Oscar scouting report, best picture: Some deserving nominees, plus ‘The Help’ and ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’

Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in The Help. ()
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Capital is evaluating the Oscar nominees in each category. Here: Best Picture.

The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius

Jean Dujardin (in an Oscar-nominated performance) plays George Valentin, a silent film star in 1927, on top of the world and at the top of his field. With the advent of "talkies," he finds himself pushed aside. New stars rise, including Peppy Miller, (played by Bérénice Bejo, also nominated for an Oscar) but Valentin was helpful in giving her her first break, and she does not forget that. As her fortunes rise, his fall.

The gimmick of The Artist, and it is a gimmick, although a charming and fun one, is that it is filmed in black and white, with no sound, and title cards showing dialogue. Michel Hazanavicius, also nominated for Best Director, has created an effervescent and rather silly (in the best sense) tribute to silent films, utilizing pantomime and gesture in a way that is almost a lost art in the cinema.

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For many moviegoers, cinema begins with Star Wars and everything else is ancient history. But there were giants back then who created indelible works of art, playing with the new medium of moving pictures, and experimenting with all of the visual possibilities. The Artist acknowledges that history. The ending is a bit of a cop-out (most silent film stars like George Valentin did not experience comebacks with the advent of sound), but the film is entertaining and clever. It has slowly begun to take over the world, racking up awards, and 10 Oscar nominations. The Weinsteins don't mess around.

The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne

Except for the voiceover that opens the film and describes to us everything that we need to know, The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne, is a perfect film. It may seem slight but that is part of its power. It's actually extremely thoughtful and has much to say about life and relationships and family and marriage and money. The acting is superb across the board, and Payne keeps the proceedings moving, going from comedic bits of behavior ("Oh, come on in. We're just fighting!") to deeply emotional moments of revelation.

Watch what happens on Clooney's face when Sid, his daughter's annoying friend, reveals that his mother has died two months before. An entire world of thought goes across Clooney's face as this information lands, and it is the most important moment in the picture.

The Descendants is also about Hawaii. In this day and age when so many films are made in Canada, with Toronto standing in for New York and Chicago and everywhere else, it's wonderful to see a film shot so unmistakably on location. I've seen the film a couple of times now, and it hasn't lessened in impact.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, directed by Stephen Daldry

Really? Best Picture?

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a drama with 9/11 as its background. A nine-year-old boy loses his father in the attacks on the World Trade Center. He begins a search to find the lock that fits a key left behind in his father's belongings. The boy is precocious, antisocial and damaged.

He is played by Thomas Horn, and it is an extraordinary performance for a small boy. He must carry the entire movie, and he nearly does. But the film is manipulative, pleased with itself, and overly complicated, not to mention frankly unbelievable. The switching of the answering machines was particularly egregious. A nine-year-old boy can just go to a corner store and buy an exact duplicate of the answering machine in his home, no problem? What world does this film inhabit?

Max von Sydow is nominated for his performance as The Renter, but the nomination for Best Picture is baffling, especially when a truly great film like Melancholia is not nominated for anything.

The Help, directed by Tate Taylor

The Help, based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, and helmed by first-time director Tate Taylor, is the kind of film Hollywood loves to congratulate itself for making. It's comfortably and self-righteously liberal, "life-affirming," and tackles tough issues like racism in an historical context.

While the entire ensemble gives slam-dunk performances, with multiple Oscar nominations to prove it (Viola Davis as Best Actress, and Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain both for Best Supporting), the film is a mess of white guilt and white triumphalism dressed up as a story about the Jim Crow South. The Help means well, and the nomination obviously reflects the film's popularity.

While I had serious issues with The Help, I am confused by those who have given Davis and Spencer flack for playing maids in this so-called enlightened day and age. It reflects a totally ignorant view of the reality of not only African-American actresses but actresses in general. Good parts don't come along that often, and Aibileen and Minny are not just good parts, they are great parts. In a recent interview with Tavis Smiley, Smiley brought up his reservations about their roles, and Davis, in a ringing speech, made her controversial points clear. Listen up:

“That very mind-set that you have and that a lot of African-Americans have is absolutely destroying the black artist," said Davis. "The black artist cannot live in a place — in a revisionist place. A black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy, people are messy.”

Good for Davis for speaking the truth. Black actors should have the opportunity to play the wide spectrum of humanity, just like white actors do. I am not a fan of The Help but I do not begrudge the triumph of Davis and Spencer. They deserve those nominations. They elevate the film to where it should be, but can't quite go on its own.

Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese

A triumph in every respect, Hugo represents Martin Scorsese's imagination, talent, and passion at its zenith. Every frame is eloquent, every camera-move is loaded with information and emotion.

Scorsese has been doing great work for years, and even the films he has done "for hire" have his stamp on them. But Hugo feels like a film where Scorsese is actually revealing his own heart. In it, he gets to express his love of film history, his acknowledgement of the giants who came before, and his adoration of all things technological and innovative.

A little boy, Hugo, plays with gears and levers, in his cavernous "home" behind the walls of the Paris train station. Hugo aches to fix the silver automaton, found by his father in a museum. The automaton is broken and sits on a table, staring sightlessly at Hugo, begging to be fixed, demanding to be given a voice. Isn't this a metaphor for all storytellers? Isn't this how any film director feels, staring at flat words on the page, thinking about how he will bring it to life?

3D is utilized in service of the story, and there are some truly breathtaking sequences, one involving a runaway train, that show how effective 3D can be. Movies certainly feel real, when you are sitting out in the audience watching them. But Scorsese reminds us that it is only through the cleverness of the man at the helm, and his talented actors, that that which is inherently fake can seem real. I wrote in my review:

Hugo is not just the story of a young boy trying to fix an automaton in order to feel closer to his dead father, and it is not just the story of George Méliès, a bitter forgotten man realizing the impact he has had on the world; it is also a celebration of the history of film and film preservation, a topic obviously dear to Scorsese's heart. In this sense, Hugo can be seen as Scorsese's most personal film to date. Funny, breathtaking, fantastical, with incredible image after incredible image unfurling across the screen, Hugo features fantastic performances by not only Asa Butterfield, who essentially carries the film on his slender shoulders, but Kingsley, Helen McCrory, Emily Mortimer, and Sacha Baron Cohen as a cranky limping station inspector (and Hugo's nemesis).

Scorsese has been on the American scene since the 1970s. Hugo marks his seventh nomination for Best Director (he has only won that award once, for The Departed, which is hard to believe). Scorsese's actors are nominated for Oscars almost every time they work with him. People have done their best work for him. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Good Fellas, Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed were all nominated for Best Picture. None of them won. The Artist is the critical darling at the moment, but I'm gunning for Hugo. The film is a masterpiece by an American icon.

Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen

An elegiac ode to the expat community in Paris in the 1920s, and a cry of loss and yearning for a better more meaningful life, Midnight in Paris is Allen at his best. Nostalgia has always been a theme for Allen, who appears to feel that he has been born in the wrong era. There are those who feel that nostalgia is childish, that it represents a desire to escape reality. That very well may be true. But artists have always wanted to escape reality. That is why they are artists.

As I wrote in my review:

A strangely hopeful movie (Woody Allen? Hopeful?), it’s really a fairy tale about finding a life appropriate for your spirit and sensibility, and surrounding yourself with a like-minded tribe. It’s best to find other nerds who will gasp in amazement at the image of James Joyce eating sauerkraut. Then you won’t feel so alone in the world.

There’s a deep, powerful keen of longing in Midnight in Paris. One of the most moving aspects of the story is that Gil's idols not only welcome him into their circle, but validate him and encourage him. It is the ultimate fantasy. A more cynical Woody Allen would have had Gil meet F. Scott Fitzgerald and find him to be an egotistical bore. Ernest Hemingway would have vomited on his shoes, and the statues would have shown their clay feet. But Midnight in Paris is up to something else, something much more redemptive.

The idols are as you would imagine them, but better. Generous, funny, and open to the interloper among them. Silly? Perhaps. But when we “put away childish things” so completely, when we scorn all that is “silly”, we often miss the whole point of life.

Owen Wilson is the best stand-in for Allen in years, and Wilson's underlying sense of sadness (always present in his work) helps Midnight in Paris really land. Because it's lonely being a dreamer, it's lonely feeling like an exile in your own time. Looking for like-minded people and kindred spirits is something we all do during our time on this planet, and finding kindred spirits in the giants of the past, the artists and writers who came before, is one of the ways that artists feel less alone, or find the strength to keep going.

I see every Woody Allen movie that comes out. He is hit-or-miss, and that is one of the most extraordinary things about his career.

Midnight in Paris is Allen's most successful film since Hannah and her Sisters and it reveals his surprisingly optimistic heart.

Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller

Moneyball is that rare breed: a baseball movie that is actually about baseball. The film delves into the innovative management style of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt, in a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance), and Beane's reliance on statistical analysis, as opposed to the old-school wisdom of baseball scouts, to rebuild his team on the cheap. It was a revolution in the game.

Fans of Michael Lewis' runaway-hit book, on which the film is based, wondered how that many-tentacled story, highly technical and filled with insider information, could be turned into a film. For a while, Steven Soderbergh was attached to the project, but then Bennett Miller was hired. With a script by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, Moneyball turned out to be a baseball nerd's paradise.

Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, the geeky guy who partners with Billy Beane on the stats-based rebuilding project. Hill was also nominated for an Oscar, a thrilling moment for this young actor, and also well-deserved.

The film manages to maintain its intelligence and to be exciting, without reliance on an intrusive soundtrack. Moneyball is bold enough to allow for great spaces of thought and silence, as different characters size each other up, consider their options, look for ways out.

The film could have become a one-track story about Billy Beane, who had been overvalued when he was a young baseball prospect and had disappointed a lot of people (including himself). It could have been a heartwarming, uplifting tale about a down-and-out man who made good. Moneyball does not go that route, although Pitt's excellent performance shows us the depth of Billy Beane's devotion to winning. The film is about how baseball, the most intellectual of sports, works. As I wrote in my review:

I agree with Billy Beane. It is hard not to be romantic about baseball. But Moneyball, in doing its best to keep romance out of the picture, ends up being a celebration of the game itself with such piercing power that a walk becomes as thrilling as a grand slam. Now that is romantic.

War Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg

War Horse, with its spectacular cinematography, is yet another nostalgic nod to great films of the past in this year's Best Picture nominees. Spielberg wanted to create a film that looked and felt like the great Cinemascope films of the 40s and 50s, the Jack Cardiff pictures, with lush colors and spectacular scenery. He has succeeded.

I wrote in my review:

[War Horse] is shot by master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to brilliant effect, using wide-angle lenses, a lush unembarrassed color scheme, and a blatant use of artificial light even in the exterior shots. This is not realism. It's Hollywood, baby, and it is one of the movie's strengths. Its look is a sweeping tribute to the great cinematographers of the past and there are moments that call to mind Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind declaring in the dramatic war-ravaged field against a violent fake sunset that she will "never go hungry again".

War Horse, based on a book as well as a hit Broadway play, follows a specific horse through all of his different experiences during the time of the "Great War" in England and on the continent. Spielberg is obviously a master storyteller, that is not in doubt, and there are many sequences here which are as good as anything he has ever done (the surprise attack on the Germans through the wheatfield, for example).

But his inability to leave well enough alone sinks the film repeatedly into heavy-handed sentimentality. There is nothing wrong with sentiment, honestly earned. Some of the best films ever made have great sentiment at the heart of them. But obvious sentimentality run rampant can leave no space for the audience to respond, so eager is the film to have an impact. It's too bad, because there's a powerful tale here.

War Horse is certainly one of the best-looking films in the entire roster of Best Picture nominees. Watching it, you think of National Velvet, Gone With the Wind, The Quiet Man, and it is obvious Spielberg had a blast approximating that lush and beautiful style.

The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick

Recently, someone I follow on Twitter bemoaned the fact that a Transformers 4 was in the works. Can't Hollywood dedicate itself to art, not profit?

Putting aside the fact that that is a naive way to look at business decisions (what businessman on the planet would say, "OK, I think I've made enough money now. Let's just stop"), there is the undeniable fact that The Tree of Life, directed by mostly unseen independent maverick Terrence Malick, did surprisingly well at the box office, especially after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

Tree of Life is unclassifiable in any traditional sense. It's a coming-of-age story, and it also features CGI dinosaurs. It takes its time unfolding. It spoonfeeds you nothing. It is an emotional collage of images, undulating forward, with supplicating voiceovers pleading questions of the unseen Force out there in the universe. It makes the connection between the creation of the cosmos and our "small" lives lived out here on earth. We are all made of the same stuff.

There is barely any dialogue for vast stretches of the film, and the collage of images Malick uses to tell his story is nonliteral and nonlinear. The Tree of Life demands engagement from the audience. It requires you to be active in your watching. The fact that audiences were flocking to see this film and then arguing about it incessantly online (people hated it, they loved it, they were confused by it, they were bored by it), is indicative that art can also lead to profit. We are not talking about an either-or situation here. The success of The Tree of Life, in terms of its finances, is great news for those of us who care about what makes it into the cineplexes, and who love to see challenging work get a shot at an audience. I wrote in my review:

Grace is a difficult concept to put into words, yet you tend to know it when you see it, or when you feel it, as is more often the case. There is grace in the divine or religious sense, but there is also grace in the physical sense, as in the movements of ballerinas or stallions. Grace is also present in the silent feelings between people—the ties that bind us to each other, however painful or unresolved. Love is transcendent, or at least it can be, and loving another person provides for the possibility of compassion and empathy. It's one of the things that distinguishes the human race.

That is one of the things I thought as I watched the violent creation of the universe, billions of years before any of us showed up. If I had to try to define it, from my own experience, I would say grace is what you find in those brief moments when a sensation flows over you that tells you, "This. Here. Right now. Is perfect." But that's not really a definition, is it? That's the problem with, and the beauty, of grace. Tree of Life isn't about grace so much as it is a pure representation of it.