So here's the thing.
For the last few years I’ve made sure to see all of the Best Picture Oscar nominees prior to the ceremony. This year, for the first time since 2007, I failed. In the time between the nomination announcement and the ceremony, I’ve had to move house, plus I’ve had heavy work commitments, and the various time pressures involved in these made it simply impossible to find the time to see all those other films. As a result, I’ve had to focus my attention on the five nominees that also had a directing nomination, on the basis that those are the ‘real’ nominees, and abandon the notion of seeing the "also-rans".
And so, as I have the last few years, here are my thoughts on the films I've seen. A bit of a disclaimer though: this post is a bit rough - it was written in a bit of a rush, for pretty much the same reasons that I didn't manage to see all the films, and I didn't have time to rework my thoughts. But in any case, here it is.
(Comments on The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, The Descendants, plus War Horse follow after the jump.)
The general expectation seems to be that The Artist is going to win the Best Picture Oscar, which would be a really interesting result. It would also the wrong result (I really like the film, but it's not the best of the year), but it's fascinating to think that the film embraced by the Academy as the best picture of 2011 is a type of film that, with a few exceptions, has not been made in some 80 years.
I first encountered drector Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin in the second of their OSS 177 films, OSS 117: Lost in Rio. The next year I saw the first film, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies at a film society screening. I was really impressed by those films, which were loving celebrations and parodies of 60s-era spy movies. One of the things that really impressed me, other than just how funny they really were, was how carefully they were made. It's not just a collection of jokes and 60s references; Hazanavicius had a clear understanding of what 60s filmmaking was like, how it differed from filmmaking styles today, and he was able to filter his filmmaking through that. As a result he gave us two films that, if you had told me they was some long-lost films from the 60s, I'd have believed you, because it was faithful to the filmmaking of the era that it was parodying.
Then the two bring us something entirely different: a silent film comedy, shot in black-and-white in the Academy 4:3 ratio. It's the type of film that should be a novelty, not the type of film that is the front-runner for the Oscars. But here's the thing: The Artist is a wonderful film. It's sweet and charming, and while it's not as laugh-out-loud funny as I was expecting, it is very amusing. Jean Dujardin has the perfect look for that era movie star and, since the film is silent, he doesn't have to worry about his French accent impairing his ability to play American. But everyone's great in this film - from Hazanavicius' wife Bérénice Bejo, to actors like James Cromwell or John Goodman, and even Malcolm McDowell in a surprisingly small role - and they seem to really enjoy the unique challenge presented by the film.
And much like his OSS 177 films, it's clear that Hazanavicius has a strong understanding of the filmmaking styles of the era. He understands how restricted the camera movements were with primitive camera technology, how the Academy ratio favoured certain types of framing, and he seems to take delight in exploring those limitations and differences. The obvious limitation, of course, is the lack of sound, and Hazanavicius seems to delight in trying to explore the opportunities this offers - telling a story visually rather than relying on dialogue. (He seems to be careful to minimise the number of intertitle dialogue cards, relying mostly on his actors communicating the sense of what's being said, even if we don't know the exact words.) He also seems to enjoy toying with the modern audience's response to a silent film - even as someone who loves silent films, there is something disconcerting about watching a group of people applauding wildly in complete silence, while a later climactic scene also plays out in silence, dramatically heightening the tension of the scene. At the same time, he's also very aware of when to break the rules of silent films, and how to do so in ways that heighten the audience's response.
So it's a very good film, one of the most purely fun films I've seen in a long time. The only problem with the film is that, by its very nature, the film is looking backwards at where cinema was 80 years ago. While it does a few surprising things, I don't know that it really brings anything new to the screen. To what degree is this film doing so well because it is a great film, and to what degree is it just that it's doing something different that we haven't seen in a long time? Don't get me wrong: it is a very good film, and one that I would recommend to most people. But I suspect the film's accepted frontrunner status is not necessarily because it's deserved, but because Harvey Weinstein has told everyone that it's the frontrunner, and everyone just accepts that because the film is so damned charming that we want it to be the frontrunner.
Perhaps more interesting is Hugo, a fascinating film which similarly celebrates the silent era of cinema, but which does so using the most up-to-date filmmaking techniques. I’m hesitant to say too much about Hugo, because the trailers and promotional material don’t really give an idea of what the film is actually about. I would watch the trailers and get an idea of the film – there’s a orphaned boy, he lives in the railway station, he hides from the station guard, he’s friends with a young girl, he has a mechanical man that he’s trying to repair, and so on. But every time I’d hear critics discuss the film, they’d talk about it as a celebration of cinema, which I couldn’t understand. How does the film I see in the trailers connect to the film I hear people describe? It’s odd to think that we’ve become so used to trailers spoiling every plot development that we’re disoriented when a film actually hides its main plot development, but that’s what happened here.
The film is based on a children’s novel, although in Scorsese’s hands it’s more of a family film than something would appeal to younger kids. It seems weird to think of Scorsese – a master filmmaker whose reputation rests primarily on having created some of the most iconic pieces of cinematic violence in history – making a film you can take a 10-year-old to. But it’s such a well-made film, with engaging characters well-acted, taking place in a fully-realised world. It’s a beautiful, moving film, that I loved, and I absolutely celebrate the fact that it has the most nominations this year - even if it won't win.
What’s really noteworthy about the film is the way Scorsese used 3D. There are a lot of films being shot in 3D these days just because that’s the fad. But for a film like this, the 3D is so integral to the piece that I know the 2D version will lose a lot of its impact. If there were one film that could get me to buy a 3D television, this is it. Forget Avatar – a mediocre film that is saved only by its 3D – this is the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen, and it’s in pursuit of telling a much stronger richer story. Scorsese makes great use of the 3D to create, not just a window into this world, but a real sense of space, whether in the expansive public area, or in the confined areas behind the walls where Hugo lives. There are jokes with the 3D, moments where Scorsese uses the effect to get a laugh where none would exist in a flat version. He even uses the 3D to make the audience uncomfortable at certain moments - one scene, where the looming station inspector dominates the screen, makes me uncomfortable just thinking about it. Most 3D films seem to think that shooting in 3D means just capturing the world as it is. But Scorsese knows that three-dimensions is a tool, just like sound, colour, editing, music, that can be used to elicit a certain reaction from the audience, and he uses it as such. And wow, does it work. It's a wonderful film, easily my favourite of the nominees.
But what was really fascinating is the fact that this film was, at its core, a film about film preservation. There is a scene in the film that is absolutely heartbreaking, where we watch as important landmark films, works that were pivotal to the development of cinema, are melted down into their component elements and sold. And it’s all true - that’s what happened, because the silver content was more valuable than the artistic riches that were preserved in the film stock. And while this is the first time Scorsese has ever explored the issue on-screen, it’s an issue that Scorsese is extremely passionate about - after all, he was involved in starting two different foundations dedicated to restoring and preserving great works of cinema. As a result, when you watch the destruction of these films, you can feel Scorsese’s agony at what has been lost to time.
And the thing is, it’s still happening. There’s this big move these days to shooting on digital, editing on digital – even Spielberg now edits his film digitally because it’s near impossible to find an editor able to cut a movie on film. But there are real issues with making a film digitally. A recent article commented that digital production is subject to obsolescence through file format changes, hard drive failure, and that there is a realistic risk that, if an independent film takes a couple of years to secure distribution (which happens a lot), by the time distribution is secured the film may have been lost. As one person said in the article, "The main difference between [film] and digital is, [film] was store-and-ignore. Digital has to be actively managed." When the print of the complete Metropolis was found, it may have had serious flaws, but when you shine a light through it the film was still able to be watched. But in 85 years time, if someone found a hard drive containing some legendary lost film of 2012, it wouldn’t matter because you couldn’t get the data off the hard drive, and if you somehow did, you wouldn’t be able to read it.
At the same time, we have Warner Bros refusing to supply prints of older films to cinemas, insisting that they screen Blu-Rays or even DVDs (which look awful when projected on a big screen), rather than going to the hassle of providing a good-quality film print. It’s a tragic degradation of the cinematic experience. While I celebrate DVDs and Blu-Ray for giving me easy access to films I would otherwise never see, and digital film cameras for reducing the cost barriers for people wanting to make a film, this technology is at the same time causing something to be lost. It's often said that every change in technology causes a wealth of films to be lost - there are films that were never released on any home video format, there are films that were released on VHS but not DVD, there are films that are on DVD but may never go to Blu-Ray, and at every one of these stages, thousands upon thousands of films are effectively lost. And now it seems that movement towards digital is degrading even the cinema experience. And that is a tragedy.
What’s interesting is that this movie, which is a celebration of film, of cinema, and of the importance of preserving this art form, was itself shot digitally (which is the only way these days of shooting in 3D), in this format that does threaten future film preservation. Hugo’s not a film that is likely to be lost – it’s an important work from a key cinematic figure. But primarily this is a love letter to an art form that has inspired him all his life, a celebration of why it’s great, and a declaration that it needs to be preserved.
I’m not a huge fan of Woody Allen. I’ve seen and enjoyed most of his main films, and even own one or two, but he tends to be one of those directors where I don’t seek out his films, and as a result I usually only watch them if I happen to come across them, say, on television. It certainly doesn’t help that his reputation over the last couple of decades is one where he makes a film a year, but only every three or four years does he make a film actually worth watching. But still, the man is an essential figure in cinema, and a good Woody Allen film is a true treat to watch.
Midnight in Paris is entirely deserving of the attention given to the film, although I do have issues with it. A thoughtful exploration of the limits of nostalgia, it centres around Owen Wilson, as a well-to-do writer on holiday in Paris and obsessed with that city's golden age; the 1920s, a time when Picasso, Dali, and Cole Porter parties with Buñuel, Hemingway, and F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. And then one night, while on a midnight walk around the city, he starts to see a different Paris, and those experiences starts to rethink his worldview.
The film has something very strong to say about our tendency to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses - not just our own past, but the past of our culture. Films like The Artist or Hugo trade on a degree of nostalgia, while on television just this year shows like The Hour, Pan Am, or The Playboy Club were intended to tap in on a nostalgia that Mad Men exposed. And there's nothing wrong with that - The Artist, Hugo, Mad Men all are great works of art that should be enjoyed. But the film argues that there is a trap in looking at the past too much. There never was a golden age, the film says, no matter what the year there will always people looking back at an earlier age, blind to the shortcomings of the time they are nostalgic for, blind to the advantages of the world they live in. Unfortunately Allen doesn't trust us to get the message - there's a late scene where Owen Wilson delivers a speech in which he states explicitly what the film is trying to say - because the film does such a good job in communicating the film's message that most of the audience have understood it long before Wilson clears his throat.
At the same time, there is something that doesn't quite ring true about the film. In his review, Kermode talked about how the opening montage scene offers basically a tourist's view of the city. And that is an issue, because in recent years, we've seen Woody Allen move away from his base - New York and sometimes Los Angeles, places that he understands because that is his world - to overseas cities - London, Barcelona, now Paris. And Woody Allen shows us these places as someone looking in to them, without the level of insider's understanding that he has for NY or LA. The thing is, Allen's view of Paris in this film is just as idealised and false as Owen Wilson's view of the 1920s era was. The only difference is that Paris is somewhere that still exists, while the 1920s don't. So when Allen argues that disastisfaction for where we are causes us to look with nostaglia at a past that never existed, he doesn't seem to realise his film is guilty of doing basically the exact thing, just looking at a different place rather than a different time.
But it is a delightful film. It's filled with a lot of recognisable actors, some of the best young actors working today, making the most of what are often small roles, but that become distinctive in their hands. (Adrien Brody in particular is ony in a couple of scenes, but four months later just remembering his performance makes me smile.) It has its flaws - most notably Wilson's fiancée and her family, which receive a characterisation that barely reaches one-dimensionality. But despite that, it's a fun film, and it's nice to see Woody Allen doing good work.
Plus, the film finally prompted me to read The Great Gatsby, about which I only knew that it featured a lot of parties, and which I was surprised to find was a terribly tragic and moving story that I absolutely loved. A truly great book.
One of these days I will get around to posting my post (which has been written for the past six months, and which I've just never got around to formatting) about last year’s film festival. One of the highlights of the festival was The Tree of Life, which is a film that is pretty much impossible to describe. In many ways it’s the perfect example of what people think of when they discuss indulgent art films – it doesn’t really have a plot, and at first glance it just seems like a random collection of scenes, mostly centred around a family with three boys growing up, but at times taking a wild detour into some entirely unrelated scenes, all the while people talk importantly about the way of nature versus the way of grace, whatever that means. And when the film began, I thought the film was Terrence Malick releasing his worst impulses without restraint, and creating something self-important and indulgent. I did not initially like the film, and it wasn’t until it was a good third of the way through that I started to get the film and actually like it.
At the time, I interpreted the film as being about memory – the fractured flashback moments that make up the film never play out as actual scenes, but more as impressions, all muddled together, in the way that our memories actually are. And it’s a fairly strong theory as far as it goes, explaining much of the film – why Sean Penn is even in the film (we need a character to remember the memories), why the film is so fragmentary. But that’s not fully it – it doesn’t really explain, for instance, why the film takes a thirty minute deviation into showing us the birth of the universe and the earth, complete with dinosaurs. Nor does it explain the strange scenes with dead characters meeting on a beach.
Now, I had seen several throwaway references in different articles to Malick being a Christian (although I can’t find any of the articles right now). I don’t know if that’s true, but I know it is out there. So I was interested to listen to a Christian movie podcast, More Than One Lesson, discussing the film. And the podcast took an interesting interpretation of the film, drawing from the film’s opening quotation from the book of Job (my favourite book of the Bible), where Job demands to know why God allowed all this bad stuff to happen to him and God basically dismisses his demands by replying “Where were you when I, God, created the world?” And what that podcast suggested is that the film is an attempt to portray the film's story from the viewpoint of God. The idea says, God is outside of time, he doesn’t view events as a line one after another, he is able in one instant to see the beginning and the end and everything in between. And so, God is there with this mother who learns that her son is dead, he’s there with another son questioning God years later, while at the same time he’s creating the entire universe, he sees the end of the Earth, and he’s with us all reunited with our lost loved ones in Heaven. And all these things happen simultaneously for God. According to this interpretation, Malick is saying that God is not just some distant all-powerful being, that he is intimately involved with us all, even while he displays all his powers of creation. It’s an interesting interpretation; I have no idea if it’s actually what Malick intended, but it’s certainly a valid way of viewing the film, and one that I as a Christian find fascinating.
But that’s the nature of this film. It’s not a plot-driven film, and there are as many interpretations of the film as there are people who have seen the film. The film serves almost as a rorschach test, where what you see reflects less what is in the film and more what your personal viewpoint is. The way you interpret the film’s structure, the film’s events, the film’s key themes, all tells us more about the viewer than about Malick. If you’re an atheist, for example, there’s no way you’ll ever interpret it as being a story from God’s POV, but you’ll have your own interpretation that will make sense for you, and that may offer its own perspective on the film’s riches. In the end, I don’t know what the film was about, I barely even have a grasp on what happened in the film, but I know it’s a beautiful film (Malick is deservedly famous for his rich visual sense, and this is fully on display here), it’s rich and challenging, and has stimulated more contemplation than any other film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not a film many people will really like, but if you approach it expecting something different to a typical movie, then it’s genuinely great and exciting.
The last, and least, of the Best Picture nominees that also have a Directing nomination is The Descendants, and this I have a problem with. It's a good, enjoyable film - I didn't resent the time spent watching it - but it should have been better. I like Alexander Payne as a director, I've really enjoyed many of his movies, so I was excited to see the film, but it just fell so far short of my expectations.
My problem with the film becomes evident in the first thirty seconds. There is this voiceover narration that is just awful, and overpowering for the first fifteen minutes. Seriously, in the first reel, I would be confident that there are more words spoken in voiceover than are spoken in dialogue. The second reel has a couple of moments of voiceover, and there's none for the rest of the film, but it is so overwhelming at the start that it throws you. And it's not voiceover used well, it's just voiceover used to set up the film's situation - my wife was in an accident and is in a coma, I'm distanced from my kids and don't know how to take care of them, and I'm trustee to an inheritance of a vast block of land and have to work with my cousins on who to sell it to. There's very little depth to the voiceover; it's just "here's what you need to know." And you could cut the voiceover easily - there's almost nothing said in the voiceover that isn't said someplace else in the film. Later in the film we hear all about what happened in the boating accident, we hear all the details about the land sale, we can see he's struggling to be a father. We don't need George Clooney's voice telling us this. And especially when the voiceover vanishes after twenty minutes and never reappears, it becomes clear that it was used just as an infodump, rather than being part of the film's stylistic approach to the material.
And while that voiceover eventually goes from the film, it's indicative of the film's main problem for me. I simply did not think much of the film's script. There were just so many moments in the film that barely worked for me - clunky dialogue, or awful conversations that would never take place (there's a particularly bad nighttime conversation between Clooney and his daughter's boyfriend that is just cringe-inducing) - but to the degree that those moments, and the film as a whole, worked at all, it was because the actors elevated the material far beyond what was on the page.
Clooney is remarkable in the film, and if he does win it will be deserved. He's in every scene and he has to carry the film without ever having one of those big dramatic moments. This is not a character who has an actorly breakdown, sobbing in despair and grief, or someone who gets to rail against his wife for her failings. This is someone who takes that tension, that emotion, and puts it to the side, but you can see and feel it always in him, about to burst out of him if he allows the slightest crack. It's not the type of showy performance that usually wins, so the fact that he is seen as a frontrunner is surprising, but gratifying.
But there's a lot of good performances in the film, both by long-established names (Robert Forster is a lot of fun, and it's nice to see Beau Bridges doing some solid work) and new faces (Shailene Woodley, as the oldest daughter, is just a delight). Perhaps most surprising is how much I loved Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer as a married couple. I always enjoy Greer's comedy work, so it was a nice surprise to see her, but I was impressed how well she did with straight dramatic material (although the script does force her into the kind of over-the-top moment that Clooney never has). What was a surprise was how good Lillard was - this is a guy whose best performance ever was an (admittedly great) imitation of Shaggy in the awful Scooby-Doo films. But here he's, well, if not likeable (which he's not supposed to be), at least convincing and honest and vulnerable in his big scene. It's a surprising performance, if only because it's Lillard giving it.
Now, I did have problems with many of the smaller performances in the film - any time a character only appears in one scene, odds are they'll give a bad performance that took me out of the film. I assume for most of these smaller roles they just cast Hawaiian locals with limited acting experience, and in this case it does not work. There is a lot of awful work, often by people whose mediocrity is made more obvious by acting against Clooney's remarkable performance. But the main performances really were great. I just wish they were in a better film.
Because that's what we're left with - a good film, but one that is good just because of the quality of the performances, because the actors use their every ablity to pull the film up to a level unearned by the material on the page. And that's unfortunate.
There was one other film that I saw; one that I assumed would be nominated, and managed to see before the nominations announcement and before my life got so busy. Walking out of War Horse, I had a real problem with the film, which was explained when I discovered that the original source novel is a children's novel that tells the story from the point-of-view of the titular horse. That explains a lot. Some of the war scenes are very strong and effective, but at the same time there's a bloodlessness to the film that feels completely out of place in a film explicitly about the insanity of war - a bloodlessness that makes sense in the context of a children's book that cannot be explicit. But at the same time, that level of sanitised violence does feel obvious. Witness an early scene of a character riding a horse through a battle, and then the film slows down to a close-up of an enemy gun, the character riding the horse, the gun fires, the horse runs free of his rider. This is a major character who died, and the film seems to go out of its way to avoid showing you their death. They're just... gone. Now, it's not to say that this bloodlessness is always ineffective - there's a well-executed scene involving a windmill that effectively conveys a horrific situation in a tasteful way - but it does make the film feel toothless and unreal to find ourselves in the trenches of WW1 without a single drop of blood visible. Spielberg has always been a sentimentalist, but with Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List the horror of the material overcame that impluse. This time unfortunately the material gave him too much justification to give in to that side of himself.
And there's also a frustrating lack of a through-line to the film. We start off with the horse being born, he grows up, becomes a workhorse ploughing fields, is sold to go to war with the English, he ends up being taken by the Germans, there's a point where he becomes the property of a young French girl, before going back to the Germans, until he eventually winds up back with the English, where he's reunited with his original owner (which is technically a spoiler, but really, you know that's how it's ending). Now, that's a story I can see working in the context of a book told from the point of view of the horse, because then you have the horse as an actual character, and the humans are just supporting the story. But you can't do that in a movie (not unless you have a horse voiceover, and that would be awful), and so this isn't the story of a horse, but of a string of characters who come into possession of the horse and then lose it. Despite the best efforts of everyone to tell us "this horse is special," it actually becomes a prop that's just passed from one character to the next - there's really only one moment where the horse has any agency and takes action for itself. For much of the film, it plays as much a part in the actual film as the Olympic torch would play in a film about the torch relay. It's not a story, but a collection of vignettes around this animal, a Robert Altman film with a linear structure, and it doesn’t work because there is no central core to the story.
There is no doubt that it was the success of the play that led to the making of the film. But with a play, inventive staging and creative set-pieces can create a spectacle out of something that might not otherwise work. (Witness, for example, The Lion King, which despite its recognisable name would not have succeeded on the stage were it not for the inventive production approach.) Every time I’ve seen people write about the play, they don’t discuss the story or the dialogue – they talk about this incredible puppetry that creates this living horse. And I can quite believe that on stage War Horse would work as spectacle – you’ve got a giant cavalry attack, you’ve got battle scenes in the trenches, some great set-pieces that if well executed would work brilliantly. And you’ve got this central performance by this great puppet. But in a film, you’ve not got that incredible staging. You’ve got real horses, real environments, and we’ve seen all this before. In the film, there’s not a group of remarkable puppeteers bringing life to an inanimate object, there’s just an ordinary trained horse. There is no remarkable inventive staging of a colossal battle, just a war film, like the hundreds we’ve seen before. And not a very good one.
Now, I’ve never seen the play, and I’ve never read the book, so I can’t say what comes from what, but there are moments in the film that felt like they were too tied to the text of the play. In a play, the limitation of the form can mean you’ll occasionally get a clunky line of dialogue just to quickly establish a fact and to move on. For example, there’s a scene where a guy rides in on a motorbike and announces to a random group of people “We’re at war. The church bells will ring one last time at noon, and then they will not ring again until the end of the war,” before riding off. And there’s a similarly clunky companion line at the end of the war, where a different character announces that the church bells will start ringing again. Now, these could be lines from the book, or written by the film’s screenwriters, but they felt like lines from a play where the playwright just wanted to establish the new time-setting as fast as possible and move on. And there are moments like this throughout the film, where it at least feels like they’ve relied too much on the play’s text, without reimagining how it could be changed to work better in a cinematic context. And it doesn’t work.
And that’s that. I didn’t see Extremely Loud and Incredible Close, The Help, or Moneyball. But I don’t know that I feel too bad about that. As everyone pretty much realises, the decision to extend the number of best picture nominations beyond five was intended to try to capture the big phenomenon films – The Dark Knight, for instance – that would usually be overlooked. Personally, I was always happier that the change meant that there was space for films like A Serious Man or Winter’s Bone, films that I loved but that would be overlooked by too many people, could be given the attention they deserved.
But this year, the extension in nominee numbers mostly just gave us more of the types of films that get nominated every year. We get:
- War Horse: a heartwarming anti-war film
- The Help: another film in which it turns out that the war for civil rights was fought, not be black people demanding proper treatment, but by white people graciously helping black people
- and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: a very poorly-reviewed film that nevertheless managed to ride 9/11 emotionalism, and an autistic boy with a dead father, to a surprising Oscar nomination.
These are the types of films that are nominated every year. The only unusual film is Moneyball - but even that's not really the massive pop cultural event that was supposed to be captured by the expanded field (the film only just made $100m).
Meanwhile there's some great films that I would love to have seen get a nomination. Films like Drive, or the remarkable Martha Marcy May Marlene. I've not seen Shame, We Need To Talk About Kevin, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy yet, but these films all had huge buzz about just how good and Oscar-worthy they are. Hell, possibly the best film of the year was A Separation, and that's sitting around in the foreign-language category where no-one will ever be motivated to see it. (I guarantee you, A Separation, which has 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, is a better film than Extremely Loud at 46%.) I would love to see the expanded field used to bring attention to some of these films. Apparently that's too much to ask for. (Sigh.)