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by Eric Kohn
January 11, 2013 8:59 AM
18 Comments
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Critic's Notebook: The Biggest Oscar Snub Isn't Kathryn Bigelow; It's Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi in "This is Not a Film."
When the Oscar nominations were announced on Thursday morning, pundits immediately centered on one notable omission: Kathryn Bigelow. While "Zero Dark Thirty" landed nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, Bigelow's immersive account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden clearly took a blow from divisive opinions on the film's depiction of torture.

Still, just days ago, Bigelow was considered a lock for the category -- and with good reason. "Zero Dark Thirty" channels events widely chronicled and memorialized in the public memory into a fascinating suspense mold that lingers in the minutiae of investigative proceedings before erupting with a divisive, morally conflicting finale that leaves viewers stunned, provoked, and curious. It's what great movies should do. Bigelow's direction is unquestionably among the finest achievements in American movies from the past year. She deserves recognition.

But she's also been down this road before -- and not too long ago, to boot. Bigelow made history in 2009 with "The Hurt Locker," when she became the first woman filmmaker to land a Best Director prize in the history of the Academy Awards. The triumph was emphasized by the movie's overall rise-from-the-bottom trajectory after it had been a sleeper hit on the festival circuit and basically flopped in theaters. That moment provided the public with an opportunity to appreciate Bigelow's artistry on a global stage for the first time, even though she had been churning out distinctive cinema for decades beforehand. "Zero Dark Thirty" confirmed her talent yet again.

Bigelow took a figurative bullet for the sake of expanding audiences' perspective.
The Oscars would've heaped on further mainstream validation to the achievement, but in a week when the director accepted two back-to-back prizes from critics groups in New York, Bigelow's genius has received ample recognition. Her absence from the category opened the door for 31-year-old Benh Zeitlin to land a Best Director nomination for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a movie that to most audiences came out of left field only a few months back. That, coupled with the presence of Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke in the same category, turn this set of nominees into a uniquely diverse overview of recent movies: From the most extreme realization of Hollywood success (Steven Spielberg) to more radically expressive independent visions, these five names encapsulate some of the most significant tendencies in narrative cinema today. Bigelow took a figurative bullet for the sake of expanding audiences' perspective. If she needs consolation, it should come from that inadvertent outcome.

But enough about Bigelow; she'll survive to make more movies. The truly unfortunate missing piece from the 2012 nominees lies in the documentary category. All of the nominees included this year have their passionate defenders for good reasons: "How to Survive a Plague" is a lively account of activist efforts to raise AIDS awareness in the 1980s, while "The Invisible War" delivers a stunning exposé of rape in the military. "Searching For Sugar Man" successfully transforms music doc conventions into a mystery and the masterful "5 Broken Cameras" utilizes home video footage to provide an unprecedented intimate perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On a similar note, "The Gatekeepers" unearths shocking testimony from Israel's intelligence agents about the sometimes reckless strategies behind their constant battles over land. The subject matters of these films are far more diverse than any of the other categories among this year's nominees and their inclusions are just.

However, the Academy missed a significant opportunity to shed light on one of the most remarkable filmmaking achievements of the past year, one that toys with truth and fiction using an immediacy far more impressive than "Zero Dark Thirty." Jafar Panahi's fascinating "This Is Not a Film," made while the Iranian director was under house arrest and smuggled into the Cannes Film Festival, landed a spot on the documentary shortlist late last year.

In terms of production history, it was a greater achievement in the history of Iranian cinema than the Best Foreign Film win for "A Separation" last year. Panahi, a veteran of the craft and one of Iran's brightest cinematic voices, made an aggressively intellectual movie about entrapment and creative desire in the constraints of his apartment. He cries on camera and shares stories, chats with his lawyer and his neighbors while pondering his future. The movie ends on a disjunctive note of ambiguity that leaves the director's fate up in the air. A vote for "This Is Not a Film" would have been the ultimate in filmic advocacy. Bigelow will live; Panahi still needs our help. Now that Panahi has a new film screening at the Berlinale next month, we can only hope he gets another chance to ask for it.

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18 Comments

  • Jessy | January 13, 2013 11:32 AMReply

    I really think it´s justice not having Bigelow nominee this year. When she won her oscar for best director, but especially for best picture, she didn´t deserve them. What special value is there in talking about war propaganda? I really hope she and her peicture don´t recive golden globe tonight. This is like a 'karmmatic justice' When she won oscar, the winner must be Quentin Tarantino with her masterpiece Inglorius Bastards. I hope tonight win Ben Affleck.

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  • ed | January 12, 2013 9:09 PMReply

    I am perhaps prejudiced, but I agree with your assessment

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  • Jacob | January 12, 2013 6:23 PMReply

    The biggest Oscar snub was PTA & The Master. Too bad America thinks fictional films about capturing terrorists via text messages is art while visual composition and structure fall short.

  • jk105 | January 12, 2013 2:25 PMReply

    "This is Not a Film" is nothing more than someone turning a cellphone on himself while he babbled. Given Panahi's living situation, it made for interesting politics, but political propaganda --even propaganda we support--is not art. Bigelow deserved a nomination.

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  • MDL | January 11, 2013 8:16 PMReply

    I like your sentiment in general but you are asking for Panahi to be nominated because of his political situation more than because of his film. It's a good film but from the directing standpoint it is not really 'directed'. It's more a record of his life over a few days, assembled and edited. You could just as well give him best editor or best actor [or best film] nominations following your logic. Sometimes film festivals give awards because of political situations. I think that is good. Perhaps the Academy should consider giving a special award to Panahi to draw attention to his situation. But not best director.

  • jean vigo | January 11, 2013 5:05 PMReply

    People should start seeing "Oscar snub" as an accolade in and of itself. Seriously.

    Panahi's film will be discussed a decade from now while "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is already in the $4.99 bin at Best Buy.

  • Davey | January 11, 2013 3:20 PMReply

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  • Jordan | January 11, 2013 1:56 PMReply

    Great article Mr. Kohn. "It's what great movies should do" is also a line I used to describe Zero Dark Thirty provocative nature. I just think some movies push the envelope more than the envelope stuffers can handle.

  • troy | January 11, 2013 1:35 PMReply

    Eric: I agree with you he deserves to be in the group of Oscar candidates

  • Shelly | January 11, 2013 12:12 PMReply

    "Expanding audiences perspective" is nominating 5 straight white dudes for best director yet again. Nice try but no.

  • Archibald | January 11, 2013 5:21 PM

    Ang Lee is white? Huh....maybe somebody should clue him in, might come as a bit of a surprise.

  • TheTruth | January 11, 2013 11:56 AMReply

    No he isn't, he's not on oscar's radar. Stop looking at what you want it to be and look at it how it is.

  • Bill | January 11, 2013 2:06 PM

    So what you're saying is that, "Because the Academy wasn't thinking about nominating him, and then didn't, it's unfair to say that they should have"? I'm not seeing the logic there.