventure, as well as his saucy wife (June Squibb) and, eventually, his whole extended family.

There’s nothing not to like about Nebraska—from its sensuous black and white cinematography to its witty script and pitch-perfect acting. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t seem to expect accolades, but is glad to get them when they come. It’s not an “Oscar bait” movie in any way, and that is so very refreshing.

Much of the credit goes to Bob Nelson’s original screenplay, which deserves to win in its category (close second goes to American Hustle). His balance between humor and tragedy is so fine it’s almost infuriating. Phedon Pamamichael’s cinematography is also wisely recognized (though it will lose to Gravity). The B&W photography gives the empty Midwestern landscapes more character, and is not in any way distracting or preening.

Dern is brilliant, but it’s June Squibb who’s the true revelation here. Seeing such good actors getting their time in the spotlight after so long is a treat. She’s far from a frontrunner, but, at 84, she would be the oldest to win the Best Supporting Actress prize, and the Academy does love to break barriers when they’re deserved. This one is.

Payne’s sensitive and very personal direction netted him a well-deserved directing nod, but it’s tough to vote against the richly deserving Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity. Still, I wouldn’t be disappointed if Payne pulled an upset. Same goes for Nebraska’s Best Picture nod.

Whatever its Oscar fate, Nebraska is, at the very least, destined to become a cult classic of some sort. It’s a potent, lasting reminder that our family is not the one we choose, but simply the one we’re given. We must make due; for better or worse. 

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