Feb 14, 2013

Quick Reviews: Best Picture Nominees, Part 1 of 3

Get Your Punch Cards Ready
The Academy Awards are just around the corner, and it’s time to look at the nine films vying for the Best Picture Oscar. Surprisingly, we've only reviewed one of the nine films gunning for the top spot, so we thought it would be a good idea to review all of 'em as fast as possible. Last year we reviewed ten films in one post in an attempt to see which films were Oscar contenders, and this year we're bringing you the reviews in three, easy-to-digest segments. So, we're going to be brief, but not 'last year' brief.

Since it is Valentine's Day, let’s start with the three films that deal most exclusively with love:

Silver Linings Playbook
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper just want to dance.
Story: There is no film on this list more lovable than Silver Linings Playbook, the mental health, dance competition rom-dram-com from David O. Russell.  It tells the story of Pat (Bradley Cooper), a bipolar former teacher recovering from an episode and working on himself in order to win back the love of his wife. Complicating matters are his well-meaning parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver) and a new maelstrom of quirks embodied in Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed woman who just wants to dance and who sees something in Pat. What that something is, God and Tiffany only know, but it sets the stage for a film filled with both real drama and real laughs.
Pros: The film is very well-acted. Jennifer Lawrence is magnetic, and her eventual Oscar win is well-deserved. She infuses energy into every scene she's in, demanding to be seen, yet remaining remarkably subtle in her approach to love and facing her own demons. Robert De Niro is actually acting, which he hasn't done in quite a while, and Chris Tucker's return is a surprise. What is really great, though, is the fact that Bradley Cooper has finally crawled out from under Douche Rock, which he has been under ever since he left Alias. Here, he gives his most human film performance to date, and he’s even likable, which is surprising given his character's penchant for yelling and neck beards.
Cons: The script, adapted from a novel by Matthew Quick, has a few problems that adapted screenplays tend to have. It is beautifully written, and it flows well, but it sometimes feels like the film is working too hard to fit in the plot beats that the book has already laid out. There are quite a few scenes that feel overly expository, with many lines of dialogue that exist solely to keep re-explaining the plot. It's a complicated film, to be sure, but it's not that complicated. Genre-wise, the film also seems to want to have its cake, eat it, and then make another cake. What starts out as a film about one man dealing with mental illness and recuperating (with the help of his family, friends, and professionals) suddenly turns into a fairly rote romantic comedy.  It's an enjoyable turn, full of dancing and revelations, and the romantic bits work (in part because of the great chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence), but the two movies never seem to gel together.

Best Picture?: It’s not a Best Picture winner, but it is an enjoyable and sweet film that's well acted, simply directed, and incredibly engaging. It deserves the nomination, but not the win.

Film Grade: A-

Story: Did you love the first minutes of Up, when that adorable couple got together and then the wife dies?Well, just wait until you watch Amour, the film that takes those few minutes of old-person death and stretches it into a two-hour film! After his wife, Anne, has a stroke, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is tasked with taking care of her as she quickly debilitates in front of him, losing the shine in her eyes and the control of her body. Their daughter (the wonderful Isabelle Huppert) has a hard time understanding what is happening, and Georges is left to care for his wife in a way that he never foresaw.
Pros: You won't find a more French film than this one, so of course it's directed by an Austrian. Michael Haneke makes the ennui of the film palpable, infusing every scene with longing, regret, and love unspoken. Anne is played by actress Emmanuelle Riva, who is unknown to us but has obviously been working for a very long time. She gives a raw performance as a woman falling apart, and she's captivating. One element that we loved is the film's desire to let many moments, even mundane scenes of vacuuming and cooking, play out in real time, with long scenes filled with long takes. It lets viewers really soak in the sadness... for a looong time.
Cons: The only downside to that is that the film is also incredibly slow-paced and depressing. "Great," you'll think to yourself, "I love to spend hours thinking about how I have a finite time on this earth, and instead of going out with dignity, I will probably be crapping my pants and getting bathed by nurses until long-after I want to live." Delightful.

Best Picture: Amour is a wonderful film and an incredibly touching look at unconditional love. While it's basically a lock for Best Foreign Language Film, and Emmanuelle Riva just won a Best Actress nod at the BAFTAs, the film hasn't exactly been killing it during awards season. So, it's a no for Best Picture. Quelle Surprise!

Film Grade: A

Django Unchained
Story: Let's just get into it. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a free slave who wants two things: to get his wife (Kerry Washington) back and hurt the men responsible for tearing them apart. The man who frees him (Christoph Waltz) is willing to give him those things, granted Django helps him in his bounty hunting business for a while. After some great fun killing slave owners and the like, it's clear that all roads leads to Candy Land. That being the plantation owned by Calvin Candide (Leonardo DiCaprio), where Django's wife Broomhilda is being held, not the board game. From there, shoot-outs, stick-ups, make-outs, and blow-ups abound in a film that, what it lacks in subtlety, more than makes up for in length and full Jamie Foxx nudity.
Pros: Of the nine nominated for Best Picture, no film is as much fun to watch as Django. It's a revenge movie, full of blood and guts and even more blood, but even more it's a fine ode to love at the same time. Director Quentin Tarantino barrels through plot at a mile-a-minute, pulling in fun cameos (hey, Amber Tamblyn; hey, Jonah Hill) and creating a pitch-perfect homage to Spaghetti Westerns without ever feeling like he's stealing too much from the classics (the addition of Jay-Z music is a nice touch). Samuel Jackson, as house-slave Stephen, is great, and Waltz and DiCaprio are great fun. Dicaprio is dangerous, evil, and alluring, like a sexy vampire, and Waltz brings his dependable gravitas to a role that could read lackluster on paper. The film is also not afraid to be frightening and violent and vulgar, and it's all the better for it. There has been some criticism for the film's use of the n-word, but it's used to highlight the atrocities. It's not used flippantly.
Cons: The film is over-long, and the last hour is particularly drawn out. It's an epic akin to The Odyssey, and, just like The Odyssey, it tends to meander in tiny stories and forgets about its ultimate quest of love. Also, Jamie Foxx, while a dependable actor in movies where he doesn't really have to act, is called on to do a lot more here, and turns in a pretty lackluster performance. Alternately, Kerry Washington, who is a terrific actress, isn't given that much to do, and is wasted in a film filled with larger-than life personalities. One last acting note: Tarantino's late-in-film cameo is atrocious and unfunny and pretentious to boot.

Best Picture: It's not a Best Picture winner. Despite defending it earlier, it is difficult to win a Best Picture Oscar when you use the n-word so many times (Gone with the Wind used the not-at-all-offensive term ‘darky’ instead). Plus, it's not Tarantino’s best film, and the Academy might want to wait to see what he does next.

Film Grade: B+/A-

Well, that's the first in our three segments that will quickly review the 9 movies up for Best Picture. We'll be posting the second installment on Presidents Day, looking at the three nominated films that explore American History and that have the greatest chance at taking home gold come February 24th.

See you then.
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