VIDEO ESSAY: Who Should Win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor

VIDEO ESSAY: Who Should Win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor

Part of "Who Should Win," a series of video essays co-presented by Indiewire Press Play and Fandor.

This year’s Best Supporting Actor nominees are all previous Oscar winners, which eliminates some of the career achievement concerns that can affect these awards. Let’s hope that puts more emphasis on the quality of the performances, which are all worthy of consideration.

As a wisecracking, world-weary Hollywood producer, Alan Arkin gives a light-hearted lift to Argo’s political thriller proceedings. In Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones plays the salty senator Thaddeus Stevens. Jones’ performance lives in his eyes. It shows the mental activity of an old man challenged to rethink his politics in order to achieve his lifelong dream of abolishing slavery. Jones is currently the narrow favorite to win the Oscar, but I think there are three performances better than his.

In Django Unchained, Christoph Waltz is a ruthless bounty hunter whose conscience awakens when he helps a freed slave on his quest. Waltz is a master of playing surface-level civility. But in this film, he peels away those layers ever so gradually to reveal his moral outrage seething underneath.

Robert De Niro gives his best performance in years in The Silver Linings Playbook. He plays a football-fixated father, whose attempts to help his son are undermined by his own manic temperament. It’s a display of late-career virtuosity, showing the emotional range he’s mastered over a lifetime: from explosive menace to wisecracking warmth. In this film, he adds an extra dimension through a sense of advanced age and frailty, which he uses to disarming pathos in this scene. But as it turns out, this emotional display is a put-on, as he just wants to loop his son into a crazy scheme. De Niro’s character is an inspired creation of demented obsession, charged with startling vitality.

But I have to give the top prize to Philip Seymour Hoffman for his work as the self-help guru Lancaster Dodd in The Master. It surprises me to say this because I’m not even sure if it’s a complete performance—by the end, his character seems to disappear into the movie’s unresolved clouds of ambiguity. But for the first 90 minutes of The Master, Hoffman is key to making this film work. He’s a pillar of authoritative self-control, a counterbalance to Joaquin Phoenix’s utterly unhinged lead performance.

But Hoffman is doing more than just playing the straight man. There’s an unforgettable scene where Hoffman’s Dodd first processes Phoenix. From Dodd’s face and his line of questioning, we see a refined man fascinated by a wild beast of a human, but we catch a glimpse of that same wildness lurking in him as well. That wildness explodes in a later scene when Hoffman is ambushed, and his lack of self-mastery is exposed. In just these two scenes, Hoffman is able to chart out the entire three-dimensional psychic landscape of a character. It’s this richness that keeps us watching even as the film takes us to increasingly difficult territory.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Follow him on Twitter.

VIDEO ESSAY: Who Should Win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress

VIDEO ESSAY: Who Should Win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress


Part of "Who Should Win," a series of video essays co-presented by Indiewire Press Play and Fandor.

Anne Hathaway is the favorite to win Best Supporting Actress as Fantine in Les Miserables, and that’s just wrong for three reasons. First, she gave a much richer performance as the sly Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises. Second, she’s not even the best supporting performance in Les Miz—that honor goes to Samantha Barks, who’s more nuanced as Éponine—but of course, Éponine always gets overlooked. I think Anne Hathaway is a great actress, but this is the worst performance in this category. It’s a sad puppy act pitched at shrieking full volume, while ripping off Sinead O’Connor and Falconetti’s Joan of Arc. This performance doesn’t just beg for an Oscar, it grovels for it.

Sally Field has won two Oscars, and she’s nominated again as Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln, playing an unstrung, emotional foil to the constantly composed president. Field brings an intelligence and dignity that gives an edge to her character’s moments of hysteria. She’s able to convey a mind that’s alert and articulate even when it spins in sadness.

Jackie Weaver is the surprise nominee for Silver Linings Playbook as a mother trying to deal with her son’s bipolar disorder. She has only a handful of lines, mostly appearing in cutaway reaction shots; it’s practically a silent movie-type performance, and not a bad one at that. Expressive even in her silence, she’s a graceful, accepting presence amidst a cast of crazies.

Amy Adams has roughly 20 minutes of screen time in The Master, and boy does she make the most of it. She gives a hand job, turns her eyes black and gives the stare of death while naked and pregnant. Her unnerving intensity casts a spectre over The Master—it’s a pity that she wasn’t utilized more. She practically deserves her own movie.

Another character who deserves her own movie is Cheryl Cohen-Greene, the sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt in The Sessions. Hunt has nearly twice as much screen time as any of the other nominees, which may give her an unfair advantage. But this is the most full-bodied performance of the five. Not just because Hunt appears fully nude, but because she conveys a generosity that gives the film intimacy, as well as intrigue. Hunt’s character helps a disabled man experience the joy of sex. Her confident voice and reassuring gestures make a bizarre situation seem perfectly normal. And just like her character, Hunt manages to give so much of herself while not giving herself away. It’s a performance within a performance, one that explores the personal boundaries of a very unique profession, whether it be sex therapy or screen acting.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Follow him on Twitter @alsolikelife

VIDEO ESSAY: Steadicam Progress – the Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots

VIDEO ESSAY: Steadicam Progress – the Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots

With The Master winning the Best Cinematography award from the National Society of Film Critics over the weekend, here's a look at the evolution of Paul Thomas Anderson's approach to his films' camerawork over his first five features. The video above and essay posted below originally appeared in Sight & Sound.

One thing I wish I had explored in some way was the contribution of Anderson's longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit, who shot Anderson's first five features. The video makes the implicit auteurist assumption that the visions being expressed through the camerawork are that of the director, with the cinematographer acting as a technical facilitator. This of course is a gross oversimplifcation of the collaborative dynamic between director and cinematographer that perhaps gives too much credit to one party.

My dissatisfaction with this reductive approach informs the topic of my subsequent video essay for Sight & Sound, an exploration of the creative contribution of special effects team Rhythm & Hues, as a postulation of the artistic visions brought about by technical craftsmanship.


Thinking on what sets The Master apart from Paul Thomas Anderson’s earlier films, what strikes me most vividly is a marked difference in camera movement and staging. I wouldn’t be surprised if a proper cinemetric analysis found that up to half of the film’s running time consists of close-ups with little to no camera movement.

This is a far cry from the run-and-gun days of Boogie Nights and Magnolia with their stunning array of sweeping Steadicam shots, push-ins and whip pans. But upon surveying his career film by film, one can trace an evolution in his technique. This video essay examines one signature tracking shot from each of Anderson’s five previous features, showing how each epitomises his cinematography at each point, from the flashiness of his earlier films to a more subtle approach that favours composition over movement.

While The Master offers a couple of swirling tracking shots in a department store, and later a pair of straight-line lateral tracking shots to match the onanistic thrill of motorcycle joyriding, the film settles more often into shot/reverse shot dialogues in cozy interior sets. It seems that Anderson’s camera strategy here has less in common with ScorseseAltman or even Kubrick (with all of whom he’s frequently compared) than with Jonathan Demme. Indeed, in the DVD commentary of Boogie Nights, Anderson expresses a profound emulation of Demme, though Demme himself couldn’t recognise a shot from Boogie Nights that Anderson claimed to have blatantly derived from him.

Here the connection is apparent as never before, in a film that seems less concerned with riding the kinetic thrill of a camera set in motion than in tapping the psychic voltage of physiognomies seen up close. In his most psychologically intimate film to date, Anderson largely foregoes his signature camera movements in order to tunnel into the human mind.

Kevin Lee is a film critic, filmmaker, and leading proponent of video form film criticism, having produced over 100 short video essays on cinema and television over the past five years. He is a video essayist and founding editor of Fandor, and editor of Indiewire’s Press Play blog, labelled by Roger Ebert as “the best source of video essays online.” He tweets at @alsolikelife.




Long awaited at the Lido, after a prolonged game of cat-and-mouse between the Festival and Harvey Weinstein’s marketing machine, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master has finally been shown.

This is an elusive film, destined to stand out due to its surrounding circumstances. First, the anticipation, five years after 2007's There Will Be Blood; then the will-they-or-won’t-they dance with the Festival before it was announced (separate from other announcements) in the Competition line-up. In the meantime, The Master started popping up at surprise screenings in the United States before turning up in its full 70mm glory—an atypical approach, as was that of Samsara—at the actual Festival.

Expectations were sky-high, like nothing else around here in the past few years. And yet the film itself doesn’t, on its surface, justify that kind of momentum, because it tells the story of a man who is unable to find a sense of purpose. A WWII veteran clumsily forced back into society, Freddie Quell struggles to keep a job, drinks heavy cocktails (which include solvents, pills, and any kind of alcohol he can find), and is prone to angry outbursts. The Navy is not entirely to blame, though, since flashbacks show him in a similar predicament while on duty on the Pacific front. In fact, Joaquin Phoenix’s body and Anderson’s composition make it clear that Freddie and the space he inhabits will always be painfully at odds.

His meeting with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a self-professed uber-thinker with a group of followers and a desire to find solutions to the world’s problems, quickly ignites another one of the director's trademark relationships involving fatherhood issues, conflicting trajectories, and opposing Weltanschauung. Only this time the dynamic appears to be more subtle. It’s quite obvious why Freddie would jump at the opportunity to follow such a master; Dodd’s grand delusions and clarity of intentions provide Freddie with the purpose he has been desperately seeking. More intriguing is Dodd’s fascination with the man who has entered his life: at first it’s mutual intoxication, as the two swap promises in exchange for the ‘good stuff’ that Freddie’s talent can provide. But Freddie is also an ever-regenerating blank slate onto which Dodd can project his quest, a renewable source of infatuation. A scene showing the two men hugging, shot from the side, demonstrates their dynamic perfectly: as Hoffman’s rotund form lunges into the space of the Other, Phoenix’s torso creates an emptiness to accommodate him.

The subtle dynamic between the two central characters informs the style and the pace of the whole film, making it hard to grasp. The core tension is generated by verbal repeition, as in the "applications" and exercises Dodd subjects his “guinea pig and protegé” to. Anderson replicates this with his use of depth in his shots, locating Phoenix behind elements in the foreground, placing him at odds with gorgeous backgrounds—courtesy of the film’s 70mm crispness and Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography—and generally stripping The Master of structural drive, an element which was crucial to There Will Be Blood. A fitting change, considering that Freddie Quell is the polar opposite of Daniel Plainview. The former is desperate to find a place, even though he doesn’t know how. The latter will stop at nothing to make his place, knowing all too well where to drill and what to hit. Plainview exuded directness, from the center of Anderson’s symmetry. Quell pathologically refuses progress (yet, sooner or later, everybody has to “pick a spot”…) and seems always well-positioned to disrupt those symmetries, starting with the twisted mess that Phoenix turned his face into for the role. Despite the enormous performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and despite the fact that the story is essentially about two men, Anderson cannot help focusing the film on its central character. There Will Be Blood was a radical departure in Anderson’s career; The Master displays similar scope and weight but has a more ambiguous texture.

Tommaso Tocci is an Italian film critic, copywriter and translator. Follow him on Twitter.