The Academy’s shame: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

It’s their party. That’s what I always say. Though “and I’ll cry if I want to” often follows, and today, I have to say, I’m crying over “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

The writing was a bit on the wall for this film. Even with some solid below-the-line guild/society recognition, the Coen brothers’ latest was clearly landing with a thud in the industry; it received nothing from the major guilds – PGA, DGA, WGA, SAG. There was no major support from the critics awards circuit to push the issue until the National Society of Film Critics chimed in, too late (though bless them for actually waiting until the year is over to vote).

This film, that is so textured, so of a piece with the best of the Coen canon, that has inspired so much great film writing this year, in fact (including one of the best reviews A.O. Scott has ever delivered). managed a paltry two Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing. Both are of course well-deserved, but Oscar Isaac gave, to my mind, the single greatest performance of the year. The Coens outdid themselves on the page, behind the camera and in the editing suite. Jess Gonchor’s meticulous production design, Susan Bode’s detailed set decoration, Mary Zophres’ singular costume design, it was all immaculate, across the board. And it’s such a shame.

I don’t think it’s telling stories out of class to say that Scott Rudin phoned me up not long ago to talk about the film’s chances, and he was still trying to be optimistic. What I said to him, though, is this: “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a film with treasures that reveal themselves to you upon multiple viewings. It is something that does not gratify instantly and asks for you to experience it a few times, if you’re willing, to discover its density. The Oscar season, I told him, has no patience for this sort of thing. And so it played out the way it did this morning.

I watched the film for a third time earlier this week. It was so much richer to me yet again, a film so elegantly about giving up. In Llewyn Davis, so many see an annoying ne’er-do-well. I see a figure ultimately (tragically) self-aware. A man whose passion passed him by. An artist who didn’t have “it,” and who came to unflinching terms with that with an “au revoir.” It’s a masterpiece. And some time after publication, it bumped up a tick on my list of the year’s best films to #2 because, well, it’s my list (and I’ll cry if I want to).

I don’t know what I’m trying to say here. That’s an overt headline, I know. No one needs to be “ashamed” for not chalking the film up because, again, it’s not something that is instant in its brilliance. It’s a lingerer. And I think, should they give it the opportunity, many of the artists who did not give it the proper support to see it through to more than two nominations today will in time register this as a missed opportunity. And “Inside Llewyn Davis” will be filed away as one that just wasn’t to be in its time. I get it. I found it “minor” upon first viewing. I find it staggering now. But I had that privilege to keep revisiting. It’s my job to do so, in fact. I get it.

But boy is it a bummer.