Oh, hello. I didn’t see you there. Well, since you’re here, I guess it’s that time of year again, when we go through last year’s best films, and then nominate two or three of them for Best Picture Oscars and six other acceptable movies for the rest.

In 2010 the possible number of nominees for the Best Picture category was raised to 10, which made seeing all the nominees twice as difficult and usually included at least one or two really mediocre movies where you were like, “Really? You think this is one of the ten best movies of last year?” This year, because they no longer HAD to nominate 10, and because they were having a really classy year in which they hired a homophobe to direct the Oscars who later quit after he made himself the asshole of Hollywood if he wasn’t already, the Academy decided to only nominate nine movies, because of course, there were only nine movies last year. (As far as I’m concerned, this is the only excuse.)

I’d just like to take a moment out to point out what bullshit it is that Bridesmaids didn’t get the 10th nomination, as I’m pretty sure the category’s expansion to 10 was just so movies like Bridesmaids COULD be nominated. Would I have expected it to win? No. Would it have been great to see a movie that clearly featured, at least according to the Academy, Oscar-caliber writing and acting score a Best Picture nom as well, since it was obviously operating within that sphere? Yes. Do I think it would have really helped the state of women in movies? Yes, actually I do. But the Academy, because it wants you to know that it doesn’t have to nominate 10 movies, only nominated nine.

Anyway, let’s sit and talk about those nine movies, several of which are good, some of which are okay, and one of which made me want to claw my own brain out and then eat it. Annoyingly for my post-writing purposes, a lot of the acting nominees aren’t from these movies, making it harder to discuss that, but don’t worry about it. At the end I’m gonna briefly summarize who is likely to win (not necessarily whom I, personally, wish would win), whether or not they’re from these nine movies. But in case you didn’t see them, and want to sound knowledgeable and like you did so you can argue with your friends using subjective analyses, please feel free. Also please feel free to argue with me, unless you want to argue about Tree of Life, in which case there’s no point.

For your convenience, here’s an easy way to jump from movie to movie, if you don’t want to read them all (since, even with only nine movies, this post is monstrous), and also for the most part they are free of spoilers that you wouldn’t find on the back of a DVD cover or something unless otherwise indicated.

 

The ArtistThe DescendantsExtremely Loud & Incredibly CloseThe HelpHugo
Midnight in ParisMoneyballThe Tree of LifeWar Horse
The Short Version 

 

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

Finally, finally, finally, finally, for the first time in nearly a decade, I agree with something the Academy thinks. Is this movie definitely, 100% going to win the Oscar for Best Picture? I’d say yes, but I also would’ve told you the same thing about Brokeback Mountain, so there you go.

The Artist is the silent story of dashing silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who, with the advent of sound at the cinema, finds himself on his way out just as the star he accidentally launched, Peppy Miller, begins to rise. Their careers seem to function completely inversely, his dipping to less than nothing and sending him into a terrible depression as she becomes a household name. He loses everything except his dog and meanwhile, without his knowledge and forever in his debt, she is secretly trying to pick up the pieces of his broken life so that one day it can be whole again.

Stylistically this movie is hardly unique. After all, all it really is, is a silent film, although there are a few moments in it that actually would’ve been impossible in a silent film so it was kind of cool to see them not completely abandoning the conventions of the date. It kept it from feeling too contrarian for me. It’s not even unique in the age; there have actually been several silent films made in the last decade. This is one of the few that actually seemed necessarily so to me, though.

To be honest when I went to watch this movie I was expecting it to be over-hyped and gimmicky. The best I could say for it was that I really like Jean Dujardin, whom I think might literally be the most charming person on the planet, next to Jason Segel. But I didn’t expect to like this movie despite the rave reviews. So imagine how annoyed I was to find out that it actually was that amazing.

Somewhere before the 20-minute mark I was solidly convinced I was watching the most charming movie ever created. That, and I think it was one of the most well-crafted love stories I’ve encountered possibly ever, managing to make me believe that George Valentin and Peppy Miller were in love and meant to be together faster than almost any other movie has managed (with perhaps the exception of, remarkably, Up). In fact, I’ve seen romances that rely entirely on how desperately in love a couple is that have never managed to do in the entire movie what The Artist does with its two main characters over the course of two scenes. It is a testament to its perfection and perhaps the over-complexity of most movies you see that they did this all without dialog. It wasn’t necessary. Like at all. In silent film tradition, even the intertitles were generally unnecessary to understand what was going on and added only to emphasize points occasionally or represent the most important sounds.

This is why Jean Dujardin deserves every molecule of the Oscar he is in all likelihood going to receive on Sunday. Without ever speaking a word, he managed to not only convince me that all these things I was supposed to believe were true–like that George Valentin was a dashing celebrity, or that he was in love with Peppy Miller–but to convey even the most complicated emotions. In one scene, he fires his faithful….I don’t know what you’d call him…valet? driver? played by James Cromwell, after realizing that he is still standing by his side doing everything that he used to even though he hasn’t been paid in a year. What was incredible about this scene was that, even without the intertitles, you could see on his face exactly what he was thinking, about how awful it was that such a faithful and nice man could be working himself to death serving someone who couldn’t afford to pay him or feed him or give him anything he deserved, and knowing that the only way he would ever leave is if he was fired. Had this been explained in dialog, it would’ve been easy enough to understand. That I understood all of this from looking at George Valentin’s expression for just a second explains why this was such an amazing performance, why the movie was better silent, and why it deserves every award ever.

The emotions in this movie are complicated even if the plot is simple, which is, admittedly, something that the Academy really loves. Whatever the case, I’m sure I spent the actual majority of this movie sobbing uncontrollably not even because it was so sad all the time, although the depth of George Valentin’s sadness and the incredible sympathy anybody who’s ever been really down on their luck should feel for him is a definite factor, but because it was so emotionally poignant, because it hit the nail right on the head about so many things that I was feeling, that apparently my body’s physiological response was to start crying. The lack of dialog made the story better and more universal. That George Valentin and Peppy Miller could be in love so soon might have been a concept destroyed by speech, if they’d had to dance back in forth with words instead of literally. But with, again, just the looks exchanged between George Valentin and Peppy Miller, I didn’t need to know anything else to understand the strength of the emotion. The whole movie is that, becoming universal because there is no speech to marry it to only George Valentin’s existence. This movie is about everyone who has fallen from happiness and is hope for everyone who wants to believe–though sometimes it’s hard to keep believing–that they can have it again one day. It is about repaying good deeds with more good deeds and love with more love. It is about being a good person and hoping against hope even on your darkest days that one day it will come back to you again, and what happens when you lose that hope and how, or if, you can retrieve it again.

The concept for this movie is so simple, the delivery is flawless, and the result is beautiful. I feel like I’ve been waiting for it forever.

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The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

This is the story of a man (George Clooney) whose wife falls into a coma following a speedboat accident. Just as he learns that she is beyond saving, he also discovers that she was cheating on him and planning on leaving him before the accident. Aided by his two daughters, he decides to seek out the man she supposedly loved so that he can say goodbye to her because he thinks that anybody who loved her deserves the opportunity.

I was going to say that maybe it was just the point at which I saw this movie, shortly after experiencing the death of a family member myself, that made it so affecting, but I honestly don’t think that it is. I think it’s just a good movie.

Alexander Payne has always been able to make a good movie, but I think this is his first foray into straight drama (though Sideways was pretty close). He has style, though, and the funny moments in his movies are always really, really funny and somehow bizarre. I think he also has a way of getting the best possible performances out of his actors, because I can name at least five actors in movies of his whom I’ve almost never seen do a better job before or since. In this case the only movie I can immediately recall Clooney being more awesome in that isn’t directly related to how cool the movie is would be Syriana, for which he won his first Oscar. Somehow, within the confines of this movie, I actually believed that George Clooney could be a kind of lost and silly and confused chump, which are a lot of words I would never ever use to describe George Clooney, proving again that he is not just a pretty face. Before I saw The Artist I was actually pretty sure that Clooney had a shot at winning the Best Actor Oscar, but I guess that’ll teach me to be pretty sure of anything before I’ve seen the competition. I do think that Clooney is the only person who could wrest the Oscar away from Jean Dujardin, although unfortunately for him, he’s already won an Oscar (for the aforementioned Syriana), and we allllllllllll know he’ll be back again, so politically speaking, awarding him an Oscar in this case is superfluous when he’s already got one and somebody who probably won’t be back without the help of an Oscar (and who also, in my opinion, legitimately deserves to win) is up for the same award.

While this movie is wonderful in many different ways and somehow manages to explore deep themes without making me feel like someone is preaching at me and actually trying to make me Think About My Life and My Legacy in case I die tomorrow (as Matthew Crawley would say, touch wood!), I’ve seen better. Like most of the movies on this list, it’s good, and I’d recommend it, but I don’t think it should win, even though according to the Golden Globes it’s probably the only one on this list that can take the statuette away from The Artist. But even that’s a long shot.

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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry)

I love Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated with a desperate passion, so of course, I immediately bought this book when it came out. And I never opened it because I am awful and forgot how to read, apparently. I don’t even mean I read a few pages and never got around to finishing it, I mean I literally had no idea what it was even about until I saw the previews for this movie.

I have been told that, like Everything Is Illuminated, the movie is not wholly faithful to the book and abandons one of the primary storylines (because JSF seems to like having two thematically linked stories about relatives in his books I guess). Whatever the case, here’s the brief summary: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is about a precocious boy, Oskar, with many fears and lots of intelligence and a very loving father (Tom Hanks, who is fan-fucking-tastic in this movie) who dies in the World Trade Center. Trying to cling to the last memories of his father, one day the boy finds a key hidden in an envelope hidden in a vase hidden in his father’s closet, and the only clue he has as to what the key might open is the word “Black” written on the envelope. Oskar is doggedly determined to find the lock the key fits, and travels back and forth across the five boroughs visiting everyone with the last name “Black” trying to find out what they know, hoping that when he finally finds the lock, everything will somehow make sense. The trite-sounding part of the summary is that during his journey he discovers the love of the rest of his family is just as important as the love of his lost father, etc.

The thing I really don’t get about this movie is how, on Rotten Tomatoes, Tree of Life has literally DOUBLE the percentage that this movie does. DOUBLE. And what a lot of critics have said of this movie is that it’s too pretentious and emotional. How are these the same guys who reviewed Tree of Life? Guys, you can’t seriously be telling me that this movie is too pretentious and emotional but Tree of Life is somehow not. It has also called it “emotionally exploitative,” which I also find irritating. Understandably the subject matter is pretty sensitive to a lot of people, and as a result this movie is incredibly depressing–because 9/11 is still incredibly close to us. But at what point does making a movie about a tragedy that affected thousands of lives directly and millions more in other ways necessarily make it exploitative? HAVE there been exploitative movies about this tragedy? Yes. But when is a movie about something like 9/11 exploitative, and when is it explorative? A lot of lives were affected that day. I don’t understand why we should ignore this history-altering event in cinema as a blanket rule, since movies are supposed to be about things that affect us. If they aren’t, then what’s the point? I guess I just don’t understand how a movie that seems quite respectful of the impact of 9/11 on individual lives is exploitative because it makes you cry. If it were cold and emotionless, would it be acceptable? I don’t think the sole purpose of this movie is to make me weep because it evokes memories of a sad day.

In fact, I think the point of this movie is much greater and that 9/11 as its basis magnifies the emotional intensity I feel in remembering the event. It is easier, 10 years out, to forget how terrible a thing it was. Sure, we know it, but I think most of us have tried to put away the sadness and move forward. It’s, above all things, a movie about loss. It’s one story about one boy who loses his only companion in his sweet and caring and loving father that day and doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to let him go, either. It’s desperately sad because we see exactly how wonderful this father and son are together. They are thick as thieves, two peas in a pod, and Oskar feels very alone but not when he’s with his father. To think of the fact that a parent as wonderful as Oskar’s father died too soon is a tragedy anyway. It’s sad to think that a man this great is no longer in the world. And to see the sadness and loneliness in Oskar and his mother as a result is sadder still. To remember that this actually happened to thousands of people that day is the worst. Upsetting, yes, but emotionally exploitative? I disagree. I think it is a well-timed reminder of how far-reaching the effects of something like this are, and that the sad story is not just the people who died but all the people who lost someone they loved as maddeningly and desperately as Oskar loved his father, for reasons that we still find it difficult to understand. It is necessary for the story that the death takes place in 9/11 because not only does the story serve as kind of a New York love song–and New York is a city that has 9/11 so deeply ingrained in its existence that ignoring it seems kind of willfully ignorant–but it was a day that showed a lot of people the best and worst of what people can be, and a lot of this story is about the worst of what Oskar fears he was on 9/11.

I’m not going to spoil the whole story here, but as the movie goes on, we do gradually hear a series of answering machine messages from Oskar’s father, slowly revealing the ambiguous story of what happened to Oskar between when he got home from school and when his mother came home from work. Not a lot of time, but desperately important to the core of Oskar, and, furthermore, a story I have heard MANY different variations on from people recounting their own 9/11 experiences.

When all is said and done this is a movie I’d recommend. On the count of it being pretentious, I think it’s hard for something as hipstery as the story of a precocious kid searching around New York for the lock that belongs to a mysterious key to avoid that pitfall. Like I said, I haven’t read the book, but I don’t have to reach very far in my imagination to envision people finding Foer’s stuff a bit pretentious. But in this case I don’t think it overshadows the content, and I don’t think that this is a movie of form over function at all (unlike, say, Tree of Life).

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The Help (Tate Taylor)

I saw some kind of meme picture a while ago that had the poster for The Help but the title replaced with “White People Solve Racism.” I honestly think that’s this movie, in a nutshell.

I realize it’s much more complicated than that, but here’s how the story goes: in Mississippi in the ’60s, a young white writer (Emma Stone) comes back from college looking for a story. She finds it in the discrimination of her peers (upper-class white girls) against the African-American help. Basically they are used and abused, and Emma Stone won’t stand for it anymore, so she decides to write a book about it, which is very radical, and it takes a lot of convincing the maids to tell their stories because if they’re found out they’ll lose their jobs but eventually they all sign up because of some injustice committed against them.

Look, there are some great things about this movie. One is obviously the performances, all of which were solid. It was watchable. It is the ONLY one of ALL of these movies that is female-centric, or indeed appears to have two women actually talking to each other for longer than 11 seconds. And I agree that racism sucks and it’s appalling the way that some of the characters treat the help.

But in the end, it all comes down to the “White People Solve Racism” malarkey. People have discussed this better and with more back-up than I can, so if you want to see the “this is bullshit” argument please feel free to consult Uncle Google. It just seemed like even within this movie, they were saying that the African-American women couldn’t get anywhere with what they wanted without the help of the one determined rich white girl, who, to her credit, did seem to genuinely want to help and to care about these women but ultimately wanted one thing most: to sell a book to a publisher. Sure, in the end, she ended up really caring about these women, but she was kind of out for her own gain, too, and when all is said and done that’s really all that’s accomplished by her book, anyway, except that it embarrasses some of its unnamed subjects. So that’s the extent of the social change accomplished by the publication of a book: the white people in the story treat the help appallingly, and in recompense, they are made to feel awkward in public. Whoa. I mean, that’s a lot of social change.

And again, while the performances are good with the material they’ve had, a lot of it strikes me as so trite that it seems wrong to hand out awards like candy to some of these people, not because they aren’t good actors (because they are) but because I feel like the qualification for winning an Oscar ought to be more than somehow lending credence to over-emotional garbage. Octavia Spencer is most likely going to win the award for Best Supporting Actress, but honestly I don’t think this movie deserves an Oscar because it strikes me as one of those movies that preys on Academy voters by tackling a rough and important subject, like racism, and showing social change. But they did love Crash, and it wasn’t very good, either, and I honestly think they’re like, “It’s about conquering racism, so it must be great.” But I don’t think that makes it great.

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Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

It is weird how this is a year where a lot of these movies revolve almost entirely around children. Not a majority, but three of these movies feature children as the main characters, four if you count War Horse, and two more of them feature kids in strong supporting roles. The best part was that they were all so different that when I tried to pick which kid was the best, I couldn’t even figure out a basis for comparison. Isn’t it nice to know that, in the years to come, we won’t have to watch the same kid in every movie that involves a kid until we all, as a society, can no longer stand that kid and want to see that kid fail as an adult? I think that’s nice.

Another interesting thematic link is that this is the second of these nine movies to be about the movies. That’s just great. And both of them are fun and imaginative. What I really loved about this one is that it does not purport to be a movie about movies, and in fact the cinematic element of it isn’t introduced until quite a while in. Full disclosure, in case it wasn’t obvious: I was a film major. That said, I already knew several of the pieces of the puzzle that is Hugo, and didn’t realize it until halfway through, which was pretty delightful.

So anyway, the summary is that Hugo is about an orphan, Hugo Cabret, who lives in a Parisian train station, winding the clock every day, relentlessly pursued by the ruthless station agent (Sacha Baron Cohen) who just loves sending orphans off to the orphanage. A sentimental boy with a mechanical mind, Hugo spends his days trying to figure out how to repair a strange automaton that was built to write something that his father found and they were fixing up together before his father’s death. His father’s drawings of the automaton with estimations of how to fix it are all in a small notebook, which at the beginning of the movie are confiscated by the owner of a toy repair shop, who is somehow emotionally stirred by the diagrams and is already displeased at Hugo for being a thief. Hugo, desperate to hang on to the last remains of his father’s memory (another theme, apparently) and believing that whatever the automaton writes will be a message from his dad, follows the man home and convinces his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) to save the notebook for him. In their quest to get the notebook back into Hugo’s hands, the two are drawn together with a mutual sadness (both are orphans), and apparently a mutual love of adventure. Isabelle persuades him to work for her godfather, whom she calls Papa Georges, in the toy shop to gain his trust, and Papa Georges agrees to let Hugo earn back his notebook. After doing this for some time, Hugo manages to fix the automaton on his own, but he’s still missing one crucial piece to make it work: an unusually heart-shaped key that winds it up.

So this is all stuff that you could find in any synopsis of the movie. After this part I’m going to start going into kind of spoilery territory (I won’t tell you how it ends, but it will make a lot of the movie less mysterious).

One day, after a trip to the movies with Isabelle after which Hugo describes how special the movies are to him and how the first movie his father saw was Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (although Hugo describes it as a movie where a rocket ship crashes into the eye of the man in the moon), they return to the train station and discover that the heart-shaped key has been worn around Isabelle’s neck the whole time. They wind up the automaton and discover that it doesn’t write, but it draws, and what it draws is a picture of a rocket ship crashing into the eye of the man in the moon, just as Hugo’s father had described to him, signed Georges Melies–Papa Georges’ full name. To unravel the last mystery his father left behind, Hugo needs to find out what the drawing means.

Those who are familiar with film history probably would have identified the movie that the picture belongs to upon its first description: A Trip to the Moon, which you can see in its entirety here if you haven’t already. I suppose the way that they keep the movie mysterious up until that point is not revealing exactly what Papa Georges’ full name is, or maybe they do but I wasn’t paying attention because I am terrible. I don’t think they do, though. What’s astonishing about it is that, while the elements of the story involving Hugo are fictional, almost all the details that emerge regarding Georges Melies are not, to an almost creepy extent. Melies did, for example, build automatons. He even built cameras using parts from the automatons as described in Hugo. The story of his rise and fall is true. The depiction of his studio is pretty accurate. He was a magician before a filmmaker, then worked in a train station. All of these small details are true, and it is no wonder that Brian Selznick, the author of the book on which Hugo is based, learned all these things and decided that somewhere in here was a great and clever story. And you can tell that Martin Scorsese just had a great time making this movie, and why shouldn’t he? After all, replicating the studio of Georges Melies and showing it off in your own movie is no small feat. It’s actually quite an accomplishment and it was pretty beautiful and any film school brat would be thrilled and it’s pretty clear that he was. I think that’s what I liked best about this movie: it was so against Scorsese’s type, and yet, it was very clearly something made by Martin Scorsese.

Now for the bottom-line: this is not going to win Best Picture. It’s wonderful and I highly recommend it, but even in a year without The Artist, it’s a bit too flighty and underexposed to win. Could it make a stir? Possibly. I think if anybody can take the Best Directing Oscar away from Michel Hazanavicius, it will be Martin Scorsese. If he hadn’t already won an Oscar a few years ago, I’d say that Michel Hazanavicius should be very afraid. Man, is his name rough to type. But politically, because Scorsese already has an Oscar, and also because this movie was so unusual for Scorsese, I’m gonna say it’s not going to happen. I also don’t know about Academy voters, but the fact that this movie was released in 3D loses major points with me and I know at least two people who point-blank refused to see it because of this. Maybe I’m just a purist and I realize this is a whole new can of worms, but I hate 3D, and I think it is a stupid fad that generally means that a movie doesn’t have to bother being good because it’s got a neat little gimmick. Admittedly this is one of the few movies I’ve seen designed to be exhibited in 3D that didn’t suck, but I hate it, and I kind of can’t believe that people like Scorsese and Coppola are hopping on the 3D train (although Coppola has not made a good movie in forever, unless we are talking about Sofia). That people say that 3D is as important to the movies as sound was strikes me as ridiculous. No it’s not. 3D movies have existed at least since the 1950s. The 3D wasn’t as good, but you know why it didn’t change the way movies were made then? Because it is a gimmick. And, according to how good The Artist was, even sound is more overrated and unnecessary than previously thought. The real winner of Hugo is Sacha Baron Cohen, who has made such a big stir about coming to the Oscars in character as the Dictator Admiral General Aladeen that I have to commend him for pissing off the Academy so much and getting his way by somehow making them look like the bigger dicks even when he is dressed as a dictator making Jew jokes. Also he was actually really good in Hugo.

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Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

Midnight in Paris is about a Hollywood screenwriter, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), who goes on holiday with his fiancée Inez and her family to Paris as he struggles to write his novel. Inez is, I dunno, California dreamin’, whereas Gil wants to live in Paris. She thinks it’s all a flight of fancy. He’s serious. He loves Paris. Believing the current generation to be somehow lacking, he longs to live in a different time, to go back to the ’20s, to rub elbows with the Lost Generation in Paris, like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Then, one night, while wandering the streets alone, an old-fashioned car full of drunken vintage passengers pulls up beside him and invites him in. Not having anything else to do, he joins them, and finds himself at a party with F. Scott himself, who takes him to meet Hemingway. After a chat with Hemingway, he agrees to pass Gil’s novel onto Gertrude Stein for criticism. Trying not to piss himself with excitement, Gil leaves the restaurant to retrieve his novel, only to discover that he has somehow walked into the present again.

He tries to tell Inez about this magical thing that has happened to him, and even to show her, but she lacks the patience to wait long enough and she doesn’t believe him anyway, but every night at midnight, a car pulls up and drives Gil right into the 1920s, where he befriends his idols and meets Picasso’s mistress, the drop-dead gorgeous Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who herself longs for La Belle Époque, believing this generation to be empty. As the two fall in love, Gil begins to understand that every age longs for a different one, believing things to be better there, somehow, but the problems and the magic are always there.

If you don’t like Woody Allen, you’re not going to magically like this movie, because it’s very clearly a Woody Allen production. One of the wonderful things about it, and weirdly something I feel like only Woody Allen could do, is that it never really tries to explain the exact method by which Gil travels in time, and what the rules are, and what does and doesn’t work, and strangely, Gil never seems to question it very much himself. My point is that most things that involve time travel spend a great deal of time caught up in the mechanics of it, whereas this one simply acknowledges that it happens and moves past it, dealing with the conflicts of existing in two separate times and the knowledge that one is temporary but not bothering with the how and the why because it isn’t really important. The only problem with the narrative that this leads to is the question of whether or not Gil has imagined the entire thing but Woody Allen, apparently having noticed that this would be an unanswered question and not wanting it to be, easily finds a way to confirm that it’s really happening within the narrative.

This is another movie that’s wonderful, dealing with all kinds of people one might recognize if one is a fan of art, literature, music or film, and throwing them all together in a fantastical circus where we get to see them interact with someone who functions as an audience proxy. On a personal level, this one, like The Artist, was kind of a movie that I didn’t really realize I’d been waiting forever to see until I was watching it, but the point it makes is valuable: that there is no generation that has lost its heart, there is no ‘better time,’ and that while the specifics and the clothing might change, the problems are universal. At the same time it is magical, offering the opportunity to fly fantastically into a universe where all the people from the past whom you admire embrace you as one of their own. It’s marvelous in many ways, but there’s always a sense of dread–first that it could end suddenly and you could never go back, and then the slowly dawning knowledge that even if you stayed here forever you would begin to find the same faults with this time that you found with your own. All of these things are slickly conveyed by Owen Wilson’s Gil, who is fun to watch and easy to sympathize with. In fact, I’d say that’s this movie in a nutshell: fun to watch, easy to understand, because its theme is pretty universal. Who among us doesn’t sometimes long for a different time and place? Who doesn’t want to be loved by our idols? And yet, even if we could travel in time, and befriend our heroes, would things really be better?

This is probably not going to win any Oscars, unless it pulls off Original Screenplay, if for no other reason but that it still has that Woody Allen flavor and that is good for some people and it isn’t for others (although Annie Hall had it, too, and it still won, but that was 30 years ago). But would I recommend it? A thousand times yes. Bonus points for its super sexy F. Scott.

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Moneyball (Bennett Miller)

I know a lot of people who said that they didn’t want to see this movie because they didn’t really like baseball, or sports movies. These are usually the sort of people who have yet to realize that sports movies are very rarely about actual sports, and usually inspiring stories about something else. Of course, some people don’t really want to see inspiring stories about something else, using sports as the skeleton, which I can’t fault anyone for, I’m just saying, people always list exceptions that are like quintessential sports movies, like Rudy. Really? If you like Rudy, you fucking like sports movies.

That said, Moneyball is, in my opinion, actually a sports movie. The real point is, I’m going to summarize it briefly, and it’s going to sound really really boring, and the fact that it’s not actually is a testament to how well done it is. Basically, Moneyball is about a low-budget baseball team’s general manager (Brad Pitt) who loses three of his top players to teams with more money. He has to somehow attempt to rebuild the team on a budget that’s less than a quarter what the big teams have. Knowing that every single time this happens they attempt to ‘replace’ the lost player, in likeness or skill or something, and yet somehow this never really results in more wins or a better team, he goes for broke at the advice of a Yale economics grad (Jonah Hill), who basically proposes that instead of looking at players on an individual and soul-searchy basis like that, you look at them statistically and buy your way to the number of runs you need to win. It’s sports recruitment based on economics, and this guy takes a lot of shit for it and his whole career and livelihood are riding on whether or not this venture is successful.

And then…it is! His team ends up scoring the longest-running winning streak ever, performing admirably against all odds, and other teams begin to adopt his strategy as well, allegedly leading to the Red Sox winning their first World Series in ages.

"I just traded our best athletes to Boston for 50 lions."

Of course this is all actually real, or at least the part that I summarized, which I actually like. This is the thinking man’s sports movie, and that I kind of like about it. You know that, because it’s a sports movie, it’s also going to be inspiring, so even if it looks like his team is a massive failure at first, it’s all going to be all right in the end. On the other hand, you also have history. Even I’m not a huge baseball fan, but I do know enough to know the ultimate fate of the Oakland A’s in the year the movie takes place. That doesn’t undermine it, though, as it’s based less on suspense and more on…honestly I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on exactly how this movie is NOT boring as shit.

Part of it is the performances. Jonah Hill was, as many people know, nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for this, and honestly he deserves it. This guy hit it out of the park. He was incredible. Despite the fact that he’s not the main character, I think he forms the backbone of the movie. The newest hire, he does more or less serve as the audience proxy, and for non-sports fans he’s great because he’s speaking about sports in a way that you can more or less understand, and the concept of applying the principles of one system, like economics, to one that on the surface appears totally different, like baseball, is intriguing enough to keep the movie going. It’s nice to see a movie that focuses less on the on-the-surface crying and hitting a grand slam sort of thing and one where the tension is generally below the surface and most of the emotion is never expressed aloud, but I wouldn’t exactly call it even secretly emotional (like I would There Will Be Blood, another movie where no one ever says what they are feeling).

In the end, it’s an all right movie, but do I think it ought to win any Oscars? The only one I think deserves a real shot is Jonah Hill, which is super unlikely due to the fact that he is Jonah Hill, and also he is competing against Christopher Plummer this year, so fat chance. But it is nice that voters were able to look past the fact that he is Jonah Hill and consider the strength of his performance in the first place, which was not only against type (the Oscars do admittedly love it when people act against their types) but actually very good.

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The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Tree of Life is a journey into the memories of one man’s childhoozzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

 

This is literally the worst movie I have ever seen in my whole life. I don’t regret a lot of my decisions because I feel they made me the person that I am today. I regret wasting two hours of my life watching this pretentious and meaningless piece of trash. It is basically a feature-length homage to excellent cinematography. I think I approached the threshold of human boredom watching this movie, and I honestly for the life of me can’t figure out why I didn’t just turn it off. Half the reason I even bothered with this post was because I didn’t want to have seen this movie for no reason at all. I want the entire world to know that I think it is the worst, and I have seen Battlefield Earth and Manos: The Hands of Fate. This movie is still the worst. As previously mentioned, I went to film school, and I saw 11,000 of this exact same movie made by self-important student filmmakers, over-ambitious stylistic bullshit that was supposed to convey nothing short of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and instead conveyed nothing whatsoever except to people whom I swear are just pretending they ‘get it’ to appear hip and cool and deep. Nobody ‘gets it.’ There is nothing to ‘get’ except that you just spent two hours of your life on NOTHING. This is what happens when a film student gets a zillion-dollar budget. Did any of you guys see Art School Confidential? Because I feel like the film students in that made more cohesive and meaningful movies than this. Do you know who thinks this movie was pretentious? Sean Penn. Sean Penn said it. Not only was Sean Penn in the movie, but when Sean Penn thinks something is pretentious, you have a problem. This was like a crappy 2001: A Space Odyssey. You remember how like 45 minutes of that movie are weird shapes and sounds and then the last, I dunno, third or half of the movie is like, “Whoa, what is happening here?” Confusing, perhaps, but I feel like it was trying to convey some Planet of the Apes-like point (“IT WAS EARTH ALL ALONG!!!” or something…admittedly it has been ages since I watched 2001 last). This was like some 20-year-old who wears a beret was like, “I have a vision of a film that tells the story of a man’s oppressive father and upbringing in Texas in the ’60s through sounds and colors and small snatches of memories rather than through actual storytelling.” Last week Nicolas Cage was on SNL and made a joke about how Ghost Rider, as in most of his movies, all the dialog is either whispered or screamed. That is totally this movie. When an SNL joke about Nicolas Cage and the totally unnecessary sequel to Ghost Rider also matches up to your movie, man, you fucked up. Apparently, some people were actually touched and amazed by this movie which I absolutely cannot fathom. Sometimes, like with The King’s Speech, I understand where they’re coming from even if I’m not really feeling it. In this case, I’d literally rather attend one of Hannibal Lecter’s dinner parties than see this movie ever again.

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War Horse (Steven Spielberg)

Oh man, this movie was just so…war- and horse-filled. Man, was there war. And horses. Mostly one horse. Actually it is really the story of a horse, from its birth to its…well…you know, to later in its life. Basically the horse is purchased from a family at the expense of throwing everything they own into jeopardy to do the simple task of plowing a field. Except it’s not that kind of horse, apparently. Albert, the boy in the family, volunteers to break the horse, and the horse becomes his best friend and miraculously does the job in spite of all the people who said it couldn’t. But after a terrible storm that ruins their crops the family is facing financial ruin for certain, and so the patriarch of the family sells the horse to the British cavalry as World War I breaks out.

The buyer of the horse, a sympathetic officer (played handsomely by Tom Hiddleston), agrees to take the horse as his own and return the horse to Albert after the war if he can. Of course, things are not so simple, and as the horse goes to war it exchanges hands several times (and I want to assure you, it’s not because Tom Hiddleston is like, “What a stupid kid, like I was really gonna do that!” Man, is he nice to that horse. Not like Equus nice, I mean just like a decent guy). What I didn’t actually know before I went into the movie was that you spend pretty much the entirety of the movie with the horse rather than with the people, and the horse falls into the hands of both sides and neutral parties and all kinds of different people, so it’s actually a pretty interesting concept and offers the opportunity to see the war from many different viewpoints. (The only disappointing thing is you don’t always really find out what happened to the people who lived through their possession of Joey the horse afterwards. For example, though I can guess, I personally need to know what happened to Benedict Cumberbatch and his mustache.)

Bonus points go to this movie for casting itself well and wrenching my heart out by casting Professor Lupin as an unrelenting douchebag. I’ve seen him play douchey people before but at least they were always vaguely sympathetic douchey people. This was my first time seeing him as an awful human and I was so disappointed. Actually minus points for that. But plus points for employing David Kross, whom many of you may have vaguely recognized when watching the movie as the guy who sleeps with Kate Winslet in The Reader. (For the entire time he was onscreen I was trying to figure out if it was really him, or he just happened to be the only German actor I knew of. Apparently it is actually him.)

But, is this Best Picture material? Honestly, no. While the acting is for the most part pretty good, this movie is hugely flawed. It would be forgivable if you thought of it as a movie oriented toward children, as it is based off a children’s book, but its incredible naiveté makes it difficult to enjoy sometimes assuming you are over the age of 11. As a movie for children, I’d recommend it. It’s not so much of a downer that they’ll be traumatized for life but it does demonstrate a side of war I know a lot of schools actually aren’t allowed to teach kids anymore. While it’s not super violent, it also views the war in shades of gray, displays acts of valor and of cowardice on both sides, and for the most part doesn’t make the event seem like a fluffy spectacle. It’s something I would definitely show my kids, if I had kids. But as an adult most of the time, I found myself getting annoyed with how over-emotional the parts of the movie with Albert and his horse were. It was way too clearly manipulative, trying so hard to touch my heart and make me cry that it sailed clear past its goal and made me annoyed with it. I guess I would just say that these parts were too far over the top, and I’m actually not at all a fan either of Albert or the kid who played him, who struck me very frequently as an adult with a doe-eyed worldview of a child and instead of being endearing it was just frustrating. All of these things are forgivable when I think of it as a children’s movie. None of them are forgivable when I think of this as supposedly one of the best movies of 2011. After all, Hugo is supposed to be a children’s movie, based off a children’s book, and never once did I feel like I was being necessarily treated like a child because I was watching Hugo. I don’t know that children are always ignorant to this tone, either; a lot of them are pretty acutely aware of when they’re being talked down to and I don’t think they appreciate it. (Also, I spent a lot of time hoping someone would run into Matthew Crawley. They were in the same battles. It’s not impossible!)

Politically speaking, this movie is unlikely to win any of the marquee awards, anyway. In fact, the only banner award for which it was nominated was Best Picture, so it kind of struck me as a “Nice job, Stevesie! Sooooooooooo, what about Jurassic Park 4?” nomination.

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The Short, Short Version

Best Picture: The Artist. I’d give anything else winning some serious odds.
Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist, but if he’s going to get shown up, it’ll be by Scorsese for Hugo.
Best Original Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist, his downfall being that there is no dialog so he might get shown up by something with clever dialog like Midnight in Paris or even Bridesmaids.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash for The Descendants. Though honestly this is also tough to call so I wouldn’t make any bets.
Best Actor: Jean Dujardin for The Artist. If he doesn’t win I’ll probably cry in my shower so I refuse to consider the alternative at this point.
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer for Beginners. This guy is sweeping all kinds of awards for it. I can’t see any of the competition here beating him out with his award season track record so far.
Best Actress: Meryl Streep as The Iron Lady‘s Margaret Thatcher. God, Streep, phone it in occasionally. I think Michelle Williams could pull off a win as Marilyn Monroe from My Week with Marilyn, depending on how much people think someone other than Meryl Streep deserves to win Oscars ever.
Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer for White People Solve Racism.
Snub-o-Mania!: Bridesmaids? Shame? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy? Anything other than Tree of Life? Uggie the Dog? Honestly I’m having a hard time being angry this year because The Artist was so great, although the only-nine-nominees thing does kind of get my goat. Anyway, who’d I forget? Tell me in the comments!

 

Well, movies, may the odds be ever in your favor. See you next year, when I hope to be mentioning Martin Freeman literally every three words.