Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mini-Reviews of the 2011 Best Picture Nominees

Every year I like to go back and write mini reviews of the Best Picture candidates as we near Oscar night. I have had time now to either see them more than once, or I have had time to let them gestate and my opinion solidify. For the most part, save for a few minor adjustments along the way, my initial reaction and grade (my THEN grade) matches what I feel about the film today (NOW).

The Artist – It’s almost hard to imagine that, in a digital age of green screens, blockbusters, and shrinking audience attention spans, here is a silent film that might win 2011. The Artist is a charming, elegant throwback picture that I enjoyed maybe a little more the first time around. Don’t get me wrong, the performances from Jean Dujardin as the reluctant silent film star George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller, the talkie sensation passing him by, are marvelous. And the film is still great entertainment with noticeable heart and energy. Though it could have been trimmed in the middle a bit. Director Michel Hazanavicius has tapped into nostalgia better than any other director, even two masterminds who find their nostalgic pictures on this nominee list as well. Even if you have an aversion for silent cinema, you deserve to give this one a chance. THEN: A / NOW: A-

The Descendants – This is a film I still don’t understand. Director Alexander Payne has always been a wonderful, insightful writer, and his ability to cut into the emotions of men on the verge of a breakdown has always been his forte. He doesn’t steer from that formula with The Descendants. George Clooney plays Matt King, heir to an empire in Hawaii trying to make land deals while managing his troubled kids and dying wife. The recipe seems tailor-made for Payne, and I suppose since we are talking about the film here it worked out well. But I never engaged with the story the way I did with any of Payne’s other work. The humor didn’t resonate for me, and I felt like the narrative ran out of steam significantly near the end of the second act. It was a fine movie, but not deserving of these accolades in my opinion. THEN: B- / NOW: B-

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – This disastrous picture is confounding in its ineptness. I hated this film from the top down. A borderline autistic boy loses his father in 9/11 and begins searching for the lock to a mysterious key he found after his death. This sends him on a citywide exploration, where he talks his way into people’s homes and, eventually, takes with him an elderly man staying in his grandmother’s spare bedroom on these adventures. The old man is a mute, played by Max von Sydow. If you take the time to wrap your head around the preposterous plot and faulty logic, then consider the hatefulness of the characters. The boy is rude and curt, the mother (Sandra Bullock) is vacant and mainly exists for the son to be mean to her. And on top of it all, director Stephen Daldry shamelessly uses 9/11 to manipulate the audience into false tears. What a ridiculous nomination this is… THEN: F / NOW: F

The Help – Filling out this year’s feel-good nomination for Best Picture is a crowd-pleasing drama from a crowd-pleasing book about race relations in the 60s South. The Help is loaded with wonderful female performances, from Emma Stone as the lead, to Bryce Dallas Howard as the evil socialite, to Jessica Chastain as the naïve Southern Belle, to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (both nominated) as the black maids struggling against racism. The film itself plays it a little safe for my tastes, opting to mask the darker aspects of the racism in order to keep things close enough to the surface to appeal to a wide audience. I cannot totally fault The Help for avoiding darker themes because it set out to fill up the theaters. It is harmless overall, but maybe it should have been a bit more harmful when all is said and done. THEN: B+ / NOW: B

Hugo – Upon hearing that Martin Scorsese was going to direct a children’s film, I was immediately filled with a great curiosity. This was going to be no regular kid’s flick. After seeing Hugo, I realized that Martin Scorsese had directed something so very unique and magical it may be too important to categorize as your typical toddler fare. Hugo is not a kid’s movie in the traditional sense; it is a love letter to the birthplace of films and filmmaking. On one level, it is about a young boy (Asa Butterfield) without a family living in a Paris train station. On another level, Hugo serves as a reminder of where film was born. The first half is a personal metaphor for Scorsese as a young child while the second half is a carefully crafted look at what Scorsese loves more than anything in the world. It is a beautiful picture in every sense of the word. THEN: A- / NOW: A

Midnight in Paris – The third film to dabble in nostalgia is Woody Allen’s finest film in twenty years. He did have Match Point a few years ago, but Midnight in Paris is, fittingly, vintage Woody. It is a quick-witted comedy with one of his best doppelgangers of all time in Owen Wilson. Wilson plays an anxious writer who is whisked away to Paris in the 20s, where he finds great joy in rubbing elbows with literary giants like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Midnight in Paris is a look at how we all feel, that there was another place in time where we belong outside of the present. And it also says that perhaps we shouldn’t feel this way. But rather than take a bleak approach, Allen takes on these themes with his standard high-toned comedy. I was overwhelmed by Midnight in Paris at first, and I still find it to be an excellent picture even though it may not be as overwhelming. THEN: A+ / NOW: A

Moneyball – This movie wasn’t supposed to work on the screen. An adaptation from a book about number crunching in baseball should not translate into any sort of compelling drama for a feature film. But the people involved in the production of Moneyball defied convention and created one of the better sports movies in a long, long time. Credit director Bennet Miller for putting all the pieces in place to deliver a compelling drama. Brad Pitt delivers one of his finest performances as Billy Beane, the troubled, driven, enigmatic general manager of the low-income Oakland Athletics, and Jonah Hill shows range nobody could have predicted as Beane’s right-hand man, Peter Brand. Both deserved their Oscar nominations, and for my money Pitt should win the statue. It’s a shame there wasn’t room for Miller in the Best Director category. THEN: B+ / NOW: A

The Tree of Life – The most shapeless and awe-inspiring film on the list could not be denied by the Academy, despite their penchant for overlooking daring films without borders. Terrence Malick’s passionate look at life, on all levels from the creation of the universe to the end of the human mind, is a rousing and emotional journey through what makes us who we are. Though it may have a tough time with its bookend narrative starring Sean Penn as a lost adult, the heart of the picture is one of the finest examinations of family life ever put on film. Upon my initial viewing I couldn’t give The Tree of Life a rating because nothing seemed right. But having seen it again, and despite the ambiguity of the Penn performance, there is no denying the fact that Malick has eschewed convention to show us just what a film can be deep down in our minds and hearts. THEN: NA / NOW: A

War Horse – And now for the one film on this entire list that didn’t move the needle one way or another for me. I am firmly in the middle on this film, one of the blandest of all Spielberg pictures. Based on a London play, War Horse tells the milquetoast story about a young boy and his horse, who is drafted into World War I and goes on an improbable journey back to the boy. The battle scenes are occasionally stirring, but there is never much emotional attachment. The cinematography from Janusz Kaminski has a clear goal, to harken back to the John Ford epics of yesteryear. But it doesn’t help the forward momentum of the film, which never resonates the way the score tried to make it resonate. I don’t see a reason for this picture being here, but hey, it’s not the worst one on this list. I’m looking at you, Daldry. THEN: C+ / NOW: C

9. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
8. War Horse
7. The Descendants
6. The Help
5. The Artist
4. Moneyball
3. Hugo
2. Midnight in Paris
1. The Tree of Life