It's a retro night at the Oscars, with two films that hearken back to the early days of cinema up for top honors, and a host who is a blast from the past.
For the first time , I’ve managed to see every one of the nominees for Best Picture. (Hey, the kids are grown up, and no reason to limit my nights at the theater to Pixar offerings).
It’s a safe bet that the real competition is between:
- “The Help,” because the Academy generally favors movies with a social conscience (“Crash,” “Schindler’s List,” “Slumdog Milliionaire”);
- “The Descendants,” because George Clooney is at the top of the A-List, and the whole point of the Oscars, after all, is to pump more money into the industry with hype.
- “The Artist,” because it’s so retro, and the Academy likes to reward going outside the box.
- And “Hugo” because it’s an unbelievably well-made movie made by Martin Scorcese and, like “The Artist,” celebrates the early days of the film industry.
All those films are worthy, in my opinion, but in this first-ever nine-way crowded race, two other films just as worthy but unlikely to win are “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Tree of Life.”
I was surprised how much I liked “Extremely,” especially after all the negative reviews from critics and friends who read the book. It contains the worst performances I've ever seen by Oscar-winners Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock (Hanks almost literally phones it in, as a voice-mail message from him is essential to the plot). But despite their top-billing, they are supporting actors. The real stars are Thomas Horn as the child protagonist and Max Von Sydow as his grandfather. The scenes of their budding relationship during a quest through New York are gripping and charming, all the more because Von Sydow never says a word aloud.
“Tree of Life” is also compelling for being outside the box, juxtaposing the creation of the universe with the travails of a 1950s family with a struggling, frustrated father. Some said the frequent space and nature scenes interspersed in the movie made it like watching a screen-saver, but what I liked best is the very spare use of dialogue, with questions from the characters posed to God in the narrative revealing far more of the plot.
I found mediocrity in the remaining nominees. Spielberg’s “Warhorse” is essentially “Saving Private Ryan” meets “The Black Stallion.” It tries to cover too many bases by being a kids’ movie about a boy and his horse (a teen who seriously needs a better social life) and at the same time showing the ugliness and futility of war. ("The Descendants" is a similar hybrid, trying to be a comedy and drama at the same time, though I thought the two elements often canceled each other out.)
“Midnight in Paris” is typical Woody Allen fare, with Owen Wilson nailing it as a stand-in for the neurotic writer-actor-director who may be getting too old to star. A good film, but a long shot against this competition.
The worst of the bunch, to me, is “Moneyball,” which builds up to a climax that, as a fact-based story, it can’t deliver. Winning 20 games in a row was an accomplishment for the Oakland As, but they remain a second-rate team, making this something less than a Rocky-like tale of sports triumph.
If I were giving away the gold, I’d pick “Tree of Life,” but I believe the best shot goes to “The Help.”
In any event, it should be a fun night, and it sure will be good to see Billy Crystal working again.
Post Script: If you're reading this after the fact, clearly I was wrong about "The Help," although Octavia Spencer did grab a well-deserved best-supporting actress award.