Manuel Betancourt

Oscar Challenge 2015: Boyhood, Still Alice & Two Days One Night

February 20, 2015 · in Film

Boyhood & Still Alice & Two Days One Night

Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Writing (Original Screenplay)
Best Film Editing
Still Alice
Best Actress in a Leading RoleTwo Days One Night
Best Actress in a Leading Role

It’s just an arbitrary grouping, but it’s nevertheless fascinating that Boyhood, Still Alice and Two Days One Night all deal with stories of women running out of time. Olivia (Patricia Arquette), Alice (Julianne Moore) and Sandra (Marion Cotillard) are presented throughout their films at the mercy of the pressures of family, illness and capitalism, all of which frame their stories as ones where they’re slowly finding themselves with not much time left.

Boyhood Arquette
Still Alice Moore
Two Days Cotillard

At one end of the spectrum we find Boyhood, a twelve-years-in-the-making endeavor that traces the pivotal years of Mason, a young boy in Texas. More fascinatingly, though, the film functions as a number of snapshots of the life of Mason’s mother, whose narrative from domestic abuse survivor to working single mom is probably the most refreshing aspect of the entire film which seems much too enamored with its decidedly average and uninteresting male lead (its title belies precisely the narrow-yet-universal thematic thread that burdens the film’s preciousness). In one of the film’s more affective (and effective) scenes, we see Mason indifferently say goodbye to his mother before heading off on his own; his emotional detachment, so familiar for a teen who sees himself as the center of a rather interesting life (and oh does the film give him reason to!), frustrates and endears him to his mother who can’t quite muster much excitement for what’s to come:

“I just thought there would be more.”

And there will be, just not for her; she’s given up her life getting Mason and his sister this far, but just as she got herself settled, all she seemingly has to look forward to is her own impending death. Morbid? Perhaps, but structurally the film cannot help but agree with her for before you pause and realize the way Richard Linklater’s own film has made her line that much more affecting; we all wish there would have been more of and for Olivia.

That there could and would be more for her is precisely what makes up the premise of Still Alice, where Moore’s eponymous protagonist finds herself losing her bearings to a bout of on-set Alzheimer’s. Like Olivia, she wishes there would be more but as she slowly begins her new life as an Alzheimer’s patient (losing words and memories the way some of us lose our keys so that it becomes more annoying for its recurrence than for its occurrence), it’s rewarding to watch the film arm itself so as to get at the core of Alice.

Here is a lovely and loving portrayal of a smart, self-aware woman whose tragedy is to lose precisely that which had come to define her. Moore, sure to win the Oscar come Sunday is resplendent. She’s always excelled at small moments (her sorrowful yet performative glances at her son in The Hours, the darting anxious eyes during painful phone conversations in Boogie Nights) and Still Alice, by insisting on structuring itself as a number of non-consecutive and decidedly mundane moments, allows her to use her blank face as both crowded canvas and tabula rasa. It’s soul-breaking to see Alice begin to dissolve, but even more heart-breaking is seeing her say with her eyes what Olivia verbalizes — that she thought there’d be more.

On the other end of the spectrum, where the existential crisis unravels in quick-succession (no years-long production, no months-in-seconds time jumps), we find the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days One Night starring the incomparable Marion Cotillard. While Olivia and Alice battle an abstract notion of time running out, the Dardennes frame Sandra’s story as one in which she literally has no time left to lose. She has a full weekend to convince her fellow workers to forgo a bonus so that she can keep the job she’s been away from because of a bout of depression (or something, the film, so keen on the bureaucratic details is aptly scant on those that concern the backstory behind Sandra’s leave of absence).

And yet, the film, another low-key affair that is more interested in the mundanity of people’s interactions, mines Sandra’s stopwatch plot to explore larger questions about capitalism and bureaucracy, humanity and compassion, community and individuality. Cotillard’s broken hunched demeanor anchors this seemingly abstract fable; she may be just a number to be added or subtracted, but Sandra is wholly, unmistakably human, one who wishes for both more and less time yet unable to make time stand still; the Dardennes pit her against the unflinching march of capitalism’s unsparing time.

This trio of women might suggest a triumvirate of miserabilism; a put-upon and oft-neglected mother, an ailing professor and a depressed soon-to-be-fired warehouse worker surely do not speak to the strength and vigor that the masculinist films that make up the Best Picture roster boast (two Brit geniuses! two tortured artists! two American heroes!), and yet, in their quiet desperation, Olivia, Alice and Sandra offer beautifully calibrated melodramas; these are tragedies that usually go unspoken and unheard of, for they go slowly out in the night, always on the outskirts of the stories we tend to dub worthy of discussing and celebrating.

Boyhood B-

Still Alice B+

Two Days One Night B+