Breaking Down This Year’s Oscars

24 Feb

Ben Affleck in “Argo”

After failing to watch all but two of last year’s Best Picture nominees before the Oscars, I made a promise to myself to watch all of this year’s so I would have at least some idea of what was going on during the ceremony. It turned out that, when the nominations were announced in January, I hadn’t watched a single one of the films up for the Oscars’ highest distinction. So, with only a few weeks left until the ceremony, I set out to watch all nine.

Clearly it’s been a while since I’ve been on top of my movies, so it was a bit of a struggle to get through so much heavy material in such a short amount of time. At last, with a day to spare before the Oscars, I finally checked off the last title (Life of Pi) from my list.

Given that I went into all of these films without any preexisting biases or motives beyond preparing myself for the Oscars, I figured I would take a moment to review them from an objective standpoint.

First of all, there were two common themes running through this year’s Best Picture batch that I think are worth pointing out:

Length: All of the nominees were at least 2 hrs long, adding up to a total of 1,126 min of movie time (eek!). Budgets seem to be growing as we head out of the recession, and that’s reflected in the need to outdo movies of years past by kicking everything up a notch. However, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. While 2 hrs has become an acceptable running time, those films that exceed 2.5 hrs (Django Unchained, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Les Miserables) clearly suffer from their extended running times.

Subject: American history is front and center at the Oscars this year. Five of the nine nominees (Django UnchainedZero Dark Thirty, ArgoLincoln, and Beasts of the Southern Wild) center on quintessential American themes — slavery, war, international crisis, political strife, and racial tension. These issues are often portrayed in a morally ambiguous light, leaving the question of whether the traditional heroes in our recounts of these historical events are really the people we think they are open to viewer interpretation.

With that, I present my thoughts on the Best Picture nominees (ranked from best to worst), followed by my predictions for who will win the major awards this year:

1. Argo – Hailed as Hollywood’s darling this awards season, and rightfully so. Argo ties together nearly every element of the perfect film, dramatizing the real-life story of how an American CIA exfiltrated six US diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis in thrilling fashion. It’s hard to fault the film for anything. With such an absurd premise, it would have been easy to disintegrate into a cheesy, over-the-top Lifetime movie, but Argo stays cool and collected. It doesn’t try to push any controversial agendas, instead delivering pure entertainment through the marriage of Hollywood glamour, international espionage, and political turmoil. The ensemble cast has fantastic chemistry under Ben Affleck’s leadership. Even with all of the chaos surrounding the characters, you really come to love and sympathize with them. Above all else, the writing is phenomenal. The numerous storylines are woven together seamlessly. Multiple ticking clocks layer over each other to provide pressure and believable high stakes from every direction, forcing the plot along at a brisk, consistent pace. Even though you know how the story ends (a challenge for many movies about real-life events), the tension builds to a point where you start to doubt that the characters will actually make it home alive. While Argo isn’t a game changer in any respect, it’s the most cohesive, balanced film of this year’s Oscars bunch, utterly deserving of Best Picture, and a must-watch for anyone with an appreciation for storytelling and entertainment.

2. Life of Pi – Ang Lee continues to reinforce why he’s one of Hollywood’s best filmmakers with Life of Pi, a dazzling, sweeping masterpiece that left me completely floored. I personally think it’s the most unique BP nominee this year, falling into the same general category of fantastical exploration as Beasts of the Southern Wild, but delivering a dizzying viewing experience that’s considerably more memorable. The film is, first and foremost, a visual feast. No joke, the CGI in this movie will change your life. The vivid images the protagonist conjures up in his delirious state — of schools of glowing fish and lush, exotic islands — are brought to life with majestic detail, turning an hour of watching a boy and a tiger lost at sea with no landmarks in sight into a visceral adventure. That said, it’s also worth watching Life of Pi for the story alone. The unconventional method of storytelling suits the dreamlike nature of the film perfectly (there’s even a third act twist that will startle you awake once the main story arc is completed). It’s truly fascinating to watch the development of the relationship between the protagonist and his tiger, and it’s that aspect of the plot, rather than the heavy-handed message about faith and spirituality, that injects humanity into a film that could easily be dismissed as nothing more than a visual spectacle. Life of Pi almost certainly won’t win Best Picture (although Best Director is a possibility), but it will sweep you away on an enchanting journey.

3. Django Unchained – Given that this is a Tarantino movie, I was surprised when Django Unchained turned out to be better on paper than on screen. That’s not to say it was bad on screen — Tarantino is well-known for his fondness of extravagance and excess, and that certainly shows in Django, an overindulgent, hyperactive Western brimming with violence, gore, and absurdity. However, the writing is where the film truly shines. As is typical of Tarantino, the dialogue is snappy and to the point, and the moments of irony and hyperbole scattered throughout are delightful. Each scene is a carefully constructed masterpiece that builds and builds and builds until you’re on teetering the edge of your seat. That said, the movie does start to drag after the two-hour mark, at which point you’ll either tire of the non-stop bloodbath or start to get a little green around the gills. Right when you think the movie is going to end, Tarantino drags it back onto its feet for one last hurrah that feels somewhat forced. Luckily, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio are wildly entertaining in their roles, and the interplay between them distracts from the occasional conceit. Overall, Django is one of Tarantino’s smarter films, but it doesn’t really deserve to win any awards (except maybe writing) over its competition.

4. Amour – A lovely, understated film that will, unfortunately, slip by most people’s (including the Academy) notice.  Amour is an exercise in precision and discipline, something sorely lacking in many films these days. It’s everything Django Unchained is not. A lot of American filmgoers will probably find this movie too slow or dull, and that’s fine — in some respects, it is. However, if you have time to sit down and really absorb every little detail of a finely constructed cinematic gem, watch Amour. The story is more character-driven than plot-driven, and the two leads accept that responsibility with grace, burrowing into their roles so deeply that you’ll be pulled into their relationship from the very first scene. It’s the purest depiction of love I’ve seen since Like Crazy — breathtaking in its simplicity, heartwrenching in its brutal honesty. Michael Haneke understands that love is not about grand gestures or melodramatic outpourings of emotion; the subtle looks and silent sacrifices speak volumes more. If you can stomach the realism Haneke dishes out, don’t pass on Amour — it’s a truly unforgettable film.

5. Silver Linings Playbook – One of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen in a long time, albeit an unlikely candidate for Best Picture. As a romantic comedy, its quirkiness breathes life into a stale, tired genre; however, as an Oscar movie, it doesn’t hold a candle to its competition. The acting is the real reason to watch Silver Linings. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are charming in their roles as two dysfunctional individuals struggling to get their lives back together under society’s judging eye. The two of them together on screen generate an unconventional chemistry that, despite the abuse they lay on each other, is surprisingly heartwarming. Lawrence is particularly remarkable, maintaining vulnerability even in her prickliest moments. It helps that viewers aren’t hit over the head with the issue of mental illness — whereas Ben Affleck strikes balance in Argo through consistency and focus, David O. Russell does so in Silver Linings by only focusing on the highs and lows of the characters’ emotional and mental states as a means of supporting their relationship arc. Ultimately, Silver Linings is a delight to watch, but it won’t change any lives.

6. Zero Dark Thirty – I admittedly wasn’t the biggest fan of this movie, not because of any political or moral reasons, but because I found the majority of it to be too slow and dense to be engaging. That said, the movie accomplishes exactly what it set out to do, painting a realistic, gripping portrait of the events before, during, and immediately after the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Sooner or later a movie had to be made about it, and I can’t think of anyone better suited to that job than Kathryn Bigelow, one of the most intelligent, disciplined filmmakers in Hollywood today. She made some incredibly smart decisions in the making of Zero Dark Thirty, the first of which was casting Jessica Chastain as the CIA agent in charge of the mission. Not only is Chastain a woman, she’s a very fragile-looking and feminine one, which makes her tough-as-nails performance all the more absorbing. Like The Hurt LockerZero Dark Thirty refuses to take sides or glorify the reality of war for the sake of creating a conventional narrative; this is perhaps why some parts of the film (particularly the first half) drag in such a frustrating manner. Then again, many critics would argue that’s what makes the film so striking — the fact that it doesn’t communicate a clear message, instead letting the viewer interpret the events portrayed.

7. Lincoln – Like most Daniel Day-Lewis starrers, Lincoln breaks down to 50% DDL talking, 30% people being impressed by DDL talking, and 20% miscellaneous serious things. Nevertheless, DDL talking has rarely failed in the past, and it certainly doesn’t in Steven Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln biopic. The two-time Oscar winner is reliably brilliant, painting a compelling, nuanced portrait of a beloved historical figure faced with the most daunting challenge of his political career. That said, if you could compare watching movies to exercising, on a difficulty scale of ambling across the street to running a marathon, Lincoln would be hiking the Inca Trail. Do not watch this movie if you’re not prepared to put your brain through the wringer. At 2 hours and 30 min, it’s one of the lengthiest BP nominees this year, and it certainly feels like it when you’re trudging through the second act. Part of that is due to the fact that the film is somewhat claustrophobic. It’s clearly meant to be an epic, but with the majority of the story’s crucial turning points taking place indoors and/or through dense dialogue, it’s hard to empathise with the sense of urgency until the climax. Rather than showing us the bloodshed that inspired all of the discord unfolding, we only hear about it through words (a lot of them, most of which won’t make sense to the average non-history buff); as a result, it’s hard to care on an emotional level. Without DDL, Lincoln would be pretty unremarkable.

8. Les Misérables – Bloated and dull — a wasted opportunity. Yes, the acting is great. Yes, (most of) the singing is great. But this movie drags on and on and on, until you stop caring about the characters and hope they hurry up and die so the movie will end. While length is an issue that plagues almost all of this year’s nominees, it’s particularly painful in the case of Les Mis; entire scenes feel hours-long due to the fact that the actors have to sing their lines live — a technique that works on stage, where the audience can cosy it up with the cast, but gets lost in the big-screen adaptation, mostly due to the fact that we’re never really given a reason to care about the characters’ woes. Les Mis is a musical at heart: disregarding plot in favour of performance, bowing under the weight of its own self-importance. The film does not deliver the sweeping epic that was advertised; rather, it  moves along jerkily, weakly sputtering into life every once in a while to deliver a showstopper (“I Dreamed a Dream,” “In My Life/A Heart Full of Love”)  before returning to its torturous pace. Skip this one and watch Anne Hathaway’s performance on YouTube — you won’t miss out on much.

9. Beasts of the Southern Wild – I’ll be honest: I hated this movie. I found it to be an extremely mediocre film that fell victim to a bad case of navel gazing, as many low-budget indie films about socially sensitive issues are apt to do. Beasts of the Southern Wild is all show and no substance: it’s visually stunning and incredibly visceral, no doubt, but once you strip away the magic and poeticism of the film’s look and feel, there’s not much left to appreciate. I strongly believe that every good movie starts with a good story, and that’s what Beasts lacks. While the filmmakers are busy dressing the film up in grand statements about race, family, and innocence, the plot wanders off, and by the time they realise it’s time to wrap things up, the story’s too far gone to reel it back in. I didn’t care about the characters or their problems because they were never fully explained. Ultimately  the film comes off as whimsical, beautiful drivel. Perhaps I just didn’t “get” it — but if I need to watch it again to locate its point, I’ll pass.

And my predictions for the winner of each category…

Best Picture: Argo

Best Director: Ang Lee, Life of Pi

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master

Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Best Adapted Screenplay: Chris Terrio, Argo

Best Foreign Language Film: Amour

Best Animated Feature: Wreck it Ralph

Best Cinematography: Life of Pi

Best Film Editing: Argo


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