Saturday, 25 February 2012

Academy Award Nominated Films 2012

The point of award seasons should be to raise awareness to some truly unique film experiences of the past. Of course, when Hollywood is concerned, the quality varies from here to there. Last year, miraculously all Oscar nominees were at least decent. This year, however...

The only way I'll ever watch The Help. Also, a message to anyone thinking I'll watch the ceremony tomorrow.

Okay, now that I've opened yet another blog post with a Legolambs musical, let's take a look at six Best Picture Nominees. I've arranged them according how much you need to see them from unmissable to time-filler. And I haven't still seen War Horse, The Help nor Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. Looks as if I won't either. Can't imagine they would offer anything for me.

Best Picture Nominees:

The Tree of Life
Director: Terrence Malick

I've written about the film so many times for various mediums (and at least twice in this blog alone) that I'm finding it hard to have new things to say about it. Suffice to say that this is by far the most arty of the nominees because it has no clear plot running through it, just imagery circling around the film's main themes. It's an unique piece of work, unlike any other film nominated this year. While it's overall message might be a little on the naïve side, I'd urge anyone to see this and with an open mind. That's why it's hard to see the film win, no matter how much Hollywood respects Terrence Malick and his life work. And even for a movie about memories and coming to terms with the past, I figure most of the Academy's elder members will fall alsleep to. But at least Emmanuel Lubezki's wonderfully beautiful cinematography should bring in the bust. I'll get back to it after the next rewatch.

The Artist
Director: Michel Hazanavicius

As the film has grown more and more probable as this year's Best Picture Oscar winner, it has prompted a lot of people to wonder how was this ever possible for a silent, black-and-white French movie. Yet one look at the film itself and it becomes quite clear why. The Artist is as Hollywood as they come, a feel-good melodrama with plenty of comedy and romance in the mix, lovingly made in the shape of classic movies of yesteryear. And it's about Hollywood itself!

The romantic silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a darling of the crowds. Also in love with the star is up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who gets a job as a dancer in Valentin's new film. Valentin is endeared by the young woman and offers her a secret to success. But Valentin himself is facing rough times as the producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman) introduces Sound Film. Valentin refuses to do talking pictures, and soon finds himself out of work. As Valentin circles toward total poverty, it is left for Miller, who has found her fame in movies since, to rescue her old idol and mentor.

The movie is like a puppy, cute as a bug's ear and impossible to hate. Even though it is very calculated. The symbolic imagery in the scenes is easy to spot and underlines the emotions the characters go through. The story is about how we must innovate and develop ourselves according to what we love, in order to progress. There's also a good reason for Valentin to refuse to work in sound, but that's a mystery left to the very last scene. Hazanavicius teases the audience by casting a number of famous actors known for their distinctive voices, such as Goodman, Missi Pyle, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell, and not allow them to speak. But they do prove that there's more to their acting than just their voices, and deliver great performances. The film still revolves around Dujardin and his problem-struck movie star. Luckily, he is charismatic enough to pull it off. Like the film, it is hard not to symphatize with Valentin even if he is bull-headed, self-absorbed and later, wallowing in self-pity. Of course it helps that he owns such a cute dog.

The Descendants
Director: Alexander Payne

It has been rightfully argued that this year's nominees are mostly about rich white people and their problems. Furthermore, The Descendants is about a flawed family, featuring a troubled teenager and a spunky little-un, coming together against all odds. For an American independent movie game, that's a full Bingo right there. Luckily, this is being handled by Alexander Payne, who is the sharpest dramedy-maker in Hollywood right now.

Elizabeth King, the wife of a Hawaiian land owner and real estate magnate, has a boating accident and goes into a coma. The doctor's prognosis is negative. Thus Matt (George Clooney), her husband, brings their two daugthers together and begins to pick up the pieces of their lives. At the same time Matt has a major deal going down, as old native Hawaiian's lands are about to get sold, making him a millionaire. But Matt's mind is elsewhere as he hears from her daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) that Elizabeth was having an affair behind his back. He attempts to seek out her lover to tell him the bad news as well.

Payne hasn't filmed a movie since 2004's modern classic Sideways, so a new film was eagerly awaited in film circles. But it turned out to be more akin to 2002's About Schmidt, a film about coming to terms with loss andfinding a new way forward. The Descendants is more melancholy-filled than funny. Altough it does offer a few hilarious scenes as well. By first glance the film's characters are clichéd, but Payne has written the film intelligently enough to give each of them some surprising depth, and making them integral to the story he's unfolding. It also allows him to have various different viewpoints into one tragedy, and ways of coping with it. Clooney truly is career-best here, his vunerable, confused character having none of his trademarked suave charm. Here is another rich guy, whose fate is told so well, one can't help but to become engulfed in it. It's not Payne's finest, but still better than most similar directors could even dream of.

Director: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese isn't afraid to step outside his comfort zone. I had bad premonitions of his kid's film, partly because the film's trailer made it seem like a quite horrible film where Sacha Baron Cohen chases kids around and runs into a large cake. Well, in actuality Scorsese brought a film for children that refuses to look down on its audience. There's actually precious few or virtually none action scenes, loud noises and moronic humour. That's why the resulting film is also good entertainment for adults.

In Paris in the 1930's, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a resourceful orphan living in the Grand Station. As a son of a clocksmith, he makes sure that the station's clocks are up and running, but still has to steal to live. He also has to avoid the Station Manager (Baron Cohen), who is bent on capturing any orphans loitering in his station and delivering them to the nearest Dickensian orphanage. Hugo also has a secret project left by his project, which requires various parts from toys and such. He pilfers them from the elder toymaker Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), who eventually catches Hugo in the act, and then confiscates the blueprints Hugo needs to complete his father's work. To get them back, he makes friends with Georges' foster daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Together, they set out to solve the mystery of Papa Georges' past, which takes them through a journey through the history of cinema itself.

As Scorsese has done plenty of culturally significant work in preservation and refurbishing classic films, the film is a sort of letter to the world on why this work is so important. Scorsese also manages to use a fantastic movie to teach children a thing or two about the history of cinema and the work of its pioneers. In fact, he uses so many montages consisting of footage of old films that these scenes resemble some of his documentary work. The central story is heartfelt enough, altough initially the mystery unfolds a little slow, and doesn't quite captivate as much as it should in the beginning of the film. But when the mystery starts to unfold and we start to get answers, the viewer starts to move towards the edge of the seat. The fact that this sort of film, that isn't noisy, based on a pre-existing films, and is frankly difficult to market (as evidenced by that bad trailer) can be successful, reinstores some of my faith in humanity. Another thing restored is the fact that 3D can be used as a good storytelling device. The sense of milieu, and the blueprints of the entire train station are laid out exceptionally well.

Midnight in Paris
Director: Woody Allen

Woody Allen keeps churning a movie a year. I myself have never been very interested in his work (even though I've watched the films which are generally recognized as his most essential). I also allowed this to fall through the cracks when it was first released. But when it began creating buzz and making money, I started to become intrigued. But in the end, all of it is a whole lot of hot air. While Midnight in Paris is by no means a bad film, it is quite flimsy and slight, so much so that there's little that lingers on in the film. This one is not for the ages, then.

Basically, Allen's stand-in is a neurotic writer, working on his first novel after a career writing screenplays. he is visiting Paris with his fiancée, and finds the city's heart to be helpful for his creativity. She, however, along with her parents, despise the city and can't wait to get back to America. That's why after an evening at a wine-tasting, wanders off on his own. This enables him to time-travel to meet a lot of his favorite cultural heroes who have shared time in the city in the past. From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway, and from Pablo Picasso to Salvador Dalí and Luis Bunuel, he finds fellowship in his kin, and necessary instructions on how to improve his work, and in the end, life.

I like the whimsiness of the film and that it has the crucial fantasy element of never explaining its core mystery to the audience. nevertheless, it is pretty clear how this will play out once the set up has been layed out. Allen starts the film with a montage of Paris so long, that the film resembbles more a travel advertisement than a narrative. I'm glad I already had booked a trip to the city before viewing this film. This one is most on the money for Original Screenplay, which is a wonder since Allen goes through is normal tropes, but never really delivers anything genius, super memorable, or even laugh-out-loud funny. It's smart, but never as clever as it thinks it is, or how much the Academy seems to think it is, for that matter.

Director: Bennett Miller

A lot of critics I admire have praised this Sports drama. Personally, I'm not very interested in sports (at least in any that don't frequently feature brutal violence), particularly baseball, but I had heard that the core of the film is set on the backstages and manager's offices of baseball stadiums. That is true, but I still couldn't work out much interest in those goings-on. You see, it doesn't make a difference to me who wins or who loses some stupid match, or even a whole season. So when the stakes are that low, personally I had a pretty boring experience with the film. But that doesn't mean it's totally without merit or wouldn't be a good film for someone else.

The Oakland Athletics baseball team's manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is struggling with low salaries. His team losing an important match doesn't really help things for him. Star players are threatening of leaving the team, and there is little hope of turning his string of losses into vitories when he can't recruit any new talents either. But then he discovers the young analyst Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who has deviced an economic theory in assessing the player's value. This schematic turns out to work well in recruiting new players and Beane is soon in the centre of a rags-to-riches story.

Aaron Sorkin is a great screenwriter, and his cooperation with Steve Zaillan here provides some good dialogue and moves the plot forward. The problem is that it's all played so low-key. The conversations have few high-points. The precious few times when Pitt expresses total anger at his team and the entire system he's playing in are high points, but don't pace the film well enough for it to capture the viewer's interest. Likewise, the film is overlong, as anyone who has ever seen a sports movie probably knows the basics of the plot from the get-go. Also the clichéd scenes with his estranged family and young daughter are way too familiar, even if they are based on a true story. But at least that gives an excuse to have a catchy acoustic song in the film.

Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay

Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy
Director: Thomas Alfredson

The Swedish director Thomas Alfredson's film is smarter and better than any of the Best Picture  Nominees, yet it has had to suffice on being nominated for smaller awards, which is a shame. This cold war spy thriller strips away all the glamour from the espionage business. It is a twist-filled whodunnit mystery and a slide into paranoia at the same time. It's a demanding film, which requires the viewer to stay awake for every single minute of its running time. I will see this film again in the theatre, which I haven't done once since The Human Centipede. I simply feel that Tinker, Taylor rewards repeat viewings handsomely.

A British MI6 agent is mudered on a business in Budapest. This causes the Minister of Defence to fire the Head of the British Intelligence, Control (John Hurt), and his right-hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Off the record, Control gives the retired Smiley the task of finding out who among their inner circle has betrayed their trust and is in actuality a mole for the Soviet Union. Smiley won't have it easy as he himself is among the five main suspects and thus isn't trusted among his peers. The only one helping him in his investigations at first is the eager young agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). Smiley will have to see rogue agents, men on the run, shady figures and many other shady figures to find out the betrayer. If he himself is not killed before that.

The film's plot is a complicated web of conspiracies and lies. This would be challenging enough, but the narrative isn't straight-forward, and jumps back and forth in time. Also, there are plenty of characters to keep track of. In the end, the main plot isn't that hard, but to find out all the nuances and the whereabouts and goings-on of various characters, one must concentrate considerably. The film's aesthetic is such that it's easy to find oneself lost on its world. Even the smallest details are made important, and the film's rainy cinematography and 70's design aesthetics are well-realized enough to get the viewer easily lost among them. The real treat here are the performances. As good as Gary Oldman is (and he's really, really good.), the whole film is an ensemble piece, starring a cast of the best British talent to die for. With Oldman and Hurt, there's also great performances Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds. One feels that these actors actually inhabit the jobs of their characters and have actually been spying on us with their other film roles. One does get a paranoid feeling from out of all this, but I would've still wanted to see the film again as soon as I walked out of the theatre.

History will prove that these sort of films will last, while no matter how many Oscars a certain film wins, it may still fall into obscurity. Hell, it happened to the last silent movie that won, Wings.

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