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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.

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Most Disappointing Movies of 2011

2011 was an incredible year for movies. I’ll be delving into its bounty next week with a year-end round-up. But as always, some movies just didn’t deliver. Saddled with impressive pedigrees or reputations, these three left me frustrated and disappointed…

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen is back, I was told. It’s a return to form! His highest-grossing movie ever! Brimming with magic and wit! So I watched it, and saw… well, a series of Lost Generation caricatures more befitting a New Yorker article than a feature film. It’s pleasant enough, representing 1920s Paris as a haze of champagne and Cole Porter music, but also terminally self-satisfied. Its iconic writers and artists aren’t meant as real people, but automatons: they come onscreen, stroke the ego of Owen Wilson’s Allen surrogate, spout some stereotypical dialogue, then disappear. Corey Stoll has fun with Hemingway, and Adrien Brody makes a hilarious Dalí, but they’re still just idealized sketches. The film ends by disavowing nostalgia, yeah, but in a really facile and half-assed way. It’s a cute, fuzzy lark of a movie, a mildly cultured wish fulfillment fantasy, but that’s about it. (Extra points off for totally wasting Rachel McAdams as a one-note shrew.)

The Ides of March

I’m always game for a good political thriller. And a cast including George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Giamatti? I couldn’t be gamer. But The Ides of March squanders them all on a silly, self-important story whose twists and turns are more funny than thrilling. Gosling plays a doe-eyed campaign strategist who worships at the feet of Clooney’s Obama-esque candidate. But the second he discovers that Clooney gasp spoiler once had sex with a cute intern, he pulls a 180 and becomes hell-bent on clumsy, nonsensical revenge. The movie’s political landscape is a total fantasy; its women are dispensable plot devices; and its dialogue is inert and overwritten, punctuated by random fucks like a bad Mamet imitation. Hell, the film’s most enjoyable moment is when Hoffman growls the words “tits and all.” I love movies about tense political chess matches. The Ides of March is a drunken game of political foosball.

The Future

In theory, I love a lot about Miranda July’s sophomore feature. I love the idea of filtering midlife ennui through oddball metaphors with all the clarity of a children’s book. I love loose, unconventional approaches to storytelling and I love kitties. But wow, I hated watching The Future. July and co-star Hamish Linklater play a thirtysomething couple who, dominated by entropy, move incrementally toward pet adoption. When they speak, it’s in a halting deadpan; when they make choices, they bow to the gods of whimsy. Eventually they break up—and this would be poignant, but all emotion has been smothered out of The Future by a pillow of affectations. The film’s occasionally inspired, as when July chats with a pair of friends who age, give birth, and die over the course of a few shots. But it’s all so solipsistic, so barren, and so grating, with two protagonists who only vaguely resemble real people. A hellish Future indeed.

Did you enjoy these, or were you similarly underwhelmed? What were your great disappointments of 2011?

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