Navigating the Nine

While I could find something to appreciate about all ten films nominated for Best Picture last year, I think the Academy could have settled on five nominees this year and called it a day.  Yeah, I wasn’t all that impressed with most of the Top Nine.  But, I did watch all of the nominated films and I offer you my completely unnecessary, unsolicited rankings of them.  Feel free to agree/disagree/discuss! (And preferably over martinis.)

9. EXTREMELY CLOSE AND INCREDIBLY LOUD – Much of the conversation about this polarizing movie has centered around whether or not it’s too soon to have the events of 9/11 featured as the emotional backdrop of a narrative film.  I don’t think it’s too soon for such a story; however, I do think there’s never a time for infuriatingly mawkish films like this one. And it’s unfortunate because there’s probably a compelling story within it.  Alas, “Jeopardy Kids” winner Thomas Horn takes the “pro” out of protagonist – and I fault the direction and the script for that.  Any moment of genuine emotion is undercut by an obnoxious response from Horn’s character.  Instead of rooting for this boy to find closure over the death of his father, I found myself wishing he’d just shut up for two seconds. (And his obtrusive voiceover narration didn’t help!) Extremely precocious and incredibly annoying.

8. THE DESCENDANTS – Okay, okay, I realize I’m in the minority on this one.  I know this film is at the top of many a critic’s “Best Film” list.  And I admit that I saw this movie on day three of a five-day power outage, so I may not have been in the most tolerant states-of-mind.  However, I did want to like the film because I’m a big fan of just about everything Alexander Payne has done.  Yet, from the moment George Clooney’s narration droned through the Arclight’s sound system, I knew I was in trouble. (Like Film #9, the excessive use of voiceover really grates on my nerves.  What happened to show instead of tell, screenwriters?)  While I think Clooney is great as Michael Clayton or a detached business consultant or a slick politician, I did not think he inhabited the role of a schlumpy, absentee father struggling with his comatose wife’s infidelity.  But beyond his performance, I had issues with the script.  There were no tangible stakes for the characters, which made for a hollow cinematic journey.  In fact, I was so uninvolved emotionally that I snoozed a bit through the film.  Of course, Alexander Payne is probably going to win an Oscar for his script, so what do I know?

7. WAR HORSE – I saw the play, so I understand the power and profundity of this story.  Oh, Steven Spielberg, you’re a gifted filmmaker so why must you surrender to your usual bag of tricks and overly sentimental tendencies?  We don’t need wall-to-wall music (all due respect to Mr. Williams) to constantly remind us of how we’re supposed to feel.   We don’t need the irritating French girl who seems to have honed her acting subtleties from watching Disney’s SHAKE IT UP.  And we really don’t need THREE FRIGGIN’ ENDINGS!!!  The first one was effective and emotional.  The second two just felt like you were getting greedy for our tears.  The horse was awesome, though!

6. THE HELP – This is another polarizing film, but I’m not intellectually equipped to delve into a discussion on the portrayal of racism in cinema and what or who constitutes a responsible representation.  I can tell you that I found the film to be visually unexceptional, but a faithful adaptation of the book and it features some very fine performances.  I will be more than happy if Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer claim Oscars for their roles.

5. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS – Again, I wasn’t as in love with this latest Woody Allen comedy as most of the world. (It’s Allen’s highest-grossing movie to date.)  For me, it’s an entertaining-yet-slight film with a few pearls of inspiration, particularly found in the performances of Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, and the always lovely Marion Cottilard.  And it’s hard to screw-up the cinematic stunnery that is Paris.  C’est magnifique!

4. HUGO – Scorsese’s latest film is an ambitious love-letter to filmmaking via the computer artistry of 3D.  While the momentum lagged in places story-wise, it’s hard not to appreciate the technical scope of this film.  Yet, among all of the bells & whistles, characters still count and the movie is anchored by a moving performances from master thespian Ben Kingsley and an especially impressive young newcomer Asa Butterfield.

3. THE TREE OF LIFE – I can’t recommend this film to everyone because it’s less a film and more an impressionistic poem: non-linear, enigmatic, meditative.  Yeah, there’s a fine line between genius and pretentious and I have no doubt many of you would categorize Terrence Malick’s latest as the latter.  But I dug it.  Like HUGO, there is much to admire in terms of technical proficiency.  In fact, I was in awe over the visuals that unfolded on screen.  Malick is simply a cinematic maestro.  He doesn’t rely on much dialogue, but rather on creating moods and emotions.  Yet, the film beautifully captures the complexity of family relationships and the joy and suffering that occurs when navigating through childhood.  My friend Ed put it well when he said it’s a film you need to submit to.  I submitted and I was hypnotized.  It will remain on my mind for a while.

2. MONEYBALL – Yep!  Two Brad Pitt movies in my Top Three!  I attended a WGA panel recently that featured the three writers credited on MONEYBALL (Aaron Sorkin, Steve Zaillian, and Stan Chervin) and Sorkin commented that there should be a film about the making of MONEYBALL.  Apparently, it was a tumultuous process getting the book from script to screen, but the end result was a smartly written, beautifully shot film that featured some excellent performances led by a charismatic Brad Pitt. (Oh, and it turns out he’s awfully pretty to look at, too.)  Who knew a movie about baseball statistics could be so engaging?  Yet at the heart of it, as writer Stan Chervin explains, “It’s the story of a man who learns it is more important to know his value rather than his price.”

1. THE ARTIST – No surprise here, huh?  This film checked off all of the boxes for me.  Filled with humor and heart, suspense and surprises, it encompassed everything I love about going to the movies.  A simple story told in an extraordinary, ambitious way and centered around characters we genuinely care about.  Bravo to all involved.  I hope you receive some well-deserved Oscar love on Sunday.


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