(I wanted to title this post “At Midnight in Paris, Hugo rides War Horse Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close past The Tree of Life to meet The Artist, The Descendants, and The Help for a game of Moneyball” but it wouldn’t have fit in a tweet.)
A tradition my friend @nagle has is to watch all the films nominated for Best Picture prior to the Oscar telecast. This year, I joined in. As I watched each film, I posted a review on Letterboxd, a gorgeous website to share ratings and reviews of movies and to track films you want to see. The site is still in beta, but try to get an invite if you can (I may have one for you).
Here are my reviews of the nine nominated films ranked from what I thought was the worst to what I thought was the best.
9. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close:
A mother and son with a fractured relationship learn how to connect after the untimely death of the father. This could be the makings of a decent film.
But add in some 9/11 exploitation and a kid who is extremely loud and incredibly annoying, and you have this film. Without last year being the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (I wonder how this film fared with people who regularly watch Fox News), this film would not be nominated—and that it was nominated over 50/50 and Drive is absurd.
The whole film is irritating (why didn’t Max von Sydow’s character use both sides of the paper to write notes and thus use half as many notebooks?) and exploitative—which is sad given that at the film’s core is something that could have blossomed into a decent—and perhaps nomination-worthy—film.
A nicely made film about America’s pasttime—baseball—and not America’s pasttime—math—with excellent performances from Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. Nicely made, but ultimately boring.
7. The Artist:
Hugo, a love letter to cinema, is art for a purpose. The Artist, also a love letter to cinema, is art for a gimmick. Everything in this film is a gimmick. The silence. The performances. The aspect ratio. The flecks on the film. The dog. And, of course, the music. Ludovic Bource will win the Oscar for Best Original Score. While it isn’t the best score of the year, it’s good and is surely is the most important to its film. But that doesn’t make it any less gimmicky—just like George Valentin’s used-car-salesman smile didn’t make him any less gimmicky.
6. The Tree of Life:
My eyes said, “Wow. This film is beautiful.” My brain said, “Wow. I have no idea what the hell is going on.”
The film is confusing, slow, and jarring, but it looks amazing. During some parts of the film, I wasn’t sure if I was still watching this film or if my television somehow switched over to Planet Earth.
Dazzling visuals aside, for a large portion of the film, I was either indifferent (is this film done meandering yet?) or lost (did Sean Penn wake up one morning questioning his existence or did he stumble around for years with a stupefied look on his face?).
Perhaps someone can explain to me the meaning and significance of the film. Or maybe I should just go watch Planet Earth.
There’s much to marvel at in this film: the visuals, the tasteful 3D, the childlike wonder and curiosity, Howard Shore’s score, and Martin Scorsese showing us he can excel outside his comfort zone (one thing that had me wondering the entire film, though: why did everyone in Paris have British accents?).
Even if you aren’t a fan of 3D (I’m not), see this in 3D in a theater. Scorcese shows how 3D can be a treat. And that’s something else to marvel at: a film celebrating cinema’s past is embracing its future.
4. The Help:
If you’re looking for a stirring historical drama that effectively addresses the civil rights struggle, keep looking. If, though, you’re looking for an inspiring story of bravery and righteousness in the face of an unsettling and despairing society and a film that is believable and extremely well acted, look no further. The characters and performances are both convincing and likable—especially those of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Give these two ladies an Oscar!
3. Midnight in Paris:
I think this movie was made for me. Love letter to Paris? Check. Romantic comedy? Check. Charming story with a clever hook? Check. Enchanting female love interest? Check. Another reason to dislike Rachel McAdams? Check.
The film’s opening is a moving postcard of Paris highlighting the magic of the city. And after I spent over a week there a few years back, I learned Paris is indeed a magical place. Even in the rain.
2. War Horse:
A touching story of friendship, loss, and perseverance beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski and magnificently scored by John Williams. This is Spielberg’s best dramatic film since Saving Private Ryan and John Williams’s best dramatic score since Schindler’s List.
Part of what makes the film so successful is the film, like the horse it follows, never takes sides. There aren’t good guys and bad guys. Just people. People who pass in and out of Joey’s life. People who all speak English: the British, the French, and the Germans. I would normally complain that the French and the Germans should be speaking in their native tongues with superimposed subtitles, but not in this film. Joey doesn’t hear tongues; to him, everyone speaks the same language, and that’s what the film presents.
Part of what makes Spielberg so successful is his ability to effortlessly move from depicting the horrors of something to depicting the beauty of something. In the no-man’s-land scene, the film juxtaposes the frightfulness of war with the triumph of camaraderie.
And the Spielberg magic continues through the end of the film with a closing movingly supported by Kaminski and Williams. This Spielberg ending is amongst his best.
1. The Descendants:
The parody poster for this film was titled “George Clooney Is Good At Acting”.
Yes, yes he is. I have no idea if acting is hard, and I certainly have no idea if acting in this kind of role is hard. But George Clooney makes it look so easy. Easy in that he makes his performance look so real—that he becomes the character and not just George Clooney, and that we, the audience, embrace him in this role, we sympathize with him, and we are fully with him on his journey.
Even if we haven’t been through a similar ordeal and thus able to relate with his character and his performance in that way, we can still relate in our own ways and admire the pain, the joy, and the life he goes through.
His life—and our lives—are part funny, part painful, part crazy, and wholly unpredictable—but the love of family and friends will bring us together in the end.
And that’s how we all can relate.
Of the nine films nominated, I thought The Descendants was the best. But there was one film that I enjoyed more than any of these nine:
Don’t let the multitude of laughs throughout the first act of this film confuse you into thinking this is a comedy. This is not a comedy. This is a story of acceptance. This is a story of friendship. And of family. And of love. This film is heartbreaking at the same time it’s heartwarming. And if you’re like me, the film will make you wonder how your life and the people in it would play out if you were in a similar situation.
Watching and reviewing these films has been a fun journey, and I look forward to doing it again next year.
In honor of the Oscars today, I leave you with this: John Williams’s 2002 musical tribute to the Oscars. Enjoy.