So there they were bright and early announcing this year's Oscar nominees to an unseen audience. There must have been an audience, though, because there was some unseemly whooping over the nominations for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (I'm sure there was a good reason for this). And, no, I did not get up for this, I just happened to be up at the time. Now, the guessing and the kvetching begins -- not to mention the studio shilling, which has already begun with the TV ads. Lotsa fun.
No, I do not even pretend to understand Oscar's latest move concerning how they decide what movies are nominated as the "best" of the year. It may -- for all I know -- involve sacrificing a chicken at a crossroads at midnight, or reading the entrails of a goat. Whatever it is, it is still resulting in more nominated movies than directors, thereby suggesting that a quantity of films just magically directed themselves. (This notion makes me lean toward the idea that goat entrails are involved in the decision making.) There also seems to be a degree of ho-humness about the whole thing where the public -- or at least the online pontificating portion of it -- is concerned. And to prove it, one person made comparisons to the GOP presidential candidates -- complete with some pretty bizarre equations.
The Artist This seems to be the favorite to win. I'm not sure why exactly, except that it has novelty value. Now it seems to be on the receiving end of a kind of backlash of nitpicking -- mostly lodged by folks who know little or nothing about silent movies. The claims that it's not really a silent movie because it has a music and sound effects track are silly. Virtually all late period silent films had such soundtracks. Indeed, those soundtracks were what the studios of the era originally saw as the future of sound. Similarly, the complaint that The Artist ends with a sound sequence is not historically inaccurate. There were scads of part-talkie hybrids in 1928 and 1929. God knows, there are enough dubious things in the film without inventing things out of ignorance. I have issues with the movie, and I don't think it's in any way the year's best, but I'm not going to take a hostage if it wins.
The Descendants Alexander Payne's film is really milking both its Oscar noms and the backlash against The Artist in its new ads, positioning itself as the one movie that both critics and audiences love. Well, maybe. It has an audience edge because it's in color and it's a talkie. I'll certainly go so far as saying that people like it. For that matter, I like it. I suppose there are people who indeed love it, but I haven't met them. Will it win? I think it's a possibility, especially if there's any Academy voter backlash at The Artist. It's a movie that it's hip to like without being in any way threatening or challenging.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close The audience at the Oscar announcements may have been excited, but the choice seems to have mostly drawn puzzled looks from the rest of the world. For a movie that was virtually dumped by its studio, the choice seems odd. After being highly publicized as a Christmas release, the movie only opened on Christmas Day at a few theaters. It then went wide without much fanfare in mid-January with surprisingly strong viewer support, despite what can only be called tepid reviews. In fact, with 47 percent Rotten Tomatoes approval rating, it is by far the worst-reviewed film of the nominees. It's also probably the longest shot of the lot. And for this they ignored Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Drive and Hobo with a Shotgun?
The Help This is the nod to the crowd-pleaser, I guess. It's the only of the nominated titles to have been wildly successful at the box office. (I know that's not supposed to be a consideration and it oughtn't be, but it's worth noting.) The fact is that there's nothing all that wrong with the movie on its own terms. It comes under the heading of "movies my mother would love" -- in fact, she did. The real question ought to be whether or not it's Oscar material -- whatever that means. Like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, it apparently not only directed itself, but wrote itself, too. If it wins, it won't be at the top of the heap of Oscar's embarassing moments, but neither will it be too far down that select roster. While I have nothing against the movie as such, this is the sort of nomination -- see also War Horse -- that makes it hard for the Academy to interest younger audiences.
Hugo Of course, this is my dog in the fight. Yes, I most certainly think it is the best picture. Do I expect it to win? No, not at all -- despite its impressive 11 nominations. There are too many "problems" -- not the least of these being that it can't escape a degree of classification as a "children's picture" or at least a "family" one. The classification is frankly erroneous and implies a false idea that because a film is "suitable" for all ages, it's immediately less "important," less "weighty," and generally can't taken be taken quite seriously -- at least by the more pretentious. (And the Academy is nothing if not pretentious.) Then there is the equally silly notion that Hugo -- because it addresses an old filmmaker and addresses the question of film preservation -- is some kind of reactionary work that purports that old movies are better, which is nonsensical in the extreme. (It's a charge that better fits The Artist, against which I've not seen it lodged.) No, I don't see this winning. I would love to be wrong.
Midnight in Paris This would be my personal second choice, and I think it's almost as much of a long shot as Hugo. It's unassuming and though it is indeed "about something," it's what is commonly thought of in Oscar terms as "lightweight" fare. There's also the fact that Woody Allen continues to be viewed as something of an outsider by Hollywood in his refusal to embrace Los Angeles or play by its rules. But there's no denying that Midnight in Paris was the right movie at the right time with audiences. (Certainly it was locally -- it played here for 20 weeks.) Maybe that will translate into warmer than usual feelings for Allen from voters as well.
Moneyball Another movie that directed itself, though this one at least didn't also write itself. I don't really get the fuss over it. To me, it's the kind of movie I see once, think "perfectly fine," and have no desire to ever see again. It's a movie that I wouldn't feel compelled to dispose of if it cropped up on TV in that off-to-the-side not-really-watching manner, but that's it. At bottom, it's non-threatening, non-committal, basically old-fashioned movie-making. It's The Help for a hipper crowd. I know people who like it better than I do, but I don't know anybody who's over-the-moon about the prospect of it for Best Picture.
The Tree of Life Thank goodness, they didn't try to claim that The Tree of Life directed itself, since Terrence Malick's direction is what this film is all about. At that, I think both the film's and Malick's nominations are pretty much lip-service to the idea of the "art film." If we exempt The Descendants, The Artist and Midnight in Paris -- which are closer to mainstream except for their distributors and release patterns -- this is the only "arty" title on the list, and it makes sense as a choice. Yes, it's the lowest grossing of the other nominated titles, except for The Artist and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close -- and both of those are still in release and will almost certainly beat it. On the other hand, it was easily the most widely seen of the "strictly arthouse" titles. Regardless of their critical reception, films like The Future, Another Earth, Take Shelter, Higher Ground and Martha Marcy May Marlene all tanked. A couple of them -- The Future and Higher Ground -- couldn't even scare up a single million. By default, The Tree of Life is the most seen such title of the year. Will it win? Not likely.
War Horse Nominating War Horse and not nominating director Steven Spielberg is one of the Academy's bigger absurdities. Love it, hate it, or fall somewhere in between, War Horse has Spielberg's prints on every frame. Its strengths and its weaknesses are all immediately and inescapably traceable to the director -- and if it's the best film of the year, then Spielberg is the best director, no matter what the Academy says. Personally, I don't think either thing is true, but the separation is pretty ludicrous. It's as old-fashioned a crowd-pleaser as The Help, but its pedigree is more impressive, so it might stand a chance.
Woody Allen Allen is a possibility -- especially if they split Best Picture and Best Director. This is a more stylish job of directing than we've seen on many of his more recent films, though it's hardly in the realm of his most visually exacting works like Manhattan (1979), Stardust Memories (1981), and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982). But compared to the professional, but kind of take-it-or-leave-it look of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) or Whatever Works (2009), it's downright showy. His attitude toward the Oscars, however, may work against him.
Michel Hazanavicius The novelty -- almost stunt -- value of The Artist will probably secure the award here. His direction is neither as creative as that of Scorsese with Hugo, nor as "artistic" as that of Malick on The Tree of Life, but his film looks so different from everything else that it stands out. If nothing else, it's certainly cleverly directed, and there's nothing wrong with that. Plus, it's a film where the direction is inseperable from the film, even if you aren't an auterist.
Terrence Malick The same logic that applies to the film's nomination applies to Malick's nod. In both cases, the noms show that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really does mean "Arts."
Alexander Payne Payne is much like his film in that his chances are directly related to any anti-Artist sensibility that may arise. His style isn't showy. I'd call it a mix of efficient and laid-back, which makes it a little dull for me on occasion. His movies never actually surprise me. That, however, is just right for a lot of people.
Martin Scorsese Not only is Hugo likely seen as too lightweight, it's too close to the award for The Departed (2006) for Scorsese to be a good bet. Me, I saw nothing this year that came even close to Hugo in terms of creativity -- or as simply alive with the sheer joy of filmmaking. The thing is that Scorsese has arrived at a point in his career when we actually expect whatever he does will be good and will be exciting filmmaking. That can actually translate into its own kind of undervaluing. That might sound a little bit silly, but it is something that does happen.
Demian Bichir is Oscar's real dark horse -- a nomination for an actor in a movie, A Better Life, that grossed about $1.7 million. In other words, it's a performance few saw in a movie that few saw. If he's known at all, Bechir is likely best known for the cable series Weeds. Fact is A Better Life is a very good movie and Bechir is excellent. Does he stand a chance at winning? Well, the distributor certainly tried, since it was the first screener out for awards consideration this year, but it's still a long, long shot. George Clooney actually comes across as the most likely to win for The Descendants, and, frankly, I'd be good with that. No matter how nicely positioned The Artist may be, I think Jean Dujardin is somewhat unlikely, since it's not what a lot of people think of as "acting." Gary Oldman would get my vote for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but the film's complete shut-out for Best Picture and Best Director are not in his favor. Brad Pitt is a huge "maybe." I don't see anything particularly remarkable about his performance in Moneyball, but anyone who can earn my sympathy for a character who carries a spit-cup (years of cleaning movie theaters really sours you on that) must've been doing something right.
Glenn Close seems an unlikely bet, though her Albert Nobbs nomination has probably helped save that little film -- with its almost evenly divided reviews -- from just disappearing. I wouldn't be against her winning, though. Viola Davis for The Help looks like a sure-thing -- as much for a body of work as for that particular performance -- and that's OK with me. Rooney Mara getting a nomination for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo just feels like she's there because they needed a fifth nominee. A win seems pretty unlikely. The much-nominated Meryl Streep may stand a pretty good shot with her turn as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady -- and it's a good performance, though not one Streep's absolute best. I'd like to think that Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn has a shot at it -- and she just might.
The Supporting Actors
Kenneth Branagh plays Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn and it's almost typecasting, but that doesn't mean it's not terrific. It is, but it almost seems too easy for an Oscar. Jonah Hill in Moneyball is one of the year's incomprehensible choices -- especially since the Academy saw fit not to nominate Ben Kingsley's Georges Melies in Hugo -- but there it is. He's fine in the role, but it is pretty far removed from my idea of award-worthy. Nick Nolte in Warrior is the one nomination I have no opinion on, because it's the one I haven't seen. It feels like an unlikely proposition, though. Christopher Plummer in Beginners is the odds-on favorite and deservedly so in many ways. There's no denying that his performance is the best thing in that rather uneven film Max von Sydow is the best thing in Extremely Loud & Incrediby Close, too, but is he better than Plummer? I'm saying no.
The Supporting Actresses
Berenice Bejo doesn't really strike me as in a supporting role in The Artist, but I think she stands a better chance in that category. And it wouldn't bother me all that much, though it wouldn't delight me. It seemed like you couldn't go to a movie this year without seeing Jessica Chastain (I saw her in five), but the one that snagged her this nomination was The Help. It's certainly her showiest role, and the choice just might pay off. Melissa McCarthy got the nod for her role in Bridesmaids. I don't see it myself, but then I was never quite that sold on the movie either. Janet McTeer would get my vote for her role as another woman masquerading as a man in Albert Nobbs. I think it's one of the best performances of the year in any category, but I don't see her winning. Octavia Spencer is up against her co-star Jessica Chastain for The Help. And if you put any stock into the idea of a crowd-pleaser performance winning, this one is it. I have nothing against it particularly, but it's just not in the same league as McTeer's.
I'm leaving it at these -- the categories that are the biggest with most people. If anyone wants to drag in other categories feel free, though be warned I have no opinion on this year's Foreign Language crop, because I haven't seen even one of the nominated titles. Nor have those two foreign animated titles that are in there to bring the animation nominees up to five crossed my path (they have to be better than Gnomeo and Juliet).