Thank Heaven for Low Standards

Earlier this year the Baseball Writers of America elected no one to the Baseball Hall of Fame. This means that the only people to be inducted this year are those selected by the Veterans Committee – Deacon White, a player from the late 1800s, Jacob Ruppert, owner of the New York Yankees during the Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig years, and Hank O’Day, an umpire who served between 1895 and 1927. What do these three men have in common? They are long since dead. Should make for a fun induction ceremony.

Thankfully, the Hall of Fame fiasco was in the back of my mind when I learned of this year’s Oscar nominees. My first thought, instead of focusing on glaring snubs in the Best Director and Best Actor categories, was, “At least the Academy nominated people who are ... alive.” I suppose following pro sports often makes it easier to track the Oscars without growing discouraged. For all of the problems with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it still gets more right than most sports teams. Maybe that’s why L.A. still doesn’t have an NFL franchise.

OK, so we have the fact that there are living, breathing nominees. What else can we latch onto? The Academy did not completely avoid a disconnect between the Best Picture and Screenplay categories that made 2012’s nominees feel so disjointed, but at least the gap is not as pronounced as it was last year. The nominees did include a couple of pleasant surprises and the return of some former winners who had been out of the Oscar race for a long time. Still, some of the nominees were sketchy and the omissions bizarre. Let’s look at this year’s crop and hand out some grades:

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Misérables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Grade: B-. Give the Academy credit for including Beasts of the Southern Wild, a truly original and captivating film. Writer-director Benh Zeitlin tells the story that’s part fable and part dystopia. And it’s all through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl (brilliantly played by Quvenzhané Wallis). Through her, you see the wonder and beauty, not just the danger of her flood soaked world. Zeitlin said he wanted Hushpuppy to be in the mold of Huckleberry Finn, and he succeeded. Beasts truly struck a chord with audiences, being held over for weeks at arthouse theaters.

Les Misérables boasted some fine acting and some impressive production design. But the film was big and bloated, and the story all too often ground to a halt. After all, not only did Tom Hooper not snag a nomination for Best Director, but the film did not get one of ten screenplay nominations. So, it does not have one of the ten best scripts, but it’s one of the nine best movies? Granted, it’s still a more worthy choice than Amour, which does not make good use of extraordinary performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Amour fails to give much context to the two characters or build enough of the story beyond a loving couple’s deterioration. Contrast this with Moonrise Kingdom, where writer-director Wes Anderson creates not just a moving relationship at the story’s core, but a whole small community of interesting characters, and, best of all, an involving story. Looper, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Flight are also more worthy choices.

Michael Haneke – Amour
Ang Lee – Life of Pi
David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg – Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Grade: D. Usually the Director’s Guild of America’s (DGA) Best Director nominations and the Academy’s directors branch picks match, if not all five than at least four. This year the Academy and the DGA agreed on only Lee and Spielberg. The DGA honored Ben Affleck for Argo, Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, and Tom Hooper for Les Misérables. Hooper’s omission I can understand, especially given the mixed critical reception for Les Misérables. Bigelow must have been hurt by the torture debate that seemed to engulf the discussion about Zero Dark Thirty. That’s a shame because the “enhanced interrogation” scenes are only a small part of the film, and I don’t believe it’s pro-torture. But I don’t understand Affleck’s snub at all. Argo succeeds in every way a movie can. After Affleck’s first two directorial efforts, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, the doubters said, “OK he was good twice, but can he succeed with a film outside Boston?” What’s the reasoning now? Did the Academy voters still want their money back after Daredevil?

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

Grade: C. John Hawkes gave such a touching, heartfelt, and funny performance in The Sessions. He was nominated in just about every Oscar precursor award group and it’s simply astonishing that he’s not included here. Maybe “Play disabled to get an Oscar” has become such a cliché that a backlash grew. That would be ironic, since Hawkes does not play his role as a noble hero trying to overcome impossible odds. He plays Mark O’Brien as a man with both virtues and flaws, trying to get what most men want. O’Brien does not overcome his disability, but is not defined by it either.

By contrast, Hugh Jackman played his role capably, and sang well. But he did little to distinguish himself even among his fellow actors. I connected more with Anne Hathaway in few scenes than I did with Jackman in the whole movie. Maybe I’m being unduly harsh, but it just seemed that he did not immerse himself in his role the way that Hawkes did.

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

Grade: A. While I would have loved to see Melanie Lynskey honored for her stellar work in Hello, I Must be Going, I can’t complain about any of these five nominees. Here’s one category where Amour is deserving. The 85-year-old Riva showed no vanity but plenty of bravery as a proud woman forced to suffer losing control of her body and mind. On the other side of the spectrum, in age but not talent, is Wallis. How a six-year-old girl can carry a movie is beyond me, but she does. Wallis appears in almost every scene and infuses Hushpuppy with both a child’s innocence and a growing awareness of the world’s realities.

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

Grade: A. Again, no complaints here, although Dwight Henry from Beasts of the Southern Wild, Christopher Walken from A Late Quartet, and Ezra Miller from The Perks of Being a Wallflower would have also been deserving selections. It’s gratifying to see De Niro with his first nomination since the Bush (Senior) Administration. Much has been made about De Niro’s spotty track record in recent years, and not without reason. I enjoyed Analyze This and Meet the Parents as much as anyone, but in Silver Linings Playbook De Niro shows that he’s still got his dramatic chops.

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

Grade: B. This is Field’s first nomination since her famed “You really like me!” win in 1985 (for Places in the Heart), an even longer drought than De Niro. She reportedly fought very hard to land the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, and it paid off. My only issue with this list is Jacki Weaver, who was solid as the supportive mom, but did not add much to Silver Linings Playbook. Compare that to Ann Dowd in Compliance. Dowd makes human and real a woman that could have been played as a heartless villain. She shows that her character’s actions, as repulsive as they became, are borne out of insecurity and a need of acceptance. Unfortunately, Magnolia, the distributor for Compliance, did not mount a campaign for Dowd. So she and her husband created one with their own money. It’s too bad that they fell short.

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

Grade: B-. Traditionally the screenplay categories serve as consolation prizes for films missing out on Best Picture. That pattern holds true here with Moonrise Kingdom and Flight. Moonrise Kingdom in particular is an example of the care and meticulous detail that Wes Anderson puts into his screenplays. I have not encountered anyone who has seen that film and was not won over by its humor, pathos and charm.

Why couldn’t the Academy have done the same for Looper, by Rian Johnson? I had accepted that it would not receive Picture or Director noms, as those categories have never been kind to sci-fi. But it seemed a perfect fit for a screenplay nomination, because it was one of the most original screenplays in many years. It has a clever take on time travel and the related choice vs. destiny debate. Johnson expertly brings all the intricate story threads together in a magnificent ending that evokes Greek tragedy. As Jason Reitman wrote a couple of months ago, Looper is really about what a 55-year-old man would say to his 25-year-old self, and vice versa. Like much great science fiction, Looper asks profound human questions.

In sharp contrast to the expert story in Looper is Michael Haneke’s barely there story for Amour. Its screenplay nod is by far the most puzzling nomination in any major category. To the degree there is a story, it’s deeply flawed. Haneke barely gives us a glimpse into the main characters before one of them starts to deteriorate, so we have only a little sense of what was lost. Then, at a critical point in the ending, at what should have been an emotional catharsis, another character inexplicably starts chasing a pigeon. No, I’m not making this up. Haneke sabotages his own drama and takes the air out of his film. His nomination here has to be on reputation alone, and it’s sad that it pushed out much better choices.

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

Grade: B. Magee likely got credit for adapting a book many thought unfilmmable. Still, the story lags in the middle, when it’s just the boy and the tiger. Life of Pi succeeds more due to its visuals. That nomination could have gone to Stephen Chbosky, who adapted his own novel for The Perks of Being a Wallflower (and also directed). His screenplay captures words, feelings and desires that would ring true to anyone who didn’t quite fit in during high school. The dialogue actually sounds like what teenagers might say rather than words put in their mouth by a screenwriter. Chbosky evokes and ultimately surpasses John Hughes 1980s high school films. It’s sad that his work went unrecognized by the Academy.

Diversity-wise, this was not a banner year for the Oscars. Only two, or 10%, of the twenty acting nominees (Denzel Washington and Quvenzhané Wallis) are minorities. Adding insult to insult, the Academy snubbed the only female Best Director winner in its history. In any year this would be disappointing, but in 2013 it’s particularly shameful. America just inaugurated an African-American for only the second time. It’s the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the 150th for the Emancipation Proclamation. The nation is changing but, all too often, you’d never know that in a movie theater.

Once again though, professional sports makes Hollywood look good by comparison. Over the past several weeks NFL teams filled eight head coaching vacancies. Not one of them was with a minority. This is in a league where a large majority of the players are black. Of the new, all-white head coaches, we have:

  • Andy Reid, coming off a 4-12 season with the Philadelphia Eagles;
  • Chip Kelly, a college coach with no NFL experience;
  • Doug Marrone, who had a 25-25 record at the University of Syracuse;
  • Rob Chudzinski, who coordinated the NFL’s 12th offense last season;
  • Marc Trestman, who was most recently coaching in Canada; and
  • Bruce Arians, whom the Pittsburgh Steelers let go from his offensive coordinator post a year ago.

    None of them exactly scream “second coming of Vince Lombardi.” In the meantime, Lovie Smith, an African-American coach who had an 81-63 career record, most recently finished 10-6, and once led the Bears to a Super Bowl, was not hired by any team. This is the good old boys network at its finest.

    So while two for twenty is rather lame, it’s still far better than zero for eight. Thank you, NFL for once again lowering the bar. Hooray for Hollywood (sigh).

    Adam Spector
    February 1, 2013

    Contact us: Membership
    For members only: E-Mailing List Ushers Website All Else

  • 1 1