Cinemadope: Pushing the Envelope

You might think that the holiday season is over and done with, but for the film industry, it’s about to be December all over again. The 2014 Oscar nominations are out, and it’s proved to be an interesting year—not only because of some of the films that made the cut, but also because of some names that found themselves on the other side of the velvet rope.

First, a bit about one of the films and actors that did get nominated. It’s been a great joy for me over the last few years to watch Matthew McConaughey return to acting. I suppose the truth is that he never really left, but many of the films he made in the last decade so failed to follow up on his early promise that it felt like he had given up—forgettable fare like Failure to Launch, and How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days. It felt like going to Delmonico’s for dinner, and Denny’s for dessert.

But in the last few years he has righted the ship—tellingly, his return to form coincided with a performance in 2011’s dark comedy Bernie, a film which reunited the actor with Richard Linklater, who had directed him in Dazed and Confused, the 1993 film that launched McConaughey’s career. Now, he’s up for a Best Actor Oscar.

The film that brought him there is Dallas Buyer’s Club, a wild film inspired by a true story. He plays Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician and rodeo cowboy who is diagnosed as H.I.V.-positive in the mid-1980s. Given a month to live and finding the government-approved treatments lacking, Woodroof turns to smuggling alternative medicines in from across the Mexican border. To get around government rules on selling unapproved medicines, the entrepreneurial Woodroof, with unlikely fellow traveler Rayon (Jared Leto), launches the buyer’s club of the title, which brings together a community of AIDS patients struggling to find help.

An interesting side note about the film, which is also up for Best Picture: the original script first made the rounds in Hollywood over two decades ago. In the last 20-plus years, it had been turned down over 120 times; in the end, the film was underwritten by executives from a Texas fertilizer company. Without them, it’s likely the established film industry would never have made what has turned out to be one of the year’s most lauded stories. One hopes they will remember that the next time an unusual script lands on their desks.

And with every award season, there are the names that didn’t make it into the envelope. Many were surprised that Tom Hanks didn’t get a nod for either Captain Phillips or his turn as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks (co-star Emma Thompson was also left adrift), but the bigger surprise to me is that the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis was left out of most of the bigger categories, earning nods for sound mixing and cinematography only. (Especially notable for a Coen brothers’ film is its absence from the screenplay category.) On the other hand, Spike Jones’ offbeat film Her—in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a computer operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson—was recognized. In a season too often filled with the usual suspects, the inclusion of Her—it’s also up for Best Picture—is a promising sign.


Also this week: An interesting event comes to Amherst Cinema on Monday evening, when the theater hosts a screening of Groundhog Day, the cultishly popular Bill Murray comedy. In it, TV weatherman Phil Connors is sent to cover the Punxsutawney Phil event, an annual ritual he loathes. Forced to stay the night when winter weather hits, he rises the next morning to find himself stuck in a temporal loop, reliving Groundhog Day over and over again. The cinema will host Dr. Kannan Jagannathan, Professor of Physics at Amherst College, who will discuss time travel and the film’s interpretation of it as part of the theater’s Science on Screen series. One night only (or is it??).•


Jack Brown can be reached at

Author: Jack Brown

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