There is no reason why the list of Best Picture nominees should be limited to five. Then again, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be limited to five. It’s one of the countless arbitrary distinctions the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences makes. But the recent tinkering with the Best Picture nominee roster—which saw the number of potential nominees double starting in 2009—comes across as especially gimmicky since it’s the only category to have been expanded in this manner. The idea, I suppose, is to highlight more films. But one could also make the argument that it dilutes the process and the winner, especially since the race really comes down to only a handful of nominees. Whether it would have been better to stick with the five strongest is up for debate, but there is little arguing that this year’s slate of (nine total) films is a fairly predictable bunch, at least in terms of how the Academy seems to be swinging.
Rather than tackling each film separately in this Best Picture nominee analysis series, I’ve decided come at it with a similarly arbitrary approach as the Academy. Thus, I am dividing the Best Picture nominees into three categories: “Long Shots,” “Middleweights,” and “Contenders.” Today I’ll cover three films in that I'm considering the long shots. Before getting started, one thing worth noting is that, among these three films that are least likely to win, two of them (Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild) have also been nominated in the Best Director category. If the old logic of Best Director/Best Picture running pretty lock-in-step is true, then each of these films can also be considered as much for Best Director, which effectively makes that race between three nominees: David O. Russell, Ang Lee, and Steven Spielberg.
I’ll have more to say about this odd year (from a nominees standpoint) as we get further along, but for now, here is my assessment of the “Long Shots,” or, if you like, the “Happy to be here” entries. It’s a pretty good trio, but in terms of their Oscar chances, each of their victories were in the nominations. (Note: star ratings next to the titles represent my rating and bear no relation to each film's likelihood of winning.)
That Michael Haneke’s latest film has been so visible throughout this awards cycle is something of a surprise, no matter how much of a departure Amour is considered for the director. The reality is that Amour is very much in the Haneke mold, thematically and stylistically. Its chronicling of the last stages of an elderly woman’s (Emanuelle Riva) life through the eyes of her lifelong husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is shattering, to say the least. Deeply humanistic in some respects, Amour also offers a window into the painful emotions of watching someone wither away. Haneke’s slow rhythms and steady compositional approach pair well with quiet distance that gradually and inevitably separate the husband and wife. It’s a terrific film, but devastating in ways that the Academy is not prepared to reward at the top level. It's also not in the English language, which just about rules it out no matter how high the quality.
Bottom Line: While it’s a sure bet in the Foreign Language category, Amour’s real victory was landing in the Best Director and Best Picture fields. The Academy’s embrace of Haneke's film will be as cold as the director's storytelling, however.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (***)
Also a surprise in both the Best Picture and Best Director categories is Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. With the category expanded to nine films this year, it’s become harder for the Academy to justify the absence of at least one contemporary indie-styled film, which Beasts well satisfies. Despite it’s problematic tendency to ennoble the young protagonist with zen-like wisdom and penetrating insights (summed up well by Dana Stevens’ “anthropological voyeurism” takedown), I was moved by the odyssey and rich portrait of a world far removed from the social and commercial restraints of modern society. Its seamless melding of gritty realism with sweeping emotional gusts and fantastical visions of folk legend probably won Academy voters as much as they did for me, but not enough for them to consider it as Best Picture.
Bottom Line: While it will enjoy a nice boost from the exposure, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a niche film as the Oscars go. It was destined to be in the mix, but it’s road ended with the nomination.
Django Unchained (***)
With Harvey Weinstein deciding to throw his weight behind Silver Linings Playbook, it’s no wonder that Quentin Tarantino couldn’t get lightning to strike twice after his strong 2009 showing with Inglourious Basterds, which netted the director nominations in both Directing and Best Picture fields. Django Unchained is a similar kind of movie, an anachronistic revenge tale threaded into a painful chapter in history. Powered by beautiful photography by Robert Richardson and a collection of fine performances, Django is salient and layered in ways similar to Basterds, but it lacks the focus and the rhythm that characterized that film. With all these factors in play, Harvey’s opting to lobby for the safer, smaller Playbook makes sense. Nevertheless, Tarantino's film, while spotty, is another solid entry for the director.
Bottom Line: Tarantino might have a shot at Original Screenplay, but it was a surprise that Django Unchained was even nominated for Best Picture. Thus, it’s arguably the film that’s least likely to win.