A Fine Mess

Two years ago the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doubled the Best Picture nominees from five to ten. The move raised some eyebrows, but it made sense. More nominees meant a more representative mix of the year’s best films, including both blockbusters and smaller movies. Also, having more Best Picture nominees eliminated some discrepancies, such as a film’s director receiving a nomination, but not the film itself. The increase also meant that most of the Best Picture nominees had a screenplay nomination. Seems logical, doesn’t it? One of the year’s best films would have one of the year’s best screenplays. Beforehand, with five Best Picture nominees vs. ten for screenplay (five each for original and adapted) there would always be a disconnect. Now with ten for each, it was a closer match. In 2010, eight of the ten Best Picture nominees also garnered a screenplay nod. Last year it was nine out of ten.

For some strange reason, the Academy this year changed the Oscar Best Picture rules yet again. Now, anywhere from five to ten films could be nominated. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. But either there’s a problem with the new rules or the Academy voters are simply all over the place. Out of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees, only five were recognized for their screenplays. Remember, there are still ten screenplay noms. In other words, four of the films that the Academy voters judged to be among the best of the year had screenplays that did not merit the same honor.

The more you look the more bizarre the disconnect becomes. The Help was nominated for Best Picture and three acting awards, but nothing else. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was nominated for Best Picture, one acting award and nothing else. If these truly were among the best films of the year, shouldn’t they have excelled in something besides acting? The gap between Best Picture and the other categories marks a very muddled group of nominees. Let’s look at this year’s crop and hand out some grades.

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Grade: C-. That grade is generous, given that three of the nine films do not deserve to be there. The Help was a moving exploration of racism and the class structure in 1960s Mississippi. It boasted some fine performances from Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Cicely Tyson. But the film’s reliance on a cartoonish villain undercut some of its power. It also spent too much time on subplots that added little to the film. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, while also moving and well-acted, felt manipulative at times. The story was too often uneven and disjointed. Both films are worth seeing, but are hardly among the best of the year.

That being said, no film deserves to be on this list less than The Tree of Life. Come to think of it, no film in the last 20 years deserved its Best Picture nomination less than The Tree of Life. The film sublimates any sense of story or character to random images and camera movements with no cohesion or flow. The plot, such as it was, centered on a family in 1950s Texas. So why do dinosaurs appear? Why is a character wandering the streets in one frame and wandering the desert in the next? Even as a visual spectacle, The Tree of Life falls way short. Writer-Director Terrence Malick fell in love with a wide-angle lens (which puts objects or people in the foreground very close and the background very far away). Used selectively, the telephoto lens can be effective. Used constantly, it’s disorienting and annoying. Malick was clearly trying to make some statement about the nature of life. Statements and philosophical observations can only work in a film if they come through the story or characters. After all, a film needs to engage the audience, not torture them. What a shame the Academy voters picked The Tree of Life over much more worthy (and watchable) films such as Win Win, My Week with Marilyn, A Dangerous Method and Pariah.

Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne -- The Descendants
Martin Scorsese – Hugo

Grade: B-. A director is a visual storyteller. Malick failed horribly as a storyteller, and to have him here ahead of Tom McCarthy for Win Win or David Cronenberg for A Dangerous Method is a crime. My wife came up with the most plausible explanation for how The Tree of Life received such acclaim. It’s the old “If I don’t understand it, it must be good” trap. A movie can be so artsy that everyone wants to believe they “get it.” No one wants to point out that the director has no clothes.

Kudos to Hazanavicius for making a silent film that worked for modern audiences. He made sure the acting was expressive enough to get through without spoken dialogue, but not so broad that it would become theatrical. Scorsese, with all his accomplishments, could have easily played it safe. Instead he ventured into new territory with both a 3-D and family film. The risk paid off. Hugo succeeded as a fantasy, drama, and as a tribute to film’s early pioneers.

Demián Bichir – A Better Life
George Clooney – The Descendants
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt –Moneyball

Grade: B+. Oldman was the big surprise here, as he was not in many of the Oscar forecasts. This is his first nomination in his long distinguished career. As spymaster George Smiley, Oldman had few words. Smiley observed and reacted. Oldman created the character through small movements and glances, keeping much of the emotion internalized. Thanks to the Academy for recognizing Oldman’s brilliantly understated performance.

I just don’t get the honors for Pitt’s work. As Billy Beane, he flashes the usual Pitt charm and charisma. But there’s little unique or special in his acting. Compare that to Ryan Gosling’s brooding intensity in Drive. Compare that to Michael Fassbender’s layered, complex work in A Dangerous Method or Shame. Pitt’s selection was a triumph of style over substance.

Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis – The Help
Rooney Mara – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams – My Week With Marilyn

Grade: B. This was a tough year for this category, as there were many worthy choices. Close, Davis, Streep and Williams were locks for months. So I was disappointed to see Mara grab the fifth slot over Elizabeth Olsen for Martha Marcy May Marlene or Charlize Theron for Young Adult. As Lisbeth Salander, Mara did not have the fire, danger, or vulnerability that Noomi Rapace had in the same role in the Swedish version from two years ago.

While Viola Davis’s nomination was hardly a surprise, it’s still gratifying. For many years she had small roles where she would make the most of her brief time on screen. I would see her and hope that some day she would land a part that would make full use of her talents. The Help, for all of its faults, gave her that role. Now my hope is that her performance and this nomination will cement her as one of the rare actresses who has her pick of good parts.

Kenneth Branagh – My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill – Moneyball
Nick Nolte – Warrior
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Max von Sydow – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Grade: B. As with his castmate Pitt, Hill’s work was solid but overrated. After years of comic roles, a dramatic turn may have landed him the “I didn’t know he could do that” nomination. Albert Brooks in Drive and Patton Oswalt in Young Adult also qualify as comic actors turning in strong dramatic work. Both of their performances were much more interesting than Hill’s.

It’s never too late to have a hot streak. Christopher Plummer went without a nomination for more than 50 years and now has his second in three years. He, and von Sydow are both 82, while Nolte will turn 71 next week. Together they have been acting in films for a combined total of more than 150 years. Now that the Academy exiled its lifetime achievement awards to November, these nominations are the next best thing.

Bérénice Bejo – The Artist
Jessica Chastain – The Help
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer – Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer – The Help

Grade: A. Much as I would have loved to have seen Kim Wayans nominated for Pariah, I can’t complain about these choices. Chastain’s nod is likely due to her whole year’s body of work, including stellar turns in The Debt and Take Shelter. You could make a case that Bejo was more of a lead than supporting, but it’s not as clear-cut as other instances (such as Hailee Steinfeld’s nomination for Supporting Actress last year despite appearing in nearly every scene of True Grit).

Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris
J.C. Chandor – Margin Call
Asghar Farhadi – A Separation
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids

Grade: A. Credit the Academy for including Margin Call even though it was not widely seen. Chandor examined Wall Street’s greed and recklessness without becoming preachy. He kept the story at a basic human level, making it easier to understand the financial information. The screenplay noms are always more likely to include comedies, in this case the whimsical Midnight in Paris and the hilarious Bridesmaids.

George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon – The Ides of March
John Logan – Hugo
Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, and Nat Faxon – The Descendants
Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian – Moneyball
Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Grade: A-. While, as you may have guessed, I felt that Moneyball was overrated, I am not surprised at its nomination. Not only are Sorkin and Zallian both prior winners, but they got credit for adapting a book that many, including its author, thought was unfilmmable. Degree of difficulty also helped with recognizing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Given that the previous incarnation of the novel was a TV miniseries, Straughan and O’Connor (who died before filming wrapped) deserve praise for getting the story down to feature length.

Last year I bemoaned the lack of minorities in the Oscar nominees. This year has some improvement, with nods for African Americans Davis and Spencer and Mexican-born Bichir. Davis also appeared in two of the Best Picture nominees (as did Brad Pitt). Still, three minorities in 20 acting nominations is not very representative of America or, for that matter, the world. There’s even less diversity with the Best Director nominees. In 2010, a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, and an African-American, Lee Daniels, got Best Director nominations. In the two years since, no women and no African-Americans made it in this category. As I wrote a year ago, the lack of recognition at Oscar time is largely due to the lack of opportunity year round. However, Dee Rees, an African-American writer-director, had a stirring debut with Pariah. Bigelow is working on a film about the Bin Laden raid. The filmmakers appearing at festivals seem more diverse than those in Hollywood. Maybe it’s just a matter of time before the industry finds the talent. One can always hope.

Adam Spector
February 1, 2012

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