Every year just about everyone gets upset about the Oscar nominations, even the smarties, because sometimes you’ve just got to scream about something stupid to feel alive. That’s fine, even if it sucks. What I’m more interested in, at least by the standards of “can anything about this monied charade that celebrates America’s worst aesthetic practices make me, a sour little leftist, even somewhat happy,” is the Academy’s decisions to recognize movies that otherwise receive a fraction of attention compared to their peers in the field. They’re not going to gross a lot of money, and they’re certainly not going to win, but their name is there, a sign that even the voters’ instincts — which largely remain old, white, and male — can align in the right direction, and some people might be incentivized to check them out. That’s a win, inasmuch as anything about this monied, ass-kissing charade can be a win.
This year, that movie for me is Pain and Glory. Now, I recognize the irony of considering Pain and Glory, a movie directed by Pedro Almodovar (one of the most acclaimed foreign directors of the last 30 years) and starring Antonio Banderas (a verified Hollywood star), to be under-recognized, even by the standards of the Academy. There are more obscure selections — like, say, Corpus Christi, Poland’s entry into the Best International Feature Film category, and a movie I have not seen. But Pain and Glory was my favorite movie of 2019, and so I’m going to highlight it here because this is my blog, and also because there is no chance it will win in either category it’s nominated for (Best International Feature Film is going to the excellent Parasite, and Best Actor is going to Joaquin Phoenix for the execrable Joker).
Pain and Glory is a semi-autobiographical movie about a man named Salvador Mallo (Banderas), a successful film director in creative and bodily decline, loosely based on Almodovar himself. Following the re-release of one of his first movies, Mallo begins reminiscing about his childhood and his mother (Penelope Cruz); the movie often flashes back to the past, induced by Mallo’s experimentations with heroin, as he tries to find what ails him in the present. The two are linked, obviously, and it’s only when he comes to terms with the past that he can move forward.
That itself might feel like familiar emotional terrain, especially for Almodovar, the work of whom has often looked at how events from the past explicitly and implicitly (and always unexpectedly) influence the present. Here it’s guided by a masterful performance from Banderas, who sheds his hunkish Hollywood presence for something more reserved and damaged as he plays an intractable near-genius whose successes have led to a deeply painful, lonely life. He’s too sick to go out; he isn’t working; most of his relationships have atrophied; he feels like a terrible son, even though his mother is now dead. To highlight his lethargy, we’re introduced to Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), an early collaborator who Mallo reconnects with after a long gap in friendship, whose work has been less critically validated but whose contrasting good health and creative vibrancy are obvious for the audience to see.
A lot of deeply moving stuff happens as a result of all this, and while the movie is hard to “spoil,” it just needs to reveal itself for you, so here is where I will stop summarizing. It’s the first Oscar nomination for Banderas, who’s sort of like Matthew McConaughey — a ’90s heartthrob revealing new depths in his advancing age. In 2017, Banderas suffered a near-fatal heart attack, which influenced the way he plays the degenerating Mallo; in an interview with People, he said he realized what mattered most to him: “family, friends and recovering the actor I once was.” The melodramatic flair of that last clause undergirds his performance in Pain and Glory, especially considering the additional parallels to real life: Crespo is possibly a stand-in for Banderas himself, as he and Almodovar collaborated in their youth before Banderas went off to Hollywood, and made a bunch of mediocre movies that brought him great fame at the expense of his creative self.
That People has written multiple times about Pain and Glory is a quirk of Almodovar’s career: because he works with Hollywood stars like Banderas and Cruz, his work receives mainstream attention that other directors don’t. Their cumulative history gives Pain and Glory its meaning, as the actors channel their understanding of their friend and his life into their performances. There’s a tenderness that they might rarely get to display in their more mainstream, American offerings, and it feels like a gift to watch talented actors parlay their stardom into bringing attention and value to such a personal, lovely film. It’s also just really funny, adding a lightness to material that could be stultifying and depressing in the wrong hands.
It feels like Banderas could’ve won in another year, as the Academy does love to recognize journeyman Hollywood stars like McConaughey and Sandra Bullock. The narrative is right there for magazines like People to push. Banderas will lose, but you can see the Pain and Glory and be glad it exists, and that enough people cared about it to give it some recognition. It’s not a huge win, but considering how terribly political the Oscars are, it’s enough.