Let’s put talk of sequestration, “modern sport rifles” and the thought of Sarah Palin and Wayne LaPierre giving speeches to conservatives trying to figure why they’re a laughing-stock in public opinion polls … and talk about movies for a moment.
True, the Oscars are at least as bad as the Grammys in terms of being a credible award for artistry, but they’re what everyone knows and talks about. So quickly, my very deep thoughts on the top categories.
Amour — As a fan of director Michael Haneke, I was only slightly surprised at the coolness of this film. My wife was quite put off. Mr. Haneke is no one’s idea of a sentimental filmmaker so I went in intrigued at where he was going to take a story about an elderly couple experiencing first a devastating physical breakdown and then death. He did not go for easy tears. The film has received some of the best reviews of the year, but it falters in comparison to last year’s top critical pick, the Iranian film, “A Separation”. Moreover, “The White Ribbon” is still Haneke’s best.
Argo — As adroitly constructed as it is glib, “Argo” is much better than average Hollywood entertainment, but lacks any aspirations to “art”. Very nicely directed by Ben Affleck, who seems to have rubbed his directing colleagues wrong enough not to be nominated, but may have the last laugh since I suspect the film will win Best Picture.
Beasts of the Southern Wild — If metaphor is a criteria for artfulness, here’s the year’s champ. The film’s low-budget seems to have forced the filmmakers to play closer to magic than reality. No other of the nominated films cast quite as deep a spell on yours truly.
Django Unchained — Really? Best Picture? My taste for Quentin Tarantino is all about dialogue and performances. When the cartoon violence sets in it’s like being trapped in the room while some nerd plays “Call of Duty”. Obviously, Christopher Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio had a great time shooting this, but excuse me if I resist the notion there’s a higher point being made beyond, “watch this shit”.
Les Miserables — I’ll go only when Wayne LaPierre personally holds a “modern sport rifle” to my head.
Life of Pi — Very nicely done. Terrific 3D and propelled by a compelling philosophic quandary. I admire directors like Ang Lee who consciously attempt something very difficult. Why it doesn’t have a better chance of winning escapes me.
Lincoln — My teeth were gritted for the first ten minutes, as I braced myself for a stale lesson in eat-your-broccoli nobility. But Daniel Day-Lewis is so damned good in everything he does (christ, his Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” is an all-time classic) I was soon won over. Having just read Candice Millard’s “Destiny of the Republic”, about James Garfield 16 years later, I was impressed with the verisimilitude of the art direction — and disappointed Spielberg didn’t do more with it.
Silver Linings Playbook — Jennifer Lawrence is damned cute and Bradley Cooper holds up well opposite Robert DeNiro, but the dance-off ending is stock shtick and overall the word again is “glib”.
Zero Dark Thirty — Frankly, I never understood the excitement over “The Hurt Locker”. This is a much better, more sophisticated movie. The discussion over whether it suggests torture aided in the hunt for bin Laden will never be resolved, but it strikes me as honest to depict it, particularly in the context of the “professionalism” of the analysts and SEALs involved. It happened. All of that seemed real — and fits well with another book I read recently, “The Triple Agent”. But “artful”? Not really. More like a first-class documentary. But I loved her line to Leon Panetta — “I’m the motherfucker who found this place”.
Bradley Cooper — Good work, kid. But not good enough.
Daniel Day-Lewis — Why anyone else bothers when he has a film out I don’t know.
Hugh Jackman — Apparently, a nice guy … .
Joaquin Phoenix — “The Master” deserved more consideration than it got. What it was about baffles people, but I was caught up in the spell of conflicting subjectivity it seemed to be playing with. As in: Who’s reality is this, at this moment? Phoenix’ was a very, very unusual character.
Denzel Washington — The guy is friggin’ movie star. It oozes out of him. Every flick of the eye and muted grunt works in service to the character. If it weren’t for that damned Day-Lewis … .
Jessica Chastain — She carried a lot of narrative weight in “Zero Dark Thirty” and delivered on pretty much every level. But as good as she was I don’t have a hard time imagining a dozen other actresses pulling off the same quality of work in the same role.
Jennifer Lawrence — As I say, damned cute, and with a base of gravity beneath the sass. Still, there was too much obvious easy formula to the role to suggest she had to dig deep for what we saw.
Emmanuelle Riva — The grand old French actress is actually secondary, in terms of the moral conflict of “Amour”, to her co-star, Jean-Louis Trintignant. She may win on a lifetime achievement vote.
Quvenzhane Wallis — The child star of “Beasts” is a remarkable character, a genuine bloom of imagination. But the film is (wisely) constructed for her to react more than lift and drive the story.
Naomi Watts — I like Watts a lot, (ever since “Mulholland Drive”), but her primary task here is to be pummeled by a tsunami and suffer in a hospital. The camera magic of the tsunami is what everyone will remember from “The Impossible”.
Michael Haneke — “Amour” — Typically idiosyncratic work from a guy who operates by his own rules of storytelling. But not quite “The White Ribbon”.
Benh Zeitlin — “Beasts … ” — A very good case could be made for this guy, who without question made far, far more out of what he had than any of his much better financed competitors.
Ang Lee — “Life of Pi” — This would be my vote. He pulled off a beautiful piece of work on a supposedly unfilmmable book and no end of technical obstacles … and without sacrificing an “artful” challenge to the intellect.
Steven Spielberg — “Lincoln” — Thank you again, sir. Very solid work.
David O. Russell — “Silver Linings … ” — Good script. Good characters. Well-directed. But that’s where it ends.