Thursday, February 14, 2013

Best Picture 2013: The Middleweights

In reality, each of the films I’ll be discussing today have no better a shot at winning Best Picture than the “Long Shots” I projected last week. But where the long shots never stood a chance in the race, these three films at some point or another were considered viable contenders. With the endless awards cycle zapping any tension out of the race anymore, the whole exercise of running through nine nominees seems even even more pointless. Now perhaps more than ever, the contest comes down to two or three real contenders, which are minted weeks in advance. Nevertheless, the films below represent different ends of the Oscar spectrum in terms of quality and relevance that's worth having a closer look at, no matter how unlikely that any one of these should win.

Les Misérables (**)
I don’t consider myself part of the critical contingent that’s “above” Les Misérables. I loved the musical when I was younger, and though I haven’t listened to it in probably 15 years, I was genuinely surprised to recall many of the songs as I watched Tom Hooper's adaptation. I wish my nostalgia for the play had carried over to the film itself though. Despite an appropriately grand scale and a handful of impeccably voiced performances/songs, Les Misérables is startlingly inept in concept and execution. That Hooper is so in-your-face with the live singing and jarring close-ups only deepens the film’s failure as a visual and narrative spectacle. And while the Academy has a soft spot for epic melodramas like this, the film has generated no support outside of Anne Hathaway’s performance.
            The Bottom Line:  Once considered an early contender, Tom Hooper’s lack of a Best Director nomination was just the start of Les Misérables’s downfall as a serious contender.

Zero Dark Thirty (***½)
Glenn Greenwald is an important voice on geopolitical matters, but I wish he had kept his stubbornly facile take on Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty to himself. Instead, his weighing in on the film’s “pro-torture” stance (according to him) was the beginning of the end of the film’s Oscar chances. It’s a shame, since Zero Dark Thirty is a quietly subversive film that takes a cold look at the emotional, strategic, and monetary means of hunting down Osama bin Laden. It’s a moral Rorschach test in which some will see a patriotic validation of the American way, and others a hazardous labyrinth of ethical compromises. That’s part of what makes the Zero Dark Thirty so relevant and incisive. Unfortunately, it's been derailed by a fatuous controversy over torture that both somehow both distorts and validates the film's nuances.
            The Bottom Line:  Given how it’s become just about impossible to engage this movie from outside the torture debate, Zero Dark Thirty is now probably as much of a long shot as Amour.

Silver Linings Playbook (*½)
As I’ve noted in a previous post, Silver Linings Playbook is a con job of a movie—a cheap romantic comedy masquerading as pseudo indie drama. But no amount of strong performances and elegant visual grammar are enough to overcome a nearly unparalleled level of recklessness at this level of "prestige" filmmaking. And as if its cheapening of mental isn’t enough, Silver Linings Playbook’s message about blind faith is sanctimoniously wrong-headed. But this is a Harvey Weinstein-backed picture, so a win for Jennifer Lawrence in the Best Actress category is expected at the very least. Best Picture is probably out of reach, but after last year’s The Artist debacle, anything can happen.
            The Bottom Line:  Never rule out the influence of Harvey Weinstein, but there is a good chance that Silver Linings Playbook is where the Weinstein magic ends after two straight years of Best Picture winners.

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