Here Come The Oscar Films! Clooney! Leo! And Lots of Fucking!

Contenders are piling up in the theaters-here are the ones to watch

Here Come The Oscar Films! Clooney! Leo! And Lots of Fucking!
Clooney; Merie Wallace, DiCaprio; Keith Bernstein

Oscar films are piling up faster than in-house Christmas party invites, all begging for the gold like street hookers dressed up like grande dames, or vice versa. And it's a pretty spicy batch of gravy meats this year.

George Clooney makes a grab at more trophyhood in The Descendants, the Alexander Payne–directed piece about a deficient husband dealing with the absence of his faulty wife and the fact that he now has to connect with their wildly imperfect daughters. Clooney's a master of economical, unfussy acting. He doesn't strike false notes or ring wrong bells. He's, you know, perfect, in this nicely etched character dramedy that also provides welcome turns for Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer as a whole other messed-up couple Clooney has to negotiate with. A slow start and an overload of initial narration scare you into thinking this is a long way backwards from Sideways, but things pick up the second someone gets called "a motherless whore," and the ownership theme begins to resonate, Hawaiian-style.

The French Clooney, Jean Dujardin, owns The Artist, a 99 percent–mute ode to the silent era, and though I prefer the Mel Brooks approach, this one will have a lot of people making pleasant sounds as they admire the sheer audacity of it all—a silent movie about silent movies, made in the loudest year in recent memory.

Screen noise returns with Roman Polanski's upcoming Carnage, based on the play about two couples turning into barbarians as they fight over their imperfect kids' schoolyard tussle. (I saw it in an overflow theater at the New York Film Festival.) The film purposely doesn't escalate to the animalistic extremes of the source material and some of the dialogue always translated banally, but Polanski knows how to film an apartment building angstfest (see Rosemary's Baby), cooking up a civilized comedy about the lack of civility in the adult world, the star performances giving it some projectile heft.

Someone fucks himself over by trying too hard to get fucked in British director Steve McQueen's cautionary tale Shame, which has pool-eyed Michael Fassbender as a lean machine out for nibbly bits, a heavy-handed idea that makes promiscuity look way worse than it really is. But McQueen's filmmaking is sleek, especially when he shoots from weird angles and sticks with them because that, after all, is what artistes do. Carey Mulligan is especially stunning as a woman who re-enters Fassbender's life and tries to get him to actually talk about things. Of course (spoiler alert) he just keeps fucking, reaching bottom by getting serviced in a gay sex club! Shame!

In A Dangerous Method, Fassbender makes us feel so Jung as he guides masochistic patient Keira Knightley through a "talking cure." But it's also a fucking cure, complete with some light whipping, all in order to help advance modern psychology. Still, this isn't an NC-17 Shame-type experience, nor is it a typical Cronenberg leap into sociopolitical darkness. (Although he has done the two-doctors-fight-over-a-kinky-patient routine before. Remember Dead Ringers?) It's spiffy-looking, chatty, generally reined-in, and very Christopher Hampton–esque. In fact, Hampton wrote it! But though Knightley does well with her character's fiery shrieks and spasms, I rarely felt Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen (as Freud) were doing much more than dressing up and playacting. Then again, I desperately need a fisting cure.

Another doctor performs offbeat stunts on his subjects in Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In, which is best when it's at its absolute weirdest, especially when surgeon Antonio Banderas's half brother, on the lam in a tiger outfit, forces himself on a woman who was . . . Well, you'd better get an eye lift and see for yourself. This one makes Shame look like The Muppets.

And the art house circuit got even wilder with Martha Marcy May Marlene, unexpectedly starring the younger sister of those eternal kewpies, the Olsen twins. And she's good! In this assuredly directed first film by Sean Durkin, nomination hopeful Elizabeth Olsen plays a mishandled teen who finds refuge in a culty commune (led by a Manson-like John Hawkes), which ends up providing the opposite of safety. The actress must have learned from Clooney; she never overplays her hand nor overdoes her emotions, instead letting the character's torment lie just below the skin she lives in. Sarah Paulson's also terrific, as Olsen's well-meaning sister. (Like Shame, this sexual horror tale has a concerned adult trying to rescue a lost sibling.) But the film should definitely not be renamed Full House.

Former Growing Pains star Leonardo DiCaprio digs for gold in J. Edgar, which treats his life as a tortured gay love story in which only one kiss was shared, and even that happened during a fistfight. It's truly bizarre—but hey, Leo looks great in mama Judi Dench's ensemble. At least her dress came out of the closet, if not her darling son.

Michelle Williams also scores in a dress in My Week With Marilyn, but it's not a home run, mainly because no one could come close to the lip-pursing screen legend. (The film's two musical bits are the most in need of some real Marilyn magic.) But Williams doesn't try for the caricatured Marilyn, instead going for human tones, which results in "wow" moments, while Kenneth Branagh is consistently deft as the bristling Olivier, who can't understand all the fuss his curvy co-star makes when "It's just a comedy!"

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