Last night a friend and I watched the movie Moneyball and thereby completed our quest to watch all nine of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture. It was a decent, entertaining movie, we both agreed, but was it worthy of Best Picture? The answer: probably not. The story wasn’t “big” enough, my friend said, which didn’t really bother me. What I was hoping for were a few moments of heart-tugging, or something to make me cry “oh!” or have me swallow a lump in my throat or make my head spin later with thoughts about life or Art. (Although, I did enjoy looking at Brad Pitt.)
In my last blog post I wrote about what makes a great book and I think it’s the same for movies. I want them to make me suck in my breath, cheer, marvel, cry/be grateful that I got to share in the experience and/or feel pride that I live in a world where such a movie exists. I know I felt this way after watching Oscar movies of the past—Life is Beautiful, for example, and Titanic.(For all its sentimentality/moments of over-wroughtness, I got to the end of that one feeling like I’d been through a wringer—in a good, cathartic way. Plus, there was Leonardo DiCaprio to look at…)
I have no idea which movie the “Academy” will vote for this year, but here’s a run-down for those of you who did not see all of the 2012 nominees (or any):
1. Moneyball. I don’t really care for baseball, but even so I got caught up in the true story of the winning streak of the Oakland A’s. Brad Pitt plays the manager trying to figure out how to compete with much wealthier teams. He starts using a statistical model that flies in the face of the way teams are traditionally put together and there’s a bit of irony here too: he was once a promising player who fizzled out (if someone had used this new statistical method, his old baseball playing self would never have been picked.)
2. The Help. Okay, okay, I know the controversy surrounding this one. Is it appropriate for a white author to write from a black perspective? Why does Hollywood continually tell stories about the Civil Rights Era through white characters’ eyes? Why are black female characters always maids? Etc. But I have to say, that if you push all of these questions aside, the movie (and the book) tell a good, absorbing, thought-provoking story. I saw this movie with my 14 year-old daughter after she read the book and begged me to take her to see it. It was truly eye-opening for her to see the restrictive roles for black people (and women) during that time period. And it led to some interesting conversations later.
3. The Descendents. (God. I know I am starting to sound like a superficial flake here—but I do so enjoy looking at George Clooney.) I’ve read that some people thought this movie was slow, but I liked it. Premise: a woman is in a coma and her husband finds out that she was having an affair and goes to confront the guy, with his daughters in tow. Here’s what I liked: I couldn’t predict what was going to happen (I always like that element in a movie or book.) Also I loved the Hawaiian scenery and music. This is like one big tourist video for the place, so keep that in mind if you need tips for where to go on vacation this year.
4. Midnight in Paris. Full disclosure: I don’t like Woody Allen movies. Somehow, though, having Woody Allen’s dialogue coming out of Owen Wilson’s mouth, made this movie more palatable for me. As a writer, I couldn’t help being caught up in the story. Struggling novelist goes to Paris with his bitchy wife and falls into some kind of 1920’s wormhole where he gets to meet all of his writer/artist heroes: Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Picasso. Makes you want to go to Paris yourself. (So you can do that, I guess, after your side trip to Hawaii.)
5. And speaking of Paris, Hugo, takes place there too. It’s based on a children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, about an orphan boy living in the Paris train station in the 1930’s. If I had to bet on any movie winning, it would be this one. When it ended, the people in my audience applauded. I think it’s the spectacle of it. A cool premise, stirring music, gorgeous scenery (see it in 3 D; it’s MEANT to be seen this way). And you’ll love the story of a boy and his unlikely mentor, a once famous, now crushed and bitter, former movie director.
6. I had low expectations for War Horse. "Meh," is what I was thinking going into it. I don’t really like horses. And I had the sense that Steven Spielberg was going to give me this sweeping, sentimental horsy picture. Surprise: I liked it! Even thought it was a sweeping, sentimental horsy picture. So the story is basically told through the eyes of a horse, from childhood (fawnhood?—see, no idea of horse lingo) to adulthood, set against the backdrop of WWI. Very cool-looking war sequences that capture the absurdity and horror of that conflict. There’s one scene of British soldiers riding their horses across a field. They’ve got their swords out and the one riding our War Horse, admits that he feels bad about sneaking up on the Germans. It just feels unsportsmanlike. This is two seconds before the entire deluded group gets gunned down by machine guns.
7. I kind of felt the same "meh" feeling going into Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I knew it was about a kid whose father died in 9/11 and I just wasn’t up to going through the pain with him. But I’m glad I did. The movie totally blew me away. I don’t know if the little boy is up for an Oscar, but he should be. The story is a perfect template for the Hero’s Journey. The boy finds a key that takes him on a quest. Of course, what he’s really doing is working through his anger and grief at losing his father. He’s also got all these internal fears and quirks to conquer too. He’s afraid of loud noises and cars and crowds and public transportation, which makes the quest all the more challenging. There’s one scene at the beginning where he stands at the edge of a bridge (I think it’s the Brooklyn Bridge; he’s afraid of bridges too.) Like in proper Hero’s Journey mode, the boy must cross that first threshold to start the adventure. You can see that he’s terrified and when he starts running shakily across, you can’t help but cheer for him.
8. I heard that The Artist is favored to win this year. If you haven’t seen any of these movies, I suggest you see this one, simply to watch how the director pulls off a silent movie about silent movies. Also, it’s in black and white. A famous, loved, silent movie actor falls from the top when “talkie” pictures become popular. The cool twist is that the character’s inability to make it in the talkie film world mirrors his inability as a person to talk or experience sound in the real world. It is becoming a cliché—my joy at watching handsome leading men—but this guy—whoever he is—some French actor I never heard of—is so fun to watch. He’s got to be. He never says a word until (spoiler alert) the last ten seconds of the movie.
9. Tree of Life. I left this one for last because it was my favorite. It is also, hands down, the WEIRDEST movie I have ever seen. I almost stopped watching it at one point because it was so freaking weird, but I’m glad I stuck with it. The story is simple, by which I mean that it is not simple at all. It’s a man looking back on his childhood, about his sibling rivalry with his now deceased brother, about the differences between his mother (an artistic, loving woman) and his father (a practical, business-minded, strict disciplinarian). Where it gets truly weird is when the movie goes backward, trying to figure out where things went wrong for the man, and keeps going backward, all the way back, to the Big Bang and the creation of the world, and dinosaurs, etc. So. That’s weird. But it was strangely mesmerizing and beautiful too. I think if you can let go of any logical narrative expectations you might have and just let the movie flicker over you, impressionistic-style, you’ll get the full experience. The scene at the end, this bizarre meeting on the beach of all the characters past and present, had me sobbing. This is the only movie on the list, by the way, where I cried out loud like a big baby. Three months later, I’m still thinking about it. My prediction: too weird to win. But it should.
PS: It also features Brad Pitt.