I don’t know if it’s more of a comment on the contenders or my own life that I’ve seen every single film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year, but to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time since I started watching the Oscars (somewhere around 12). It happened by the skin of my teeth, but when I realized that I only had three left with a little over a week to go, I figured I might as well grab for the ring. I did it, everybody, and on a year after they instituted that ridiculous “ten nominees” rule (although there are only nine this year, curious). For all the hatred and accusations of being out of touch, I have to admit that this year’s crop, while not having as many standouts, is notable for not having one movie I think is totally terrible. Have we officially outlived the days of Crash and Million Dollar Baby? Stay tuned…
Without further ado, my thoughts and judgments on all of the Best Picture nominees, critiqued in the order of viewing:
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
There’s a lot to like about this movie: a precocious lead kid (kid actors that don’t make you want to pull your hair out are the best), an otherworldly and serene ambience, and an overwhelming sincerity and wonder. However, at the risk of losing the last remaining shreds of my hipster film school graduate credibility, the sum of the parts isn’t very clear, and I find the overall message/themes to be confused. Are the titular “beasts” a product of Hush Puppie’s imagination, a manifestation of how frightening change appears to a six-year-old? Maybe, but I can’t say for certain.
Spielberg’s latest offering is an unapologetic Oscar-grab, but it’s also quite enjoyable. Between the always-magnetic Daniel Day Lewis and the inherent appeal of the subject matter (what’s the deal with all the historical movies this go-round, anyway?) there’s little not to like, except for the vaguely bitter taste of a by-the-numbers statue race. I’m not saying Steve-o didn’t try his damndest to make a good film, I think he’s one of the few directors who always does that. Still, all of the pieces look very familiar, and part of me just wants to be obstinate and hope that it fails so the Academy starts nominating more daring pictures. I wonder what’s going to happen once the most silver-haired crop of voters dies off…
I have a somewhat personal connection to this story, as my parents took me to see it when I was a kid, and something about the over-the-top, bombastic numbers lit me up and made me want to be able to sing songs like that. Without getting into the pitfalls of musical theater, there are just way too many missteps for me to say a lot of nice things about this flick. The decision to do all the audio with untrained actors singing some very difficult songs was a mistake, as is evidenced by 85% of the cast butchering their songs (Hathaway’s I Dreamed a Dream being a wonderful exception). The photography and production design is also very strange, making me think that the director was going for the feel of a fly-on-the-wall-of-a –Broadway-production rather than an immersive experience. It’s also been a while since I saw the stage show, but I don’t remember everything being quite so Jesus-centric. An resounding and triumphant chorus of “MEH!” for this one.
I know Tarantino’s latest obsession with revenge-soaked, genre-film historical revisionism doesn’t sit too well with some folks, but I’m a huge fan. I loved Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained is almost as good. Though it does fall into the mid-career Tarantino trap of throwing “MOAR” onto the screen to keep the audience engaged (which works, most of the time), it’s also one of the few movies on this list of nominees that doesn’t feel like a blatant grab for gold (Beasts and Amour being the other two). I heard stories about production hell, but none of that comes off in the final product, which jumps between joyous and disturbing very deftly.
ZERO DARK THIRTY
I like Kathryn Bigelow. She’s clearly a talented director, she seems to pick good projects, and she survived being married to James Cameron, all of which make her a winner in my book. Oh, and she also made Point Break which is the greatest surfer/buddy-cop movie EVAR. Anyway, my respect for Bigelow makes me wish I liked the scripts she chooses more, or that her movies left me with more feelings than “that was pretty cool” before I forgot about them forever. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Zero Dark Thirty had me engaged the entire time, but when the end credits rolled the movie started to fade. It feels like the movie’s main strength is its subject matter and editing, as cramming all those years’ worth of information into a (relatively) tidy package seems staggeringly difficult. The problem is, character development takes a huge blow because of all the time devoted to exposition, and all of the changes our lead goes through seems superficial and tacked on, almost as though Bigelow really just wanted to make a documentary.
Ten years ago, if you told me I’d be this big of a fan of Ben Affleck I would not have believed you. I haven’t seen Gone Baby Gone, but The Town and Argo are both incredibly solid, and who knew that Affleck would do some of his best work when he was directing himself? The last of the historical trio, Argo is the film that relies on the inherent thrill of history the least (in fact, some are crying foul over the movie’s decision to blow up the CIA’s role and whitewash the plan’s Canadian origins). The tension is magnificent, particularly in the superbly edited finale. A few minus props for being yet another Oscar-grabber about how Hollywood saved the day (I’m looking at you Goodnight, an Good Luck), and for treating the phrase “Argo fuck yourself” as much more hilarious than it actually is.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
I was skeptical about this one from the get-go, because it seemed like more tailor-made Oscar bait, and it kind of is, but the film succeeds in spite of that. A lot of credit is due to Russell and producers for making a big movie that deals with mental illness in a way that doesn’t either trivialize it (wacky roommate with OCD! LOLZ) or make it overly ponderous (pretty much every movie about mental illness in the history of ever). Russell also gets an incredible performance out of Bradley Cooper, but I knew that kid was going places ever since I saw him get reamed in a sports equipment shed by Michael Ian Black. The film’s ultimately a fluffy piece of feel-good cinema, but it doesn’t shy away from taking you to dark places on the way. BONUS ACHIEVEMENTS: Robert Deniro actually trying again and Jennifer Lawrence’s workout pants.
Film degree notwithstanding, until this flick, the only Haneke movie I’d ever seen was fifteen minutes of his own English language remake of Funny Games before I walked out. Never before had I seen a film with such brazen contempt for its audience. Similarly, Amour is hard to sit through, but as the title implies, all of the pain and darkness comes from a place of deep and incredible love, reminding us that giving yourself over completely to another person is one of the most incredibly painful and frightening things you can do, as well as one of the most wonderful. Everything about this film is masterful, and I saw at least one person leave the theater for a few minutes just to collect themselves. When the end credits rolled, a palpable wave of relief washed over the room, the same feeling you get when your breath starts coming back after a punch to the gut.
LIFE OF PI
Probably the biggest surprise of all of these movies, I expected to have an uncomfortable time sitting through Life of Pi. Ang Lee ticks off a lot of boxes from the Oscar checklist (ethnic origins, commentary on spirituality, incredibly bright and noisy visuals, and an on-the-nose message? All checks), but the film is truly unique, despite all of this. The visuals are nothing short of stunning, and despite my personal beliefs, help reinforce the theme of spiritual growth and guidance being the only comfort in a world that is strange, terrifying, and beautiful. Bonus points for the CGI animals looking really and truly amazing.
Whew! So those are my mini-reviews for each of the nine best picture nominees, and now my official predictions and personal votes for each of the major Oscar categories:
Should Win: Amour
Will Win: TOSS-UP Zero Dark Thirty or Argo
Should Win: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Should Win: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Will Win: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Should Win: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Will Win: TOSS-UP Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master or Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln (although Leonardo Dicaprio should have been nominated for Django Unchained and should win)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Should Win: Amy Adams, The Master (under protest, none of these roles are really worth an award)
Will Win: Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Should Win: Life of Pi
Will Win: Life of Pi
Should Win: Michael Haneke, Amour
Will Win: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Should Win: Zero Dark Thirty
Will Win: TOSS-UP Zero Dark Thirty or Argo (but probably Zero Dark Thirty. Sidenote: why the fuck was Silver Linings Playbook nominated for best editing?)
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Should Win: Silver Linings Playbook
Will Win: Argo
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Should Win: Django Unchained
Will Win: Zero Dark Thirty
THAT’S ALL FOLKS!