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From Amour to Zero Dark Thirty: Oscars 2012

Oscar time is upon us once again and this year I’ve actually managed to see all the nominees in the major categories before the show. This may be a first for me! Here’s a quick rundown of some of my thoughts.

Best Picture

This is a pretty solid year for Best Picture nominees! Normally, there’s at least one movie on the list I can’t stand; this year, all nine are a-okay. I wasn’t crazy about Life of Pi but I didn’t think it was terrible or anything. My personal favourite is probably Les Misérables; however, I don’t think it’s the best of the nine. I just happen to love it despite its flaws. The cream of the crop, in my opinion, is Argo, which is a massively entertaining film that is both a funny Hollywood parody and a nailbiting action thriller. Argo looks like the frontrunner right now and I’m hoping it’ll continue its streak on Sunday night. Zero Dark Thirty, with its subtle non-commentary on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, is my second choice. The most impressive thing about this film is that it neither praises nor condemns those involved. Even the end result, the killing of Bin Laden, is not seen as a good thing or a bad thing. It just is.

I’ve been posting reviews of every movie I see over at Letterboxd since the beginning of 2012. Here are links to my reviews of the Best Picture nominees, in case you’re interested: Amour | Argo | Beasts of the Southern Wild | Django Unchained | Les Misérables | Life of Pi | Lincoln | Silver Linings Playbook | Zero Dark Thirty

Best Director

I’m guessing Steven Spielberg will take this, and I can’t complain about that. I thought he made a few strange choices in Lincoln, but overall I liked his quiet, low key handling of the dialogue-heavy script. No matter who wins, though, the story in this category is that Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow weren’t nominated for their outstanding work on Argo and Zero Dark Thirty respectively. These are both shocking omissions, especially given that Affleck won the Directors Guild award. The guild of directors thinks he’s the best director! AMPAS fail.

Best Actor

As soon as I heard Daniel Day-Lewis would be playing Abraham Lincoln in a film directed by Steven Spielberg, I assumed he would win an Oscar for it. This doesn’t come as a huge shock. But if he does win, which he no doubt will, he will absolutely deserve it. I don’t think any of the other nominees even comes close. It’s unfortunate that Jean-Louis Trintignant from Amour was passed over, however. He was excellent.

Best Actress

This is an interesting category. It’s the one that seemed most up in the air until the nominations were announced and I still find a couple of the inclusions a little odd. Naomi Watts is solid in The Impossible, but she’s out of action for a large part of the movie and I’m not sure how she managed to be included here. Little Quvenzhané Wallis was the sparkplug that made Beasts of the Southern Wild run, but you just know she has no chance of winning. Emmanuelle Riva is excellent in Amour, no question, but I thought she was more of a supporting character to Trintignant’s lead. It seems likely that Jennifer Lawrence will win this. I like her and I very much enjoyed her performance in Silver Linings Playbook. Jessica Chastain would also be a worthy winner for Zero Dark Thirty.

Best Supporting Actor

Five nominees, all previous Oscar winners — this is a solid category. I’m hoping Tommy Lee Jones will win for Lincoln because he was one of the best things about the film. I wish there could have been more than five nominees, though, because there are some excellent performances I feel were overlooked:

  • Ewan McGregor in The Impossible. Somehow, Naomi Watts is getting all the attention for this film, but McGregor is the one who provides its best, most moving moment: his heartbreaking, emotional phonecall home to England.
  • Christopher Walken in Seven Psychopaths. A great actor playing a great character with a lot of depth.
  • Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained. It might be a bit much to nominate every actor from Django, but these two would both have deserved it. I was saying all through 2012 that this would finally be Leo’s year because he was playing against type. Okay, so I was wrong about him winning the Oscar, but I wasn’t wrong about his performance. Jackson is also phenomenal and adds a lot of punch to a movie that at times lacks it.

Best Supporting Actress

Anne Hathaway is up against, uh, some other people … ? Really, though, this category is puzzling to me. Jacki Weaver was alright in Silver Linings Playbook, I guess, but she didn’t exactly have much to do. Helen Hunt has the nudity nomination. Amy Adams is very good in The Master, but I felt her character could have been more developed. I hated Sally Field’s performance in Lincoln, but I accept that no one else feels that way.

Anyway, Hathaway is good enough that I think she would win against much better competition, but I can’t help feeling the relative weakness of the two actress categories demonstrates the lack of solid roles for women. And that makes me sad.

Show me your teeth

We have an independent theatre in Ottawa called the Mayfair. Its website bills it as “Ottawa’s home of stuff you won’t see anywhere else,” which is pretty accurate. The Mayfair is both a second-run theatre, showing the occasional movie that was playing in the big chains a couple of months earlier, and a repertory theatre with a focus on classic and cult movies old (they show Rocky Horror monthly) and new (they’re also showing The Room monthly these days). A few months ago they had a Martin Scorsese showcase, this month they’re doing Alfred Hitchcock, and next month it’s a “Cornu-Coppola” as the work of Francis Ford Coppola is revisited. Basically, if you like interesting and/or old movies, it’s excellent to live within a convenient distance of the Mayfair.

Today’s show was a double feature of Steven Spielberg’s two most toothsome thrillers: Jaws — which was released 36 years ago tomorrow! — and Jurassic Park. A staff member explained before the show started that they were showing an old 35mm print of Jaws. The film had obviously not been restored in any way, and the colours in some sections had taken on a pinkish-red tone. I don’t know the technical reason for this, but I’ll have to read up on it. Film preservation is something I’d be interested to learn more about! Jurassic Park was presented with its original DTS sound disc, and it was amazing to hear the difference between that and Jaws‘ older sound technology.

I’d only seen Jaws once before, but I have a lot of love for Jurassic Park and I couldn’t resist what seemed to be a perfectly-matched double feature. Indeed, these two extreme “man vs. huge, terrifying creature with gigantic nasty pointy teeth” stories did go very well together. I have shark fear, so to me just the concept of Jaws is frightening. Spielberg pulls it off so well that I think I’d probably place it in the top five scariest movies I’ve ever seen. At one point while watching today, I literally jumped off my seat — like, I vaulted myself a few inches into the air and didn’t realize it till I felt my butt hit the chair on the way back down. Jurassic Park is also incredibly scary, especially the scene with the T. Rex and the kids in the car. I’ve always thought that was an outstanding sequence, masterfully put together for maximum terror, and watching it today re-confirmed how absolutely petrifying it is. Both movies build a sense of dread from the helplessness of humans facing off against these ancient-seeming creatures — because there’s undoubtedly something about sharks that seems prehistoric — that are huge, smart, pure predators. There’s also a feeling of invasion involved, as though the creatures have violated human space and time: the shark shouldn’t be in the waters near Amity; the dinosaurs, of course, shouldn’t exist at all.

But in Jurassic Park it’s man’s own arrogance that brings the dinosaurs to life. I love a good Frankenstein story and Jurassic Park definitely is one. Jeff Goldblum’s character asks: “What is so great about discovery? It is a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.” This recalls Victor Frankenstein’s description of himself as “always having been embued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature.” Both Frankenstein and John Hammond violate the natural order, and the consequences of their actions are horrific.

One other thing I appreciated about Jurassic Park on watching it again today: the female characters, paleo-botanist Ellie and pre-teen computer nerd hacker Lex, are kind of great. It’s really been bothering me lately how many movies there are where the woman is just a prop there to be rescued by the guy. I know this has been going on forever, but I’ve found it even more annoying ever since I saw Kick-Ass, with its highly unsatisfying ending where SPOILER! super competent, awesome Hit Girl is deprived of her revenge. Ugh! Repeated exposure to the the trailer for the new Transformers movie — in which the female lead (I assume) never even speaks, but is only shown looking scared — probably hasn’t helped either. I think it’s fair to say Sam Neill’s character is the hero in Jurassic Park, but Ellie and Lex both have moments of excellence. When Lex manages to make the doors lock and prevent them all from being eaten by raptors, it’s a fantastic, empowering moment for a young girl who’s spent much of the movie scared out of her wits, but still manages to think on her feet in a difficult situation.