The Artist (winner)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
2011 was such a good year for film, and because of that, I’m particularly disappointed in the slate of nominations. Depending on my mood, I’d drop between five and seven of them to make room for what I think are much better choices. We can start with those movies that simply don’t get Oscar love and wouldn’t have been nominated in 2011. Those include action and science fiction films like Hanna, The Raid: Redemption, Attack the Block, and the brutal, almost pornographic sensibilities of Killer Joe. Shame may have just gone too far, something that could clearly be said about The Skin I Live in. A film like Martha Marcie May Marlene slipped under a lot of radars, sadly. I was more than a little impressed with Drive and The Ides of March, two films that helped make this a damn fine year for Ryan Gosling. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo stands out for me as well. Finally, I’d love to put A Separation on the list as one of the best movies of its year in any language.
Weeding through the Nominees
9. The biggest question I had here was determining what would come in last place between two movies I genuinely hated. I finally decided to put Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close here for a couple of overriding reasons. The first is that it has been a long time since I have genuinely disliked a character I’m supposed to like as much as I disliked this damn kid. Second is how badly misused a good cast is for the rest of the film. But mainly, it’s because I’m supposed to believe that a kid who walks into strangers’ houses and kisses them has to play games with his father because of social anxiety. I hated this movie. There’s no way it should be here.
8. War Horse is everything I hate about Spielberg movies when there’s something I hate about one of his movies. I won’t deny that he is a great director, but he hammers on emotional moments and themes like they are anvils. War Horse is all of that turned up to 11, a film where every heart string is plucked as hard as it can be and every maudlin emotional moment is milked as much as is possible. Seriously, that damn horse is presented to us like it’s the second coming of Secretariat. That I had to think about possibly putting it below Extremely Bad and Incredibly Annoying only hints at how much I didn’t like it.
7. I’m putting Hugo a lot lower than I think a number of people would like. My ultimate take on this movie is that it is a beautiful and well-made failure in almost every respect. There’s a sense here that Martin Scorsese made a movie for the movie nerd, someone who geeks out on movie history. He wanted to share his love of that with the world, and I respect that idea. The problem is that I don’t think Hugo inspired a single new person to seek out those early films in any real way—he was preaching to the choir and making no headway against a tide of people who, once the pretty pictures stop, don’t care at all.
6. I was not a little surprised when The Artist won. It did everything Scorsese wanted to do with Hugo in a much more palpable way. It felt, despite being silent, new and exciting and wonderful. And then…who cares? Have you thought about The Artist that much in the last 5 years? Have you told anyone to rush out and watch it if they haven’t seen it? It was the flavor of the month, and it was a movie that celebrated movies. Of course it won a bunch of awards. But six months later, no one cares because ultimately, it didn’t have that much to say.
5. The Tree of Life is a beautiful movie in so many respects, but it’s not a lot more than a beautiful movie. Is this the moment when Terrence Malick started to lose his way completely? It may well be. In any event, for a film that is as pretty to look at as The Tree of Life, there’s surprisingly little substance underneath it. Oh, I’m sure there’s meaning to all of this and that Malick would have something to say about every shot. But I’ve never had the desire to go back and watch it again because I remember it as a lot of noise and shots of trees and dinosaurs and not a lot else.
4. I liked The Help, but it’s got some real problems. For as much as it wants to be a progressive film, The Help is a white people racism movie. The problems of the poor, black menial workers only get solved by the intervention of the rich, white crusader. Worse, there’s some good evidence that life isn’t going to get better for the help, while our rich, white crusader gets a free pass away from all of the social chaos that she has caused. She (and by association, the audience) gets to feel accomplished for saving those po’ folk who couldn’t save themselves and she gets to avoid all of the consequences.
3. It’s entirely possible that I like Moneyball not despite the fact that it’s a sports movie without a lot of sports in it but because of that fact. This is a movie about baseball, kind of, but really more about the numbers and a new way of approaching a problem. I appreciate that aspect of the film. I was a sports fan long enough to understand the baseball terms and all of that, but I’m also enough of someone who doesn’t care about the sport itself to see what is presented here as a logical problem to be solved. I enjoyed that, and so the movie is pretty good as well.
2. The Descendants doesn’t feel like the sort of movie that I would put in second place in anything, particularly in a group of nine total films, and yet here we are. I was surprised by this film in so many ways. I watched it because, well, it was on the list and that’s what I do for movies that are on the list. And I found myself rather enchanted by it despite my initial misgivings. Sure, it’s rich, white people problems, but it’s a compelling film, and one that addresses real human issues, albeit in the guise of rich, white people problems.
1. This leaves me with Midnight in Paris, and I’m conflicted once again. I do genuinely like this movie a lot. I think it’s beautifully filmed and the story is rather wonderful as well. It’s such a clear expression of magical realism, the sort of thing that makes a movie like Field of Dreams so wonderful to watch. Midnight in Paris captures that emotional feeling, and that’s pretty special. It just feels so hard to praise a Woody Allen film right now. It may well be the best movie of its year, and that’s great for the movie, and not so great for my psyche.
The truth is that I’d rewrite most of this nomination list without any guilt. I’d keep the top few, no further down than the top four and probably only the top two or three and populate the rest of the list with movies from my first paragraph. For the ultimate top spot, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame, The Skin I Live In and A Separation would probably all be in competition, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might slip in as well. I might still go with Midnight in Paris, but right now, I think A Separation is much more likely.