Brief thoughts on the nine Best Picture nominees

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 24th February, 2013

I haven’t written an article officially predicting the Oscars for eight years, and judging by the old-before-my-time shortness with which I last approached that task, the break might be for the best. With so many random and unsolicited Oscar predictions around now, that makes the proposition a considerably less interesting one than it was even then.

So I’m going to do something outrageous and just talk about what I think of the nine Best Picture-nominated films as films, in more or less the order they inspire my respect or interest.


1.    Django Unchained

I love the little details – the sounds of teeth scraping across forks, the slo-mo blood splatters on white flowers and white horses, the fact that (spoiler!) James Remar plays both the first character killed by Christoph Waltz and the character who kills him. I also love the overarching bombast of Quentin Tarantino’s pantomime of American slavery – the evil, the rage and the scenes of unbearable tension in a film that’s fundamentally still a comic spaghetti-western pastiche. Tarantino didn’t just make the more fun, more unique, more unrestrained of last year’s slavery blockbusters, he made a tighter revenge bloothbath than Kill Bill and an angrier, funnier, most focused alternative-history fantasy than Inglourious Basterds. Ever since his six-year hiatus after Jackie Brown, Tarantino has jettisoned his caffeinated early style and gone for something more stoned, but the looseness of his latter-day off-kilter rhythm and languorous trails of speech has never been so consistently catchy or emotive as in Django Unchained.

It won’t win the top Oscar, and several of its best performances weren’t nominated – Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson’s villains were among their very best work, while Waltz is nominated as Supporting Actor for the film’s joint-lead performance. But seeing a film as irreverent as Django Unchained on the Academy’s list validates their decision to increase the number of Best Picture nominees. Without the expanded field, Django would be an also-ran, and the Oscars would be that much more boring and out of touch for its exclusion.
 

2.    Amour 

It takes a lot to get a non-English-language film nominated for Best Picture, and the French-language Amour from Austrian auteur Michael Haneke earned its stripes by making audiences weep, or at least stare at the floor depressed, at a succession of the world’s major film festivals. With raw, honest performances from Emanuelle Riva as the woman dying of stroke complications and vascular dementia, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as her carer husband, Amour captures palpably so many little details of a bleak medical situation that I didn’t know how to approach it on an evaluative level. Often it reminded me of the Pope’s comment on Passion of the Christ: “It is as it was.” A decision that Trintignant’s character makes near the end of the film made me wonder if he was committing an act of love, or if Haneke was questioning the relevance and stamina of love in the face of mortality’s lack of remittance. It’s hard to know if Amour is a humanitarian document or Haneke displaying his ugliest trait, a contemptuous sense of morally needling the audience. But in terms of pure filmmaking skill, the calculated restraint and harrowing power of Amour is self-evident, and it deserves to be singled out as the least artificial out of this, or most any, list of films.
 

3.    Beasts of Southern Wild 

I’m fully aware of the flaws of Beasts – some cloying camerawork, some clumsy editing, rich kids making films about poor people and all the rest of it. But it’s a powerful magical-realist fairytale for the age of global warming, and in Quvenzhané Wallis’s Hushpuppy it has a show-stopping folkloric hero. The film’s reputation has had so many ups and downs since Sundance 2012 – the same pattern of euphoria then vicious backlash in every market it opened, and equally bumpy fortunes from awards prognosticators – that I wonder, perhaps, if it’s poised for a surprise Oscar win as its final uplifting against-the-odds surprise. As it has been ineligible for many of the precursor awards, we have no way of knowing until the Oscarcast. My review of the movie is here.


 

4.    Life of Pi 

Life of Pi so effortlessly achieves so much that it’s an easy film to take for granted. Ang Lee and David Magee adapted what was called an unfilmable book. Their film was a broad visual spectacle with a clever, blindsiding take on religious faith. It created the most convincing CGI animals yet seen in cinema, and confidently, grandly, at times playfully, took a preternatural grasp of digital and 3D aesthetics. In my review of the film I said “I felt I’d lived inside it and was better off for the time I spent there,” which I think is the kind of feeling that will give the film a long shelf life as bank-holiday TV viewing with or without Academy endorsement. Effects company Rhythm & Hues will almost certainly claim an Oscar for their work on Pi, and that will be a bittersweet victory – they’ve just filed for bankruptcy and are currently being propped up by an emergency $20m investment from three separate studios.
 

5.    Lincoln 

If Django Unchained was appropriately unrestrained, Lincoln is deliberately and obviously restrained to the extent it might as well be called Spielberg. Ostensibly about America’s most revered president trying to pass the 18th Amendment, the most attention-seeking subject in the movie is its director’s self-conscious decision to underplay drama and avoid grand payoffs. Rather than making Lincoln serious or realistic, though, the hazy airlessness of its visuals and clunking shapelessness of its drama show off a catastrophic directorial hand as clearly as the sentimental soupiness of War Horse. The film has its fans, though I find it interesting that Armond White, who has previously loved every Spielberg film out of all proportion right down to The Terminal, wasn’t particularly taken. Lincoln is an involved chamber piece of nitty-gritty politicking that’s intermittently clear and interesting, but in the main a missed opportunity, with Spielberg acting like his work is a public responsibility but not delivering any flair. Needless to say, Daniel Day-Lewis does a great job of impersonating Lincoln and is a deserved favourite to take home a third Best Actor Oscar. Spielberg himself as a winner would turn the directing award into a consolation prize, a stale coda for his career after he waited so long to get an Oscar in the first place.
 


6 & 7.    The CIA Movies – Argo and Zero Dark Thirty 

Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and The Town were ungainly pulp dramas, with vibes all the more passionate for their lack of structural polish. Kathryn Bigelow’s best films, like Point Break and Strange Days, have been slick, pulsating actioners. Somehow both directors have ended up at the Oscars for films where they have gone against their natural strengths, and not for the better. Neither of the year’s big CIA movies was perfect, and each could do with being a little more like the other.

Argo is problematic on many levels, but one of its most irritating aspects is its substitution of Hollywood Moments for interesting truth. Screenwriters and dumbass apologists will tell you that putting an 11th-hour runway chase with machine guns in your movie is necessary to make it “cinematic” and play by the rules of “drama,” instead of realising that something unique and true is better than something fictional we’ve seen a thousand times before. So in this thriller about American diplomats escaping the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis and hiding out in the Canadian embassy, we don’t see the journey from one embassy to the other, which by all accounts was one of the tensest parts of the story, but we do see a lot of manufactured against-the-clock crises and get violin moments about a CIA exfiltration expert being away from home too much and missing his kid.

Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, is just a whole lot of waiting around. Unlike the killer 1970s fetishism of Argo (that film’s most fun aspect), ZD30 has no sense of textural detail, little sense of time and no sense of time passing even though it takes place across ten years. Many details of Argo are bullshit – Affleck’s character Tony Mendez never had to forge passports, for example – but its little bullshit details are expertly staged. ZD30 has a sparse, handheld formlessness that creates the confusion of the murky world of intelligence-gathering, and that’s fine, but it’s one-note. The film is a frustrating, long-haul procedural that feels less like Zodiac or All the President’s Men than Jessica Chastain Sits by the Phone Looking Thoughtful.

There is endless debate to be had about how Argo, while not demonising Iranians, opportunistically uses Iran as a terrifying Other in service of a vehicle that’s less interested in its real-life story than goofy popcorn thrills, and how Zero Dark Thirty is morally dubious in its presentation of torture. Those are long considerations and I’m going brief. I will just stop to pine for the Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor days, when Hollywood didn’t trust The Man, never mind take CIA dictation to put its screenplays together.

Argo is the favourite to win the Oscar, and I can see why people like it – the premise of hostages being removed from a foreign land through a fake-sci-fi-film-crew-caper is nifty, even if the film does get confused about where its attention is lying and ends up bolting for the clichés like the jokey meta-climax of Adaptation. Zero Dark Thirty is the critics’ favourite, and I have no idea why people like it, except that it gives them a chance to wax lyrical about its ambiguous portrayal of America’s confused and searching morally conflicted post-9/11 psyche and blah blah blah. The fact that despite all the praise for and debate over Bigelow’s film, few can give a straight explanation of why they think it works filmically, and many describe it as an action film despite it only involving action in its final half hour, leaves me for the moment quite comfortable being indifferent.
 

8.    Les Misérables 

I should be careful what I wish for in terms of mixing the slick and the documentarylike, because that’s what Tom Hooper gives us in Les Mis, and I didn’t think it worked. I’m not a Les Mis evangelist, and I’m not one of the haters who thinks Hooper’s cantered framing reveals a sick mind. I did think it had grand moments but mostly didn’t have momentum as a film – it stops and starts, with great songs like “Look Down” and “I Dreamed a Dream” punctuated by chatty-singy moments that bang the scenes together perfunctorily, never let the story breathe and hokily undermine the gravity of the tale. The filmmaking style is an awkward cross of documentarylike and experimental while the music tries to create gusto and sweep – it kept me at arm’s length, and I felt the film’s length more than its emotions. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway are justifiably nominated for Oscars – they act with their eyes as well as diaphragms, conveying weighty sadness. Russell Crowe is wonderful in the movie, too – his singing is awkward, but so is his character. I’m glad the Academy ignored – maybe forgot about – Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, who have the most pointless, irritating excuse for a romance I’ve seen at the flicks for quite some time.
 

9.    Silver Linings Playbook

I’ve already written a put-down of Silver Linings Playbook that I’m quite happy with. In short, great climax, but I found the film a contrived grab-bag of sensitive issues, redemptive opportunities and magical thinking. From the awards-season attention it’s been getting, including being the first film to be nominated in all four acting categories since Reds was thirty-one years ago, you’d think Silver Linings was some charming, truthful, James L. Brooks-level comic drama, but it’s not messy and human enough – its characters are pawns and the whole thing feels as illogically inexorable as an anti-depressant high. From the whispers, you’d think this was the film that could come from behind and defeat Argo. I like to think it won’t. I’ll put money on it just in case.

 

All in all, while I’m not crazy about all of the Best Picture nominees, the list is worthwhile for representing a variety of constituencies. The only people who should really feel snubbed by the selections are Wes Anderson fans – Moonrise Kingdom was a good movie, and mainstream enough to be a credible nominee. Anyway, have a nice night. Argo will probably win.