Sunday, May 18, 2014

All Is Lost (2013)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Editing - Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns

This past year, Academy voters fell in love with a film telling the story of an individual fighting for survival in the most dire of circumstances in an escape vehicle after the destruction of a ship.  Unfortunately for J.C. Chandor and team behind All Is Lost, this film was Gravity.  While the Academy rewarded Gravity with ten nominations and seven Oscars, it almost completely ignored the similarly themed All Is Lost, granting it just a single nomination for sound editing.

Many were surprised by the lack of recognition by the Academy for All Is Lost, with many expecting a nomination for Robert Redford, perhaps none more than Mr. Redford himself, who blamed the distributors for poor distribution and a lackluster Oscar campaign.  However, the true reason why All Is Lost found little recognition from the Academy is far simpler: it didn't deserve to.

All Is Lost is far from a bad movie, in fact I enjoyed it quite a bit.  The film is largely a silent film with only one character, and the film moves at the most brisk pace imaginable, with the boat's first accident coming just after the film's opening voiceover.  The successes of the film are due nearly entirely to Redford's acting and Chandor's directing.  Redford is one of the all time great movie stars, and All Is Lost is the best performance he has given in many years.  Few actors are able to convey much emotion without dialogue for even a few minutes, let alone a whole film, and fewer still are able to do so without resorting to cheap theatrics or overacting.  The few recent successes of actors alone on screen that come to mind - Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Tom Hanks in Cast Away - still allowed for the actors to interact with imaginary figures, a returned George Clooney in the former and Wilson in the latter.  There are no such moments in All Is Lost, with Redford's character focusing entirely on his survival, calmly and rationally.  Redford demonstrates the skills of an expert sailor, at least to my non-sailing eyes, and never waivers from his focus or resolve until shortly before the end of the film.  Yet while the lack of emotional theatrics is admirable, All Is Lost goes too far, and there's little for the audience to connect to on an emotional level.  While I was tense throughout Gravity as I considered Bullock's character's fate, I had no investment in the outcome of Redford's character.  Because he has no backstory, no personality outside of his calm expertise, and even no name, there is nothing other than Redford's commanding presence to make the audience care one way or the other whether he lives or dies.  For a survival movie, this is critical, and without it I found myself just wondering when the next calamitous event would come.  For an ocean survival movie, one expects storms, leaks, and sharks, and all three occur with little originality.  With nothing unique about the story and no emotional connection with the main character, viewing All Is Lost is ultimately a hollow experience.

The fact that the film had no character development or plot, yet still held my interest, is a testament to Chandor's direction.  I was a fan of his previous film Margin Call, which gained him an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, and was impressed by his restrained direction in All Is Lost.  Film shoots on water are notoriously difficult, and it's hard to create and maintain visual interest in one man on a raft, even if that man is Robert Redford.  Chandor holds back from anything flashy, and his direction is smart and subtle.

The film received its sole Academy Award nomination for its sound editing, and the work done by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns is well deserving of its nomination.  The rumbling of the storms and the crashing of the waves sound great, but it's the creaking of the boat that really stands out.  Sound is at its most important in a film largely without dialogue, as audiences will notice the sound far more than in a conventional film.  Boeddeker and Hymns rose to the challenge and did top-notch work on All Is Lost, and their nomination was well deserved.

I would not have been surprised if Redford had been nominated for his performance in All Is Lost, and I understand his frustration at the lack of nomination.  Still, it was a tough year in his category, and despite his unrivaled presence, with little character development in the script and no chance to show any emotions other than steady resilience, Redford was failed by the decisions of the screenwriter, not the distributors or the Academy.

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