Eastwood’s conceptions of heroism and villainy have always been, if not endlessly complex, at least never simplistic.
The absence of "Life Itself," one of several awards season contenders left out of the fray, carried the sting of unexpected failure. As my colleague Peter Knegt wrote, the Academy has snubbed countless formidable achievements over the decades, from "Vertigo" to "Blue Velvet." Nevertheless, "Life Itself" seemed to follow a trajectory similar to "Boyhood": It landed to great acclaim at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and found distribution shortly afterward; like Linklater, director Steve James has been recognized for his achievements in the past but hasn’t been considered a serious Oscar contender since "Hoop Dreams." (His previous feature, the brilliant portrait of anti-violence activists "The Interrupters," wasn’t even shortlisted.) While the late arrival of Laura Poitras’ "CITIZENFOUR" seemed to upstage "Life Itself" as a frontrunner, James’ emotionally stirring tribute to Roger Ebert’s legacy never dropped out of the conversation.
And here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to drop out of the conversation. If anything, today’s nominations eliminate the onus of conversations that tend to hijack the real reasons to care about any of these movies. "Life Itself" is a considerable accomplishment for James in that it tackles a topic that in the hands of a lesser director might feel too hagiographic or maudlin and instead offers a shrewd look at intellectual prowess. The movie works on a number of levels: It’s a story of how the world’s most famous critic got that way, vis-á-vis a history of American media in the latter half of the 20th century, but it’s also a love story and a stirring depiction of perseverance in the face of a terminal disease. James captured Ebert on his death bed and found a triumphant character in spite of his grim prognosis.
Cancer movies are tough to pull off without pandering to audiences’ sentimental weak spots, but "Life Itself" manages to do so in congress with a delicate mixture of humor and philosophical inquiry about the nature of being alive. Ebert’s legacy was already assured, but "Life Itself" goes beyond saluting a famous name and explores minutae of his personality. It’s a movie about the interplay of ideas and humanity. You should watch it and you can, right now, on various digital platforms. Nominations don’t need to make that happen.
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