Oscar Contenders Round-up

Oscar nominations drop in less than a week. Yes, awards season is heavy upon us, with all its implicit fun and horror! I’ve already reviewed three big Oscar players—The Tree of Life (love), The Help (hate), and Midnight in Paris (eh)—but have yet to touch on the season’s other talked-about titles. The following is my attempt to rectify that:

The Artist. I was delighted by the cuteness and chemistry of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, who give a spry pair of performances attuned to the film’s silence. And writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has an eye for visual gags, which dot the film: the dancing legs, the take-after-take courtship, the ascension of Peppy’s name, etc., etc. But The Artist never really coheres, coming across more as a set-piece variety hour than a fleshed-out feature film. Its tragedies, when they arrive, don’t stick—Dujardin’s alcoholism and depression always seem to have a wry smile lurking beneath them, and a climactic suicide attempt is punctuated by a joke. The film’s story is all but an afterthought, schematically stitching Singin’ in the Rain onto A Star Is Born.

Guillaume Schiffman’s gleaming photography gorgeously invokes the memory of “classical Hollywood,” but to what end? The film never really gets beyond the shock of its own retro-novelty, preferring to be vaguely about the idea of “silent movies” rather than any historically real silent cinema.* (This meta-silence explains its “Dream Factory” Hollywood setting, which could’ve been constructed from issues of Photoplay.) When it does make concrete allusions (to Citizen Kane and, infamously, Vertigo), they’re hollow and don’t fit their contexts. The Artist suggests the gist of silent movies (i.e., “they didn’t talk”) but doesn’t follow through; it’s very limited in outlook and execution. Kudos, certainly, to Hazanavicius and company for merely making a functional latter-day silent movie. I just wish they’d made more than a broad pastiche that teeters toward “They don’t make ’em like they used to!” pandering. Well, at least the dog’s cute.

*Hazanavicius himself seems strangely misinformed about 1920s filmmaking. In one interview, he claimed that under the Hays Code, “People don’t kiss, there isn’t any kissing in my movie, the dancing scenes are the love scenes.” I’m really curious where he got the impression that no kissing signifies “an American way to tell a story.”

Next: Hugo, The Descendants, War Horse, and Moneyball.

Hugo. Like The Artist, Scorsese’s latest is about retrieving a forgotten name from the cultural garbage bin. Hazanavicius did it via modest romance; Scorsese takes the opposite tack with his outsize kiddie adventure, turning 1930s Paris into a glimmering, blue-and-gold CGI panorama. Against this backdrop of storybook spectacle, encased in Dante Ferretti’s eye-popping production design, the story itself is initially a letdown. It’s fairly cookie-cutter Dickens-lite drama, complete with a dead dad MacGuffin, and rife with repetitions (of chases, deceptions, nightmares, and catastrophes). But then it metamorphoses into something totally sui generis: a film history lesson narrated by British child actors.

And with this twist, Hugo comes to life, fueled largely by Ben Kingsley’s performance. He pulls off some dazzling sleight-of-hand, starting off as a stock character in a quaint children’s story (i.e., the ice-hearted shopkeeper), but blossoming from Papa Georges into Georges Méliès, artistic innovator. It’s conventional character acting that forms the core of a secret biopic playing right under our noses, one that climaxes by restaging the past. Despite its forays into the garish and clumsy, Hugo is rendered powerful by Kingsley’s bitterness and Scorsese’s runaway cinephilia. (Also, it’s worth noting that the film is totally sexless and nonviolent, as if Scorsese were atoning for his otherwise R-rated oeuvre.)

The Descendants. Like The Help, it’s a surefire Best Adapted Screenplay nominee with some glaring adaptation problems. The first-act voiceover, for example, is so gratuitous it hurts. (“I’m the back-up dad, the understudy.” Thanks for that, Matt! Wouldn’t want to have to infer it from your onscreen behavior.) And the land sale subplot, clearly intended to serve as a thematic analogue to the family drama, is totally botched through underdevelopment, instead playing like a background buzz that culminates in a pointless false climax. And finally, there’s Sid, the Keanu-ish surfer dude whose tasteless jokes derail the film’s tone.

But in between these blemishes, the film whips up a few of the tragicomic moments Alexander Payne is renowned for: George Clooney running and running, his face wrenched by absurdity; his protracted wince after talking with Beau Bridges; and his hushed showdown with his wife’s lover. These, like the tender closing shot, suggest the masculinity-in-crisis tale that a tighter version of The Descendants could’ve been. As is, it’s self-defeating in its sloppiness and discomfiting in its treatment of Matt’s voiceless, dying wife. (I do, however, have to congratulate casting director John Jackson, who’s done casting work on the rest of Payne’s films. The film has an impressive array of faces from Hollywood and Hawaii.)

War Horse. I actually respect Steven Spielberg for being so overt with his intentions. Not for a second does his old-fashioned war epic shy away from its sentimentality, its outrageous coincidences, or its giant canvas. From the opening shots of the rolling English countryside and the title character’s birth, it’s totally honest about the strings it’s going to pull and the hoary clichés it’s going to deploy. (I.e., all of them.) Tempted as I was to snicker at the film’s utter earnestness, it was also kind of refreshing.

Every plot twist and character in War Horse felt familiar. Not stale, exactly; just cozily familiar, to the point that I could’ve watched it with a “1930s-’40s Hollywood” bingo card. The family about the lose their farm! The bright-eyed cavalryman who’s cut down by the huns while fighting for Old Blighty! The pre-Nazi “Good German” with a Peter Lorre accent! Spielberg plays them all deadly straight, right down to a tear-stained, blindfolded reunion that would make Douglas Sirk balk.

The recycled nature of the film’s stories does leech away some of their impact, and the actors—who all look like they could’ve stepped off the MGM lot circa 1944—tend to just draw within the lines of their roles. (Although Emily Watson and Niels Arestrup draw especially well.) But this collection of mini-narratives is fashioned into such a well-paced roundelay that it still packs a series of punches. It may lean a little too heavily on unsubtle mood lighting and typical John Williams leitmotifs… but hell, it also has horses whinnying in solidarity. I’m not made of stone.

Moneyball. If I take one lesson away from this assortment of movies, it’s this: subject matter does not determine quality. I couldn’t give less of a shit about baseball, yet this is still my hands-down favorite among these five. Granted, it has its weak moments when it becomes about baseball, descending into bat-swinging montages to tell its story. But as long as it stays in the back rooms, being about baseball purely in the abstract, then I love it. It’s an unusually thorny, exceptionally witty character study.

I love the film’s no-bullshit attitude and its tingly, sometimes icy atmosphere. (It’s so unpopulated.) I love how it gives Phillip Seymour Hoffman a solid, gruff role that’s a million miles away from Truman Capote. I especially love the comic duo formed by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, with all their deadpan banter. But most of all, I love Pitt’s performance: his seething mix of frustration, resentment, and regret that’s balanced out by a ferocious intelligence and Twinkie-derived energy. He may revolutionize the game and manage a record-breaking team, but by the end of the film, he’s still a failure. Moneyball is practically an anti-baseball movie.

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