Michel Hazanavicius: The Artist (winner)
Alexander Payne: The Descendants
Martin Scorsese: Hugo
Woody Allen: Midnight in Paris
Terrence Malick: The Tree of Life
What could be here and isn’t? Well, as is often the case, there are a number of films that I like a lot that aren’t really the sort of movies that Oscar gravitates toward. Joe Cornish’s inventive work on Attack the Block ranks high on that scale, as does William Friedkin’s completely out of the box and insane direction on Killer Joe. Action movies also don’t get a lot of respect come Oscar time, but the direction of an action movie is often the difference between what makes a film work well and fail. On that scale, there should be some recognition of Gareth Evans for The Raid: Redemption. Steve McQueen’s Shame was probably too racy for Oscar, and based on the recent scandals, perhaps hit too close to home in some ways. I think The Skin I Live In is Pedro Almodovar’s best work, but it’s also probably too graphic and upsetting for serious Oscar contention when there were this many more palatable films available. On the foreign front, I’d nominate Asghar Farhadi for A Separation, which is beautifully directed. Movies that I think I can make a case for at least in the sense that I like the direction of them more than at least one nomination include J.C. Chandor for Margin Call, George Clooney for The Ides of March, and finally David Fincher for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. The Descendants is far from my least favorite of the five nominees as a movie, but in terms of the director, it’s one that I have trouble understanding in terms of the nomination. Alexander Payne did a fine job with it, but a lot of what he seemed to do was get out of the way of the story and let his actors handle what was happening as well as they could. That’s frequently the right decision. Set up the cameras in the right place and let the story unfold in front of them. A good choice, but rarely one deserving of an Oscar nomination.
4. I’ll catch some heat for putting Martin Scorsese in fourth place for Hugo, but it’s very much a film that I like less than just about everyone else. While a part of the film was certainly to tell the story, I think there’s some clear evidence that Scorsese really wanted to share a love and a joy of early film with his audience. He does all he can with that, and I think that in the main, he fails completely. On an unrelated front, Hugo feels disjointed to me; the first part of the film seems to have little connection to the rest. I respect what he attempted to do, but I think he generally failed at it.
3. Woody Allen is rarely the worst choice when it comes to direction, and Midnight in Paris is one of his better films of this decade. It’s a film that, for one of the first times, didn’t make me want to punch Owen Wilson whenever I saw him on screen. That’s noteworthy in and of itself. I like the story a lot and I like where it goes. The most impressive thing about it beyond that story, though, is the overall look and feel of the film. The direction is good, but it takes second place behind the sets, set direction, and costuming.
2. It’s not a surprise that Michel Hazanavicius won for The Artist. In fact, it’s not that surprising that The Artist won a ton of Oscars, since it’s exactly the sort of film the Academy loves—it’s about the early history of Hollywood. Hazanavicius made some bold and interesting choices with the film. Shooting it as a silent and in black-and-white was gutsy for 2011, and overall, it works. While I don’t think the film is something that retains much in the way of rewatchability, it’s a visual treat, and directed beautifully. In a weaker year, I could see myself being swayed to vote this way.
1. Of the five nominees, The Tree of Life is almost certainly the film I’m least likely to seriously rewatch. Terrence Malick’s work is close to flawless, though. It’s a beautiful experience from the opening moments to the close. I understand that it goes completely off the rails in places, and based on that, it probably shouldn’t be here, but it does it with such artistic flair and panache that I can’t help but be impressed by it. Malick will almost certainly win an Oscar someday, and given the five nominations, this is where I would have gone.
I’m going to do something here that I don’t often do with these posts: I’m going to pick a winner based in large part on my own enjoyment of a film. In an open field, I’m giving this to Gareth Evans. The reason for that is simple. The Raid: Redemption is a near-perfect action movie. Based on how often action movies are badly filmed and confusing, The Raid is almost a revelation in the way that great action sequences can be show to the audience. It’s the sort of film that action directors should watch on a loop for about a week before deciding to direct their own action sequences. Sure, it’s not the sort of movie that Oscar typically likes to nominate or award, but it should be. Anything that serves as a template for how others should do something is worthy of consideration, and The Raid is that in just about every shot.