Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mini-Reviews: 2012 Best Picture Nominees

Amour - Very few films about aging, love, and loss are as unflinching or unforgiving as Michael Haneke's Amour.  This is a deeply sad film, one of the saddest things I have ever seen from this distance.  And it hits home with so many of us across the globe.  Emmanuelle Riva is much deserving of her Oscar nomination as Anne, a loving mother and wife and former piano teacher who suffers a health setback and physically diminishes over the remaining months of her life.  But we mustn't slight the performance from Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges, the struggling husband and father left to tend to his wife as she gradually loses hope.  This is an emotionally devastating picture, but one that seems claustrophobic at times, extended to unnecessary lengths at others.  But Amour is real and honest and tough to watch in all the right ways.  B+

Argo - Hollywood loves a true story, especially when the truth trumps anything that can be dreamed up in the fiction factory.  Argo is one of those tales, a gripping thriller about the Iranian Hostage situation in 1980, and a hair-brained plan to free six escaped Americans.  Ben Affleck, who also directed, plays tony Mendes, whose plan is to hire well-known Hollywood producers and makeup men to set up a fake science fiction film in Iran and use this disguise to smuggle the hostages to freedom.  Affleck has mastered his abilities as a director and his lack of a nomination is more of an embarrassment for the Academy than a slight to Affleck (who has been winning directing awards left and right).  Argo didn't resonate with me all the way through, the thrills didn't quite reach the heights I had hoped, but I acknowledge the power of its directing.  B

Beasts of The Southern Wild - This third entry into the nominee pool didn't connect with me either.  Quvenzhane Wallis is undoubtedly brilliant as Hushpuppy, the precocious youth on the poverty-stricken island of Bath, south of New Orleans.  There is a fascinating world on the island, where people live simply with the knowledge they could be swept away by the next hurricane at any moment.  This allows them a certain freedom most do not possess.  Hushpuppy contends with her firecracker of a father and the melting ice caps raising the seas all around her with a steadfast determination and will perhaps only an innocent child could own in her incorruptible soul.  The story is one about love and bravery but where I have a problem is in the direction from Behn Zeitlin, whos camera is much too unstable and shaky and unfocused to engage with the events.  B-

Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino is one of a kind, we all know that.  His new kick is to re-write history with his own flair and wit after the success of Inglourious Basterds in 2009.  Django Unchained is his rebuttal to the travesties of slavery, and is even more Gonzo than his Nazi rewrite.  And while it doesn't come close to the level of Tarantino's Basterds - or most of his other work if we're being honest - minor Tarantino is better than most work out there.  Certain sequences are stretched beyond reasonable lengths and QT's own cameo is a major disctraction.  Of course there is more good than bad, including all the performances from Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio who was overlooked once again for an Oscar nomination. One of these days maybe he will get what has been coming to him his entire career.  B+

Les Miserables - I don't really want to spend a lot of time on Les Miserables because, to be honest, this is a poor film that has gotten poorer with time.  I can't imagine how much I might dislike this thing five years down the road.  A remake of an adaptation of a dismal play with poor songs and very little to enjoy should not be here, and Tom Hooper films Les Miserables in the worst way imaginable.  Everything is a close up, and the lack of scope smothers everything and drowns out anything these actors are trying to do.  And as I mentioned the songs are weak at best, narrating events and falling into repitition.  Live singing or no, if the lyrics are watered down then what's the difference?  There always seems to be a film that doesn't deserve a nomination and there is no doubt that film in 2012 is Les Miserables. C-

Life of Pi - Finally, we reach one of my favorite films of the year.  Most of the time my top ten of the year matches up with the majority of Oscars picks, but this time around not even half of the films made my list.  Life of Pi was high on my personal rankings, because it is a beautiful and engaging film about religion and personal human faith.  All the performances are top nothc, but arguably the best one of the bunch is a CGI Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker through a fluky accident.  Ang Lee pours so much emotion in his films it seems to seep through the screen, and Life of Pi is no different than his previous films.  The cinematography and the art direction bests anything else in the nominee pool this year, I only wonder if it will have enough momentum to pick up some wins this Sunday.  A    

Lincoln - This film and Argo have to be the frontrunners for Best Picture coming into the stretch run.  Steven Spileberg's Lincoln is like a living, breathing history book about the sixteenth President and his fight to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.  Daniel-Day Lewis embodies the President seamlessly, almost expectedly, and he is the favorite for Best Actor as he always is when he's nominated.  Beyond Daniel-Day Lewis is a cast of brilliant actors and performances, including nominee Sally Field and nominee Tommy Lee Jones, who has the most fiery role as Thaddeus Stevens, whos dedication to passing the law runs deeper than most.  For all of its undeniable beauty and art direction and the wonderful performances, Lincoln still comes off cold and distant.  I wasn't as emotionally engaged as some were.  But if it does end up winning Best Picture, I understand why.  B

Silver Linings Playbook - For whatever reason - I blame cynicism - Silver Linings Playbook is getting the bulk of the Oscar backlash this year.  In my opinion David O. Russell's touching story of mental illness, love, and moving on is a wonderful film.  It is my favorite of 2012.  Bradley Cooper finally shows us what he can do as an actor, something I always knew he had in him, and Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress in just about every role.  And welcome back from the depths of movie hell, Robert DeNiro.  As the father here, DeNiro reminds us all that he can still pull off meaty and emotional roles despite his current decline.  The charm and the wit are honest and moving in Silver Linings Playbook, the story is fun and brisk and often very emotional.  And we mustn't overlook the soundtrack, one of the better ones of the year.  A

Zero Dark Thirty - Another historical film to be nominated this year, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't take us as far back as Argo or Lincoln, but it carries us back merely a couple of years to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  The suspense of a story we all know the ending to relies on the events leading up to the siege, and director Kathryn Bigelow manages to keep us on the edge of our seat; which is the main reason her directing snub might be more baffling than Ben Affleck.  Jessica Chastain as Maya, the steadfast and determined CIA operative whose quick thinking changed the hunt for Public Enemy #1, carries the film.  Her nomination is deserved, as is her current status as odds-on favorite.  And even the final moments, where we know the conclusion, are some of the most riveting moments in 2012 cinema.  A