Saturday, February 23, 2013

2012 Oscars: Directing and Picture

Okay, final analysis post.

Tomorrow I'll be back with my last-minute, very final predictions (some have them have changed since my initial postings).

Best Director Nominees
Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

5. David O. Russell - This was a writer's and actor's film, not a director's. Yes, Russell did write it well and he directed his actors well, but I think his work as a director was less substantial than the other nominees.

4. Michael Haneke - I like Haneke's slow and steady pace, and I like his use of sudden, hard-to-watch images to maximize emotional impact. But in Amour, I think that pacing was just a bit too slow and it made for a pretty boring movie.  Fascinating, yes, but boring. This is just personal preference, but I also can't deny that Haneke's fingerprints are all over this movie. It's definitely a director's piece, but that just means its failures should be reflected in a loss here.

3. Benh Zeitlin - A friend posted an article about the subtle racism and glorification of poverty in Beasts, and while there are definitely some things to consider, I think the argument had some flaws. I'll touch on that in a second, though. Zeitlin took a peculiar story and creatively assembled a fun, sad, exciting, frustrating movie out of it.  He expertly handled water, children, and animals (three challenges directors are generally advised to shy away from).  I've seen him accused of "sentimentalizing poverty," but I don't think that's what happened - I think he's telling a fairy tale in a real-world setting, he's asking us to look at the characters and the family dynamic and how tightly they want to hold on to the lives they know. He's not asking us to condone their lifestyle or their acceptance of it, he's just asking us to consider it's importance to them.  That article referenced one critic who praised Wink's parenting skills. Of course, Wink isn't a very good father most of the time, but he's still Hushpuppy's father and they love each other no matter what. This is, I think, Zeitlin's accomplishment - he doesn't sentimentalize anything except what's already sentimental: the very real love and affection flowing through this Bathtub community. It's a very strong debut, and I'm looking forward to what he does next.

2. Ang Lee - The first time I saw Pi, I was floored by the visuals, but not the storytelling. Of course, I loved it anyway because I loved the novel. The second time, I saw past the visuals to the storytelling, and I grew to love the film itself. Ang Lee did what no one thought possible in bringing Pi to the screen, and he also had to deal with water, children, and animals. He balance the real and the fantasy elements of his story and plays with the more malleable aspects of Truth. At first, I didn't feel he kept the "real story" lot device ambiguous enough to keep a debate going, but I changed my mind after watching the movie again. The main reason he's my #2 here is hat I'm not crazy about the way he had Pi delivery his 2nd story at the end of the movie - he seemed too sincere, not flippant enough the way I think he was in the book. It's a small thing, but I think it was a misstep.

1. Steven Spielberg - Lincoln might not be Spielberg's greatest film, but I think time will remember it as part of his top five or so. Spielberg reminded us this year that he still knows how to make a great movie, not just a good movie with great sequences and polished filmmaking. He showed restraint and nuance when he could have sanctified his subject.  He allowed room for the president's moral and even legal doubts about his situation. His casting of almost-kinda-familiar faces was fantastic, as was the inspired use of Alan Shore James Spader to great comedic effect to remind us that even 150 years ago, politics were really silly.  Don't forget Spielberg brought a whole slew of solid performances from those "lesser" actors; not to mention that although Day-Lewis is, well, who he is, even he relied on Spielberg's direction to shape his Lincoln.  Meanwhile Kushner is getting lots of (deserved) praise for his script, but it was a lot of Spielberg's guidance that led Kushner to his structure and tone, and the decision to focus on the legislative process behind the 13th Amendment was also Spielberg's. While this doesn't look or feel quite as quintessentially "Spielberg" as some other ventures, there's no doubt to me that this is his movie through and through, and it's a tremendous success.

Will win: I'm still gonna predict Spielberg, even though there's a strong possibility of Lee for the "upset."
Should win: Spielberg.
Should have been nominated: Ben Affleck. If Affleck had been nominated, I'd have picked him as #1. Argo was, above all else, a director's showcase, and everything that worked about it worked because of Affleck. Keep in mind that I said this before I rant for the next few weeks about how Argo didn't deserve to win best picture.

Best Picture Nominees
I'll keep these relatively short since almost

9. Les Miserables - It's just pretty shoddy filmmaking through and through. A few great acting moments, lots of forgettable acting moments. And yeah, I'll say it, Russell Crowe was my favorite part of the whole thing. He's the only person who made his character interesting and fleshed out, everyone else was just painting by numbers.

8. Zero Dark Thirty - A lot of expertly crafted sequences awkwardly strung together to make an episodic jumble that loses almost all tension until the raid on the compound redeems it.

7. Amour - Like I said above, it's fascinating and moving and haunting and beautifully acted. But it's really boring.

6. Silver Linings Playbook - It's pretty formulaic, honestly, but it steps outside the box just enough to stay interesting and entertaining without getting too predictable. It's a nice film, a good film, an interesting film. Not a great one.

5. Argo - It's good. It's maybe even great. But it loses it's luster and I think it's historical gaffs are more problematic than Lincoln's or Zero Dark Thirty's. It's riveting, in a way, but ultimately doesn't really say or do anything that interesting.  It's well-crafted, but fluff. It's going to win and will join the ranks of The Artist, The King's Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire as unoffensive, heart-warming, easy to like, but ultimately insubstantial Best Picture winners.

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild - I briefly addressed some of the complaints regarding this film above. I don't feel like getting into it more. It was a lovely, creative, moving movie that I don't believe asks anything more of us than to simply consider Hushpuppy. To consider her life and what she feels and why she feels it. It's more fairy tale than film, and it's certainly not reality. Anyone who judges it based on "real life" is setting themselves up for frustration from the start. If you want a story, well here's a good one.

3. Django Unchained - It's just flat-out one of the most entertaining movies of the year. It's funny, it's graphic, it's uncomfortable and exciting. It's about fifteen minutes too long, yes, but long movies always feel shorter a 2nd time, and by the 3rd the good times just fly by. Great acting and writing, and personally I think that it tackles subjects of violence and slavery in a unique way, by treating them as subjects and not issues. This isn't a think piece, it's not a discourse, it's pure emotion. You feel what's right and wrong, you feel what has to happen and what can't happen and what shouldn't happen, and hope it plays out right. A few peculiar directing choices aside, Django was some of the best storytelling and filmmaking of the year.

2. Life of Pi - I pretty much address my praises of the film throughout all the categories and especially with Lee above. I think it misses out on a bit of Martel's wonderful prose, and I think the final scenes are a tiny bit too straightforward, but it's a movie that I will go back to many times. Each time I will love looking at it, and each time I think I'll love thinking my way through it again. I still don't know what to believe, but I know which story I prefer.

1. Lincoln - Of the nominees, I think this is the movie that uses the most expertly crafted filmmaking elements and brings them together to the greatest whole film. I personally didn't find a second of it dull or uninteresting, I didn't find a single performance to be out of place, and I think it's a movie that we'll go back to for decades to remind ourselves that America has always been a mess, and that there are always people on the wrong side of history, but there will always be people on the right side of it too, and there's always reason to hope that we'll get where we're going eventually.

Will win: Argo
Should win: Lincoln
Should have been nominated: The Master, Cloud Atlas, The Impossible, The Sessions, and the best movie of the year, Holy Motors.

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