It’s only a week before February 26, Oscar Sunday, when we find out which of the nine excellent nominees will be awarded Best Picture this year. Predictions have been made, analyses written, and here are two lists to begin with – by number of nominations and by the critics’ scores.
Number Of Oscar Nominations Line-Up:
1. Hugo (11)
2. The Artist (10)
3. War Horse (6)
4. Moneyball (6)
5. The Descendants (5)
6. Midnight In Paris (4)
7. The Help (4)
8. The Tree Of Life (3)
9. Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close (2)
Metacritic Score Line-Up:
1. The Artist (89)
2. Moneyball (87)
3. The Tree Of Life (85)
4. The Descendants (84)
5. Hugo (83)
6. Midnight In Paris (81)
7. War Horse (72)
8. The Help (62)
9. Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close (46)
A few of the Best Picture Oscar contenders are about creators and their struggles, about the necessity of evolution in creative methods in the name of mere survival of creative forms but also about the importance of creative memory. This year three movies in the Best Picture category hinge on the struggles of artistic personalities, and all three – Hugo, The Artist and Midnight In Paris – are strong contenders for the most important Oscar in 2012.
Four Best Picture nominated movies are told, at least in part, by unreliable, naive narrators trying to make sense of chaotic, unfair reality (children’s perspectives in Hugo, The Tree Of Life, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close and a horse’s in War Horse). In terms of pretentions to universality, Hugo is the most post-modern as it clearly positions itself as three movies in one: one for the children, one for the adults, one for the critics, aiming to please all in equal measure. (War Horse does the same but since Spielberg, unlike Scorsese, has done it since time immemorial, it isn’t as obvious). The Tree Of Life is the most innovative; in fact, it’s something that has never been done before, with a poem for a script and a prayer for narrative, a wonderful multivocality of whispers. The most accessible Best Picture Oscar contenders are War Horse, The Help, Hugo; the least accessible and viewer-friendly is The Tree Of Life.
The Dynamics of Change
All the contenders for Best Picture Oscar deal with change in one way or another. In the widely acclaimed The Artist tragedy occurs when the talkies are introduced and the familiar world of silent movies collapses almost instantly. In Moneyball a new approach to sports logistics challenges the foundations of baseball, and, on a more private level, the life of one talented coach. Midnight In Paris deals with change directly, on a narrower scale, commenting on the complex of seniority in arts, the spastic prejudice that the older a work/form of art, the more prestigious and precious it is. The Help is set during the turbulent civil rights era in one of the most turbulent states. The Tree Of Life deals with the ultimate, apocalyptic injustice – a death of a child, and the eternal question ‘Why do good people suffer?’ The protagonist of the tragic-comic The Descendants deals with death and change of perception caused by betrayal, trying to calculate the price for heritage, memory and continuity all at the same time. The characters of Hugo and War Horse are directly affected by World War I; Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close deals with the events of 9/11.
The Black Sheep
The inevitable black sheep are Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close and Midnight In Paris. The first stands out with the lowest critic scores and the fewest nominations; the second is simply very different in tone from the rest of the movies, as well as almost microscopic in scope and ambition (possibly too ‘light’ for the academy to be considered Best Picture).
To say that I have enjoyed each and every movie contending for the Best Picture Oscar in 2012 is an understatement. They are all flawed, yet all worthy movies, even the hysterical Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. Most of them ask the big beautiful questions: Why do strangers fly planes into buildings killing people they don’t even know? Why do humans use the most developed intelligence among the species to create weapons to exterminate each other (a question asked by a horse)? What are creators without their legacy? What is freedom without equality? Where were you (a question addressed to the ultimate Creator) – the most blatant, most painful of them all…
I was surprised by the type of Best Picture nominees that left me completely entranced (and transformed). Seems like the struggles of the artistic bunch would be closer to my own artistic skin, but even though they were thoroughly entertaining, and rang a few bells, they left me cold as ice. The Descendants and The Tree Of Life, deeply intimate and abstract at the same time, left me speechless, on the contrary.
In The Descendants, the combination of unspeakable tragedy, deceptively tranquil hula music and wickedly explosive humor against an almost inaudible philosophical rumination on history, heritage, eternity, backed up by an outstanding performance by George Clooney (hope he wins Best Actor), left me smitten.
The Tree Of Life deserves a few paragraphs on its own.
The Tree Of Life is a movie that every cell in the modern movie goer tries to resist; but it is imperative for anyone who cares about cinema genuinely to silence those disobedient cells and surrender to something we haven’t been used to for a while – art. The first time I attempted to watch it, everything against me rebelled, and I stopped. Something hooked me, however, and I started again, from the top, introducing a small change – a watching partner, my almost-five-year-old daughter. The second time worked.
The Tree Of Life is marvelous to watch with a child, providing the soundtrack for the nearly silent movie (Birds. Sky. Dinosaur. Baby.) and perspective – try to be five years old again and look at the wonder of clouds, sunflowers, cows, sand, water, wind… It’s not a movie easy to gulp down (like plenty of other tear-jerking, exploitative contenders). That movie is made with complete freedom, no strings to boxoffice obligations/critic appraise ambitions attached, a pure rumination, a question mark – yet fully satisfying.
It’s about balance, about harmony, a movie that talks unapologetically not only about God, but to God. In the midst of apocalyptic fears and screams about degraded morals, Malick tells us that despite constant change, evolution and transformation, paradoxically, the essence of things, both qualitatively and quantitatively, has not changed one bit, and just like a hungry predator can lend a gift of life to the struggling prey, the kind loving Creator can take an innocent life away – two events millions of years apart, two events out of reach for commonplace analysis and comprehension. Strangely, The Tree Of Life, made me feel simultaneously like a speck of sand under someone’s busy foot, and a mighty eagle, soaring above all creation; no contradiction, happy to be both.
Many contenders for the Best Picture Oscar try to make sense of the things around them. The Tree Of Life offers the bravest suggestion: not all things can be understood; not all things should be understood.
Many contenders for the Best Picture Oscar talk about creators. The Tree Of Life is a conversation with the Creator; a new genre in cinema – movie-prayer.
Many contenders for the Best Picture Oscar talk of change. The Tree Of Life is the only movie that not only talks about change but delivers it – inside the viewer. That’s catharsis, once believed a necessary ingredient in art.
Whoever wins Best Picture, the line-up of strong, interesting movies this year fills me with hope. And I think when it comes to arts, we can all do with a little hope.