Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Final Oscar Thoughts for 2012

Well, my usual coverage of the ceremony was derailed this year by a busier schedule, but it's all over now. So let's wrap up this year's Oscars with a few tidbits that I liked/didn't like.


THE WINS

- A tie! This is one of those situations where I wish the Academy would publish the final vote tallies. A tie is declared if two nominees come within three votes of each other in the final round. I would love to know how close Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall were in Sound Editing for them both to take home trophies. And with those two, ZDT won it's only award of the night, and Skyfall - with this and Best Original Song - matches the win total of the previous 22 James Bond films combined.

- Speaking of Skyfall, this year a Bond film won Best Original Song for the first time ever. Doesn't that seem odd, given the high volume of classic songs the franchise has produced? But if anyone was going to do it, it would be Adele, since she's legally required to win anything she's nominated for.

- Beasts of the Southern Wild is the only Best Picture nominee to go home empty-handed, though it faced stiff competition in all of it's categories. Still, that's a shame for one of the year's most imaginative and exhilarating films.

- I've mentioned before that my opinion on Django Unchained has soured in the months since I've seen it. I need to give it another viewing, but Christoph Waltz's win in Supporting Actor was disappointing (not that he wasn't great, but category fraud + better nominated performances from, well, everyone). It's great that Tarantino won another Oscar for writing, but not for his least-focused, most-troubling screenplay. Especially given the other works in the category.

- On writing: I liked Chris Terrio's work on Argo, which won Best Adapted Screenplay. But Tony Kushner wrote the best screenplay of the year - bar none - for Lincoln, and it's a huge disappointment that he wasn't recognized for it.

- Life of Pi took home the most awards, with four, while Argo and Les Miserables took home three apiece. I was genuinely pleased to see Ang Lee take home the directing prize - it was a wide-open field, and if you subbed out David O. Russell for Zero Dark Thirty's Kathryn Bigelow, I think it would have been the best Best Director field in years (yes, I know, POOR BEN AFFLECK; he was worthy, yes, but I liked Bigelow, Spielberg, Lee, Haneke, Zeitlin, Wes Anderson, and Paul Thomas Anderson's work more this year).

- By my count (and correct me if I'm wrong), but the last time the film with the most wins didn't take home Best Picture was 2004, when The Aviator won five Oscars but lost Best Picture to Million Dollar Baby. This year Life of Pi lost to Argo.

THE CEREMONY

- Look, Seth MacFarlane wasn't that bad. He's a charmer, a good singer and a decent dancer. He toned down his usual offensive shtick, I thought: the average episode of Family Guy has more misogyny and racism than his hosting gig did. There's just some unwritten rule that every year's host is the WORST HOST EVER!!!!!1 the morning after the show.

- Meryl Streep doesn't need to open envelopes. The Streep just knows.

- Also, Good Guys Hugh Jackman, Jean Dujardin, and Bradley Cooper.

- The tribute to 50 years of James Bond fell a little short, didn't it? I think there was a major missed opportunity there. But Sheena Easton was phenomenal.

- The tribute to movie musicals over the past 10 years was good, if limited (Chicago, Dreamgirls, and Les Miz: the only ones that matter!). The movie musical is never going to reach the heights of popularity it did decades ago, but it's far from dead. And look at the number of actors who are huge stars AND can sing - you have no excuses, Hollywood.

- The tie: Mark Wahlberg's half-incredulous, half-disappointed reaction - "No BS, we have a tie" - was a thing of beauty.

So what did you think? Below is a full list of winners.

Best Picture: Argo

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Best Director: Ang Lee, Life of Pi

Best Adapted Screenplay: Chris Terrio, Argo

Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Best Foreign Language Film: Amour (Austria)

Best Animated Feature: Brave

Best Documentary Feature: Searching for Sugar Man

Best Documentary Short: Inocente

Best Animated Short: Paperman

Best Live-Action Short: Curfew

Best Cinematography: Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi

Best Costume Design: Jaqueline Durran, Anna Karenina

Best Film Editing: William Goldenberg, Argo

Best Makeup & Hairstyling: Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell, Les Miserables

Best Original Score: Mychael Danna, Life of Pi

Best Original Song: "Skyfall," music and lyrics by Adele Atkins and Paul Epworth, Skyfall

Best Production Design: Rick Cater (production design) and Jim Erickson (set decorator), Lincoln

Best Sound Editing: (tie) Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers, Skyfall; Paul N.J. Ottoson, Zero Dark Thirty

Best Sound Mixing: Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, and Simon Hayes, Les Miserables

Best Visual Effects: Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer, and Donald R. Elliot, Life of Pi

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscars 2012: Best Picture

BEST PICTURE


Argo

Oddly, since the Great Ben Affleck Snub of 2012, aka the End of the World that the Mayans predicted,  Argo's become the frontrunner in this category as a result of the "POOR BEN AFFLECK!!!!" meme (note: he's nominated as a producer for the film, so they didn't really ignore him altogether). Even so, it's a film that's right in Oscar's wheelhouse. It's a thriller with historical importance, and successfully balances the tension with comic relief films back on the Hollywood side. Plus, it gives the Academy a great "movies save the world" feel. Even if it's not my favorite film in the pack, it's the odds-on favorite to claim the night's biggest prize.


Lincoln

Spielberg turned in his best film in years with Lincoln, and earned a ton of nominations for it. The film takes an approach that many biopics fail to - presenting a single event as a lens for examining the subject, rather than presenting a "greatest hits" version of his life. In this case, it's the passing of the 13th Amendment, a legal battle that has modern-day echoes as well. Through it all, the film succeeds in presenting Lincoln as a complex man: one who's using potentially illegal methods to hold the country together at a major flashpoint in our nation's history. On top of it all, it's a hugely entertaining and enrapturing film. Should Argo's steam run out, expect Lincoln to win tonight.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

No film was more imaginative or magical than Beasts of the Southern Wild. A magical-realist tale of life in post-Katrina Louisiana, told from the perspective of child protagonist Hushpuppy, the film unfolds like a bayou fever dream. There's a lot of things going on in the film, but central to all of it is the complex relationship between Hushpuppy and her father, Wink. Director Benh Zeitlin announces himself as a major cinematic voice to watch, and the film brings a refreshing dose of creativity to this year's lineup. Though it only has a slight chance at winning, it's one of the most must-see films in this category.

Les Miserables

The knives were out when Les Miserables opened: it's a musical, which automatically makes it a Worst Movie Ever. It features live singing from the cast, which opens it to ridicule. And it was sure-thing Best Picture bait, which makes it a target. Tellingly, the film hasn't been a dominant force in anything but Anne Hathaway's performance over the awards season, but opening yourself up to the film will allow it to work it's magic on you. It's earnest. People sing their dialogue. It's got an epic scope and clocks in at nearly three hours. But, as I said in my original top 10 list, no other film this year made me feel the way this film did. It's an outstanding achievement, evidence that the movie musical is far from dead, that when you're as talented as Hugh Jackman and Hathaway (as well as Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks) you should do your own singing, and though it doesn't have a good chance at winning tonight, it is more than worthy.

Silver Linings Playbook

I wanted to like this film. I really did. Portions of the film were fantastic: the cast is universally strong, especially Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, there are several scenes that are powerful and work really well. However, the film is way too busy, the characterizations of mental illness are spotty at best, and full segments fail to live up to the rest of the film. It's not a disaster, or a fiasco, or even really a failure. But, for me, it was far from one of the year's best films. That said, a lot of people did love it, and it could be the stealth dark horse to pull the upset tonight.

Life of Pi

Life of Pi has received a number of comparisons to Avatar, which is really kind of unfortunate. Though they are both visually stunning films using cutting-edge technology, Pi is a better film in that it has something to say beyond regurgitating Fern Gully. A powerfully and evocative mediation on spirituality and human nature, the film isolates star Suraj Sharma with a CGI tiger, and never lets go of it's audience. It's an astonishing film, a crowning achievement for Ang Lee, who further proves his versatility as a director. With 11 nominations, it could very well pull an upset should the Academy go nuts for it.

Amour

With Amour, Haneke brings his chilly European aesthetic to the Best Picture lineup. Perhaps the best film he's made so far, the film examines age and death as it affects an elderly Parisian couple. Heartbreaking performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva carry the film, and Haneke's direction is a marvel. There's very little chance that this will win tonight, but it's a major achievement to see it nominated here (original review). 

Django Unchained

In my original top 10 list for last year, I placed Django Unchained at #3. The more I've thought about it, though, the less I like it. Yes, it has moments that are fun, but it feels like Tarantino working too hard, not sure of what he's doing, and ultimately, maybe this wasn't the material he should have been approaching. For too much of the film, Django is much less than unchained, with little agency of his own. And I can't find much in my memory that I enjoy. Basically, what I'm saying is, if I were doing it now, I would drop it from the list entirely. I would say that, at this point, it's my least-favorite Tarantino. However, when the film hits its stride, it really is very enjoyable. Could it win? Not likely, but obviously I'm still working things out.

Zero Dark Thirty

The big thing that many people want to talk about is the way the film suggests torture helped find Osama bin Laden. But at least we're no longer ignoring the fact that the United States utilized torture in the War on Terror. Zero Dark Thirty, directed by should-have-been-nominated Kathryn Bigelow, takes an investigative approach into what happened, and through a litany of great performances - all anchored by Jessica Chastain's Maya - exposes how a nation lost it's soul in the quest for vengeance. It's a powerfully political work that doesn't go explicitly political, which only makes it hit harder. The controversy will cost it the win, but in another year, it would have been the frontrunner (original review).

My ballot:
1. Les Miserables
2. Amour
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
4. Lincoln
5. Zero Dark Thirty
6. Argo
7. Life of Pi
8. Django Unchained
9. Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Argo
Spoilers: Lincoln, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook

Oscars 2012: Director/Screenplays

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY



Argo; screenplay by Chris Terrio

Based on a declassified article by Joshuah Bearman, Terrio's script deftly balances thrills and humor with aplomb. My major quibble with it is that it does oversimplify the politics of the era, and at times it feels a little clumsily written in terms of characterization. However, like others, I hardly find fault with the script's liberties with the truth; it is a movie, after all. Still, it crackles with suspense, and Terrio could end up winning on his first nomination if Argo's momentum continues.


Lincoln; screenplay by Tony Kushner

Leave it to Tony and Pultizer Prize-winning playwright Kushner to craft the best screenplay of the year. Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals," Kushner's script takes what could have been a musty history lesson into a tight historical thriller, painting a portrait of Lincoln as president and as a man by narrowing it's focus on a single event (an approach more biopics should take). It's a brilliant work, and Kushner still has a slight lead in a tight race for the prize.


Beasts of the Southern Wild; screenplay by Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar

It's somewhat ironic that the year's most imaginative film was based on an adapted screenplay. Based on Alibar's one-act play "Juicy and Delicious," the script flourishes with the kind of magical realism that comes from the mind of a child, viewing post-Katrina Louisiana from the lens of a six-year-old girl who's never known another life. While much of what makes the film special comes from the film's visuals, that magic is rooted in a strong and intelligent script that also finds room to explore the dynamic between Hushpuppy and her father, Wink. It could pull a surprising upset, but I don't think it's that likely.


Silver Linings Playbook; screenplay by David O. Russell

Of all the elements in SLP, the screenplay is absolutely the weakest. In adapting Matthew Quick's 2008 novel of the same name, the film runs the gamut of a ton of ideas without spending enough time in developing any of them in a way that makes sense. It shifts between modes so wildly that it can induce whiplash: at times, the strength of the writing rivals that of Lincoln (the scene where Tiffany confronts Pat Sr. immediately springs to mind), while other scenes are abysmal. It is very possible that this could win if the Academy goes SLP-crazy, and at this point, I wouldn't be surprised if they did.


Life of Pi; screenplay by David Magee

For years after Yann Martel's novel of the same name was published in 2002, it was considered to be unfilmable. Of course, that's never stopped Hollywood from trying anyway, and luckily it fell into the hands of Magee. The framing device remains a little clunky in the beginning, but once the various pieces are established the script really takes off. Like Beasts, much of the film's success comes from the visuals, but Magee has crafted a fine structure to support those indelible images. Magee is a little more of a longshot for a win, but if Life of Pi dominates, he could very well find himself thanking the Academy for the first time.

My ballot:
1. Lincoln; screenplay by Tony Kushner
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild; screenplay by Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar
3. Argo; screenplay by Chris Terrio
4. Life of Pi; screenplay by David Magee
5. Silver Linings Playbook; screenplay by David O. Russell

Will win: Lincoln
Spoilers: Argo, Life of Pi, or Silver Linings Playbook

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY


Amour; written by Michael Haneke

Haneke gained a lot of attention with this script, in which many critics took note of being "softer" than his previous films. However, saying that this is a gentler Haneke misses what he's accomplished in this brilliant script: he presents age as the ultimate violent aggressor, let us watch as it physically, mentally, and spiritually destroys the couple at the center of the film. It's a sparse script, but one that's more than effective. This category is wide open this year, and is the most likely place for Haneke to win outside of Best Foreign Language Film.


Django Unchained; written by Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino is one of my favorite writers and directors. I love the way he blends and riffs on his favorite films, making unique cinematic experiences that function on multiple levels. However, many of the problems that I had with Django are script issues: a sprawling lack of narrative focus, very problematic characterizations, and a troubling listlessness in some sections. I'll explain more about my feelings for the film in the Best Picture post, but this is by far the weakest of this year's scripts. There is still a slight chance he could win, given that the film has passionate fans, but it's not incredibly likely.


Zero Dark Thirty; written by Mark Boal

Three years ago, Boal took home his first Oscar for The Hurt Locker. If it hadn't been for ZDT's torture controversy, he would likely have been cruising to a second. His script utilizes a investigative tone in presenting the history of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden in the years after 9/11, and the crimes committed in the name of vengeance (or "justice," if you will). The film doesn't overtly politicize any of those, maintaining a mostly neutral tone that asks, "at what cost did we achieve our goal? And what have we swept under the rug?" It's a terrific work, but the aforementioned torture controversy will likely cost Boal the win.


Moonrise Kingdom; written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola

Moonrise Kingdom was Anderson's best film in over a decade, and perhaps his best ever. Anderson's films are usually knocked for being too whimsical and noticeably constructed, but his scripts are always much deeper than he's given credit for. Co-written with Coppola, the film's script is layered with the melancholy of discovering first love and the pain that comes with it, as well as the difficulty that comes with growing up. It's a strong, emotionally resonate work, and one of the year's best screenplays. It's very unlikely that they'll win this evening, but it would be a lovely surprise if they did.


Flight; written by John Gatins

Flight pulls off a nifty little trick: it begins with it's hook, the terrifying plane crash that dominated it's advertising campaign, and uses that as the impetus for the film's actual story about addiction. Gatins proves himself to be quite a craftsman, giving his script the structure of a character study and meditation on substance abuse disguised as a thriller and never settles for cliche or other overdone tricks. It's a excellent achievement, and worthy of nomination, though it is unlikely to bring him to the podium tonight.

My ballot:
1. Amour; written by Michael Haneke
2. Moonrise Kingdom; written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
3. Zero Dark Thirty; written by Mark Boal
4. Flight; written by John Gatins
5. Django Unchained; written by Quentin Tarantino

Will win: Amour
Spoilers: Zero Dark Thirty or Django Unchained

BEST DIRECTOR


Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Spielberg is, without a doubt, one of the greatest and most beloved American filmmakers working today. However, he sometimes seems to whiff more than he hits in the past decade, but Lincoln is easily his best work in a decade. He masters the film's historical period details and characterization and nails the suspense of the story, even though most audiences know how it's going to end. It's an outstanding achievement, and without Argo's Ben Affleck in the mix, he's the slight leader in a wide-open category.


David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook was a mess of a film, but it was about time that Russell made a mess. He's been really good for a long time, including 2004's underrated I Heart Huckabees, but SLP was a flub for him. But, true to form, there's still a lot to admire here; when the film gets all of it's characters together in the same room, Russell's flair for controlled chaos becomes delightfully evident. And you've got to give recognition to a director who is this good with actors, given the performances he elicited from his cast. However, it's nowhere near his best effort. Still, should the Academy go mad for SLP, he could be a winner tonight.


Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

He's only 30 years old, with Beasts being his first film. But no cinematic voice was more exciting or refreshingly imaginative than Zeitlin's, who masterfully created a magical, childlike tone for his post-Katrina fable of a film. It's unusual for the Academy to recognize such an exciting new director, but they took the step this year with Zeitlin's incredible work that begs to be seen more than once. Out of this field, he's the least likely to win, but if he can match his work here, there's no doubt in my mind he'll be back here one day.


Michael Haneke, Amour

It's not often that we see directors of foreign language films in this category, but at this point, Haneke's reputation can no longer be ignored. Using his trademark voyeuristic camera - lots of static shots that seem to remove the audience from the action onscreen - Haneke presents us with his thesis on aging and death, and as can be expected, it's not a hopeful or comforting vision. It's a brilliant film from a brilliant auteur. And if they decide to honor him, he could become the first director of a foreign language film to win this category.


Ang Lee, Life of Pi

Reportedly, Lee spend over three years just storyboarding this film, knowing that he would be working with 3D, water, amateur actors, live animals, and greenscreens. It's a testament to his skill as a director that he not only succeeded, but created a beautiful and deeply thought-provoking film about spirituality, a subject that Hollywood's not always keen to approach. It's also a testament to his impressive range as a director, considering his last nomination turned into a win for Brokeback Mountain in 2005. With the open nature of the category this year, he could very well win his second Oscar tonight.

My ballot:
1. Michael Haneke, Amour
2. Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
3. Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
4. Ang Lee, Life of Pi
5. David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Spielberg
Spoilers: Lee, Haneke, or Russell

Oscars 2012: The Acting Categories

Normally, I would have written out each category in an independent post, as I have in previous years. This year, though, I'm a little crunched for time (the Oscars are tonight, after all!), so I'm compiling everything into three separate posts. Director/screenplays and Picture will be up later this afternoon, but now, here's the acting categories.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS


Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

At this point, it seems pretty certain that Hathaway has this one locked up. Though it's inaccurate to say it's the only moment in the film for the character (she does have an impressively concise, yet still very moving, arc), "I Dreamed a Dream" is the scene that's going to clinch this for her. And deservingly so - she absolutely nails it without sacrificing the wilting spirit within Fantine, making for the most heartbreaking three minutes in film this year.


Amy Adams, The Master

It's hard to believe that Adams has earned four nominations - all in this category - in less than 10 years. In The Master, we see that her Peggy Dodd is pulling the strings along with her husband, Lancaster (Philip Seymour Hoffman; see Supporting Actor), and that maybe she, in fact, is the eponymous figure of the film. It's a deft performance, and she holds her own with Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix (see Best Actor), but it's not one of her strongest nominated roles.


Sally Field, Lincoln

It took some serious pressure and advocacy on Field's part to convince director Steven Spielberg that she could play Mary Todd Lincoln, despite being technically too old for the part. But how lucky we as an audience were that she convinced him. Field is terrific here, playing the famous First Lady as a woman struggling with the loss of her child but refusing to let anyone think of her as weak or unimportant. She knocks it out of the park. With two wins in her prior two nominations, she has a history with Oscar, but unless Lincoln dominates the night, it's unlikely she'll pick up a third trophy.


Helen Hunt, The Sessions

There is a potential for category fraud here: Hunt's role as Cheryl, the sex surrogate who helps the disabled Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) experience sex for the first time, delicately toes the line between lead and supporting role, and you could make the argument for either. However, this is a deserving nomination. Much has been made about Hunt's willingness to be nude in the film (the age-old use of the word "brave" to describe nudity is bandied about), but Hunt delivers a phenomenal performance that goes much deeper than that. Plus, it's great to see the Academy recognize a sex-positive role, as rare as those are in American films. However, given Hathaway's dominance, she'll likely have to take the nomination as her reward.


Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

When Weaver's name was announced on nomination morning, many people - myself included - were shocked to see her here. A previous nominee (and should-have-been winner) for 2010's Animal Kingdom, Weaver had been missing from much of the awards season, with the focus on the rest of SLP's main cast. Looking back on it, though, it is great that the Academy recognized this kind of subtle performance. Weaver's Dolores is trying to keep her mentally-unstable family together through gentle kindness, love, and "crabby snacks and home-mades." It's an interesting performance, but not the kind that's going to win her the Oscar this year.

My ballot:
1. Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
2. Sally Field, Lincoln
3. Helen Hunt, The Sessions
4. Amy Adams, The Master
5. Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Hathaway
Spoilers: Field or Hunt

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR


Alan Arkin, Argo

Argo had several great performances, but none stood out quite like Arkin's Lester Siegel, the studio executive who agrees to bankroll the fake movie being used to rescue hostages in Iran. Arkin injects the film with much-needed humor, giving audiences a break from the tension and introducing the now-famous refrain, "Argo fuck yourself." It's a fine performance from a terrific actor, but regardless of the film's Best Picture heat, this isn't the kind of role that's going to win him a second Oscar (to say nothing of the fact that he only just won this category in 2006). 


Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

CATEGORY FRAUD ALERT. The title character, Jamie Foxx's slave-turned-bounty-hunter, is ostensibly the lead. But this was clearly Waltz's film, with his Dr. King Schultz having arguably more screentime (and without a doubt more narrative agency) than Foxx. Director Quentin Tarantino seems to bring the best out of Waltz, giving him meaty dialogue that he chews over with relish, showing himself to be an actor in love with language. However, it's also several rungs below Col. Hans Landa, the Inglourious Basterds role that won him his first Oscar three years ago and launched him to international stardom. It's very possible that the size of the role could help him win a second Oscar, but at this point anything is possible.


Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Spielberg scored an impressive cast for Lincoln, but one of his greatest graces was casting Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the vehemently abolitionist congressman who's so radical (for the time, at least) that he wants nothing less than full equal rights for the newly freed slaves. Jones is as crusty as ever, getting in several great digs in the debates over the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and tears into his speeches with fire and zest. It's Jones' best role in years, and he without a doubt deserves the Oscar for it. For a while, he seemed the mortal lock, but the picture has become much hazier in recent weeks, so he's going to have to fight for it now.


Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master

CATEGORY FRAUD ALERT. Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is the eponymous master of the film, and he is a co-lead with Joaquin Phoenix. However, Hoffman is characteristically terrific, and here he doesn't chew the scenery as much as he does in some roles. He's a sadistic, self-important, charismatic leader who may or may not be making up "The Cause" as he goes along, but he's guarded enough to prevent anyone from doubting him. He could end up being the surprise winner this year, but it would take a lot of support for the film to get him up to the podium this year.


Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

It's a bit reductive to say this, but De Niro was basically nominated this year for not sleepwalking through another paycheck role. Indeed, it is great to see him actually put some effort into the role of Pat Solatino, Sr., the obsessive-compulsive, Philadelphia Eagles super-fan father of Bradley Cooper's Pat (see Best Actor), because when he does try he's still one of the best working actors today. He gives a terrific performance here and makes it seem effortless, and despite the film's myriad flaws he never fails to make Pat Sr. empathetic. It just may be strong enough for him to win his third Oscar (his second was for Raging Bull, all the way back in 1980).

My ballot:
1. Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
3. Alan Arkin, Argo
4. Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
5. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Will win: De Niro
Spoilers: Jones or Waltz

BEST ACTRESS


Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

Chastain's Maya undergoes a fascinating transformation over the course of ZDT: relentlessly focused on catching "UBL" (Osama bin Laden, that is), she becomes more and more accustomed to the unethical methods of finding information, transforming into a shell of her former self and finding herself increasingly unmoored. The film benefits her as a fascinating character study, in which she's not only portraying one woman's journey (her character is supposedly a mix of several different still-active CIA agents), but also serving as a metaphor for how the United States' moral compass was not pointing true north in it's quest for vengeance. It's a powerful performance that gave Chastain a major lead early in the season, but the film's torture controversy will probably keep her from winning her first Oscar this year.


Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

As the oldest Best Actress nominee ever, Riva more than earns his first Oscar nomination in Michael Haneke's powerful Amour. As Anne, a retired music teacher who suffers a debilitating stroke, Riva lets us watch the interior deterioration of a woman struggling with age's physical deterioration. Early in the film, she's still a vivacious spirit, but as things progressively get worse she becomes less and less of a person and more and more of a helpless being. It's a powerful, confident performance, and should enough voters take it in (she's truly unforgettable, and the film itself lingers with you long after the lights come up), she should be on her way to the front of the Kodak Theatre tonight.


Naomi Watts, The Impossible

The only thing more powerful in The Impossible that the enormous wall of water that upends the film's Thai resort setting (based on a true story from 2004's devastating tsunami) is Watt's Maria's will to survive and be reunited with her family. Severely injured and assisted only by her oldest son (Tom Holland), Watts struggles through a foreign land she is hopelessly lost in, slowly succumbing to her wounds but bravely trying to keep up hope of survival. It's an incredible performance, technically difficult physically and emotionally. If she can drum up enough support and siphon enough votes from the other nominees, she could find herself a first-time Oscar winner.


Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

It's safe to say that no other actress had a year quite like Lawrence: in March, she starred in The Hunger Games, which quickly became a phenomenon that grossed over $400 million. Then came SLP, which earned her her second Oscar nomination (and only at 24) and will likely be her first win. Though I was far from SLP's biggest fan (see Best Picture later this afternoon), Lawrence is terrific as Tiffany, the depressed widow who manages to win Pat's heart and eventually softens to him as well. Despite a frustrating character on paper, Lawrence manages to make Tiffany an empathetic character, and it's a great performance overall. She's the favorite to win tonight.


Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

A lot of criticism has been lobbed Wallis' way in lieu of her nomination: she was only six when she filmed Beasts, so she wasn't really "acting," just being a child. She's too young to understand the craft. She hasn't "earned" it yet (don't even get me started on the sexism here). But watch the film again, and you'll see that Wallis is doing some amazing things here. She's incredibly gifted in screen presence, and her performance as Hushpuppy is nothing short of fantastic. It's hardly likely that she'll win tonight, and sadly I doubt she'll ever be nominated again, but she certainly belongs in this talented group this year.

My ballot:
1. Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
2. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
3. Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
4. Naomi Watts, The Impossible
5. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Lawrence
Spoilers: Chastain, Riva, or Watts

BEST ACTOR


Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Is there really any question who's going to win this one this year? Best Actor is the most stacked category this year, and it's led by Day-Lewis' towering performance as 16th President Abraham Lincoln. Not only does he nail the look and (supposed) voice of Lincoln, but also his mannerism, his commanding leadership, and his folksy propensity for storytelling. He taps into the President's calm resolve and sneaking uncertainty, a man desperately trying to hold the nation together in ways that may or may not be legal. It's a towering performance in a career full of them, and there's little doubt that Day-Lewis will win his third career Oscar tonight.


Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables

For years, Jackman's secret weapon was his incredible musical talent: though serious fans were aware of his talents from The Boy from Oz, most people only knew him as Wolverine from the X-Men movies. Les Miz brought his multitude of talents together in the role of Jean Valjean - prisoner 24601 - an escaped convict trying to do right and keep his identity concealed in the face of the 1832 Paris student revolution. Jackman's strong tenor lends his songs, particularly "Suddenly" and "Bring Him Home," a powerful beauty, and his performance is remarkable for being utterly transformative. He was already a star, and he's long been worthy of Oscar's attention, and though Jackman likely won't win tonight, this should be the beginning of an exciting new chapter of his career.


Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

It still hasn't really sunk in yet: "Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper." It'd be easy to dismiss this as a fluke, but here's the thing: Cooper's really good in the film. In fact, he was, in my opinion, the best part of SLP, and very deserving of his first Oscar nomination. As Pat, he's a bipolar guy trying to put his life back together after a stint in the hospital, which means coming to grips with his illness and taking control of his life. Cooper does a remarkable job at portraying this, believably losing control of his temper and struggling to function in normal social interactions. It's a terrific performance, and though he's not likely to win, it's a worthy nomination.


Denzel Washington, Flight

Washington is a consummate actor, and Oscar seems to like him best lately when he's doing bad things. Here, he's Whip Whitaker, an ace pilot who manages to save the lives of most of the plane when he engineers a daring landing. However, it comes to light that he was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine at the time, which exposes him as an addict and an alcoholic. Washington is nothing short of incredible as Whitaker, keeping everything grounded and believable while avoiding any "actorly" (i.e., over-exaggerated) portrayals of addiction. It's terrific work that, as with most performances in this category, would lead him to the Kodak's podium were it not for the competition he faces.


Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

If there's any performance that, in my mind, comes closest to matching Day-Lewis, it's Phoenix's work as Freddy Quell in The Master. One of Phoenix's strengths as an actor is his sense of danger and unpredictability, and he employs those brilliantly in the film as a former sailor who, after WWII, has found himself lost in an America that's left him behind. Lonely and alcoholic, he finds his way into Lancaster Dodd's "The Cause," becoming a true believer, though his transformation is debatable. It's a reliably excellent performance from Phoenix, though it will take an unprecedented collapse in support for Day-Lewis (and that doesn't seem to have happened) for him to win tonight.

My ballot:
1. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
2. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
3. Denzel Washington, Flight
4. Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
5. Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Day-Lewis
Spoilers: Phoenix, Washington, Jackman, or Cooper

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Amour (2012)

When Amour premiered at Cannes last May and subsequently began making the rounds internationally, many critics took to praising it as a "softer" and "more accessible" film from Austrian auteur Michael Haneke. Haneke is notorious for making films that explore the random acts of violence that occur in everyday life, employing his trademark impartial, voyeuristic visual style that seems to intentionally prevent the audience from connecting with the characters onscreen. Perhaps his most infamous film is Funny Games (both the original German and the American remake), in which a pair of men enter a family's home and proceed to torment them gruesomely. His films can be difficult, to say the least (though perhaps not to the same degree as fellow European provocateur Lars von Trier).

Amour is only "more accessible" in that it isn't as physically violent as some of his other films. The story concerns Georges (the magnificent Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (French New Wave legend Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly couple who live in a spacious Parisian apartment. Anne suffers a debilitating stroke, which leaves her paralyzed on her right side. Georges takes it upon himself to take care of her, refusing to take her to a hospital or hospice, even though their daughter (Isabelle Huppert, a Haneke regular) urges him to do so.


However, the film is not a "softer" side of Haneke. Yes, the title translates simply to "Love," and Georges insistence on taking care of Anne is, in a sentimental light, a powerful declaration of his undying love for her. But Haneke frames the story with his trademark alienation, and instead of being an arty romance, it becomes a meditation on something far more sinister. This time around, the violent aggressor isn't a person, or history (as it was in Cache or The White Ribbon); it's age. The film becomes increasingly heartbreaking as we, the audience, can only passively watch as Georges watches the love of his love disappear before his eyes. Age, Haneke proposes, is the ultimate aggressor: there's nothing that can be done to stop it, and ultimately it destroys us and everything we've created in our lives. Make no mistake, Amour is a dour film. Don't mistake it for being "softer;" it's not for the feint of heart, even if it's not as gory as previous Haneke films.

The film is remarkably spare in scope, with most of the film's action contained to their apartment (it should be said that Haneke does a remarkable job with laying out the geography of the apartment; most Hollywood productions fail to master this understanding of visual space). With the exception of a handful of visitors who pass through, the focus is completely on Georges and Anne, and Trintignant and Riva, respectively, are nothing short of riveting. Riva recently became the oldest Best Actress Oscar nominee ever for this performance, and she more than deserves it. She makes the process terrifying, showing us Anne's impish spirit early and then slowly losing it until she becomes a shell. Trintignant, in his first credited film role in nine years, matches her performance by showing Georges' stubbornness and helplessness as he deals with the situation. Huppert's brief scenes with couple (mostly Georges) give her a chance to show us years of damage and complexity, without ever blatantly discussing it.

Amour is not an easy film to watch, much like any of Haneke's films. But it is among his strongest, as well as being one of the year's best films as well. It's a heartbreaking film that sticks with you long after the fade-to-black. A

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Most of the discussion surrounding Zero Dark Thirty so far has swirled around whether or not the film is pro-torture. Now, I don't have anything to add to the conversation that Andrew O'Heihr hasn't already (and more eloquently) said in his Salon article other than I'm glad that we're talking about torture again, rather than letting it get swept under the rug of American history. It's not surprising that the film would court such controversy: it hasn't even been two years since Seal Team Six infiltrated a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and successfully killed America's Public Enemy #1, Osama bin Laden. At this point, not enough time has passed for us to effectively look back at this event and determine what it means: a significant victory in the War on Terror, a symbol of how ineffective said "war" is, or something else?

Luckily, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal - who previously teamed up for 2009's terrific Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker - have made a film that is not so easily pigeonholed into being any kind of political statement. The film details the events that lead to bin Laden's death, from the perspective of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent who gives her life over to hunting down the al-Qaeda leader. She becomes obsessed with finding courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whom she believes will lead directly to bin Laden. Over the years she becomes more and more at ease with eliciting information, but at what cost to herself?


Zero Dark Thirty, as a film, is as complex as the story it tells. The film functions as both a military thriller and forensic investigation into what exactly happened, but it never breaks from white-knuckle tension (much like The Hurt Locker). The most tense moments of the film come in the last half hour, when the Seals (including Chris Pratt and Joel Edgarton) land in the compound. Bigelow makes the terrific decision to alternate between night-vision and film, giving the sequence a more documentary, "I was there" feel. However, that sense that anything could - and sometimes does - go wrong pervades the film, making scenes that could be mundane riveting.

However, what really makes the film spectacular is that it also functions as a character study. Throughout the film we see how the manhunt takes it's toll on those involved: especially Maya, who over the course of the film becomes increasingly comfortable with the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used on detainees for information. Chastain is incredible in the role, as is Jason Clarke as her mentor in the field; he's the cautionary tale that Maya fails to take heed of.

Zero Dark Thirty is a terrific film that presents a complex and at times unflattering picture of the War on Terror. It's a film that exposes the scars and dirty laundry that went into finding (and killing) Osama bin Laden. A

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ted (2012)

I'm not sure how many people who read this blog also read Entertainment Weekly, but a few months ago they named Ben Affleck their "Entertainer of the Year" for directing and starring in Argo. Now, there's not a doubt in my mind that this was a calculated part of that film's Oscar push. At the time, Affleck had not yet been not-Oscar nominated, so the "POOR BEN AFFLECK" meme hadn't made it's way around the entertainment industry yet. It seemed so odd to me that they would have picked Affleck, who, yes, made a terrific film (it placed ninth on my personal top 10 list), but at the time, had not yet become a true box office smash or awards season juggernaut. This is to say nothing of the fact that it was Affleck's only project of 2012. So, if not part of the awards campaign, what other reason could there be for Affleck being chosen over someone who truly was everywhere last year?

There was such a man, after all: Seth MacFarlane. Last year, he had three shows on the air at once: Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show. These three made up most of Fox's Sunday night animation block, and continue to wield so much influence that even The Simpsons - without which a show like Family Guy couldn't even exist - is taking cues from them. He's attempted to revive The Flintstones (Fox opted not to order it) and discussed reviving Carl Sagan's Cosmos. He's a Grammy-nominated big-band singer with a successful album. And then, to top it all off, he directed his first film, Ted, an R-rated comedy about a talking teddy bear that went on to gross over $200 million and become one of the most popular films of the year. Tell me that doesn't define "Entertainer of the Year."


All of this is a long-winded way of me getting to discussing Ted. As previously stated, the film is about John (Mark Wahlberg), a man in a state of arrested development who lives with his teddy-bear-come-to-life, Ted (voiced by MacFarlane). His girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis), begs him to get his life together and ask Ted to move out, believing the bear to be the reason for John's underachievement. But doing so risks breaking John and Ted's bond, forcing them both to confront the places their lives have arrived at.

If you've ever seen one of MacFarlane's multitude of shows, you know the brand of humor he's into: off-color offensive jokes meant to shock, irrelevant and winking pop-culture references, and random tangents that often involve anti-humor. Sure enough, a lot of this is present in Ted, to varying degrees of effectiveness. The stabs at offensive humor mostly fail - we're enlightened enough as a society now that gay panic jokes are not funny - with the exception of a terrific riff on "white trash names." The pop culture references, however, are another story. A major subplot of the film involves John and Ted's mutual love of the 1980 sci-fi campfest Flash Gordon, culminating in them partying with Flash himself, Sam J. Jones (gloriously playing himself). What makes this bit work (significantly better than it does on, say, Family Guy) is that here, the jokes and the reference from a place of nostalgia and love, rather than empty "hey, this exists!" name-checking. Of course, the jokes land better the more familiar you are with Flash Gordon, but rather than laughing at you, MacFarlane is clearly laughing with you.

In fact, Ted's biggest departure from the MacFarlane Brand - and what truly impressed me the most about the film - was how genuinely sweet and invested in its characters it was. The film takes the time to build John, Ted, and Lori as characters, as well as establishing the relationships between the three of them, and in doing so it makes the ending (one that MacFarlane would gleefully shred on television) surprisingly touching. Though I hesitate to call it "conventional" - this level of characterization is hardly the norm in studio comedies - Ted does show that it has a deep love for the story it's telling and the characters it's about, exploring the difficulty that comes with maturity, which, the film posits, is finding a way to balance the comforts of the past with the possibilities of the future. Needless to say, not many man-child comedies (outside of, maybe, Judd Apatow's films) allow such introspection in between dick jokes.

What makes Ted such a delightful success is that it does present an interesting, if not unique, take on growing up without sacrificing the frat-house humor that many audiences came seeking. This isn't the MacFarlane you think you know. And, to bring it all back around to my opening, it would seem that we're only just beginning to see what he's capable of. It'll be exciting to see where his career as an entertainer and film director takes him. B+