The wonderful ending scene in The Artist.

The wonderful ending scene in The Artist.

The 84th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2011.  The nominations were announced on 24 January 2012 and the awards were held on 26 February 2012.

Best Picture:  The Artist

  • Hugo
  • The Descendants
  • Midnight in Paris
  • The Tree of Life
  • Moneyball
  • War Horse
  • The Help
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Most Surprising Omission:  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Rank (out of 85) among Best Picture Years:  #43

The Race:  By the time Labor Day came around in 2011, there was talk of a few films that were coming in the fall.  There would be Moneyball, written by Aaron Sorkin (coming off his Oscar win for Social Network), with Brad Pitt in the starring role and directed by the Oscar-nominated Bennett Miller (Capote).  There was The Descendants, which Steve Pond was picking as the likely Best Picture winner, from Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney (in an odd year – almost a guaranteed nominee).  And Scorsese had Hugo coming out, which was an unknown quantity.  But there were a few films that actually already had been released and were definite contenders.  The first was The Tree of Life, the Terrence Malick film which had been heavily favored for an Oscar run the year before but had been pushed back and had won the Palme d’Or in Cannes.  There was Midnight in Paris, the newest Woody Allen film, which was on the way to become his highest-grossing film ever and was earning his best reviews in years.  And there was The Help, the big crowd-pleaser adapted from the best-selling novel.

But no one knew what was going to get nominated.  Part of the problem was that no one knew how many nominees there would be.  On 14 June the Academy had thrown a curveball to the entire Oscar pundit industry by changing the Best Picture rules.  Now, there would be between 5 and 10 nominees, with any nominee needing 5% of first place votes to get nominated.  So, on Oscar morning no one would even know how many films were going to get nominated.

As the fall began another film began to emerge from the pack.  It was The Artist, a film that encompassed every longshot imaginable.  It was in black-and-white, it was made by a French director with mostly French cast and crew, but it wasn’t considered a Foreign Film because it wasn’t in French – it was silent.  But it had gotten raves at Cannes and was getting great word of mouth before opening in the States.  So, as the awards season began to arrive it was anybody’s guess.

The New York Film Critics went with the arty fare – they gave Best Picture and Director to The Artist.  And that was followed almost immediately by the National Board of Review giving the same two awards to Hugo.  The Artist already seemed set for the nominations but Hugo had been in a trickier spot – not earning big money to counteract the big budget, some mixed reviews and the onus of being a film from a kids book.  But every NBR winner since 2000 had been nominated for Best Picture and only one winner of Picture and Director since 1949 had failed to earn a BP nomination at the Oscars (Empire of the Sun), so this was good news for Hugo.  But the awards continued to be spread around.  The LA Film Critics went next and they gave Best Picture to The Descendants but Best Director to Terrence Malick.  Then the Chicago Film Critics made it four different films for Best Picture – their award went to Tree of Life.

The Golden Globe nominations didn’t help Tree of Life at all – it was completely blanked.  But The Artist (6 noms), The Descendants (5 noms) and Hugo (3 noms) were all in the Picture and Director races.  Also in the races were Midnight in Paris (4 noms), and The Ides of March, the fourth film from Clooney as a director (4 noms), both of which joined The Artist and The Descendants in the Screenplay category as well.  Finishing up the Best Picture – Drama category were Moneyball and War Horse, the new Spielberg World War I film that hadn’t yet opened.  And with six nominees this year, the Globes also chose The Help (5 noms) to add into the picture mix.

The Broadcast Film Critics were next and they had become, increasingly, the most accurate barometer of the Oscars.  From 1997 to 2008 (the last year of the 5 Best Picture nominee era) only two films earned Oscar nominations without getting nominated by the BFCA.  With the 10 film lineup, 3 more had gotten in (The Blind Side, District 9 and The Kids are All Right).  But with 10 films no longer a guarantee that increased the odds that for a film to make the Oscar list they needed to make the BFCA list first.  That meant the big films were those nominated for Picture, Director and Screenplay: The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants, and in a surprise nomination, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  This film was from director Stephen Daldry.  Daldry’s first three films had all earned him Best Director nominations, with Best Picture coming as well with the second and third.  But Extremely had been polarizing critics and was running on the unfavorable side of the results and it was not expected to do much in the awards season (and hadn’t even opened for the public yet).  Yet, it was there in the major races.  Also getting boosts, with Picture and Director nominations were War Horse and Drive, a film about a getaway car driver who’s also a stunt driver that had been winning major awards for supporting star Albert Brooks.  The remaining Best Picture nominees were Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, Tree of Life and The Help.  All the contenders for the potential 10 spots seemed set.

But then they weren’t.  The guilds decided to unsettle things a bit.  First there was Bridesmaids.  This female starring comedy had been a big hit at the box office and earned a Globe nomination for Best Picture – Comedy.  But, when the Producers Guild announced their nominees it was there in the top 10 and also made an appearance among the Original Screenplay nominees at the Writers Guild.  But, in an even better position was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  This remake of the Swedish film was the new film from director David Fincher (whose Social Network had been the big critical fave that couldn’t quite win the Oscar the year before).  It scored all three major guild nominations – not only the PGA and WGA, like Bridesmaids, but Fincher joined Marty, Woody, Michel Hazanavicius and Alexander Payne as a DGA nominee.  The Dark Knight‘s guild support had been very strong and its failure to earn an Oscar nomination was widely perceived as being a major reason for the change to Best Picture.  Could Tattoo fall short with all this support?

The various awards weren’t actually helping.  The Globes split their four biggest awards between The Descendants (Picture – Drama), The Artist (Picture – Comedy), Hugo (Director) and Midnight in Paris (Screenplay).  The Producers Guild gave Best Picture to The Artist.  The BFCA gave Picture and Director to The Artist.  Those four films seemed pretty set among the nominees.  But what was going to join them?  And how many would there be?

Widespread conjecture (helped by a simulation of votes based on the BFCA by Steve Pond) gave that number as eight.  So, four of them were probably set, not only for Picture, but also for Director.  What could get in with them?  Moneyball looked likely but had gotten no director awards.  The Help and Drive got boosts from the BAFTA nominations, but their other nominees were The Artist, The Descendants (both already set) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the perfunctory British film and not likely to get into the Picture race).  Tree of Life had scored very highly with critics but not with awards groups.  War Horse had failed to earn a DGA nomination and Spielberg had never earned an Oscar nomination without the DGA.  So what would they be and how many?

The Results:  When the nominations came out it pretty made it a two horse race, with an outside shot for a third film.  Hugo had lead all nominees with 11 nominations, including Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay.  The Artist was right behind with 10 nominations and not only had Picture, Director and Original Screenplay, but also Actor and Supporting Actress.  Both films, along with The Descendants (also nominated for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Actor) were also nominated for Best Editing – the key nomination that every winner had since 1980.  The final two Picture / Director nominees were Midnight in Paris and Tree of Life.  And it turned out the final tally was 9.  The also-rans for the Picture race included Moneyball (6 noms, including Adapted Screenplay), War Horse (6 noms), The Help (4 noms), and most surprisingly, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2 noms).

But everything was still breaking towards The Artist.  It would win the DGA and then would win Best Picture and Director at the BAFTAs.  On the night of the Oscars, it looked like a repeat of 2004 for Martin Scorsese.  Indeed, Hugo, like The Aviator would win 5 out of its 11 nominations but The Artist would take home three of the biggest awards of the night – Best Actor, Best Director, and in the end, Best Picture.

Even the poster is classy old-style Hollywood.

Even the poster is classy old-style Hollywood.

The Artist

  • Director:  Michel Hazanavicius
  • Writer:  Michel Hazanavicius
  • Producer:  Thomas Langmann
  • Stars:  Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Penelope Ann Miller, John Goodman
  • Studio:  The Weinstein Company
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Dujardin), Supporting Actress (Bejo), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  480
  • Length:  100 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  25 November 2011
  • Box Office Gross:  $44.67 mil  (#71  -  2011)
  • Metacritic Rating:  89
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #141  (nominees)  /  #37  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Dujardin), Supporting Actress (Bejo), Editing, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  285

The Film:  The first version of A Star is Born was a great film, the best film of 1937, yet it was passed over for Best Picture in favor of The Life of Emile Zola.  It was a heavy drama with a fairly bleak ending.  The second version, made in 1954, was a musical (thus competed in the Comedy / Musical category at the Golden Globes, where it won Actor and Actress) and it was also brilliant.  But in spite of 6 Oscar nominations, it was passed over for Picture and Director and failed to win any awards.  Then came the 1976 musical version.  It won 5 Golden Globes, tying the all-time record (and the only one of those to not be in the Drama categories) but it only earned 4 Oscar nominations, none of them in major categories, which was a good indication of the actual reviews, which weren’t all that favorable.  In spite of the diminishing returns, a quintet of French filmmakers decided to revive the old story and give it a go.  But they decided to change up a few things and put their own stamp on it.

The five of them had first worked together on a film called OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.  That film, based on an old French spy series showcased a love of old film and considerable talent.  They could simultaneously look fondly back at a genre (the 60′s spy film) and perfectly recreate it while also shamelessly satirizing it on every level.  The film had wonderful music that harkened back to James Bond, but which was also original (composer Ludovic Bource).  A shot could perfectly pull away from a spy in bed with a beautiful girl, with a wonderful smooth fluid motion, then realize that it was headed towards the mirror where we could see them reflected in bed and we can laugh and be impressed at the same time (cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman).  We could have a perfect cad for a spy, charming and idiotic at the same time (Jean Dujardin) and the beautiful woman who captivates him (Bérénice Bejo).  And all of it works because of the magic and talent of the director and writer (Michel Hazanavicius).  After a second go-around with 117, (without Bejo, but who had married her director), the five of them took on the basic story of A Star is Born, but with a few twists.  The first would be that it would be set in the early days of Hollywood, at the time that the Silent Era was transitioning into the talkies.  That meant one artistic move (it would be made in black-and-white) and one very bold move (the film itself would actually be silent except for a couple of minutes in the middle and the very end).  And then they made the move that turned away from the very bleakness of A Star is Born.  They decided to make it a comedy, straight on down to the most important part of that – it would have a happy ending.

Some movies get the ending they need.  The original A Star is Born, a heavy drama fraught with alcoholism and tragedy, needed a dramatic, tragic ending.  Like Casablanca or Sunset Boulevard, no happy ending would have worked properly for what had come before.  But this was a different kind of film and a different kind of ending was needed.  And still we almost get the tragic ending, and when it works differently (like we are praying it will – who really wants a tragic ending with a film that’s so much fun) we are so glad.  But then it takes us a little bit further and actually give us one of the most gleeful, wonderful endings of the last several years.

The ending is very old Hollywood (ironic, since it’s based on an old Hollywood film that had a very dark ending).  But so much of the film is like that.  In a way it’s ironic that the people who worship at the cult of celebrity, who don’t mind that celebrity gossip ends up on the pages of CNN as “news”, the kind of people who go to the movie to escape from their lives are the people who were most likely to have skipped this film.  Because this film shows all the reasons why people do go to the movies for that reason, why they long to be entertained and will worship those performers who are able to entertain them and help them escape from something in their own lives.

But none of this would matter if the film weren’t so good.  If the score wasn’t so lively and entertaining, would the film work?  If the costumes and sets and cinematography weren’t so perfect would it feel like the kind of silent classic that it emulates?  If Bejo couldn’t do that wonderful scene in the dressing room where she makes the coat come to life would we feel so much for her?  If Dujardin weren’t so effortlessly charming would we just seem him as a Hollywood cad who deserved his fate?  This film covers some of the same ground as Singin in the Rain.  And if it weren’t so good, that would be infuriating.

I can’t know for certain, but if I had to venture a guess, I would say that this is the Oscar that Marty least minds losing.  After all, of all the directors working today, there probably isn’t a single one who has as much love of film and as much appreciation for the history of film as Marty does.  And so I think he would watch The Artist, again and again, because it has that same love and it brings it in every minute.

Marty again directs my #1 film of the year.  It's only the third time in a decade.

Marty again directs my #1 film of the year. It’s only the third time in a decade.

Hugo

  • Director:  Martin Scorsese
  • Writer:  John Logan  (from the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick)
  • Producer:  Graham King  /  Martin Scorsese
  • Stars:  Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Helen McCrory
  • Studio:  Paramount Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  410
  • Length:  126 min
  • Genre:  Fantasy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  23 November 2011
  • Box Office Gross:  $73.86 mil  (#49  -  2011)
  • Metacritic Rating:  83
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #106  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Kingsley), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Song (“Coeur Volant”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  595

The Film:  Marty loves the movies and so do I.  This film, as much as his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies shows how much movies have enriched his life.  And I’m not just talking about films, not about the films you would find in film school that would show you what the medium can do as an art form.  I am talking about movies, about sitting in the dark and losing yourself in the joy of what you are seeing on screen.  If you watch the end of Hugo, if you watch all the Méliès films and a smile comes to your lips then you might just love the movies as well.  And if you, like I did, check out the Méliès box set and sit and watch it with someone you love, then, well, there might just be hope for you yet.

Marty’s love for the movies is in every frame of Hugo.  When the snow comes down across Paris (or right at you if you saw it in 3-D – one of the few times I have ever been willing to sit through that experience), when you move through the train station, when you move out among the people, and later, into the world of Paris, you will see his love.  Because this isn’t the real Paris.  It’s not the romanticized Paris of Midnight in Paris (how funny that two celebrated New York directors would make films about Paris and lose Best Picture to a French director who was making a film about Hollywood).  It’s a fantasy Paris, a mythological Paris that really only existed in the movies and that’t just fine.  This is a movie world and it’s created with intricate care, with amazing sets, behind the walls of Gare Montparnasse.  It is just as amazing outside, with snow on the cemetery and an elevated train running past in the background.  It has beautiful cinematography, with every shot a masterpiece.  It uses remarkable effects, but allows them to settle into the background.  It creates costumes for Paris in the 30′s as well as Paris in the 1890′s and the ensuing costumes and makeup for all of the Méliès films.

But this isn’t just a film about a love of movies.  It’s a film about human connections.  There are two main characters in the film and both of them wear their grief as a cloak, pushing others away.  Both of them are engulfed in their personal pain and neither can possibly believe that the other one can understand the level of pain they have.  One of them (Hugo) has lost his father and lives alone in the station.  The other (Méliès himself) has lost his meaning in his life and works alone in the station.  And how they find each other and how the gulf between them is breached and how they find love from the same sources is the wondrous story that unfolds.  The older one is played by Ben Kingsley, who has long been one of the best actors in film but who won Best Actor for one of his first major roles and has had to take a back seat ever since.  The other is played by Asa Butterfield, whose talent and intensity is reminiscent of what Daniel Radcliffe was like a decade ago in those first couple of Harry Potter films.

There are three people who help bridge that gap and all of them are good as well.  They are Chloe Grace Moretz, that remarkable young actress who transforms every role and constantly seems like an adult in a child’s body (except for a couple of key moments where she is perfectly allowed to be a kid – when she first talks about the books in the library and when she feels hurt that Hugo won’t show her where he lives), Helen McCrory, whose ability to transform herself in every role makes me constantly looking at the credits and go, really?, that was McCrory again?, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who connects to Hugo in his interest in A Trip to the Moon, the magical Méliès film that has a hold on them both, and with Méliès himself through a lifetime of worship.

But there are also all the people in the background.  It’s a larger ensemble piece, not just the story of these two and those who come to love them.  We get a performance from Sacha Baron Cohen that actually elicits some sympathy (who would have thought that possible), we get a couple of parallel romances, we get those famous people who lived in Paris at the time (including Django Reinhardt, playing his guitar, which he never actually did in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown).  We get a world that really could only exist in the movies, nothing at all like the actual Paris of 1931.  But the actual Paris isn’t the point of this film.  It’s the movie Paris that we come to love and it’s the movie Paris we really want to see and wish we could visit.  After all, that’s what the movies are for.

Time for the bi-annual George Clooney Oscar nomination.

Time for the bi-annual George Clooney Oscar nomination.

The Descendants

  • Director:  Alexander Payne
  • Writer:  Alexander Payne  /  Nat Faxon  /  Jim Rash  (from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)
  • Producer:  Jim Burke  /  Alexander Payne  /  Jim Taylor
  • Stars:  George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller
  • Studio:  Fox Searchlight Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Clooney), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  235
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  16 November 2011
  • Box Office Gross:  $82.58 mil  (#39  -  2011)
  • Metacritic Rating:  84
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #128  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Clooney), Supporting Actress (Woodley)
  • Nighthawk Points:  230

The Film:  In all the trailers for The Descendants, the focus was on what was happening in the King family.  The mother, Elizabeth, is in a coma.  The father, Matt, is trying to hold the family together through this and doesn’t feel he’s getting any help.  He’s worried about his young daughter, Scottie, and his older teen Alexandra is making things all the more difficult.  All of this works for both a bittersweet comedy and a touching drama as they all balance their relationships.  Of course, part of what the trailer makes clear is that Elizabeth was having an affair and it’s left to Alexandra to clue Matt in to that fact.  What the trailer doesn’t do is give you any idea of what the title means.

There’s a twofold meaning to the title and both of them work together to help this story find its path.  The first is that Matt is part of a large extended family, the descendants of one of the first white families in Hawaii and a Hawaiian princess.  The family is in possession of a large amount of undeveloped land and a decision is coming on whether or not the family will make that land available for developers and bring in a large amount of money.  These family members, descendants of both parts of Hawaii’s heritage, want to sell but Matt, who has managed his money well and is very well off, has the deciding vote.  So there we have the title and we have the other half of the story, the one that doesn’t really appear in the trailers.

But there’s the other meaning of the title.  This is land that Matt went to a lot as a kid, that he brought his older daughter to when she was young.  And he’s not sure this is the right thing to do.  And here we have the other descendants – not the extended family who have no use for the land.  We have Matt’s children, the ones he suddenly has to learn to cope with.  He easily admits that he’s the other parent, the one who’s not really involved in raising the kids.  But now he’s forced into it, trying to gather his immediate family around him before they have to say goodbye to wife and mother.

There’s a whole lot of things standing in his way and how Matt deals with it, how Clooney portrays him at every moment, is telling.  He must deal with the affair, once he has learned about it.  He has to deal with the fact that Alex has a friend, Sid, who she insists on accompanying them throughout all their grief.  Matt must deal with his father-in-law, the kind of man who will not see the flaws in his daughter but too easily sees them in everyone else and who lashes out in his own grief.  He must actually deal with the man his wife was sleeping with and even with that man’s family.  But most of all he must deal with Alex.

And it’s the relationship between Alex and Matt that is the most interesting one in the film and that perhaps paves the way for the path he has to take.  Because she is a mess, coming out of drugs, messing around at school, making demands.  But in her anger at her Matt is a fondness for her father.  She takes every step with him, helping him to find the answers and accompanying him in the most awkward moments of them all.  And every minute works, not just because George Clooney is one of the best actors around, a man whose every emotion seems genuine in every film, even when they’re genuine about not being genuine but also because Shailene Woodley hits every line just right.  She stands side by side with her father and their chemistry when together they question the man who has been sleeping with wife and mother is pitch perfect.

I don’t know if I could go back and read the novel that the film is based on.  Alexander Payne has been a marvel for the last decade and a half of taking novels and making films from them that are far beyond the original.  His Election takes a good book and makes a very good film.  About Schmidt is a boring book without much humor, but Payne’s adaptation was interesting and funny and sad all at once.  His Sideways took a book that couldn’t quite stop being about wine and makes a film that is never really about wine at all, but rather about human relationships.  And here he creates yet another human drama with just enough humor in it and won a second (deserved) Oscar for it.

The best Woody Allen film in years and it stars Owen Wilson.  You can't have everything.

The best Woody Allen film in years and it stars Owen Wilson. You can’t have everything.

Midnight in Paris

  • Director:  Woody Allen
  • Writer:  Woody Allen
  • Producer:  Letty Aronson  /  Stephen Tenenbaum
  • Stars:  Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Corey Stoll, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates
  • Studio:  Sony Pictures Classics
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  195
  • Length:  94 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  20 May 2011
  • Box Office Gross:  $56.81 mil  (#59  -  2011)
  • Metacritic Rating:  81
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #170  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Stoll), Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  240

The Film:  At the end of Midnight in Paris, Gill learns that his place is in the present.  He comes back to his own time and he finds, what we assume is going to be a good measure of happiness, with the woman who works in the antique shop (that she is French and beautiful I suppose are just side benefits).  In a sense, you could say there’s a moral to the film and that it’s find happiness where you are, not where you wish you could have been.  There’s only one problem.  I don’t believe for a minute that if this fantasy were to happen to Woody Allen that he would ever return to the present.  I believe he would stay forever in the 20′s and be happy.  And I believe that because it’s what I would do.  I would try to figure out how to take Veronica and Thomas with me, but I wouldn’t ever want to come back.

All professions have their moments they look back to.  Think of how in High Fidelity, the #1 dream job for Rob is being an NME journalist from 1976 to 1979.  I read a lot of people who want to be part of the Studio Era in Hollywood in the 1930′s.  And for a writer?  What could be better than Paris in the 1920′s.  It’s not just the major players – Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Stein.  There is also Eliot, of course, and Faulkner (yes, as Gill says, he was there, though not for long).  It was the place to be.  It reminds me of Hunter’s quote: “San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of.”  And when Gill gets to go there and meet all these legends, in all their grandeur and weaknesses (just look at the fight between Zelda and Scott – I am reminded of Woody Allen’s old routine about being in Paris at that time period: “Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were coming back from their wild New Years Eve party.  It was April.”) the only problem is that it’s a screenwriter who’s there, a pretty mediocre one from the way the movie sells it and that he’s played by Owen Wilson (Now here is the quandary – Wilson is an actor I really hate.  On the other hand, he’s co-written some wonderful scripts with Wes Anderson – so do I believe that Wilson would be a mediocre writer because that’s how he seems as an actor and a character or do I believe that he might be a pretty good writer because he clearly is?).

But the character of Gill is really just the gateway to the wonderful, magical story that comes up on screen.  It’s not just the idea of being able to travel back in time, to see the writers and artists of days gone by.  That is a wonderful enough idea and it is handled so brilliantly throughout this film, both in concept, and in how the characters react in the past.  But it’s how absolutely perfect Woody Allen manages to nail each individual character.  And for that, he had some wonderful help from a first-rate cast.  It’s not the big names on the marquee, not Wilson and Cotillard and Sheen and McAdams (though they are all fine in their respective roles).  It is the supporting cast that is the true heart and soul of the film – from Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein (her best performance in at least 9 years) to Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill as Scott and Zelda, to the brief scene with Adrian Brody as Dali (“I see a rhinoceros” – possibly the best line in a film filled with great lines), and of course, Corey Stoll as Hemingway.

The plot itself is not that new – indeed, Allen described things very much like it in his old standup routines (though the idea of the private detective being trapped in the past is fairly funny).  But it’s what he does with it, how he brings it to life, with some of the best cinematography, art direction and costumes to appear in any of his films.  But most of all, it is that supporting cast, speaking Woody’s lines, so perfectly modeled for each character, and performing them with perfect pitch and timing.  It’s the world so many of us wish we could have lived in.  I know I do.

This won't help you understand the film.  Don't even try.

This won’t help you understand the film. Don’t even try.

The Tree of Life

  • Director:  Terrence Malick
  • Writer:  Terrence Malick
  • Producer:  Bill Pohlad  /  Grant Hill  /  Sarah Green  /  Dede Gardner
  • Stars:  Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken
  • Studio:  Fox Searchlight Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Cinematography
  • Oscar Points:  120
  • Length:  139 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  27 May 2011
  • Box Office Gross:  $13.30 mil  (#132  -  2011)
  • Metacritic Rating:  85
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #9  (year)  /  #218  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Supporting Actress (Chastain), Cinematography, Visual Effects
  • Nighthawk Points:  120

The Film:  I am, as has been said a number of times, not a fan of Godard.  His films are new and interesting and sometimes they work well and sometimes they don’t work at all.  But new and interesting aren’t enough for me.  I am a writer, have been since the start, and whether it was to write comic books, films or novels, I have always been, at heart, a writer.  I want cohesion in my art.  Things don’t have to have a narrative but they have to work on some sort of narrative level.  I continue to insist that new and different don’t mean anything if there is nothing below the surface.  So, for a film that relies much more on emotion than narrative, on direction than writing, on what we see on the screen rather than what things possibly mean, this might be the best film that could ever possibly be made.

So on one level I don’t have any idea of how to review this film.  It completely belies almost anything I believe in in a film.  Yet, it is a **** film without question.  In the quality inherent in every shot, from each beautifully photographed moment, to the way it is directed, to the first class visual effects that are a match for any CGI that has come along in the past few decades it holds together without holding together.  As Roger Ebert said, it is “a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives.”  And yet it does none of that as well.  And I don’t know how to write about that.

We have a small, tight-knit family in the 1950′s.  We have the stern father (Brad Pitt, in one of his best leading performances), not too over the top for the time – stern but without malice.  We have the caring mother who will yield to her husband, yet who carries within her a deep well of love for her sons (played by Jessica Chastain in what is the best of one of the most amazing group of performances ever given by one performer in one year).  We have a son who is trying desperately to understand what is going on in his own head as he is beginning to come of age, played very well by Hunter McCracken.  The family is believable in every second and we watch them through some tough times.

And if the film had just about those times for the family it would have both been better and lesser.  For in the special effects scenes, we attempt to get at the heart of the very questions of human existence.  But, we also have the scenes with the boy having grown to adulthood, and though Sean Penn does a good enough job in that role, it meanders away from the rest of the film.  Whenever we come to the present the film feels lost and that might be what keeps it from being higher on my list.  And yet, it also works with what the film is trying to do as a whole.  You can’t cut them out and you can’t leave them in.  But such are the quandaries made when you try to make important films.

And that’s what this is, finally.  It is an important film.  It is what certain directors keep trying to do and almost all of them fail (I’m looking at you here, Lars von Trier).  The Tree of Life might not be Terrence Malick’s best film (I’m still gonna go with Badlands), but it is his most important film and he takes the quest for meaning that he sought in The Thin Red Line and moves a bit closer to the end.

As baseball history it's bullshit.  As a film, it's pretty damn good.

As baseball history it’s bullshit. As a film, it’s pretty damn good.

Moneyball

  • Director:  Bennett Miller
  • Writer:  Steven Zaillian  /  Aaron Sorkin  /  Stan Chervin  (from the book by Michael Lewis)
  • Producer:  Michael De Luca  /  Rachael Horovitz  /  Brad Pitt
  • Stars:  Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman
  • Studio:  Columbia Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Pitt), Supporting Actor (Hill), Editing, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  133 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Sports Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  23 September 2011
  • Box Office Gross:  $75.60 mil  (#47  -  2011)
  • Metacritic Rating:  87
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #18  (year)  /  #255  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Pitt), Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  75

The Film:  I was predisposed to dislike Moneyball.  It starred Brad Pitt, who I like a lot as a character actor but who I find to be a disappointment and a charismatic vacuum as a lead actor most of the time.  The next biggest role was being played by Jonah Hill, who I intensely dislike, both for his acting and for the films he is in.  But most of all, it came down to the book.  Now, I am not a fan of Michael Lewis or the books that he writes (I dislike business books) and it didn’t help that he married one of my childhood crushes.  But I had a special dislike for Moneyball because for so many years I was so passionate about baseball.  And well, let’s just say as a baseball philosophy it’s an interesting one, though with more flaws than Lewis would have you believe.  But as a baseball history, as a story of what happened with the A’s, it’s quite frankly a bunch of crap.

And the film takes exactly what is utter bullshit in the book and uses it as the core of the film.  As a baseball fan, I found the film infuriating.  If you know nothing about the Oakland A’s of the early part of the century, you would come out of the film believing that the reason the A’s made it ever so close during those years to the World Series was through the “moneyball” philosophy of Billy Beane, how he found players who got on base and he got better with those players.  Of course, to believe that you have to ignore one major fact.  That’s the presence of the Big 3 – the pitchers Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder.  In 1999 Tim Hudson joined the rotation and the A’s improved 13 games.  The next year, with all three on the team, the A’s made the playoffs for the first time in 8 years.  From then until 2006, the last year with one of the Big 3, they always had a winning team.  Once the last of them left, after the 2006 season, the A’s failed to have a winning season again until 2012.  It was the pitching that made the A’s so good and as soon as it was gone they fell.  So don’t trust what you see on the screen here.

But that being said, there was much more on the screen than I expected.  As I said, I am not fond of Pitt as a lead and I can’t stand Hill.  But when they are put together with this script, it doesn’t really matter how much they got wrong on the success of the A’s.  With three very solid performances (there is also Philip Seymour Hoffman as A’s manager Art Howe), with a very good script, with solid editing, with good cinematography and very good sound (it’s amazing how perfect this film gets the sound of a bat hitting a ball), this is a very good film, bordering on great.

I have to look at this film as the film that it is.  It tells a story of one man and his quest to make his team better using the measures he has available.  They aren’t always great measures.  He will find the men who will produce and ruthlessly get rid of the ones he doesn’t want.  But it’s so painful that he drives around listening, rather than actually watching the games.  He has lost his family in his quest to make this team better.  Some of the people he works with fear he might actually be losing his mind with the ideas he proposes.  But he pushes on and he sees the results on the field.  And as played by Brad Pitt, it might be the best lead performance he has ever given.  He meets the role head-on and he doesn’t have to rely on the character quirks that he used so well in supporting roles in films like 12 Monkeys, Ocean’s 11 or Burn After Reading.  Then there is Jonah Hill, who, after all his crass films obsessed with drugs and girls, it turns out, is perfectly suited to just play the analyst who understands the numbers and what they can mean.  And Philip Seymour Hoffman just comes in and does a magnificent job, just like he does with every film role.

At the end of the film, we watch Billy Beane walk away from the job with the Red Sox that is being offered to him and it might have worked out for the best on both sides.  Beane might not have known what to do with an actual large payroll at his command to put together a team.  And he might not have been able to pull off the wooing of Curt Schilling that was the single most vital piece of the puzzle that brought the 2004 World Series title to my town.  Instead, Beane soldiers on.  And it might be his redemption that in the first season after this film was released the A’s made the playoffs without Hudson, Zito or Mulder for the first time since the year I graduated from high school.

Only Spielberg could get it this high.  Let me reiterate what I said about Seabiscuit - it's about a flippin horse.

Only Spielberg could get it this high. Let me reiterate what I said about Seabiscuit – it’s about a flippin horse.

War Horse

  • Director:  Steven Spielberg
  • Writer:  Lee Hall  /  Richard Curtis  (from the play by Nick Stafford, adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo)
  • Producer:  Steven Spielberg  /  Kathleen Kennedy
  • Stars:  Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston
  • Studio:  Dreamworks  /  Touchstone Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  160
  • Length:  146 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War I)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  25 December 2011
  • Box Office Gross:  $79.88 mil  (#41  -  2011)
  • Metacritic Rating:  72
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #23  (year)  /  #266  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  65

The Film:  I was torn on this film from the first minute that I heard about it.  On the one hand, it was the first truly serious Spielberg film since Munich in 2005 and I am a big believer in Spielberg films.  On the other hand, as I said about Seabiscuit, it’s a movie about a flippin horse.  I am not a horse person and I can’t bring myself to care about horses, especially when the horse is the star of the damn movie.  That being said, if you’re going to see a movie about a horse, let this be the one.

Why is that?  Well, there are a lot of reasons.  The first is that this is really the old kind of Hollywood film that Seabiscuit was purported to be.  It has absolutely gorgeous cinematography that would have looked right in place in a John Ford film.  It has war scenes that are a reminder of the the bleak moments in All Quiet on the Western Front.  It has a mother and father at home just trying to protect their child, much like How Green is My Valley.

When I re-watched Seabiscuit I noted that I thought the film would have been stronger if they had actually focused more on the horse, rather than moving between all the characters and trying to make me care about all those different people who happened to be involved with the horse.  But that horse was also a racer and Seabiscuit is a sports story.  War Horse is, as you could probably guess from the title, a war film.

It’s the war that lends pathos to the story and keeps it from falling into the kind of sentimental trap that Seabiscuit fell into.  We actually begin to care about the horse because we can see the metaphor.  The horse doesn’t ask for the war, he is dragged along into the no man’s land, into death and destruction, hurtling blindly towards the darkness and yet, somehow managing to stay alive.  The horse is really no different than all those men in the trenches, desperate to stay alive, there, not because they wanted to be, but because they are dragged along by those in power.  And the beautiful sunsets and farmlands of the early part of the film become the fog and smoke of war and the brilliance of the cinematography never falters for a second.

It’s this part of the film that both keeps it from being a **** film and also helps elevate it from being a *** film.  It’s hard to care too much about what is going in, as we flit from episode to episode, as we can’t find a particular person to linger on, as the horse is passed among different people, always trying to stay alive, much like all its owners.  But it reminds us of the human cost of the war, the darkness and destruction for no reason.  This is so much more of a serious film than Seabiscuit was.  Because in the end, who really cares about a horse race (I certainly don’t), but the cost of war is much different.

And when we move on to the end, with beautiful landscapes, with color in the skies, with the horse and his man (who was a boy when we first encountered him) return home to the farm, it’s really the only way it can end.  Spielberg gets knocked by some for sentimentality, but really, what the hell kind of ending would you want for this film?

I gave serious thought to using the fake poster - the one where the film is titled White People Solve Racism.

I gave serious thought to using the fake poster – the one where the film is titled White People Solve Racism.

The Help

  • Director:  Tate Taylor
  • Writer:  Tate Taylor  (from the novel by Kathryn Stockett)
  • Producer:  Brunson Green  /  Chris Columbus  /  Michael Barnathan
  • Stars:  Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard
  • Studio:  Walt Disney Studio Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Davis), Supporting Actress (Spencer), Supporting Actress (Chastain)
  • Oscar Points:  175
  • Length:  146 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  10 August 2011
  • Box Office Gross:  $169.70 mil  (#13  -  2011)
  • Metacritic Rating:  62
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #60  (year)  /  #390  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Davis), Supporting Actress (Spencer)
  • Nighthawk Points:  95

The Film:  The Help is a singular film in Oscar history.  In the pre 5 Best Picture Era (1927-1943), there were three films that were nominated for Best Picture and also earned an acting nomination but no other nominations – The Private Life of Henry VIII (Actor), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Actress) and Alice Adams (Actress).  Then it didn’t happen again until 2009, when The Blind Side (Actress) did it and then in 2011 when it happened twice – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Supporting Actor) and The Help (Actress, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actress).  You may notice already what distinguishes The Help.  Or, to put it another way, The Help was the first film in 10 years and only the third since 1965 to earn three acting nominations without a nomination for Director or Screenplay.  It’s only the third film ever to earn three nominations without Director or Screenplay but also earn a Picture nomination and the first since 1944.  What am I getting at here?  Well, because the acting combined with the expanded Best Picture lineup to push this film into the nominees we have the only film in Oscar history to earn Picture and multiple acting nominations but nothing else.  In other words, the acting is really, really good.  And the rest of the film is not.

I can not comment on the quality of the original novel by Kathryn Stockett.  It certainly was a magnificent seller, to the point where the paperback edition was pushed back over a year because the hardcover kept selling.  I can’t count how many times I rang this book up, still in hardcover, for people who wanted to read it.  But it never struck me as interesting and I never picked it up (and the sales of it say nothing of the quality – the sales for it would later be vastly eclipsed by the sales for Fifty Shades of Grey and I can’t imagine anyone wants to recommend the literary qualities of that particular book).  So all I can speak to is the film.  And the film is, well, it’s kind of ridiculous.

Let’s look at some of the things in this book.  There is the well-meaning white girl who wants to show how she’s a good liberal and write from the point of view of the help – those maids and servants who basically raise little white girls in the South and then are pushed away when they get too old.  Well, that’s awfully demeaning.  Yes, she wants to give them a voice, but that assumes they don’t have voices of their own.  That’s the character who’s in there that we want to be – to prove to ourselves that we would try to be good to other people and we wouldn’t push people away when they got old.  Or we can see the really awful woman who believes that class is everything, that the problem with the help isn’t really that they’re black but that they’re poor and you can’t really do anything with the poor but let them serve you.  She’s, in some ways, even worse to a woman who she considers as white trash who has married into money.  The lesson here is that rich people in the South can act really awful and if they get their comeuppance in a truly disgusting way, then it’s okay.  She’s in the film so we have someone to feel morally superior to.  Then there is the older black woman who’s treated with deference and respect and we are expected to believe that wisdom will emerge every time she speaks.  And we have the white trash girl, who of course, treats the help much more pleasantly than almost any other character.  And then, finally, there is the notion that Jessica Chastain might even be better looking as a blonde than as a redhead.  As a fan of redheads who is not a big fan of blondes, I can’t tell you how wrong that is.

So how is it that The Help ended up as a Best Picture nominee?  Well, for the same reason that it made almost as much money as The Artist, Hugo and Midnight in Paris combined.  Because by presenting the South in this kind of Gone with the Wind format, without really dealing with racism or any social issues, the film can look quite good and it can make you feel good; you can feel morally superior and feel good about where you are without being reminded of the very worst that was going on at the time.  It is also very well acted, and, importantly, it is very well acted by an almost entirely female cast.  Hollywood is notoriously bad at finding good roles for actresses and if female viewers want to flock to a film with good solid acting and almost no males, I can’t really blame them.

He's just a kid so I'll settle for punching Foer in the face.  Repeatedly.

He’s just a kid so I’ll settle for punching Foer in the face. Repeatedly.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

  • Director:  Stephen Daldry
  • Writer:  Eric Roth  (from the novel by Jonathan Safron Foer)
  • Producer:  Scott Rudin
  • Stars:  Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Max Von Sydow
  • Studio:  Warner Bros. Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Supporting Actor (Von Sydow)
  • Oscar Points:  80
  • Length:  129 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  25 December 2011
  • Box Office Gross:  $31.84 mil  (#97  -  2011)
  • Metacritic Rating:  46
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #98  (year)  /  #488  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:   I was predisposed to dislike this film before it was even released for many of the same reasons that I was predisposed to dislike Moneyball.  But I went in to Moneyball and was impressed by what I saw, by the writing, by the performances, by the film as a whole film.  Nothing like that came through here.  I went in expecting to dislike the film.  I came out hating it.

So, since this is fiction and much of my irritation at Moneyball was around its misrepresentation of baseball history, what is the problem here?  Well, the author to begin with.  Actually, the author.  Unlike others, I was not won over by Everything Is Illuminated, the novel that made Jonathan Safron Foer a big literary name.  I found it to be obnoxious and pretentious and an attempt to show us all how clever he was, the legacy of David Foster Wallace as filtered through the McSweeney’s-esque prattle of David Eggers.  And it doesn’t help that I don’t like Foer personally – find him obnoxious and arrogant and generally irritating.  But, that didn’t mean I had to give up all hope on the film.  Like I said, I had liked Moneyball in spite of the book.  And though I had disliked the novel Everything is Illuminated I had found the film to be charming and winning and very good.  And this was from director Stephen Daldry, whose first two films had been great and whose third film had been a very good film of a very bad book (The Reader).  So I had hopes that something good could come of this.  My hopes were not met.

There are a number of problems with the film and I’m not quite sure where to start.  The first, I suppose, is a matter of tone.  How can a film take itself so seriously when at the heart of it are things that are so absurd that we can not possibly believe them.  And that brings us to the characters – if they are to be taken seriously as real characters, as people who would actually do these things, then we can not find that acceptable, and if they aren’t, then why is the film treated with such realism?  And there is the ending, the very idea that something will come out of this story and that it will have meaning, not only meaning, but the precise meaning that young Oskar thought it would have at the very beginning, though in a slightly different key.

To look at this, we have to look at the basic story.  When looked at (without the benefit of hindsight), we see a story of a boy who loses his father on 9/11.  This boy, Oskar, (who clearly has Aspergers or something similar) finds a key in an envelope with the word “Black” on it.  Oskar decides it must have meaning and so he decides to find everyone in Manhattan with the last name Black and ask them.  Starting from the very first couple that he meets, everyone seems to cope incredibly well with this strange boy who shows up on their doorstep to try to find the meaning of his father’s death.  It seems like the learning moment from 9/11 – that the good parts of New York that arose from the ashes of the World Trade Center have taken hold, that he doesn’t get rude questions, he doesn’t get doors slammed in his face; he gets answers as much as is possible and he gets help and compassion.  This gives you hope.  You know that his search can’t possibly lead anywhere – it would defy all logic and lend meaning to a death that has no meaning to it.  It can only be a journey of discovery, a journey into a city that has been wounded and is slowly learning how to heal and the anger and bitterness fade in the face of unspeakable tragedy.  So this becomes a central metaphor for the events of 9/11, this journey out into the world around you to find connections and learn about the common core of humanity that we all share.

Ah, but wait.  There’s a few other things here.  First, what about his mother?  He fights with his mother and misses his father – he would father she died on 9/11 and she knows it and she knows that he would have better off had his father been the survivor instead.  Is she so blithely unaware of what is going on that her only son is running around the city, randomly contacting people and she has no idea what is going on?  Well, no, and that’s where everything about the last paragraph fall apart.  Because it’s not the humanity of New Yorkers coming out so that we can all cope together.  They’ve all been forewarned that Oskar is coming.  Which means that he’s not running around the city by himself without her realizing it.  She knows he’s running around one of the most dangerous cities in the world completely on his own, knocking on the doors of strangers looking for meaning.  And she seems to think this is okay.  What seems at first glance to be a way of a city healing itself in fact is as manipulated as the film around us.  There’s nothing genuine in any of it.

And that’s not all.  That key, the one in the envelope, the one that begins this search?  Well, it has no meaning for Oskar, much as he would hope.  But he actually has found the people that the key belong to.  In fact, he found them right off the bat, with the very first couple he found.  So, the search for an elusive meaning, in fact had a meaning, and in a city of 8 million he found it on the first try.

To attempt to find meaning in an event like 9/11 through art is understandable.  It is an attempt to cope with such events that great art often comes from.  But the elusive search for answers that happen to have ridiculous answers that can be found almost instantly belies this search for meaning.  A first glimpse at this film gives hope as to what people might have taken from such an event.  But when you look closer, all you find is a pathetic attempt at using a tragedy to tell a story which falls apart at the seams and makes every moment in it fake and unworthy of being connected to such an event.

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