Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscars Analysis 2011: Best Picture and Director

Fact #1: The Manifesto has correctly predicted each of the past five Best Picture winners.

Fact #2: The Manifesto has correctly predicted each of the past eight Best Director winners.

Am I gloating? Not at all. Perhaps it's due to the rise of the Internet era – in which every news nugget, every minor awards' ceremony, every incident that could possibly impact the Oscars is immediately devoured, over-scrutinized, and spat back out by the blogosphere – but there hasn't been a truly suspenseful Best Picture race since 2006, when The Departed held off a late charge from Little Miss Sunshine that would have sent Martin Scorsese on a murderous rampage, not to mention caused my father to have a heart attack. (For the record, I got that one right. My last miss was the year before, in the Oscar Race That Shall Not Be Named.) This year, the procession has been even more formulaic than normal, and tonight's opening of the envelope feels less like a suspenseful announcement than a dutiful, long-awaited coronation.

Which isn't to say that this year's Academy Awards will be entirely predictable. Far from it, as there are a number of intriguing categories – Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing chief among them – in which the ultimate winner is satisfyingly uncertain. Most viewers, however, lack my (perhaps unhealthy) zeal in following those below-the-line categories, so if Oscar really wants to increase its viewership, it needs to reverse its current atmosphere of blasé inevitability (the most likely tack: moving the show up by a month to avoid the onset of awards' season fatigue).

But that's for the Academy to figure out. I'm just here for your garden-variety obsessive analysis. On to the predictions.


Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Terence Malick – The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne – The Descendants
Martin Scorsese – Hugo

You know the drill: Not since 2002 has the winner at the Directors' Guild not triumphed here, and not since 2005 has the helmer of the Best Picture winner failed to take home his own statuette in this category. There are a number of seemingly surefire bets this year that might nevertheless backfire. This isn't one of them. Hazanavicius takes it.

Can't say I'm too thrilled with this group. Malick certainly exercises unshakable command over The Tree of Life in his uncompromising illustration of a deeply personal vision, but that vision is so personal that it's utterly incomprehensible (and fantastically boring) to most viewers. Allen and Payne are both appropriately low-key and subtle in their control of their respective films, smartly nudging the performers and the script to the screen's center, but sensible restraint shouldn't equate to Oscar recognition. Scorsese shows his usual visual flair, but as a piece of dramatic filmmaking, Hugo is curiously inert, lacking the maestro's usual vitality that so aggressively animated his finer efforts from the prior decade.

Hazanavicius, it should be said, has got some stones on him. It's been 83 years since the Academy has recognized a silent film, but that didn't stop him committing fully to his enterprise, and the result is a glossy, highly accomplished work whose success is due more than anything to directorial vision and ambition. With its bold strokes and broad smiles, The Artist may not shake you up, but it does take you for a heady spin into the heart of nostalgia itself. That kind of backward-looking wistfulness can be dangerously self-fulfilling – if we keep insisting that the past was superior to the present, then at some point it becomes so simply by default – but Hazanavicius isn't interested in academic arguments. He just wants his viewers to have a good time at the movies, and through pure cinematic innovation – switching off the sound, turning up the music, and brightening the lights – he's delivered precisely that.

Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive
Steven Soderbergh – Contagion
Steven Spielberg – War Horse
Joe Wright – Hanna
David Yates – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Refn combines pulpy excess with astonishing poise to create the most electrically entertaining film of the year. With his clipped economy and ruthless pacing, Soderbergh again proves that he's most adept operating within the mainstream. Spielberg's unapologetic lack of irony (and his exquisite technique) lends War Horse its quiet, implacable sense of dignity. Wright pumps up the volume and untethers the camera, but his self-assurance is such that Hanna never succumbs to its surfeit of style. Yates' final sojourn into the world of Potter is his most accomplished yet, exhibiting the clarity and restraint of a master.

My ideal winner: Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive.

Pedro Almodóvar – The Skin I Live In
David Fincher – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Raúl Ruiz – Mysteries of Lisbon
Rupert Wyatt – Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Almodóvar takes no quarter, and his commentary on the grotesque human condition clashes splendidly with his rapturous joy of moviemaking. Fincher returns to his thriller roots, but it's his distinctive skill operating between genre spaces that makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo memorable. Ruiz lavishes one ostentatious gesture after the next onto his canvas, and that unabashed embrace of the medium transforms Mysteries of Lisbon from costume drama into high art. Wyatt cannily illustrates how special effects can serve a story rather than dominate it.

Also deserving: Michael Rowe – Leap Year (for locating cinematic beauty within sadomasochistic ugliness); Steven Spielberg – The Adventures of Tintin (because he's that good); Pablo Trapero – Carancho (for that ravishing final sequence).


The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

It comes down to one simple question: Can anyone knock off The Artist? In my mind, the silent frontrunner is less than a complete lock. Yes, it's been an absolute freight train on the circuit, picking up wins at the BAFTAs and (more crucially) the Producers' Guild. But invincible as The Artist has seemed over the past two months, it's still silent, it's still black-and-white, and it's still made by a French dude. Those are all qualities that might rub a substantial contingent of voters the wrong way.

The problem, however, is that it's unlikely that those voters can unify behind a single challenger; it's difficult to pick David to defeat Goliath when there are eight equally scrawny Davids thrusting their hands in the air. The Tree of Life is too esoteric. The Help is too polarizing. Midnight in Paris is too innocuous. Hugo's box office was too tepid. Moneyball has too much baseball. War Horse is too sappy (or so they say). The Descendants is too small-scale. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is too terrible.

Those descriptions are obviously glib and reductive, but they nevertheless illustrate that the aforementioned films have failed to construct a campaign that steers voters away from their perceived flaws. And as a result, none of the potential challengers has developed any discernible late-season momentum sufficient to push it over the top. If I had to pick a stunning surprise, I'd probably go with The Help, as it's the most crowd-pleasing of the nominees and also tackles important social issues (if somewhat clumsily). But I could just as easily make analogous cases for Hugo (it has the most nominations!), Midnight in Paris (everyone likes it!), or The Descendants (it's awesome!), yet those are transparent attempts to fabricate a chance for an upset when there's no reason to believe that such a chance exists. We're just fighting the inevitable. And lately, that's what the Oscars are all about – the thundering sound of inevitability.

Or, as I put it in a prior post, you can't stop what's coming. The Artist is 2011's Best Picture winner.

As has become the Manifesto's custom since the Academy expanded to more than five nominees, let's break these into tiers:

Tier 4: What the fuck are you doing here? My condensed thoughts on The Tree of Life are known. From an academic perspective, I admire its ambition and complete disregard of the audience's expectations. But I watch movies as a fan of cinema, not as an academic, and I've rarely been more disengaged while sitting in the theatre than when watching The Tree of Life. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is, in its own way, a bit worse than The Tree of Life, with its hammering sentimentality and obscene attempts at manipulation. To be fair, it's also a highly watchable film, with a fascinatingly hyperactive, unrelentingly obnoxious lead performance from Thomas Horn at its center, and unlike The Tree of Life, it never failed to induce a response from me. Unfortunately, that response was usually disgust.

Tier 3: We spent over two hours in a dark room together, and I still don't know how I feel about you. My immediate reaction to The Help was largely negative, as I was put off by its thuddingly black-and-white (oops) characterizations, its litany of useless subplots, and its heart-tugging sap. Upon reflection, I discredited some of the film's virtues, including its playful humor and laudable earnestness. I plan to see it again, but I can't shake the feeling that it approaches its powder-keg subject matter with blunt force rather than nuanced perspective. I liked Hugo quite a bit more, but I'm having trouble remembering why; it's a perfectly enjoyable movie that exhibits estimable craftsmanship, but its conventional story and aching nostalgia failed to latch onto my memory. I plan to see Hugo again as well, but I'm similarly skeptical that my opinion will improve significantly.

Tier 2: I like you a lot, but I still want to see other movies. As far as nostalgic journeys to the dawn of cinema go, I much preferred The Artist to Hugo – its technique is just as impressive, but its story is more focused, and that simplicity lends it a sheer likability that is impossible to deny. Midnight in Paris is yet another Best Picture nominee that actively traffics in nostalgia, but it does so with a more rueful air, and we can bask in its easy pleasures without being subjected to a sermon on the glory of the past. Woody Allen's dialogue has rarely flowed more effortlessly, and the large cast is magnificently capable (led by a shockingly effective Owen Wilson). Moneyball is more emotionally reserved, which ultimately makes its tale of bittersweet redemption more poignant. It isn't a world-changing movie, but that's part of the point – even for revolutionaries, sometimes there's just too much debris in the way.

Tier 1: You are a beautiful and unique snowflake. One of the great travesties of 2011's cinematic landscape is that no one appears particularly interested in watching War Horse, meaning people have robbed themselves of seeing a richly rewarding film. I've made this point repeatedly over the past several weeks, but Spielberg's unashamedly old-fashioned approach to War Horse should in no way count as a demerit. His stylistic choice isn't independently advantageous either – it's simply the mechanism he chooses to tell his story, and it happens to fit perfectly with the movie's stirring tale of love, loss, and persistent hope. Yes, War Horse is sentimental, but it earns its sentiment through unflinching honesty, stern commitment to character development, and powerful thematic imagery. The result is one of the most purely satisfying experiences at the movies this year.

My Best Picture winner, however, is The Descendants, a movie that is as emotionally accomplished as War Horse but achieves its cathartic impact in fundamentally different ways. Delicately blending pain, humor, and anger, Alexander Payne's film never panders or condescends. Rather, it simply shows us a man attempting to weather a crippling crisis, and it recognizes with resplendent empathy how broken people can be made whole. George Clooney shines yet again as the alternately furious and fumbling father, but The Descendants is a true ensemble picture, and the entire cast (including Robert Forster, Judy Greer, and most especially Shailene Woodley) essay their roles with utter conviction. It's a film that shrewdly observes humanity and all of its glorious flaws, and in so doing, it is flawless.

For this, you'll have to wait until the Manifesto unveils its annual top 10 list. Coming soon.

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