Thursday, February 23, 2012

Your Best Pick for Best Pic

You never see ratings on Silent Volume, and you rarely see ranked lists. But lists can be good things. The exercise of ranking one film above another forces you to make decisions based their merits; and that, hopefully, means you’ve considered both the films, and yourself, in some depth.

Below are my humble opinions on the nine nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. I hope you’ll take time to read them, and respond. Agree or disagree, we’ve got something to talk about.


1. Hugo

Is Hugo a ‘love letter to cinema’? Sure it is. It’s a letter a lot of us wish we could write, about the art form we love best, and how it exhilarates us. That Hugo is a children’s movie is perfect: when a child loves something, he or she loves it hugely, honestly; enthusiastically, without fear of judgment. To regain that feeling is why most of us go to the movies.

That’s certainly how Hugo made me feel. It was partly a personal thing: Scorsese made a film so loaded with silent movie references that I can say, confidently, that I got every inside joke, and that was fun. He also spotlighted one of my favorite directors, whose own movies were the pinnacle of the fixed-camera era—an early period of filmmaking underappreciated even by many silent movie fans. Not by me, though. I was giddy, watching all this.

Now, the preceding argues for why Hugo is my favorite of the nine nominees, not why it’s the best. So let me add a few points. In Hugo, we have one of the first examples of 3-D achieving its immersive potential—not through spears or balls thrown at our heads, but through an elevated sense of depth; a palpable foreground. It helps us build a world, which is what we, as viewers, always try to do. Contained within this unusually solid space is the busiest action Scorsese ever shot. Carefree, anxious, furtive, intense—the emotional building blocks of childhood, expressed in crushes, chases, and revelations.

Hugo didn’t “take me back” to anything—I’m not that old. But it restored in me, for a little while, the purity of a child’s fixation. I found I could relate to this character; inhabit his mind. When Hugo discovers old movies; and through the girl, old books; he absorbs them as fascinating things, irrespective of their age. For him, there is no old and new, only now and wonderful. Really he represents us, the YouTube generation: for whom every media memory is present; or at least retrievable, and prepped for mash-up.

Lots of films on this list offer lessons, but Hugo is the only one that really makes them stick. Hugo prompts us to take a better look at our own time, and make the most of it.

2. The Artist

The sentimental favorite on this blog, to be sure. I’ve always qualified my praise for The Artist—the second act is too long, even if the acting and direction are pitch-perfect throughout—but, as a technical achievement, the film deserves maximum respect.

How hard a film is to make ought to matter. It honors the collective talents of the artists, craftspeople and technicians brought together to make the thing; an act of organization that, in this case, resulted in something great. More importantly, The Artist’s silence, its supposed limitation, becomes the means by which it appraises Sound—and the busy, frantic, overloaded world that produces so much of it. That is, the world we live in.

Sometimes, you must leave a place to see it clearly. Few films allow this today, and none so completely as The Artist.

Read my review of The Artist here.

3. The Tree of Life

To take as one’s theme the totality of human experience would be, for most directors, an outsized challenge. Not for Terrence Malick. The Tree of Life is the film I believe he was destined to make—in the sense that it is wholly composed of those elements his earlier films strove to include. That doesn’t make The Tree of Life perfect, but it is Perfect Malick, and that’s awfully good.

The most beautiful of the nine nominees, Malick’s film gives music and image near equal weight—no small thing, given the intensity of what we see. No child has been shot more beautifully than the babies in The Tree of Life. No blade of grass was ever greener, no splat of lava more red. The Tree of Life successfully borrows, in look and theme, from both 2001 and The Passion of Joan of Arc—and that's a big compliment from me. But…

…still, we have Malick’s tendency to self-indulge. We’re given floating masks (for do we not all lurk behind masks?); vast expanses of water (for does not the ocean persist through renewal, always changing, never ending?); and a superfluous role for Sean Penn, who, for all he accomplishes in the film, could be representing us, watching him. Kubrick and Dreyer denied themselves such darlings. I wish Malick had denied himself his.

4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

This is not the manipulative wreck of a film you’ve been warned about—nor the predictable weepy its trailer promoted. The only nominee with a negative Tomato-rating just doesn’t deserve it.

Many disagree. But here’s what I think: if you make a film that takes risks, the highs can be judged independently of the lows. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close does have a lot of lows. It stumbles outside the confines of Oskar Schell’s mind (unsteady though the confines are), ringing false when it tries to be genuine. But as a fantasy, it soars.

This is a film of multiple genres; multiple tones. The little boy in it is unhappy, and possibly unwell, but we’re privy to all of him and the world he lives in: half real, half imagined. He is allowed to be unlovable. His City is allowed to be pretend.

Some consider it inappropriate to approach 9/11 this way. So they focus on the film’s most grounded moments—its weakest moments—and declare the whole thing bad melodrama. Watch it yourself, then tell me if you believe that.

5. The Help

That The Help has a righteous message is not in dispute. That it manages to be funny, despite this, is impressive. That Viola Davis delivers a crushing performance is… expected.

I haven’t read the book, by the way. What I know, from this movie, as well as a lifetime’s digestion of movies, books and television shows preceding it, is that the U.S. South integrated in spirit long after it did by law. Though The Help is fiction, I accept that it’s based on facts, and they are appalling. We’re lucky to have these womens’ stories, even in fictional form.

You probably feel the same. And I suspect most people who bought tickets to The Help also feel the same, and so, kudos to director/screenwriter Tate Taylor for delivering. I put The Help fifth of nine because it entertained me consistently, but taught me little, and never surprised me once. There are worse things.

6. Midnight in Paris

Maybe it takes Woody Allen to capture the agony of an up-market populist writer—someone who longs to write brilliantly and still make a living. His Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson, is such a man. Facing a future of right-wing in-laws and good money penning bad scripts, he instead turns to the past. The Paris of the 1920s: pregnant with style and wit; populated by literary giants still read today. Gil, we allow, is a time-traveller.

Part of the fun of historical films, even fantastical ones like this, is watching famous figures brought to life. It’ll be the scene-chomping exploits of Hemmingway, Picasso, Dali and Stein you’ll remember best from Midnight in Paris—possibly Rachel McAdams’ vile fiancĂ©, too. The film’s advice about romanticizing former times is delivered, I think, with a gentle smile from the director, and can be set aside. This isn’t a comedy for the ages—pun intended—but it’s still a delight.

7. The Descendants

Cast one of the world’s most marketable leading men. Film him in the perpetual, fragrant beauty of the Hawaiian Islands. Give his character a comatose wife, toward whom his feelings are mixed, then give him time to express those feelings, to her, unopposed. Give him kids in need, and a plot of land he loves, ripe for sale. Here’s a foolproof recipe for a good film.

And The Descendants is a very good film, especially to look at. It’s just really, really safe. This ran through my head as I watched its many pretty scenes, absorbing its lessons about What Really Matters and Letting Go. I’d heard these lessons before. Though I had not, I admit, applied them all successfully. I must try harder.

The Descendants won’t help me do that. It’s a finely crafted film, but a bit too tidy for me, and I’ll forget it too soon.

8. War Horse

War Horse and The Descendants are a lot alike. Both are low-risk entertainment, tugging on the heart-strings most proven to hold. Both are beautifully shot—so much so that they should be recommended primarily for that. In neither film are the characters half as interesting as the natural world they inhabit—unless you count a horse as a character, which I suppose you could.

Give me the look of War Horse—the might, the freedom, the gloss of that animal—in a movie that aims higher. Then I’ll be satisfied. I might even be thrilled. When War Horse is allowed to just be—to run wild and headlong, you might say—it’s a magnificent beast. Try to forget those scenes on the Western Front. You can’t.

Nor can you forget the deadening predictability of it all. Or the obnoxious choice to portray every German and Frenchman in the film speaking accented English (peppered, of course, with Ja’s and Oui’s). I suppose it was done for the sake of marketing, but really, it’s 2012; are subtitles going to drive an audience away? If yes, the choice still hurts War Horse in a practical way—making it difficult, toward the end of the film, to figure out which army the horse even belongs to. I’d be embarrassed to admit my confusion, if I thought I was the only one.

9. Moneyball

I put Moneyball last because, beyond the interesting idea contained within it, I’ve neither seen for myself, nor heard from anyone else, anything upon which to judge it exceptional. To me, it’s a vehicle for something good, more than a good thing on its own.

Can human achievement be guaranteed if one knows the odds and how to play them? Is there an art to judging talent, or only a science? Can brains beat money? All profound questions; all natural outgrowths of the scenario Moneyball presents us with. Surrounding this scenario: Decent acting, decent dialogue, decent direction. The work of talented people, as all decent films must be. But so little drama.

I’m a lifelong non-fan of baseball. I went into Moneyball not knowing how that season ended for the Oakland A’s. I was the ideal viewer. But readers, I swear to god: as the movie approached its dramatic high—the streak-breaking twentieth game—I guessed everything that followed. There was so much more at stake than that game, for the characters in this film.

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