OK, it’s Oscar season—you know, those awards that we all love to hate and call meaningless, but tend to mysteriously get worked about anyway. I have no idea why I care. I’ve sworn off them twice—in 1973 when Marlon Brando won Best Actor for The Godfather (1972) over Peter O’Toole for The Ruling Class (1972), and in 1976 when Louise Fletcher (I still maintain it was a supporting role!) won Best Actress for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) over Ann-Margret for Tommy (1975). I’ve called them embarassing on any number of occasions I’ve sworn at the TV profusely (and when I swear profusely even sailors turn beet red) and been tempted to hurl a brick at the screen (fortunately, I rarely have bricks at hand) more times than I care to think about. This year promises to be no different. The only difference here is that I am less concerned with hoping that this or that wins than I am hoping that certain things and people do not win.
The nominations are themselves pretty tough to get through without wincing—so far as I’m concerned anyway. There’s only one movie on their list I’d have for sure nominated and one that I don’t mind seeing nominated. And the Academy still clings to the mystifying idea that great—or even “award worthy”—movies direct themselves with this nonsensical business of nominating nine movies, but only five directors. This strikes me as…well, ludicrous. It’s also slightly ludicrous. Would it really add that much time to rattle off five more names? That time could easily be made up by curtailing the host’s “comedy” or shortening one of their invariably awkward production numbers. Just a thought—and the Academy is free to make use of it, should they so choose.
Anyway, let’s take a look at this list, shall we?
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
OK, I’ve seen all of these. Amour is exactly what you think it is—assuming you’ve seen other Michael Haneke movies—and that means I wouldn’t nominate it for anything. I will concede that it may well be the year’s most unpleasant film (hey, it’s Michael Haneke)—and that, of course, boosts its artistic credibililty no end. Never, never, never underestimate the power of nasty medicine that must be good for you (simply because it is nasty). Its nomination here seems curious, though, since I can’t imagine it winning—I mean that would be carrying “art” too far. But this almost certainly assures it’ll get that Best Foreign Language Oscar.
Argo is an undeniably entertaining movie, but it strikes me as being really nothing more than that—though goodness knows, the Academy has given this award to a lot of movies that weren’t even entertaining. That Ben Affleck was snubbed for a director nomination bodes ill for its prospects. (Unless, of course, they really do believe that movies make themselves.) That said, I wouldn’t actually go on a rant if it did win—not out of this list. It’s certainly a solid good time at the movies—no matter what else it is or isn’t. I don’t tend to sell that short. Far too many movies don’t realize that goal.
Ah, yes, Beasts of the Southern Wild—my personal bête noire of the nominees. I truly, strongly, deeply dislike this amateurish slog of “Noble Savage” nonsense and jittery cam flapdoodle. It is at the top of my list for movies I want to see lose. That its director and screenplay are also nominated makes it a bigger contender than would otherwise seem likely. The prospect chills me. I am mystified by the way some people have taken this movie to heart. At least once a year, there’s one indie movie that gets a bizarre amount of gush. This is this year’s clear gush champion. It may even fact be the biggest banana oil gusher in the history of cinema. Yet for all that, I only personally know two people who actually liked it very much.
Django Unchained is easily my top pick from this list of nine titles. It’s the best written, most creatively directed, most cleverly acted of the lot—and…well, it’s just plain the most fun. If it wins, however, no one will be more surprised than I. First of all, there’s the Tarantino snub in the Best Director column. But more than that, Django Unchained is simply too controversial for the Academy to embrace more than it already has by giving it the nominations they have. I suspect the endorsement stops right there. Movies that might frighten the horses also frighten the average Oscar voter. That’s rather a pity, but it hardly surprises me.
I like musicals. Most of my favorite films are musicals—though, they’re not this kind of musical. I also liked Tom Hooper’s previous films—The Damned United and The King’s Speech. I like most of the cast (Russell Crowe to one side). I was primed to like Les Misérables. It didn’t happen. A lot. I even watched it twice just to see if maybe I hadn’t been in the right frame of mind the first time. A second viewing was even more torturous. It may help if you’re already sold on the stage show, but I wasn’t and I’m not. It is also on my list of movies I don’t want to see win. And I think it stands a fair chance—one that is only hampered by it being too close to The King’s Speech.
I liked Life of Pi OK when I saw it, though it didn’t make me believe in God—or disbelieve in Him. I’m not sure that was its intent, though I know a lot of people took it that way. If anything, it seemed to me to suggest that people will prefer any comforting mystical yarn over plain old boring—and non-comforting—reality. It doesn’t matter, though, in the overall scheme of things movie. Yes, it’s technically a marvel and it has some of the year’s—even the century’s—most striking images. (Images that raise questions about where cinematography leaves off and computers begin, but that’s another matter.) My problem with the film is that almost nothing about it has stuck with me. I’m left almost completely ambivalent about it winning or losing.
I surprised myself by liking Lincoln better than I expected to, based on Mr. Souther’s assessment and my general level of interest in the movie. I don’t really disagree with his problems with the film. I agree that it’s a depressingly grey movie—and while I understand that part of that is an attempt to present a more realistic image for what it was like to live with gas, oil, and candlelight, I think it was more distracting and oppressive than worthy. The other things—like Tommy Lee Jones never really seeming like anyone other than Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Fields’ tenaciously obvious Oscar bid—I certainly noticed, but they didn’t bother me in the greater scheme of movies seeming like movies. (In the interest of a different take, I should note that my wife slept through most of the film, causing her to find it one of the year’s most restful films.) Spielberg’s direction was unusually restrained—to the point of workmanlike—which may not have been entirely in its favor, but the screenplay was good and Daniel Day-Lewis was even better. Best Picture? Not in my book by a long, long shot, but it’s far from the worst choice here.
Silver Linings Playbook is—by default—the movie I’m realistically hopeful for winning. (My desire for a Django Unchained win is hardly realistic.) And all in all, I’d be perfectly happy to see it cart home the genitally-challenged statue. It’s entertaining and intelligent. David O. Russell’s direction is stylish and clever, if not quite up to that of I Heart Huckabees. His use of the camera is fluid without seeming overly fussy. The whole thing is impeccably acted, and it manages the not inconsiderable feat of being uplifting without ever once even getting near gooey. Its biggest problem is that it really ought to have ended in the street after the dance contest. The tag scene that follows that is not only inessential, it puts a damper on the seemingly effortless magic that precedes it. (It’s like something from MGM at their worst in the studio era.) But that feels like quibbling.
Zero Dark Thirty has coasted into this by virture of being “relevant” and being helmed by a weirdly overrated director, who is probably too close to her win for The Hurt Locker to win for direction, no matter how you feel about the movie. The movie—to me—is efficient at detailing the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden, but is otherwise largely unremarkable as it trudges it way through 157 very long minutes of what feels like a police procedural TV show. It supposedly was designed as an attempt to make a non-judgmental, documentary-feeling movie. At one point, it was even being called “journalism,” which is preposterous and possibly dangerously misleading. Also, just how a movie where recognizable actors like Mark Strong and James Gandolfini keep popping up isn’t very obviously and consciously a dramatization is beyond me. There’s virtually no chacterization—apart from attempting to make Jason Clarke’s character sympathetic by showing that when he isn’t using “enhanced interrogation” on prisoners, he’s giving ice cream to a cage of monkeys. (The movies have used this kind of fond of animals gambit to make characters seem sympathetic for about 100 years.) No, I don’t want to see this win, but it wouldn’t piss me off as much as Beasts of the Southern Wild would.
Michael Haneke, Amour. I have been being told that Haneke—with his nailed-down cinematic style and his humorless, detached view of mankind—is a great filmmaker. I have seen no evidence of this. Imagine being trapped at a party with Haneke and Bela Tarr. (This is where Mr. Bowie’s query, “Well, well, well, would you carry a razor in case—just in case—of depression?” comes to mind.) At best, you’d be praying for Lars von Trier to come along to lighten the mood—or at least say something inappropriate.
Ang Lee, Life of Pi. Ang Lee has made great movies, but this just doesn’t strike me as one of them.
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook. Hands down my pick from the list of nominees.
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln. It’s well established that I’m not a Spielberg fan, but very few of his penchants for shameless manipulation and overkill are in evidence here. The downside to that is the film seems fairly faceless.
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild. The most ludicrous nomination in years.
Best Supporting Actor:
Alan Arkin, Argo. This strikes me as more of a nomination based on liking Alan Arkin than one for his performance here. He’s fine and he’s amusing, but award-worthy?
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook. OK, De Niro is good here, but he was better this year in Being Flynn, and I’m simply not seeing anything special in this one—except that his performance is better than a lot we’ve seen from him in recent years. If I were an Academy voter, I’d consider him only because I think my first choice is a long shot.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master. I was pretty much left cold by The Master, but there are flashes of brilliance in Hoffman’s performance. However, they remain flashes and he’s not my choice.
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln. Yes, it’s Tommy Lee Jones having a fine time being outrageous in a bad wig. Simple as that, but I can’t say I wasn’t entertained by it, nor can I claim to have been unimpressed when he could actually transcend himself on occasion. I started out with a sour view on this nomination, but the more I’ve thouht about it, the more it doesn’t bother me.
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained. My personal first choice. Waltz is perhaps the quintessential Tarantino actor—the man most in tune with the filmmaker’s baroque dialogue and deadpan sense of dark humor. This may be his best performance yet, but the film is troublesome for some—and perhaps more importantly, it hasn’t been long enough since he won his first Oscar.
Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams, The Master. Apart from the indignity of having to pretend (one assumes) to manually pleasure Philip Seymour Hoffman, I don’t see anything all that remarkable about her performance here.
Sally Field, Lincoln. I have mixed feelings here. When Field is playing her subtler scenes—like her barbed verbal sparring with Tommy Lee Jones at a party—I think she’s brilliant. When she’s doing her big Oscar-bid mad scene, I’m not that keen on her. Still, she seems the only rational choice out of the nominees.
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables. She’ll probably win just for having her hair cut off—for real and onscreen!—and for singing that song in one Big Close Up. I’m more impressed with her decision to die off early and get out of that movie.
Helen Hunt, The Sessions. Helen Hunt gets all naked. In 2012 cinema, this is called being brave. Is it enough to snag an Oscar? I mean, she’s fine in the movie, but is she outstanding? Not really, but then neither is the movie.
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook. Really? Is this the She-gets-a-nomination-because-everybody-else-did moment? Her character is just not that central to the film or that memorable. I suppose she gets points for not bitching anything up.
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook. In a way, Cooper is my first choice for this (mostly because Denis Lavant wasn’t nominated for Holy Motors). Yes, over Day-Lewis. It’s the kind of performance in a kind of movie that all too often goes unrecognized.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln. This is probably a lock for Day-Lewis. I’m cool with that. If it’s him or if it’s Bradley Cooper, I’ll be happy enough either way.
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables. Obviously, the Academy is impressed by performances where the performer strains so much that all the veins pop out on his head.
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master. It’s an unpleasant performance in an unpleasant movie, which will give it an edge in some quarters, since those qualities are often mistaken for signs of importance. I don’t see it myself.
Denzel Washington, Flight. I have nothing against Denzel Washington, though I don’t automatically assume that a movie is good or important because he’s in it. And this overbaked assemblage of cliches is a perfect example. That he can deliver forehead-slapping dialogue like, “It wasn’t until I was in prison that I actually felt free,” without sounding like an idiot is noteworthy, but not Oscar-worthy.
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty. Nearly everyone I know tells me that they “really like” Jessica Chastain, but when I ask them, “In what?” they tend to get stumped after citing The Help. That’s kind of where I am. And Zero Dark Thirty did nothing to change that.
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook. Easily my first choice among the nominations. It’s a moving, funny, painfully real performance that earns our sympathy by never asking for it.
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour. As much as I don’t like Amour, I actually would have no problem with Riva winning Best Actress. She gives a powefully nuanced performance in a difficult role.
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild. I’m sorry. No matter how uncharitable this sounds, this is a ludicrous nomination, but, hey, if Oscar voters want to ruin this kid’s life, that’s their business.
Naomi Watts, The Impossible. This nomination came out of nowhere, and I still don’t understand it. It’s a solid performance by a very good actress in a perfectly fine movie, but Oscar caliber? That seems quite a stretch.
Best Original Screenplay:
Amour. Well, it’s certainly dreary enough to qualify as “important,” but I still think it’s a longshot.
Django Unchained. It won’t happen, but it wouldn’t bother me if it did.
Flight. Obviously, the Academy has a thing for cliches.
Moonrise Kingdom. My personal choice, but I suspect it’s too quirky to win.
Zero Dark Thirty. I don’t see it, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Argo. It’s an efficient, professionally constructed screenplay that laid the groundwork for a solidly entertaining movie. There are worse choices.
Beasts of the Southern Wild. Speaking of worse choices…really, whatever this movie has going for it, it’s not its screenplay.
Life of Pi. This is going to depend on the Academy’s fondness for easily digested mysticism, but don’t the images sell this movie more than the words?
Lincoln. A solid job of writing that mostly resists sounding like a history lesson and keeps the characters from sounding like they’re aware that one day they’ll be in an historical drama.
Silver Linings Playbook. Of the nominated films, this would be my pick. It has everything a great screenplay ought to have—and isn’t in the least afraid to take chances. Now, whether it’s really better than Anna Karenina, Cloud Atlas, or The Perks of Being a Wallflower is another matter, but they weren’t nominated.
Best Animated Feature:
Brave. It’s Pixar. I can think of no other reason this was nominated, because it’s just not that good.
Frankenweenie. When I first saw this, I couldn’t imagine another choice for this award, but I have to say it just hasn’t stuck with me the way I expected it to.
ParaNorman. Now, this, on the other hand, has stayed with me and a subsequent viewing has made me lean toward it—even though I really didn’t care much for the character design.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits. The joker in the deck because it’s the one I haven’t seen.
Wreck-It Ralph. I think a certain amount of nostalgia for early videogames is necessary to be entranced by this. Lacking that nostalgia, I found this largely mediocre.
Best Foreign Feature:
A Royal Affair
Having seen only two of these titles—Amour and A Royal Affair—all I can say is I really liked A Royal Affair. I think Amour has this one sewn up, though.
Best Visual Effects:
Life of Pi
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Snow White and the Huntsman
That The Impossible wasn’t nominated makes this a pretty silly list to me. That Snow White and the Huntsman was and Mirror Mirror wasn’t doesn’t help matters. I won’t even discuss that Cloud Atlas was shut out.
Life of Pi
To me, the only real choice here is Anna Karenina. Yes, Life of Pi—the probable winner—has great imagery, but how much of that is cinematography and how much of it is computer jiggery pokery? (This is apt to be an increasingly thorny problem.)
Best Costume Design:
Snow White and the Huntsman
Again, I’d lean toward Anna Karenina, but Mirror Mirror wouldn’t bother me much. They’ll probably give it to something boring like Lincoln.
Best Documentary Feature:
Searching for Sugar Man
How to Survive a Plague
5 Broken Cameras
The Invisible War
The only one of these I’ve seen is Searching for Sugar Man, so I’m staying out of this.
Best Film Editing:
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty
That they snubbed Anna Karenina and especially Cloud Atlas—films that thrive on skillful editing—leaves me sufficiently depressed not to care what wins.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
What a very strange set of choices. I have nothing more to say.
Best Music (Original Score):
Life of Pi
It’s somewhat ironic that Alexandre Desplat’s score for Moonrise Kingdom was deemed ineligible because of the film’s heavy use of Benjamin Britten on the soundtrack, but Dario Marianelli’s score for Anna Karenina—with its heavy use of Russian folk song “In a Field Stood a Birch Tree” (best known as a theme in the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony)—wasn’t. All the same, I lean toward Marianelli’s score out of the nominees. (Desplat is represented with Argo, but I’d have gone with his Rise of the Guardians score over it.)
Best Music (Original Song):
“Before My Time” from Chasing Ice
“Everybody Needs A Best Friend” from Ted
“Pi’s Lullaby” from Life of Pi
“Skyfall” from Skyfall
“Suddenly” from Les Misérables
Of the songs I’ve heard on this list, the only one I even remember is “Skyfall.” I honestly didn’t even know there was a “Pi’s Lullaby.” My real question is where is “Big Machine” from Safety Not Guaranteed? I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again—this is the category most in need of retiring.
Best Production Design:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Oh, hands down, this ought to go to Anna Karenina. My guess is that the drab designs for Lincoln are more likely to impress in their obvious seriousness.
Best Short Film, Animated:
Adam and Dog
Head over Heels
Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare’
This is a really weak set of films. I’d give it to Paperman by default, but I wasn’t wowed by any of these—unlike last year.
Best Short Film, Live Action:
Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw)
This, on the other hand, is an unusually strong set. Much as I loved Death of a Shadow, I’m more and more leaning toward Curfew (I don’t care that its startling midway point fantasy owes more than a little to Julie Taymor). I think it’s a long, long, long shot, though. My guess is that this is going to Henry, which is more the Academy’s speed.
Best Documentary Short:
Mondays at Racine
I haven’t seen these and have no plans to change that.