I see so many foreign films that I only get the chance to see, maybe, four or five of the mainstream Hollywood releases each year. This year, I decided to catch the Best Picture nominees.
I’ll admit now that I have no interest whatsoever in Les Misérables; honestly, most recent American musical theater is dead to me unless Stephen Sondheim wrote it (or Adam Guettel) (or Leonard Bernstein) (or… well yeah, OK, maybe I like musicals a little…). Boublil and Schonberg? No thanks.
Amour – A wonderful film, delicately written and superbly performed. It’s not nearly as depressing overall as you might think, although there are a few genuinely heartbreaking, tough-to-take scenes. I was surprised to see it in this category; if it were to win, it wouldn’t do the American film industry much good, and if it’s unlikely to win, it’s hard to see why this film supplanted The Master or Moonrise Kingdom. Oh, well, that’s democracy in action…
Argo – Chris Terrio’s script, and the film Ben Affleck makes of it, tells us a lot more than it shows. Affleck dramatizes the story well – he’s an efficient and talented director. But he and Terrio are employing broad, and, to me, oversimplified strokes. It’s a very conventionally plotted good vs. evil, can-we-fool- the-bad-guys, the mission’s off / the mission’s on action thriller. A really good episode of Mission: Impossible is indeed a good thing, but it shouldn’t be Best Picture considering its competition, even if it’s based on a true story. ZDT is the superior film, but it’ll be interesting to see which story Hollywood is more inclined to commemorate – considering the absence of Affleck or Bigelow as Best Director nominees, the answer may be neither.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild – A fantastic film. Even if a fair amount of Benh Zeitlin’s best scenes were more happy accidents than preconceived direct hits, you can’t deny that Zeitlin (and fellow writer Lucy Alibar) obviously created an environment for those good things to happen. Quvenzhané Wallis is more of a miracle of casting than acting, but that doesn’t mean that Hushpuppy, or the film she’s in, isn’t miraculous anyway. This is my personal favorite of the nine, and if you haven’t seen it you’re missing a flat-out masterpiece – I think it’ll come in mid-pack Academy-wise.
Django Unchained – sure, Oscars are nice, but I don’t think Tarantino aspires to them. Always plan on two things from QT – the film will easily be 30-45 minutes too long, and his pop-anachronisms will either miss wildly or land brilliantly (his uses of Jim Croce’s I’ve Got A Name and Rick Ross’ 100 Black Coffins were oddly thrilling). It’s far better than the wildly uneven Inglourious Basterds. I liked it a lot, but the middle of the film d – r – a – g – s o – n a – n – d o – n . . . . . ., and, as the Helen of Troy to Django’s Paris, Kerry Washington’s role is woefully underwritten, an uncharacteristic misstep for Tarentino, who usually prides himself on indulging his female characters.
Life Of Pi – while you’re watching it, it’s quite wonderful, and Ang Lee’s compassion, professionalism and technical chops are irreproachable. But this isn’t a film that’ll stick to your ribs a day or two later. And, as a snobby-ass critic, I’m getting more and more suspicious of Ang Lee’s penchant for Any Movie, Any Style, Any Time. Sense And Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, Lust / Caution, Taking Woodstock – he’s an astonishingly gifted journeyman and storyteller, with a credibly chequered rate of success (haven’t seen Hulk, but, reportedly, it’s kind of a stinker…), and maybe that’s enough. But it’s all starting to feel a little impersonal, a little calculated, a little too careering… if he’s not careful, he’ll turn into David Gordon Green.
Lincoln – if Nine made you think Daniel Day-Lewis was losing his touch, touch this. Wow. Blissfully free of Spielberg’s overexposure eccentricities and visual- narrative bombast, it’s still a real piece of cinema-with-a-capital-C that’ll only really work on the big screen – DVD viewers will wonder what all the fuss was about, not knowing how many craftsmanlike subtleties they’re missing. Spielberg gives his art department license to suffocate Tony Kushner’s script, but they can’t do it – it’s too good. Give To Tommy Lee That Which Is Tommy Lee’s, but the real supporting nominee should have been Spader. Could win it all.
Silver Linings Playbook – a very good dark comedy, and David O. Russell consistently elicits great performances from his actors, even when they hate his guts. Cooper, Lawrence, DeNiro and Jacki Weaver all deserve their nominations, and the script is acting red meat. I put it mid-pack here, but if you’re into longshots, never underestimate the power of Hollywood to bury its nose deep between the cheeks of producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein.
Zero Dark Thirty – I’m probably alone in thinking that ZDT was a great movie despite Jessica Chastain (and God bless ‘er…), but Kathryn Bigelow clearly delivered the best directed film of the year. ( I saw this and Life Of Pi a day apart, and had to shudder at speculating what Ang Lee would have done with this material.) Her movie is a fearsome machine – a self-propulsive procedural of almost impossible equilibrium and dynamic subtlety. Pro-torture? I’d argue that Bigelow and Mark Boal’s film is NOT, but the events of the film are informed by people who certainly are, and they were smart not to ignore or deny that. And I suspect that they’d at least be in partial agreement with Matt Taibbi’s claim that what American foreign policy has become is exactly what Bin Laden had in mind: “He wanted America to respond to him by throwing off our carefully-crafted blanket of global respectability to reveal a brutal, repressive hypocrite underneath. He wanted us to stop pretending that we’re the country that handcuffs you and reads you your rights instead of extralegally drone-bombing you from the stratosphere, or putting one in your brain in an Egyptian basement somewhere.”
Best Picture: should win – ZDT or Beasts.
will win – Lincoln or Argo.
Best Director: should win – Steven Spielberg.
will win – a crapshoot. It’s astounding to me that Kathryn Bigelow wasn’t nominated.
Best Actor: should and will – Daniel Day-Lewis.
Best Actress: should win – Emmanuelle Riva.
will win – Jessica Chastain.
Supporting Actor: should win – Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
will win – Tommy Lee Jones.
Supporting Actress: should win – Sally Field or Helen Hunt.
will win – Anne Hathaway.
Foreign Film: should and will – Amour.