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.
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.