One week to go, and for the first time in years, there is real suspense for the Academy Awards in many major categories. That is due to several conditions. First, and most pleasant, this is the most competitive race in a long time, especially since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started nominating more than five films for Best Picture. I have often commented in this annual blog that it felt as though the Academy was overreaching, jamming in films that were not worthy of the nomination. Not so much this year, as 2012 was one of the best for film in recent memory. My top five picks of the nine nominees can easily be considered excellent films, and I believe they will stand the test of time; any of them could deservedly win. My next two, though not great in my view, are at least pretty good and worthy of consideration as the best of the year. Seven out of nine is pretty good.
I also don’t see too many egregious omissions in the Best Picture nominations. The only film I believe is missing from this list is The Impossible, a brilliant film about survival, bravery and familial love set against the horrific quake and tsunami of 2004 that killed more than a quarter-million people. How that was overlooked by the Academy, receiving just one nomination (Naomi Watts as best actress) is incomprehensible to me. I could also argue that the documentary feature, Searching for Sugar Man, could be on this list. (If the Academy has included worthy animated films like Toy Story 3 among the Best Picture nominees, why not this uplifting documentary about a forgotten singer who learned late in his life that he is a folk hero in South Africa?) However, given the overall quality of the nominations, I will not quibble.
Finally, politics and plain old boneheadedness are affecting the Best Picture race. Snubbing Ben Affleck (Argo) and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) for the best director prize has set me and many other Hollywood observers to scratching our heads. When you consider that these two, plus Les Misérables’ Tom Hooper, were all nominated by the Directors Guild of America, you just have to wonder aloud, “Who is nominating the directors anyway?” Because of this, a backlash has ensued. Four top industry guilds — the Producers, the Directors, Screen Actors and Writers — have all given their top prize to Argo. I don’t know who has yet to weigh in, but that broad base of support indicates a wave of sentiment for Argo. But don’t bet the house on this; I think there may be upsets in the works.
All that prologue aside, I give you my ranking of the nine nominated films, in ascending order. Same ground rules as previous years: These are not my predictions, just my choices. They are also not necessarily my personal picks for the best films of the year, just my ranking of the Academy’s nominees in terms of entertainment value, craft, innovation and uniquely cinematic quality. I also judge them according to the ways in which they challenge my notions of film-making. And there was a lot of that in this year’s crop of nominees, many of them among the most creative films I have seen in years.
9. Django Unchained — How did this odious stew of cinematic sampling end up on a “best pictures” list? While director/screenwriter Quentin Tarantino is often a vibrant force in films (Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds still electrify me), this film exposes him at his worst. At times derivative, disconnected and racist, this hodgepodge of themes, tropes and characters is the cinematic equivalent of throwing shit up against the wall and seeing what sticks. Characters abound seemingly at random, and scenes go on too long, punctuated by gratuitous acts of violence and explosions. Tarantino managed to waste superlative performances by Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio, and the talents of Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington are put to no good use. A fellow cineaste said to me, “I think they should have kept Django chained.” I couldn’t agree more.
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild — Ah, this year’s The Tree of Life. Yes, I understand a dystopian vision, and I always appreciate when a director works economically as Benh Zeitlin did with his $ 1.8 million budget. He also coaxed good performances from first-time actors Dwight Henry and youngest-ever Best Actress nominee, Quvenzhané Wallis. But don’t basic narrative standards count in a movie? How about a plot? Or memorable dialogue? I was one of the people who exited the theater wondering what I had just seen. And this student film got a Best Director nod when Argo and Zero Dark Thirty did not? I don’t get it.
7. Les Misérables — Normally, I’m not a fan of the big-box musicals that have proliferated in recent decades, such as this one and Phantom of the Opera. Still, I have a grudging respect for Tom Hooper’s efforts in bringing this sensation to the screen. Les Misérables has the scope and power that is de riguer for such big-screen adaptations. Hooper’s decision to have the actors sing live was brave for its unconventionality, though it also revealed their shortcoming. (I’m talking to you, Russell Crowe.) Ultimately, I think the success of this film resides less in its cinematic strengths than in the powerful performances of Hugh Jackman (At last! An appropriate role for this very talented man.) and Anne Hathaway, all 10 minutes of her (or however long it was). Musical movies still seem anachronistic to me, but this one was a valiant effort.
6. Silver Linings Playbook — I seem to be missing the gene that goes agog over David O. Russell’s romantic comedy/family drama. However, one Philadelphia film critic e-mailed me that people love this film because we all want to see people fall in love. Okay, I’ll buy that. But what other quality raises this movie above the most mundane rom-coms that accomplish the same result? I would say the acting, validated by nominations in all four acting categories. It was rewarding to watch Bradley Cooper break through in a role worthy of his talent, see one of DeNiro’s better performances in years, be amazed by Australian Jacki Weaver’s convincing Philly accent, and witness Jennifer Lawrence’s stunning performance that vaults her to the A-list. Eschewing explosions, special effects and CGI, Silver Linings Playbook helped bring back character-driven movies this year, and that works for me.
5. Lincoln — This is the first truly great film on this list. Auteur Steven Spielberg gave us a history lesson that is uniquely relevant to our current political deadlock. Lincoln focuses on a specific period in the president’s final days rather than the entire arc of his life. Instead of filling the screen with majestic, stirring images, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner gave us… Words. Repartee. Debates. Principles. And they glorified the commitment to achieve something great, namely the end of slavery in the U.S. Spielberg gets fine performances from a stable of first-rate actors, most notably Tommy Lee Jones, whose craggy, cranky countenance brings abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens to vivid life. And what can be said of the brilliance of Daniel Day-Louis, who delivers what will surely go down as one of the greatest movie performances in history? After seeing Birth of a Nation, Woodrow Wilson was quoted as saying it was “like history written with lightning.” Spielberg also showed us a nation conceived in liberty, but he drew his images from the heart and soul-stirring words of a great man rather than through Hollywood artifice.
4. Life of Pi — Even after Brokeback Mountain. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Sense and Sensibility, and the other works in Ang Lee’s canon, the visually stunning Life of Pi convinces me he can do anything. The original novel by Yann Martel was called “unfilmable,” but I was spellbound for more than two hours as Lee brought a mystical, magical world to life — the tale of young Pi Patel, cast adrift in a lifeboat after a shipwreck, his only companions being animals from a zoo that was on board. All the various scenarios work together: the interviews that unfold the story in flashback, Pi’s early life, the catastrophic storm, and his salvation on a mysterious island. Lee sets each unique scene with equal ease. Unfortunately, there is a coda that turned this movie into somewhat of a shaggy dog story. (I won’t spoil it for you. Think of the last episode of the TV series, St. Elsewhere.) But despite that, Ang Lee’s talent prevails, and this movie reveals him as one of the most accomplished directors working today.
3. Amour —The Parisian apartment of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) is worn out by old age and use, as are they. One morning, Anne goes into a trance for an uncomfortable time, which concerns Georges. Thus begins the story of this couple’s final days together as Anne moves from vibrancy to a living death from a stroke. In the confinement of the apartment — the very antithesis of filmmaking — director Michael Haneke shows the boundaries of the world this loving couple shares, only occasionally invaded, whether by their daughter, a postman or a stray pigeon. I consider Riva’s performance the best of the year by a female actor. Anyone dedicated to a single partner will find this a most frighteningly truthful film about old age. It is a masterpiece.
2. Zero Dark Thirty — Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal succeed again in the unique movie genre they virtually invented with The Hurt Locker: the Middle East war movie, just as John Ford created the Western as we know it. While Zero Dark Thirty covers the relevance and importance of the American intelligence community and the killing of Osama bin Laden, it is ultimately about determination of purpose. This theme is embodied in the character of Maya, the dedicated CIA agent played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain. Maya knows bin Laden is out there, and she hectors her bosses to go after him and kill him. It takes a while for the film to take off, but the viewer is rewarded with a nail-biting climax in bin Laden’s compound. This is all the more remarkable given that we know the end to this movie. Rarely has reality been so suspenseful.
1. Argo — This was the most exquisitely crafted film of the year. The others in my top five are excellent works that I believe will stand the test of time. Yet each has some small flaw, a blemish that blocks its path to the top spot. Lincoln is both inspiring and educational, but it is at heart a stage play and somewhat less of a film. The Life of Pi is a thing of beauty whose ending slightly deflates all that came before it. Amour is emotionally moving but at times cinematically inert. Zero Dark Thirty delivers excitement, but the payoff comes after a slow and expository first half. Then there is Argo, which tells an exciting story that moves confidently from start to finish. There are moments of high drama and belly-shaking laughter. And it is superbly paced. I never felt bored or anxious. The performances are perfectly calibrated to each moment of the film, whether it is Alan Arkin’s hilariously vulgar faux producer, John Goodman’s veteran Hollywood makeup man or Kyle Chandler’s convincing portrayal of Hamilton Jordan. (By the way, couldn’t the Academy show some nomination love to Mr. Chandler and Mr. Goodman, both also good in entirely different roles in Zero Dark Thirty and Flight respectively? What does a working actor have to do around here to get some respect?) As a result of Ben Affleck’s sure hand at the helm, Argo comes in at a tidy 120 minutes — an exercise in economy and control. It is nice to see craft in film-making, and Argo delivers that in spades. It was my favorite movie when it premiered, and it remained so for the rest of the year
So which of these films will Oscar shine on? We’ll learn on Sunday, February 24. I’ll be watching, and I eagerly anticipate Seth MacFarlane as the host. Save me some popcorn.