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Oscar 2013: 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

2013’s Oscar nominations are a diverse set

It’s a quite diverse collection of films that the Academy has singled out for Oscar 2013 Best Picture nomination. Only two are similar enough in their style, theme, and content to feel like they might fit into the same category: Argo and Zero Dark Thirty both deal with suspenseful spy operations. Lincoln and Django Unchained both deal with slavery, but they are very different stylistically. All of the films are good, and all explore important questions in strong ways, but two in particular rise above the lot. Beasts of the Southern Wild and Zero Dark Thirty each take us into hidden worlds that live around us, giving us a compelling space to appreciate people whose lives are very different than most of ours. Beasts of the Southern Wild is also particularly notable for its stylistic creativity. Viewers that prefer to be more careful in what they watch might want to avoid Django Unchained (for violence) and Silver Linings Playbook (for relationship themes).

This year, I would not strongly contend against any of the films being nominated. Yet, having said that, I would have liked for the Academy to find space in the nominations for Moonrise Kingdom and perhaps for The Master and Anna Karenina (2012). I thought Cloud Atlas was also very good, but I can understand why it was not on the Academy’s list.
>> Go to the Oscar Roundup for 2012, for 2011, for 2010

The criteria for my take on the nominations

As usual, in my take on the 2013 nominations, I’m not not trying to predict the winner, nor am I necessarily calling out the ones I “enjoyed” the most (from a pure entertainment point of view). Instead, it’s my take on the lasting worth of the films as artifacts exploring the human condition and from which engaged viewers might be influenced toward becoming who we need to be.

To elaborate, the criteria I use for Oscar Roundup are:

  • Strength of insight into the human condition. I value films more highly when they embody a keen understanding of what is good, true, and beautiful in this life and how, by pursuing those things, we can make ourselves and the world better. The film may show us these 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 when we can come away understanding more 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 setting up nuanced 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 evoked by its story, characters, dialog, and filmcraft. To become who we need to be, insight must find its way to our hearts, training our emotions and changing us from the inside out to love the right things. The emotional connections a film makes are its best path to our hearts. The old filmcraft adage applies: “Show me, don’t tell me.” My corollary is: “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 most important goal: 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 2013 Oscar best picture nominations.

The excellent top tier of 2013’s nominations

My top tier has three films, and the first two were easy to pick. Actually, narrowing it down to one would not be hard for me: Beasts of the Southern Wild is significant and important both in the heart of its exploration and in its creative filmcraft. But it is Beasts’ heart that keeps me coming back to it: the way it gets us inside another culture, one that easily falls out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind, it helps us switch off some of our tendency to judge others not like us. Zero Dark Thirty also compellingly takes us to a different culture, but one that is more at the forefront of our minds as we see the daily news. If I can be forgiven a momentary lapse into hyperbole, both films are nearly flawless in their filmcraft — at least by way of their overall impact. Both raise questions that are important not only for our personal betterment, but also very much for society’s betterment. Amour is also a very important film, yet reading it requires a careful bit of viewing, so (perhaps unfairly) I hold back just a bit in high praise for it.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: At the risk of giving you the wrong idea about Beasts, let me ask: Have you been before in your local “value” department store and seen an apparently lower-class parent mistreating a child? It hurts to watch, and it’s hard to say what one can do (unless it’s really bad). While our judgment may be appropriate, what I notice in myself is how quickly my judgment extends to other, assumed, aspects of the parent’s relationship with the child. It’s that type of assumption that Beasts challenges, and the film even asks us to think carefully about that first judgment, so that we might better understand what truly is mistreatment and what is cultural difference. A parent-child relationship is at the center of Beasts, but its exploration reaches beyond that scope to touch on broader cultural differences and inter-class relations. It is an important film for these reasons, but it deserves an Oscar for its creative merit alone. Its meditative pacing and flow, as well as its intermixing of gritty realism and myth (especially when those worlds meet face-to-face), strike a profound chord in engaged viewers hearts. Oh, and don’t get me wrong: Upper- and middle-class parents can mistreat their children, too.
Zero Dark Thirty: In taking us behind-the-scenes to the world of the international intelligence community’s fight in the war on terror, Zero Dark Thirty’s excellent filmcraft and personal focus on one CIA analyst places us directly in that world, helping us to see something of what it takes to protect the lives of average citizens. The film has raised many rankles about its portrayal of enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT — or torture, as you will), but I think these miss a key point about art and film. Before critiquing what an individual work does not do, it is necessary to first examine what the work is trying to do — it is a non-starter to say a film failed at something that was not its aim. In this case, ZDT is not aiming to examine the merits of EIT. Rather it is exploring one aspect of fighting terror — dismantling terrorist organizational hierarchies — touching on EIT as part of a particular story in that world, and from the perspective of those in that world. Anyway, don’t let the EIT thread distract you from the importance of the film’s work in helping us enter a world foreign to us and to better appreciate intelligence work. After that, if you want to consider EIT and a broader range of international issues, just realize that you are moving beyond the scope of the film.
Amour: The character of love during difficult times is and will always be worthy material for artistic exploration. With Amour, Michael Haneke explores one of the most intimate and difficult times: an elderly person caring for their severely disabled spouse. To the dismay of some reviewers, Haneke does not adorn the raw details of the couple’s relationship with exciting dialog or unique plot twists — the film does not even have a soundtrack — but it is this plain and straightforward telling, with its focus on details, that gives the film its power. The story is also told with great subtlety. So much so that I think many will misread the film. I applaud subtlety in filmcraft, yet if Amour has a notable fault, it is in pushing subtlety a tad too far. But, I risk saying more than I should, since to state a reading of the film is to enter into spoilers. Suffice it to say that I recommend watching the film only when you are committed to very closely reading it.

The extremely good second tier of 2013’s nominations

The four films in my second tier are all very good. Indeed, Les Misérables is quite excellent, and I struggled hard about whether it could displace any in my top tier. Yet, in the end, I decided that its filmcraft is a notch down from the top. Life of Pi’s faithfulness to the book was impressive. However, I place it down a notch because, in being faithful to the book, the film could have better leveraged the sequences with the interviewer and the older Pi to tie the two major parts of the film together. Silver Linings Playbook gives us an off-beat look at our craziness within, yet at its ending, it seemed to want viewers to take a lower view of love and commitment than the beautiful view it had been building up until then. Django Unchained, being a Quentin Tarantino film, is of course quite violent and revenge-oriented. Usually, Tarantino’s vengefulness, though supremely played on film, is an ugliness that causes me to place a film lower in viewer priority (e.g., Inglourious Basterds). In Django’s case, there are mitigating factors that just barely let it remain in my second tier.

Les Misérables: The Wretched, as the film’s title can be translated, supremely embodies major themes from Victor Hugo’s novel: law, justice, mercy, social responsibility, love. A film opera is hard to pull off well and, though the singing is not perfect, the film is strong enough to pull willing viewers in, so it doesn’t much matter (although nit-pickers will go distracted). It seems that many critics, if they found something to pick at, went off on wild rants against the film. Ignore them. There are good reasons for the close-ups and other filmcraft choices that bothered these critics. For lovers of the stage production, the film will be a treat. I could easily have had Les Mis in my top tier, except that I limit myself to three at that level, and the others have greater merits of originality, execution, and overall filmcraft.
Life of Pi: As a very faithful rendering of the book, Life of Pi is excellent. Its special effects, particularly in the form of a stunning computer-generated tiger, are phenomenal. Where the film needed a bit more work is in its rendering of the book’s interview sequences. These needed to tie together the two major parts of the film, yet they come off on the dry side. In essence, they were too faithful to the book. This seemed to have the effect of making it harder for critics to put the two parts together. All this to say that, while Life of Pi is an excellent and beautiful film, viewers need to spend time with it to figure how it stands as one integrated piece of work (I mean, more so than they should have needed to).
Silver Linings Playbook: With its wonderful take on the craziness of life and relationships, Silver Linings Playbook is easily the funnest film in 2013’s nominations. Its performances and filmcraft are wonderful. I related to the characters and was rooting for them — most all the way through. In the end, a major part of the relationship beauty that is core to the film gets suddenly dropped. While I’m not bothered that a film might mirror life in this way, Silver Linings seems to celebrate the dropping, and so my heart was left conflicted and at odds with this part of the film. That said, so much in it was done well that there are plenty of priceless moments to return to, and the film holds its place in my middle tier.
Django Unchained: Tarantino is up to his usual game of violence and vengeance with Django Unchained. I’m tempted to ignore him, but he plays this game very well, and not without merit. In Django’s case, the evil he avenges is slavery in the United States — most definitely a wrong that we should continue to rail against, not too mention to fight against slavery in its current forms across the world. But there’s a difference between emotionally-driven vengeance and considered, careful justice, and Tarantino works to engage our lust for the former. However, Django also works from the side of, ahem, considered justice (dead-or-alive bounty hunting, which was part of the justice system of the time), a backdrop against which its vengeance plays out. Also, the protagonists do start out in a way that aims to avoid raw vengeance. Finally, the worst of the vengeance is meted out by a character who is moving against the perpetrators that personally offended him — thus if he goes a bit crazy, it is understandable (though not excusable). These mitigating factors enabled the film to stay in my second tier.

The lower tier of 2013’s nominations

Lincoln and Argo are very good films, and both have important ways that they can influence us for the better. Still, although I was not surprised by their nominations, and I would not contend against them, I place them on the lower tier because I find certain filmcraft failings in each. With Lincoln, the failings center mainly on the portrayal of the personal side of Lincoln’s life, particularly with his elder son. For me, the onscreen portrayals were not up to the emotional impact that these parts wanted to have — and should have had. With Argo, I fault the filmmakers for believing they had to have multiple fictional inventions to increase the tension level in the film, rather than them digging to find ways to bring out the tension that the characters no doubt felt during the actual events.

Lincoln: If Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance were the determining factor, Lincoln would be in my top tier. Taken altogether, it is a very good film, but it is not as compelling in its portrayal of Lincoln’s personal life as it is with his political life. Even there, the broad strokes of his political life seem to work best as a framework within which we can see the man operate rather than as having a cohesive artistic fabric. Perhaps another way to say all this: in its moments, Lincoln is (mostly) superb, but it needs more to compellingly tie these moments into one sense of wholeness across the film. Nonetheless, it is a worthy film with strong merits.
Argo: I fault Argo mainly on one element, but I consider it to be a big one: In adapting real life events to the screen, the filmmakers felt unnecessarily compelled to invent fictional sequences for suspenseful and dramatic effect. Better would have been for Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio (director and screenwriter, respectively) to dive deeply into the events as they were to find the suspense and tension that was no doubt in the characters’ hearts even with the tamer sequence of real life events. Despite this core weakness in its filmcraft, and for viewers that make themselves aware of the fictions, it is a well-written, well-crafted piece of work. I should clarify one thing about filmcraft and fictional inventions: I’m not saying that such inventions are never appropriate, but rather that they should be sparingly used in cases where compression tells a truer tale, not used to create a more Hollywood-ish film.

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