A few hours from now Sylvia and I will once again travel to the Fitzpatricks' place for their annual Oscar party. I actually managed to see all the Best Picture nominees this year, and here's how I rank them, from worst to best:
9) Amour. I pride myself on enjoying movies of every genre, including weepy tales of suffering innocents. But I saw nothing innovative or even very interesting in this tale of two French senior citizens save for a slightly ambiguous coda and a couple of Kubrick-esque shots.
8) Zero Dark Thirty. Blunt, pedestrian, slavish to American exceptionalism, and on top of all these sins it's still somehow dull despite all the violence. I was particularly annoyed by the performances, which range from disinterested to hysterical, save for poor James Gandolfini, who acquits himself very well in an all-too-brief cameo.
7) Les Misérables. The production design and the music are enthralling, and I enjoyed the performances of Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. But why adapt a very successful stage musical to film unless you're going to add something new and different?
6) Silver Linings Playbook. I enjoyed this film as a light romantic comedy, but you won't find anything particularly daring here.
5) Life of Pi. If nothing else, Ang Lee's adaptation has convinced me that I really need to read Yann Martel's novel. Colourful, fantastical and fun, with an ambiguous ending that adds just the right touch of narrative complexity (for a Hollywood film, mind you).
4) Lincoln. It's hard to deny Steven Spielberg's importance as a creator
of popular culture, and to his credit he attempts here to cover an
important political drama that hasn't seen much attention in film: the
passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution,
abolishing slavery. But aside from Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal of the Great Emancipator, is there really anything new here? No.
3) Argo. Plays fast and loose with history and demonizes Iranians, but if you accept the film as fiction it's a well-made suspense thriller.
2) Beasts of the Southern Wild. Above all else in art, I value sincerity. Beasts of the Southern Wild is by no means a perfect film, but it addresses important social issues without being a self-important Issues Film. Instead, it's an imaginative fantasy about a little girl, her father, and their community, and how they survive the slow calamities that overtake their world.
1) Django Unchained. Yes, Quentin Tarantino leans heavily on homage, but that's because he recognizes the importance of groundbreaking work by genre directors before him, folks often unrecognized by the Academy. And Tarantino doesn't just lift the good bits of older movies and slap them together; he reinvents and revitalizes old tropes. His films are bold, direct, unapologetic and in your face. While not as good as Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained again turns history on its ear in an effort to explore and understand the darker side of humanity. And of course any film featuring Christoph Waltz (even The Green Hornet!) is improved immeasurably by his presence.
All this being said, I feel this was a pretty weak crop of nominees overall. Even my top two picks have their flaws, and they don't push the boundaries of the art form in a way that really lives up to what the Best Picture Oscar should reward. Of course, if you look at the history of the category, the winners and nominees have all been pretty safe; the Academy, artistically, is pretty conservative. As light entertainment there's nothing wrong with any of these films, but it's a shame that Hollywood doesn't encourage or reward more challenging fare.