Monday, January 21, 2013

Oscar preview

OK, it's that time of year when I look at the list of Oscar nominees, excoriate the Academy for their bizarre choices of the recent past, and submit my predictions of how they'll screw things up this year.  In addition, you'll be favored with my preferences for the various awards.

Fair warning: I'm trying to be aware of recency bias.  And I just saw Les Mis.  Went into it with tepid expectations, based largely on the cast.  But more on that in a bit.

Best Picture



Haven't seen it, but it's the only foreign-language film in this category.  So it's probably got a stranglehold on Best Foreign Language Film.


Ben Affleck's movie about the rescue of a group of hostages from Iran in 1979 won the Golden Globe for Best Drama and is getting the buzz as the favorite.  It shouldn't.  Not that it's a bad film.  But it's little more than a well-presented docudrama.  Except, of course, for the part where the film makes fun of Hollywood.  So we're likely treated to a second year in a row where Hollywood's narcissism carries the day.

My issues with this film stem from two things: its historical accuracy and how it treats Hollywood.  In many ways this film does a great job with historical accuracy.  The hair styles, fashions, and behaviors all seem period-appopriate.  My problem is that it ratchets up the drama to an absurd extent.  Sure,  it would have been a dull film if the simple truth had been told.  But really, was it necessary to have a car chase on the runway as the plane was taking off?  That was comical and really hurt my impression of the film.

As for the interaction with Hollywood, both Alan Arkin and John Goodman are good, as usual, in their roles as a producer and stunt coordinator who work with the Affleck character to develop the fake movie which is to be the cover for the extraction team to get the escaped embassy workers out of Iran.

Beasts of the Southern Wild 

Haven't heard much about this film. It has no chance of winning.

Django Unchained  

Along with Inglorious Basterds, the second powerful film from Tarantino in recent years that combines his fantastic writing ability with great cinematography and perhaps an excess of bloody justice. But who am I to judge?  Not exactly a Great Film in the sense that demands recognition as Best Picture.  But Tarantino really deserves recognition for his writing skill.

Tarantino describes his recent work as 'spaghetti westerns' translated to other settings. But while that much is true, I feel that there's a huge difference between IB and Django.  Inglorious Basterds is just one of many films that takes aim at the Nazis. But Django is nearly alone in its willingness to take on white slavers directly.  Not that there aren't any films about the Civil War era or the antebellum South.  But most take the path that Gone with the Wind takes: a refusal to blame Southern Whites for their racism.

Django Unchained takes quite a different tack, and should be praised for staring slavery in the face.  (Sadly, this accomplished has been diminished by the idiotic actions of Spike Lee, who has bizarrely criticized the film for using a word that everybody in that area in that time used.  I say 'bizarre' because Lee didn't bother to see the film before he made this criticism, and also because it makes no sense to fight the fight against slavery by thinking that denial of historical vocabulary is any kind of accomplishment.  It's one thing to stop using a word.  It's quite another to pretend that nobody ever used it.)

Les Misérables

Musicals used to be one of the primary genres of Hollywood, but we haven't seen very much in this genre since the 1960s.  I still consider West Side Story to be the class of this genre.  It's got a great underlying story (Romeo and Juliet), great music (Leonard Bernstein at the top of his game), great choreography and leads who can really sing well.  Les Mis succeeds in doing most of these things, too.  For starters, it's built on the timeless classic of Victor Hugo.  The story itself hits several deep emotional levels - the iniquities of life, the persecution of those in power, the futility of rebellion, and the possibility of redemption.  The music is great.  I hadn't known that the music was as good as it is.  Choreography isn't really an issue here (nobody dances), so my opinion here comes down to the lead performances.

As the film started, I felt a bit uncomfortable with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean.  His pacing is fairly consistently a bit faster than I think the music deserves.  His voice is good, but not great. But in terms of his acting, he deserves the Golden Globe that he recently won.  He really nails the part.  By the end of the film I was a bit more forgiving of his phrasing, and I was totally sucked in by his peformance.

Russell Crowe plays the second most important role: the legendary Inspector Javert.  Russell Crowe has no problem in terms of being equal to the acting requirements of this role.  The role requires him to be the over-zealous policeman and, let's face it, that's not a very demanding requirement for an actor.  His singing is not all that impressive, especially early in the film.  There are a few "tells" that distinguish an ordinary singer from an exceptional one: limited range, limited volume, and what often sounds like whispering to pitch.  Crowe is like that for much of the film, but I will give him credit for belting out his final piece.  A good deal better than Pierce Brosnan was in Mamma Mia (yes, that's damning him with faint praise).

Anne Hathaway has also gained a good deal of recognition for her potrayal of Fantine, the syphillitic whore who lost her paying job at Valjean's place of business.  Hathaway lost a good deal of weight to play this role, and also took some singing lessons.  Her acting is excellent, and she does a reasonably good job belting out "I Dreamed a Dream" before succumbing to her illness.

Happily, the producers found good singers for the  rest of the roles.  Amanda Seyfried is notably good as the adult Cosette.  You may remember her from Mamma Mia.  She took singing lessons after that film and tried, without success, to get cast in the Broadway revival.  She has an excellent voice.  Maybe she'll get her own musical at some point.  She's got the looks and singing chops to carry a film.  Also very good are Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thendariers, Samantha Barks as Eponine, and Eddie Redmayne as Marius.  

In summary, Les Mis would be an excellent candidate for Best Picture.  It probably won't win - as a musical it's practically disqualified from consideration.  Today it would be my choice, but it's hard to allow for immediacy bias.

p.s. Somehow I completely forgot Chicago when I wrote this bit.  Les Mis is ten times better than Chicago.  And yet it's not getting half the consideration from the Academy.  Chicago is the epitome of the brainless modern mucial: silly story with a few nice songs and dances thrown together does not an interesting film make.

Life of Pi

Ang Lee gives us another masterful work that presents a visual story in a way only he seems to be capable of doing.  It's the story of a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger.  That's the story in a nutshell, but it's a description that really doesn't do the story justice.  What it really is is a story about the nature of faith.  Either that or it's an excursion into magical realism.  And it presents faith and mythmaking in pretty much the most sympathetic way possible.  In terms of pure visual magic, this film is without peer in the 2012 releases.  And yet, I feel that the film takes the easy way out in how it addresses issues of faith.  Is faith really just a choice of what thee prettiest story is among several equally probable stories?  I think that's a modern spin on this question isn't really historically justifiable.  People of real faith don't just pick and choose what they believe because it feels good - not consciously at least.  

In any case, if we take the body of the film for what it is, there's a terrific story there.  And the direction and cinematography manage to pull of all sorts of tricks that hardly seem feasible.  How do you make it look like a ferocious tiger, a crippled zebra, a voracious hyena, a screaming orangutan, and a boy named Pi, are all sharing an escape from a sinking freighter in a lifeboat.

I would prefer Life of Pi over Argo in this category, even though it has what I  consider to be deep thematic flaws.  At least it's trying to do something interesting.  Argo is thematically dull.  


This is an enjoyable historical drama which, like most of Spielberg's work, doesn't try to do anything terribly difficult.  (Only Spielberg would force a happy ending into a film about the Holocaust - and don't get me started about the train wreck at the end of Saving Private Ryan).  

I will give Spielberg credit for at least hinting at the existence of complicated issues involved in appraising Lincoln's legacy.  But he takes a real softball approach to these issues.  Did you know that Lincoln was not only the Great Liberator, but he also was fairly devious in how he interacted with Capitol Hill?  Well, it's a story worth telling, but we shouldn't be all that impressed.

Having vented my spleen towards Spielberg for his usual flaws, I should praise Lincoln for what it does well. The acting is excellent.  Of course, half of that task is done when you land Daniel Day-Lewis, the greatest actor of his generation.  But there is a lot of good work done in supporting roles, including Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, and many more.

Would be happier to see Lincoln win over Argo, but not by much.

Silver Linings Playbook

A nice little story about a couple of slightly disturbed individuals, played by Bradley Cooper and the brilliant Jennifer Lawrence, and how they work together to deal with their respective causes of alienation.  Cooper is playing a guy with serious issues in terms of impulse control, which stems from a bipolar disorder that he's started to get treatment for.  Lawrence is playing a woman who's trying to get past a period of nymphomania after losing her husband.  (Is it more politically correct to say "sex addiction" than "nymphomania"?)

In the background is Robert DeNiro as Cooper's father, a man with OCD issues as well as a football book he's running on the side.  DeNiro is excellent, as he usually is, in a role that really doesn't require half of his talent.  Cooper is much better than you might expect him to be if you're primarily aware of him from The Hangover.  And Lawrence looks to be the hottest commodity in Hollywood, both in terms of her talent and her sex appeal.  (I don't think anybody has ever made birthmarks and moles look sexy in quite the way she does here.)

The knock against Silver Linings Playbook would be that the topic isn't terribly weighty.  Well, it is and it isn't.  The topic of mental illness surely is considrable.  And the actors handle this issue brilliantly.  It's just that...somewhere along the way the path the film takes becomes a bit ordinary.  The climax is a dance contest?  Well, I guess that's a better resolution than Life of Pi, but I think it could have ended more dramatically.

Zero Dark Thirty

Um, what the hell is this doing here?  An after-the-fact false justification for torture?  Glorification of the American military for killing a Bad Guy?  I cannot give Kathryn Bigelow any money for this.  I'm so offended it makes me question my support for her previous film, The Hurt Locker.  Do we not only have to kiss military ass, but also pretend that their abuses were actually justified?  Cannot abide this propaganda.

What's missing

Where is Flight?  That's a great treatment of alcoholism, in one of Denzel Washington's best roles.  For that matter, where is The Hunger Games?  That's certainly a more interesting film than half of the films on this list. But it's sci-fi and dystopic, so it will not be respected by Hollywood.  Let's not forget that these are the people who have loved Shakespeare in Love, Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, The King's Speech, and The Artist.

Predicted winner: Argo
My preference: Les Misérables

Best Actor in a Leading Role

From here on I'll aim for more brevity.


Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

I haven't seen The Master, but I liked all of the other candidates.  The Golden Globes give two awards here, one for best actor in a drama and one for best actor in a musical or comedy.  I like that solution, as it let them recognize both Day-Lewis and Jackman.  Here the obvious favorite is Day-Lewis.

Predicted winner: Daniel Day-Lewis
My preference: Denzel Washington

A bit more regarding Flight.  Denzel Washington is a tricky actor to evaluate, since he's been at the top of his profession for decades and there are certain things he can do with little effort that distinguish him from anybody else.  A lot of the time he's just Denzel being Denzel, the charismatic, articulate alpha male who happens to be black.  For example, see Safe House.  But he's at his best when he pushes himself beyond his comfort zone.  He won his Oscar for Training Day, where he tapped into a dark side to create a fascinating character.  I think he's at least that good in Flight, tackling a character who hides his profound insecurity behind a gregarious facade combined with alcohol and drug use.  People who have known alcoholics up close say that Denzel nails this character.  In my opinion, that's a bit harder to do than to imitate the walk and voice of a man who's been dead 147 years.  With all due respect to Denzel, who does a tremendous job.

Best Actress in a Lead Role


Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, the Impossible

Well, it's simple when I've only seen one of the five films. Also, I think Jennifer Lawrence is extremely popular right now. (The Hunger Games series is going to make a lot of money for Hollywood when all is said and done.)

Predicted winner: Jennifer Lawrence
My preference: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Actor in a Supporting Role


Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

This is rare: all of the nominees already own Oscar statuettes: Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine, Hoffman for Capote, Jones for The Fugitive, Waltz for Inglorious Basterds, and DeNiro for Raging Bull and Godfather II.

That makes this choice easier, as there's no pressure to give an award here for career recognition.  Again, I haven't seen The Master, so I cannot really consider Hoffman fairly.  Of the other four, I see two (Jones, Waltz) as being clearly ahead of the other two.  Jones is excellent as the abolitionist legislator Thaddeus Stevens.  Waltz is brilliant as the bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz.  If only we could have a film where these two contemporaneous characters meet each other!  They share a contempt for slavery but follow profoundly different paths.  Tommy Lee Jones turns his dial up to extra grouchy for a series of blistering comments aimed towards anybody who would block passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  And Waltz shows a facility with Tarantino's dialogue that is unequaled by any of his peers.  Waltz is clearly the kind of guy with trranscendent mastery of languages (several languages, as we saw in  Inglorious Basterds).  It's really hard for me to pick between these two.

Predicted winner: Arkin, because Hollywood is dumb, and he just won the Golden Globe
My preference: Waltz or Jones.  Would be happy with either.  Jones has done a lot of films where he's better than he was in The Fugitive.  This isn't the best of the lot (I'd go with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada or No Country for Old Men).  But it's very good.  On the other hand, Waltz is wonderful yet again.  The only knock against him would be that he would be winning for a Tarantino film role, and he already did that once.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role


Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Didn't see either The Master or The Sessions.  Sally Field is pretty good as Mary Todd Lincoln.  Jacki Weaver was OK as Bradley Cooper's mom, but that was hardly a memorable role.

Anne Hathaway is the runaway favorite here.  She's going to win.  I'm happy with that.

Predicted winner: Anne Hathaway
My preference: Anne Hathaway

Best Director


Michael Haneke, Amour
Behn Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

(OK, how did these two films that nobody's seen get so many nominations?)

Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Stephen Spielberg, Lincoln
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Hey, I just noticed that Affleck isn't nominated here!  And yet the Foreign Press saw fit to give him this award over Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg.

In case it's not obvious, those are the only two viable candidates I see here.  The first two candidates are far too obscure, and while I love Silver Linings Playbook, there's not enough there to put Russell ahead of the big two.  Spielberg has won twice before, for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, while Lee has won for Brokeback Mountain.  Curiously, while typically this award goes to the director of the Best Picture winner, both Lee and Spielberg have won this award when their picture didn't win that award (of the three aforementioned films, only Schindler's List won Best Picture).  (Can you believe that Crash beat Brokeback Mountain???)

In any case, Spielberg has only won for his really exceptional work thus far.  I'll guess that Hollywood does the right thing here.

Predicted winner: Ang Lee
My preference: Ang Lee

Best Adapted Screenplay


Argo, by Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild, by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Life of Pi, by David Magee
Lincoln, by Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook, by David O. Russell

Of the two screenplay categories, this is certainly the lesser, except for in the rare case that a writer is adapting his own prior work.

Beasts of the Southern Wild has taken in a grand total of $11 million in box office returns so far.  That's really not very much.  In Contrast, The Hunger Games has taken in $686 million worldwide.  Now ordinarily I'm a fan of snobbery within certain limits.  But really, how is this film getting so many nominations when nobody has seen it?  The Hunger Games is also an adapted script.

I have no feel for the gossip around this category.

Predicted winner: Lincoln by Tony Kushner
My preference: Life of Pi, by David Magee

Best Original Screenplay


Amour, Michael Haneke
Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino
Flight, John Gatins
Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty, Mark Boal

It's notable that Zero Dark Thirty, which purports to be a true story, is not an adaptation of anything.
My preference here is obvious.  Tarantino won a writing Oscar for Pulp Fiction.  He deserves another one.

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