Anyone who knows me or has followed my posts knows that I am no fan of Award Ceremonies. And my expectations for the Oscars is at an all-time low so there’s very little they can do to surprise me. Which is different from disappointing me as I hold out vain hope that one day Academy members will evolve to a place where they recognize daring, challenging and creative cinema for what it is and stop celebrating mediocrity. I know, I know, this is the lie I tell myself so that I can move forward while still living and working in this town committed to the lowest common denominator.
So here’s my brief reaction to this year’s noms. I’ll start now on a positive note: TREE OF LIFE. Terence Malick’s cinematic masterpiece. Probably the greatest filmic work to come out of America in a decade. Whether or not you agree with that statement, there’s no denying that this is a film by a man who makes films from his heart, from his gut, from his own subconscious all the while taking great risks and pushing the medium itself to the very edge. If you are not inspired by what Malick is doing, then you probably thought THE DESCENDANTS was a deep film. Unfortunately for Malick’s contribution to American cinema, TREE is the dark horse in this race as it received the lowest number of votes for Best Picture of the nominees (along with the revoltingly bad EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE).
Which brings me to one of my great pet peeves. Alexander Payne. Critics love this guy. The Academy loves this guy. I find him to be, while not awful, incredibly bland. His films often touch on interesting subject matter, but never, ever, dip below the surface. His films are “deep” for people who don’t actually like to go deep. THE DESCENDANTS was an incredibly contrived film in my opinion. The only performance in the entire film that rang true for me was Judy Greer. And Payne relegated her to a joke. And while I do like watching Clooney, his performance felt somewhat detached to me. And why people are amazed that Clooney could play a husband and a Dad is beyond me. Why is this a stretch? It’s not. You’d think he was passing himself off as Margaret Thatcher. To nominate him as best actor is to disregard far stronger and soul-bearing performances given this year in much better, more sincere films. Again, I’m a Clooney fan. But this is not among his best work. For me, many of the performances in THE DESCENDANTS relied more on “indicating” than on “being.” And while that may not have been the experience of the actors themselves, it was my experience as an audience member. And I do applaud Payne for his subject matter choices and often his casting choices, but his films are directed like TV movies and manage to somehow make everything look ugly and drab in a way that never serves the story or characters. He is that filmmaker whose work is applauded by a public hungry for content, but ultimately without the desire to really try anything new or daring.
Glad to see Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS get some attention. It’s a good film. But let’s face it, it’s also quite fluffy. When Allen tackles anything heavier than this, the Academy has no idea what to do with it.
THE ARTIST. I’m glad that this film is getting some attention. That said, I thought the film was enjoyable but far from great. And while it may delight audiences unfamiliar with silent film (and a few others who love silent film so much that they can’t see past the film’s imperfections), I thought THE ARTIST did a disservice to the silent film era by suggesting that most silent films were fluffy little adventure pics, serials and romances. Given that the film is called THE ARTIST, it almost comes across as an ironic joke given the lack of true artistry depicted in the film when compared to the artistry that was actually taking place during the silent era. Not to mention THE ARTIST didn’t really feel or look much like a silent-era film to me (except in the most basic ways, but those didn’t hold up for me under close scrutiny) and the film used music from later periods as its soundtrack, which didn’t help.
HUGO. Moderately entertaining. Was bored by the first half (which may have been me distracted by the 3D). As always, the Academy celebrate Scorsese’s lesser works over his masterful ones. Again, sigh…
MONEYBALL. A very solid film. The writing, acting and directing were all top notch. And while it wouldn’t be a best film of the year for me, I still found it to be incredibly well-made, smart and entertaining.
WAR HORSE. Not as horrible as I’d heard, the film still shows that Spielberg doesn’t trust his material enough to let it speak for itself. Spielberg’s direction feels forced, like he’s trying too hard and, combined with Williams’ score, topples over the edge of sentimentality and dictated emotion in such a way as to actually diminish the impact of the story for me. But this is the kind of stuff Academy members eat for dinner and call fine dining. For me, it’s closer to the Olive Garden. That said, it’s a film I would have loved as a kid and I was able to appreciate moments on that level. And the fact that I don’t need much prodding to become emotionally invested in the well-being of animals didn’t hurt either. But at the end of the day, the film felt uncertain of itself and inconsistent to me. I can only imagine what a theater/film director like Julie Taymor might have brought to the table. I would have liked to have seen that.
THE HELP. Not surprising that this was nominated. It’s a film I liked for its performances despite a script that, ironically, given the subject matter, takes very few risks and sugarcoats many of the characters, either painting them as cartoon villains or letting them off the hook by having them magically turn into compassionate heroes by film’s end. But the cast is strong and they somehow manage to weather some moments of less-than-stellar writing and a script afraid to go to the daring places some of its characters do.
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE. What was Stephen Daldry thinking? There is very little that is believable about this film. Or even very interesting. It’s another forced film with its heart in the right place but the pieces just never came together for me. And though the young lead gives it 120%, I never for a moment bought him as a kid with autism. Or even as a real kid. I found the plot to be ridiculous in a “feel good” way that simply reeked of schmaltzy Hollywood films past. This one belongs in the PAY IT FORWARD class. Except that it takes itself even more seriously. Ultimately, it’s a message film where the message is written in big bold letters from frame one. And then you have to sit there while the actors go through the motions. I hate to be so harsh, especially since, like I said, the film’s heart is in the right place, but there’s an insincerity to this film that unfortunately informs almost every frame.
As for directors, thank the lord Malick made the cut because there is nary a director here or abroad that could touch the level of talent and vision he displayed with TREE OF LIFE. Which just means he won’t win.
Michel Hazanavicius for THE ARTIST is not a surprise. And I’m okay with it. I’m not anywhere near as big a fan of the film as others, but it’s still quite entertaining and, though still targeting an audience that doesn’t respond well to challenges, very respectable.
Alexander Payne. Well, he’s always a favorite of voters, but to me he’s innocuous at best. Little-to-no visual sensibilities whatsoever. And he cuts away whenever an actor or character are in danger of dipping beneath the surface and actually getting in touch with something genuine. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that he’s probably got some great films sitting on his cutting room floor. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to see it. This means he’ll probably win. And if it isn’t Payne, it will be Hazanavicius, which I’d prefer.
Scorsese for Hugo is just another example of Hollywood telling its greatest directors that they don’t have to try too hard to get their attention. In fact, if they actually put themselves out there in a big way, they’re likely to be ignored. Not that HUGO’s a bad film. It’s not. And it’s a film that meant something to Scorsese clearly, and that I respect. And that he made a film somewhat out of what I imagine is his comfort zone. All positive stuff to be applauded. But compared to his entire body of work, HUGO just isn’t that far up there for me…
Woody Allen. Again, I’m glad he’s being recognized. Allen’s a great filmmaker and a great writer. He deserves any attention he gets. Allen is constantly making films, taking risks, and staying true to himself.
Actors… George Clooney: I like him. I didn’t think this performance was anything special. Certainly not award-worthy. He’s charming. He’s sincere. He’s smart. But under the direction of Payne, he will only be allowed to go so far. And for me, it’s not far enough. Especially given that Michael Fassbender isn’t nominated for SHAME, a performance that makes Clooney’s nomination seem downright diabolical. It certainly feels more based on Clooney’s popularity and likeability than on the depth of performance given. No offense to Clooney.
Demián Bichir. Nice performance in an average film, but it wasn’t quite award-worthy for me either. The film and the role-as-written never attained that level.
Jean Dujardin. Absolutely deserved. He was the best part of the film (along with his dog). A terrific performance through and through.
Gary Oldman. Also completely deserved. To walk into Alec Guinness’s shoes and do them justice? And to give us such a nuanced, subtle performance? Beautiful. This is a film that also greatly deserved its writing nomination. To take such a complex and vast story as TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and boil it down to a two-hour film without sacrificing the integrity or complexity of the work, while not dumbing it down or making it easy, wins both my respect and admiration.
Brad Pitt. He should have been nominated for TREE OF LIFE which I think was an even better performance, but he was terrific in MONEYBALL as well. Highly deserved.
Glenn Close. Even though I didn’t completely buy her as a man, I still thought the character she created to be absolutely mesmerizing.
Viola Davis. Incredible performance that aided in this average film rising above itself.
Rooney Mara. Still have to see the film.
Meryl Streep. Hated the real Margaret Thatcher, love Meryl Streep. This performance once again shows us that very few American actors, particularly stars, ever attain the level of immersion that this woman does. She is the best there is. Deserved.
Michelle Williams. Always love her. This was a thankless role with built-in strikes against it and Williams pulled it off. If only they’d remove the musical bookends, this would be a flawless performance. Not just because she captured something innate about Marilyn, but because she brought a humanity to the role that would have remained an impersonation in the hands of a lesser actor.
I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention that the biggest travesty of the awards this year in that MELANCHOLIA received absolutely no nominations. One of the most daring, insightful, honest films of this year (or any other). Lars Von Trier was snubbed. Perhaps it was his Hitler comments at Cannes that lost it for him. That would be a shame and a gross overreaction to those statements which, while both provocative and uncomfortable, seemed to have been somewhat misunderstood. To paint a picture of Hitler as a human being one can sympathize with is just too much for most people to accept or even consider. And it’s clear that Von Trier himself was uncomfortable and attempting to lighten the mood and talk his way out of an unintentional corner, only to dig himself in deeper. Add the language barrier and he was doomed from the get-go. And the harsh reality that Kirsten Dunst wasn’t nominated for her work in MELANCHOLIA only showcases Academy voters’ deep inability to truly understand what an actor can offer us of themselves. No script nom, no director nom either… This film’s absence from the nominations is a glaring signpost to just how limited Academy voters are. And why it will continue to be difficult for true film artists –both behind and in front of the camera– to ever truly get the recognition they deserve for the depths of their souls they are willing to lay out for us.