I try to watch every movie that gets nominated for one of the big Oscar categories every year. I usually try to get through them all before the actual Academy Awards if possible, but failing that, getting through them all before the summer blockbusters is good enough.
Oscar movies tend to be dramas, sometimes period pieces, and they're often sad or challenging in some way. This is quite a departure from the kinds of movies I tend to just watch when given the pick of the video store, which are usually sci-fi movies and genre flicks. In other words, the kind of stuff the Academy hates.
Nonetheless, I do find myself almost always enjoying Oscarbait movies. I know there are a lot of politics involved with the Academy Awards and that the kind of movies that I really like tend to get snubbed, do I do in general agree that the movies nominated are the cream of the crop for the year, at least for dramas.
I try to evaluate movies based on how well they elicit the emotional response out of me that they're going for in the audience. In other words, a horror film is trying to scare me, so I evaluate it primarily along the lines of how good a job it does at scaring me (usually I cannot evaluate it until a day or two later, to see if it gives me nightmares or creeps me out when I'm alone and start thinking about it). Unsurprisingly, I evaluate comedies according to how much I laugh as well.
For dramas, and I consider pretty much any movie that gets nominated for an Oscar a drama, I evaluate them according to how much empathy they draw out of me. How much do I care about the characters, how upset am I when they're upset, how happy am I when they're happy? I generally focus more on writing than anything else in filmmaking, so a film's technical achievements are generally lost on me.
So far, I've really liked all of Ben Affleck's directed films, but none of them have ever really "stuck with me". I think he directs forgettable movies that are really fun to watch exactly one time, and Argo is no exception.
Argo is easily Affleck's best so far, a bit more memorable than Gone, Baby, Gone or The Town, but still kind of forgettable after the fact.
The movie focuses on a very-recently-declassified mission to extract some people stuck in Iran during the hostage crisis. The plot is so strange that it seems completely made up, a borderline Hollywood self-indulgent "everything is about movies!" type thing. But in fact, it actually happens that the way they were smuggled out of the country was by pretending to be a film crew.
The movie has lots going for it. Lots of tense scenes and edge-of-your-seat, white-knuckle moments. I think there was too much stress on Affleck's character and not enough on the actual "hostages", who were a bit samey and underdeveloped. I should have wanted the mission to succeed because I cared about them, but I wanted the mission to succeed because I cared about Affleck's character, and I think this was misplaced though the end result was the same.
I also found the incessant "Argo fuck yourself" joke grating and obnoxious. I realize it happened in real life, but it was jarring and weird to me every time after the first one. I know that's a nitpick, but it annoyed me.
I also had some trouble with the climax of the film. After the tense "I forgot my border control card" scene for the first guy, why did the Iran border guy accept the explanation that every single other person in the group lost their card? We just cut away after the first one and next time we see the group, they're at the gate. I think Affleck had to stretch the reality of the true-events to make for a more tense climax, but it stretched into the realm of unbelievability for me.
Overall, I really enjoyed this movie, and I agree that it's the best on the list, but I still think I won't remember it in a year, just like his other movies. I don't know why Affleck movies are like this for me, but it's pretty consistent.
Ben Affleck belongs behind the camera
Beasts of the Southern Wild
This movie is distractingly weird, borderline avant garde in places. It's about a group of people who live outside of the Louisiana Levees, in a place they call "the bathtub". People living in makeshift houses and driving boats made out of old cars, catching fish and generally being self-sufficient. The story focuses on "Hushpuppy" and her dad, "Wink" as they survive in the Bathtub, and what happens to their community after a huge flood. The movie gets so damn weird in places, particularly when the kids go to "school" to learn about prehistoric Aurochs that will return when the ice caps melt or some crazy shit.
I'll give this movie one thing: as a fantasy film, it's a raging success in terms of world building. I found the world of the Bathtub so convincing that it made me wonder if it was based on any kind of true account. I had to look it up to see if people live in the bayou like this and I was unaware. They don't, but the fact that I wasn't sure is a testament to how good a job the filmmakers do building this world.
Unfortunately, aside from the fascinating world the movie builds, the rest of the film is pretty flat. This may sound odd, but I never bought the connection between Wink and Hushpuppy. I know he was meant to be portrayed as a distant father with emotional complexity, but the way they interacted, they never seemed like any kind of a family. It always seemed like an actor and an actress, I never saw past that. Also, I know that Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for Best Actress, and is now the youngest person to do so, but I didn't find the performance all that great. It just seemed like a pretty standard child actor performance to me. Better than Manny on Modern Family for sure, but nothing to really write home about.
I found a lot of the characters generally annoying, and I felt the movie was largely directionless. It never seemed to be going anywhere, just a lot of "look how these people live." Well, you know, you made them up to live that way. That's not good enough, something needs to happen. Disaster strikes the community, and they do some things to remedy their situation, but I never had a sense of where the movie was headed, it just kind of meandered around. And once they get to the floating bar the movie pretty much comes off the rails in terms of too-much-weirdness.
Girl and her dad live in a shithole, shithole floods, attempts are made to fix shithole
I was ridiculously excited for Django Unchained to come out. It's the only movie on this list that I was really aware of before its release, and I was looking forward to it. I'm obviously a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino, and I felt like Inglorious Basterds was an unrivaled masterpiece. In terms of technical skill and writing, Tarantino seems to be improving with each movie he makes, and I was hoping to see if Django continued this trend and topped Basterds.
In the end, I don't think this one was quite up to Basterds level, but I'd argue that it's as good as Kill Bill. Django unchained is the story of a slave who is freed by a bounty hunter to help him track down some lowlifes. It's an incredibly simple idea, but it's not long before the story deviates from that premise and has the bounty hunter and Django entering the "lion's den" of Leonardo DiCaprio to rescue Django's wife, also a slave.
Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx were excellent, I thought the two played off each other really well and had a lot of chemistry together. And of course, the violent scenes of Django getting some sweet karmic revenge were a delight. But I also felt like the movie suffered from a lack of focus and had some trouble maintaining tone.
The scene with all of the potato-sack-wearing racists was distractingly stupid. Jonah Hill was so out of place, and all of the dialogue from that scene was so cringeworthy. It was all totally unfunny, an attempt at that "subvert the genre by having characters speak in a way inconsistent with their types" stuff that peppers so much of the Apatow style of comedy, and it didn't belong at all.
I also felt like the dinner scene was clearly going for an attempt to recreate the unforgettable tension of Basterds's opening scene, and it just never quite pulled it off for me. I loved Sam Jackson's performance, but I never felt like Leonardo was the credible threat that Waltz was in Basterds. I also think pretty much everything that happened after the dinner scene was indulgent on Tarantino's behalf. I'd have preferred for the dinner scene to erupt straight into the final gunfight of the film, rather than Christoph Waltz lose his cool and fuck everything up, getting Django sold back into slavery, so he can escape again and come all the way back to get his revenge and save his wife. It just seemed like the ending got split into two pieces, neither of which worked on their own. I think the absence of Tarantino's usual editor was quite noticeable.
Despite it's faults, Django was a great movie, and the only one on this list I plan on owning on Blu-ray. I don't think I'd argue it was a particularly great film in terms of empathy elicitation, so I don't think I'd have given it Best Picture, but it's definitely entertaining and fun while also showing the horrors of America's history with slavery.
Oppressed people get fantasy revenge against history's evildoers. Not Nazis though.
I'm not a fan of the musical Les Miserables. I've seen it on stage twice, and I've seen the non-musical film with Liam Neeson as well. Every version, including this recent musical version, suffers from the same critical problem: the interesting story here is Jean Valjean's rehabilitation after prison and the subsequent cat-and-mouse game between him and Javert. Cosette is an important part of the story because she creates a liability for Jean, forcing him to try to elude Javert differently in order to protect her without ruining her chances at a semi-normal life.
In other words, Cosette is only interesting as an object, not a human being. So the instant that she grows up and the story switches to focusing on Cosette, Marius, Eponine, and the revolution, the film falls flat for me. This isn't the film's fault really, I felt this way about the play as well. When Cosette and Marius are falling in love, I'm just sitting there like "don't care." When Eponine's love is unrequited, I'm all "don't care." Even when they are trying to stand their ground and the army is shooting at them and killing people and children are dying, I'm just saying "don't care. Bring back Jean and Javert please."
I seem to also remember the play having quite a bit more between Jean and Fantine, as well as Cosette's childhood. I also remember in the play that Cosette's foster family, the Thenardier's, are ruthless bastards, played here for laughs by Borat and Helena Bonham Carter (and then they kept showing up).
Hugh Jackman was fine as Valjean, but Anne Hathaway's Fantine was just ridiculously amazing. I'll admit it, her "I Dreamed A Dream" got me a little choked up, the raw emotion she displays while singing was just intensely powerful. It made me completely forget about the fact that she became the world's most screwed-over hooker in about 20 seconds.
Russell Crowe, however... just... Jesus, man. Fucking terrible. I don't even understand how this happened, it was jaw-dropping, mouth-agape stunning. It had all the cringe of watching Michael Scott on The Office, except I wasn't supposed to be laughing.
I liked the idea of the thing, the fact that everyone was mic'ed and actually singing the songs as they were performing physically, rather than just ADRing the music in later. Really cool idea, and I think it worked well. I don't think Anne Hathaway's performance would have worked anywhere near as well otherwise, it was seeing her tears as her voice cracked while singing that made it so powerful.
Russel Crowe ruins the good part of Les Miserables, still better than the crap part of it.
Life of Pi
I enjoyed this quite a bit more than I was expecting to, but found the movie generally uneven. Most of Pi's backstory before getting to the point where he was stranded in the boat was grating and preachy, particularly all of that nonsense about believing in all religions at once. I really can't stand the "all religions are the same" sentiment, it's a true invention of Hollywood and American pop culture, and it's false on it's face. In fact, I found almost all of the religious stuff in the movie generally annoying.
From the moment Pi is stranded on his boat to when he arrives on the island with the meerkats is extremely engaging and interesting, but once that particular part of the movie ends, everything after it somehow falls apart for me. Though far-fetched, I found the very slow burn of Pi's relationship with the tiger handled in a way that made it believable, which I think was important to the whole did-it/didn't-it happen dichotomy. But the vanishing island that eats people strained credulity too much, shifting clearly in the direction of it-didn't-happen, and ruining the fun of the movie sitting right on the border.
I'm honestly pretty surprised this won Best Visual Effects. While I'd agree that some of the effects were phenomenal, such as the underwater fantasy sequence, they seemed to only be good when rendering something fantastical. The effects for "real" things, such as the early scenes with the ship on rough waters, and most of the animal effects, were extremely unconvincing, in some cases downright bad. It seems like the Best Visual Effects award should go to the film with the best overall effects; it's not called Best Visual Effect Sequence. Life of Pi's effects, while often jaw-dropping, were extremely inconsistent. While I found Prometheus generally unimpressive as a movie, all of the visual effects looked real to me, like actual physical objects in a real world; I think Prometheus should have won.
I actually rented the Blu-ray of this movie rather than streaming it or getting it On-Demand, because I wanted to make absolutely certain to get the full visual quality of the film, based on having heard how important the visuals were. I can understand why now, and I wonder if I'd have enjoyed the movie (or been less distracted by the subpar effects sequences) more in 3D.
An engaging story, but only for the middle, and surrounded on all sides by schmaltzy, sentimental, pseudo-philosophical tripe that I just have no patience for whatsoever. Some of the effects were terrible, with many of the sequences very clearly taking place in a pool on a sound stage. The film itself also plays up the "it could all be made up" angle a great deal. All of these combined made it hard to connect with the material, or really feel the emotional ups and downs of Pi. Key scenes where I felt I should have had a stronger emotional reaction drew nothing out of me because I shifted only between being hyper-aware of the fact that I was watching a movie and hyper-aware that I was watching a tall tale.
127 hours on a boat
I wasn't particularly looking forward to this movie, I think Spielberg has a tendency to be a little self-indulgent when it comes to his historical movies, and Lincoln's two-and-a-half-hour runtime lent weight to my suspicions.
The movie starts out with a battle scene during the Civil War, a brutal, shaky-cam war scene that reminded me a lot of the infamous opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. What was strange is that this scene, which theoretically establishes the tone of the film, is a complete departure from the rest of the movie, which takes place almost exclusively in houses, backrooms, and house floors. The movie is 99% dialogue, and it lacks a lot of dynamics. Most scenes are just two people sitting or standing in a room, and talking. Occasionally it's time for Lincoln to tell a long, meandering story, where the camera slowly zooms in on his face as he talks. It would have been hard to tell that this movie was directed by the guy who directed Jaws, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, or Minority Report.
The movie is more about the various backroom deals and manipulations that had to take place to get the 13th amendment passed, abolishing slavery. It's kind of fun to see one of history's "good guys" basically utilizing what we would normally refer to as corruption to accomplish a greater goal. Tommy Lee Jones's character is particularly compelling in this regard.
I think the movie could have done a better job of establishing who people were. No joke, I watched this movie with Wikipedia pulled up on my phone, and I used it a lot. Maybe I'm just more ignorant than the average person about history, but considering that the people I saw this with were unsure of which president Lincoln was (I heard "first" and "fifth" before revealing that the answer was "sixteenth")
As is often the case for Spielberg movies, the film can't seem to end properly. The climax of the film takes place on the house floor, as the 13th amendment is passed, but we're subjected to 20 minutes of "epilogue". Even the epilogue had a great ending spot, with Lincoln walking down a long hall with the camera behind him. Despite the fact that everyone knows what happened to Lincoln, Spielberg felt compelled to include the assassination in his film, and beyond that found it important to do this bizarre fake-out with the assassination happening in a different theater than the one the next scene takes place in. Just weird, and unnecessary.
Day-Lewis is, as usual, ridiculously awesome, completely melting into the role of Lincoln. That guy is a beast.
Silver Linings Playbook
I'm going admit, out front, I did not like Silver Linings Playbook at first. I thought the acting was excellent, but I found myself getting increasingly annoyed by the plot as it went on. I started looking at the movie a bit quizzically when there was this weird right-turn into "we have to learn how to dance" land, and I found myself just infuriated when the climactic bet hinged on our two main characters doing well in a dancing competition. It annoyed me that it turned into such an alt-reality cliche, and I was infuriated at the lack of logic behind things like having Bradley Cooper's estranged wife show up at the competition (despite having a restraining order, and the cop enforcing it also being at the same dance competition).
I was prepared to give this movie a 5/10 or something until I realized what was going on in the movie the next day. I'm probably a bit slow and everyone else has already figured this out, but what David O. Russell seems to be doing is playing in the realm of the traditional cliche romantic comedy. Romantic comedies are always about two characters who don't want to fall in love, but do anyway, and there's always a misunderstanding between them, and the man running after the woman to apologize for something at the end. Russell seemed to take these tropes, and many more, and try to re-imagine them within the confines of realism as much as possible.
He tried to even have the "every major character is in the climax and we need to do well at this dance competition" ending, done in a way that was grounded in reality and, at least to some extent, believable. It was almost like the goal was trying to make a stupid romantic comedy that was actually good and had something to say, interesting characters, and emotional weight.
I think this was an interesting goal, and a fun experiment in filmmaking. I still found it pretty irritating to watch as it went on, but I have to admire the idea, and like I said the performances are just fantastic. One is left to wonder, at the end, why it's framed as a happy ending, though. Neither of them have really grown past their mental issues, so it seems like the relationship is pretty doomed.
Two crazy people fall in love, dance
Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty was interesting because I think it suffered from the influence of real-life events. When you watch the film, it seems pretty clear that the story is about Jessica Chastain's character, who is completely obsessed with finding Osama Bin Laden. The film takes us on twists and turns as she tries to track him down, with her following up various leads, torturing captives (or watching as they are tortured). It seems almost obvious when watching it that it was originally intended to focus on the fact that he continues to elude this character, and her life's devotion is completely unfulfilled.
But then Bin Laden was caught and killed. While the movie was being shot. There's almost a well-defined moment in the movie when it suddenly switches to a Tom Clancy story, focusing on the tactics that will be used to infiltrate his hideout. The rest of the film plays out following the elite ranger team killing Bin Laden, and then we switch back to Chastain's character to see her combination of relief and emptiness before the credits roll.
This movie is basically two movies duct-taped together. There's the movie about one woman's obsessive hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and then there's the movie about what happened after the government thought they located him. I really enjoyed both of these movies in much the same way that I enjoy both ketchup and chocolate, but I did not particularly enjoy them together. I actually found Chastain's hunt being unfulfilled a more interesting narrative than the version with a pretty little bow tied on top. The reaction to finding Bin Laden was "we need to write that in" and I'd have preferred if the reaction was to rewrite parts of the first half of the movie so that it wasn't about Bin Laden at all, but the hunt for some fictional terrorist.
I enjoyed the movie, but I think it's pretty forgettable aside from the Compound-Invasion sequence at the end, which was amazing. Well-directed, extremely tense, and I really enjoyed how intentionally anticlimactic the actual killing of Bin Laden was. No Michael Bay-style action sequences, just a pop and a sense of "was that it?" But I think ultimately the fact that the most memorable sequence was the one superglued onto the end of the movie after the news changed everything is a testament to the first half's inability to engage the audience. Most of the film was pretty bland otherwise, and I think inferior to Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.
God dammit, I'm never going to find Bin Lad-- HOLY SHIT I FOUND BIN LAD-- oh, he's dead.
Notice something missing? Yeah, I never watched Amour. I'll get around to it some day, but I actually wrote this entire post just after the Oscars in 2013, and it's been sitting and waiting for me to watch Amour so I could review it here. But the damn movie looks so depressing and it's subtitled and, I don't know, fuck it. The 2014 Oscars are around the corner and this thing still wasn't published, so I decided to just cut the cord and do it already.
I mostly agree with the academy for this year, at least for the big categories. Hathaway and Day-Lewis both deserved their wins, very obviously so. And though Argo wasn't the movie I enjoyed the most (that'd be Django) I can't deny that on the scale I use to evaluate these kinds of movies, Argo probably was the best one.
Clearly Affleck deserved Best Director, it's so idiotic that his movie won Best Picture and he wasn't even nominated for actually directing it.
I felt the nominations were a bit weak, so I think 2012 may have been a somewhat weak year for film (or at least dramas). None of these movies really made a lasting impact on me. The movie I enjoyed the most was Django Unchained, but the movie that got the biggest emotional rise out of me was Les Miserables, solely due to Hathaway's performance. Otherwise it was my least favorite movie in the list.
I still have to see a number of movies that were nominated in other categories, like Flight, The Master, The Impossible, The Sessions, and a few others, but I'll save those for another post.