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Artist, Servant, Fighter, Spy . . .

The annual Acadamy Award round-up by John Brodeur, Laura Leon, Ann Morrow and Shawn Stone

by The Staff on February 23, 2012

Once again we present you with short essays about Oscar nominees we love (and, at the end, a few we don’t agree with.) While we may disagree about various nominated films and performances—check out our Oscar chart—there is rare unanimity among Metroland’s critics this year: We’re all going to be pissed if The Descendants takes home a lot of Oscars.

The 84th Academy Awards will be telecast Sunday, Feb. 26, at 8 PM on WTEN-TV, News 10 ABC.


Best Picture: The Artist

Seems like every year, around this time, there’s one motion picture that gets designated the “little film that could.” One that comes from seemingly out of nowhere to conjure massive critical acclaim—and a slew of industry awards—despite a small budget or lack of star power. Usually these films bear the mark of the Weinsteins. Fitting the bill for the current awards season is The Artist, a picture that seems tailor-made for awards season: It’s French-made, it’s romantic, it’s shot in black-and-white, it’s almost entirely silent. Naturally it’s already won a truckload of trophies, including four Critics’ Choice Awards and three Golden Globes, and it’s a favorite to enjoy the same reception at the Academy Awards this week. But really, though—is it that good?

In a word, yes. The Artist is a rarity in modern film, and not just due to the novelty of its construction. It pays tribute to and (mostly) faithfully re-creates the allure of 1920s Hollywood, when the theater was the centerpiece of the town square and a means for unbridled escapism, a visceral experience as captured in the wide pans and audience-reaction shots of the opening sequence. Director-screenwriter Michel Hazavanicius and his team have made a perfect practice in style, from Guillaume Schiffman’s era-specific cinematography to Ludovic Bource’s magnificent score (with a portion borrowed from Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo love theme).

Jean Dujardin, as George Valentin, the silent-age star whose livelihood is threatened by the introduction of “talkies,” and Bérénice Bejo, as Peppy Miller, the aspiring actress whose ascent to fame mirrors Valentin’s descent into obscurity, are both terrific. Dujardin’s outsize “mugging” is period-perfect, and should net him a Best Actor prize to match the film’s Best Picture win. If only there were a way to nominate Uggie the dog . . .

The Artist is classic melodrama, an unrepentant crowd-pleaser, and at times it’s downright clever (particularly the “nightmare” scene in which Valentin’s silent world suddenly becomes audible). It’s about forgetting time and place and simply letting yourself float away into the world of Hollywoodland. And it’s a mortal—and deserving—lock to win Best Picture.

The other nominees: War Horse, Moneyball, The Descendants, The Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris, The Help, Hugo, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.


Best Director: Martin Scorsese, Hugo

All the hallmarks of a great Martin Scorsese picture are there in Hugo. There’s a wounded, obsessed protagonist on a painful quest for redemption, and a rich, complex, essentially unfriendly world the hero must navigate. The story is told with visual immediacy and precision, accented by dazzling camera movements. The difference this time is that the hero is a kid; the milieu isParis in the 1930s; and the quest doesn’t lead to a violent apocalypse, but a movie screen. And the romance is provided by Scorsese himself: It’s the filmmaker’s love of cinema.

It’s also germane that Scorsese has made the best 3D movie since Avatar. From the dazzling opening shot that takes the audience into the train station, through the hilarious sight of Sacha Baron Cohen’s face protruding from the screen, to the magical re-creation of the cinema of Georges Melees, it’s a virtuoso directorial achievement. (And he did it without gangsters, Robert DeNiro or Leonardo DiCaprio.)

The other nominees: Michel Hazavanicius, The Artist, Alexander Payne, The Descendants, Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris, Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life.


Best Actor: Brad Pitt, Moneyball

It couldn’t have been easy to play a guy who is not only still alive, but still working at the same job that the movie is based on. Yet Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s in Moneyball, fully inhabits the character, both his past and his present, as well as how he balances the challenges of fatherhood and being professional risk-taker. One of the few roles where Pitt’s natural athleticism and charisma are actually crucial to the character’s authenticity—especially considering how the former high-school baseball star’s major-league failure formed the character—Pitt effectively lowballs the portrait, letting Beane’s interactions, with his opposites-attract, fatherly friendship with a nebbishy, Yale-grad numbers-cruncher (Jonah Hill, whose Best Supporting Actor nom owes a lot to Pitt’s coattails), and his simmering brinksmanship with a traditionalist coach (a pitch-perfect Philip Seymour Hoffman) reveal the measure of the man. Beane’s personality fuels, but doesn’t dominate the plot: He hides his self-doubt behind a bare-knuckles bluster that’s a joy to watch, as is his tenderness while trying to be a part-time parent to his savvy teenage daughter. This isn’t the stuff of legend (and Pitt was more original in his more difficult role as a hot-tempered breadwinner in The Tree of Life), but in a year where mediocrity rules the red carpet, it’s a performance to treasure (especially in comparison to that other high-achiever father played by George Clooney).


Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Despite a string of pre-Oscar wins, Jean Dujardin stands a good chance of losing to perennial Hollywoodfave George Clooney this year. And that’s a shame. I’ll admit that Clooney gave a solid performance in an otherwise forgettable movie, but Dujardin embodied the essence of leading-man personae with his depiction of a beloved matinee idol whose star, with the advent of talkies, descends into irrelevance, then oblivion. To be able to evoke the bonhomie, grace and, yes, humanity of his character sans dialogue (in case you have been living under a rock or in an Occupy tent, The Artist is 99-percent silent) speaks volumes of his ability as an actor. The character’s attempts to maintain a minimal level of self respect and decency give a respectful nod to Chaplin’s Little Tramp depictions, but the portrayal is by no means a Photostat of that which came before it. Dujardin is the heart and soul—indeed, he is the artist—of The Artist.

The other nominees: Demian Bechir, A Better Life, George Clooney, The Descendants, Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.


Best Actress: Viola Davis, The Help

This category is often won by someone giving a showy performance or piling on a lot of makeup or gluing on the latex prosthetics. That’s considered difficult, the ultimate evidence of actorly commitment. But one of the genuinely hardest things an actor can do is take on a character that’s hard for the audience to understand. In The Help, Viola Davis has to play an uneducated (but, crucially, not unintelligent) housemaid in the Jim Crow South, a woman who has to navigate the demands of community, job and family—and the cruel codes of the dominant white society. In other words, a character that’s essentially inexplicable to contemporary audiences. And Davis pulls it off with her usual authority and intense focus. The Help is an impossible movie, a feel-good failure undermined by the filmmakers’ attempts to make the blunt facts of history “relatable” to today’s moviegoers. And it is weighed down by some genuinely terrible performances. But when it works—and The Help does have moments of great power—it’s usually because Viola Davis is on screen.

The other nominees: Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs, Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady, Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn.


Best Supporting Actor: Nick Nolte, Warrior

I know it’s Christopher Plummer’s year, and I wouldn’t deny the octogenarian’s right to a well-deserved, and long overdue, Oscar. And I admit, I have had a thing for Nick Nolte since he played Tom Jordache on Rich Man, Poor Man. By now we’re used to seeing Nolte play a version of his latter-day self, blowsy and rough around the edges, his former golden-boy good looks ravaged by age and alcohol. And so the idea of playing a father ravaged by, well, age and alcohol, in Warrior, might not seem such a stretch. But Nolte delivers a haunting performance beyond any expectations or previous renditions. His attempts to bridge the vast chasms existing between himself and both sons—who hate each other in large part because of their father—are heartbreaking, reminding us of our own frailty. We see Paddy in the twilight of his life, but in Nolte’s performance (not to mention the reactions of his sons), we catch glimpses of what bravura and hellfire he once was, and how that persona played on the lives and souls of his loved ones.

The other nominees: Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn, Jonah Hill, Moneyball, Christopher Plummer, Beginners, Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.


Best Supporting Actress: Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids

There will be some who say that a Melissa McCarthy win for Bridesmaids is a “sorry we didn’t nominate the movie” consolation prize by the Academy. That may be the thinking behind some voters’ actions, but with all due respect, McCarthy deserves this award. As Megan, the future sister-in-law of Maya Rudolph’s Lillian, McCarthy is all hands on deck as the randy, raunchy Midwestern type not usually seen in movies like, say, Fargo. Her meeting with Annie at the country club, and her scenes with the air marshal on the plane, alone are noteworthy in that they elevate the movie, are memorable, and yet support the main story, as is the role of a supporting performer. No other nominee can claim to have done as much to their respective films (although Bérénice Bejo’s tuxedo scene in The Artist came close).

The other nominees: Bérénice Bejo, The Artist, Jessica Chastain, The Help, Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs, Octavia Spencer, The Help.


Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life

In The Tree of Life, the mother is often seen outdoors—hanging laundry, rinsing her feet with a garden hose—where she is less somebody’s mother than a gentle force of nature, nurturing and ineffable, as evocative as a memory. That Jessica Chastain as the mother appears to have crossed from the temporal to the purely sensory is due to the power of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. The Mexican-born director of photography, who won this year’s Outstanding Achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers (not a good indicator of a future Oscar win, however), created images of great lyricism, capturing natural light in varying moods, the elemental essence of fire and water, and the harmony of unfettered beings in a natural setting with superlative beauty. As with The New World, his previous collaboration (and that is not too strong a description) with filmmaker Terrence Malick, it’s the photography more than any other element that realizes the filmmaker’s visionary narratives. Lubezki’s technical skill and compositional artistry are of a quality that is not yet possible with digital, and unequaled by any other cinematographer (with the possible exception of Roger Deakins). Though a significant (and to some, distracting) portion of the film—the cosmos footage, which was courtesy of NASA—interrupted the film’s visual flow, Lubezki managed to make such ordinary scenes as a husband and wife arguing, or a boy running wild in the neighborhood, as indelible as all the climactic action scenes of the other nominees, even while dissolving the boundaries between reality and memory.

The other nominees: The Artist, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, War Horse.


Best Original Screenplay: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen didn’t break any new ground with Midnight in Paris. The film’s straightforward message could be summed up in the title of a familiar show tune: “The Best of Times Is Now.” But the way he goes about making this point, that’s what makes Midnight in Paris so delightful. The time-travel conceit—unhappy American writer is transported back to his ideal era, the 1920s, in his ideal city, Paris—is presented simply. The literary lions and sundry celebrities who parade through the story—Stein, Hemingway, Dali—are drawn sharply enough to be recognizable, and be recognizably Stein-, Hemingway-, and Dali-esque without tipping over into parody. But most importantly, Midnight in Paris is funny. Very funny. The Academy Awards have traditionally, criminally undervalued comedy; this would be a fine choice to counterbalance this fact.

The other nominees: The Artist, Bridesmaids, Margin Call, A Separation.


Best Adapted Screenplay: Bridget O’Connor andPeter Straughan, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Speaking of literary lions, with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the screenwriters had the unenviable task of adapting the most influential work by John LeCarre, the master of the contemporary spy novel. If that wasn’t sufficiently daunting, their script was also going to be measured against the first filmed version of Tinker Tailor, a celebrated seven-part TV production. Yet Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan skillfully pared down a wealth of plot and character into a dense but lucid screenplay suitable for the tense, enthralling two-hour movie made by director Tomas Alfredson. And they did it without sacrificing crucial information—or excitement. Sadly, Bridget O’Connor died in 2010. The film is dedicated to her; she and her husband ought to receive Oscars for their work, as well.

The other nominees: The Descendants, Hugo, The Ides of March, Moneyball.


Complaint No. 1,  Best Picture: The Descendants

I went to this movie with great expectations, having read so many glowing reviews and heard so many relatives and friends pronouncing its excellence. Maybe I’m a natural malcontent, but having seen it . . . really? Or, in the words of the great Peggy Lee, is that all there is? I get that a spouse might have anger issues over finding out that his comatose wife had been cuckolding him, and everybody but him knew it, but the main character’s quest for knowledge/vengeance, which is played off simultaneously in terms of grief and comic relief, comes across as decidedly self-centered. Why are we supposed to care about this guy, who admits he hasn’t been there much as a husband and father? Why are we supposed to feel negatively toward the rotting, bedridden patient who saw fit to find her own pleasures in an otherwise unfulfilling life? And why in the world should we root for a parent who recruits his teenage daughter, who apparently has had her own issues, to help in his pursuit of self-interested closure? Not to mention that the whole backstory of relatives needing to sell off a parcel of land is so tangential to the story, seemingly inserted so as to remind us that since said relatives have a smidgeon of Hawaiian blood, their suffering and selfishness is truly noble.


Complaint No. 2,  Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter

Don’t bother to look back at the list, thinking you’ve missed something. Chastain, who was in pretty much every movie this year, was actually nominated for The Help, a 21st-century liberal’s wet dream of a movie in which she was pretty much the only great thing going. She was also the wife-mother in The Tree of Life, and then some. But she really made her mark in Take Shelter, in which she played a Midwestern wife (and mother to a handicapped daughter) who has to deal with the fact that her husband might be batshit crazy, or else weirdly prescient of apocalyptic doom—and either scenario leaves her having to face devastating consequences. It’s the role that solidified her as somebody to be reckoned with, somebody whom we no doubt will be seeing a lot of on awards stages in years to come. It’s the role she should have been nominated for, this year.


Complaint No. 3, Best Original Screenplay: Diablo Cody, Young Adult

This is one of the most dismal Oscar years in recent memory. Pictures that nobody much liked—audiences or critics—are laden with nominations. The insufferable Weinsteins are back in full force, hyping pictures that aren’t very good into prominence again. And, in a year when the Muppets triumphantly returned to the big screen, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences inexplicably cut the Best Song nominee performances from the telecast. Even worse, they’re bringing back wheezy old Billy Crystal to host.

Worst of all, Diablo Cody finally wrote a great screenplay and her fellow writers didn’t care. Young Adult was mean, insightful and hysterically, painfully funny. It deserved to win the Academy Award, not just a nomination.