The problem, at least as far as the Oscars are concerned, is that I’ve rarely seen enough of the nominated movies to have an opinion. Back home, I only went to see movies if they involved superheroes or the Muppets, and here at school I don’t go to the movies at all.
Luckily, I heard about the AMC Best Picture Showcase, wherein select AMC movie theaters show every movie nominated for Best Picture over the course of two consecutive Saturdays (four movies the first week, five the next). Yes sir, Senator. Even though this year’s nominees don’t look nearly as good as last year’s roster, there should still be some gems (although I’ll have to see Drive and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on my own because the Oscars don’t like fun).
What follows is a collection of my thoughts about the first half of the AMC Best Picture Showcase. I am armed with my roommate Richie (and all his RTVF knowledge), his girlfriend Susie (and her constant nausea), a $5 AMC card (about enough for a bottle of water), and my own indomitable snark and vague movie knowledge. Let’s hit it.
First up is the one Best Picture nominee I actually had zero interest in seeing. Naturally.
In case you were wondering, this movie is about exactly what you think it is about: a horse in a war. The first 30 minutes mostly consist of gorgeous close-up shots of horses. The dialogue seems to draw from a vocabulary of about 30 words (mostly just “Hey, Joey” or “Here, Joey, that’s a good boy” or some variation on those themes). I’ve heard The Fast and the Furious movies described as “car porn.” In that case, War Horse, or at least the first act, is “horse porn.” Luckily, there were two older women sitting next to me, which prevented me from loudly scoffing at the predictable plot points (I mean, who didn’t see that plowing-the-field scene coming? Give me a break Steven Spielberg, we’ve all seen Mulan).
The movie is more of a collection of short stories than a linear narrative, with the titular horse and the titular war being the threads tying the various stories together. This is good news, because some of the later stories (particularly the Christmas Day truce-style teamwork between the soldiers to free the horse from barbed wire) are actually compelling. So, despite the pitfalls of the first act and general sap-tastic feel of the whole thing (emotion is practically crammed down your throat here), the movie actually ends up being very watchable. I might even watch it again, if it happens to be on TV five years from now while I’m surfing through channels. But that enthusiasm might just be a natural byproduct of how low my expectations were after the disastrous first act, and if it ends up winning Best Picture, I’ll eat my (horse)shoe.
My expectations for the day’s movies increased exponentially as the day went on. I was looking forward to Moneyball much more than War Horse. That’s probably why I wasn’t as crazy about it as Richie, who gave it a 9 out of 10 and said it was his favorite movie of the day. My reactions to art are forever entwined with my level of surprise.
Anyway, back to the important question here: why is Brad Pitt always eating in his movies? I thought that was just an Ocean’s Eleven thing, but about 60% of Moneyball’s shots are Brad Pitt talking and munching on fries. Also, spoiler alert, every impactful Pitt scene in Tree of Life takes place at the dinner table. I don’t get it.
And why was Jonah Hill nominated for Best Supporting Actor? Um…I’m not sure. Brad Pitt is great in this movie, as usual, but Hill mostly just mumbles. He’s great at being awkward, but that’s it. Maybe his nomination is a result of the Robin-Williams-in-Good Will Hunting Corollary, where comedy actors automatically get nominated for Oscars once they do a film that’s not a comedy.
Like I said, Richie gave Moneyball a 9 out of 10. But I don’t feel that I’ve seen enough films in my time to calibrate my own 1-to-10 scale, so I’m just going to rank these movies against each other. So far Moneyball is ahead of War Horse.
Tree of Life
This movie is the anti-War Horse in that my expectations were higher than any of the other nominees. Ever since Roger Ebert practically jizzed himself when he reviewed it over the summer, I’ve really wanted to see it. Considering my whole riff above about how low expectations work best for me, this should have set off a red flag for me. So should the epigraph from the Book of Job, which just screams that we’re in for a heady, pretentious ride. And we were.
If The Fast and the Furious is car porn and War Horse is horse porn, then Tree of Life is universe porn. Most of the movie consists of crazily artistic shots of volcanoes and supernovas, and if you didn’t think extreme close-ups of bacteria could be beautiful then you haven’t seen Tree of Life. Those shots of the history of the universe are contrasted with the story of a 1950’s nuclear family living in Waco, Texas. If that sentence makes you think that this movie is a self-obsessed avant-garde extravaganza, then you’re right. My face was frozen in a whaaaat-the-fuck expression for most of the two and a half hour run time. I once described the music of Kanye West as a wow-inducing cathedral, but I now feel a little silly for wasting that comparison on a piece of art that isn’t Tree of Life. I can honestly say I have never seen another movie even remotely like it. Unfortunately for everyone, it doesn’t make any sense.
I’ll say this: until the final 20 minutes or so, I honestly believed that the movie was going to be great. And it could have been. A few tweaks here and there and we would’ve had a masterpiece on our hands.
Instead, director Terrence Malick decides to masturbate (you know, cinematographically), and we’re left with nothing more than a gorgeously shot film that was probably only nominated for Best Picture because the Academy members were terrified of saying they didn’t understand it (like critics who acclaim T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land). This is definitely a movie that is sorry it’s not sorry for being pretentious.
So now we’re heading into the home stretch! The rankings at this point are: Moneyball first, War Horse second, and then Tree of Life way over there in its own little space.
Of the four movies, The Descendants is the only one I didn’t keep notes on. Partially because I was just too tired, but mostly because the movie kept me engaged the whole time. As in, the exact opposite of my experience watching War Horse (“When will this movie end?”) and Tree of Life (“WILL this movie end???”). It was my favorite movie of the four. Richie didn’t like it because it was too slow, and Susie was comatose for much of it so she didn’t really have an opinion, but I thought it was great. The dialogue was hilariously lifelike (“Elizabeth is dying. Oh wait, fuck you”) and I fell in love with the characters, particularly Sid, the goofy stoner boyfriend of George Clooney’s daughter who distributes some real wisdom nuggets.
Another thing that sets this movie apart: it was the most simplistic. Moneyball utilized several cool effects, particularly the incorporation of real footage from that 2002 A’s team. War Horse consisted mostly of gorgeous shots of horses and battlefields. Tree of Life consisted only of gorgeous shots of…nature (I don’t know how else to describe it). The Descendants doesn’t go for any of that. No cool fade-ins or crazy mole’s-eye view of gigantic trees, just a man and his daughters dealing with the death of their wife/mother. Very human, very painful, very funny, very real. I know I sound sentimental with the previous sentence, but this movie is anything but sentimental. It captures the pain and reality of interacting with your family in the 21st century, when 10-year old girls are so exposed to culture that sometimes they’ll inexplicably shout “Shut up, you motherless whore!” How can you not love this movie?
My final rankings of the day
1. The Descendants
3. War Horse
4. Tree of Life
Stay tuned for Part II.