It's hardly timely to talk about the Oscars in July, but I finally saw all of this year's Best Picture nominees, and that is an unusual accomplishment for me. Last time it happened ten years ago, and there were only five nominees then. So I have to give my two cents, even if they are only worth one by now.
Last year seems to have been a pretty good one for movies. I loved four of the nominated films, and there may be others that should have made the list. For example, I haven't seen The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo yet, but, if the critics are right that it is at least not much worse than the Swedish version, it may make my top five.
A more curious feature of this year's list of nominees is how many common themes some of them share. The Artist and Hugo are tributes to old silent movies. Hugo and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (EL&IC) are about unique boys obsessively searching for a message from their tragically deceased fathers. The Artist and Midnight in Paris are tributes to the 1920s (and Hugo straddles that decade, in a sense), with the American Woody Allen taking us to Paris as the literary and artistic capital of the world of that time, and the Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius taking us to Hollywood, the movie capital of the world (and then again, American Martin Scorsese reminding us that, before Hollywood existed, it was Paris where the movies were born).
As Hugo's and Oskar's (in EL&IC) relationships with their fathers are left unfinished by the fathers' untimely deaths, so is Matt King's (George Clooney) relationship with his wife in The Descendants, and he, too, searches for clues from the past, sometimes obsessively. War Horse completes the list of movies set in the early 20th century, and The Help and The Tree of Life add two more to a more general theme of revisiting a decade of that century.
Finally, fatherhood is a strong theme running through several nominated films—Moneyball, The Tree of Life (oddly, Brad Pitt plays the father in both), The Descendants, EL&IC, and, to a lesser extent, Hugo and War Horse. Mothers, on the other hand, are downplayed: they are long deceased (Hugo) or brain dead (The Descendants) or being uninteresting to the plot as a non-antagonistic antagonist (Moneyball) or very passive (The Tree of Life, admittedly in the spirit of the 1950s) or the least developed character (EL&IC). In The Help, no white woman knows how to be a mother. Only in War Horse is the mother an active, strong character with some depth.
On to the rankings and thoughts about individual movies:
9. The Tree of Life. It is often said that people either hate or love this film, but I do neither. At least, its cinematography is beautiful enough that it kept me watching to the end. However, it is not a movie; rather, it is a very long PowerPoint presentation, occasionally interrupted by fragments of a movie. And those fragments, while making sense on their own, never connect with the most dramatic event, which remains only implied and not contemporaneous with any other part of the story. An unusual movie-watching experience, and interesting enough to discuss, but not a movie I'd recommend.
8. The Help. This one had a lot of potential: the actors are great and the story is excellent... that is, excellent as pure fiction. But, in historical context, I find it utterly unbelievable that a story like this would end as it does—relatively well, without major harm to any of the protagonists or their families. Overall, it paints a naively rosy picture of the segregated South. This is probably how a young urban person of the 2010s imagines the end of the Jim Crow era, but it ain't the real thing and, in the end, it feels like a fairy tale. If you want to rectify history, do it brazenly and kill Hitler, as Tarantino did in Inglourius Basterds. Don't just make us feel good about the otherwise plausible setting.
7. Moneyball. A big step up from the bottom two—I actually liked this one a lot. That I am not a baseball fan is an understatement; I don't even understand baseball. But the movie is not so much about baseball as it is about effecting change in established, often ossified, organizations. In that respect, it reminded me of Searching for Bobby Fischer, which wasn't about chess, but about challenges of raising talented children. Parenting is a side story here, but important for defining Billy Beane as a human being, and it is nice to see in a movie that busy, divorced, imperfect fathers can love their children, too. This is a Brad Pitt you'd much rather have as your father than the 1950s family man in The Tree of Life.
6. War Horse. A challenge to rank, as most other nominees are human character dramas for adults, and this one is unabashedly an older kids' or "young adults'" tale, a combination of a horse biography (reminiscent of Black Beauty) and a coming-of-age story. The movie is very well made, as you would expect from Spielberg. The story is good, even if it doesn't feel very original. The amazing coincidences are par for the genre, although the timeline is rather strained, as the thoroughbred seems to have somehow survived about 3 years of pulling German artillery. Maybe American moviemakers forgot how long World War I was for those who fought in it from the beginning?
5. The Descendants. A really nice human story about a family whose ties are deeper and stronger than its dysfunction. The protagonist, an imperfect man surrounded by slightly more imperfect people, tries to do the right thing for his family, business, and the intersection of the two. Does he succeed? The movie gets enough under the skin of each character that, in the end, I didn't think that was a relevant question to ask. A minor gripe: I didn't care for the narration-heavy beginning.
4. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I give five star to each of the top four, so maybe on a different day I might have ranked this movie even higher. It was the most pleasant surprise of the bunch: I knew very little about it beforehand, and I loved it. 14-year-old Thomas Horn is excellent as Oskar Schell, a boy who may or may not have Asperger's—he is just different enough to be interesting, but not so different as to make it difficult for a typical viewer to identify and empathize with him. It is part of his personality to never stop searching and asking questions. Sometimes he is afraid to ask, or to do things he needs to get the opportunity to ask, but he finds ways to ask anyway. Oh, and by no means is Oskar the only interesting character in the movie, but it would be hard to say much more without revealing some spoilers.
3. Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen's creative genius is not showing any signs of aging, even though he has become too old to play his protagonists and has to cast younger actors to play, well, him. (I never knew Owen Wilson was such a good actor—he completely transformed into a younger Woody Allen.) The idea of making a movie about a writer hopping in time to the 1920s and back, and meeting his literary idols, appears exceedingly silly when described in so few words, but, incredibly enough, it works perfectly... like a painting by Salvador Dalì (who appears in the movie, played by Adrien Brody).
2. Hugo. A masterpiece of cinematography; I watched it twice, on two consecutive days, because it was so visually rich that one viewing wasn't enough to absorb it all. It had all the magic of the first Harry Potter movie, but with a darker and more mysterious air of a Philip Pullman story. (An automaton in search of a heart is reminiscent of Pullman's Count Karlstein.) And that's before it even gets to the early movies, which are the main reason Scorsese made this film. Asa Butterfield was so good as Hugo that I'm looking forward to Ender's Game primarily to see his performance as Ender.
1. The Artist. The best picture doesn't always win the Best Picture, but this time it did. Michel Hazanavicius is probably bat-shit crazy, as that is the only way one could get the idea to make a silent, black-and-white, 4:3 aspect ratio, movie in 2011. He is also a genius, as the product of his madness is a great movie. It is entertaining, dramatic, plays by the rules of the genre and time in which it is set, all the while breaking the rules of the medium, playing with sounds and silence, reminding us that we are watching a silent movie just when we get into it so much that we forget. He even makes great use of the narrow format, emphasizing vertical direction, for example in the symbolic stairway scene when George, on his way down, bumps into Peppy, on her way up. And before you protest that the symbolism is too obvious and thus with little merit, remember: this is the 1920s!