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The Oscars 2013: What Do They Tell Us?

February 24, 2013

The Oscars are happening! These days the Academy nominate loads of films for Best Picture instead of just five, an inflatory move presumably intended to boost revenue by increasing the number of DVD boxes parading awards contention stickers. More immediately, though, it makes writing posts like this a pain in the ass, especially considering a prerequisite of being nominated is your film lasts for two and half fucking hours.

The Oscars, everybody! Have you seen all the best picture nominees? Probably not, some of them look super worthy and one of them is about slowly dying. I have, and here’s a look at them all and a little about what their Academy attention might mean.

 

Amour

Amour 2In which we learn: That the Academy is laudably unafraid to stare death in the face, although admittedly it’s the incredible, piercing face of Emmanuelle Riva, which is quite nice to look at.

Amour is nothing short of the undoing of a person onscreen, and in Riva it’s an alert and still-beautiful person (let’s not be crude, but if we all look like her when we’re 85 octenagerian banging is going to take off in a big way). Comparisons have been made to the life montage of square-headed miseraberk Carl in Pixar’s Up, but that’s allusive and warm and has a sad balloon as a metaphor for mortality, where Amour has a sparkling soul who shits and monosyllable-ises her dignity to nothingness while her husband tends and suffers. Of course, Up should blink tidily from hospital bedside to empty wake, because otherwise I could have stayed at home with the children to google gunshot wounds for two hours and saved £30. But equally Amour’s whole purpose is to dig into the distressing space in between – the slow loss of self, the small touches that comfort flintily, the inevitable triumph of decline.

Oh, fucking hell. If for any reason you want to accentuate the film’s cliff-face bleakness by all means remind yourself of the glamourous new wave peak of its leads – Riva a glaring feast of cheekbone in Hiroshima Mon Amour and Jean-Louis Trintignant wearing a high collar for all of fucking France in The Conformist, which is one of the Best Films. Alternatively you could read some @Michael_Haneke tweets to subvert the whole gazing into the human abyss heaviness. Good luck with that.

 

Argo

ArgoIn which we learn: That sometimes the Academy rewards talent rather than movies, and it can be slow to catch up on both.

Ben Affleck’s true story spy thriller has all the characteristics of the career he’s trying to forge – it’s a bit political, a bit serious, and the period setting allows for his continuing tribute to ‘70s New Hollywood to extend to accurate swirl-bowl haircuts and plastic everything.

The problem is that it’s clearly the worst of the three films Affleck has so far directed, a small kernel of fascinating truth spread thin over flailing xenophobia (a lazy grab at tension from a filmmaker who’s smarter than this shows) and a final act that wrings idiot suspense from an airport escape using a shameful bag of manipulative clichés. As such I’d have trouble recommending Argo despite the fact Alan Arkin says “fuck” perhaps as many as fifteen times, which is excellent.

 

Beasts of The Southern Wild

beasts1In which we learn: Fully formed indie surprises are still possible in Hollywood.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild was made for a piece of string and three hammers using a cast of people who needed several months of training to become non-professional, and it’s still 68 times better than John Carter, the movie responsible for the Great Depression.

There are three reasons I love Beasts Of The Southern Wild even more than I love being sarcastic about the indie credentials of art films: because it projects a compelling image of a not-quite-sci-fi America divided along the lines of class and poverty shamefully exposed by Katrina, because the music is a soaring fairytale of hope that lifts a sodden nightmare, and because it includes the line “I hope you die, and when you die I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake by myself.”

The music bit is important – like David Simon’s HBO series Treme, Beasts looks at what makes communities strong even after their abandonment by the establishment and decides it’s probably getting drunk and dancing. It’s vital and defiant, and I expect it’s also too small and unspectacular to win – not when there are self-importantly staged musicals and presidential dramas in competition. Still, if 2012 featured a big-screen joy purer than watching Hush Puppy run through the Bathtub with sparklers held in each hand then I blinked and missed it.

 

Django Unchained

DjangoIn which we learn: That Tarantino can still pick his collaborators, even if none of them happen to be a strong-armed editor or anyone with balls enough to say “Hey, Quentin, maybe don’t be in this scene as the least convincing Australian ever. The Bonnie Situation was a long fucking time ago and this is pretty embarrassing for everybody”. Which is another way of saying that it’s Christoph Waltz, rather than the film around him, that makes Django Unchained feel fresh and arresting, and whenever he’s not onscreen the self-indulgence and lack of focus weigh heavily.

Problems include the apparent belief that obstinately protracted scenes accrue significance proportional to their length, that Taratino’s script over-pronounces its racist insults like a schoolkid trying out his first swear words, and that Samuel L Jackson has come dressed as a jar of Uncle Ben’s sauce. It’s a big pile for fine casting to overcome, which is why it doesn’t.

 

Les Misérables

Les MisIn which we learn: That Oscar voters love a musical, even when it’s shot like a sixth form vision poem.

More importantly we also learn that the songs in Les Misérables are really good, and that Hugh Jackman hasn’t forgotten his classical stage training despite ten years of doing press-ups and building a body that looks like the flank of a horse. Russell Crowe is both ridiculous as scowling man-of-law Javert and the least wretched he’s been for years – his pompous “I’m doing acting” furrow happens to be an exact match for Javert’s dickishness, and it’s tough to dislike a man who’s throwing his all into singing and is still a bit rubbish.

It’s okay to admit to having a small cry while Anne Hathaway sang I Dreamed A Dream – or at least it had better be because I’m doing it here – and also to acknowledge the success of the film’s technically ambitious decision to record all the vocal performances on set, which is largely what gives Hathaway’s steady, single-shot showcase its saddening whack. Plus points, too, for being filmed partially at Chatham’s Historic Dockyard, where I once gave guided tours of various maritime attractions, something which enabled me to make what’s likely to stay my least-heralded joke of 2013 in a one-line review of the film: It’s a bit ropery.

BECAUSE THERE IS A ROPERY IN THE DOCKYARD WHERE THEY MAKE ROPES .

 

Life Of Pi

Life Of PiIn which we learn: That even films with very convincing CG tigers are incapable of delivering religious meaning much beyond nodding mysteriously and saying “Like, God, yeah?”

Full marks anyway to the tiger, who eats a goat and a zebra, is called Richard Parker, and is my second favourite pretend tiger only after the one who came to tea because he drank all the water in the tap. Next to that drifting across the ocean on a transcendent journey of self-discovery and creaking analogy really is a piece of saved-in-a-bag-until-we’re-dying-of-thirst piss.

Life Of Pi is technically superb in a self-negating way whereby incredible effects work is a minimum requirement of making the story simply occur onscreen. Years of human endeavour sink the creature animation invisibly into the film’s reality, the crowning touch of this remarkable achievement being to give the audience an unobstructed view of the Booker-winning story which, it turns out, is really boring.

Still, as an adaptation of an award-winning novel which has made a giant pile of cash at the box-office, this is a smart shout for Best Picture, even though I secretly enjoyed fellow fiasco-magnet Cloud Atlas more as a movie less inclined to strike me in the face with its hammer-blow attempt at profundity.

 

Lincoln

SpielbergIn which we learn: When Steven Spielberg treads on reverent historical ground awards fly to him like Thor’s hammer.

While explaining his 2013 ballot card to The Hollywood Reporter, an anonymous academy voter recently said that “Spielberg deserves an Oscar every 10 years or so out of respect for what he does for the industry.” What he does for the industry in this case being to make a long-ass film about caucuses and securing the immediate financial future of Hollywood’s fake beard craftsmen.

Oh fine, Lincoln better than that – it’s also an engaging if heavyweight political drama dealing with issues of race and presidential legacy. The film was timely and serious, and we should thank it for showing by contrast the pop-culture shallowness of Django Unchained’s treatment of the same themes, even if it was also like an episode of the Old West Wing without Bradley Whitford

A special word for Daniel Day Lewis, who is here a model of tempered passion and thoughtfulness, and who delivers the kind of subdued intensity you’d expect from a president whose reward for bearing the weight of a civil war and successfully abolishing slavery was to be shot in the fucking head.

 

Silver Linings Playbook

THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKIn which we learn: That Robert De Niro still fucking has it, even if he’s only willing or able to deploy it in one scene every five years.

Silver Linings Playbook has the haphazard profundity of As Good As It Gets, an apparently straightforward emotional drama given extra flight and poignancy by excellent performances and an interest in the awkward imperfection of human contact.

What it’s doing on the list is anyone’s guess – it’s enjoyable, but bar De Niro stripping back the irony and for once laying it on the line, this is good rather than great, a smart romance that embraces weird and shows Bradley Cooper can do more than glow from his teeth while wearing perfect tanned abs.

 

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark ThiryIn which we learn: That the intersection of Hollywood and politics is probably the theme of this year’s awards.

While fellow-favourite Lincoln is celebrated as a recreation of a president’s historical decisiveness, Zero Dark Thirty is notable for not featuring Barack Obama or his nod to proceed with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and being pilloried by various logic-illiterate sections of the media for it anyway, an idiot’s circus that only gave way to an equally tedious discussion about whether the film promotes or condemns the use of torture during interrogation.

All of which is to miss the point that Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t give an improvised fucking device about political gamesmanship or the eye of history – it’s a film about process and precision, about the front end of conflict, which in a modern context involves being Jessica Chastain and doing a serious face, and it’s told with a spareness and neutrality that borders on disinterest.

Still, it’s interesting that in a presidential election year the Academy’s best picture nominees are or less split between heavyweight politicising and searching for the meaning of life, with Django Unchained happier to pop a collar and think about how cool it is, the answer to which if you haven’t been paying attention is: nowhere near as fucking cool as Trintignant in The Conformist.

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