The Vinyl Recliner ranks the nine Best Picture nominees from 2011, ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast. From Paris to Hawaii, and the 1920s to the Present Day, the Oscar nominees told tales both extremely loud and incredibly silent. The nominees included stirring personal dramas of horse and men (and women), the national pastime, and grand homages to old Hollywood, all painted with strokes of everything from stark realism to hopeful whimsy.
9. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
More like Extremely Depressing and Incredibly Manipulative….Am I right?! The industry was largely surprised by this movie’s nomination (after being seemingly on the outside looking in during the run up to the nomination announcements) and I can see why. From a personal perspective, I’m largely against entertainment derived from the Sept. 11 tragedy as the emotion is still too raw and films work best when they escape this type of tragedy, not embrace it, package it and sell it to consumers wrapped up in a melodramatic bow. It’s a film with a horrifically sad subtext that doesn’t even enable all that interesting of a quest for its protagonist. If you want to see a kid with a mysterious key go on a journey to prolong the memory of a beloved father, watch Hugo instead.
8. The Tree of Life
The type of pretentious drivel that irritates the shit out of the common man (and even moreso when a common man like yours truly watches Hollywood critics fawning all over it). The Tree of Life is the latest from reclusive (and overrated) auteur Terrence Malick. It’s a nice looking film, with some nifty acting performances, but is undone by artful posturing. Whispered narration, biblical references, non-linear plotting, unconventional camera angles, and bizarre sequences of the Big Bang and dinosaurs clouded what actually was a story of some intrigue (and a nice acting departure for Brad Pitt). Also, it really felt like footage of Sean Penn was accidentally spliced into this movie. (He looked as confused as I was.) I’m all for daring movies with intelligent subtext and original approaches, but this was just overindulgent pap.
7. The Artist
The Artist is a very cool movie and deserving of all of some praise but I’m not sold at all on it being the top movie of the year. It’s a clever and authentic homage to silent movies from the dawn of Hollywood time but once I got past the premise, it started to feel like more of a curiosity than a masterpiece. The direction, editing and scoring are all splendid and the actors do a magnificent job paying homage to a long-dead artform. But it didn’t resonate with me emotionally like the rest of the movies nominated.
6. War Horse
Nothing leading up to the release of War Horse intrigued me remotely. Having no connection to the source material, it just seemed like a movie designed as Oscar bait. Early on in the movie, I started feeling like my fears were being vindicated. However War Horse starts to hit its stride about half an hour in, with the horse become something of a World War I travelogue. By the time he meets back up with his original owner and the two return home from the war to reunite with his family, it’s hard not to get choked about at the impact of their harrowing journey. Steven Spielberg seamlessly alternates between tight dramatic dialogue, epic vista shots and gritty war sequences.
Baseball is the sport best represented in Hollywood, with legendary films like The Natural and Field of Dreams representing the poetry of the sport and popular movies like Bull Durham and Major League focusing on the comedic possibilities of the national pastime. Moneyball aspires to be neither poetry nor comedy as it focuses on the statistical analysis and economics of the sport in the modern day. Amazingly they’re able to do this in a way that’s accessible to the mainstream. As a longtime baseball fan, I respected the accuracy in the movie’s account of the Oakland A’s and GM Billy Beane’s attempts to revitalize a small market team in the shadow of big money success. More importantly, they didn’t try to engineer a happy ending as the Oakland A’s have not found any enduring success with the “moneyball” way. The movie very much follows the style of The Social Network taking a seemingly tedious topic and turning it into a fascinating drama and ultimately ending with the good guys losing.
4. The Help
The often-controversial movie about black maids working in 1960s Mississippi was less syrupy than I expected it to be, and that is almost entirely because of the acting in the film. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are rightfully expected to win Oscars for their portrayals of two of the maids. They brought not only gravitas to the parts, but also warm humor and an emotional depth that other movies might’ve neglected for a harsher, more desperate portrayal.
3. Midnight in Paris
To say I’m not a fan of Woody Allen movies would be an understatement. I’ve never quite understood the fascination with his films. Perhaps it’s a generational thing or that his style of humor has never clicked with me. Add in Owen Wilson, an actor who irritates me more than he entertains, and you have a recipe for disaster. So I was amazed at how much I enjoyed Midnight in Paris. Allen’s loving portrayal of the historic city was genuine and never felt overwrought. Everybody can relate to the sense of nostalgia at the heart of the movie, whether or not you feel it for 1920’s Paris.
Martin Scorcese doesn’t do much wrong, but what he’s typically done right is quite far away from the concept of a family movie. With Hugo, he took one shot at that genre and aced it. But Scorcese also defied expectations by creating one of the best movies to utilize 3D technology, yet largely uses it to represent early 20th century silent cinema. It’s a charming movie (also set in Paris) with a menagerie of compelling characters (all expertly portrayed), breathtaking cinematography and a wonderfully elaborate plot. It was the hardest movie for me to describe in 2011 and that to me is the best representation of cinema. Scorcese had characters under the spell of the magic and wonderment of those early films…and had an audience sitting in theaters feeling very much the same thing today.
1. The Descendants
I’d easily interchange any of the top three films, depending on the time of day or how light or heavy my heart is at that time. After a year of being reminded more often than not of mortality’s limitless grasp, The Descendants represented the most realistic, visceral narrative of the nominated films, and certainly the best acting performance of all of the movies with George Clooney hitting another one out of the park. But credit goes to Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, the daughters to Clooney’s Matt King character, and the foundation of the family he’s trying to keep together in the wake of his wife’s accident (and the revelations of her indiscretions prior). The film is also a loving portrayal of Hawaii, and feels very much like a movie by people who live it and not just those who want to. In my opinion, it’s a more beautifully-crafted, emotionally-resonant, and better acted film than the current frontrunner, The Artist.