by Greg Akers
One of them is a little bit Extremely Loud. The other is a little bit Incredibly Close. Put them together? Oscar bait.
The Memphis Flyer's film brain trust closes out a week of Academy Awards revelry — Editing/Cinematography on Monday, Lead Performances on Tuesday, Supporting Performances on Wednesday, and Screenplays on Thursday — with a Friday dedicated to the big two awards, Best Director and Best Picture.
The Nominees: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Martin Scorsese (Hugo)
Hazanavicius won the Directors Guild honor. The DGA winner has won this Oscar eight years in a row. He also won the mythical BAFTA, and when the same person wins the DGA and BAFTA, they've won the Oscar four out of the five times it's happened since 1996. He didn't win the Golden Globes, however. That went to Scorsese. That's not bad news for Hazanavicius either. Twice in 16 years has a director won the DGA and BAFTA but NOT the Globes, and both times they still won the Oscar. What are the trends for Scorsese to win? Six times in 16 years has a director won the Globes but not the DGA or BAFTA, and only once did that person win the Oscar. And only once in 16 years has the Oscar winner not been predicted by any of the DGA, BAFTA, or Globes.
In other words, Michel Hazanavicius Will Win.
Should Win: Oh, but this is a different story. The idea that Hazanavicius will win, beating out the likes of Scorsese, Malick, Allen, and Payne, galls me. Especially this year, when all-time great Scorsese made a fantastic movie unlike any other in his catalog, Malick made one of the most impressive films in memory, Payne made another solid character drama, and Allen made another pleasing intellectually romantic comedy. Hazanavicius' film is generally unimaginative. It has its charms, but I'd give credit to the acting. The script is a knock-off — strike that, a bold rip-off — of better films. Once you get past the gimmick of the film — let's make a silent black-and-white film in the 21st century — The Artist isn't particularly interesting visually.
As much as I admire Hugo, Terrence Malick's Tree of Life is a juggernaut, and I cannot deny it the highest honor.
Got Robbed: I've mentioned all of this previously this week, so I won't go into great detail, but: Xavier Beauvois made a powerful film about religion — probably the best such since The Apostle — with Of Gods and Men. Lars von Trier finally stopped beating about the bush with his movies and just went out and destroyed all of biological life in Melancholia. A pretty funny joke, if you ask me. Sean Durkin made his debut feature really count with Martha Marcy May Marlene, a complex character study that flirts with a number of genres before settling on horror. Steven Spielberg made his first animated movie, The Adventures of Tintin, and he felt the freedom, coming up with one of his most enjoyable films and his best cliffhanger plot since Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tomas Alfredson paid attention to everything and produced the greatest spy movie ever with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And, my winner, Steven Soderbergh, one of the great American directors, made what is possibly his masterpiece, Contagion. With immense precision and deliberation, Soderbergh creates a lean plague procedural about professionals acting professionally and trying to keep it together in the face of disaster. Plus, it has the biggest shock shot of the year: Gwyneth Paltrow's world-famous face peeled down in an autopsy. Pretty spectacular.
Contagion: A movie you won't be hearing about on Oscar night.
Herrington: I've resigned myself — SPOILER ALERT — to The Artist winning Best Picture, but I just can't wrap my head around the idea of Michel Hazanavicius winning Best Director against this field. I'm sure your research is accurate and this will be another one of those stubborn picks that sends me plummeting in my Oscar pool, but I'm calling a split of the top two awards this year. Will Win: Martin Scorsese.
Should Win:Only two viable picks here for me in Scorsese and Malick. I think Scorsese's work in Hugo is more flawless, and deserves special consideration for his mastery of the 3-D process and for exploring new genre territory. But The Tree of Life is the kind of audacious work of art that you just don't see much any more with quasi-mainstream American filmmaking. This kind of reach deserves recognition, especially when the grasp isn't lagging far behind. So, I pick Terrence Malick.
Got Robbed: A little surprised to see Steven Spielberg snubbed here — no, not for the cartoon escapade I missed, but for the underrated, misunderstood War Horse, an opulently classical work of deceptively simple humanism that serves as a corrective of sorts to his more narcissistic Saving Private Ryan by eschewing that film's gory would-be verisimilitude. Not surprised to see the great Abbas Kiarostami left out of the Oscar conversation completely, despite the recognition for Iranian import A Separation. One of the giants of international cinema for the past couple of decades, Kiarostami made his Western debut with the glistening Certified Copy, his first film to get distribution wide enough to filter down to markets as small as ours. But my pick here will be for a director I have conflicted feelings about and for a film I didn't like as much as War Horse or Certified Copy. Lars von Trier's Melancholia is a major film that breaks free from his self-imposed formal constraints and that manages to put the friction between his own corrosive world view and skeptical viewership on the screen for the first time.
Akers: It was just one year ago when it was thought there would be a split in the Director/Picture categories, with David Fincher winning for The Social Network but The King's Speech winning Picture. That didn't happen. Tom Hooper shocked with a Director win and King's Speech won overall. I'm embracing my eventual disappointment and at least predicting it this year. You know that story you tell about being at the Flying Saucer for the 2007 NBA lottery selection party, and you were the first and only one in the room to realize the Grizzlies weren't getting a top-two pick, and you had to watch as everyone else around you cheered and celebrated for another minute, not realizing their fate was already doomed? That's me watching you picking Scorsese.
Herrington: Hang on a minute while I take this knife from my back and catch my breath. Okay. I had blocked it from my mind that "Tom Hooper" won Best Director last year over Fincher. God, what a joke. That's so terrible. That's like picking Hasheem Thabeet #2 in a loaded draft, to invoke an even more painful lottery memory. Anyway ...
Nominees: The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse
At this point, I feel like I've done my spiel on most of these films, and you can see my own 2011 rankings — and yours — here. So even though this is the biggest and most significant category, I'm going to try to keep it pretty short here.
Will Win: I've already revealed that I think The Artist will win Best Picture. It's this year's Slumdog Millionaire: An “exotic” “underdog” contender that types “adventurous” even though it's accessible to the point of pandering. And, like Slumdog before it, it will ride a buzzy Oscar bubble to a little gold statue and then quickly recede from memory. And I don't mean that to suggest I think The Artist has no good qualities. The lead performances are a better, more subtle replication of silent-era acting than I expected. There's one great scene and some more good ones. The dog is fun. But as a supposedly major film, it's a bit of a fraud.
Should Win: The Tree of Life is my favorite film among the nine nominees, but it's both imperfect and extremely challenging at times. Without combing through every Best Picture nominee ever, I feel confident in saying it's the most avant-garde movie ever up for the award. Close behind The Tree of Life on my own list and more in line with Oscar reality is Hugo, which I believe leads all nominations and which I really hope pulls the upset here. Scorsese's movie works beautifully on so many levels — as children's adventure, as silent-film celebration, as film preservation public service announcement, as a portrait of the director as a young man, and as a surprising reclamation of an overused, under-mastered 3D form. My first viewing, at an early screening, might have been my favorite movie-going experience of 2011.
Got Robbed: Certified Copy was my favorite film of last year, but essentially exists outside the world the Academy Awards typically acknowledge. The Oscars are not about recognizing the full range of interesting cinema, and that's fine, I guess. But they are supposed to be about recognizing the best in popular American/English language film. And, judging it by those standards, the movie that really should be on this list is Bridesmaids. The most successful original film — everything above it at the box office was a comic book, a sequel, or based on a bestseller — of 2011 is also, to my mind, one of the three or four best Hollywood comedies of the past 15 years, joining There's Something About Mary, Knocked Up, and maybe The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Of course, none of those movies were nominated either, but I thought the whole idea of opening it up beyond the previous five nominees was to allow in more variety. As it is, the Oscars' greatest weakness remains not its lack of awareness of art house or international triumphs like Certified Copy but its attraction to middlebrow mediocrities like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close at the expense of popular/genre-cinema knockouts like Bridesmaids.
Comedies get ignored come Oscar time. Here's one that deserved a place at the table:
Akers: I wholeheartedly agree that The Artist Will Win Best Picture, and it would be a major shock if it didn't. I'd like to further quantify why. I keep (annoyingly) talking about predictor awards earlier in the season, and they're predictors because they do exactly that: they tell you with fairly high probability who is going to win what on Oscar night. There's no more predictable than the Academy voters en masse.
The Producers Guild hands out its award, which corresponds nicely with Best Picture. Four years in a row, it has correctly predicted the Best Pic winner. The Artist won the PGA.
When one film has won the PGA, the BAFTA, and the Golden Globes, it has also won the Oscar five out of seven times that has happened in the last 16 years. The Artist won all of those awards.
The Artist may not win the Best Picture, it is possible. The Artist didn't win the SAG Ensemble Award, that organization's closest analogue to the Best Picture Oscar. The Help won that SAG. Only twice has a film won the SAG Ensemble but not the PGA, BAFTA, or Golden Globes. And only once of those two times did it manage to win the Oscar (the execrable Crash).
And sometimes the Best Picture winner wasn't predicted by any previous awards. Three times in 16 years that has happened, with The Departed, Million Dollar Baby, and Braveheart. Hugo or The Descendants could possibly, I guess, pull off the major upset. It's a longshot though.
Should Win: Oh, The Tree of Life should win. I see your point about Should Winning the most traditionally Oscar worthy, Hugo, not necessarily your personal favorite, Tree of Life. But if the Academy saw fit to nominate it, I'm gonna see fit to Should Win it.
Okay, fine. The Artist is going to win. Here's the trailer:
I've discussed many of these previously this week, so I won't rehash old arguments. But there are a few I haven't given proper treatment to yet.
The Artist: A movie I loved the idea of when I first heard of it during Cannes last year. A black-and-white French-made silent film! I love it! But when I saw it, my smile turned into a grimace. What a rip-off of a plot. Even down to specific details, it echoes so many other films. It has enough performance charms that it's not a complete waste, but still, what a disappointment.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: In the fringes of the film, there's something of quality here. Max von Sydow's and Sandra Bullock's performances and the touches of mystery that flirt with a Paul Auster-type rabbit hole of a plot. Unfortunately, the film is entirely too precocious, and the kid is neither likable nor likably unlikable; he's just unlikable. And the plot is way too precious, trading mystery for melodrama.
Midnight in Paris: I'm not the world's biggest Woody Allen fan, but this kind of encapsulates everything I do like about him and several of the things I don't. The film has a light touch, an intellectually breezy air lit with warm romantic tones. It considers nostalgia and longing in a way that really is pretty smart. But it also has that annoying stand-in for Allen himself (played by Owen Wilson this time), and every time a beautiful female character gushes over the Allen stand-in's poetic flair and wit, I want to barf. And are we really supposed to stand by and accept it while Gertrude Stein praises what, essentially, Woody Allen is writing? It also is a little too easy at times with the literary and artistic references. The Salvador Dali (played by Adrien Brody) scene was just unwatchable. So pretentious and unfunny. Contrast to everything with F. Scott Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hiddleston, who had a very good 2011), where the film takes flight. I wish the whole film was about Scott and Zelda (Alison Pill).
Got Robbed: Two mainstream movies got left out of the party. I've talked about them a lot already. Contagion and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. SMH.
Two last notes from me. One, I want it on written record that I'm predicting Undefeated will win the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. We'll have a review of it in next week's Flyer, but this is a Weinstein-distributed film, being released right when Oscar voters are making their choices, and it's a crowd-pleasing tale. (Remember, Academy members have to have seen all of the nominees to cast a vote in this category.) Paradise Lost 3 will suffer in voters' minds because of Peter Jackson's new West Memphis 3 movie, which recently played at Sundance, and because it's got a little bit of controversy behind it. Pina has the "star" factor of being made by Wim Wenders, but how broad of an appeal will a dance movie in German have? Hell and Back Again by many accounts is fantastic, but it sounds like a real downer. If a Tree Falls might be about too controversial a subject.
Finally, I'll be appearing on the radio on Memphis Sport Live tomorrow, Saturday, February 25, at 11 a.m. to discuss all this Oscar stuff and more. Memphis radio, 560 am. Tune in.