Friday, January 11, 2013

Oscar's Choices, And Capsule Reviews, for 2012

Yeah.. I'm still here.  Deal with it!

It's time to chime in with my thoughts on this year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture.  In the bargain, I offer  you capsule impressions of those films I have seen, want to see, or refuse to see....

The cinematic sleeping pill that is "Lincoln" earned the most Oscar nominations--12. Incredibly, the one category to which the film undoubtedly owes most of its success, Hair and Makeup, was not one of its nominated categories!   I believe "Lincoln"'s acclaim is a case of voters feeling self-righteous about the subject matter, and not the film that was on the screen. Its cinematography was one of its weakest elements--the film is a visual bore, and a slog-- but, hey, gotta get Kaminski in there.   Ditto Michael Kahn:  there was nothing inspiring or exceptional about the editing. Tony Kushner has all but won in this category.    It is a subtle screenplay, but not a cinematic one--I fear it is best suited as a radio play.    Spielberg, never known for his subtlety, seemed flummoxed by Kushner's grand speeches and plodding exposition.    Of course we do get some of Spielberg's "touches" : for example, there's one shot of Day-Lewis at the end, walking to his doom, with a halo---I am afraid--over his head.    (Interesting that Spielberg got snubbed by BAFTA.)    Tommy Lee Jones should memorize his acceptance speech soon.

Although it is not among the favorites of on-line Oscar-Geeks (it is barely discussed by neophyte Oscar pundits), I think "Life of Pi" could be a tough competitor.   Its only drawback to winning the top prize may be that it garnered no acting nominations. But it took an impressive second place in the total nods with 11 nominations!    And all of them richly deserved, I might add.    This is what cinematic imagination, and emerging technology, is all about: to visualize a work that many said would be impossible to translate to the screen.  It's a film that plucks at our thoughts and feelings about death, truth, and nature,  ones that we often want to avoid, and does so in the guise of a magnificent animal.  Should be a lock for Visual Effects, and Original Score, too... I think it has a great shot in many technical categories, and I will cheer for all of its wins.

Those same Oscar-geeks that are left floundering in the spiritual tsunami that is "Life of Pi" are drooling over "Django Unchained"...and I was dismayed at its inclusion in the Best Pic list.. Ok Ok, I have not seen it, it's true; but I get nauseous just reading the synopses, so I don't care how "pretty" Richardsons' camerawork might be.    Some viewers will be thoroughly entertained--even get some laughs!--from watching helpless slaves get tortured, or fight to the death, or get attacked by savage dogs.  They may snicker at QT's precocious-schoolboy cleverness.  Not me...Nothing I have read yet suggests that the violence or "satire" is in service to anything above the level of adolescent revenge fantasy.  When blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns were in vogue, they were (accurately) regarded as third-rate entertainment.   And I'm not flattered by the many filmic allusions QT purports to use,  stuck inside the film like rancid raisins in a stale pastry.  Thank goodness Leonardo DiCaprio was "snubbed" again.. Why, oh why, can't he pick roles that suit his easygoing, romantic-comedy-lead persona?? He must love playing dress-up in his grandfather's old clothes. As for Tarantino's inclusion yet again into the Best Picture and Screenplay slots, he must have a built-in Academy bloc of young hipsters who don't know that their idol-emperor HAS no clothes...

"Amour" intrigues me...It starts in Chicago this weekend. I liked Haneke's "The White Ribbon", and have liked all of the performers' other films.   (Especially Jean-Louis Trintingnant, so doggedly handsome as the relentless investigator in 1969's "Z").  Since the film is about the ravages of old age, it will be terribly relevant to me, and to all of my friends and peers who, over the past year, have had to deal with the nightmarish caregiving needs of horribly declining parents.   I remember Emmanuelle Riva from "Hiroshima Mon Amour" decades ago. At 86 she is the oldest Best Actress nominee (hmmm...older than Jessica Tandy, I guess...). Her birthday is Feb 24, the day of the upcoming Oscar ceremony. As the oldest, she is competing with Oscar's youngest Best Actress nominee ever..."Q"  (Quvenzhane) Wallace!
Which brings me to my favorite moments of the nomination announcement ceremony: The mention of "Beasts of the Southern Wild", which is my vote for the most interesting and affecting piece of cinema of the year (along with "Pi").  I cheered when it was cited in the Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actress categories.  Director Benh Zeitlin used his limited resources to craft an imaginative, child's-eye-view of life in an impoverished, pre-Katrina New Orleans swamp community.  Its seamless blend of grit and magic held me spellbound throughout its running time.  It's presence among the other highly-financed nominees is something like Hushpuppy herself, the film's scrappy young heroine.  You can't help but root for both the movie and her character.  Hushpuppy's travel to a mythical island in search of her long-lost mother was the most emotional scene in any movie I saw this year.  I don't know if it has a shot to win, but it could grow in favor among voters who were not 100% enthusiastic about "Lincoln" or "Silver Linings Playbook".   For me, "Beasts" took this year's "Tree of Life" slot..... 
"Silver Linings Playbook" becomes the first film since "Reds" (1981) to receive a nomination in all 4 acting categories...All of them strong contenders.  I think Cooper can unseat Lewis (if Jackman doesn't do it instead).   Wow...this is DeNiro's first nomination in 21 years????   (Must have been "Cape Fear"?)  It's good to see DeNiro use his still formidable talent for menace and humor in a role of real depth.  To the movie's credit, it is one of the few good films this year that takes place in a recognizable, middle-class American here-and-now, with identifiable human characters coping with modern foibles and culture.  It's a nice film, sensitive in the way '70's movies routinely were, warm-hearted, even a little preposterous in the second half (where it mashes-up football and Dancing With the Stars to appeal to the broadest possible denominator)... But the strength of the performers carries it through. I can't think of a more attractive couple in a movie this year than Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.  I especially loved their playfully steamy scene in a diner, which erupts with intense anger and pain.  This could have had a real shot for Best Picture, but precedent is not kind to films that do not get both a Director's Guild nomination AND an Oscar Nomination for Best Director.
(In that respect, precedent suggests that the only contenders would be "Lincoln" and "Life of Pi".)
The movie version of the beloved musical "Les Miserables" has been the most confusingly maligned film of the year.  (I never saw the stage version). Is it because purist-lovers of the stage production object to the intimacy of the film?  Or is it an old "King's Speech" grudge?  Tom Hooper was unfairly eliminated, I think, from the directing competition. There's a tiresome bandwagon of those who opposed the coverage of the musical numbers in closeup.  I, on the contrary, felt it was smashingly effective in drawing the viewer into levels of emotional meaning that might be lost from the fixed perspective of live theater.  Who could have managed better with the material at hand?  For those who just hate the show and feel the source material is manipulative, there's no arguing the point.  (I didn't feel that way.)   Although I didn't buy in to the religiosity of it, that should not be held against it; there's a humanist streak that I embraced.  I loved the film of "Les Miserables"; it had the grand sweep of classic movie musicals, and while I watched it, I felt those same satisfactions unique to those classics.   And the performers, especially the extremely watchable Hugh Jackman, were uniformly excellent.  Even the much-criticized Russell Crowe, although not an operatic singer, to me appropriately embodied a character whose spirit is, shall we say, less melodic.  The scope and sweep reminded me especially of "Oliver" (a peculiarly French version!).   I enjoyed this better...unlike "Oliver",  I had a catharsis without feeling brutalized.  The Academy seems to be split on the merits of this big, emotional musical, and without Hooper in the running, it stands slim chance of winning Best Picture. But Anne Hathaway should memorize her acceptance speech soon.
"Argo" is a crowd-pleaser, a surprising history lesson, and a terrific film. It deserved every nomination it earned, and I lament Ben Affleck's shutout in the Director's category.   To me it was one of the most exciting yarns at the movies this year.  Movie-lovers and aspiring filmmakers should find this especially appealing, as we are immersed in the unlikely (but true) story of a fake film crew endeavoring to save a small group of frightened but resourceful detainees.  For those who recalled the dark period of history when Iran held Americans hostage, the revelation of long-classified facts was enlightening, and expertly woven into a satisfying piece of film entertainment.  To those who were not alive then, and have no knowledge of the hostage crisis, the film supplies the requisite exposition, in a brisk manner, to bring viewers up to speed.  Some of the darker aspects of this story were glossed over or ignored, or punched up with humor and altered for the sake of drama, but there's truth at its core and is appropriately inspiring. 
I would have selected "Argo" as a dark-horse winner. But it is sure to be overshadowed by "Zero Dark Thirty", whose prospects for the top prize have dimmed with the elimination of Katherine Bigelow from the Director's slate.  (I wonder if she and Affleck cancelled each other out among voters who split their allegiances between two similarly political stories?) I am on the fence about seeing this film.. It seems like a re-hash of "Hurt Locker", with torture and a female lead (although I love Chastain in everything...).  It would have to be a terrific film indeed to earn the right to depict the horrific details I've read about...although I STILL wonder if a film depicting the torture of AMERICAN prisoners to expose AMERICAN secrets would be as well-received.  In the end, I guess I will be more inclined to go to see this than "Django".
Oh--and Adele should clear a space on her Award Shelf, for "Skyfall", to add along side her Grammys....
A few other thoughts:
"Skyfall" was not only one of the greatest Bond films was one of the best movies of the year.  Oscar may NEVER recognize Bond as "weighty" enough for its highest accolade...Which is why the British Academy Awards are seeming more relevant by the hour.
"The Master" was the biggest disappointment of the year.  The only proper critical response should be to paraphrase a line used in the film: Paul Thomas Anderson "made it up as he went along".  While proponents of this film are praising it for its "exciting ambiguity", to this viewer it gave a feeling of being stranded in bad Improv.  Anderson had no idea what to do with his intriguing seed of an idea.  The result was uncomfortable in the least aesthetic way possible.  What a waste of actual celluloid film.  Point the camera, get your actors to scream and cry and be "quirky"...  and defy the "cinephiles" to declare you a great artist.  Best to pay heed to Anderson's initials, P.T (as in Barnum): "There's a sucker born every minute."
Good riddance (no nominations to): "The Dark Knight Rises"; "Cloud Atlas";  "The Paperboy"
Mourning: No nominations to "The Best Exotic Margold Hotel".