My Take on the Best Picture Category at the Oscars

Best Picture Nominees

Amour (Michael Haneke)

Argo (Ben Affleck)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)

Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)

Life of Pi (Ang Lee)

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

***

Should win: Zero Dark Thirty

Will win: Argo

First, this is a much stronger field than usual. Going into Oscar season (which lasts even longer in Norway, as we first read the three or four months of speculation about who’ll get nominated, then witness the actual roll-out to the American market, and then sometime in the early months of the following year, after the actual nominees have been announced, get to see the movies for ourselves), I was experiencing a peculiar mix of excitement and dread.

I have to say that the two movies that surprised me most in a positive way, were Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln. Despite their massive running times and obvious pretentions as hallmarks of American National Cinema, both felt fresh, and, crucially, suspenseful. When Zero Dark Thirty gets my vote, it’s because it so elegantly transcended the important but somewhat overblown debate about the role of torture in the hunt for Osama bin-Laden, to become instead a searing portrait of the collective American psyche after the 9/11 attacks. To my mind, the movie does not condone torture in any way, nor does it relish in its depiction for the purpose of entertainment. My closest reference in recent American cinema is David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), another meticulously crafted thriller about a seemingly unsolvable crime, told from the perspective of person driven to near-self-destruction by inner motivation. The movie has it’s bit of show-offy speechifying and actorly grandstanding, but in total, I think it’s the best one in the field. It has stayed with me as a meditation on how a nation copes with a national tragedy, the constant threat of violence and the perhaps understandable thirst for vengeance.

Lincoln is a historical epic of a different kind, but no less masterfully executed, particularly since the long view of history may have somewhat softened its impact and given its proceedings a sense of inevitability. The real achievement in this movie, whether it be due to Steven Spielberg’s restrained direction or Tony Kushner’s script (however much it might contain a few minor factual errors), is to take a person and an event even I, as a European, thought I knew, and make it feel fresh again. Essentially a procedural thriller with a fantastic ensemble in its midst, what had the potential to become one of the most stodgy movies of the entire field, instead became one of its liveliest and most entertaining.

Regular reader already know about my admiration for Amour, but when I’m placing it as my number three pick for best picture, it has to do with precisely that phrase. Over time, as well as immediately after I saw it, Amour has remained a movie I “admire” more than “love”. Perhaps it’s because, this being a Haneke movie (albeit by far his “warmest”), emotionally I was kept a little bit at a remove from the story of the old couple struggling with the slow deterioration of the wive’s health (Emmanuel Riva fully deserves a Lead Actress award tonight, although my pick from an exceptionally strong field would be Jessica Chastain or Jennifer Lawrence). It’s a very, very good movie, to be sure, and am not in any way suggesting it’s “overrated”, but it hasn’t actually stayed with me in quite the way I thought it would.

Moving along, we’ve reached Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s Little Movie That Could. In terms of what it tries to accomplish, it’s the most original of all the nine Best Picture nominees, and it has great performances, an uplifting, resilient tone and a fascinating magical-realist undertone. While I was watching it, I was absolutely riveted. It’s also a movie I have returned to in my mind over and over again, though not always for positive reasons. As I tried to explain over at Franz’s blog a while ago, I’ve been struggling somewhat with precisely that “heroic resilience” theme, and this movie, too, is now one I “admire” for its audacity and original intent, more than I adore it. That said, Hushpuppy’s closing monologue has been playing in my head ever since I first saw it.

I surprised myself by how much I liked Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, especially since I wrote recently about how he’s a director I’ve had recurring problems with. Some of them are on display throughout Django as well (it still feels a little hollow, and over the last couple of years I’ve become more sensitive to his glorification of violence.) I was even more surprised since this movie is so similar to Inglourious Basterds, a movie I didn’t particularly care for. And granted, the final thirty minutes in some sense feel redundant, like a convenient way to further the historical revisionist theme, but until then it is packed with memorable performances from Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, and script that sparkles with vintage Tarantino one-liners. And I suppose you need that to bring out the real villain of the piece. If this is minor Tarantino, it probably has more to do with Tarantino not being quite the Great Director he’s been made out to be, than the relative merits of Django Unchained.

Which brings us to four movies in this field that I think didn’t quite fulfill their potential. I don’t mean to imply that they are failures (three of them aren’t), but they all disappointed me in some way. As for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, I can certainly see that it’s an impressive film, if to me mostly in the technical sense. The visual effects here have to be some of the best ever made, and brought me into the movie’s wonderful, sea-bound middle section, during which it even gained some existential heft. However, I think the first and final third of the movie undermined much of that; the beginning for being so slow in its setup and a little cheap in its attempts at a lighter mood, and the ending in its on-the-nose way of tying it all together, and the metaphysical speechifying. Also, I reached a limit where the wide-eyed magical realism started to bore me, even in the middle section. Life of Pi, based on a supposedly “unfilmable” book, certainly is an achievement. I’m just not sure if it belongs in this company as a film for the ages. I’m fine with it getting a nomination, though.

I’m not sure if I can say the same for Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s romantic comedy about mental illness and other types of “otherness”. I appreciate what it’s trying to do, but ultimately, I don’t think it manages to deliver on its promise to renegotiate the terms of the rom-com. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent where Bradley Cooper is good, in a movie that is messy in intended as well as unintended ways. For the sake of argument, I will accept the basic premise of the film, and what I consider quirky and annoying about it didn’t necessarily stem from its most wounded characters (I was more put off by the psychiatrist character and the family friend than by Lawrence’s character or the family itself). However, I felt like the competition scheme in the final act was added on just to have some stakes to raise, and as a result its resolution returned the film to disappointingly conventional rom-com territory. On another sour note, I really don’t see why Jacki Weaver was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She’s given almost nothing to do.

By now it’s almost a mathematical certainty that Argo will win Best Picture, and while that bestows upon it a significance I don’t think it deserves, I’ll concede that it’s a perfectly decent suspense movie. Its historical backdrop is interesting, and one cannot hold it against Hollywood to want to pat itself on the back by recognizing a movie that makes filmmaking itself into a heroic act. That said, I’m wondering if watching this movie through an “Oscar movie” lens may have reduced my ability to enjoy it. My main problem with Argo is not, as it was for Josh Larsen on Filmspotting, the way it underplays and mystifies the Iranians by constantly portraying them as an indistinguishable, threatening mass whose words are not even subtitled for our contextual understanding (although I do agree with him); it’s the blandness of its characters, which makes Chris Terrio’s frontrunner status for Best Adapted Screenplay a mystery to me. Very few of the characters are fleshed out enough for me to care deeply about them as individuals, and Affleck is, let’s say, less than charismatic as the main protagonist. While superficially entertaining, I also didn’t  take much away from Alan Arkin and Jon Goodman’s turns as the producers of the fake movie. As a result, to the extent that I was brought into Argo, it was because of the basic human drama of trying to rescue a group of people in a very challenging situatiob. Whenever it got down to specifics in the plot, my mind began to wander.

Nevertheless, Argo is not even close to being the worst movie of the Best Picture category. Argo isn’t even a bad movie as such, just one that fails to deliver on an interesting premise. The same, sadly cannot be said of Les Miserables, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the stage musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name about love and revolution in 19th century France. I lay the blame for this failed adaption of a musical I happen to adore almost exclusively at the feet of Hooper, who through a series of misguided directorial choices, from the decision to have the actors perform live on-set instead of pre-recording, to sucking the very essence of cinematic drama out of the movie by relying on cloying hyper close-up, to the tragic miscasting of Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert, undermined my enjoyment of this epic love story at every turn.

The camerawork makes the movie feel weirdly aggressive, but also passive; in the sense that the camera goes in so close that there is only rarely any real dynamic between characters or movement between spaces, closing down the frame to such an extent that it feels like whatever action there is almost interferes from some unspecified place beyond the reach of the lens. The decision to allow live performances payed off for me only twice, with Anne Hathaway’s much-lauded and soon-to-be Oscar-winning performance of I Dreamed a Dream, and Eddie Redmayne’s raw rendition of the devastating Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, one of the few occasions at which the camera is actually allowed to bring a sense of place into the song’s dramatic arc by freeing itself from Redmayne’s face to take in the his contextually crucial surroundings.

***

As you may have guessed from what I’ve written above, I’m not terribly excited for the prospect of Argo taking home of the biggest price of the night, but it seems inevitable by now. I don’t know what happened since Lincoln lost its frontrunner status following the announcement of the nominations in January, whether it be the rallying of the Academy behind Affleck’s movie as a consolation for shutting him out of the Best Director category (a nomination I am of course enthusiastic that he didn’t get, although I would have prioritized Kathryn Bigelow over David O. Russell in that category), or if this is the result that was waiting to happen all along. I will, however, say that if I could have added two movies to the Best Picture roster, I would have named Paul Thomas Anderson’s enigmatic The Master, and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. I rewatched the latter this weekend, and I loved it even more now.

I might returned later today with a less comprehensive write-up over a number of the remaining categories, or perhaps just a simple ballot.

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