Once again this year, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have nominated not five, not ten, but nine films (because, you know, it just has such a nice ring to it) for the honor of best motion picture of the year just past. And I will acknowledge freely that I have struggled mightily to settle on my choice for the honor.
But having finally made my selection, and because I’ve made it something of a tradition to rank the films that are up for the big award, here is my list in reverse preference, from nine to one.
9. “Django Unchained” – This is the only film on the list I would not have nominated. I know that Quentin Tarantino is much loved by many aficionados of the craft, and I have greatly enjoyed some of his work (particularly “Pulp Fiction” and “Inglourious Basterds”). But this one just didn’t work for me. It lacked the ingenuity and surprises of those earlier efforts. I’d like to see this film-maker grow up and leave the comic book depictions of history behind.
8. “Silver Linings Playbook” – David O. Russell’s film is impressive primarily for the reasons Tarantino’s isn’t. It deals with a serious subject (mental illness) and does so in a rom-com that doesn’t resort to sophomoric silliness. Where it fails is in its pat ending and in glossing over the genesis of the illnesses in the two main characters (ably played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, but please don’t tell me hers was the best performance by an actress in a leading role). As an artistic achievement, Russell’s film is head and shoulders above Tarantino’s, even though it is only one notch ahead of it on my list.
7. “Zero Dark Thirty” – Kathryn Bigelow’s attempt to chronicle the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden moved me far less than I expected it too, notwithstanding the fine portrayal of the central character by Jessica Chastain. From a purely cinematic perspective, the film is spot on, each scene skillfully constructed and the final assault on bin Laden’s hideaway as tense and taut (even though we know how it ends) as it probably could have been. But none of it made me wonder whether the hunt was worth the cost, not just in dollars or lives lost, but in terms of the nation’s collective consciousness.
6. “Life of Pi” – Ang Lee has long ago established himself as a great film-maker, and he does nothing to discredit his reputation in this effort. The cinematography is magnificent; just those opening shots of the animals in the zoo (before the voyage) are memorable. And as an adventure tale, the story is well-told, with the young boy and the tiger riveting in their scenes together. But I was left feeling much as I had when I read the book. The book was supposed to have religious significance, and the movie pushes the same theme (to a fault). Suffice to say, neither worked for me.
5. “Lincoln” – If Steven Spielberg’s film wins the honor, as many expect it might, it won’t be a complete travesty. The film is full of wonderful story-telling and historical drama, and the acting (most notably the portrayal of the president by Daniel Day-Lewis) is terrific. But this is another of Spielberg’s films that doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. It would have been far better if it were 15 or 20 minutes shorter, and far more memorable if it had two or three less “memorable” scenes in it.
4. “Argo” – This one is much better than “Lincoln” even though it only ends up one notch above it on my list. Unlike Spielberg, Ben Affleck isn’t into excess. He lets little scenes stay little, thereby giving them more impact. His story-telling doesn’t need the pomp and circumstance that Spielberg uses. Instead, Affleck’s character sits in his seat on the plane while his rescued victims celebrate their freedom, only later getting a handshake from the one hostage who was most antagonistic to his efforts. It’s a memorable small moment; reason enough to give it the big award.
3. “Amour” – Because this film hit me very hard, I may be ranking it too low (or too high). In telling this particular tale of the end of life for a couple who have lived with each other from their youth into their old age, director Michael Haneke pulls no punches. By tackling this subject as honestly as he did, and in gaining the marvelous performances from his stars (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva—please give her the Oscar), he has produced a true work of art. I didn’t so much cry at the end of this film as I shuddered, which, I have to believe, is exactly the impact Mr. Haneke hoped it would have. Great film-making, but too painful.
2. “Les Miserables” – Some will question my ranking for this film, but I loved it and admire it greatly. In taking the musical based on the Victor Hugo story and turning it into a full-scale opera, director Tom Hooper succeeds in wringing every ounce of emotion out of the emotionally-laden script. The music is wonderfully delivered, and the cinematography is spectacular. With a great supporting performance from Anne Hathaway, a strong star turn by Hugh Jackman, and a top notch supporting cast (apart from a mis-cast Russell Crowe), this film was all I could have hoped a movie version of the great musical could be.
1. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” – I said when I saw director Benh Zeitlin’s film last summer that I thought it would be the best film of the year, and I still think it is. It’s everything Hollywood can never be: telling a story that Hollywood wouldn’t have the courage to tell with a cast that Hollywood wouldn’t have the sense to use. It is at the same time entertaining and educational, apolitical and highly topical, humorous and heart-breaking, depressing and inspirational. And, at its core, it’s a father-daughter movie that is guaranteed to make every father cherish his daughter just a little bit more.
Of course, “Beasts” won’t win; neither will “Les Miz” or “Amour.” The buzz says it will be between the early front runner, “Lincoln,” and the one with momentum, “Argo.” Neither is a truly “great” film, but how many that win the big prize really are? My guess is that “Lincoln” peaked too soon and that “Argo” will be that rare winner whose director wasn’t even nominated. Check it out this Sunday on ABC, starting at 8:00 PT.