Tomorrow at 8PM EST, the annual Oscar awards will air on ABC. This year’s roster of nominated films for best picture are a fascinating lot. On one level or another, every film on the list makes some effort to address a serious and/or political issue. There really isn’t one truly light-hearted, purely commercial picture in the bunch. Which in its own way is progress. Does that mean all of these movies are great? No. In fact, I would argue that 2 of them aren’t particularly good at all (more on that later), but they all try.
The closest thing to a true crowd pleaser among the nominees is David O. Russell’s terrific Silver Linings Playbook. Obstensibly a romantic dramedy about two particularly fucked up individuals dealing with severe emotional disorders and grief. While SLP is often funny–even uproariously so–the heart of the film is two broken people (played with great verve by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) who just might be able to fix each other, provided they can get out of their own way. I’m not sure its the best film in this group, but it’s probably the easiest to like, and for all the right reasons.
Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is the-ahem-wild card in the bunch. A super low-budget bayou fantasy about a community facing an oncoming storm, Beasts is an allegory for environmental concern (see New Orleans) wrapped around the story of a young girl’s adventure story. Love it or hate it (and there are many on both sides), there isn’t anything else out there like it.
Amour is Austrian Director, Michael Haneke’s, story of an elderly French couple dealing with impending mortality after the wife suffers a stroke. Grueling and heartbreaking, Amour is the most raw and austere of the nominated films, and even many of those that rave over it seem to think that one viewing may be enough to last you a lifetime.
My personal favorite is Ang Lee’s masterful adventure story, Life of Pi. Describing Lee’s technical wizardry with CGI effects or the plot line that finds a young Indian boy cast adrift on a small boat with only a hungry tiger for “company” does the film no service. Lee’s masterpiece is about nothing less than whether God exists or not and which is more important, factual truth or emotional truth. Nothing else I saw in a theater this year moved me so much.
Confession: I do not generally like musicals. People breaking into song to tell me how they feel about something tends to take me out of the movie and quite honestly annoys me. Sure, I enjoy Grease for nostalgia purposes, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a work of genius in my book, but those two films are outliers for me. Oh, I love movies with a lot of music in them, or ones that are about the process of creating music (Once and Purple Rain come to mind), but sung dialogue I find terribly distracting, if not downright infuriating. So it will probably come as no surprise for me to say that I found Les Miserables painfully exhausting. As my fellow Big Slicer, DH Stone quipped: “Lots of singing. Too much singing. Russell Crowe singing. Too much Russell Crowe singing.” That being said, Les Mis does take on class inequality, culminating with the Paris Uprising of 1832. I will give full credit to director Tom Hooper’s brave decision to have the cast sing live and Anne Hathaway’s show stopping performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” but for me, the French Revolution would have probably felt shorter. The entire revolution.
That brings me to Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus, Django Unchained. To one degree or another, I have enjoyed every other movie Tarantino has ever made. However, since his third film, the fabulous Jackie Brown, something has been nagging at me with each of his new offerings. At some point Tarantino gave up on making serious movies and essentially has just been popping out cover versions of shitty Cinemax movies he probably went home and watched on cable television at 2 o’clock in the morning after finishing his shift at the video store. Sure, they are better versions, but are the worth or necessary? For awhile, my answer was “yes.” I indulged QT’s need to make an homage to his favorite chop socky flicks with Kill Bill. I was mildly persuaded by his version of a slasher film with Death Proof, and mostly enjoyed his World War II Dirty Dozen/Kelly’s Heroes pastiche, Inglourious Basterds, despite its batshit ending. However, I have to part company with Django Unchained, which to me makes a complete mockery of a very serious subject, slavery. If Tarantino wanted to go with a full on satire, or a serious exploration of a freed slave trying to rescue his still enslaved wife, then I probably would have gone for it. Unfortunately, Tarantino seems to want to have it both ways. There are repulsive scenes of slaves being tortured, forced to beat each other to death, and in one particularly revolting sequence a slave is torn apart by dogs. None of which would have been inappropriate in a serious film. The problem is, Tarantino doesn’t make serious films anymore. In Django, all of these horrors are countered by his typical cool daddy dialogue and wildly over the top violence. To put it mildly, the tone does not hold. I know I’m in the minority on this one, but Django is a cartoon about slavery, and I just don’t think we need one of those. And really, the movie isn’t about slavery at all. It’s about Tarantino and all his immature, shallow whims. Just like every other movie he’s made since Jackie Brown. This time I cannot salute.
Argo has gone from front-runner for the top prize, to underdog, and back to pack leader again. It’s easy to see why. Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort is am example of exceedingly effective storytelling. The mostly true story of how the CIA created a fake film to rescue US Embassy officials hiding out in Iran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis somehow manages to work both as Hollywood satire and as a conventional thriller. For some reason, I didn’t quite fall in love with Argo, but I was deeply in like. I am willing to bet that most of the people who saw the film learned more about our fractured relationship with Iran during the movie’s opening 5 minutes than they ever knew before in the sum total of their existence. That make Argo worthy, if not great.
For many of the weeks and months since it’s release, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has been the presumed winner of the Best Picture Award. However, as Argo has continually picked up more pre-Oscar trophies, that conventional wisdom is now on shaky ground. To be honest, it should be. While Lincoln is a sturdy and honorable effort, it’s hardly scintillating cinema. It plays much like a solid TV movie, just substitute Sam Waterston for Daniel Day-Lewis and you’d be set for a fine HBO level effort. In fact, there is so little cinematic flourish on display, it’s stunning to think that a superior talent like Spielberg directed it. I can imagine most any journeyman type pulling off much the same result. What does elevate the film to a degree is the masterful performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. Lewis may be the finest actor of his generation. There are so many fine little details in his work. The way Lewis’ Lincoln laughs when telling a funny story. His ability to showcase the patience of the man as well as the heavy burden he carries. Every time Lewis stands up it’s like a creaky old wooden folding chair being pulled apart. The film around Lewis may not deserve him, but thank God it had him. Otherwise, we would have little to get excited about except for Tommy Lee Jones’ latest variation on his Fugitive performance. “We’re going to search every dog house, out house, plantation house until we drive slavery out…” Or something like that.
Hands down, the most polarizing movie among these films is Zero Dark Thirty, and to my mind probably the most significant. The story of the manhunt for bin Laden could have been told in a flag waving, jingoistic style, but director Kathryn Bigelow does anything but that. Told in an almost documentary like fashion, ZDT is as much a procedural about obsession as it is a thriller about killing a terrorist. Few have argued the technical merits of the film, or the fierce performance of lead actress, Jessica Chastain, but the murky waters of whether we gleaned any useful knowledge by use of torture has cast a pall over the rest of the film. Progressives and liberals in large numbers have taken issue with its perspective on enhanced interrogation. Some argue that the film is pro-torture, or at least misleading in regards to its effectiveness.
To be honest, I am lost on how anyone could think ZDT was promoting torture. It depicted it, it did not endorse it. It was graphic and repulsive. The character of Maya (Chastain) recoiled during the scenes and the lead interrogator quit because he couldn’t go “into those rooms” anymore. As far as whether it declares torture as useful, I’m even more flabbergasted by that. During the interrogation scenes, they got nothing from their witness. When did he give them info? When they gave him food, cleaned him up, and performed a little trickery. If they were trying to show that torture is effective then they sure as hell weren’t doing it right. But sometimes people like a movie to tell them something is bad as opposed to letting them make up their own minds. Unfortunately, far too many lefties have let this faux concern get in the way of one of the most effective showcases about obsession committed to celluloid in recent memory. Chastain’s intelligence analyst is nothing more or less than the chase she is undertaking. She has no other life. No other focus. In one great scene in the movie, Chastain sits in a cafeteria with the Director of the CIA (played by James Gandolfini) who asks her “Besides bin Laden, what have you done for us?” To which Chastain replies “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.” I think of the question she is asked at the end of the film after bin Laden has been killed: “Where do you want to go?” She has no answer. She just sits all alone on the back of a military plane more lost than ever. In its own quiet way that moment is spectacular. You will find nothing like that in Lincoln or Argo, despite their significant charms.