Out of a field of nine candidates, this year’s Best Picture Oscar race has essentially boiled down to a contest between The Artist and The Descendants. Most pundits feel that The Artist has the upper hand, not because it is the better film (although I personally think that it is) but because, as in real world politics, the people who are backing it are simply better at running a campaign. In this post, I will handicap the Best Picture race and offer other random thoughts on the five out of the nine nominees that I’ve seen.
To borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris, I found The Artist to be lightly likable. I don’t think it’s worth all of the praise it’s getting but, perhaps because I went in with low expectations, I found myself pleasantly surprised by its lightweight charm. (Just because it’s the frontrunner, doesn’t mean it can’t be good!) Unfortunately, French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius gets the silent era in Hollywood wrong in terms of both story and production design. The film takes place mostly in the summer and fall of 1929 so that he can incorporate the stock market crash into the plot when it would actually make more sense for most of the events to be taking place in 1927 or 1928. The notion that a major U.S. studio of the period would have a Euro-centric name like “Kinograph” is absurd. And why is it that a movie ostensibly conceived of as a tribute to the silent era has only films from the 1940s and 1950s as its key reference points? The story is basically a mash-up of A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain while also borrowing style elements from Citizen Kane and Vertigo. The appropriation of Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from the latter recently caused controversy when Kim Novak wrote an op ed claiming that it made her feel “raped.” While Ms. Novak’s choice of words may have been unfortunate, I’m actually siding with her on this one; the problem, for me, isn’t that Hazanavicius used the score from another movie. The problem is that he expected it to do the heavy lifting that his images couldn’t accomplish. But it doesn’t really matter that The Artist fails as a tragedy because it does succeed as a comedy. Charisma can go a long way and lead performers Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo and, especially, Uggie the dog have charisma to burn. I’m not sure if Uggie gives the greatest dog performance ever, as some critics have claimed, but his expressiveness does remind us that animals are sorely underused in movies in general. All in all, The Artist is worth seeing. The Artist Rating: 6.4
“Worth seeing” is a phrase I can also apply to Alexander Payne’s overrated The Descendants – but just barely. The cast is uniformly good but I really, really disliked the entire narrative thread about the dilemma of George Clooney’s character regarding whether to sell his family’s ancestral land. Clooney’s climactic speechifying about how his family has “Hawaiian blood” and “a connection to this land” when those issues haven’t once been touched upon throughout the entire movie up to that point is bizarre. And as good as Beau Bridges is as a laid-back beach bum in his first scene at a bar, the moment at the end where he’s holding a pen in front of Clooney and coming on like Mephistopheles is just awful. Payne also has an unfortunate tendency to underline the Big Meaning of a scene – like the final ice cream-sharing moment that illustrates how Clooney and his daughters have grown closer together because of the events that transpired, or the scene where Clooney has a late night talk with the older daughter’s boyfriend and realizes that, hey, even idiot slackers know what it means to experience loss too. I miss the edgier, mean-spirited humor of Payne’s earlier work but he’ll probably be taking home the Adapted Screenplay Oscar for this. Clooney winning Best Actor is also likely. The Descendants Rating: 5.8
Hugo is considered a dark horse for Best Picture, which is interesting in that, like The Artst, it concerns the silent cinema. But unlike Hazanavicius’ superficial emulation of silent film aesthetics (black and white film stock, square aspect ratio and, um, you know, no sound), Martin Scorsese’s picture better captures the feel of silent movies and, perhaps paradoxically, does a better job of telling its story through images. Like F.W. Murnau, Scorsese knows how to put emotion into camera movement and his swooping, swooning, lyrical crane shots, combined with Dante Ferretti’s superb production design and an intelligent, judicious use of 3-D (i.e., shit isn’t popping out at you every three seconds) make this one of the most purely pleasurable viewing experiences of the past year. Not everything in Hugo works for me. I wasn’t crazy about the tacked on romance between Sasha Baron Cohen’s station inspector and Emily Mortimer’s flower girl. But all of the scenes involving movie watching, movie making and movie preservation are emotionally moving and, let’s face it, a cinephile’s dream. Finally, as a film studies instructor, I’d like to personally thank Scorsese (who I suspect has a real shot at upsetting Hazanavicius for Best Director) for single-handedly making my job easier; when I show A Train Arriving at La Ciotat and A Trip to the Moon in class now, a lot of students already know what the hell I’m talking about. Hugo Rating: 8.2
I already wrote a long, joint review of the following two movies when they first opened in Chicago last spring:
The Tree of Life – This doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning Best Picture but Emanuel Lubezki is a lock for Best Cinematography.
Midnight in Paris – Yet another Best Picture contender set in the 1920s? Good to know nostalgia can extend back almost a hundred years! This is actually my favorite film nominated for the top award but it has no chance of winning. Woody Allen fans will have to content themselves with the Best Original Screenplay Award instead.
That reminds me: last year my brother, with his characteristic wit, told me the highlight of the Oscars for him was when Jean-Luc Godard didn’t show up to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award. Will the highlight of this year’s show be Woody again not showing up to collect his fourth Oscar?