It’s a new year, and that means it’s time for the Oscars, where we reward the films with the best marketing campaign that represented the best of what 2012 offered. It’s a diverse group this year, and with only a few clear frontrunners, it’s still pretty much anyone’s game. So grab some popcorn and put on your Serious Film Critic goggles as we take you through the highs (and lows) of this year’s Best Picture nominees.
“Amour” | Michael Haneke
What’s it about? Anna (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are a pair of retired music teachers who live alone in relative happiness, albeit while missing their daughter, who has moved out. One day, Anna has a stroke that paralyzes her and leaves her in great pain, forcing Georges to adopt the role of her caretaker.
Is it good? Not really. While the cinematography is certainly lovely and Riva is fantastic as Anna, conveying a great deal even when her dialogue is severely limited, the film is too heavy-handed and curiously distant about its subject to truly form a connection with the audience. It’s also surprisingly facile, for as much as its depth has been touted: characterization is as bare-bones as possible, and the film doesn’t seem to have much of a point besides “Getting old and dying sucks!” We know that already, do we really have to sit through two hours of relentless one-note emotional manipulation and cheesy symbolism just to learn it again?
Will it win? Probably not. The Academy isn’t particularly known for honoring foreign-language films in any category besides, well, Best Foreign Language Film (although “Amour” might trump “Rust and Bone” for that spot), and support for a win in any other category (even Best Actress) seems shaky at best. Maybe it’s better that way, though.
“Argo” | Ben Affleck
What’s it about? “Argo” is a dramatization of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and the exploits of Tony Mendez (Affleck) as he attempts to rescue six U.S. diplomats from Tehran by entering the country under the false pretense of being on location to make a cheesy sci-fi film with the help of two Hollywood producers (Alan Arkin and John Goodman).
Is it good? Yeah, but it can’t help but feel a tad thin in comparison to some of the other nominees. Affleck is a solid thriller director, utilizing sound and editing extremely effectively to ramp up tension. He has a great eye for detail (recreations of real-life congregations, an animated opening serving as a somewhat accurate history lesson, etc.) and gets great performances from the cast, particularly Bryan Cranston(!) as Mendez’s supervisor. Unfortunately, Affleck still isn’t a very compelling leading man (he’s not bad, but he’s just kinda… there). His insights into both Hollywood and international relations are mostly surface level and the film’s politics are problematic at best, from the minimization of Canada’s role in the operation to the general “fear of the other” created by the film’s depiction of Iran. It’s not really a bad film, but it certainly does leave you wanting.
Will it win? Last month, we would have told you “not likely,” (the Academy’s never been kind to Affleck and the material’s a tad controversial) but with a Golden Globe win for Best Drama behind it, “Argo” might have a shot at being this year’s dark horse victor. Also likely are wins for Editing and both Sound categories, given the film’s great technical pedigree. A win for Adapted Screenplay is possible, but the other categories (Supporting Actor and Score) are pretty much out, given the heavy competition.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” | Benh Zeitlin
What’s it about? “Beasts” is the red-haired stepchild of the nominees – a scrappy, Terrence Malick-lite film about a young girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives in a poor bayou community known as “The Bathtub.” When natural disasters strike and her father becomes ill, she sets out to find her missing mother, as prehistoric beings known as Aurochs draw nearer and nearer.
Is it good? In parts, yes. “Beasts” has plenty of great ideas about balance, growing up and the relationship between humans and nature, and has multiple visually (and thematically) striking moments without coming across as show-offy or pretentious. In addition, Wallis turns in an excellent performance, anchoring the film and giving it a relatable emotional perspective. Sadly, the film never really feels like a complete whole, since those parts never quite add up to something truly spectacular, and the ending is a touch predictable and weak. It’s still worth a watch, but don’t get your hopes up too high.
Will it win? Probably not. The Academy is usually more apt to bestow awards upon large studio productions rather than indie films, and overall support for “Beasts” has wavered somewhat lately, with a flood of criticism against it due to supposed racist and sexist undertones (your mileage may vary on how true those criticisms are).
“Django Unchained” | Quentin Tarantino
What’s it about? In Tarantino’s latest, a spaghetti western-style slavery saga, a German abolitionist bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) frees a slave known only as Django (Jamie Foxx) to assist him in apprehending criminals. Their desires become one and the same when it becomes clear that Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) is being held on the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Francophile with exquisite taste and brutal sensibilities, and the dynamic duo set out to rescue Broomhilda.
Is it good? Oh, hell yes it is. Veering between “Blazing Saddles”-esque satire and bloody, pulpy vigilante goodness with ease, this film is a taut, compelling revenge story full with striking and powerful stylistic flourishes (Tarantino still has a great ear for pop songs that fit scenes) and colorful characters (DiCaprio in particular seems to be enjoying his role). The film rouses and entertains but never trivializes the atrocities of slavery, taking its potential for enjoyment beyond a surface level. One complaint: did Django really have to be so much of a cipher? Yeah, he’s a badass, and Foxx gives the role his all, but there’s not much to him beyond that.
Will it win? Maybe. This is Tarantino’s third Best Picture nomination, and the Academy might decide to give him his dues. On the other hand, Spike Lee and others criticized the film due to its content, which may hurt its chances because the Academy prefers to play it safe. A win for Original Screenplay is highly likely, given Tarantino’s past success in that category and his recent win at the Golden Globes, and Waltz might be a lead runner for Supporting Actor.
“Les Misérables” | Tom Hooper
What’s it about? Based on the excellent stage musical, which is based on Victor Hugo’s eye-strainingly long novel, “Les Misérables” is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a recently paroled convict who is constantly dogged by the justice-obsessed Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). He vows to change his ways for good and become the nicest guy in France, becoming the mayor of a small town. From there, he ends up helping a dying prostitute, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), whom he accidentally wronged, by raising her child, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). The two are caught up in a revolution when Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a student rebel, falls for Cosette.
Is it good? Well, mostly. It has its moments. The performances are almost universally excellent, from Jackman’s emotionally tortured yet noble atoner, to Redmayne’s naïve revolutionary, to Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s mad comic genius. They’re all dwarfed, however, by Hathaway’s show-stopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which will make you feel all of the feels (yes, ALL of them). The production design is fantastically grungy and the use of live singing adds grit and emotional immediacy to the proceedings. Sadly, the film is marred by Crowe’s dreadful, one-note, sung-as-if-he-had-a-head-cold turn as Javert and Hooper’s screwy, ridiculous camera work and editing (either the camera is mashed in the actor’s faces, or it’s wobbling and swooping all over the place, giving a sense of inflated ego rather than scope).
Will it win? Nope. This film has quickly become extremely divisive, which certainly won’t help its chances of gaining a majority vote, and the lack of a Best Director nomination isn’t exactly a display of confidence. Hathaway is a lock for Supporting Actress, however, and Jackman is a strong contender for Actor. Wins for Production Design, Costumes and Makeup are probable. Original Song is probably out because “Skyfall” shut that down, and Sound Mixing is also out due to the controversial use of live singing.
“Life of Pi” | Ang Lee
What’s it about? Based on Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, the film follows, well, the life of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma) and his struggle to survive after he is marooned at sea with a Bengal tiger due to a storm that sinks the ship he and his family were traveling to Canada on. That’s most of the “plot,” but there’s more than meets the eye here.
Is it good? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. In the hands of any other director or cast, “Life of Pi” could be dull or even downright silly, but thanks to Lee’s flair for stunning, emotionally resonant visuals (this film boasts some of the most realistic CG animals ever), Sharma’s dedicated performance and David Magee’s brilliant adaptation work, the film is a breathtakingly beautiful and moving exploration of faith, the dynamic between man and nature and the power of the spirit. Even better, the film does not oversimplify or stereotype the cultures it engages with and provides thrills and the occasional laugh along the way, making it accessible to all while still being a great work of art.
Will it win? Prospects sure do look good, because “Pi” received some of the most universal praise of any film this year, with little backlash. Lee also has a good shot at a Best Director win, due to his highly individual stamp on the film and the difficult endeavor of successfully transferring a complex novel to the screen. Wins for Effects, Cinematography, Score and Adapted Screenplay are also very likely.
“Lincoln” | Steven Spielberg
What’s it about? Another year, another Big Damn Biopic, this time in the form of Steven Spielberg’s intimate, tightly focused yarn about President Abraham Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) effort to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the midst of the Civil War, as well as his relationships with his wife (Sally Field) and colleagues.
Is it good? Yes, surprisingly so for a film of this genre. Day-Lewis delivers a quiet but incredibly compelling performance that gives the film its main emotional focus. Field and Tommy Lee Jones both turn in career-best work in supporting roles. Spielberg puts a lid on many of his more dramatically sledgehammer-ish tendencies (Big Damn Speeches, overbearing music, etc.), helping it remain a character piece and a fascinating dissection of a riveting time in our country’s history rather than an excuse to pander to the Academy.
Will it win? Well, with 12 nominations, it’s bound to win something. Best Picture is highly likely, with the wild praise the film received from even the most cynical of critics. Spielberg for Best Director is somewhat less likely, because the Academy doesn’t usually give awards to repeat winners except in extreme cases. Day-Lewis has the Actor category staked out fairly well, and Field and Jones could give Hathaway and Waltz a run for their money. All the other categories are also potential winners, with Score, Production Design and Costume Design being the big contenders.
“Silver Linings Playbook” | David O. Russell
What’s it about? Based on Matthew Quick’s novel of the same name, David O. Russell’s latest quirky crowd-pleaser centers on the life of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) and his struggle with bipolar disorder, particularly after he nearly kills the man with whom his wife cheated. He meets Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s just as damaged as he is, and they form a friendship and romantic relationship through their shared neuroses.
Is it good? It’s fine. Nothing spectacular, though. Cooper and Lawrence have great chemistry, and they both turn in great work (particularly Lawrence, who makes you completely forget she’s only 22). Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver flesh out the supporting cast quite well, but despite the good performances, the film never really gels. It’s capable of being funny and quirky or uncomfortable to watch, but it mostly swings between those two extremes without striking a good balance, making for a tonally imbalanced but pleasantly diverting film.
Will it win? Despite the buzz, a Best Picture win for “Silver Linings” isn’t likely, since it looks frothy (like “Amour” and “Argo”) next to its competition, and there seems to be a growing number of grumbles of discontent from the public and critics alike about its sudden rise to prominence. Cooper, while impressive, is too much of a lightweight next to his competitors to stand much of a chance in his bracket, but Lawrence might snap up Best Actress. Supporting Actor/Actress and Adapted Screenplay are probably out, due to much better competition in those categories.
“Zero Dark Thirty” | Kathryn Bigelow
What’s it about? Last but certainly not least, “Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow returns to the Middle East to tell the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the operation that changed the world forever through the eyes of CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) in perhaps the year’s most controversial film.
Is it good? Thankfully, yes. Bigelow masterfully avoids any sense of sensationalism or jingoism in her dramatization of events. Although it depicts torture as a method that produced valuable information, Bigelow is very careful to show both the physical and psychological effects of torture on the captives and the perpetrators, taking great pains to show the operation was able to succeed without the use of torture. Chastain makes for a compelling heroine, determined and driven but still flawed and entirely real in a way Tony Mendez in “Argo” never was. Lastly, Bigelow once again proves herself a master of tension and atmosphere, particularly in the final 45 minutes or so, which are probably the most intense 45 minutes of any film this year.
Will it win? Despite the hoopla over the film’s depiction of torture and the inexplicable lack of a Best Director nomination for Bigelow, “Zero” still has a shot at the big time. Considering the Academy’s embracing of “The Hurt Locker” and the film’s status as a “big issue” movie, Bigelow may have plenty of goodwill stored up for herself. Chastain will probably duke it out with Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actress, and Editing and Sound Editing are also possibilities. Also, if any movie can put up a fight with “Django” for Original Screenplay, it’s this one.
Which film do you think will score best picture this year? Who are your picks for the other categories? Leave us a comment and let us know, or tweet us @speakeasymag!