The Academy Awards are fun if you don’t take them too seriously. Over the years many a completely forgettable film has gotten the top award while others that live on decades later have been rejected by the fickle voting members of the Academy.
This year the entire process of selecting the best film got shaken up yet again, with not five, not ten, but nine films nominated. If you didn’t know the reason, you might have thought Herman Cain had dictated the number.
Actually, the nine nominations were the result of a complicated new nominating system that recognized both films that had wide support (having received a lot of votes in the initial balloting) and those that had what might be called a fervent, if less widely appreciated, following (having received a sizeable number of first-place votes). I could go into greater detail on the process that was used this year, but you aren’t reading this column to learn higher math.
Rather, I want to offer, as I do every year, how I would have voted, assuming the nine films that were nominated were my only choices. And, just to complete my entirely subjective take on the year in film, I’ll finish by noting the one film that wasn’t nominated that might have really been the best of the bunch.
So, to take the nine in reverse order, let me first dispense with the four that really weren’t deserving of the recognition they got with the best picture nomination.
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” was the worst of the lot. I assume the book is a lot more interesting and meaningful, but the movie struck me as a 9/11 story that cheapens the historical event and doesn’t even contain a meaningful payoff for the story it does tell.
I could (and will) say the same thing about “The Help” and “Moneyball” (having read neither of those as well). The former may have been well-intentioned, but it was really just a glorified soap opera built on a serious topic. The strong acting by the fine cast wasn’t enough to overcome a weak script. And “Moneyball” wasn’t inside baseball enough to work as a thinking-fan’s film and wasn’t exciting enough to appeal to non-baseball fans. Nice work by Brad Pitt didn’t elevate the significance of the film.
Woody Allen has made a slew of great movies, but “Midnight in Paris,” despite its surprising box office success, isn’t one of them. I am a devotee of Allen and would never besmirch his genius, but this film, thoroughly enjoyable and even inventive as it is, doesn’t come close to the pathos of “Annie Hall” or Manhattan,” or the brilliance of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” or “Match Point,” or the charm of “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
Of the five that did deserve their nominations, I’d place “The Artist” as the least impressive. Don’t get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed the film, found it delightfully inventive and loved the closing dance scene. But it’s pretty much a one-note samba as movies go, light, very light, on plot (unless you’ve never seen “All About Eve” or any of its many remakes) and while nostalgia is hardly a bad thing, nothing about the silent film era was captured with anywhere near the depth of understanding that Martin Scorsese explored in “Hugo.”
“War Horse” is cinematically majestic, with the look and sound of Spielberg all over it. That’s both a good and not-so-good thing. The good is just watching it, as the great horse of the title passes from one owner to the next while the First World War is shown from all sides. Some scenes are absolutely exquisite, even breath-taking. But the not-so-good is the over-bearing John Williams score (yes, it’s great music, but can we not notice it in every scene?) and the sappy ending that makes it just another feel good movie that could have been much more.
Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is the most frustratingly ambitious and brilliant attempt at breakthrough film-making in years. At its best it is awesome, a personal reflection on everything about our existence that is both terrifying and glorious. But the family story, such as it is, that forms the heart of the film, is unfocused, and the bookends around it can easily be labeled pretentious. Still, it’s a work of art, flawed but worth great praise nonetheless.
And that leaves Scorsese’s “Hugo” and Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.” Either would have been completely acceptable choices as the best film of the year, but my vote would have been for Payne’s heartfelt masterpiece. While Scorsese’s film is brilliantly conceived and produced and is a much more sincere paean to the early days of film-making than “The Artist,” it is just a little too easily wrapped up and sweetened, which may be why it was foolishly marketed as a children’s film.
“Descendants,” on the other hand, tells a real story with real people who are shown with all their flaws as they struggle with real-life drama. And its ending, while not sorrowful by any means, just feels right, natural, and therefore beautiful. “The Descendants” is a film to cherish more than admire, which is how I’d describe “Hugo.”
I’d happily see either one again, and certainly hope to add both to my library when they are released on video. But where “Hugo” goes for the head, “Descendants” hits at the heart, which, for me, gives it the edge.
So that’s how I’d rank the nine films the Academy did end up nominating and how I would have voted for the big prize. But I promised to name the film that should have been nominated and maybe even been picked as the best of all.
And that film is “Beginners,” the little gem by Mike Mills that starred Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent, and the great Christopher Plummer. This one came and quickly went last spring and thus wasn’t appreciated by a wide audience.
It’s a story about growing up, whether you’re in your thirties or your eighties, and I loved it.