The annual bloodbath is upon us! The most notable films of 2011 have been filtered through the old white man machine, survived the gauntlet of lesser awards, and have been dragged onto the world stage for the only event that truly matters: the Academy Awards.
As always, I shall take you on an 11th hour guided tour of the films that have enchanted and frustrated audiences the world over and caught the eye of the Academy over the last year. Some are worthy, some decidedly less so. Only one film can win each category, and the rest will be consigned to the scrapheap of history. Unless you ask Matt Dillon, who insists that no one remembers the winner, only the nominees (he lost that year to George Clooney).
If anyone can remember anything positive about Crash, I don’t want to know them.
Let the games begin, and may fortune be ever in your favour!
Still the only field with ten nominees, Best Picture is probably going to go to The Artist this year. While I don’t agree, that’s certainly a better choice than some of these odd ducks (and horses). The widening of the field means that the Academy has to draw a longer bow to fill the slots – although I can guarantee that I saw quite a few films last year that were better than several of these selections.
Michel Hazanavicius’ tribute to nothing, the Seinfeld of motion pictures, is the firm favourite for the main gong. It’s not a terrible choice, or a terrible film, but it ultimately rings hollow. It makes some audience members feel intensely good about themselves, that they’ve chosen to take a place in this brotherhood of celluloid, but it’s not the choice for me. It would be nice for it to win simply because it would be the first foreign film to win the award in years – although because of its depiction of a fantastical 1920s Hollywood, it’s kind of cheating.
Alexander Payne is back in the game with his first Best Picture nomination, and it’s for a fairly good film – and one that shows George Clooney as a much better slightly disoriented, dissatisfied man than Up In The Air (and Ivan Reitman) could ever have hoped. This is the story of a man who has had to face up to the emptiness of his life and to reconnect with his daughters because he’s the only thing that they’ve got left. Beautifully shot and tenderly acted, The Descendants is a genuinely felt winner of a film, and one that deserves its place on this list. But it’s probably not going to take anything away.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
This is the most obnoxious nominee for Best Picture, not least because next to no one in the entire universe liked it. Stephen Daldry’s tawdry adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s slightly precious but ultimately affecting novel is a nightmare. This is an assault and battery on the senses, and no one is safe from its onslaught. The September 11 novel has found its niche in the intervening ten years but, just as Gulf War II films struggle to find purchase, there is as yet not really a place for September 11 films. If they’re all going to be like this, it’s easy to understand why there haven’t been more of them. The truly painful story of a flagrantly (albeit undiagnosed) autistic kid searching for meaning in his father’s death and failing to learn any empathy from it has nothing to recommend it except possibly Max von Sydow – and even that’s a struggle.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a difficult beast, and one that renders its audience autistic: I found it increasingly difficult to make eye contact with the screen or anyone on it as the film progressed. Thomas Horn is relentless and obnoxious in his portrayal of the grieving Oskar Schell and I think that a better film could have been made of Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks lamenting the premature death of their precocious and much hated son. This is the worst Best Picture nominee since The Blind Side, which was itself the worst Best Picture nominee since Crash. The common thread: Sandra Bullock.
I’m calling for an immediate moratorium on Bullock and all Bullock related products.
It’s hard not to laugh at the idea of The Help as a nominee, given that it’s realistically the feel good Best Picture of the year designed to show, once again, how white people with bad hair gave black people the power to make a stand for themselves. Well meaning but bland, The Help is another exercise in giving the people what they think they want without quite ever managing to be offensive. Competent at best, The Help doesn’t really deserve the accolades that it’s being offered. It probably won’t get Best Picture, but there’s a very real danger of it pulling in some acting awards; fortunately, the three nominated actresses did very good work on this picture, but of course their talent would have been better employed elsewhere.
Now this is a contender. Martin Scorsese has presented a legitimate love letter to cinema: not just the silent variety, but also to 3D, to fictional train stations, to the Moon getting hit in the eye. Expertly acted by a cast both young and old, Hugo comes alive in a way that most 3D films don’t bother with, and there’s a legitimate air of the magical about it. Certainly it drags in places, and certainly Sacha Baron Cohen is not entirely confident of what tone his character is supposed to strike – literally lurching from one character note to another – but this is a machine made of parts powered by a heart shaped key. It works, and it’s one of those films that gives audiences reason to love film. It’s the more sincere version of The Artist, and infinitely more satisfactory as a result. Hugo is one of the films that has received my whole-hearted endorsement for Best Picture.
Midnight in Paris
Another cinematic beauty, set in France – the third French connection for the year – Midnight in Paris is a marvellous movie, a gift from Woody Allen to the world. A lot of people forget that Woody Allen exists, that he is still a contender, but Midnight in Paris is easily one of my favourite films of 2011. Like any gift, you have to unwrap it for yourself to receive the intended effect, and I believe that knowing as little about it as possible is the key to enjoying Owen Wilson’s late night adventures, prodding the dangers of nostalgia. While there’s no chance this will win, it’s great that it has been nominated because it is truly special and I can’t recommend it highly enough – even if you hate Owen Wilson, this is a wonder.
Remember Moneyball? Of course you don’t. But still, it made six nominations this year, so it clearly stuck out in someone’s mind. This is another fairly good movie that doesn’t try too hard or say too much − and, though it’s sourced from the author of The Blind Side, it’s a completely different film. There’s not a lot of texture to this but Americans have a thing about their love of the game and Brad Pitt does manage to embody that love of the game. To what end, it’s hard to say, but in the cinema we learned that it’s better to have passion for something than it is to win it. Still, a strange choice for Best Picture.
The Tree of Life
Oh God, what am I supposed to say? What am I supposed to say? The Tree of Life is an exquisitely made, semi-coherent movie designed explicitly to confuse the Average Joe. What could have been a relatively straightforward film about an overbearing 1960s father (played by Brad Pitt, who had a good year) is interrupted by the creation of the universe, shots of an axolotl swimming in the wild, and dinosaurs for some reason. While there is a fair amount to recommend about this film, it’s far too unconventional without that unconventionality serving any real purpose. I dread if this film reaches the masses as a result of the awards and we’re greeted by generations of people scratching their heads and asking why. This is not strictly elitism, because The Tree of Life really is a head-scratcher of a film. Beautiful but weird, an unsurprising choice for Best Picture, but ultimately something that deserves to go down in the annals of film history rather than strictly winning anything. That said, the Palme d’Or is nothing to be ashamed of.
Let’s leave aside the fact that Tintin was an infinitely better movie, and focus on the fact that Tintin was an infinitely better movie. Wait. Damnit. War Horse was a brilliant play, a stage spectacle that just about anyone should see. As a film, it’s an over-egged pudding, forgetting that it’s supposed to be a love story between a boy and his horse. We’re presented with a series of episodes about a magic horse and how he touches the lives of English, French and German alike, including the villain of Un Prophete. For a film from a master film maker, War Horse is not particularly masterful. It’s mystifying how this made it onto the list because, while it’s not a terrible movie, it’s much messier than it should have been – and this could have been a legitimate contender. Such a pity.
- Demián Bechir in A Better Life
- George Clooney in The Descendants
- Jean Dujardin in The Artist
- Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
- Brad Pitt in Moneyball
Jean Dujardin is likely to take this, and I wouldn’t complain because he did a good job, but this is a strong field this year. The only one of these films no one had heard of was A Better Life, which is not a film I’m overly fond of, but one anchored by strong performances (engineered by Chris Weitz, no less). The rapport that Bechir has with José Julián in that film justifies the nomination and one hopes that he’ll get further recognition as a result. Clooney and Pitt have more than enough to recommend them, and Oldman packs a lot into a relatively quiet character. I’d be fairly happy with a win in almost any of these, although honestly it’s not really going to be a tight race. Unless it’s an upset and Clooney pulls ahead. I’ll never forgive you robbing Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn.
Best Supporting Actor
- Kenneth Brannagh in My Week With Marilyn
- Jonah Hill in Moneyball
- Nick Nolte in Warrior
- Christopher Plummer in Beginners
- Max Von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Battle of the old men! Okay, I honestly forgot to study the field so I don’t know who’s tipped to win. This is a pond of odd ducks, and I would personally like to give it to Kenneth Brannagh for his faintly ridiculous (“mosion picshua”) yet always magnetic Laurence Olivier, but it’s possible that Plummer or Von Sydow will take it as a semi-life achievement award. If Von Sydow was nominated for his work on Flash Gordon, I’d say give it to him. But alas! If Plummer had been given anything to do in Beginners apart from enable endless navel gazing, his nomination would sit more easily with me. Jonah Hill was good in Moneyball but he didn’t make that much of an impression (nor did the film as a whole, as I’ve already suggested). Nick Nolte’s presence similarly baffles me, because he didn’t particularly excel himself in Warrior, a film which is really only notable for Joel Edgerton’s heart and little else.
- Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs
- Viola Davis in The Help
- Rooney Mara in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
- Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady
- Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn
This year’s Best Actress pool runs the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. Meryl Streep is going to win this despite having done nothing to deserve it; this award rightfully belongs to Michelle Williams, who managed to play an historical figure without reducing her to impersonation or caricature. While Streep did a fine job of Thatcher, the film itself was a crime. It’s not unusual for an actor or actress to rise above dire material (a girl I know through work told me that The Iron Lady made her “feel smart” and that she “sympathised with [Thatcher]” and that she wasn’t “convinced that she’s evil”), but there’s nothing revelatory about a performance that can’t save a lost cause. Mara’s recognition for her sarcastic hacker girl is nice to see, and Viola Davis did lend gravitas to The Help, and I believe SAG came out in her favour, but I want this to be Williams’. This is her third nomination, and I hope it’s her first win.
Oh, there’s another actress on this list? Glenn Close for Albert Nobbs, the ultimate vanity project, more accurately titled Extremely Glenn and Incredibly Close. It was an illogical, sad movie delivered by an unsympathetic pancake of prostheses with no real understanding of the world around her. Close gets the “physical transformation” vote (aka the cynical “The Emperor Has No Nose” Nicole Kidman award), but that is ultimately more distracting than anything else.
Best Supporting Actress
- Bérénice Bejo in The Artist
- Jessica Chastain in The Help
- Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids
- Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs
- Octavia Spencer in The Help
Octavia Spencer’s turn in The Help downplayed her mammy potential, but I don’t want her to take it. Jessica Chastain’s nomination is not a surprise, but it is a surprise that it’s specifically for The Help and not one of her thousand other films from 2011, like The Tree of Life or her truly superlative contribution to Take Shelter (for which Michael Shannon was overlooked entirely, but that’s another story). Melissa McCarthy of course has ascended to legendary status for Bridesmaids, and the nomination is more about recognition of that more than anything else. Come the following morning, McCarthy will be back at Mike & Molly, reminiscing about better times with Lauren Graham on the set of Gilmore Girls. Bérénice Bejo, despite being a lead actress rather than support, could happily take it away for The Artist and I wouldn’t complain.
Yet, completely counter to my diatribe against Glenn Close, I think that Janet McTeer deserves recognition for Albert Nobbs. Had the movie been about her, I would have been much happier with it. She was the beating heart of that film, the only person who truly knew who she was and understood what she was doing. In every way that counts, Albert Nobbs was a pale imitation of Hubert Page – and Janet McTeer was the only legitimately triumphant aspect of that woeful film.
- Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
- Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist
- Terrence Mallick for The Tree of Life
- Alexander Payne for The Descendants
- Martin Scorsese for Hugo
So Hazanavicius is going to win this, but why should he? Allen and Scorsese have both made more loving films, and no less intricate than Hazanavicius not entirely convincing fraud. Mallick has made something ballsy and near infuriating. Payne has felt something, and infused his film with a hopeful sorrow. The black and white man with the dog is going to take it, and it’s definitely not the best made film of this bunch.
Best Original Screenplay
Midnight in Paris
I haven’t seen Margin Call, so can’t comment on its quality. I think it’s cool that Kristen Wiig got a nomination, but I equally think that nothing will come of it. Everyone in the universe but me loved A Separation, but I believe that it exposed the inherent injustices of Iran’s legal system and consequently frustrated the hell out of me. The script that I easily liked most here was Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and it would be nice if he could at least take that away, but it’s most likely that this one is going to be part of The Artist’s clean up.
Best Adapted Screenplay
- The Descendants
- The Ides of March
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Descendants probably deserves this, just so I can say that Dean Pelton of Community is an Academy Award winner. If The Descendants doesn’t take it, then maybe Hugo can take this because it’s not competing with The Artist (well, one of them has to sweep the awards). The Ides of March was missing something in its script, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the very definition of an adaptation – a tricky job, but with a rewarding outcome.
As for the rest: it’s probably going to be a clean sweep for either The Artist or Hugo because the Academy tends to lack imagination. A Separation is likely going to take Best Foreign Film because of its universal critical acclaim and because it’s the only movie on the list that film people can be reliably expected to have heard of. This year we definitely have an interesting field of nominees, but the narrative has already been written, and I expect no real upsets. I’m looking forward to starting up the ceremony with my traditional starry eyed optimism and being gradually beaten down into boredom as the hours progress. It’s the only way to fly!
Good luck everybody!