2013 Oscar Best Picture & Director

I know the Academy is constantly struggling to keep their awards relevant but there seems to be a bit of cognitive dissonance between their Best Picture and Best Director categories. There are nine nominees for Best Picture and five for Best Director. Did the other four movies make themselves? Were they assembled by committee?

I have always felt that they shouldn’t bother with a Best Director category – they should just give the Best Film Oscar to the director, not the production company that bankrolled him/her. If you bankroll a movie, your reward is that the movie is financially successful and/or connotes prestige. Anyway on to the nominees for Best Picture and Director (Best Director nominees are bolded):

Amour (Michael Haneke): It is always quite surprising when a foreign film gets nominated for Best Picture (and Best Director), especially when it only opened here on February 15th. That said it isn’t likely to win since it is foreign. Also also it is quite grueling. This is one of the most honest depictions of love that I have ever seen and yet I have to warn you that it is not enjoyable. I often felt like Michael Haneke was punishing me for coming to his movie.

Argo (Ben Affleck): Here’s where the cognitive dissonance really kicks in. Argo is nominated for Best Picture but Ben Affleck is not nominated for Best Director. Affleck has won Best Director for this film from BAFTA, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chicago Film Critics Association, Florida Film Critics, the Golden Globes and others and was nominated by the Directors Guild. Yet Affleck can’t even score an Oscar nom.

Argo is an excellent motion picture. Affleck does a wonderful job of raising tension and interweaving scenes for a historical event where we already know the outcome. Yes, the climax of the film goes on a bit too long and goes well past reality into creative license but on the whole, this is an excellent suspenseful movie.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin): This is the film I can’t comment on since I won’t be seeing it until Oscar Sunday. I would still think this a longshot and our pre-eminent local critic, Ken Hanke did not think much of it at all.

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino): I loved Django Unchained, my wife didn’t like it at all. We both felt it was very poorly edited and desperately needed about an hour trimmed off. Tarantino’s dialogue, sly humor and visual style are in abundance here but I think it is considered too controversial to win. Note I write ‘considered’ as neither my wife nor I considered it to be controversial in spite of the overwhelming use of the ‘N’ word.

Les Miserables (Tom Hooper): My wife and I agree that this was not only a terrible Oscar pick but neither of us liked the movie. Not once did we tear up in spite of the endlessly depressing subject matter. The added song was not any good and appeared to be added for the sake of being nominated. Russell Crowe’s performance was all over the map. I will admit that Anne Hathaway’s performance was excellent BUT her five-minute character arc where she goes from being unemployed to selling her body, literally and figuratively, was so rapid as to be laughable.

Life of Pi (Ang Lee): I was unfortunate and missed Life of Pi. My loving wife and daughter went to see it and here is my wife’s take:

“Life of Pi is one of the most beautiful films I saw last year.  The colors are rich, sumptuous.  The story follows a boy who is stranded at sea in a life boat with a tiger after the ship his family is on sinks during a voyage from India to America.  The film feels longer than it is, but is so pretty to look at that I didn’t mind.  Great acting (in particular the actor who plays the older version of Pi is awesome), awesome editing, it’s a strong film – but it’s not the best film of the year (we already established that the best film fo the year is Cloud Atlas).  Things to remember:  there mostly isn’t a real tiger, or other real animals, in this film – mostly they’re all created from thin air (or massively powerful computers).  To me that’s the most awesome thing about Life of Pi –  realizing how far movie special effects have come since The Incredible Mr. Limpett (or Them!).”

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg): An excellent examination of politics that really only suffers from being an examination of politics (i.e. lots of speeches and backroom deals but very little action). Acting is wonderful and yes, I think Daniel Day Lewis is a lock for Best Actor.

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell) :This was a delightful view of life with psychological dysfunction covered in a romantic comedy wrapper. Jennifer Lawrence is not one of those zany girls with a lust for life, she is a young woman with real mental issues. Bradley Cooper is not the misunderstood hero, he too has real mental issues that clearly stem from his family. They even (marginally) address the age difference between the two of them.

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow): I thoroughly enjoyed this balanced portrayal of our hunt for Bin Laden. The movie operates as a procedural – only two of the characters are developed in any significant way. I was very impressed with the opening 911 audio reports over a dark screen. Zero Dark Thirty of course suffers both from trying to tell an authentic story and from compressing a decade of events into a few hours.

Django Unchained – Wife vs. Hubby

My wife and I went to see Django Unchained yesterday. This is part of an exchange deal where I take her to see Les Miserables on our next date.

My wife’s take on Django:

“This is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent.  Long, long-winded, poorly paced.  I went in knowing that it would be enormously offensive (it wasn’t nearly as offensive or difficult to watch at Killing Them Softly) and was surprised to find that it was instead mostly just … dull.  Any editor with sense could have cut at least an hour from this film and made it better.  Instead we have long, lingering shots of plantations, mountains, guns, snowmen, and more that don’t propel the story forward in anyway.  And then, two thirds of the way through the movie, it goes from buddy-flick (two wacky bounty hunters on the road to fame and fortune) to sadistic revenge flick (they enslaved him, and took his woman, now they’ll pay) without much transition.  And finally – this is the very first Tarantino flick I’ve ever watched and not thought I MUST GO BUY THE SOUNDTRACK RIGHT NOW.  There wasn’t a single song in this one that worked for the film (or for me).

So very disappointed.  I hope next week’s viewing of Les Mis is more satisfying.  If only I can keep people from spoiling it (further) for me between now and then…”

My take: Were we even watching the same film? Django was an utter delight. Tarantino has an amazing talent for mashing up and updating genres. To borrow from Kellogg, his dialogue snaps, crackles and pops. The violence was done in an amusingly over-the-top spaghetti western style and the cameo from the original Django, Franco Nero, was a hoot.

The acting ranged from good to amazing. Jaime Foxx carried the film quite well, channeling the quiet reserve of an early Eastwood. Christoph Waltz was fantastic as the bounty hunter as were Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio. Less good but still a lot of fun were Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, and Don Johnson. In addition to Franco Nero, other cameos include Quentin Tarantino, Jonah Hill, Michael Parks, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, James Remar, James Russo, Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, and Robert Carradine.

Having extolled Django’s virtues (and there are many delights to be had here), I have to agree with my wife on a few points. The music appears to have been haphazardly chosen. There wasn’t a single spot on tune. Can you hear “Stuck in the Middle with You” without imagining the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs? All of the songs in Pulp Fiction make me think of their individual scenes yet none of Django’s songs made an impression.

The editing is clearly the sore point. Django runs over two and a half hours. Sally Menke, who expertly edited all of Tarantino’s films passed away in 2010. Sally was nominated for Academy Awards for Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds (losing to Forrest Gump and The Hurt Locker, sheesh). That loss is clearly felt here as almost every scene ran on too long. I love an epic but Django desperately needs to lose about an hour of running time. Some of the dialogue becomes repetitious and establishing shots linger past their expiration date.

Tone is all over the map. The first two-thirds of the film turn Django from a slave into a bounty hunter and then the movie screeches to a halt as we reach Candyland, the plantation DiCaprio reigns over. None of the women make a strong impression – not that the actresses aren’t good, the roles are simply underwritten.

Django is weak Tarantino but weak Tarantino is better than most filmmakers on their best day. It is a lot of fun but it could have been a lot better.