It’s that time again: OSCAR time! Yes, I know I geek out over this annual Hollywood exercise in self-congratulatory indulgence, but I LOVE it! Because I love movies and I find it gratifying to see talented filmmakers and deserving films rewarded. (Of course, I don’t always agree with what is rewarded. See also: TITANIC.)
I once again made a point of seeing all nine Best Picture nominees this year and I have once again taken it upon myself to rank them according to my own biased, totally subjective, probably obnoxious opinions. The common theme in how I reacted to these films had to do with my emotional engagement with them. Basically, it all came down to connecting with the characters.
So without further ado, here are my rankings from nine to one:
9) LINCOLN – Okay, I’m probably a horrible American for ranking this film in last place. Yes, Daniel Day Lewis is fantastic in the lead role. Yes, Tony Kushner is a beautiful, eloquent writer. Yes, Steven Spielberg is a great director. But the sum of all these parts did not come together as a meaningful whole for me. Rather, I found myself restless over the endless speechifying and pontificating. I felt no emotional attachment to any of the characters. I was distracted by the “who’s who” of actors cast in incidental parts and wearing funny wigs. (“Is that James Spader? Hey, it’s Gale from BREAKING BAD! What’s Adam from GIRLS doing in this?”) I wondered why such an erudite, scholarly, and rather static work was adapted for the cinema rather than the stage? And coming off of a year where I had the great pleasure of seeing both JAWS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK on the big screen, I guess I was hoping for that level of compelling involvement in what ultimately felt like a well-decorated but dull college lecture.
8) SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK – You know how every year there’s that one film that everyone – critics and audiences alike – seems to go ga-ga for? You hear the buzz at film festivals and read about it in the indie film magazines, so you eagerly await its release? And then you see it. And you ask yourself, “What am I missing?” Last year that film was THE DESCENDANTS for me. This year: SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Why? Despite some very good performances, particularly from Bradley Cooper, Jackie Weaver, and an initially unrecognizable Chris Tucker, the movie was tonally inconsistent for me. Is it a realistic look at bi-polar disorder, featuring harrowing scenes of Cooper and DeNiro (as his father) violently exploding at each other? Or is it a quirky romantic comedy, complete with a friggin’ dance competition at the end of it? I wish writer/director David O. Russell had chosen a side and stuck with it. (And I would have voted for realism a la the director’s last great feature THE FIGHTER.)
7) DJANGO UNCHAINED – I give Quentin Tarantino a lot of credit…he is always distinct as a writer/director. Never boring. I still talk about the thrill I experienced when I first saw KILL BILL, VOL. I – it was such a roller-coaster ride of cinematic virtuosity and served as a reminder of why I love movies so much: the spectacular surprise of it all. And even though there is much to admire about DJANGO UNCHAINED, I did not have the same response. The production and costume design are first-rate. The performances, specifically Christophe Woltz and Leonardo DiCaprio, are terrific. Tarantino’s dialogue always shimmers. And yet…as a whole DJANGO UNCHAINED felt like three different films to me. Its fractured nature led to my lack of emotional involvement – I appreciated the style, but not the substance. And for those with weak stomachs, it was bloody. Oh so bloody. Maybe next time, QT?
6) AMOUR – For my friends who enjoy movies as escapist entertainment, AMOUR is not the movie for you. This French film chronicles an elderly couple as the husband cares for his wife who deteriorates both physically and mentally before his eyes. The movie is a lesson in minimalism – no soundtrack, no set pieces, just two people in one apartment dealing with the heartbreaking ravages of aging. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva deliver raw, deeply affecting performances that anchor this devastating film.
5) BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD – I got to see this movie at the Los Angeles Film Festival and I found it to be imaginative, touching, and wholly original. Add to that the fact that it was made for under $2M and I’m all the more impressed. The film plays like a mystical poem, especially since it’s told from the point-of-view of its 6-year-old heroine. Like last year’s TREE OF LIFE, it’s a film you submit to so it’s probably not for everyone. But those who do submit will undoubtedly appreciate it.
4) LES MISERABLES – While I’m a fan of the musical and, subsequently, really enjoyed the movie-version of LES MISERABLES, I also found it to be a bit of a glorious mess. It featured some incredibly passionate performances (Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne) and some maddeningly lost opportunities (the “Master of the House” number). It was visually stunning in spots (the opening sequence where Jean Valjean and his fellow prisoners are pulling a ship into port comes to mind), yet also strangely static during many of the solos. (Feel free to cut away from that intense close-up, Tom Hooper!) It wasn’t as amazing as I hoped it would be and I highly doubt it will come through for me as far as 2013 predictions go, but it was moving nonetheless.
3) ZERO DARK THIRTY – My thoughts on this film can be found in my earlier blog entry “Relationships Trump Accomplishments” (DLB on ZDT) but despite my lack of attachment to the main character, I still found the film intelligent, provocative, and visually captivating. The final twenty minutes taking you through the raid on Bin Laden were especially intense and riveting. Kathryn Bigelow is at the top of her directing game and I think it’s a real shame that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar this year.
2) LIFE OF PI – After seeing this film, I realized that I’ll watch just about anything Ang Lee directs. He could film something on an iPhone and make it compelling and moving. What I found most impressive about this highly ambitious film is that among the computer-genreated mastery (that animated tiger alone deserves an Oscar!), Lee also draws out subtle, poignant performances from his human actors. Simply beautiful.
1) ARGO – I really didn’t think this would be my #1 pick. ARGO was one of the early films I saw among the nominees and while I thoroughly enjoyed it when I saw it, I figured another higher-profile film would surpass it. But as I viewed the other films, ARGO remained firmly at the top of the list. I think from the moment the seventies-style Warner Brothers logo came on screen, I was on board. The script was smart, humorous, suspenseful (yes, even though everyone knows the outcome!), and highly entertaining. Add an excellent cast and stylish filmmaking and you have a recipe for greatness. This is the one movie that I have enthusiastically recommended to everyone – and to me that’s the mark of a Best Picture.