Monday, October 8, 2012

A Closer Look: 2011 Best Picture

So, as I publish the 2011 Fisti Awards I wanted to dissect some of the major categories, Oscar wise.  I thought this would be a fun bout of reflection as we get our way into the new Oscar year.  Sometimes it’s nice to take a quick gander back at what Oscar has produced in order to better set our expectations for what Oscar will do next.
So, as with every Fisti Awards entry, we’ll start with Best Picture.
For me, 2011 proved that this new rule of 5-10 Oscar nominees does more damage than good.  Seriously, if they were sticking to the ‘5 nominee’ rule then we would probably have seen a lineup of ‘The Artist’, ‘The Descendants’, ‘Hugo’, ‘Midnight in Paris’ and ‘Moneyball’.  That’s two great films, two really good films and one shitty film.  Instead, with nine nominees, we get two great films, three very good films, one mediocre film and three shitty films.  How is that better?  Is it really better that ‘The Tree of Life’ was a Best Picture nominee (overrated if you ask me, but good nonetheless) if it means that ‘War Horse’ also gets that prestige mention?  And how the fuck did ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ even happen?  If any film should be labeled ‘Oscar paid for by…’ then it should be that one.  The film was practically panned by critics and viewed as an embarrassment by MANY and then, BAM, there is was.  I’m sorry, but I’d rather accept that something as clichéd and uninspired as ‘The Descendants’ was Top Five material than applaud the Academy for nominating ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’, and I actually think it was a better movie than ‘The Descendants’.
So, in descending order, this is my take on Oscar embarrassing lineup.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t walking into this film with the highest of expectations.  Even from the trailer, the film looked like a misguided campfest complete with overly saccharine elements and cringe worthy plot points.  What I got was pretty much what I expected, so I guess I shouldn’t be so let down.  I guess what really upsets me the most here is that despite my initial assumptions about the film, part of me wanted to believe that the trailer misrepresented what Spielberg constructed and so there was a small part of me that expected to be proved wrong.
‘War Horse’ suffers from a lot of things.  In fact, I’m scrapping the bottom of the barrel trying to find something of merit here, but even the obvious (“wow, it is so pretty to look at”) can be debunked when scrutinized (I’ll get to that in a minute). 
First things first though; this story is ridiculous.  I know that many a story has been told about the effect an animal will have on a household or a community or just a young boy.  Most of these stories revolve around dogs and so it has become almost acceptable for that to be the case.  Lap it up, because we all bawl our eyes out when Old Yeller gets ‘put down’.  There is something odd though about the fixation formed on this horse.  Sure, horse movies aren’t new and there are some told with true affection, but nothing about the relationship formed between Albert and his horse Joey feels genuine.  I blame the script and or Spielberg’s shoddy direction for that.  I mean, there is no relationship developed here at all.  Because of that, we could really care less about the rest of this movie.  Sure, sell the horse.  Let is gallivant through the war touching lives like Forrest Gump.  Problem is, you’ve got scattered segments showing very little in the way of character development that the horse because nothing but a pretty prop.  When an elderly man makes a claim that Joey was the light of his granddaughter’s life I’m left shrugging my shoulders because I saw her pet the thing once and ride it for all of thirty seconds before some soldiers took it away from her.  Basically, I don’t care how she felt about the horse because it wasn’t shown to me here. 
And then you just have the uncomfortable way in which Albert’s affections for the horse are displayed.  It makes young Albert appear to be a simpleton.  I mean, I understand that he is younger than he looks (he attempts to pass for nineteen so as to stay alongside Joey when he’s sold to a soldier) but he is still supposed to be a teenager of driving age and yet he basically wets himself when a soldier mails him a drawing he made of the horse.  It just feels so, unnatural.  It isn’t compelling and it doesn’t endear him to us.  Beyond the fact that I saw no reason to be attached considering that Spielberg didn’t even try to add weight to the relationship between the boy and the horse, I just found his pining annoying. 
Then you have the heavily manipulated ending, which was nauseating in its forcible sentimentality.  The whole tone of the film is a miss, considering that parts feel like it was reaching for family comedy (that goose) and other parts trying for tense drama (fail) and yet other parts were so embarrassing I felt like I was watching a fake film, like those created for ‘Tropic Thunder’.
The acting by everyone outside of Jeremy Irvine is very good, I will say.  Problem is, no one is really on screen long enough to build a character (outside of Irvine, Mullan and Watson who carry the film’s first hour).  And then you have the cinematography, which is the ‘obvious’ part I was referring to on the outset of my review.  I’m sorry, but this was too much.  I love a good showy celluloid frame.  I mean, films like ‘Atonement’ and ‘The Tree of Life’ are just so catching and heartstopping.  ‘War Horse’ tries to go there.  The trailer alone was basically an FYC add for the film’s cinematographer.  Instead though, the film’s canvas seems ripped from other films and the way the shots are framed is almost comical.  Is it just me or does everyone in the first hour appear to be dwarfs?  The framing is ghastly!  It gets better, but then it goes all ‘Gone With the Wind’ in the final frames (seriously) and I had to roll my eyes again.

‘The Descendants’, as expected, was high on Oscar’s radar.  They love Clooney now.  Sadly, this film is a complete misstep in that it just appears so surface; so miniscule.  It is trying to say so much about family and heritage and the preservation of both (literally and then again figuratively portrayed by the Hawaiian landscape).  Instead of getting into the heart of it though, ‘The Descendants’ throws a slew of unlikable characters at us and expects us to weed through their flaws to find ourselves.  I’ve never in my life wanted to hit so many people.  Sadly, Alexander Payne forgot how to make movies.  I mean, ‘Sideways’ and ‘About Schmidt’, while not perfect, were really well done films  that haunted in certain ways.  With this film, Payne merely resorts to layering his ill-conceived drama with a bunch of poorly executed ‘monologues’ that are supposed to amount to something in the end but wind up amounting to a lot of hot air.

Some books are just not meant to be adapted.
This makes me want to cry, but it’s true.  I had this epiphany while watching ‘Everything is Illuminated’, also adapted from a Safran Foer novel, and it happened again while watching ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’.  Safran Foer’s writing is too absurd and intricate to be captured on the big screen.  A lot of his character development, while interesting and engaging on the printed page, comes off as painfully unrealistic on the big screen.  I told my wife, about halfway through the film, that Oskar is almost identical to the way he is depicted in the novel and yet I never had the urge to push him off a bridge while I was reading the book. 
Daldry’s take on Foer’s novel just doesn’t work.  Foer’s novel is too complicated and too detailed, and Daldry misses a lot of that detail.  I understand that the prose had to be focused more, considering that they couldn’t make a five hour movie just to fit in everything Foer put in his book, but then again if you aren’t going to incorporate all the facets of the book that make it so special, maybe you just shouldn’t make the movie.  By skipping some of the books important character development (that whole backstory with Oskar’s grandmother and the renter is especially important to the impact of the story) the film falls flat in areas where it should have really soared.
I was especially upset with the film’s editing choices.  The construction of a novel and a film differ, and a novel can get away with excessive use of flashbacks because they can be clearly defined and incorporated in ways that don’t take away from the particular sequence being depicted at that moment.  In film, flashbacks can be tricky, and if they aren’t defined properly they can take away drastically from the film itself.  There are a LOT of flashbacks here, and while backstory is necessary to the development of this particular story, the way that they are administered (especially with the incorporated of that horrid narration) kept me getting increasingly more and more frustrated.  They took you out of the moment and put you somewhere else only to take you out of that moment and cause you to scramble to put yourself back where you were before the flashback started.  That narration didn’t help much either.  I don’t really like narration, unless it is essential.  ‘Little Children’ probably has the best use of narration I’ve seen in a long time, but it is a rarity to find a film that uses it appropriately.  The fact that Oscar feels the need to tell us EVERYTHING is not appropriate.  The audience isn’t stupid, but the narration makes us feel that way.  Then again, Thomas Horn’s delivery is atrocious and adds to the annoyance of the narration.

I’m just going to get out with the obvious.  ‘The Help’ is rather mediocre.  The dialog is simplistic, the character development is minimal, the characterizations are complete clichés and overblown caricatures and the actual plot is somewhat insulting in a way.  I can’t get behind Hollywood’s fixation on seeking white redemption through a barrage of race-related films where the sole savior of the black race is that one white person who sees through it all.  I mean, I know that not all whites were evil (and I’m white, so don’t think that I’m coming from another vantage point here) but it is somewhat ridiculous that blacks are so often portrayed as helpless in these types of films.  They lack all convictions and courage until some bullheaded white person stokes their fire.  Sure, the fact of the matter is that these poor people were segregated in a ‘white world’ and thus at the mercy of ignorant fools who thought so little of them as a whole, but they fought for their own rights and they made the difference for themselves.  ‘The Help’ tries to spin that thought process towards the end, especially with regards to Aibileen, but this is certainly centered around Skeeter and the difference ‘she’ made.
With that said, the acting here is largely triumphant and thanks to the dedicated performances, this film shines brightly.
If you are looking for a more empowering look at the struggle for equality and the fight to be heard, watch 1990’s ‘The Long Walk Home’.  ‘The Help’ is more colorful, sure, and the acting as an ensemble is more enriched here, but the script is rather messy and really drags down the film’s central themes in the process.

‘Midnight in Paris’ has many of the same qualities that make Allen’s filmography so impressive, but it lacks some of the internalized charm I was hoping for.  The performances are mostly uniformly great, with a few standouts, and the overall feel to the film is certainly effervescent in the way that most ‘great’ Woody Allen films are, but there is a filmy layer of forcefulness that I didn’t expect nor did I truly love.  Instead of allowing us to take from this film what we needed to take from it, Allen told us what we needed to glean, thus taking a little away from the film’s actual impact. 
My issues with ‘Midnight in Paris’ lay with the script, which is surprising since it’s Woody Allen and it won the Oscar. 
The script pushes Gil’s personal views in a way that are consuming.  It is the only viewpoint expressed and it is done so rather heavy handed like.  The other thing that bothered me was that everyone in Gil’s life was so different than him, so awful and unlikable that it made zero sense that he was even living the life he was living.  How did he end up with these people when he hates them and they obviously abuse him too often?  I also found parts of the film lazy, especially when you consider how Gil comes across a certain diary.
Alas, Woody still knows how to create an air that is engulfing, and his recreation of 1920’s Paris is charming to the hilt.  Whenever Gil is dwelling in that world, ‘Midnight in Paris’ is a total keeper.  This just feels like two films trying to live cohesively, and it can’t wholly.

Terrence Malick is one of those directors who divides audiences.  His films are so entrenched in who he is as a visionary that one cannot separate art from artist and thus his works all seem to carry a common bond that either draws us to them or repels us.  I have a typically fond relationship with Malick.  I find him fascinating, even when I find his film’s bordering on self-indulgent.  He knows what he wants to say and he will stop at nothing to convey his message.  While I cannot say that I thoroughly enjoy all of his features, I can say that he is a director I respect immensely. 
For me, ‘The Tree of Life’ is one of those instances where Malick’s own vision got in the way of his storytelling.  He has such an important point to make regarding life affirmations, spirituality and the languishing effects of loss, but elements of this film take us out of that vision and strip away some of the effect.
This is probably the most complex and captivating film of 2011, but its flaws (for me) pull it back from being one of the best.
As a whole, I really liked this film and I have a feeling that time could be kind to this and cause me to love it.  It is a film that certainly says more the more you debate it, but it doesn’t necessarily say all that much while you watch it.  Like I said, Malick is a masterful filmmaker.  He has etched out some serious masterpieces in his time.  At times though, he can let his imaginations get the better of him and his vision becomes cloudy in his own hands.  ‘The Tree of Life’ feels a tad cloudy, despite having a very rich story to tell.

‘Hugo’ is magical and charming and entertaining and really a very fun and inspired ode to filmmaking in general, and it is easy to see Martin Scorsese the man coming through in almost every frame.  This is a family film, for sure, but it has so much maturity and depth of spirit that it doesn’t feel like a children’s film.
As many have noted, this is Scorsese’s homage to film restoration, which is his big charity these days.  I back him one hundred percent.  It is a shame when great films are lost to the rest of us.  That only breeds youth who are removed from the greatness that cinema has to offer.  I’m intent on my children growing up to appreciate film of all kinds, and so I truly appreciate the stance that Scorsese is making.  ‘Hugo’ definitely touches upon that concern, especially in the final act.  It can get a little too direct (it almost felt like a script upheaval for a moment, to be honest) but Scorsese finds a way to balance it back out.  
In the end, ‘Hugo’ is a delightful film.  It is flawed, sure, but it is truly a moving picture that has a sparkle one won’t soon forget.

‘The Artist’ is one of those rare films that comes out of nowhere and completely takes over.  It embodies what we love so much about film from start to finish and consumes us into believing that, for a brief moment at least, everything is as it should be.  Gimmick or no gimmick, this film made me smile like no film in recent memory ever has.  Of course, any film that burst onto the scene with this much buzz was bound to receive its fair share of backlash, but despite any petty reservations heaped up the most recent Oscar winner, this film deserves to be cherished.
Shot in crisp black and white that recalls the endearing quality of silent films of the 20’s, ‘The Artist’ dazzles in all the right places.  It is directed, acted and constructed with so much fun that the audience can’t help but lap it up.  Even my wife, who is highly opposed to silent films (and even black and white pictures) was in love with this movie.  It is simple and it is predictable and it doesn’t do anything particularly special plot-wise, but it manages to remind us why we’re at the movies.  It encompasses all the special, dazzling, wonderful things about the cinema and secures a place in our hearts from the moment it begins.  It may lack substance, if one can fault it that, but it never allows us to accept that fact because our attention is so wrapped up in the spell this film casts on us.

I hate sports.  Honestly, I don’t care for them at all.  I find them boring and pointless and lacking all excitement that so many heap upon them.  But, I love movies, and I love the Oscars, and when a film (and especially a performance) is talked up as Oscar potential then I feel the necessity to indulge, to take a bite, to ‘see for myself’. 
That is basically how ‘Moneyball’ and I met.
On paper, this sounds awful.  The trailers looked simple and boring and kind of dumb.  I remember making that comment on an Oscar forum, because there was just no way that this movie was going to be remotely interesting.  Then the reviews started pouring in and the praise started to mount and Pitt got his career best mentions and I sat back in bewilderment because all of this praise meant that I really needed to see this movie.  My best friend was happy, because he’s always pestering me about accompanying him to sports related events (yeah, better luck next time) and so we went to the movies and I fully expected to hate this and wound up being completely absorbed in every frame.
I have decided that if there is ever to be a movie made about my life, I want Aaron Sorkin to write the screenplay.  Seriously, between this and ‘The Social Network’, he is the master of spinning such detailed and rapturous webs out of seemingly mundane situations (baseball and facebook…seriously?).
So that is it; that is what Oscar had to offer.
This is one of those rare years where not one of Oscars Best Picture nominees lands on my personal ballot.  This hasn’t happened since 2006.  That isn’t to say that I don’t really like both ‘Moneyball’ and ‘The Artist’.  I actually think they are great films, but they wouldn’t hit my personal ‘Best Of’ list until around #15 or so.  This year was just too good all the way around.
So, without further ado, here is my personal ballot (which is also posted on the Fisti of the 10’s page linked on the right hand side of the page).
Oh, and 1991 and 2009 Best Picture ballots are up on their respective pages as well!


  1. I like the sentimentality of War Horse, but it wouldn't even be in my top 25 of 2011.

    While I don't hate The Descendants, I do think it is overrated.

    Max von Sydow is the only reason to see Extremely Loud. I wouldn't nominate him, but I was glad he got in.

    Totally agree on The Help. I couldn't help but wonder why Octavia Spencer took that role. Frankly, I thought the characterization of her character was rather offensive.

    Haha. My Best Original Screenplay pick is Midnight in Paris, but fair enough. :)

    I thought The Tree of Life was flawed, but still one of the year's best. If it had less flaws, it probably would've been my #1.

    Though Hugo isn't perfect, it remains the best film I saw from 2011. I just love the magical quality it has.

    The Artist has grown on me. It's so much fun, and now my #2.

    I'm so glad Moneyball worked so well. It really could've been disastrous. Oh, and I love sports. :)

    Yay! Beginners wins, and Drive and A Separation make the top 5! :D I only need to see Tomboy, but I love every film on this list, except for Mysteries of Lisbon (liked it though) and Like Crazy (Jones great, film 'blah').

    I'll check out the new ballots and leave you another comment.

    1. Yes! The Double Life of Veronique wins! Nice to see Proof that high. I really need to see Raise the Red Lantern and The Fisher King.

      Glad Summer Hours (my top pick) is on there. I need to give Where the Wild Things Are another look. I can't get all of the 2009 picture to load for some reason. Could you tell me the order?

    2. 1) Where the Wild Things Are
      2) The White Ribbon
      3) 500 Days of Summer
      4) Summer Hours
      5) Inglourious Basterds
      6) Bright Star
      7) Fantastic Mr. Fox
      8) A Prophet
      9) The Cove
      10) Up
      11) 35 Shots of Rum
      12) Star Trek

    3. Thanks. Wow! I really DO need to watch WTWTA again then.

      Other than 35 Shots of Rum and The Cove, I've seen and admire every film on here. Nice lineup.

    4. WTWTA means a lot to me. It is one of those films that just moved me at the right time, and it has never left my memory. I'll post my review on here sometime (maybe now).

      You need to see 35 Shots of Rum and The Cove. The Cove blew me away, and I don't generally like docs.

    5. They're both in my Netflix queue, so I'll get to them eventually. :)