August is not too early to start the Oscar guessing game, especially when the Academy itself is already teasing big changes for next year. A few days ago they breathlessly—and idiotically—announced the creation of a new award, for “Achievement in Popular Film,” details to be hammered out later. It’s Hollywood admitting they make a lot of dumb movies that will never win awards—an admission that won’t sit well with people making popular movies that are actually smart. The move also stems from panic over declining ratings for the Oscar telecast, allegedly because the audience hasn’t seen winners such as Birdman, Spotlight, or La La Land (sorry, I mean Moonlight). If the idea goes forward, it will likely mean that a superhero picture like Black Panther is relegated to the kiddie table of Best Popular Film, instead of getting nominated for Best Picture, which it probably would have anyway.
You may be thinking, “Haven’t the Oscars always been absurd?” Well, sure. For instance, actors generally win not for giving the best performances, but the showiest. This year an appropriately low-key sort of Oscar buzz is gathering around a genuinely deserving performance: Kelly Macdonald’s understated lead turn in Puzzle. The Scottish actress has bounced around agreeably since her 1996 debut in Trainspotting, nailing the occasional supporting appearance in a big movie (No Country for Old Men) and doing duty on TV (Boardwalk Empire). But this is the first time she’s ever really carried a film, and she’s frankly wonderful. Makes you wonder why her male Trainspotting co-leads seemed to leap easily into lead roles, while she was relegated to ensemble work. Or maybe you don’t wonder.
In Puzzle, Macdonald plays Agnes, a housewife and mother whose suburban Connecticut life has grown humdrum without her even noticing. When someone gives her a jigsaw puzzle, it unlocks a previously unsuspected talent: Turns out Agnes has a Rain Man–like ability to glance at a thousand puzzle pieces and assemble them in short order. This leads to friendship with a philosophical puzzle-master (puckish Life of Pi star Irrfan Khan) and the awareness of a world beyond her modest household. Director Marc Turtletaub breaks no new ground in this situation, but Puzzle has an admirably generous attitude and a reluctance to designate villains. Agnes’ husband (David Denman, Roy from The Office), for instance, is a well-meaning schlub who hasn’t evolved. But he’s not an ogre.
Maybe everything’s just a little too easy in Puzzle, but this movie’s quiet approach is welcome anyway. And it’s always great to see a talented actor own a movie after doing supporting service for so long; with her pinched face and tiny stature (she regularly vanishes within Agnes’ sweaters and jackets), Macdonald conveys a lifetime’s experience of fitting into other people’s plans. This is a quiet process of personal emancipation, and a splashier performance would violate Agnes’ shy manner. Macdonald understands that completely. Worthy of an Oscar nomination? You bet. But if “Most Popular” has become the mood, this appealing wallflower might not have a chance.