Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscar Best Picture Nominees

Many of you know that I'm a list guy.  I like to read lists... make lists... check things off lists...

Well this past year, right after I turned 31, I made a list of 31 things to do during my 31st year.  Setting some goals, but also just trying to keep things fun and interesting... and (probably most importantly) holding myself accountable to actually following through on tasks.  Some of the things on the list are things I've always said I've wanted to do but never done.  One of those things:

Watch all the films nominated for Best Picture before the Oscars. 

I have always wanted to do it because I'm such an awards show buff... but also because every year I can never have a total frame of reference for which film I believe is truly the best.  Unless you've seen all of them, how can you really know? 

Well... by seeing them all of course!  :-)

I mean, especially with me being in Los Angeles... the entertainment capital of the world... the ability to see the movies was pretty easy.  Before the nominations were actually announced I had already seen 5 of the 9 films, simply because they were "buzz-worthy" and I thought I might as well check them out.  I had four others to cross off the list and after a couple rentals and one night flying solo to the theatre, I had officially seen them all. 

I thought that before the actual awards show (later today) I would take some time to chronicle each of the movies, not only for my personal records, but also to maybe share with anyone who may be interested reading about all the nominees if they didn't get a chance to actually see them.  At the end of each writeup, I'm summing my thoughts up in a tweet (less than 140 characters) just for fun, and for anyone who might not have the time to read through the whole review. 

So, here are the 9 nominees for Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards.  I have ranked them in order of my personal preference, leading up to my favorite.

9. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close-  I'd like to first of say that none of these nine movies were really horrible.  I actually liked them all, or at least could justify why each garnered a nomination.  I feel that EL&IC snuck in under the new Best Picture nomination rules.  You may or may not know that the Academy changed the way that films earn a Best Picture nom.  For many years there were five nominees and then three years ago it changed to ten, and at that point the Academy would just select the five or ten films which receieved the most nomination votes.  Well this year it changed once again, and now the rule is as follows:  There will be between five and ten nominees and in order for a film to recieve a nomination it must recieve at least 5% of the Academy members' first place votes.  That means that Academy members will rank their top picks and 5% must say that this movie is THE best movie of the year.  This year, nine films met this criteria.  What this new critera means is that a movie could be panned by a majority of members, but if just 5% think it is first-class movie-making, then it can be nominated.  
I feel that this is the case with EL&CI.  It got so-so reviews (Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 46% average: ouch!), but it probably really tugged at the heart strings of Academy members based out of New York City.  For those of you unfamiliar with the plot line, its about 9/11.  A boy about 12 years old is on this trek across the city to find meaning to a key that he found after his dad had died in the World Trade Center.  Him and his dad always went on these treasure hunts around the city and so when the boy comes across this random key he thinks that his dad left it for him on purpose.  I mean, a key must exist to open or unlock something, right? 
Well the movie is very powerful in the way that it flashes back to the moments of the day of 9/11.  I can't imagine the emotional reactions to this movie that would be had by a NYC resident or a family member of someone who died that day.  The reason this movie ranks last for me is that although the movie is based on a true event, the actual story line just seemed so ridiculously unbelieveable.  I mean, how could a 12 year old boy just go trouncing around this huge city, unsupervised?  This fact alone left me uneasy and upset for 60% of the movie.  Also, the actor who plays the boy main character had a lot of pressure on his shoulders to carry this movie.  I just felt like the acting wasn't as good as it could be... but I don't know if that is necessarily his fault.  I think it would be hard for a young kid who wasn't around (or too young) when 9/11 happened to understand exactly what sort of emotions to be portraying in the movie.  He was almost too stoic to be believable. 
The other thing that drove me crazy was the old man in the movie with the "Yes" and "No" tattooed on his hands.  I get that the man can't talk... but isn't yes and no an easy thing to communicate with a simple head nod or head shake?  Why the hands? 
Extremely Loud's tweet:  "Powerful movie about the most impacful moment of my generation. Can the kid just find the damn lock and get home safely now? I'm panicked."

8. War Horse: This movie I went to see in the theatre by myself on a week night because I couldn't get anyone to go with me.  Can you blame them really?  Did the PR for this movie make it out to be something you wanted to rush to the theatre for?  It doesn't have any big stars in it (the biggest is Emily Watson, Oscar-nominee a few years ago... but still 90% of Americans have no idea who she is).  The only star with any name recognition is director Steven Spielberg.  If its a Spielberg film its got to be good, right?  Well, yes.  It was good.  Not great.  Not one I'll purchase on Blu-Ray.  But again, one that I can understand why 5% of voters would fall in love with it. 
It's a set in World War I (which right off the bat is difficult for me... I've never been a war movie fan), so you've got to give credit to the crew for set design, costuming, etc.  You also have to give credit to the sound crew for this movie because with all the shooting and gallopping, they did a great job of heightening the drama of the film.  The acting is pretty well done here, especially by the young actor Jeremy Irvine who plays the main character who must give up his horse to the war and then enters the war himself.  This was his first every major movie role and he did a fantastic job.  As cliche as it may sound though, the star of the movie really is the horse.  It just boggles my mind to think how movie makers can get animals to cooperate in a way that tells the story so perfectly... especially huge horses!  I know this day in age a lot can be done digitally afterwards, but still... the horses on the film were incredible. 
My main issue with this film is that is had this big contradiction between trying to be a family-friendly animal film and an epic war drama.  There were all these heart-warming moments dealing with the horse and the love that the boy has for the horse... but at the same time, soldiers are getting killed left and right.  Hard to have your heart-warmed with so much death around. 
War Horse tweet: "Feels like Saving Private Ryan collided with Free Willy.  Should I be happy about the horse living or sad about hundreds of men dying?"

7. Midnight in Paris: This was a movie a dragged my feet before seeing.   I have never seen a Woody Allen movie that I can say I genuinely enjoyed or thought was brilliant movie-making.  Sue me.  I know a lot of people thing he's a genius, but I just don't get his films.  Then add Owen Wilson into the mix.... really??!   Could this possibly be a decent film?   If I hadn't set this goal to see all the Best Picture nominees I wouldn't have seen it.  But I am certainly glad I did!  It was very enjoyable.  The script is so very well done.  Very witty and creative.  I wish that I was more of a history/literary buff because I'm sure I would have loved it even more.... but some of the jokes probably went right over my head. 
The movie is about a husband and wife who are vacationing in Paris.  The husband, played by Owen Wilson is a semi-successful screenwriter who has been working on his next big piece of writing.  One night, he goes out in Paris around midnight and he encounters some unbelieveable characters.  I won't spoil too much in case you haven't seen it.  It's an enjoyable flick so you should really check it out.
I really love the Paris scenery in this movie!  It's a beautiful setting and very well shot (Woody Allen has a Director nom for it).  The mix of current time/language/costuming with that of the early ages was fascinating and engaging. 
Midnight in Paris tweet: "Much more enjoyable that expected!  Makes me want to visit Paris again. And read more. And learn more"

6. The Tree of Life:  OK, so first of all, a lot of people would have put this at the very bottom of their list of nine.  A lot of people don't like it or think its just bat-shit crazy.  But, although I wouldn't rank it as my #1 choice (obviously), I do see it being a relevant movie and one that maybe years from now will be appreciated more than it is today.  I felt similarly (yet in a total different way) to this movie as I did to Requiem For A Dream.  It was confusing yet gripping... and I couldn't take my eyes off the screen.
The film flashes between present day and the 1950's/60's.  In the earlier times, Brad Pitt plays a father to three sons.  The mother is played incredibly by Jessica Chastain who is nominated this year for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Help.  In present time, Sean Penn plays the role of one of Brad Pitt's sons, all grown up.  The movie follows Penn as he is searching for the meaning of life and searching for what or who has made him who he is today.  He is reflecting on his past and taking into consideration the impact that both of his parents had on him separately and together.  It's quite an interesting take on soul searching. 
As he's searching for the meaning of life, the film is intertwined with all of these confusing images of the earth, the solar system, nature, at one point even dinosaurs.  These things come up sporadically throughout the movie and you are truly wondering what the heck is going on.  In fact, at one point, I'm pretty sure that these images went on for almost seven to eight minutes with no dialogue or mention of the actual characters.  It's hard to comprehend at the moment, but I think its indicative of Penn's character feeling like such a speck in this giant huge world.  And how, in the history of everything that has happened in time, did he happen to be on this planet right here, right now?  It truly is thought provoking.
The one thing I do have to say about this movie is it is one of the most beautifully shot movies I have ever seen in my life.  If it does not win for Best Cinematography (which it will probably lose to the Artist), then it is a travesty.  Every shot is intentional.  The lighting and colors are spectacular.  It is beautiful. 
The Tree of Life tweet: "Maybe due to me being in a self-reflective state, but I found this movie thought-provoking & meaningful.  Stunningly beautiful shots."

5. The Descendants:  Similar to Midnight in Paris, this movie was shot beautifully on location and makes me want to travel... but this time to Hawaii.  A beautiful setting for a beautifully-disturbing movie. 
The Descendants was not at all what I expected.  I knew it was a flick with some family drama surrounded by George Clooney's character but I wasn't sure what the core of the drama really was. The movie was somewhere between the naggy, continuous catty family drama of a flick like the Family Stone and the other side of the spectrum with dark, twisted family drama of something like American Beauty.  I didn't expect The Descendants to have as many twists and turns as it did.  This movie can be described as many things, but definitely not predictable.  There were several surprises that were very well done in the movie.  A few scenes were so unexpected that I remember audibly gasping in the theater.  That is a sign of a good script if you ask me!
If there was any downfall to the movie, I would say I was somewhat irked by some of the acting.  I'll get it out of the way now and just say that I wasn't blown away by Clooney in this role.  I know he's one of the top contenders for Best Actor this year, but I still felt like it was Clooney playing Clooney.  He was acting and talking in this role just as you would see him on the red carpet or on the Tonight Show.  I just wasn't blown away.  The other character that drove me nuts was Sid.  Sid, (the oldest daughters boy-toy) added some comic relief to the movie... but overall, he really just drove me nuts most of the time.  On the flip side... I would like to bring to mention some excellent acting by the girl who played Clooney's oldest daughter, Shailene Woodley.  This girl was FANTASTIC!  Her role was a difficult one to play.  Mixing grief with anger and revenge is difficult but she did it all really well.  If after seeing all the films I feel there was any real nomination snub, it is that Shailene should have gotten nominated for either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress.  She was incredible. 
Overall, I think the movie was definitely a good one... but if there was any flick that I didn't think lived up to all the hype that it was getting it was this one.  I expected it to be a bit better considering all of the stellar reviews. 
The Descendants tweet: "Things to do: 1. Add anything with Shailene Woodley to my Netflix queue. 2. Appreciate my loved ones.  3. Go to Hawaii."

4. Moneyball:  I think this writeup should start by explaining that I watched Moneyball on the little 6" screen in the back of the airplane seat as I was on my way back to California from Michigan over the holidays.  I really wish I would have seen it on the big screen, but let me just say I was on the edge of my seat (or at least as much as I could be in window seat 24-A... LOL). 
I like sports.  I like attending sporting events.  I know the rules and in's and out's of most sports.  One thing I'm not good at is sports history or sports statistics.  So... while this move was based on true events, I honestly had no idea what was going to happen.  I know that all of this has happened during my lifetime, but I wasn't a SportsCenter fiend during that time, so I was watching this movie as if it was a written script just like any other film.  And honestly, I think that made it all the better.
The movie is about the transformation of the Oakland A's using a statistical math formula developed by a young baseball enthusiast played by Jonah Hill.  Brad Pitt plays the A's general manager who enlists the help of this character and it takes the A's from the worst team in the league to a record-setting team. 
I can't find much I don't like about this movie, so let me tell you several of the things I loved: I loved the filming of the sports scenes and how they are intertwined with actual footage from back in the day.  I love the scenes with the old guys sitting around the scouting table.  I love the story line of Pitt's character's daughter and the cute adorable song she sings.  I love how the movie was able to build such drama and suspense even though its about completely true events.
But most of all, I have to say that Brad Pitt is just fantastic in this film.  I'm not a huge guy to gush over Brad and think he is the best thing ever... so I'm not just saying he's great because I love him like everyone else loves Brad Pitt.  I truly think that THIS is a great performance.  The critics are talking about Clooney being neck and neck with Jean Dujardin from The Artist for Best Actor, but I truly feel its a travesty that Brad Pitt isn't spoken in that same breath.  I think he is deserving of the award this year for this performance.  He had to pull off the bold brute-ness of a major league general manager while also executing the sweet, heart-warming scenes with his daughter (not to mention the awesome, nose-thumbing scenes with his ex-wife).  Pitt rocked this performance and its sad he won't get the award. 
Moneyball tweet: "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack... I'm sucked in and can't stop watching!  A must-see for anyone who remotely likes sports." 

3. Hugo: Of all nine movies, Hugo was the biggest surprise for me.  I didn't really expect to like it all that much... and I think I had a misconception about the movie that was shared by a lot of people: that this was a kid's movie.  It was a movie about a kid, but it wasn't a movie just for kids.  I loved it! 
This movie centers around a young boy who lives in a train station clock tower.  He has this "automaton" that is left from his father and he has to find a heart shaped key to make it work.  Through his adventures, he helps an older retired filmmaker reenvigorate his love for the cinema. 
This is the kind of flick where it gets everything right: the casting, the costuming, the script, the cinematography.... everything is just rolled all into one awesomely enjoyable flick.  I laughed, I cried (just a little... but there were tears), and I left thoroughly feeling like the I got my money's worth for my movie ticket. 
When I mentioned Extremely Loud earlier, I talked about the boy actor not doing as good of a job as needed to effectively portray the role.  In Hugo, the main boy was REALLY great, which I think is what made the movie so enjoyable.  The main girl, played by Chloe Moretz (known by most for her role in Kick-Ass) was also delightfully enjoyable. 
Hugo tweet: "A simply great film about film-making and going after your passions and dreams.  Wait... was that really Sacha Baron Cohen?" 

2. The Artist: A silent movie?  About silent movies?  I was intrigued from the start.  This movie was getting Oscar buzz right out of the gate, so its one of those flicks that I wanted to see right away (just like Slumdog Millionaire).  This movie was so enjoyable!  I hate that people were like "I don't want to see a silent movie".  Really??!?  You're gonna limit yourself like that?  I think this movie portrayed love, heartbreak and drama just as well as any other movie with plenty of dialogue. 
The movie takes place during the times where silent movies were just starting to meet competition from "talkies", the first movies with sound.  Jean Dujardin plays an actor who has been a superstar in the silent movie genre, and so he has much hesistation about these new movies with sound.  He falls in love with an extra on one of his films, and she later goes on to become a huge star in the talkies.  You can see where this is going... :-)
The extra is played beautifully by Berenice Bejo.  She is so dazzling and engaging on the screen.  You can't take your eyes off of her.  Dujardin definitely does an excellent job as the lead too, and stands a great chance at the Best Actor win.  It's interesting to judge an acting performance with no dialogue up against others with it.  These characters had to be so expressive with thier faces and bodies, but it is done so very well. 
If there is one downfall, it is that the movie is pretty predictable.  After reflecting on that, it may be because the filmmakers were trying to keep it true-to-form.  Silent movies back in the day weren't filled with dramatic, dark twists and turns.  They just wanted to entertain and make you feel something.  Make you laugh.  Make you cry.  I did both (again... I know.  I'm a sap).
Will it win the Best Picture Oscar tonight?  By all the predictions I've seen and the precursors of awards shows leading up to tonight... YES.  Do I think its deserving?  Yes.  It is innovative and enjoyable.  A great piece of film-making from start to finish.  But still... it's only my #2.  :-) 
The Artist tweet "A silent movie about silent movies?!!  Would I see it again?  With pleasure."

1. The Help:  Out of all nine movies, the one that I enjoyed the most, and that I think is most deserving of the top honor is The Help.  Will it win?  Unfortunately probably not... but I have heard some rumblings that if there is any shocker at the show it would be The Help sneaking in for the Best Picture win.  We'll have to see if it has enough steam to pull through to the end.
I have to admit, I didn't see this film in the theatre during its theatrical run.  It's surprising because I typically would be all over a movie like this, especially because it has Emma Stone in it.  I think it may have just been a difficult time for me and I wasn't seeing many movies at all.  I did end up seeing it while I was back in Michigan for the holidays.  It was Christmas Eve and I was at home with mom so we rented it on her satellite dish.  It was one of those rentals where you rent it for 24 hours and it just replays over and over again on that particular channel.  Well... mom and I watched it through... and then it started playing again right from the beginning and I watched it all the way though again.  I've never done that with a movie before.  It was just that good... and one of those flicks that once you know what happens in the end you want to watch it again from the beginning with that context. 
The acting?  Stupendous.  This film won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble Cast and it is well deserved.  Clearly their peers in the acting world agree by giving the cast that honor.  Viola Davis is perfect in this role.  Octavia Spencer is moving.  And Jessica Chastain is hilarious.  I even think that Bryce Dallas Howard has been overlooked for what a fantastic job she plays as the main villian in this movie.  It's funny that one of the main reasons I would have initially seen the movie, Emma Stone, ends up being outshined by so many different characters. 
The script?  Enthralling.  There are parts that I was laughing out loud (which, honestly, I rarely do at a movie... even a really good comedy) and parts that I was crying.  But most of all, I was just simply engaged.  I couldn't take my eyes and ears off of it.  I wanted to know what was going to happen next.  It's one of those movies where you get sucked in and everything else in the world seems unimportant.  Heck, I was was watching it on Christmas Eve and I forgot it was Christmas! 
The set design and costuming?  Gorgeous.  It really helped to elevate the script and the acting to an even higher level. 
One thing I like most about this movie is that I'll have the memory of watching it with my mom.  At one point my mom looked at me and said "this is exactly how some people were back in that time".  She was getting really emotional about it, but she lived through the civil rights movement.  It was during her high school years... so its all very near and dear to her.  You could also tell that she was so happy to now live in a time where that sort of racism is behind us.  Still there are struggles, yes... but we can say that we are now a better people.  And hopefully, all people will have a more open mind after seeing The Help.  In my mind, the best movie of the year.
The Help tweet: "You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important."