The five best films I saw from 2011 were Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Drive, Hanna, 50/50, and Midnight in Paris. You will probably notice that I was not consulted on the 2012 Oscar Nominations as only one (Midnight in Paris) of those has made the list for best picture. Of those on the list, I did not see Moneyball, Tree of Life, or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Those I had seen are The Artist, The Descendants, The Help, Hugo, and War Horse.
On that list, I note that two of them are dedicated solely to making us cry–War Horse and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (though an argument could be made that War Horse also proves that we care more when a horsey gets killed than the slaughter of millions of people).
As with all of these awards, as in life, so much depends upon what you like. What makes a movie a good movie or a great one? Its ability to jerk our tears unwillingly from our eyes is not one that I value highly. Nor is its ability to maximize anachronism one that makes me stand up and cheer. Nor even will my liking of a particular director and his doing something out of character allow me to forget that roughly half of the movie was spent pointlessly following a child around looking malnourished until we finally got to the real story.
No, what does make me stand up and cheer is a strong story, emotional depth, well-mixed music, and the avoidance of the pointless art shot.
That knocks out Hugo and Tree of Life (by reputation) on story. “Oh,” I hear you cry, “Hugo had a beautiful story.” Boy needs a key to fix a machine left by his father but made by this other guy who also made movies that nobody knows about until we discover that yes they do. Yes, it is a story, but more so it is a platform for five moments of prosaic reflections on one aspect of their characters.
The only movie that truly lacks emotional depth is my favorite on the list, Midnight in Paris. I would also like to discount War Horse and Extremely Loud for plumbing the depths of what I might call “mere loss”. The Help, which I just watched today, has too much to say and too quickly. So, while the emotion is there and the capacity for depth is enormous, there simply isn’t enough time. When I want emotional depth, I want to look into the characters eyes and see them utterly broken. We get that in The Artist, The Descendants, and Hugo (and it seems possible in Moneyball).
Well-mixed music is an odd requirement. It also is enormously a matter of taste. Example, the music at the end of War Horse is, in my opinion, so poorly chosen as to nobble the entire movie. That’s the problem with endings. The greatest offender, however, is The Artist. The offense is deepened by the fact that there was very little for the sound artist to do other than choose and mix the music. The offense is doubly compounded by the fact that the Academy nominated it best music–so not only do you have some of the best music (questionable), but you used it poorly. There were probably four moments where the music failed to track the emotion (and the strongest emotion at that) in the film. Again, when this is (basically) the only audible expression of the film, the margin is very thin.
Pointless art shots. Man, do they offend. What I mean by an art shot is the kind of moment you might get from a photograph or painting that describes the story or tone of the film. The end of War Horse is really what I was thinking about. Maybe I should refine it to the poorly-done art shot. A beautiful sight in a film is, in my view, usually a focus on something natural or ordinary that takes on a life of its own. A semi-cloudy sky at sunset is the easiest way to capture this–either as an expression of hope or despair. War Horse tries to do this and then adds this maroony darkness that drags on for a minute of unabashed sentimentality. I’ll give you the other reunion scene, but a shared moment does not need to be graphically enhanced to this extent.
The Help suffers from a drought of the art shot. As I said before, the tempo is necessarily too rapid and the tone too–and in no way do I use the word in the pejorative–prosaic. So, while it succeeds in being a good and functional movie, it simply is not art. Oscar Wilde wrote, “All art is quite useless.” The Help is just too useful.
Now, for their omissions, I am willing to accept that the Academy is less interested in extreme violence than I am. That’s enough to keep Drive out of the running, perhaps. Its simplicity and exotic music, if exotic is the word I want, brings the movie to an exceptional level that I would think the Academy would appreciate. But Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a strong story and all the rest of it. It does the unconventional shots without becoming conspicuous. The music is strong and well used. The acting is strong and requires actual skill. It is, without a doubt, my choice to win the whole show. As for 50/50, I suspect that it’s not in the running because it is a comedy (but if we’re ticking boxes here, it is the younger brother of Up in the Air). Hanna probably suffered both from timing and violence…
Looking at this list again, I see that violence does not appear. Looking over past nominations, violence is no barrier to nomination or even winning. In the past five years, The Departed (2006), No Country for Old Men (2007), and The Hurt Locker (2008) have all won Best Picture. The fact that there are nine nominations–one less than is permissible–makes me wonder whether this lack of violence is coincidental. Or whether the voters are just such a bunch of ninnies that not even 5% could keep themselves from putting The Artist or The Descendants first. Perhaps their choice of nomination should be more akin to AV rather than first past the post since so much importance is placed on nomination as well as ultimate victory.
Of the films I saw, and was nominated, The Descendants looks to be the only survivor. It does drop a couple ounces of the best Gouda when the theretofore lightly-touched on dilemma takes on sudden gravity without establishing motive, but that’s a failure to achieve perfect storytelling rather than a real weakness. So, since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t nominated, I support The Descendants to win.
*Updated at 3:26 on 1/24/2012 to include my impressions of The Help*