Oscar Nominations: A Practical Look at Best Picture
- “The Artist” Thomas Langmann, Producer
- “The Descendants” Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Producers
- “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” Scott Rudin, Producer
- “The Help” Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan, Producers
- “Hugo” Graham King and Martin Scorsese, Producers
- “Midnight in Paris” Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum, Producers
- “Moneyball” Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt, Producers
- “The Tree of Life” Nominees to be determined
- “War Horse“ Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers
When I sat down to cover this event of events I suddenly found myself transported back in time to 1970. I am me as I am now, today, not the me I was then because I wasn’t born until March 9th and since the awards took place on February 27th, well you get the picture. Frank Sinatra is on stage being Frank, old Blue Eyes as he is known, and he’s just announced Carry Grant. The audience has been waiting in that anticipatory low tone humming a bunch of strangers make sitting elbow to elbow in the dark, and they immediately come to life in unanimous applause as Carry appears stage right (house left from our vantage point). The camera cuts back to the theater as one by one people pop to their feet, the collective sound so much like the ocean or maybe a thousand thousand shards of confetti raining down on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Then I’m here, now, but it’s the future, February 26th, at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California and Ryan Gosling is where Carry had been only a moment ago, crossing the stage in a smart tuxedo; traditional cut, bow tie, impeccable. He stops with that boyish grin, charmer, then composure where you stand at these shows, and serious now, eyes tracking to the teleprompter for the speech I have written.
Some films are required viewing for their technical brilliance and cinematic accomplishments, others capture the light just right and the beautiful imagery creates a world for our imagination where captivating characters embark on journeys of adventure, love, and triumph. Some films take us to far away places; serve primary and secondary escape shuttles coming away from the failing mother ships of our lives. Every now and again films give us pause, reward our daring, and enliven otherwise ordinary to bolster the human spirit against shared tragedy and personal understanding. Sometimes those films are the same thing, or in place of grand landscapes they turn inward where they speak to the heart and all films truly live. The Help is a challenging film that relies on the strength of commanding performances to elevate dramatic explorations of our dark, not-to-distant past. Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard and Octavia Spencer are magnetic and clearly show great fortitude and poise. Director Tate Taylor knows some of the cast from his earlier film (Pretty Ugly People) and was wise to enlist their talents here. This is a return to fundamental filmmaking, to the power and grandeur of true character work that can be traced to the best films of any era, and with such striking honesty and heroic portrayals of everyday people we can’t help but embrace them, grow a little in our hearts and minds when the fine line between art and life is blurred for a little while. You might not escape the troubles of your here and now in this film, your everyday, but through this film you have an opportunity for inward journeys where greater things happen all the time and we hope one day to have taken similar steps on our own.
An incredible accomplishment that is everything it appears to be and quite honestly has as much to do with what we see on the screen as it does with what made it all possible. The advertising campaign for War Horse was staggering and for all intent and purposes dwarfed the entire production budget for other films that were nominated. But after all the commercials and ads have faded from view, all the critics have been silenced and you sit down where ever that might be to experience this film, you feel as though you’re invited into a world where all things are possible and a film about the life a horse named Joey is not only possible but necessary. Once you embrace the fact that the protagonist is a four-legged war-horse the adventure of a lifetime ensues and before long you can’t help but root for him to make it home again. The fact that Spielberg is able to accomplish so much through a myriad of technical, computer, puppetry and live action scene work with horses, people and more horses is reason enough to praise this movie even against your concerns it might not work. Some have pointed out familiar problems found in the grand sense of the Spielberg universe – the heavy melodrama even though melodrama is not the heinous thing many critics slap it about with, the grand OK’ness that Spielberg requires perhaps to offset the abject atrocity he is so versed and well commands – yet all in all War Horse is the perfect metaphor of where we are in the world today. A collective pessimism weighs heavy on films that set out to lift our spirits and we are so ready to resist the very idea of triumph that we get in the way of our own happiness of it. War Horse is every bit the Spielberg film you would expect and perhaps much much more – the sort of big screen larger than life experience you’ve grown up with and truly need more than you know. Read my full review of War Horse here.
There is little doubt this film will resonant with a broad spectrum of movie goers – from star George Clooney to the lush and fertile landscape beauty of Hawaii. Filmmaker du jour Alexander Payne hopes to capitalize on his universally appealing brand of verisimilitude as much as Judd Apatow sells toilet bowl humor or Adam Sandler gives falling down stupid a sort of brand name marketability. Payne is already a master storyteller with bankable Americana contributions and a sort of name-clout-recognition that has taken his peers much longer to achieve. Payne returns to the family centered plot as in his Oscar-winning film Sideways, with the machinations of the dysfunctional ensemble and their struggles to, but never quite achieving, normal. The Descendants contains the same dark undercurrent here, a husband facing his crumbling family after his wife suffers an accident. We all want Clooney in this role as much as he makes the broken father endearing, attractive in that flawed boy-man personae he has built a Hollywood career on. Sometimes we feel compelled to dislike films like this for their honesty, the mirror held too long so that we’ve seen too much of ourselves and our problems. In this case Clooney invites us beyond what repels us and this gives his bumbling father figure Ralph more depth and complexity, more genuineness than Jack the spy (my review of The American 2010) or Ryan Bingham the perpetual traveler (my review of Up In The Air 2009) – here it feels as though Clooney and Payne had a conversation beforehand to talk about all the things he’s done before this, the successes and the failures, and they agreed to leave all that out.
It takes moments to understand why this film was chosen and perhaps less to appreciate it from the outset. Though we think we have this one figured out, director Michel Hazanavicius embarks on a challenging undertaking in capturing the simple beauty of an era in transition – that is the chasm that threatened an entire industry when silent pictures gave way to what came to be known as “the talkies”. The Artist is a striking portrait lovingly photographed and well constructed with such austere beauty and conviction that it is impossible to know whether you will enjoy it without screening it. Some will discount the film as obvious “Oscar Bait” though to be honest, who doesn’t want the film they’ve nurtured for years to win, to make it the best it can be with the hope it will reach us so very far removed from the golden dreams and platinum halos of Hollywood? Anyone who has ever held a camera or hit their mark, waited for the light to fall just right to capture a moment in all the moments of a movie – we can tell you that even as we dream of success we’re still fighting for every frame that it happens, that tiny spark, the magic that happens along the way. If only people knew how hard a thing it is to reach this stage – even the hint of glory seems impossible. The Artist will not be a film everyone will like but it will nevertheless be a film everyone should see.
They tell you in film school to keep it simple and make it make sense – and at no better place is that rule most important than in the title. If you think you know what this film is about you’re probably wrong, just like if you think you haven’t got a clue you might surprise yourself. We will most likely return to the events of 9/11 much the way we do our wars, every so many years after the wounds have scabbed over, after our anger allows us to explore the hurtful things of our collective experiences through the cinema where all things can be made to bear some semblance of ourselves. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock are the stars fueling this tale of modern loss and the existential quandary of personal hurt contrasting our collective sorrows and how we get from the beginning and end of our lives. Like The Help this too is a challenging film that touches a very open wound known around the world, a place that might not ever heal as we search for who we are and where we are like the answers found in movies. This is a powerful story and one that feels awfully convenient come awards time but nonetheless a film that demands our attention even if for only two hours.
Scorsese and 3D. It was inevitable, destined, and perhaps this film is not about an aging filmmaker desperately searching for relevancy in a medium that’s speeding a thousand miles faster than when he started. Hugo has all the ingredients for blockbuster accomplishments, the story of children who take action because adults have lost their way, a magical place where our youth steal away to save their world and ours because they can’t wait any longer for us to do it. It is difficult for a filmmaker like Scorsese to depart from the darker recesses of broken characters and damaged worlds, to put edges he’s honed for decades on children’s stories from the man who carved an imperfect De Niro from granite rock into a Raging Bull, made Harvey Keitel once and proud friend who would betray the King of the Jews for Last Temptation of Christ, then dug down deep in the mire of human obsession for Bickel the Taxi Driver, Goodfellas the princes of cool and calculated murders. In an era of the half-blood prince, the lion, the witch and wardrobe, in grand the spectacle of children embarking on no children’s journey you or I have ever known, Scorsese knows that in order to raise the bar back to the place where he set it for all the right moves in character studies and story driven adventures, he’d have to bring technology front and center. Grand for the sake of grand and now for the test of time.
A film that thinks too much to be entirely forthright, makes clever for the sake of gimmickry then talks too much to have something to say. By the time you’ve committed yourself you realize you’ve gone beyond the point of no return – the point in a journey where it is further to turn around then continue on – and in the end you realize you’ve been told how to feel about most Woody Allen movies until now when you have every reason to disbelieve. I still believe Allen’s best films are those he is not in – there, I said it – oh the cad! As far as romantic comedies are concerned, the stuffy aristocrats of pompous wind and heady opinions, you’ll find plenty. As far as humorous situational absurdity coupled with the improbable, there is all that. I suppose the best advice is to dig right in but then again, you have to pay for what you eat and by the time you realize you don’t have enough money to pay for what’s missing, you begin manufacturing all sorts of things to cover it up so you might at least have a fond memory later.
If you live in the Bay Area it is like having the kid from down the street playing in the Super Bowl or driving the #1 car at the Indianapolis Speedway. If you live anywhere else it might feel like a hometown movie or just another baseball movie, but Brad Pitt delivers a distinctly other performance here that will resonant for some and seem dialed well below necessary. Jonah Hill was singled out for his performance in this film and it will really be up to you if it’s deserving. Personally a film about baseball has only two possible outcomes – the team wins or the team loses. In this case it’s obvious going in for anyone who watches the sport, being this is a historical snapshot of a moment in time, and for those who can read sports movies from the cheap seats. The performances are effective, compelling at times, but selecting this film against all the other films that should have been picked is mostly just showing us the power and the effect of big names to make little movies matter.
Terrence Malick is an enigma and much like the man his films rely entirely on the beauty of the universe and the sanguine moviegoer who wishes for more but is settled by less. To suggest it would make sense to analyze a film that purports to defy structure, to scratch the screen for meaning in the meaningless would offer than the sum of the results. If you like Malick or want to like him you’ll find enough in this film to carry you a decade until he makes another. If you’re looking for a reason to like him or his films or want to like him, this film might not have the desired effect. Maybe Sean Penn was right.
By the end of all the speechifying I realize I’m at the end of a very long Word document. The cursor is popping on off and it dawns on me that I don’t ever really think about it blinking. On|off, on|off.
Go ahead I think between blinks. You have all the other nominations to write a speech for. Who did you have in mind to deliver?
To be continued.
Check out Rodney’s coverage over at Fernby Films: http://www.fernbyfilms.com/2012/01/25/the-84th-academy-awards-nominations/