Usually I haven't seen enough of the Oscar nominees to be able to do one of these posts in the past, but this year I've had the unusual good luck of being able to view almost all of the contenders in the six major categories for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Screenplay. I think that should be enough to give an informed opinion, or at least to say something substantive about each race. I'll cover the writing, directing, and Best Picture categories in this post, and the acting categories separately in the next one.
Let's start with the big one first: Best Picture. I haven't seen "War Horse" or "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" yet, but among the rest there are four titles currently sitting on my in-progress list of my favorite films of 2011. That's always a good sign. I thought it was a perfectly fine year for contenders, though I don't agree with some of the titles that are up here. I don't understand the critical support behind "Moneyball" or the popularity of "The Help." I'm happy for Martin Scorsese, but the more I've had a chance to mull over "Hugo," the more problematic it becomes. The dialogue is especially grating - maybe Scorsese would have been better off making "Hugo" as a silent film like "The Artist," the current frontrunner. But then, I'm not too keen on "The Artist" winning either. It's a significant filmmaking achievement no matter how you slice it, but it's hard to get around the fact that so much of its effectiveness is about breaking down the audience's resistance to the fact that it's a black and white silent movie. It expends so much effort recreating something old, but aside from a few interesting uses of sound in the narrative, does little to add anything new. I have the same complaint with "Midnight in Paris," which I adore, but I can't shake the fact that Woody Allen has made this kind of film so many times before, and it feels like he's backsliding a bit, relying heavily on nostalgia to carry him through.
That leaves me with "The Descendants" and "The Tree of Life." Alexander Payne makes the kind of small-scale, awkward comedies that are too often overlooked by the Academy, and he's due for some recognition. And after subjecting myself to an endless stream of indie films this year about dysfunctional families, I know all too well how hard it is to get a story like "The Descendants" to come off right. I'd be very happy to see it win. However, there's "The Tree of Life," which some Oscar prognosticators thought might be too artsy and inaccessible to be a nominee. I have some issues with the film, particularly the bookend sequences with Sean Penn and the silly dinosaurs, but that middle section is without question, the most stunning piece of cinema I saw in 2011. The level of filmmaking and the scope of director Terrence Malick's vision just dwarf everything else in the field. "The Tree of Life" is really the only one of the nominees I believe will survive the test of time and still be well regarded in another decade or two, that manages to transcend the modern-day sensibilities that color the other nominees' takes on the past. I know it won't win, simply because there are too many members of the Academy who will be unable to get past its difficult nature, but as far as I'm concerned this is an easy pick. "The Tree of Life" for Best Picture.
In years past, the Best Director nominations would usually mirror the Best Picture nominations, because the director is considered the creative mind most responsible for the finished film. With an expanded Best Picture nominee list, the Best Director nods can help to determine who the actual frontrunners are. In this case, we have Woody Allen for "Midnight in Paris," Michel Hazanavicius for "The Artist," Terrence Malick for "The Tree of Life," Alexander Payne for "The Descendants" and Martin Scorsese for "Hugo." And it was this list that convinced me that it was okay to skip "War Horse" for the time being, because Steven Spielberg is noticeably missing. Pretty much all of my arguments for the Best Picture nominees can be applied to their respective directors, though I'd give the edge to Woody Allen over nearly everyone else here, because of the wonderful, delicate mood he manages to conjure up for his fantastic bygone dreamscapes of Paris, which have so much more magic in them than Scorsese's. "The Descendants" depends more on its writing and "The Artist" depends more on its performances, but without Woody Allen's touch, you simply couldn't have "Midnight in Paris." But again, I'd hand the statuette to Malick in a second. Terrence Malick for Best Director.
The writing awards are always fun because you often get a few good titles in the mix that don't appear in any of the other categories. In Best Original Screenplay, we have "The Artist" and "Midnight in Paris," but also "Bridesmaids," "Margin Call," and the Iranian film "A Separation," which is a dead giveaway that "A Separation" will take home the Best Foreign Language Film award this year. I think this is a pretty weak roster, as I'm middling on "Margin Call," and found much of "Bridesmaids" uneven. "The Artist" is up here for the way it wrote around the limitations of having so little dialogue, which I can appreciate, but it's not enough for a win. Meanwhile, "Midnight in Paris" had absolutely fantastic dialogue in about half its scenes, those dealing with a spoiler I'm not going to give up here, but too much involving Owen Wilson's interactions with Rachel McAdams' character was lackluster. "A Separation," which I have not seen, but have read enough about to understand that it's a particularly complex and nuanced social drama, kind of takes this by default, because I don't think any of the other nominees deserve it. "A Separation" for Best Original Screenplay.
In the Best Adapted Screenplay category are Best Picture nominees "The Descendants," "Hugo," and "Moneyball," along with "The Ides of March" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." Now this is a much more interesting race. I think I've made my opinion of "Hugo" pretty clear. It's not that it's a bad film, but I found the script was surprisingly weak in some important spots. The writing was the best part of "Moneyball," but it never succeeded in getting me invested in the character of Billy Beane, which may be more Brad Pitt's fault than the writers,' but I'm going to assign equal responsibility. "The Ides of March" was an interesting peice of work, a nice, mean little political thriller than gave George Clooney and Ryan Gosling a lot of choice banter to chew through. I'm more impressed with "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," though, for taking such a radically different approach to its complicated spy story than most would dare. However, I have to go with "The Descendants" for handling some really tough subject matter about as well as it could possibly be handled, and still being an enjoyable watch. "The Descendants" for Best Adapted Screenplay.
More to come.