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Oscarology: 2012 Edition

It’s chocolate! Now I want one more than ever!

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.

The Shoo-In:

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

The Main Competition:

“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

The Dark Horse:

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

The Long Shots:

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?

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

22 responses to “Oscarology: 2012 Edition

  • Pawan Hira (awakeningpsyche)

    I have seen “Midnight in Paris” and “The tree of life”…. I loved the first one, because of Woody Allen’s brilliant storyline….and I agree with your view point about tree of life not getting an oscar…it is just amazing for the eye, as cinematography work is the only the best thing….
    I’m really eager to watch ” The artist” and “Hugo”……and your precise summary is really helpful before I go to watch these movies…

    and a brilliant post covering the oscars…..:)… thanks

  • Suzi

    I agree with you regarding The Descendants. It was okay, but take away Clooney and the Hawaiian setting and it was nothing. I loathed the rambling, uneven narrative structure, and I completely disagreed with the premise that people who are wealthy and live in paradise have the same tragedies as all of us. Trust me, being miserable in Chicago is far worse than being miserable in Hawaii.

    • michaelgloversmith

      I too am baffled by all of the praise THE DESCENDANTS is getting. I think critics are so grateful for any Hollywood studio movie that comes out today that’s NOT aimed at children or teenagers that they tend to wildly overpraise it. It’s funny to think how in the 1970s Hollywood films aimed at adult audiences were a dime a dozen!

  • Zach

    The Descendents was good, but a bit pale compared to About Schmidt and Sideways. And I’m also very upset that the Academy had the gall to nominate a great film like The Tree of Life when they’re clearly not going to support it, favoring The Artist or The Descendents.

    I’d say The Tree of Life, A Separation, A Dangerous Method, Take Shelter, Drive, and Midnight in Paris are the closest things to classics that 2011 produced.

  • Zach

    I see where you’re coming from with J. Edgar. And although I’ve seen better Clint Eastwood films, I do think that critics were a bit harsh on it. I’m also upset that the Academy nominated Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for Best Picture, a film that also received mixed reviews. Surely if they nominated that, they could squeeze in J. Edgar for the absent 10th spot.

  • Corrine Strang

    Thanks for your Oscarology–I’m looking forward to Sun. nite!

  • drew

    After seeing 7 out of the 9 films nominated, and although I totally agree with your predictions for what will win, I would personally put them in this order: Tree of Life, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, The Descendants, The Artist, Moneyball, and The Help. I would describe the first 3 as great and must sees. The second 3 are very good and worth seeing. The last was fair and aside from some great acting, I could’ve done without. I will never see the other 2 nominees.

    • michaelgloversmith

      I still need to see Moneyball. I would rather pull nails out of the floor with my teeth than watch The Help, War Horse or Extremely Loud.

      I think A Dangerous Method and J. Edgar were both robbed. But the very best film to receive an “Oscar qualifying run” in 2011 (meaning it played for a week-long run in a NY or LA theater for the first time) is Abbas Kiarostami’s 2010 masterpiece Certified Copy. That should have been nominated for EVERYTHING. A Criterion release is forthcoming in May.

  • Zach

    Same here on those last two. I really liked Stephen Daldry’s first film, Billy Elliot and want to see his next two, but Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close looks just a bit too sentimental for my taste. I’ll only see it if my family forces me. As for War Horse, I’ve been lenient with Spelberg, mostly because I grew up on his films, but this one looks to be a step too far. I won’t see it, period.

  • Ben Herzberger

    That is funny about Godard not showing up for the award, you’d think the Oscars would make a lifetime achievement award winner sign a contract that he/she would show up to accept: hahaha. Yeah, I really enjoyed J. Edgar, I wonder if it was too dark or something for a lot of people to like it. I’ve been reading a couple books by Ludwig Wittgenstein recently and came across this funny quotation he had from 1947: “A typical american film, naive and silly, can — for all its silliness and even by means of it — be instructive. A fatuous, self-conscious english film can teach one nothing. I have often learnt a lesson from a silly American film.” I think he was watching the major pop/hollywood movies coming out in the 1940s.

  • Zach

    There’s something else I’d wondered if you noticed about The Descendents. I think I found a recurring pattern in how Alexander Payne had ended his last three movies, and The Descendents seemingly broke that pattern. I mentioned it in my final paper from last semester. Did you notice the pattern, or disagree with it?

  • Zach

    I haven’t seen Payne’s debut film, Citizen Ruth, so I don’t know if it applies to that. But in Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways, each film seems to end where the main character feels they’ve lost everything while other characters have found happiness or acceptable content. Than just when we think the main character is lost for good, there’s something in the final minute(s) of the film that promises a brighter life for them.

    And perhaps that was somehow represented in The Descendents, but with more than one character. I just wonder if you’d have that same interpretation from Payne’s films.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Oh yes, I see what you mean. That’s a very interesting thread connecting the previous films. I think one could argue that the pattern continues in The Descendants, only with the crisis point happening much earlier in the film and what you call the promise of a better life being a much slower, more gradual process that takes up the bulk of the narrative. (The Descendants is ultimately about a family being drawn slowly closer together, which is explicitly shown in visual terms in the last scene.) Maybe this is why a lot of critics are calling this Payne’s most “humane” film?

  • Zach

    Yeah, I could see that working. I find it to be a very interesting icon of his work.

  • Ben Herzberger

    Look it’s obvious the winners are Jonah Hill with that handsome deep-purple shirt and Penelope Cruz with that flowing elegant dress.

  • My Blog is Three-Years-Old | White City Cinema

    […] (Bekmambetov, USA, 2012) – 5.7 The Man from the Future (Torres, Brazil, 2011) – 5.8 The Descendants (Payne, USA, 2011) – 5.8 Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA, 2012) – […]

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