(nl) wrote: It's been a great year for documentaries, and the Academy has nominated a very impressive roster of films this time out. From the war on terror (DIRTY WARS), the Arab Spring in Cairo (THE SQUARE), a surreal look at Indonesia's gangsters who killed millions of Communists (THE ACT OF KILLING), to a warm-hearted look at the struggles of background singers (20 FEET FROM STARDOM), these are four formidable entries. The fifth nominee, CUTIE AND THE BOXER, doesn't come with an easy logline, or with the commercial heft of the Weinsteins, but it has easily earned its place among the other nominees. Directed, shot and co-produced by Zachary Heinzerling...and full disclosure, co-produced by a friend of mine for 25 years, Lydia Dean Pilcher, CUTIE AND THE BOXER is a strange hybrid of a documentary, playing more like a stunningly shot feature film but with the layers and hard truths of the best real-life portraits. Despite my existing relationship with the producer, I have no trouble in being honest and objective here. It's ostensibly the story of 80-year-old struggling artist, Ushio Shinohara, who paints like a man 1/4 his age. Best known for his "Boxer" works, in which he dons boxing gloves, dips them in paint and punches the hell out of a giant canvas, Ushio is a larger-than-life personality whose drive for success is singular and focused. There's a LOT of ego packed into such a tiny frame. His marriage to Noriko Sinohara, a woman 20 years his junior, however, overwhelms any singular examination of Ushio and his work. Relegated to second banana most of her life, but a wonderful artist in her own right, Noriko discovers her voice over the course of the film. Her "CUTIE" works depict her alter-ego, a nude, pig-tailed young girl who finds her way through a crazy world. It's a classic A STAR IS BORN story, with Ushio's star fading while Noriko's is on the rise. Unwilling or unable to cede the spotlight to a woman he's treated more like a secretary, Ushio does everything in his powers to hold onto his place in the art world. It's a well-matched fight, complete with an always- compelling amount of bickering, quiet moments of, not so much love, as respect and tolerance. In a world of singular-minded self-involvement, the film gently asks you to contemplate a place for love in it. Heinzerling asks a lot of his audience. Always "on", Ushio is a tough read. Instead of showing his true self, he performs through much of the film. Late in the game, however, Heinzerling stuns us with archival footage which completely changes our view of this passionate yet tortured soul. This is a hybrid film with its lovely animated sequences and beautifully composed shots. The title sequence is one unbroken shot of Ushio creating one of his works, and the use of sound makes it quite a visceral experience. This is a film that is fully alive and in tune with its subjects. Ushio is the loud "Roar" while Noriko is the quiet, stealthy sleeper. The last images of two people boxing is a great capper to what comes before. This is a complicated film, not easy to sum up with pithy descriptions. It seems simple on the surface, yet it stuck with me long after the end credits rolled. The journey of an artist is something I hold near and dear to my heart. I can relate to Ushio's determination, while at the same time marvel at Noriko's inspiring discoveries. Is there a way for two talented artists to co-exist? After all of their decades of marriage, one would think there is, but the war just beneath the surface of this smart, fascinating, compelling film makes you wonder.