Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Oscar Nomination Round-up Part 1: Picture and Director

So the first few weeks of 2012 have been a little hectic around here, and I never really had a chance to take a look back at some notable 2011 movies. And now, the Oscar nominations have come out - so this gives me a perfect opportunity to look back at 2011, and to complain about and/or praise certain choices made by the Academy.

Let's start with Best Picture and Best Director, two categories that are most often linked.

Best Picture

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius, THE ARTIST
Alexander Payne, THE DESCENDANTS
Martin Scorsese, HUGO
Terrence Malick, THE TREE OF LIFE

Before the Academy expanded the Best Picture nominees from five, there was generally an overlap of three or four between the Best Picture and Best Director nominees. The odd director out was generally considered a longshot, and the nomination itself a reward. (Like David Lynch for MULHOLLAND DRIVE in 2001.) But now, with up to ten Best Picture nominees, and only five Best Director nominees, I think we can split the Best Picture nominees into two tiers: those with, and those without, a Best Director nomination.

This year, the top tier of Best Picture nominees would be THE ARTIST, THE DESCENDANTS, HUGO, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, and THE TREE OF LIFE. And I'm happy to report that four of those are wonderful movies.

I've already shared my thoughts on THE DESCENDANTS. And while I generally prefer Payne's writing to his directing, he effectively manages the movie's tricky shifts in tone. He's also very good at showing us scenes we don't expect (like Judy Greer's character showing up at the hospital), and not showing us scenes that a lesser director of a lesser movie would milk for unearned tears. I cried during THE DESCENDANTS - I will continue to rave about one particular shot of breakout star Shailene Woodley - and the movie earned all of those tears. Also, there may not be a better final shot in a movie in 2011.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS was a rare highlight of a particularly dreary summer. Critics considered it Woody Allen's latest return to form - as if a director as prolific as Allen (seriously, a MOVIE A YEAR!) needs to swing for the fences every time. If you can't take pleasure from a minor Woody Allen movie (like, say, the underrated SCOOP), then you're underestimating his abilities as a filmmaker. Having said all that, I do think that MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is Woody's best movie since at least MATCH POINT (2005), and maybe since the glorious EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (1996). It's a film that is quite literally about nostalgia, about wanting to live in an earlier, better, more exciting time. Nostalgia was a key theme in a number of notable 2011 movies, including other Best Picture nominees, THE ARTIST and HUGO.

THE ARTIST is, I think, a very good movie, but not a great one. It's a black and white silent movie about the death of silent movies. It owes more than a little of its story to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, but its tone is much more melancholy. (The difference between the two: SINGIN' IN THE RAIN is about the birth of talkies, but THE ARTIST is about the death of silents.) A month after seeing it, I think back fondly on a number of sequences: Valentin and Peppy, faces unseen by each other, trying to one-up each other in a tap dance; Valentin ruining a series of takes while dancing with and falling in love with Peppy; Peppy putting one arm in Valentin's coat sleeve and pretending he's getting fresh; and that glorious final scene. But something, I'm not quite sure what, was lacking. An iota of originality, maybe?

HUGO, on the other hand, was a movie I flat-out adored. Loved it. It's likely not Scorsese's best movie, but it's almost certainly his warmest. Scorsese, as a director, often overdoes it on the kinetic tricks - the cross-cutting, the zooms - but here he's much more relaxed and controlled. (And that's not an oxymoron.) HUGO is also about a subject very dear to Scorsese's heart: the importance of film preservation. As a movie buff, it's also a subject dear to my heart. (Scorsese has famously rescued the reputation of British director Michael Powell, whose widow, Thelma Schoonmaker, is Scorsese's longtime editor.) HUGO is the best of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture.

And then there's THE TREE OF LIFE. This movie made me angry. It is exactly the type of movie that I want to love - a challenging movie by an admired director asking tough questions and dealing with big themes... And yet: THE TREE OF LIFE is just not very good. Malick is a very impressionistic director, so we only really get an outline of the story of a family (similar to Malick's?) in 1950s Texas, mixed with a present-day Sean Penn as one of the now-grown kids remembering the anniversary of his brother's death. Also, we get a WTF?!?!? section with the beginning of the universe and then dinosaurs.  Dinosaurs! The movie wants to discuss whether humanity is capable of showing mercy - at least, I think that's what we were supposed to get from the overwrought voiceover. There is beauty in this movie; there is also, unfortunately, much frustration while watching it.   (Cut the Sean Penn and the beginning of the universe scenes entirely, and THE TREE OF LIFE would immediately be a better movie.) I think it's also notable that two of THE TREE OF LIFE's stars (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) received acting nominations - for other movies.

If the second-tier of the Best Picture nominees are those that were not also nominated for Best Director, then they probably have little chance of winning Best Picture. Of the four of them, THE HELP is the one that has the best shot of winning, and not just because it recently won the SAG Award for Best Cast. THE HELP was a huge, surprise summer hit, with a talented cast delivering top-notch work. It's also a frustratingly facile look at race relationships in the south in the 1960s, where the white characters are (accidentally?) more compelling than the black characters. I don't mean to take anything away from the quality of the performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as the two main maids, since they were both terrific. They do, however, play a Saintly Suffering Maid and a Spunky Sassy Maid. It's been six years since the Academy gave Best Picture to the execrable CRASH over the exquisite BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN; would they really do something like that again?

MONEYBALL is a terrific movie. Smart, funny, and unexpectedly moving, it also features really subtle, surprising work from Jonah Hill and Chris Pratt. (Pratt was a big surprise for me: he could not be more different than his Andy Dwyer on PARKS AND RECREATION.) The movie is anchored by a terrific star performance from Brad Pitt, who got a well-deserved nomination. His work in TREE OF LIFE feels like a sketch next to his Billy Beane. If I were to quibble about MONEYBALL, I would acknowledge that its epilogue is flawed: you simply cannot use the 2004 Boston Red Sox as an example of Moneyball principles at work.

I'm a huge fan of Steven Spielberg, especially some of his more problematic works of the last decade. Movies like MUNICH and MINORITY REPORT and WAR OF THE WORLDS are a lot more challenging than their detractors give them credit for being. But WAR HORSE is, I think, a miss. It may have been the best movie of the year, if the year was 1952.  Spielberg has directed much of the movie in the style of John Ford. And there's nothing wrong with that (John Ford is, quite likely, the greatest Hollywood director of the studio era), but the story is too episodic for its own good, and the title character (the movie's central character) manages to be both too remote to be a protagonist and too anthropomorphized to be compelling. There is much to admire in WAR HORSE; I'm just not sure there is much to love.

I was not expecting EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE to get a nomination, and therefore wasn't planning on seeing it at all. And if I DO see it, it will only be out of a sense of completeness. It was directed by Stephen Daldry, who also directed THE READER and THE HOURS and BILLY ELLIOT. Every movie he has made has been nominated for Best Picture. Unfortunately, every movie he has made has also not been very good. EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE has ZERO chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar, so I likely won't bother seeing it. Eight of nine is good enough for me.

THE ARTIST will win Best Picture and Hazanavicius Best Director, but HUGO and Scorsese should.

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