Good leading roles for women in movies, especially movies high-profile enough to get Oscar attention, have been hard to come by for years, maybe even decades at this point. But the problem has reached a particular nadir around this year’s Best Actress campaigning. Two of the biggest contenders, including a supposed frontrunner, feel less like actual movies than elaborate shell games built around famous faces. Both Still Alice, with Julianne Moore, and Cake, with Jennifer Aniston, are 2014 releases in name only, festival pick-ups that received minimum qualifying theatrical runs in 2014 (Alice even snuck into Manhattan for a week) before treating back into their hiding spots with dubious awards buzz in their wake. They’ve re-emerged in January (Still Alice out this weekend, Cake next), ready for their close-up, which Alice has received in the form of an Oscar nomination for Moore; Cake was not so lucky. Moreover, though: Who, a month ago, had actually seen Still Alice or Cake? I’m not just talking about the general public, but even film critics and other assorted media snobs. More have seen both movies now, though anecdotal evidence suggests the films, particularly Cake (which hasn’t even screened for the press in some cities), are not particularly easy to come by, considering how many awards movies bend over backwards to get seen by mid-December. They come off more like rumors of films: awards buzz that have taken on the ghostly shape of movies.
I, in fact, have seen Still Alice (though Cake remains elusive, and now that it has received zero Oscar nominations, may dissipate into the ether). It exists—though the press screening I attended began before anyone was actually in the screening room, as if the movie was trying to sneak away without us. I don’t mean to imply that Sony Classics or anyone else seems ashamed of Still Alice; it just feels beside the point. Julianne Moore plays Alice, a successful linguistics professor at Columbia who starts having memory problems. Eventually, she figures out she has Early-Onset Alzheimer’s, and the movie follows her from dealing with the disease to an unforgiving end point; not quite all the way, but a chilling transformation nonetheless.
The movie has some value as sort of an Alzheimer’s procedural. We’re privy to suspicions, doctor visits, worried late-night chats, and the day-to-day logistics at many stages of the disease. We meet her family: her husband (Alec Baldwin) and daughters (Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart) as well as a son (Hunter Parrish) who makes less of an impression. Some of this is affecting; how could it not be? Alice’s testier relationship with her younger daughter (Stewart) creates some friction, somehow, in the melancholic air. The Moore-Baldwin material is a little disappointing, given their chemistry on 30 Rock; for some reason, Baldwin’s character has been tasked with talking largely in exposition (“well, here it is: your old room,” he nonsensically explains to one of his daughters).
Moreover, the writer-director pair of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, adapting the novel of the same name, are, insensitive as it sounds, working in familiar territory. The procedural often gives way to the textbook-y feel of a case study, relying on a contemplative sad-indie piano score and your play-at-home empathy. Occasionally the filmmaking gets more expressive: a doctor interview with the camera staying on Moore’s face the whole time; the backgrounds blurring to show Alice’s confusion when she loses herself on the Columbia campus. But the digital cinematography looks washed out, like a high-toned educational video. (I’d say it doesn’t have much feel for cinema, but then, I can imagine a European version with pretty similar shot and acting choices getting even more praise for its heartbreaking directness.)
All in all, Still Alice is a well-intentioned, middling movie with some good performances. It’s a showcase for Moore, but not her best work; she’s been better in The Kids Are All Right and Children of Men, in her collaborations with Todd Haynes and Paul Thomas Anderson, in the similarly Oscar-qualified Maps to the Stars (it comes out for real in February). And because so many serious female roles are predicated on suffering, as Alison Willmore so ably dissects and Richard Brody attributes to Oscar-grasping (probably correctly), Moore’s overdue Oscar can’t even be for an enjoyable performance, like Al Pacino or Denzel Washington, who won for the “wrong” movies (in the sense that they both, like Moore, have done better work elsewhere) but at least made iconic impressions in the likes of Scent of a Woman and Training Day. Still Alice principally involves a lot of crying and some disorientation. It’s more active than the similar part in Amour, but only somewhat.
It’s a bizarre piece of fatalism, then, that dictates now as Moore’s Time. Reese Witherspoon, Marion Cotillard, and Rosamund Pike are nominated; why not any of them? Witherspoon and Cotillard won before, yes, but not in the past few years, and Pike, a newcomer to the A-list, sure hasn’t. Amy Adams, a longtime Oscar favorite, didn’t even make it in for her subtle work in Big Eyes. As scarce as good roles for women can be, what’s really at a premium here is good Oscar roles. Hence the late surge of Jennifer Aniston for a movie no one appears to feel much for beyond a grudging admiration (if they’ve even been allowed to see it at all).
So Still Alice will probably get Moore her Oscar. It’s hard to know whether it will really affect the trajectory of her career much. Once past a certain age, actresses have to be awfully self-starting to get ahold of strong parts. Back in 2002, when Moore was double-nominated for Far From Heaven in lead and The Hours in supporting, she lost the former to Nicole Kidman, her co-star in the latter. It capped a terrific couple of years for Kidman, wherein she did a variety of genre-hopping work (Moulin Rouge, The Others, The Hours, and I’ll throw in Birthday Girl as a testament to her adventurous taste). Now she’s playing an evil taxidermist in pursuit of the title character in Paddington for the old scratch of Oscar season himself, Harvey Weinstein.
But here’s the sad truth of “awards season,” no matter how many high-quality movies get rewarded during its nigh-endless cycle: Paddington is a much better movie than Still Alice. A silly comparison, I know, but seeing them back-to-back only further warmed my feelings toward the Weinstein-produced adaptation of the famous children’s books. Writer-director Paul King throws in some elaborate slapstick that’s slightly less objectionable than it appears in the movie’s misbegotten kid-targeting trailers, but not much funnier, and throws in a few hideously overused pop-song cues. But those are about the only missteps he makes amidst clever sight gags and droll English dialogue.
Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw), a smallish talking bear, makes his way from the jungles of “Darkest Peru” to London, searching for a home. He meets a nice English family with an uptight dad (Hugh Bonneville), and mild hijinks ensue. The best thematic running gag is that Paddington’s beastliness is more innocent than rude, straining the English class system in the politest possible way. No one’s particularly fazed that this bear can walk, talk, and button himself into a cute little coat; they’re more confused and afraid of his newness (a neighbor warns of “all-night picnics” during a there-goes-the-neighborhood rant that ever-so-lightly touches on fear of immigrants). Throughout it all, Kidman, outfitted in a platinum bob and the highest of heels, looks like a gentle introduction to fetish-wear, and generally seems to be having a good time staring daggers at everyone, especially a temporary cohort played by Peter Capaldi. It’s fitting that an actress rarely convincing in Jodie Foster-style protective-mother mode would go bad in her obligatory kid-movie dalliances—she was quite good in that Golden Compass thing, too. Come to think of it, I’ll take Paddington over The Hours, too.