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Oscar 2012: Best Picture Roundup

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

All nine Oscar 2012 Best Picture nominations are strong thematically, exploring important questions of the heart. Most are also very well made, and I had to struggle to keep my top tier list small. To the concerns of some conservative viewers, who complain that the Academy tends to honor ugly films, I can say that none of the nominations prompt such concern (at least not much). Two of them successfully take substantial creative risks (The Tree of Life, The Artist), but this may make them less accessible for broad audiences (particularly Tree). A couple of them have notable weaknesses in filmcraft, and I can easily find at least couple of un-nominated films that I would have had in their places.
>> Go to the Oscar Roundup for 2010, for 2011.

The criteria for this take on the Oscars

In my take on the 2012 nominations below, I’m not not trying to predict the winner, nor am I necessarily calling out the ones I enjoyed the most. Instead, it’s my take on the lasting worth of the films as artifacts exploring the human condition and prodding us to be who we need to be. Specifically, the criteria used for Oscar Roundup are:

  • Strength of insight into the human condition. I value films more highly when they are based on keen understanding of what makes this life good, true, and beautiful. The film may show us such things directly or may do so “in reverse” by showing us things that are bad, false, or ugly. Either way, a film is more worth the time to the extent that, because of what it takes us through, we can come away changed, understanding more about how we might live a beautiful life. A film need not be heavy or serious to have such insight; a lighthearted comedy might be filled with insight.
  • Richness of questions asked. We come away understanding more if we have to work through issues ourselves. Thus, I value films more highly when they are crafted so that their stories and situations spend more energy asking questions than providing simple answers. A film might ask questions in many ways: by showing something in a one-sided way and begging a question about the truth of it, by evenhandedly presenting contrasting responses to a situation, by portraying non-contrived situations and dialog where characters speak a question, by portraying difficult or awkward situations to imply a question — or many other ways.
  • Depth of emotional engagement. I value films whose insight and questions come through, or at least are heavily reinforced by, our emotional reactions as embodied in and evoked by its story, characters, dialog, and filmcraft. To become who we need to be, insight must find its way to our hearts, changing us from the inside out. A film’s emotional connections are its best path to our hearts. The old adage about film applies: “Show me, don’t tell me,” to which I add, “Take me through it; let me live it.”
  • Overall effect of filmcraft. All other things being equal, films that have higher creative quality tend to strike us more strongly. But, the best made films are not necessarily the most striking ones. Great filmcraft can’t really bring a poorly conceived film to strong influence on our hearts and lives. Creativeness is not the goal, either: A film’s creative aspects have value to the extent that they serve the explorative work of the film. On the other hand, profoundly poor filmcraft can kill a well-conceived film.

Based on these criteria, I offer my take on the 2012 Oscar best picture nominations.

The excellent top tier of 2012’s nominations

My top tier has three films, and I had to fight myself to keep it at only three. The Tree of Life is the creatively riskiest film in the 2012 nominations, but lucky us that Terrence Malick took the risk. In its ethereal and seemingly random patchwork of scenes (both realistic and fantastical), viewers willing to enter into the film’s meditative framework are rewarded with a rich exploration of relationships and grace. Hugo’s intertwined stories compose an intricate look at hope and perseverance together with a beautiful homage to film and filmmakers. The Descendants has the strongest embodiment of forgiveness among the nominations, mixed into a story with Alexander Payne’s usual concoction of slightly (or more so) odd characters that nonetheless provide important life insights.

I’d be glad if any of the three took Best Picture. If pressed to place one at the top, I’d have to qualify my choice. Based on filmcraft, I would favor Tree of Life. I would favor Hugo for excellence in a broadly accessible film. The Descendants has the strongest wrestling with life issues, particularly in its exploration of grace and love.

The Tree of Life: To “get” this film, viewers must be willing and able to suspend their notions of how a typical feature film is structured and delivered. It would not be off-the-mark to call The Tree of Life a mediation rather a feature film. Nonetheless, it is all very worthwhile and very good. The creative risk that Terrence Malick takes with the film is this: Rather than connecting with and following a story, the film wants viewers to find, connect with, and for a couple of hours dwell in a set of emotions that center around relationships (particularly parent-child), the choices we make, how we understand goodness, and what gives life and what steals it. A somewhat muted yet important underlying part of Tree’s exploration touches with God and Creation, yet in appropriately ambiguous and question-prompting ways. If I were to award Best Picture based on historical significance of a film, there is no doubt at all that I would give it to The Tree of Life.
Hugo: The multiple threads and storylines in Hugo add up to a delightful mix of perseverance, search for meaning, the literary life, romance, hope, and (not the least of it) homage to filmmakers in general and George Méliès in particular. For Martin Scorsese, the film is a quite successful and broadly accessible shift in style from his prior profound, but often gritty and violent, film work. Since the film is based on a children’s book, some may say that Hugo is a children’s film. Personally, I would not — or, if it is, it is what an excellent children’s film always is: Every bit as rewarding and enjoyable as an adult as it is as a child (perhaps more so). The film’s use of 3-D is innovative and, as linked to from write-up on Hugo, Scorsese says in an interview that he’s “been a 3-D fan since [he] was 12, in 1953,” so making the film in 3-D must have been a real treat for him — as it is for us.
The Descendants: Alexander Payne has of way of speaking life through off-kilter characters and situations, and The Descendants pretty much tracks this trend. In this case it is not so much the main characters that are a bit off-kilter as it is the minor characters. Payne’s excellence is that the quirkiness is not distracting — at least not if we look around a bit and realize how many quirky real-life people we encounter and hear about. The Descendants’ characters are faulty and have a certain self-centeredness that may lure us into judgment, to only later find that we’ve been lured into judging ourselves. The film has a deep heart, yet it successfully steers clear of sentimentality by embodying the conflicted wrestling that often accompanies our most laudable actions.

The extremely good second tier of 2012’s nominations

The four films in my second tier are all very good — and three are quite excellent. As I said above, I had a hard time culling the top tier down to only three. The Artist is the second riskiest film of the 2012 nominations, and like The Tree of Life, we benefit greatly from the risk, even if we are stretched a bit as viewers. It explores well the prideful snares of success, and director Michel Hazanavicius and leads Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo deserve strong kudos for pulling off a silent film without gimmickry and with very little use of dialog cards. Aspects of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close seems to have put some people off, but I think inappropriately so. If one seeks connection with the main character’s suspected disability, the film’s exploration of loss, relationship, and loving forbearance gain compelling strength. Without reservation, I can say that Midnight in Paris is, all-in-all, the most delightful 2012 nomination. One of Woody Allen’s best, the film insightfully explores nostalgia and living fully while muting (but not eliminating) Allen’s tendency to place a film’s themes and questions into the mouths of its characters. Finally, although Moneyball is very good and well worth the time, and though it dwells in important themes like loyalty, courage, and priorities, I found it to be one notch down in terms of its power of embodiment of its themes.

I could readily move The Artist and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close to my top tier. In placing them in my second tier, I find no fault in either that I can point to that pushes it down below the top tier. All I can say is it’s not that these are not worse, it’s that the others are better — the top tier films either have a touch more of excellent filmcraft or explore human concerns a bit more deeply or profoundly. Midnight in Paris does have a notable flaw, but it would not be far behind The Artist and Extremely Loud.

The Artist: With The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius plays subtly but quite creatively with the silent film genre — and to great effect. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo very much deserve their acting nominations. Without their expressiveness, Hazanavicius would have needed numerous additional dialog cards. Ludovic Bource’s score adds only further pleasure to the mix. Yet with all its creativeness, the film’s greater strength is in its exploration of success and pride and human caring. The characters are deep, the story is intricate, and the emotions are real. The questions it embodies and asks reach beyond the film’s story. When Hazanavicius plays with the genre, his departures from strict silent film are both fun and very much organic to the work of the film.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: The most important thing to keep in mind when watching this film is that Oskar, the main character, may (or may not) have Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder. The film, however, is not about autism or Asperger’s (but Adam is). Instead, suspicion of Oskar’s condition frees the film to pursue with greater intensity themes of search for meaning in the wake of loss — that is, with the intensity, single-mindedness, and unintentional lack of regard for the feelings of others that one with Asperger’s might do. More than just the boy’s search, the film (and the book on which it is based) draws greatly from the constellation of relationships around Oskar, each of which brings out something significant about who we need to be: His father, his mother, and his grandmother all love him in their own unique and profound ways, and their characters embody much that we might draw from for our own lives.
Midnight in Paris: I smile every time I turn my thoughts to Midnight in Paris. In crafting the film, Woody Allen turned the dial just barely toward character absurdity so that, though the characters are not absurd, they have a slight touch of tongue-in-cheek absurdity that, throughout the film, keeps in play our own absurdity about life and times and nostalgia. Combined with some lusciously creative turns in the film, watching Midnight in Paris feels much the same as sitting around the living room with friends laughing about and pining for the fun we used to have and then realizing how great life can still be. For pure fun and enjoyment in a film with significance, the 2012 nominations could hardly have found better than this one. Still, Midnight in Paris wouldn’t make it to my top tier because of the (muted) way that its characters directly tell its themes rather than stopping at its delightful embodiment of them.
Moneyball: Though the film is very good, Moneyball has some minor weaknesses that take away from its power. The book on which it is based is, essentially, a sports business book, not a novel. Thus, adapting it to the screen required creation of a story. In places, the adaptation was done very well, yet some of the subplots were not given the space and power they might have had. They tend to point to certain life issues, so that we know the film wants us to consider them, but without building on them enough to help us live through them. Still, the film’s themes of determination, courage, and loyalty do come through pointedly and strongly. All told, thought, I might well choose to swap another film into Moneyball’s nomination slot.

The bottom rung of 2012’s nominations

I was surprised by the nominations of two films: The Help and War Horse. Both are good films with strong hearts, yet their failings in filmcraft detract from their ability to reach as deeply to the heart as they might. The Help, though painted with overly broad, nearly caricatured strokes, makes palpable the pain of racism in the 1960s US south — and with some humor to go with it. War Horse’s story of survival and chance is compelling, even if fantastical, yet Steven Spielberg’s filmcraft is uneven and a bit distracting. Personally, instead of these two films, I would have had Melancholia and Martha Marcy May Marlene on the nomination list — or even Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and A Dangerous Method.

The Help: Perhaps it’s hard for a well-meaning film about racism to not reach the heart, even if it’s filmcraft is hampered by a screenplay with multiple characters that are mere caricatures. Maybe this is what won The Help its nomination. By no means is it a bad film, it’s just that it could have been notably better. That said, the acting is strong and, for counterbalancing the caricatures, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain deserve recognition, if not their individual Oscar nominations — particularly Davis and Spencer. We need reminders like what The Help gives us. In closing, although it is mostly a non sequitur, I will insert a shout out to Pierce Pettis’ song “Alabama 1959” (get the song on: Amazon || iTunes US || iTunes Canada || iTunes Mexico).
War Horse: Not to be crass, but I wonder whether War Horse got its nomination on the strength of Steven Spielberg’s name. The story is strong enough, although viewers that can’t allow for serendipitous events should likely stay away. The settings are superb and the production grittiness lends realism and depth, especially in a battle sequence that one might call Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan sequence for WWI. Yet the lighting is weak at times, to the point of distraction, as is the film’s colorization (especially at the end). Much of the acting is good, yet some is overwrought. Even so, the film is worth the time, though I consider it to be non-essential viewing, except for one extended sequence in the middle that starts with the riderless horse running through a battlefield laced with barbed wire.

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