When I am not running, working or walking to points near and far in Manhattan, I am actually a pretty lazy person. I am happy spending hours on end (if such time becomes available) sitting on the couch and either reading a book, watching hours of DVRed television, or watching a movie. I also spend more time playing Words With Friends than I care to calculate, lest it depress me.
This year, I challenged myself to do something I hadn't done before. When I say challenge, I hope that doesn't conjure up images of climbing Mount Everest or doing 500 push ups a day. This challenge was far less physically-taxing. My goal was to watch all the movies nominated for the Academy Awards Best Picture.
With the aid of the movie studios which sent me several screener copies of the likely nominees (because I am a member of the Writers Guild of America), I completed my goal this afternoon. I am having a tough time picking my favorite movie, so I am going to break this year's nine nominees into four categories: Loved it, Liked it, Disappointed, Hated it.
The Help -- Lauren points out that I love a story more than anything. It trumps cinematography, acting, sound effects, etc. Of all the movies nominated this year, this one was my favorite story. It had lovable characters, and from what I know about American history, was an accurate depiction of life in the deep south prior to the Civil Rights movement. Besides loving a good story, one of my favorite genres is historical fiction and of the three movies on the list of nominees that fit that genre, this one was the best one. Yes, it does have a fairly predictable happy ending where everything works out for the good guys and goes to hell in a hand basket for the bad guys, but who said that was a bad thing? I have not read the book that this movie is an adaptation of, but I am told it sticks to the story. The Help lets you experience the gamut of emotions from laughter, to anger to tears.
Hugo -- Martin Scorcese's fantasy about a child machinist and a former filmmaker who cross paths in a Paris train station is the most complete of this year's nominees. It's a beautiful story, with amazing imagery and wonderful acting. I'm not quite sure how Ben Kingsley was not nominated for his role. When this movie came out, I had no interest in seeing it. Nothing about a children's movie in 3-D appeals to me on the surface. However, I cannot stress how wrong I was. This movie was meant to be see on the big screen. Scorcese does not use 3-D to have things pop out of the screen and startle the audience, but instead uses it to bring the audience into the film. When old books open, you can see the dust particles. When papers fall, they appear to be scattering around you as you sit in the theater. What's truly great about this movie is that much of the storyline revolves around a real-life pre-World War II filmmaker who brought magic to early cinema. The movie tells his story by reminding you how magic the movies can be.
The Artist -- This was the last of the nominees I saw and it was the one I almost didn't see. I can tell you I am glad I did. This is a silent film about the fall of silent films and therefore, the superstars affiliated with them. As a movie with dialogue, it would be nothing special. But, as a silent film complete with an orchestral arrangement and fullscreen text of important conversations, it is captivating and brilliant. It is amazing how much you can learn about a movie character through their facial expressions, actions and body language. Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller was my favorite character in any of this year's films this year and is deserving of the Oscar for Best Actress even though she wasn't nominated (note: there are many best actress nominees whose performances I didn't see). But forget Bejo, the runaway performance in The Artist is the performance of Uggie, who plays the unnamed dog and a central part of the plot. The Artist really is a fun movie with some very serious moments and an ending that is sure to bring a smile. I should point out that it is not a truly silent film. There are two moments where talking is heard, and they are very poignant.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close -- This movie was incredibly close to being in the above category. But, as I was putting this list together, I forgot about it completely, and I don't think it's possible to forget about a movie that I loved. Then, I started to focus on its flaws. Sure, this tale of a boy who lost his father on 9/11 is very moving. I shed a few tears. But, looking back on it, I wonder how much of that is because 9/11 wasn't that long ago. It's still a very fresh memory for most people. In fact, several people I know here in New York won't see this movie because it is too soon. Again, I liked this movie and the performance of the very young Thomas Horn is awesome. However, it was a bit of a stretch to believe an 11-year-old child was free to wander around New York City on his own. And his task, which I won't reveal, seems like an impossible one to accomplish in a city of eight million people.
The Descendants -- Life in Hawaii isn't all surfing and sunbathing. There are real Americans living there, doing real work and dealing with real problems. This movie is about some of those people. It's unique because it is the first movie I have seen set in Hawaii that isn't about how awesome and tropical Hawaii is. In fact, life is pretty crappy for the family this movie centers around. And that is why The Descendants is on the like list and not the love list. It's kind of depressing. What I loved about it was the cast. It has the best ensemble of all the nominees. George Clooney is great as always and Shailene Woodley does a great job of playing a role that can be tired and cliche, the rebellious teenaged daughter. But the most moving scene in this movie is delivered by Judy Greer, who angrily confronts a comatose adulterer.
Moneyball -- How do you turn a book about the economics of baseball into a movie worth watching? Moneyball is how. While it won't go down as one of the classic, motivational sports movies like Rudy or Hoosiers it is a great underdog story. Brad Pitt has solidified himself as one of the best actors of this generation and should probably win the Oscar for playing Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, who with the help of a recent Yale graduate, changes the way winning baseball teams are assembled. You don't have to like or care about baseball to enjoy this movie, which was itself an underdog and almost never got made. I am glad it did.
Midnight in Paris -- I realize I am in the minority on this one. Most people I know loved this movie. I didn't hate it. I just felt like it could have been better. Woody Allen tries to accomplish a lot in a little bit of time with this romantic comedy about a man (Owen Wilson) who falls in love with Paris on a trip there with his insufferable fiance (Rachel McAdams). Why does he fall in love with Paris? Because at the stroke of midnight each night, he is whisked away to the time of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, his literary heroes, and is able to pick their brains and even get their advice on his own novel. That's a cute story, but if I am to believe that Owen Wilson is an intelligent, aspiring writer, I can't understand how he so quickly accepts the fact that he is essentially stepping into a time machine each night and going back in time. I am not suggesting there be some long, drawn out period of doubt. But, there is no period of doubt at all. I also have trouble believing that a character so lovable as Wilson's is engaged to McAdam's character. She plays a woman so materialistic and mean that no one would an ounce of self-respect would want to spend the rest of their life with her. I also thought the final romantic twist was a stretch as the character involved barely makes an appearance in the movie before becoming the new love interest that provides the happy ending.
War Horse -- The special effects in this movie are trademark Spielberg. They are incredible. Other than that, War Horse is a real snooze. It's about a horse that is whisked away from a teenaged farm boy to be part of the British war effort in World War I. Through a series of events, he ends up back with the boy, now a grown man. But the only character you have time to connect with throughout this two-plus hour movie is the horse, which makes it hard to be too excited when he ends up back with the boy that you haven't seen in 90 minutes. I guess the reason Spielberg didn't use any known actors in this movie is because there were no real characters.
Tree of Life -- Terrence Mallick wants you know that he is smarter and more creative than you. He does it by making a movie that is so bizarre and off-the-wall that you almost need to be him to get it. Even Sean Penn, who is in the movie, was disappointed in the final product. It's a non-linear "story" about a middle-American family in the 1950s that experiences a loss. You never find out just how or why that loss happened. But, you do get to spend 15 minutes watching Mallick's interpretation of how the Earth was formed and how dinosaurs became extinct. This is really a self-righteous waste of time and if I can prevent just one person from watching it, I will at least feel somewhat like my having to sit through it was justified.
So, what wins Best Picture? I didn't actually know what my answer was going to be when I started writing this, but I think the Oscar goes to Hugo. I enjoyed the story of "The Help", more, but Hugo is the most-complete movie in this year's crop.