So, I had planned on doing another "Oscars" post like last year because this remains my favorite time of year for seeing films, but 2011 seems to be coming up short in that respect. The nine listed films for Best Picture are pretty uninspiring for me, as only one or two of them hold any interest at all and a few are laughable inclusions. I realize that the Academy felt like they had to expand the category to deal with years where there are more than 5 films that really deserved consideration, but this slate seems to reinforce the popular (and not entirely erroneous) idea that the Oscars are just a way for the glitterati to pat themselves on the back, irrespective of what audiences and serious film critics actually think.
To date I have seen precisely one of the films in question and may get around to seeing one or two others, but that will be about it. What would often occur in years past is that the raves from critics and friends would encourage me to see films that I wouldn't otherwise have given much consideration (like The King's Speech last year) and I'll appreciate catching a gem that I would have missed. But even with the apparent deluge of positive appraisal coming forth for films like The Artist, I have little interest in seeing it.
I'm not a fan of French cinema, in general, as much of it seems to fit the phenomenon discussed last year on the Victors' board of Trying Too Hard. I've seen one too many French films that seem to be very eager to demonstrate that they are "relevant" or "daring" or "innovative" without actually being so in any significant fashion other than basic shock value. The notorious extended rape scene amidst the reverse chronology in Gaspar Noé's Irréversible is a perfect example. Another good one is almost any Woody Allen film since Annie Hall, where he seems to have been TTH to be Woody Allen-like. As luck would have it, Midnight in Paris is also on the list for Best Picture and is being widely hailed as the best Woody Allen film since... Annie Hall. But after 20 years of Woody TTH, I'm not particularly compelled to sit around for two hours to see if the critics are right.
With that in mind, it's particularly interesting to note the inclusion of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on the list, given that there's usually not such a division between Academy voters and mainstream critics. The latter film has a rating of 46% (rotten) on Rotten Tomatoes, yet there it sits on the list for Best Picture. I don't recall seeing that kind of divide, even before easily accessible indices like RT and Metacritic existed. Were the voters reaching because the field is so weak? Are they making some kind of political statement about a movie that most assume to be overtly political?
Other choices like Hugo and War Horse are easily dismissed. I like Scorsese, but he's been subject to fads in the past and Hugo is an example of the same. I'm at the point of ignoring any film shot in 3D. It's a pointless money grab by the industry and not even Scorsese using it as a point of promotion, suggesting that "actors are more upfront emotionally" being shot in 3D, is enough to change my mind, as it sounds like so much promotional horseshit. The sooner that craze winds to a close, the better. War Horse is another in the long line of films glorifying the idea of brutal combat; this time by using what is essentially a Muppet as a main character (memories of the thousands of personal emails sent to Barbaro...). I'm not a Disney-style film fan to begin with and it's not like Spielberg has ever been consistently high-minded in his approach but this seems like a particularly low reach for him.
As for The Help, The Tree of Life, and Moneyball... eh. The only one I'll probably see is the last, as I read the book and I appreciate Pitt's talents in quirky roles. I also really appreciate the concept as a whole, in which age-old methods of "scientific" assessment were proved to be ridiculously ham-handed and short-sighted (a recurrent topic on MGoBlog in the field of football) but, again, I'm not setting aside time to watch it on Amazon because it's just not that compelling. The one film on the list that I did seek out (finally... again, compelling or not?) was The Descendants.
When I left the theatre after seeing it, I knew that I liked the film, but I wasn't entirely sure why. On the one hand, I'm a huge Clooney fan. I think the work that he has done and his approach to the film industry as a whole over the past 15 years has been incredibly positive. In his recent discussion with James Lipton, he mentioned that he does most pictures for scale or near scale these days, in an effort to not inflate their budgets and, instead, takes 1 or 2% off the back end to make a return. Since many of them don't rake in huge amounts of cash, he also does narration for coffee and car advertising, much of it overseas, in order to be able to live a nice life and be able to run around finding financing for niche pictures. In short, in order to do the films that he likes, he makes allowances for how they'll get made. He further reinforced that with a story about his home in Italy that I'll get to in another post.
On the other hand, I'm not a huge fan of the introspective films that seem to be a prevailing trend lately. While I certainly don't object to films that show how people react to sometimes mundane but trying circumstances, I guess I'm more of a fan of films that at least slightly elevate the situation to another level. Using Clooney as an example, Michael Clayton is more than just the story of a man discovering that he really didn't like what he was doing for a living. Eastern Promises is more than just a story of a dead prostitute and the child she left behind. Rashomon is more than just how a few people see the same event. They're trying circumstances that any of the people in those worlds could have encountered at any time, but they're also elevations of "the everyday", as it were. They're concept films, in addition to being stories of relatively normal people in tough times (admittedly, Eastern Promises is a bit of a conceit here.)
It took a few days for The Descendants to really gel for me. I think that's part of what makes it a good film. I continued to think on it well past the two hours of watching it. It resonated and not because it struck me personally, because it really didn't. But I continued to mull over the whys and wherefores of its telling. There was certainly some personal impact; having visited Hawaii a decade ago and having certainly felt the atmosphere of the place quite strongly. A statement that Clooney's character makes at the onset of the film is meant to emphasize the fact that while most non-residents tend to view the islands as some version of paradise, the people there are just like everyone else and have the problems and minor to major traumas that everyone else experiences. Of course, this little venture into comparative existence rings a bit hollow or even hypocritical when it takes a moment to show the everyday life of Honolulu and then steps right into the life of a very wealthy family enduring a personal tragedy that doesn't quite reflect the struggle for existence of the less financially endowed among the population. Intentional? Hard to tell.
The performances of Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller as the grieving family are all excellent. Just watching Clooney in a very atypical role, where he is clearly not in control and striving to catch up to his far more self-assured daughters, is a treat. But it's in watching the transformation of all three of them as they go through the process of grieving and learning to live with each other through that process is where the film makes its bones. Matt King is suddenly confronted with the reality of having to be a father to his two daughters to whom he was more of an absentee landlord up to that point. Watching the contortions of his face as his older daughter (Woodley) gives constructive advice to his younger daughter (Miller) in a very profane manner ("She's a little twat! Say it!") should be a moment of profound insight to anyone who has ever been a parent or worked extensively with younger people. I have no such personal experience, which may explain why it took a little bit longer for those moments to ring true to me.
It was interesting to see Matthew Lillard in a genuinely dramatic role, post-Scream ("Peer pressure! I'm weak!") and the contrast drawn between people like King, acknowledging that Hawaii is still part of the real world, and the behavior of his daughter's friend, Sid (Nick Krause), and the various cousins (most notably Beau Bridges) who continued to be laid back in the midst of personal chaos (since, after all, they're in paradise, right?), putting the lie to Matt's assertion that all of this matters. The film even gets away with a double ending, which is often seen as the inability of the director to know when to close up shop (Return of the King is notorious for this: "And we're done... No? Ok. And we're done... Really? Alright. And we're done... Seriously?"), but here's it's almost essential to the conclusion of the story. There are very few times when I appreciate "feel good" moments in a story, but this one felt wholly appropriate.
So, there's my vote for Best Picture, as I really don't think the rest are worth my time. I guess I'll never be a real film critic. Having failed to see almost all of the nominated performances, there's no sense in tossing out votes or guesses there, either. Better luck next year, I suppose.