The Academy Awards are a mixed bag, at least in terms of how the film industry uses its highest honor to promote its product.
One one hand, the Academy has used its expanded Best Picture nominations to basically rubber-stamp “quality” on otherwise middling box-office formula — here’s looking at you, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” So get ready for more of the same, because now it’s officially “good.”
But the Oscars also spotlight smaller films that might otherwise fly under the radar. And that’s a powerful tool for letting audiences know their time at the cinema will be well spent.
“I think all of it leads to more attention for films, and to people attending films,” said Dean Otto, the curator of film at Speed Cinema, which will showcase several Oscar-nominated works in the coming weeks. “People want to know that something is good … they want to know what they are seeing is vetted, in some way, and the Academy Awards is one way to do that.”
The Oscar-nominated works coming to the Speed include a Best Documentary hopeful and several showcases of nominated short subjects.
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” the directorial debut of photographer RaMell Ross, tracks the lives of two young African-American men, one of whom attends college and one who devotes himself to fatherhood. The film, which screens at the Speed on Sunday, Feb. 3, at 1 p.m., has won wide praise for eschewing the prevailing documentary convention of identifying and relating a set narrative.
Instead, it simply follows along with its subjects as they move through daily life — over the course of five years.
Ross immersed himself in the community he documents in “Hale County,” both tracing and in some ways recasting the work of photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee, who visited the area while researching their book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a landmark work about impoverished tenant workers during the Great Depression.
“It shows this vibrant community in a way that’s really engaging, in a way I had not really seen before,” said Otto, who first saw “Hale County” at a festival in North Carolina. “You become really deeply engaged with them — the pace of the film is really refreshing.”
If you are in the mood for a little more variety, the Speed is screening a series of showcases of Oscar-nominated short subjects, beginning Friday, Feb. 8, and wrapping up Feb. 17. (For a detailed schedule of the screenings, be sure to check out the Speed’s website.)
Otto noted that Speed audiences have already had the chance to see some of the showcased works, particularly in the animated category. “One Small Step” and “Weekends” were both highlighted in a collection that screened there last December.
The Oscar showcase includes a total of five shorts, including “Animal Behavior,” a Canadian film about a support group where animals work out their inner instincts, and “Bao,” a Pixar short that ran in front of “The Incredibles 2” in broad release last year. “Bao” explores mother-son dynamics within an Asian-Canadian family through the storytelling device of an anthropomorphic dumpling. Only in cartoons.
“It’s so light and so moving,” Otto said. “It is someone who has taken a personal experience and presented it in such a wonderful, inventive way.”
In the documentary category, Otto spotlighted “End Game,” a 40-minute short by U.S. directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman that explores end-of-life issues. Otto said he hopes the film by the directing team that produced the excellent feature-length “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984) and “The Celluloid Closet” (1995) generates conversation around important, but often uncomfortable issues.
Also in the documentary showcase is “A Night At the Garden,” which explores a 1939 Nazi rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden that drew an estimated 20,000 people. The film by Marshall Curry is composed entirely of archival footage of the event.
“This really seems very timely, to what we’ve seen going on in the U.S. right now,” Otto said. “It really shows that we really need to look back at history.”
The live action category showcase includes “Detainment,” a 30-minute drama based on a real-life case in the United Kingdom in which two 10-year-old boys were held by police under suspicion of murder, and “Madre,” a Spanish drama about a mother taking phone calls from her apparently imperiled child.
To complete its Oscar lineup, the Speed is currently screening “Roma,” the Best Picture nominee that’s also screening on Netflix.
Tickets to screenings are $9 for general admission and available for advanced purchase at the Speed Museum website.