After eating the last slice and musing about the Life of Pi from baking to digesting, Lincoln, noting the time was now Zero Dark Thirty, retired to his study and consulted his Silver Linings Playbook on dealing with the Beasts of the Southern Wild. “Les Misérables in the South”, he thought to himself, “went and had Django Unchained. Should I profess my Amour or tell them, ‘Argo fuck yourselves’?”
Last year, I was inspired by my friend Jon Nagle to watch each of the films nominated for Best Picture prior to the Oscar telecast. I did the same this year. And like last year, I posted a review on Letterboxd after viewing each film.
Here are my reviews of the nine nominated films ranked by my level of enjoyment of them.
9. Les Misérables:
I dreamed a dream this film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture and I wouldn’t have to watch it in the lead up to the Oscars. Alas, my dream turned into a nightmare as I sat in the darkened theater besieged by monotonous, plodding, and sometimes-difficult-to-understand lyrical talking interspersed with fleeting bursts of melody.
I imagine some producers saw Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway’s Oscar number a few years back and decided to find a big Hollywood musical to shoehorn them into. Because shoehorned they were. Tom Hooper confines most of the performances into closeups not giving the performers room to, well, perform. Perhaps this was a decision to make the depressing characters and film feel more intimate and thus more relatable, but the closeups make the characters and film feel confrontational and forced.
That this is a musical makes the film already pretty unbearable for me. Add some grating performances and highly questionable directorial decisions, and the result is a film that is, well, pretty miserable.
8. Zero Dark Thirty:
Zero (fun in a) Dark (theater for at least) Thirty (minutes too long). Even without the torture controversy, this film just isn’t that great. The film is overly long, not compelling (save for the last act during the mission), and not well acted. Jessica Chastain plays a stiff, one-note, and one-dimensional character who isn’t at all engaging.
I applaud Kathryn Bigelow for attempting this monstrous project squeezing ten years of activity into two-and-a-half hours and for not grossly and jingoistically portraying the mission, but the film just doesn’t work.
But I fault her for being manipulative (did we really need the real-life phone calls from 9/11 opening the film? We all know why we were hunting bin Laden. And to follow that up with a torture scene as to suggest, “Remember what they did? So torturing them is okay, right?”) and confusing (can she and Mark Boal call this a “journalistic” film and then claim the right to take artistic liberties regarding torture and waterboarding and their successes? Where was the debate on using torture? Where were the failures and false positives?).
I hope the controversy surrounding the film goes beyond just the film’s depiction of torture and extends to the U.S.’s use of it; we could use the discussion and revelations. But torture aside, I apparently saw a different film than everyone else.
7. Django Unchained:
This film has style, it has wit, and it has charm. It also has a sagging second act and gratuitous violence in the third that treks deep into over-the-top territory for me. With Christoph Waltz’s stellar performance, the first act, however, was a five-star film; it sadly wasn’t matched by what followed.
6. Life of Pi:
This is easily one of the most visually masterful films I have ever seen. First, there’s Richard Parker. I don’t recall one instance in the film where I could point to and say, “Oh yeah, right there. He’s obviously digital.” Of course he’s digital. But the effects are so polished I couldn’t tell. Second, the seascapes, the clouds, the shipwreck, the storm, the jellies. Everything is absolutely stunning.
The one aspect, and I guess this is pretty important to the story, I didn’t find stunning was the religious and spiritual aspect of the film. I was left confused at the end of the film—confused as to what the story was saying about religion. Do I accept the the fantastical, embellished story simply because it’s “the better story”? Or do I accept the more logical, plausible story even though it doesn’t make for a tale for the ages? When it comes to deistic matters, I subscribe to the latter, so the parallels to religion at the end of this film made me wonder if I had just seen anything of substance.
Still, I can take the film for what it is: a visually beautiful story. A story. And nothing more.
So too is this film. The film is a beautifully constructed essay authentically examining love and devotion and features equally beautiful and engaging performances. The film is both heartwarming and heartwrenching, for as beautiful as the film is, it’s also exceptionally depressing.
As the film depicts a couple’s love and devotion being fiercely challenged, the film simultaneously challenges the audience to learn something by stepping into each role in the film. Perhaps we’re Eva and have parents (or grandparents) in a similar situation and should be more attentive to their situation. Or perhaps we’re Georges caring for our love and seeking inspiration to keep going. Or perhaps we’re imagining if we were Anne. Would there be a Georges in our life to wholeheartedly care for us?
That, for me, is the mark of a truly powerful film. Not only does the film exist as art, it exists as inspiration to pause and reflect on our lives. And that is a beautiful thing.
4. Beasts of the Southern Wild:
Definitely the biggest surprise for me amongst the Best Picture nominees, this film is a powerhouse of a film and a testament to humble, imaginative filmmaking with Benh Zeitlin’s superb debut direction and Quvenzhané Wallis’s captivating debut performance.
Intentionally or not, the film presents and flirts with many themes. This multi-layered film mentions the themes so you’re aware of them but never takes a stand. There’s the abject poverty, the multi-cultural community in the south never mentioning race, said community’s libertarian-esque refusal of government meddling, governmental disaster prevention and response, and global warming. While watching the film, I expected a commentary on one or more of these themes, but none came. And I’m glad.
Why? Because the film is firmly rooted in a child’s perspective of the world—rooted in the Now—social commentary would have been out of place. This film is entirely from Hushpuppy’s perspective, and reasons for why things are or why things did or didn’t happen are only given from her point of view. We’re never given a sense of when or where exactly this film takes place, a concrete reason for her mother’s disappearance, or an explanation of her father’s illness or where he disappeared to. Those answers may matter to us or to adults in the community, but not to Hushpuppy. That they are never presented makes the film more wondrous.
So too does Dan Romer and Zeitlin’s score for the film. Infused with bayou flavors and dreamy textures, the score is every bit as enchanting as the film is, and the piece leading into and playing over the end credits is infectiously delightful.
And “infectiously delightful” aptly describes the film, too, for now we all know “once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”
A tantalizing blend of heart-pounding tension and knee-slapping hilarity delivered by a solidly effective cast and director. Ben Affleck is proving himself as a star director with each new film. If for no other reason, see this film for Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston.
Is it presumptuous of me to say this film will win a River-Queen-load of awards? From acting to directing to writing to costuming, this film, which both entertains and educates, is expertly and lovingly crafted.
Part of the expertise exhibited by Steven Spielberg is crafting a film that is remarkably restrained. Given the subject matter—the greatest American president—one might expect a grand, historical epic charting how a tall-in-stature but short-in-experience man becomes that great president and how the trials and tribulations of the events he was thrust into defined the man. Instead, we are treated to a smaller, more scope-focused, and more intimate film about how the man defined the events thrust upon him. And the film is all the better because of that focus and restraint.
Restrained, too, is John Williams’s score. Often heard are complaints his music dominates—negatively—scenes it accompanies. But in Lincoln, he, like Spielberg, gets out of the way of sorts. Large parts of the film are left unscored. And when his music is heard, it is to gently and, in many cases, elegiacally reinforce the moment on screen—until the end when the score lets loose.
That focus and restraint from Spielberg and Williams allows something else to shine through: the acting. Daniel Day-Lewis has been called the “greatest living actor” for good reason. On display in this film is proof why. From his mannerisms to his wit to the way he physically carries the character on screen, Day-Lewis is every bit as good as expected. And then some. He breathes life into a historical force we only know from photos and text in history books in a way that made me think, “Gee, I wouldn’t mind having a White House Honey Ale with this man.”
Day-Lewis’s isn’t the only great performance. Also great were Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. Her shared time with Day-Lewis and his time apart were notable and not to be overlooked. (A side note about casting. The supporting cast is a treasure trove of b- and c-list television actors. One in particular—a certain British accountant playing a certain U.S.General—entirely caught me off guard to the point I missed everything he said when he was introduced. After the initial shock wore off, I determined I wouldn’t mind seeing him in his own film.)
What I saw in this film were parallels to our time. Besides the political horse-trading and bitter divisiveness—and abject name calling!—legislation had to be passed to course-correct the legal status of a particular set of people. Almost 150 years later, the story hasn’t changed. Furthermore, both times feature a president, from Illinois, who, as he looks at the long game, is accused of being overly deliberative and not adequately leading.
These parallels give the film an almost timeless feeling. So too does the title character. While the film takes place in a time when the United States was ruled by men of whiskers, the moral fortitude of its title character is bound by no age. And as that title character, Daniel Day-Lewis gives a masterful performance—a performance that, like Lincoln, now belongs to the ages.
1. Silver Linings Playbook:
While the story may be wholly predictable, the stellar performances are far from it. Jennifer Lawrence may have been a girl on fire earlier in the year, but here, she’s ablaze. And she’s not the only one. Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver all deliver tremendous performances most definitely deserving of their Oscar nominations. The film tackles love, loss, and family strife in both a realistic and humorous way. This is a loving, engaging romantic comedy-drama starring Jennifer Lawrence and featuring a pleasant score from Danny Elfman. For me, what’s not to like.
Of the nine films nominated, I enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook the most. But if I had a vote for Best Picture, I would cast it for Lincoln. Come Oscar night, though, neither of these films will win Best Picture. Argo will.
And like last year, my favorite film of the year isn’t amongst these nine nominees:
Safety Not Guaranteed:
What a charming, quirky, heartwarming, and heartfelt movie. From the beginning I was enchanted as I watched these characters unfold and was left guessing as to what each character’s fate would be. Aubrey Plaza, in an extension of her Parks and Recreation role, is a partner any of us can hope for in whatever our mission is.
And speaking of Best Picture winners, here’s Nelson Carvajal’s mashup of past winners. Tomorrow it’ll be time to take off the nominees and cap the piece with Argo.