Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Annual Oscar Blog

I’ve delayed my Oscar Blog long enough.  It’s been weeks since I saw the final nominee for Best Picture (Les Miserables) and tomorrow it’s wheels up to LAX to cover the ceremony from the red carpet.  So, with hours remaining until my cross-country trip, I briefly turn the Jaunting Journalist into the Running Reviewer (Movie-Watching Marathoner?). 

First, the nominees for best picture and how they stack up for me.  Unlike last year, there weren’t any movies I hated (See: Tree of Life).  There were movies I loved, movies I liked and movies I could take or leave.  Also, let me point out that I am not a professional critic.  I am not a Hollywood insider and I never studied film.  I’m just an average Joe who likes to watch and discuss movies.  Sadly, average Joe’s like me don’t pick the Oscar winners so my choices for the big awards will probably be all wrong.

Movies I loved:
Django Unchained -  Critics of this movie will tell you that it is predictable Tarantino.  I disagree.  Yes, of course there is a massacre scene that is so bloody, you will laugh.  Gratuitous cursing and violence abounds.  I’ll admit, I had to drag myself to go see this.  The running time of nearly three hours was enough to make me wary.  I’m also not a Jamie Foxx fan.  But, I have never had so much fun watching a movie in a theater.  It takes the issues of racism and slavery and combines them with intelligent comedy and revenge that neither offends or disrespects the seriousness of the problems.  Perhaps that is because Christoph Watz gives the most side-splitting performance of the year as Dr. King Schultz, but we’ll get to that in my picks and predictions.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – The acting and the imagery prop up the story in this sleeper about a dying father and his six-year-old daughter.  The title comes from Bayou folklore about a giant species of beast which once ruled the earth and it will return to rule it again.  The execution of this narrative is weak, but the relationship between the single father and the tomboy child are enough to make the movie one of the more beautiful pictures I have ever seen.  These people live in squalor, yet the way the movie is shot makes their shanty and adjoining trailer look like a voluptuous landscape full of color, vegetation and creatures. The narration by Quvenzhane Wallis (who like the man who plays her father, had never acted before) is both innocent and brilliant.  It’s impossible not to fall in love with the characters.

Argo – I’m a sucker for movies about modern history.  But, of the three nominees that fit that bill, only Argo makes it on to the “Loved it List”.   The reason?  I am also a sucker for movies that entertain me and keep me in suspense.  Argo did both of those things. By now, you know the plotline and I am willing for forgive the Hollywood additions to the story (there was no chase down the runaway as the plane with the hostages took off) because of the script, direction and acting.  I am stunned that Ben Affleck did not get a nomination for best director and believe it is the biggest snub issued by the Academy this year.

Movies I liked:

Lincoln – This of course, is the second movie about modern history.  Was it an excellent film?  Of course.  It even kept me in suspense despite knowing that the 13th amendment passed (even though Mississippi just ratified it this week), but it was not especially entertaining and even dragged at some points.  Understandably, the writers of the screenplay had to take some liberties with the dialogue, but it needed to walk a fine line, not make up story lines.  Mary Todd Lincoln’s role in this movie was far too amplified.  We have no reason to believe she was the character Sally Field portrayed (in my opinion, unbelievably)  and the story adds nothing to the movie’s main plot.  That said, I do think the movie was well done and you can’t argue that Daniel Day Lewis hit it out of the park.  When doesn’t he?  Perhaps there was just too much hype, but I just wasn’t blown away.

Zero Dark Thirty – And here is the third movie about modern history.  It’s a good movie, but it has extreme highs and lows.  The final 10 minutes of the movie are as heart-stopping as anything from Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film, The Hurt Locker, but there are sections where I caught myself dozing off.  I think the publicity surrounding the movie as of late has also knocked it down a peg for me.  While a Hollywood interpretation of the facts is understandable when it comes to a historic event as far in the past as Lincoln, or as relatively trivial as Argo, it seems wrong to play fast and loose with the facts with an event so fresh.

Les Miserables – This movie loses points in my book because I don’t think it’s a challenging film to make.  It’s Les Miserables.  The Farrelly Brothers couldn’t mess it up.  Russell Crowe could, however and does.  He’s not a singer and that’s not his fault.  It’s a casting error.  It’s not that he can’t match pitch.  It’s that he just sounds uncomfortable and out of place.  And that’s really the only criticism I have.  It’s a fantastic story with familiar songs.  Anne Hathaway is as good as advertised.  Hugh Jackman does not disappoint and I was pleasantly surprised by Amanda Seyfried (who I once exchanged pleasantries with while walking a friend’s dog), but the fact remains that Les Miserables is low-hanging fruit.

Silver Linings Playbook --   Bradley Cooper was the biggest surprise of this Oscar season for me.  Who knew he had it in him?  It’s a serious story about mental illness with characters as frustrating as they are loveable.  Cooper’s character, Jennifer Lawrence’s character and Robert DiNero’s character all have serious issues and the collision of these three mentally unstable people makes for a compelling story that is executed with phenomenal acting.  The only fault I find in the movie is the acceleration of the love story.  Cooper’s character, Pat originally wants nothing to do with Lawrence’s character, Tiffany.  His change of heart seems to happen rather suddenly.  Still, this movie rises above the noise of the romantic comedies of late and I’m glad to see it was nominated.

Take it or leave it:

Amour – This is where my Average Joe attitude shines through. The art house crowd raved about this movie.  I spent the hours after watching it desperately trying to dig myself out of the depression it put me in.  The movie is about unconditional love in the face of imminent death.  The wife, played by Emmanuelle Riva, suffers a stroke early in the film.  The rest of the movie is about her painful decline from functioning adult to incontinent, babbling vegetable.  It’s painful to watch and that was the intent.  I know this is real life, but I go to the movies to escape. 

Life of Pi – Did you see “Castaway”?  This is like Castaway, but with characters less loveable than Tom Hanks and the Volleyball.  Much like the first several hundred pages of the book, I was bored for the first two hours of the movie.  The end grabbed my attention because the twist, but for the most part this movie was a lot of pretty pictures with very little substance.

Picks and Predictions
Best Film
What I want it to be: Django Unchained
What I think it will be: Argo

It's all politics and Argo's recent success at lesser award shows seem to point to Oscar victory.  Plus, the Academy needs to make up for not nominating Affleck.

Best Actor:
Who I want it to be: Bradley Cooper
Who I think it will be: Daniel Day Lewis

You expect a mesmerizing performance out of Lewis.  You don't expect it from Cooper which is why I think he deserves the statue.

Best Actress:*
Who I want it to be: Quvenzhane Wallis
Who I think it will be: Jessica Chastain

I can't think of another movie in which a child carried the entire film.  But, Jessica Chastain is a critics darling.  I think she's wonderful, but I don't think her performance in Zero Dark Thirty was what made the movie special.
*The only film with a nomination for a major award that I didn't see was The Impossible for which Naomi Watts was nominated.  

Best Supporting Actor:
Who I want it to be: Christoph Waltz
Who I think it will be: Robert DiNero

This is tough because I loved DiNero in Silver Linings Playbook but the best character out of all the nominated movies is played by Waltz in Django Unchained.  The argument could be made to put that role in the Best Actor category.

Best Supporting Actress:
Who I want it to be: Anne Hathaway
Who I think it will be: Anne Hathaway

Watch the "I Dreamed a Dream" scene, don't cry and then tell me there is a reason anyone else is even nominated. 

Best Director:
Who I want it to be: Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Who I think it will be: Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)

With two no-name actors and a potentially far-fetched tale, Zeitlin turned Beasts of the Southern Wild into a masterpiece. But Lincoln is Spielberg's latest masterpiece and the Academy won't overlook it.  

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