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The Oscars 2012: What Do They Tell Us?

February 26, 2012

Have you seen all the movies nominated for a best picture oscar this year? Probably not – some of them sound really boring. Some of them are really boring. Here is a tiny guide to them all, and some things we can learn from them and their nominations.


In which we learn: That Martin Scorsese can still get nominated for an oscar even with a “magical” kids film that makes it look like Robert Zemeckis has done a sick so big it covers the entire Gare Du Nord in glowing CG.

Hugo is a tribute to the tinkering ingenuity of cinema, and it might have been a dark, mysterious one. John Hurt lobbied for a role imagining a gritty reality, only to find the finished version “was not the film I thought it would be at all.” Not that it isn’t still wonderful in places. In particular, the places where it feels like a Scorsese love letter to cinema and its peculiar mechanical poetry – the figure of the automaton (animated by clockwork artistry and, in my favourite of all the film’s cinematic allusions, a Tin Man in search of a heart) and the railroad setting itself, which puts me in mind of this wonderful quote from Walter Murch (from this interview):

“There’s a big link between trains and film. One of the first filmed objects was a train. The clickety-clack of the projector and the clickety-clack of the train are similar. There is the idea of the voyage—every voyage is a story. I wonder if film would have been invented without the train. Somehow, the invention of tracks and all of that made us think a certain way about the world, and that led eventually to the idea of the sprocketed film, with its frame lines.”

But wowing you with cine-literacy is like making toast for Scorsese, and this is awkwardly plotted, overly sentimental and, I suspect, only nominated because the Academy loves movies that love the movies.

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close

In which we learn: That Hollywood still conflates mental affliction with profundity. Remember how hushed everyone was about American Beauty’s plastic bag? And how fucking stupid that looks now? Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close is like if that plastic bag raised $40 million, hired Tom Hanks and made its own fucking movie with a shouting kid whose startling insights into impenetrable trauma are justified by the fact he was once tested for Asperger’s.

It’s a way of viewing a shocking event from a remove – through childhood, through illness, through pretended, mawkish innocence (the film’s 9/11 euphemism “the most awful day” is an almost perfect vomit trigger). And it’s not profound, for future reference, it’s bullshit.

The Descendants

In which we learn that: Critics who point to George Clooney putting in a career-best performance in Alexander Payne’s sad hula-drama seem to have skim-read that career to this point. Hey you guys! You should watch Michael Clayton, your cocks will fall off.

Clooney is good here, and the film is good too, though in an understated way everyone seems to have accepted as wisdom rather than pointed glibness. It doesn’t allow itself to be fun in the way Payne’s best film, Election, does, and I’ve had enough soaring dysfunctional family units to fill me full of unexpected emotional redemption FOR FUCKING EVER.

The Tree Of Life

In which we learn: That the tumbling coyness of the cosmos can be illuminated through Brad Pitt’s buzz cut and a fucking CG dinosaur.

Or rather – it really can’t, but apparently the Academy won’t laugh at you for trying. I’m a moon-sized apologist for The Thin Red Line, and Terence Malick uses the same rhythms and cadences here – drifting shots of not-action clearly culled from a thousand hours of unused scenes pieced together with ambient sound and urgent yet distant action. I barely understood any of it. Lots of it was fucking brilliant.

But it also has a CG dinosaur. I mean, I’m rooting for you guys, but if you’re selling some orange gas in space with Sean Penn whispering over the top as anything approaching the meaning of the universe and not expecting me to laugh in your face, then fuck off. Kubrick did all this in one cut, from bone to satellite. It’s over already

Also, here as in Moneyball, Brad Pitt sometimes confuses acting with jutting his chin out a bit. It’s distracting.

The Help

In which we learn: That Hollywood loves not-racism. Even though it is in many fundamental ways racist.

On that subject it’s hard to sum up The Help better than this insightful movie poster. It’s also worth noting that if you take away the civil rights issues that help everyone feel self-congratulatory and enlightened, underneath is a drama of one-dimensional characters and brazen emotional manipulation (“You’re my real mommy,” says a fat groomed child with dead-eyed emotional precision).

In other words it’s not really one of the best films of last year at all. But then again it has Emma Stone and the utterly fabulous Allison Janney, so shut my mouth.

Midnight In Paris

In what we learn: That Woody Allen still gets hard for jazz and elusive girls.

And that’s fine, because Midnight In Paris is the best Woody Allen since the fuck-awful Cassandra’s Dream wiped away all my memories of his other films forever. Owen Wilson gives a pathetic likability to Allen’s otherwise typically yearning and dissatisfied leading man, and his champagne dash through a 1920s Paris packed with literary lights and golden age artists falls just the right side of ‘being really mean to Hemmingway.’

Yes, Allen is still writing the same brashly cultured New Yorkers he was writing 40 years ago. And yes, Midnight In Paris gives him unprecedented license to wank into an intellectual cup. But how refreshing to finish one of his movies and not immediately want to cry, drink a bottle of gin and put Annie Hall on.


In which we learn: A bunch of stuff about baseball I’ve already forgotten.

You know what? It’s fine. It’s low-key and has moments of what could be considered poignant stillness and Aaron Sorkin’s name on the writing credits, and in that respect it’s like last year’s awards-friendly The Social Network. It also shares with Fincher’s film a detached way of examining how Important Things have changed significantly in the very recent past – the way we connect with each other, the beating heart of America’s great game.

This along with Brad Pitt and that jutting chin make sense of the nomination. But what they don’t make is any kind of sports movie. “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” asks Brad Pitt, barely pretending to be Oakland As general manager Billy Beane. And yet the movie has no fucking clue – if we’re looking at drama and power and emotional force (and, the alternative being statistics about getting on base, I really fucking am) then Moneyball should only win an oscar in the same universe as Friday Night Lights wins a Nobel Prize for Kicking Ass.

The Artist

In which we learn: That I love Gene Kelly more than Jean Dujardin. Just about.

The Artist is comfortably the best of this year’s nominees thanks to its stylistic daring and formal creativity, which is to say that it’s in black and white with hardly any talking and features a dancing dog. It’s also the favourite to win, partly because it’s another film about films, and partly because betting against Harvey Weinstein is like betting against a 400lb gorilla with a glock.

What stopped me gushing all over that beautiful little dog was that the story in The Artist is one told earlier and better by Singin’ In The Rain. The parallel’s an interesting one. In the same way that Singin’ In The Rain was part of Hollywood’s nervous response to television – taking on the small grey box with widescreen, colour and lavish productions – so The Artist arrives as the industry eyes its digital future with something approaching outright panic. Both retreat to the comfort of an earlier momentous shift – from silence to sound – and both decide that the answer to all life’s problems is probably dancing.

It’s no surprise that Harvey Weinstein should find himself in the middle of all this. He’s made a career of surfing the wave of industrial change, and launched the age of the video-educated director (he looks like he’ll be fine when we’re all absorbed into The Cloud, too). But in 2012 The Artist is an oscar favourite. In 1952 Singin’ In The Rain wasn’t even nominated. How times have changed. (Which is the point, I guess. As well as a dog who can dance.)

PS Oh yeah – I didn’t watch War Horse. Because.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012 11:51 am

    Relatedly, Rachel and I were watching Film 2012’s pre-Oscar chat and marvelling at how bad it is. First time we’d seen Winkleman on it and if anything I’d assumed people had just been mean because she was a girl. But she did just sit there doing this trilling laugh while the journo boys they’d bussed in said stuff that was barely less vapid. (Did anyone ever get bussed in to help Ross or Norman? If not why now, other than the obvious? Because it sure as shit isn’t more satisfying as a format.) In one spectacularly unenlightening exchange a writer – Bradshaw maybe – explained that he hated Warhorse. (No reason given.) Winkleman responded that she really liked it. (No reason given.)

    Total ballbag.

    • February 28, 2012 1:00 pm

      I’ve not seen it regularly enough to be mean, though the shift from a single commentator to a more magazine-y format always seemed a risky one. With Norman/Ross the delivery was always pretty lean and straightforward (and Ross was surprisingly smart). Left enough room to gauge whether I was interested even if they disapproved, something which I think is lost with the softer, opinion-canvassing approach.

      That said, the people they ‘bus in’ mostly seem like smart choices – people I’ve heard of who talk a lot of intelligent sense (on twitter, mags, and online at least).

  2. admiralneck permalink
    February 27, 2012 1:08 pm

    I wish you’d seen War Horsey. Multiple equine LULZ. Basically the entire masses armies of the world fall in love with some magical dobbin & die trying to hold onto it. A metaphor for something. Horse penis, probably (all those close-ups of cannons).

    • February 28, 2012 1:01 pm

      Maybe I’ll watch it now and do a separate post. I fucking love a good cannon.

  3. February 28, 2012 7:48 pm

    I enjoyed Midnight in Paris even though really it should have been utter drivel. It was charming somehow. I also agree with the sentiment that Hugo was good in parts, but too goody-two-shoes and left me a little cold. The book is all kinds superb though, I thoroughly recommend it. Short, so you can blast through it quicker than watching the film.

  4. April 10, 2012 7:44 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this, but as much as I hate being ‘that’ guy I feel the need to point out a minor error: The Descendants & Election were directed by Alexander Payne, not Walker.

    • April 11, 2012 2:52 pm

      No! It’s totally my fault. I appreciate you reading in the first place, even more so for providing a polite correction to a mad mistake.

    • April 11, 2012 2:55 pm

      Aaaand fixed.


  1. Hugo, and the pointless raging against time « Film Forum

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