Two weeks after Super Bowl XLVII and one week after the 55th Grammy Awards, the little golden guy gets his day. February 24, 2013, is the day of the 85th annual Oscars, also known as the Academy Awards by the formal folk. For 85 years now the best films of the year have been selected by the Academy in a voting process that seems to get more complicated every year, but is still a breathtaking process nonetheless. The early morning announcements, dished out this year by Emma Stone and the year’s Oscars host Seth MacFarlane, is like a second Christmas morning to film buffs and at least shakes off some of the sleep crust from the eyes of those who don’t watch many films.
There are many great categories awarded at the Oscars, but certainly the biggest of them all, the one that’s saved for the final seconds of the whole show, is the award for Best Picture. It’s a tense moment of the evening that causes you to sweat a little more and breathe a little heavier. I even have to put down my boxes of Milk Duds and Good & Plenty because my hands shake too much.
Well, every year for a little over a month, everyone tries their hands at being an amateur fortune teller by predicting which of the nominated films will win Best Picture. It’s a fun little gamble of a game. It even helps us in the North pass time around the warmth of our fireplaces and stoves until the sun thaws the snow in the springtime.
So get in the Oscars spirit and put on a tuxedo or a dress (whichever you prefer), and without further ado, please enjoy my mini-reviews/discussions of all nine nominated films for Best Picture of the 2013 Oscars.
In 1979, Iranian revolutionaries overran the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Six Americans slipped out of the mayhem and holed up at the Canadian Ambassador’s house down the street. The CIA sent a man named Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to get them home safely. This is a true story, by the way.
Ben Affleck stars and directs for the second time in his career (the first was in 2010’s The Town, which he also co-wrote), and he is fantastic both behind and in front of the camera. Affleck portrays Mendez not as a stony-faced, invincible CIA agent, but instead shows that Mendez has vulnerabilities just like other humans (such as a marriage on the rocks), making it easier to relate to Mendez and root for him. Alan Arkin, nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, co-stars along with John Goodman (who’s popping up in everything these days, thank God) and Bryan Cranston.
Basically, Affleck had a dream cast of dudes to work with, and they’re used to full effect, in both comedic and dramatic ways. Having already won a slew of awards at ceremonies including the 19th Screen Actors Guild Awards and the 66th British Academy Film Awards, Argo has momentum like no other nominated film. Because I’m a believer in the snowball effect, I’m putting down good imaginary money that Argo will win Best Picture. And in case you want to make a wager, I am good for that imaginary money. Trust me.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
A ragtag group of people living in trailers and shanties in a southern Louisiana community called the “Bathtub” are worried about water. When it’s not pouring from the sky in punishing, hurricane-driven sheets, it’s lapping up dangerously from the ocean and pounding against the levee that cuts the Bathtub off from the rest of the world. Standing strong against the storms life throws at them is father Wink (Dwight Henry) and young daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). Wink’s health is declining. His time is running out, but before the clock strikes death, Wink is determined to prepare Hushpuppy to survive in a world that doesn’t care about her.
The acting from the two leads is pretty good. Wallis displays a wide range of emotions, particularly a fiery stubbornness to see things through and stand up for her community, all at the ripe age of six! Now nine years old, she is the youngest female ever to be nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Even though Wallis has a passionate screen presence, she doesn’t steal the show. Dwight Henry does. Henry’s character Wink is both lovable and detestable; he has good intentions but doesn’t always show love and care in the execution of those intentions. Wink is a damaged man, beat-up emotionally after years of living in poverty and (more recently) raising a child alone. But he does do things out of love, and Wink brings intensity to the role that displays both that love and a hatred for the hand life has dealt him.
Beasts of the Southern Wild has some strong parallels to real-world issues (post-Katrina Louisiana bayous, melting ice-caps) and boasts talented acting, but the story itself is uneven and just plain confusing at times. It won’t win Best Picture against more balanced features.
Taking the spaghetti western where it’s never gone before, director/writer Quentin Tarantino tackles the subject of slavery in the pre-Civil War era by telling the story of a liberated slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who attempts to rescue his wife Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a man named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Django does so cowboy style: riding horseback with a six-shooter in his holster and a Stetson perched on his head.
Tarantino doesn’t shy away from showing the bloody suffering blacks experienced at the hands of their owners, but he also doesn’t hold back when Django returns the bitter medicine. Django becomes very good at shooting white folks who get in his way or did him wrong in the past. His survival and fighting skills are sharpened under the guide of bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), the man who freed Django from the chains of slavery. Waltz already won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor, and I think he should win it again. He probably won’t, however, with longtime screen veterans Alan Arkin and Tommy Lee Jones also in the running. And if you saw how sulky Tommy Lee Jones was at the Golden Globes after he lost to Waltz, you know the Academy isn’t going to let him lose just so they can avoid another Grumpy Cat impression for two and a half hours.
Django Unchained has the best overall acting of the nominees I’ve seen, and the story (like all Tarantino stories) is brutally honest and immensely entertaining, but Tarantino and company will still not win because movies based on real events like Argo and Lincoln are clogging up the expressway to the Best Picture award. The Academy loves that “based on a true story” stuff (not to say that Django Unchained isn’t based on real events; it obviously draws from a lot of real history, just not as directly as other nominees).
The year is 1865 and the setting is America. The Civil War is in its final months…and so is President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis). Determined to make sure his Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t get thrown in the trashcan once the country is at peace again, Lincoln makes a last-ditch effort to get a Thirteenth Amendment passed that would officially ban slavery in the United States. Directed by the master of historical dramas and sci-fis, Mr. Steven Spielberg, this film superbly navigates between Lincoln’s private home life where he argues with wife Mary (Sally Field) and oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the offices where he debates with politicians such as Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook).
There are too many dry discussions about politics, though. Even though Daniel Day-Lewis, with his soft voice and slight self-deprecating humor, infuses Lincoln with an endearing level of humanity, the former president isn’t explored as thoroughly as he could have been. They should have called this movie The Thirteenth Amendment, because that’s what becomes the center of the plot in place of Lincoln after awhile. The screenplay by Tony Kushner is weighted down with dry dialogue like a floating raft with an excess of swimmers. Too many discussions about lobbying and duties to the country prevent you from becoming really engaged. But hey, it’s still a fantastic film. And because of the names attached, the professional execution of the entire project, and its true story roots, Lincoln is the most likely to block Argo from the Best Picture throne.
Silver Linings Playbook
Though it was marketed as a predominantly football movie, Silver Linings Playbook is really about the benefits of strong relationships and the curing power of dancing. Crazy, huh? Fortunately for director/writer David O. Russell, the whole relationship/dancing plot turns out to be a crazy cool story with a little bit of comedy and a great deal of drama.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) just got out of a mental institution where he was treated for bipolar disorder that escalated when he caught his wife Nikki (Brea Bee) cheating on him with a co-worker. Pat’s not fully cured yet, but his mom (Jacki Weaver) bails him out anyway. Pat gets the hairy eyeball (a wary look) from his obsessive-compulsive dad (Robert De Niro) when he arrives home, and soon their relationship is back on track to screaming at each other in the middle of the night. Pat begins jogging so he can look good when he tries to patch things up with Nikki (he’s intent on them getting back to their normal lives)…and that’s when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widow with her own emotional issues. The two misfits form a friendship and start training for a dance competition. The rigorous dance training keeps their minds off their troubles, and also helps kindle the inevitable flames of romance.
This flick is a gem to be reckoned with. It’s an independent film that treats its characters as multidimensional humans, complete with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. Because the screenplay and the characters are so realistic, you never can tell what’s going to happen, because life is unpredictable. This is a film about life and dealing with the darker side of it. It’s about finding the silver lining in any situation. But the lining is not silver in Silver Linings Playbook’s Best Picture future. It won’t win. There are too many heavy hitters in the ring. Steven Spielberg and Kathryn Bigelow are lacing up the gloves, for crying out loud!
Zero Dark Thirty
Ever since high school graduation, Maya (Jessica Chastain) has been on Osama bin Laden duty for the CIA. For around a decade Maya’s been trying to pinpoint bin Laden’s whereabouts. As the world knows, Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, so Maya did eventually achieve her goal and make her bosses happy. But the sacrifices made by Maya and her co-workers in that decade-long span are many and eternal. People died. Lives were scarred. And director Kathryn Bigelow, along with screenwriter Mark Boal, shows those sacrifices in the stark light of truth, sugarcoating nothing and leaving the question of whether or not actions taken by the CIA were justifiable up to you. Graphic content lives here. Disturbing scenes featuring torturous interrogations of bin Laden’s allies by CIA officers are key parts of the story. Kudos go to Bigelow for not leaving out the ugly parts of the hunt for bin Laden, and though some of the story is dramatized, it’s never for exploitative purposes. Every scene serves the story.
Chastain is ferociously grand as Maya. She makes Maya’s descent into obsession with the bin Laden case believable and frightening. Maya’s driven by fear, courage, anger, and stubbornness at varying times during the hunt. Chastain goes for broke and expertly exudes all of these emotions. She deserves to win the Best Actress award. Zero Dark Thirty certainly deserves to win Best Picture, but its dark, controversial subject matter will be passed over for less risky flicks like Argo and Lincoln.
Please note: I have not seen the following three nominated films:
A French-language, Austrian film directed and written by Michael Haneke, Amour explores whether the relationship between Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne Laurent (Emmanuelle Riva), a couple in their eighties, can withstand the crippling effects of fading health. Gaining a reputation as a film that exposes sobering truths, Amour is a long shot for Best Picture. It’s the Rudy of the nominated films, only with a much older Rudy than American audiences are used to. Emmauelle Riva, at the age of 85, became the oldest actress to ever be nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Another film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel (about the thickest book you’ll find at Barnes & Noble), Les Misérables hit theaters last holiday season. The story follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he disobeys the law and cares for a poor woman’s daughter in France. With a cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried, this flick looks great on paper. But this is a musical, and nobody knew if Jackman or Crowe could sing, especially in real time with piano music coming in through earpieces worn by the actors, as per director Tom Hooper’s request. There were plenty of critics who thought Jackman sounded like an angel, but a lot of them thought he sounded like the spawn of Satan gargling glass, too.
Alas, more chose the holy road than the underworld and the result: Les Misérables is a Best Picture nominee. It won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy. The Oscars don’t mess around, though. All of the nominees are being thrown in the same arena this time, no categorization by genre mind you, and it’s straight-up street fighting rules. Unless Crowe gets his Gladiator mojo working, Argo and the rest of the big boys are going to knock Les Misérables out of contention.
Life of Pi
After a ship sinks in the middle of the ocean, two survivors are tossed aimlessly about on a lifeboat. One of the survivors is a boy named Pi (Suraj Sharma). The other survivor is a Bengal freaking tiger named Richard Parker. It’s like The Odd Couple on the ocean with a mind-blowing twist. Sort of. Well, not really, but it’s a pretty mind-boggling plot. Legendary contemporary filmmaker Ang Lee directs a script by David Magee that’s based on the classic novel by Yann Martel. Although Life of Pi likely will win Best Cinematography (unless Anna Karenina gets its way), it’s been relatively under the radar for a Best Picture nominee and won’t be able to stop momentum-riders like Argo or Lincoln from winning Best Picture.
There you have it, folks. I hope you’ve found these reviews and discussions to be of use to you this Oscar season. Whether they informed, entertained, or (God willing) did both, I’m glad you stuck around for the whole show. Trust me, it was a fun ride for both of us. And please be sure to take some time to look back on 2012 and appreciate all of the great movies, non-Best Picture nominees included, which were released. Hopefully you saw movies you adored and want to watch multiple times in the years to come. Just be sure to keep your schedule clear for new releases, because it won’t be long before we’ll be discussing the nominees for the 86th Oscars. As rock band Journey sort of said, “The wheel in the movie industry keeps on turning. Who knows what movies we’ll be discussing tomorrow?”