Looking Back at Oscar, #85

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 2012:

Amour
Argo
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Flight
The Impossible
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Lincoln
The Master
The Sessions
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 20 of the year post:
Amour
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Zero Dark Thirty

Now for the rest! I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 2012 Year in Review post.

Argo
While Argo is a pleasant enough diversion and far from being the worst choice for Best Picture among the field, it’s one that does not deserve the intense level of accolades it has received. It does not even try and aim for complexity regarding the politics of the hostage crisis, it’s content to rest on the back of its zippy pace. William Goldberg’s Oscar win for Best Editing is the most justified piece of acclaim related to Argo, for the film zips on by due to handy quick cutting and is a rare case of a movie whose runtime is pretty much exactly what it needs to be. The high point is definitely the opening, where it all feels zippy and unnerving. That the film couldn’t even scrape a Best Director nod is telling, with scenes like cars chasing a plane and that heavy handed moment where the cast starts explaining ~movie magic~ to the security forces being more than a little bit silly. Most of the performances are fairly flat outside of the hostages themselves, who are sadly not given enough individuality to really get behind. Alan Arkin’s Oscar nomination stands out as particularly stupid even among that year’s dire Supporting Actor lineup, with the lines he delivers not even being particularly funny, but thankfully no one at AMPAS pretended Ben Affleck had anything interesting to do both in front of and behind the camera. While I can appreciate that a movie like this, an old-fashioned political thriller, is a rarity nowadays, Argo isn’t as good as the ones from the 1970s that so many of its boosters like to compare it to because of little things like the falseness of the movie’s attempts at cynical sincerity towards Hollywood, or part of the climax being centered around a phone ringing all of about twenty feet away from the people who need to answer it. There’s something about the film portraying the entire country of Iran as the opposition, with nothing more specific than a lair of children reassembling shredded documents, that really feels shapeless and mushy (in addition to vaguely racist in that most politically correct of ways, for there is exactly one Iranian character). Making Argo more political and less of a thriller could’ve bumped it up from an average piece of moviemaking to one that was really worth celebrating. Instead, it’s simply the movie that goes down the easiest.

Django Unchained
My brief Year in Review piece for Django: It is NOT Tarantino’s best and shame on anyone who says that (too long) but when it’s on, it’s really on. The sound work on this film is truly something to behold anyway.

My expanded review: Quentin Tarantino’s weakest work, if only for how thinly the fun is spread because of the almost three hour runtime. It manages to come out looking not too patchy, but the assured voice and occasional cleverness do tend to ultimately yield a rather bland form of violence when there’s clearly a very strong piece of work within the baseline ideas. There’s too much to dissect with Django Unchained, despite it being the most straightforward revenge narrative Tarantino has ever constructed, starting with the racial politics so convoluted that dissecting them is an exercise in misery. No doubt Christoph Waltz being the true lead of the movie (and playing a character named Dr. King to boot, yikes) while Jamie Foxx is a borderline mute (to say nothing of Kerry Washington, who gets dragged through the exploitation mill with the most minimized of roles-the gender politics in this movie are worrisome) has something to do with the film’s nature that made it a worthy target and topic of discussion for Spike Lee. It’s also worth asking questions about the film’s reception, namely the demands for DiCaprio to get an Oscar for an enjoyably warped performance that pales to Waltz, and both can’t hold a candle to Samuel L. Jackson’s beautifully awful creation. So, as a film itself, let’s look at the film on a pure mechanical level: it has major issues with the script, going off on tangents that never reap dividends and dialogue that alternates between legitimately hilarious and a cheap batting around of the n-word for shock value. The final confrontation is too damn long. Django Unchained is filled with aural richness, with the Oscar attention in the sound categories being very much deserved, but visually it alternates between lovely shots of bloody cotton and a complete inability to give the people of color working on the film decent facial lighting. This is a rather negative review for a film I did ultimately like well enough to put among the year’s better works, but while Django Unchained is fairly enjoyable and definitely deserves some sort of discussion, this review is being written circa Hateful Eight’s incredibly polarized reception and three hour runtime, and my concerns that Tarantino has lost his greatest muse in Sally Menke and thus all of Tarantino’s works are doomed to never hit the same heights as his last great work in Basterds are not doing it any favors.

Flight
Flight is a decent movie that could’ve been much more accomplished with a much shorter runtime, for the core of this is a very well drawn if not particularly ambitious study of an incredibly competent or lucky alcoholic with a great Denzel Washington performance anchoring it. But Robert Zemeckis’ hatred of planes perhaps makes him a poor choice for this material even with the title only really covering the first act. I do not want to take anything away from the upside down plane sequence, which is terrifying even as it recalls Cast Away, but the film has a bad habit of simultaneously diluting and concentrating its best bits. For the former: what did the character of Nicole add to the film? She’s just another person who gets in Whip’s way and as a result, is knocked aside. The film does get better as it goes along thanks to the heavier focus on the people who actually work for the airline rather than any random character who happened to be in the vicinity of the airplane crash. For the latter category of concentration, certain scenes underline the struggles of Whip’s alcoholism much harder than necessary, practically ripping the fabric of the movie (hence Nicole, the most egregious offense here, being cited earlier). Most of these do occur early on, but they’re a strong rough patch that makes it too difficult to fully endorse Flight. So thank god for Washington, who doesn’t let what could be a role that lends itself to easily to something more theatrical undo him, for he wisely underplays his hand at all times and lets the material and his own form of self-aware charisma do the lifting for the more out there bits. It’s not quite one of my favorite leading male performances of the year, but of the ones who could’ve actually been nominated for the Oscar, it’s definitely one of the right choices to put into that batch. I have more mixed feelings on the script’s nomination, for there is definitely a much better version of Flight that exists within it. In some ways I wish this movie had gotten more notice for the direction, for the crash cannot be taken away from anyone involved in the making of it. Flight itself is like that airplane crash, a near disaster that saves itself, but the damage that does occur is hard to sit through.

The Impossible
The Impossible will forever have one truly superb scene on its resume in the form of the tsunami and a few of its aftereffects, with the arrival of the wave being a masterful piece of visual effects work that casually blows through Thailand like it’s paper, carrying all the sewage and debris that’s usually kept tucked away out into the open. Included in the strength of this moment is the resulting leg injury to Naomi Watts, a revolting gash where every homemade tourniquet, totally lacking in hygiene, looks like it’ll genuinely kill her if exposure doesn’t, with Juan Antonio Bayona’s main directorial virtue being his total willingness to shove that in our faces. That’s about the extent of my niceties towards this movie, where both the whitewashing of the leads that the story is based on, and the focus on dead tourist families rather than anyone actually from Thailand (except in a rather vague and patronizing way) not setting the stage well for anyone coming into this. Even anyone who was ignorant of the Spanish to Caucasian change would be inclined to not like the opening scenes, which set up the family dynamics in such a heavy-handed way that you can probably guess how the family will be separated just looking at the clumsy dialogue. The memories of the weak early acts fade away entirely, however, when facing the group dealing with the horrifying and clumsy dying stars metaphor, or any of the interactions with other tsunami victims where we are made to marvel at how KIND humanity is when it’s really just basic human decency, or the incredibly low stakes climax where the cast runs around the hospital to meet up with each other-except for Naomi Watts, who has nothing to do. Her Oscar nomination for lying sick in bed is baffling and you have to wonder just how much the Mulholland Drive snub is lingering in the minds of the Academy. It’s truly impossible (sorry) to see how this kind of disaster porn was so popular with some, with the overpraised child actors really standing out as annoyances in a cast that frequently has to act as schmaltzy as possible. The film definitely has some moments that are totally unflinching, and it’s a shame that Bayona couldn’t bring those to the forefront even if a story like this, with such an inherently telegraphed happy ending, was never really going to achieve greatness.

Les Miserables
My brief Year in Review piece for LesMiz: For all of Tom Hooper’s messy direction, the movie is just ultimately too satisfying an adaptation, the one we all needed, to be as irritating as Hooper’s other work.

My expanded review: Discussing whether Les Miserables is a magic musical that is the high point of Tom Hooper’s career or a disaster that represents the worst of Hollywood is a debate that is impossible to reconcile. His melodramatic style is certainly best suited for a sung-through film that is THE weeper musical to end them all in terms of quality and epic feel. As for the abundance of closeups and live singing, it’s the sort of stylistic choice that I can respect-it’s bold and I am not sure the latter is a good choice (Russell Crowe’s performance alone means it can’t get top marks, but the constant face shots are better than mediums), but it is not at all a bad one and it’s certainly as bold as it gets from a director like Hooper. It’s not like sung-through musicals are common nowadays anyway, so I welcome an experiment that we’ll probably never see again otherwise. Most of the cast probably can’t sing all that well on a technical level outside of the Broadway veterans, with Eddie Redmayne’s vibrato being noticeably forced and Sacha Baron Cohen’s French accent that would sound too over the top on Sesame Street being totally out of place, but it makes sense in its own very bizarre way for the most downtrodden members of the show to have great voices and the Thenardiers’/Javerts to sound kind of…shit. And I am a big fan of how clean the soundscape sounds, you could never tell that they used piano accompaniment and then edited it out. It’s rushed, but in a way where the pace is like a refreshing exercise rather than an exhausting marathon, with the barricade scenes in particular going straight for the gut. Your mileage may vary with certain cast members, but Anne Hathaway is just untouchable, with an I Dreamed a Dream rendition that is both perfectly cinematic (it recalls her Brokeback Mountain phone call scene in framing/eye-acting) and the sort of thing that would play to the cheap seats in a theatrical show. An Oscar well earned. What I’m trying to say is that while every single criticism of Les Miserables is probably true, it is still fun as hell to watch, and I refuse to penalize a movie that earns its cartoonishly broad emotional beats by being fun. It’s painted with just three colors (guess which three) but they are vivid and bright.

Life of Pi
My brief Year in Review piece for Life of Pi: Damn that framing device, for the lifeboat portions of Life of Pi are entrancing both as story and visual spectacular.

My expanded review: While I enjoyed Yann Martel’s novel well enough despite my atheistic beliefs and the intensity of the religious vibes on display in prose that occasionally turned purple, it’s Ang Lee’s directorial style, brought out in bold brilliant colors by the best that CGI in 2012 had to offer (still looks great now but have to wonder what it’ll be like in a few dozen years), that really captures the most impressive and imaginative parts of the book’s “wandering imagination lost at sea” vibe and brings them to life. We need to get a major criticism of both works out of the way first, though: the framing device, which poked many holes in the rather lengthy book but could ultimately be pardoned simply because of the nature of reading, is intolerable and a total suspense killer in the movie, with two overqualified actors doing their best to elevate some wormy material in this wooden raft that sinks whenever it has to deal with that structural disaster. Ambiguity is the best weapon for any film, particularly one so focused on faith, to have, and the ending destroys it. Thank god for the power of a well-designed image, then, for even the pre-sinking images are beautiful, but it’s all about the tiger. Richard Parker is a marvel of character creation and it’s truly shocking that Suraj Sharma (a solid non-actor, but not one who does anything out of the ordinary) wasn’t really on board with a tiger. It has a physical presence, and is so cat-like as to inspire a desire to pet it. Far less present are some of Pi’s hallucinations while in the ocean, which occupy a state so dreamlike as to feel the other side of the same coin, even while things like the whale or the dissolved human remains look very real. 3D has arguably never been used more effectively, even if all the dimensions added to Life of Pi’s sights can only compensate so much for the sounds of dialogue that unfortunately plays into the book’s worst tendencies far too often, particularly the reveal of what may or may not have really happened at the end with the cook and the sailor. When it soars, however, it’s untouchable, with the scene in the book where the hyena is killed conjuring up just as much psychic trauma when played on screen, Richard Parker’s roar deafening and the screen an orange, fanged nightmare.

Lincoln
A hagiography disguised as a character study, Lincoln is far more hammy than anyone gives it credit for. It feels like certain outdated Oscar nominees at times, with Spielbergian schmaltz that’s far better suited to an ET or even a War Horse than a biography of an already romanticized historical figure. The cinematography cannot be taken seriously when things like Lincoln dissolving into a candle are used. Honest Abe’s children are a real low point, with the younger having a hobby (I genuinely can’t think of a better word for it) of looking at pictures of slaves in a way that is embarrassing and painful even by the standards of child performances, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt getting nothing to do. The ending in particular is particularly noteworthy in all the wrong ways, between the Shocking Reveal that Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, chewing the scenery) has a black housekeeper who he’s sleeping with and the announcement of Lincoln’s assassination feeling like something imported from a biopic that had the cast and crew values available to be so much more. I also can’t claim to be a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis in this, with his tendency to ham up lines going too far here. Sally Field has the same habit but handles it far better even when she’s forced to do things like write down EIGHT VOTES TO WIN! just to make extra sure that the audience gets it. Things like the soldiers in the Union Army reciting iconic quotes from the Gettysburg Address for our benefit at the start is the sort of thing that may get the hearts of the elderly racing but not mine. As a look at what is needed to accomplish great historical moments that were absolutely necessary, we had Zero Dark Thirty the same year, a far more necessary, relevant, and exciting study of the political wheeling and dealing and all the moral compromises required to stamp out an evil. Some have called this film a sort of adaptation of a play, but it’s a student production, one that is far too reverent even when calling out the hypocrisies of politics. Longwinded and occasionally incomprehensible, this is a boring, pandering film, right down to yet another ham from Breaking Bad taking the longest pause available to cast the vote to abolish slavery once and for all, stoking the anticipation of only the most historically and cinematically blind viewer.

The Master
My Year in Review piece for The Master: Overrated to the point of hideousness but there’s still much to admire, namely the two leads basically trying to stab each other in the psyche and some weirdly beautiful shots.

Auteur theory can be a real bitch sometimes, with some directors who have a long enough streak of hits getting countless free passes by fans and critics just so people can keep the love alive. While The Master is actually quite good, the masterpiece claims are excessive, and I hope that by the time the decade dies down, so will the movie’s reception. The Master has an unbecoming habit of not giving us any clues, simply tossing us a few introductory sentences, rather than both that and a question based on those sentences. It’s like a far more difficult essay prompt than something which gives you at least a little bit of direction, to the point of being too ambiguous (even for someone like me who loves how a 2012 movie that touches on similar things like Sound of My Voice does it in a way that is arguably far more wispy). There’s ideas within the film, but they remain unseen. Still, when it looks this gorgeous it’s hard to resist, and the two men in the forefront are both fantastic, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s sliminess only being outmatched by Joaquin Phoenix’s transformation into something covered in knots. (I was not a fan of Amy Adams, whose character is sufficiently underwritten to make her feel undone by a rather quick shift in personality. I would have rather seen Laura Dern get some attention for a stronger sense of foreshadowing without revealing.) Points for ambition but the film could definitely use some trimming, too. Still, the best sequences are fascinating, with the sand women being a gorgeous visual, Freddie Quell’s monotonous performances of various exercises in front of everyone being the closest the movie comes to giving us something to bite into, and sometimes the pleasure of watching the two leading men just act their asses off with two characters who blur into each other in fascinating ways well worth grappling with is all we need-the movie perhaps works better as a character study rather than an examination of what makes Scientology type cults come to power. The jail fight is particularly gripping. But ultimately, the film works best on the most literal level, and there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, but it’s very obvious that Paul Thomas Anderson has something to say, he’s just selfishly keeping it to himself. I suppose that really does make him the titular master after all.

The Sessions
The Sessions is a mixed bag in several aspects despite the fact that it’s ultimately a sunshine filled crowd pleaser with not particularly high ambitions (I think it’s the most kid-friendly work that also contains fairly explicit nudity that I’ve ever seen), yet also a twist on the typical biopic. We’ll start with John Hawkes, for there is no trace of the hard edge that usually undercuts his performances. He does all his acting from the face, and it is strained but kind, with a voice that calmly grabs our attention even when we’re aware that it’s designed to do just that. The writing also lends him a hand, focusing on the character based off the true story rather than higher questions about sex and life which I don’t think would have been handled very well by the writers-this is rooted in some issues we’ll touch upon later. His partner in Helen Hunt deserves props for her warmth and being so casual in her nakedness, but it’s all very adequate and surface level stuff-she has some inner development, but it’s never really anything beyond basic, she just feels more lively than you’d expect. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t try to innovate even a little bit beyond handling sex in a mature, rational way for a change. It shoots everything in the way that scenes which don’t really matter are shot, with one really glaring and not at all nice exception in the shape of the scene where Hawkes’ Mark O’Brien sees his naked body in the mirror…and we don’t get to see his penis despite Hunt’s Cheryl showing off everything. Repeatedly. It’s hypocritical and undermines the entire film so badly that I don’t look back on it very positively. You’d think Ben Lewin himself having polio would understand the hypocrisy of this. It’s sad that a film which handles sexual relationships (mostly) realistically botches it so much near the end (and the actual ending is also a weak point-it ends very abruptly), but it’s even more of a downer that so few films that actually touch on this topic exist and we’re forced to take a movie that is only slightly above average. Still, at least the movie never gets outright nasty in how it treats the subject matter, and while being at the point where I’m willing to settle for traces of humanism in a story like this is not a good sign, The Sessions at least has more than enough to cover it.

Silver Linings Playbook
Has there ever been a more inaccurate depiction of mental illness than Silver Linings Playbook? (Don’t answer that, for there totally has been.) If you look at this movie, it consists of movie-star pretty people (with some cutesy elderly actors to boot) screaming at each other all the time because they’re just like us except quirkier. To be quite blunt: that is almost never how depression works. Despite all that, it can be genuinely funny for about the first two-thirds, but everything from the football game onward is so stuffed full of cliches (and plenty of erratic, twitchy camerawork-why every single Mental Illness Moment needs to be in slow motion is beyond me) that it practically gains sentience and devours the strengths of the early portions. The Academy giving this the acting award hat trick of one nomination per category isn’t quite as infuriating as American Hustle doing the same, but it’s still utterly ridiculous. Bradley Cooper is easily the MVP even if I usually have no use for him, but there is no way this qualifies as a particularly good performance of a man who is bipolar and given a redemption arc, so you have to make allowances. Jacki Weaver gets nothing to do and she clearly must have been very nice to talk with when Animal Kingdom got campaigned because that’s the only justification for this being in the lineup, and Robert De Niro is painfully schticky but that’s to be expected at this stage of his career. Most exhausting in terms of the ratio of praise:performance quality is Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar winning work, where she is rewarded for a Manic Pixie Dream Girl voter bait role that is filled with tics, with every thought clearly running through her head as she turns up her bitchy faces to eleven. Her carrying this over to several other performances when she continues to work with Russell only makes it all the more exhausting. Silver Linings Playbook absolutely can be funny and interesting, with the asshole behavior of the leads providing some fun, but once they are inevitably at peace with each other and get to winning a dance competition (and of course they win it by the bare minimum requirement despite the movie’s entire thing in the early parts consisting of mocking cliches, which is the worst kind of “I meant to do that” defense), any flesh and blood contained within turns into cardboard.

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