The Oscar nominations were announced at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, initiating the annual catch-up-viewing period before the awards ceremony itself, which this year takes place on February 27. Of course, when it comes to these things, everyone has their druthers, but this year's major-category contenders seem considerably less objectionable—at least to these eyes—than they have in years past. The presumptive Best Picture frontrunners—The Social Network, The King's Speech, The Fighter, and True Grit—are all must-sees. And the Best Picture bench is deep: The Kids Are All Right and Winter's Bone, the summer's two indie sensations, probably won't take home any awards, but hopefully the prestigious recognition will encourage those who haven't seen these films to rent them.
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But, as always, there's also high-quality home-viewing to be found in the less glamorous categories of the Academy's nominee list. Mentioning Animal Kingdom in this context is a bit of a cheat, considering that its sole nomination is for Jacki Weaver as Actress in a Supporting Role, which qualifies as a mini-major category. But the Australian film, a gritty crime-family drama, barely grossed $1 million stateside, making it perhaps the most under-seen film cited this year for its acting.
Animal Kingdom is not merely a showpiece for Weaver, who plays the doting but calculating matriarch Janine. First-time writer-director David Michôd follows believably stiff teen "J" (James Frecheville) as he gets thrust into the Melbourne underworld after the heroin overdose of his mother. The movie is chockablock with showboaty speeches about betrayal and moody slo-mo, but Michôd raises the dramatic stakes with such a steady hand that his debut scarcely seems overblown.
Among the most interesting feature documentaries up for an Oscar is Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo, a striking piece of reportage that's currently available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as to "watch instantly" on Netflix. The film follows a platoon of soldiers on a 15-month tour in Afghanistan's craggy and treacherous Korengal Valley.
Candid post-deployment interviews complement the on-the-ground footage. The digital-camera lens is perpetually flecked with dirt during firefights, sit-downs with valley elders, and downtime horsing around. Hetherington and Junger keep the bigger-picture context to a minimum, instead zeroing in on the soldiers' punishing daily grind. The result is something like an impossibly visceral family chronicle, a welcome rejoinder to the few-bad-apples narratives that have dominated so many cinematic treatments of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.
Perhaps the year's most surprising nominee of all is Dogtooth, the Greek submission for Foreign Language Film, which arrived this week on home video. The critics' favorite, co-written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, proves a lot more intriguing in concept than in execution, but it seems something of a miracle that a movie this outré is up for one of those heavy statues.
Dogtooth focuses on three nameless thirtysomething siblings who have essentially been imprisoned by their parents in an isolated rural compound. Like Bruce McDonald's recent Pontypool, Lanthimos's film is in large part a horror film about language: Mom and Dad's unorthodox home-schooling methods include vocab cassette tapes that scramble the meanings of wider-world words ("A sea is a leather armchair with wooden arms like the one we have in our living room," in this household "phone" means salt shaker), something given vague beyond-the-home implications here by Dad's status as a small-time captain of industry. As outside forces—including a VHS copy of Rocky—threaten this closed system, the parents resort to increasingly desperate order-preserving measures, staged by Lanthimos as an escalating series of bold provocations.
Dogtooth charts the breaking down of the elaborate mythology, the master narrative, that has kept the children, all well into adulthood, under their parents' dictatorial supervision. The film is stylish and meticulous in its own distinctive way, but as a story coyly taking on the very politics of storytelling, it begins to feel nearly as hermetic as its setting. That said, if Dogtooth wins the Oscar—and the foreign-language category has in recent years acquired a reputation for yielding surprise winners—the Academy will be officially commending a movie that depicts forced incest, a man killing a cat with a pair of pruning shears, and a girl knocking out her own teeth with a free weight. I don't love Dogtooth, but I think I have no choice but to root for it. What other nominee has such little regard for Academy-approved notions of prestige and respectability?