We had two great weekends to set up the Academy Awards tonight. We have been going to the Best Picture Showcase since it started back in 2006. Usually I have seen all the movies by that point but as it became apparent that this event was going to be an annual occasion, we started being a little cautious and waited because we knew we had this as a back up. The Academy has upped the number of nominees the last three years, ten for the previous two and nine this year. Before this event I had seen four of the Best Picture Nominees and so I had five new experiences. I am not going to do full reviews on all of them, but I will provide some quick thoughts. For the four I did full reviews on, the poster should provide you a link to that review.
Tree of Life
This is another movie that appears to have polarized critics. Some have loved it and others have described it as mawkish 9/11 porn. It is certainly different and there are some things about it that I like a lot. Here is a trivia question you could probably win a bet or two on, "Which acting nominee fails to speak a single word in their performance?" Many people will be suckered in, thinking that the silent film "The Artist" is the answer, in fact the correct answer is Max Von Sydow in this film. He is one of the great things about the movie. There is also a wonderfully muted performance by Jeffery Wright in the last part of the film. I had problems with the way the story develops and the concept. There is a slight remedy of some of my objections in the last section where Sandra Bullock's mother reveals her involvement in what is going on. It is reassuring and also a bit of a cheat. This is the poster that we won in another of the trivia contests during the long day.
The Descendants This was my second time seeing this movie. If you go back and look at my original comments, you will see that I was ambivalent about the film. Alexander Payne has done some films that I have adored, Sideways among them, but this movie felt to me a lot more cold than the others had. With a second viewing I was able to see the themes a little more clearly and appreciate the situation that is being presented. Clooney does good work, my daughter Amanda thinks he plays George Clooney, but I was a lot less of the cockiness that characterized his roles in "Michael Clayton" and "Up in the Air". He seems more like a lost soul and a desperate man in this than I have found him in other films. Many people have talked about his wardrobe as a tool for conveying the character here. I don't live in Hawaii but I suspect the casual dress and the odd ways he wears his shirts at times might reflect the culture there which is supposedly more lay back. This is the first of the nine films that would not piss me off were it to win. I did not think it was the best but it was very good. Also, sorry to brag but we got one of these posters as well for another answer.
Midnight in Paris Woody Allen is a director and writer that I admire, but a human being that I have deep doubts about. Over the years I have seen many of his films but I also have skipped quite a few. I did not purposefully ignore this when it came out but my wife has a block on Woody and it never worked out to get the timing right with her mood. As it is, she enjoyed this movie immensely as did I. This is one of the charming fantasies that Woody Allen has produced and it ends up being very satisfying. There were some political potshots and the usual snide asides about the movie business, they put me off momentarily. When the premise of the movie kicks in however, the story focuses on finding what is real in life and in artistic expression. It appears that no one will be satisfied with the world they are born in, and we need to make what works there connect for us. The actors playing the famous artists, film makers, writers, and others of the bygone eras visited here were really fine. I especially liked the portrayal of Ernest Hemingway, who delivers the lines in the straight prose of the character even in conversation.. I also thought the first line of Owen Wilson's characters book would make me want to read it as well.
War Horse This was one of the two films that effected me the most
emotionally. I have been a fan of Steven Spielberg since I saw "Duel" as a TV movie of the week way back in the early 1970s. This guy knows how to tell a story. He can make a sprawling event like a world war, into a personal drama that pulls us into the individuals experience. He did it with "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List". Here he manages to do so with a central character that cannot speak a line of dialogue but manages to break our hearts with his courage and spirit. I hope someday to see the play that this movie is based on, because I have heard it is magnificent. Spielberg is not limited to the stage or horse puppets to tell the story and he makes the most of the settings on the battlefields and farms of Europe. Tom Hiddleston, is another one of those actors in two best picture nominees. Here he is the Captain that takes Joey with him to the Great War, in "Midnight in Paris" he is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Most of the characters who encounter the horse are sympathetic, regardless of the side of the war they are on. It is however obvious that war is casually cruel to animals as it is to people. One character tries to diminish the emotion by saying that after all, he's a horse not a dog. I'll bet there are horse people out there who sat up in anger at the thought that their love of an animal was any less valid. I am a sucker for animal stories and this one pulled me in completely. If this were the upset winner tonight, I would be delighted.
The Help This is the movie that should be the favorite but it suffers from having come out in the summer and the original impact it had on audiences will have faded a bit. This is an empowering story of women, civil rights and dramatic changes for the better in our culture. It is hard to fathom that the world portrayed here was actually part of my lifetime. Most of my students will see it as ancient history so they may not be able to feel the same kind of power from it that I did. This movie is filled with great performances from the women in the story. Viola Davis is probably going to win tonight as Best Actress, she is also in our two nominee Best Picture Club having also appeared in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". Joining her at the victory table tonight will be Best Supporting Actress nominee Octavia Spenser. Jessica Chastain is also a nominee and appears in another Best Picture Nominee, "Tree of Life", so she and Viola can compare their membership cards when they see each other after the show. Oh, and here is a leading contender for Best Picture that apparently directed itself. Terrance Malick is sitting in the theater tonight with Tate Taylors directors nomination in his pocket. Shame on the Academy for honoring a director who can't find a story to save his life instead of one who told an incredible story and actually directed people in the movie he was making.
Hugo After seeing all the films and seeing this for a second time, I believe it is the Best Picture of the films nominated this year. The visual imagery is used not to dazzle us with tricks like in "Tree of Life" but to tell us a story. This story is one that should be embraced by movie lovers everywhere. It is about the history of our passion. There is adventure, mystery and fine acting in the movie. It features a character who was a real person and a real magician, so it is something that I can relate to on additional levels as well. It might look like a children's film but it is deeper than that, it has elements that every adult can relate to as well as those things that the kids might care about. This is the movie that I believe in ten years will be the one that appears on all those lists of films that should have won but did not. Other than Spielberg, Martin Scorsese is the closest thing there is to a sure thing when it comes to entertainment. He will be able to look back on films that everyone says are the best of their respective decades and be proud that he worked at this level his whole career. If we ever get a Best Picture Winner made for 3-D, it would be a shame that it was not this piece of heartfelt homage to the infancy of cinema. This was the other film that moved me enough to shed tears on a consistent basis. Let's have one for the romantics and the technicians together.