So far I have reviewed three of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees in Scene4--Lincoln, Argo, and Les Miserables. My combined review of Amour and Silver Linings Playbook will come out in March. That leaves four nominees I haven't reviewed, and it's probably not a coincidence that I find them the most difficult to review.
The nominee I find most difficult to review on its own merits is Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. Django Unchained, as everyone knows by now, is an over-the-top bloody revenge fantasy for slavery, following closely the blueprint for Tarantino's previous movie, Inglourious Basterds, which was an over-the-top revenge fantasy for the Holocaust. I found Django Unchained the queasier viewing experience of the two; I wonder how much of that was because I am a white American, rather than a German Gentile. In any case, Django Unchained has some hilarious set pieces, particularly the proto-Ku Klux Klan posse headed by Don Johnson and Jonah Hill. It also has three outstanding performances, by Christoph Waltz as the liberator-sidekick to Jamie Foxx's Django; Leonardo Di Caprio as a degenerate plantation owner; and Samuel L. Jackson, who plays part-Quisling, part-Bormann to Di Caprio's Hitler.
The nominee I find most difficult to write about, vis-a-vis what has already been written about it in Scene4, is Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. My colleague Michael Bettencourt has savaged the film, to the point of comparing Bigelow with Leni Riefenstahl. Bettencourt said the film both glorifies and misrepresents the role that torture played in finding and killing Osama bin Laden, though he adds it had the unintended benefit of pointing up the sheer ineptitude of the U.S. war on terror. I am not certain I totally agree with Bettencourt, but his position is defensible, and he defends it eloquently. Bettencourt also said the film is badly written, badly directed, and--with the single exception of Mark Strong's performance--badly acted. I could not disagree with him more strongly on this point; I found the film thrilling from beginning to end, in every way.
Ang Lee's Life of Pi was for me the least inspiring, not only of the four films considered here, but of all the nominees.Visually and esthetically, Life of Pi is magnificent. It is the only film I can think of, other than Martin Scorsese's Hugo, in which 3D effects actually enhance the impact of the film. Lee also deals cogently and sensitively with the philosophical and spiritual ideas advanced in Yann Martel's novel. Yet the film's problems are built in to the story: there are simply too many scenes of Pi and the tiger alone in the lifeboat. This was fine for a novel, not so fine for a movie.
I missed Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild in its summer 2012 release, and caught it only last week on DVD. It resembles few other films, certainly no American films except possibly Terrence Malick's. But Beasts of the Southern Wild, unlike Malick's films, is richly specific as to its location--an isolated spot in the Louisiana bayous known as "The Bathtub" to its residents--and its main characters: Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl growing up in The Bathtub, and Wink, her alcoholic, hot-tempered single father. Like no other film I've ever seen, Beasts of the Southern Wild has what Keats called "negative capability:" It presents the reality of its place and people, without trying to fit them into any preconceptions the audience might have. Soon enough, the film becomes clear. Beasts of the Southern Wild is several different films at once: a coming-of-age story, a plea for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, an elegy for their way of life, and a paean to everyone everywhere who endures in the face of catastrophe. The intense, heartbreaking performance by Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy has been universally and justly praised. This was her first film role, as it was for Dwight Henry, the New Orleans baker who plays Wink. The chorus of praise has been less loud for Henry, but he too is magnificent.
As for my Oscar prognostications, despite the recent surge of support for Argo, I still think the major awards will go as follows: Lincoln for Best Picture, Steven Spielberg for Best Director, Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) for Best Actor, and Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) for Best Supporting Actress.
The Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor races are much harder to read. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) and Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) all seem to have a strong chance for the award at this point. I predict that Riva will win, because the Academy has both strong Francophile leanings (Marion Cotillard, Jean Dujardin) and a predilection for honoring distinguished senior thespians (George Burns, Jessica Tandy, John Gielgud, Christopher Plummer). But with Chastain and Lawrence in the running, Riva cannot be considered a shoo-in. For nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, the honor of being the youngest Best Actress nominee ever is her award. Naomi Watts, in The Impossible, has the disadvantage of being in a movie that has no other nominations and no significant buzz beyond her performance.
The Best Supporting Actor prize, in my opinion, is totally up for grabs. All five nominees--Alan Arkin for Argo, Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook, Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master, Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln and Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained--have won previous Oscars. They are all eminently deserving this year, and all popular with Academy voters. If Lincoln makes a sweep of the awards, Jones will almost certainly benefit from that--though personally the sheer power of Hoffman's performance would win my vote. Perhaps there will be a five-way tie, and they'll go on tour together as The 5 Neat Guys? Pardon my SCTV trivia here, and stay tuned.