26 February 2012

The Rest Is Noise

Silence is golden. Or at least it will be tonight at the 84th Academy Awards where, barring a colossal upset, Michel Hanazavicius’s The Artist will take home the gold statues for Best Picture and Best Director. Yes, a French silent movie is the prohibitive favorite for Best Picture. It doesn’t make any more sense to me than it does to you, dear reader. I didn’t catch up with The Artist until after the nominations were announced and was surprised by what a non-entity it actually is. For those of you who haven’t seen it (and I suspect that’s most of you), the undercooked story centers on a silent film star (Best Actor favorite Jean Dujardin) who’s unable to make the transition to talkies, even as a young actress whom he helped introduce to the silver screen becomes a major star. It’s sort of like Singin’ in the Rain meets A Star Is Born, except there aren’t any songs, it’s not funny, and there’s very little drama. Aside from the conceptual gimmick of making a black-and-white silent film in the year 2011, there isn’t much to talk about at all. Now don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing particularly offensive about The Artist, although the appropriation of Bernard Hermann’s classic Vertigo score for the climactic sequence, properly decried by Kim Novak herself, comes close. (That The Artist is the favorite to win Best Score tonight is yet another head-scratcher.)

While I was disappointed that The King’s Speech beat The Social Network last year, I could at least understand why Tom Hooper’s film might have appealed to a sizable number of Academy voters, particularly those put off by the chilly tone and young characters of The Social Network. The appeal of The Artist is harder to understand. What in the name of Georges Méliès is going on here? It seems the conceptual gimmick is the whole hook. Many would also point fingers at the dastardly Harvey Weinstein, but I can’t blame him for taking advantage of a flawed system. Whatever its appeal to the Academy’s membership, The Artist seems destined to go down as the least viewed Best Picture winner of the modern era.

The whole slate of nominations is tough to decipher this year. For one thing, after two years of 10 Best Picture nominees, we have nine this year for the first time ever, the result of a tweak in Academy rules. It’s a strange group. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close got in with only one other nomination, while The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo got shut out despite landing five, including Best Actress and Best Editing. My favorite film of the year, Terrence Malick’s decidedly non-mainstream The Tree of Life somehow made the list, even landing a Best Director nomination for Malick. Joining The Artist and The Tree of Life among the films with both Best Picture and Best Director nominations are The Descendants, a bittersweet comedy from Alexander Payne starring Geroge Clooney as a man struggling to raise his two daughters after his wife goes into a coma that makes excellent use of its Hawaii setting; Midnight in Paris, a third-rate Woody Allen movie starring Owen Wilson as an American writer in Paris who travels back in time to rub shoulders with the likes of Hemingway and Picasso, which beats its one idea mercilessly into the ground; and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (more on that one in a bit).

Of the other four presumed also-rans, I’ve seen only Bennett Miller’s highly enjoyable baseball drama Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. I can imagine catching up with Steven Spielberg’s War Horse at some point in the (distant) future, but The Help looks suspiciously like one of those nostalgia movies about the good old days when black people were household servants. No thanks. And then there’s the Hanks-Bullock-Daldry-Safran Foer extravaganza.

But nothing will stand in the way of The Artist, or so everyone says. That’s bad enough, but what makes the victory of an ersatz silent movie all the more galling this year is the presence in the field of a far more moving and imaginative film about the silent era. One of the key characters in Hugo is none other than Méliès, the legendary French director who made some 500 films between 1896 and 1913. His most famous work, A Trip to the Moon (1903), suggests the nature of his contributions to early cinema history, its fantastical narrative and innovative trick photography expanding the possibilities of what movies could be. The latter portion of Martin Scorsese’s career has seen him focused on film history and preservation as much as filmmaking itself, but Hugo brings it all back home, channeling these concerns into the story of 12-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret, struggling to eke out an existence living on his own in a Paris train station in 1931. Earning high marks as both drama and history lesson, the result is Scorsese’s best film since The Age of Innocence (1993), maybe even Goodfellas (1990). Hugo is that increasingly rare work of popular art, a masterpiece that could be enjoyed by anyone from eight to 80. It’s thoughtful, emotional, well-crafted, involving, suspenseful, and accessible, a movie about fundamental things like work, aging, and family. It is, in short, precisely the type of movie that should win this award. Or they could give it to the cutesy French silent movie instead.

Predictions below along with preferences where applicable. I went with almost all of the favorites, most of whom should win comfortably. One of the few contested categories is cinematography, where The Tree of Life has a chance of scoring a win, although either Hugo or The Artist could take it as well. One or both of the sound categories could go to War Horse, and Hugo has a shot at costumes. Nobody out on the intertubes is predicting much in the way of upsets in the major categories, so the show could be a real snoozefest, although it’s hard to imagine it could be any worse than last year’s. Also, see below for my own long-awaited Top 10 list.

Best Picture

I’d like to pretend The Descendants or especially Hugo has a chance at an upset here, but The Artist has all the markings of an inevitable winner.

Will win: The Artist
Should win: The Tree of Life

Best Director

Scorsese’s win five years ago for The Departed felt like it was decades overdue, but had he not finally broken through then he’d be a mortal lock tonight.

W: Michel Hanazavicius, The Artist
S: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Best Actor

This category was wrecked by the unjust omission of Michael Fassbender’s powerfully implosive turn in Shame. I haven’t seen A Better Life or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so we’re left with a clash of two Hollywood titans, Clooney and Pitt. Clooney does fine work in The Descendants, but Pitt has never looked more comfortable in his own skin than he does in Moneyball. His performance is an old-fashioned star turn in an old-fashioned movie, the sort of thing that’s all too rare these days. Sorry, the overwhelming fumes of nostalgia radiating from this year's awards are starting to go to my head.

W: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
S: Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Best Actress

I’ve only seen one of the nominees, Rooney Mara in David Fincher’s risible The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I’d be interested in seeing Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, but you couldn’t pay me enough to sit through a movie about Margaret Thatcher. If there’s going to be an upset in any of the headline categories, it will probably be here with Streep finally winning her third Oscar. But I’ll stick with the consensus.

W: Viola Davis, The Help
S: [no pick]

Best Supporting Actress
W: Octavia Spencer, The Help
S: Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids

Best Supporting Actor
W: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
S: [no pick]

Screenplay, Original
W: Midnight in Paris
S: Margin Call

Screenplay, Adapted
W: The Descendants
S: Hugo

Animated Feature
W: Rango

Documentary Feature
W: Paradise Lost 3

Foreign Language Film
W: A Separation

W: The Tree of Life
S: The Tree of Life

Art Direction
W: Hugo
S: Hugo

W: The Artist
S: Hugo

Visual Effects
W: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
S: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Costume Design
W: The Artist
S: Hugo

W: The Iron Lady

Sound Mixing
W: Hugo
S: Hugo

Sound Editing
W: Hugo
S: Drive

Original Score
W: The Artist
S: Hugo

Original Song
W: "Man or Muppet," The Muppets

Animated Short
W: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Live Action Short
W: The Shore

Documentary Short
W: The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

And finally, my own 10 favorite films of 2011. There are a number of worthy contenders I haven’t seen, including Mysteries of Lisbon, Take Shelter, Poetry, and many others. I also cheated a bit by putting a TV movie on the list, but I don’t vote in any polls anymore, so who’s to stop me?

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, U.S.)

2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)

3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

See “Blissfully Yours,” posted September 25, 2010.

4. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark)

Yet another actress, this time the underachieving Kirsten Dunst, does the best work of her career for Lars von Trier in this bifurcated sci-fi tale involving a planet named Melancholia that may or may not be on a collision course with Earth.

5. Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes, HBO, U.S.)

Todd Haynes’s best film since Safe stars Kate Winslet in Joan Crawford’s most iconic role. She handles the part somewhat differently, if no less brilliantly. Unlike Michael Curtiz’s noirish version of 1945, Haynes’s film is full of California sunshine, holding closely to James M. Cain’s original novel even as Haynes cleverly turns the tables on the gender politics of noir. Also starring Guy Pearce as the manliest femme fatale you’ve ever seen.

6. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran)

This exquisite puzzle film from Iranian master director Abbas Kiarostami is an imitation Euro art movie about the notion of authenticity. Juliette Binoche shows up at a talk by an author (William Shimell) who’s written a book about the artistic value of originals vis-à-vis copies. But have they just met, or did they already know each other?

7. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada)

David Cronenberg makes a movie about Jung and Freud? Perhaps not a shocker. David Cronenberg confronts the Jewish question? Now that’s something else entirely. Michael Fassbender shines as Jung, in one of his three fine performances this year.

8. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)

This is nostalgia too, but for gritty late ’70s/early ’80s genre cinema. Ryan Gosling might be our finest under-40 screen actor right now. Except for Michael Fassbender, of course.

9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, U.S.)

Only James Franco could play a man smart enough to potentially invent a cure for Alzheimer’s, yet still enough of a doofus to raise a hyper-intelligent chimp as his own son and expect no problems to ensue.

10. Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania)

Think of it as a murder mystery. A long, slow, dark, Romanian murder mystery. I meant the dark part literally, by the way.

Honorable mentions (alphabetical): The Descendants (Alexander Payne, U.S.); Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, Mars); House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello, France); Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, Romania); X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, U.S.)