Ranking the Best Picture nominees

    It’s happening again.

    Like the journalistic equivalent of The Hangover Part II, this article will almost be a repeat of the one before it, except with slightly more and slightly different movies. Same characters: me, RTVF major roommate Richie, roommate’s girlfriend Susie and copious amounts of strawberry Twizzlers. Different movies, and more importantly, different amounts of sleep: Richie and I had about eight hours of sleep between us, which would later come to bite The Artist in the butt.

    Here we go.


    We start the day off with the only 3D movie to be nominated for Best Picture this year.

    That sentence actually doesn’t have as much of an impact as it seems. Even the movies that weren’t in 3D were beautifully shot (I’m looking at War Horse and Tree of Life in particular). Watching Scorsese’s beautiful three dimensional camera pan around the train station in Hugo, I started thinking whether the experience of watching movies on a portable DVD player or a crappy iPhone screen has begun to fade away into eternal irrelevance. I actually think it’s impossible to watch Tree of Life equipped with anything less than a gigantic LCD screen TV/Blu Ray player combo, and Hugo is kind of the same way. Is it growing progressively more difficult to be cultural and poor?

    Also, why does everyone have British accents here? Are we Americans so dumb that we allow British accents to stand in for any foreign accent? Hugo is quite viscerally set in Paris, yet all the characters have British accents. If we’re going to be unrealistic about it (and we are, since the actors are speaking in English and we’re just imagining them to be speaking in French) why not just do away with accents all together? Jedi Master Yoda once said that anger leads to hate and hate leads to the Dark Side. Well, British accents for French characters leads to Angelina Jolie in Alexander which leads to anger and the Dark Side.

    Oh yeah, about the movie. It was cool and ambitious and whatever, I guess. It was definitely piloted directly at film nerds like Richie, so he picked it as his Best Picture winner. I wasn’t crazy about it, though.

    The Help

    The following is a reproduction of a real conversation between me and Richie a few days ago.

    Me: “I am NOT looking forward to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Or The Help.”
    Richie: “Good thing those two are much longer than the other three.”
    Me: “Fuck my life.”

    So that’s where we stood going in. Low expectations for the two longest movies of Day 2. As I have said before, low expectations usually work well for me, because there’s ample room for positive surprise. Last week, low expectations boosted my opinion of War Horse, and in December they turned a Bon Iver show into the best concert of my life. This time around, they really boosted The Help and had no effect on the atrociousness of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. More on the latter in a second.

    I loved The Help. It had complex characters, an interesting plot and amazing actors (Viola Davis WILL win Best Actress). It made me laugh, and it made me cry.

    However, I freely admit that it is slightly beyond my powers to judge this movie’s handling of race. Some critics have called it “toothless.” Talk show host Tavis Smiley applauded Davis’s performance but lamented that she was being recognized for playing a maid, in the slightly racist Oscar tradition of recognizing great black actors like Denzel Washington, but only for their roles as racist stereotypes (in Denzel’s case, the corrupt cop of Training Day). When I first watched Crash three years ago, I thought it was cool and edgy and relevant. I now recognize it as the screeching pile of bullshit that it is. So I can’t properly evaluate the quality of the racial aspect.

    But I still loved The Help. The only criticism I could muster would be that while some characters (notably Davis’ Aibileen and Allison Janney’s mother character) were fully fleshed out, while others, particularly Emma Stone’s protagonist and the villainous Hilly Holbrook, were frustratingly one-dimensional. Really though, that’s the only criticism I can muster.

    I say The Help is ahead of Hugo, though Richie would disagree.

    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

    And now, ladies and gentlemen, for the one 2012 Best Picture nominee that I actively disliked. I actually turned to Susie at one point and said through gritted teeth, “I actively dislike this movie.” It was painful to watch. The Help was also painful to watch at points, but that was because racism was depicted so viscerally (which meant the movie was doing its job). This movie is painful to watch because it sucks.

    I mean, an ingredient for an enjoyable, good movie is a great protagonist, right? Well, that’s too bad because this protagonist, whose name I can’t even remember so I’ll just call him Screechy McAnnoyingPants, lacks a single compelling trait. This movie is an adaptation of a book by Jonathan Safran Foer, one of those young writers with a lot of postmodern pizzazz to cover up a lack of visceral humanity in his work. I tried reading his other book, Everything Is Illuminated, and couldn’t get past the first five pages of narration from another unlikeable protagonist.

    So let it be known that my dislike for this movie has nothing to do with its subject matter (the 9/11 attacks), although that is probably why it was shoehorned into this nomination process. Some have called it “exploitative,” notably Richie. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, I really suck at judging that kind of thing. But it is not good.

    Shit rolls downhill, so Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has taken Hugo’s place at the bottom. Considering that the astronomical expectations surrounding the last two movies, though, expect The Help to fight for its life.

    The Artist

    Is The Artist the clear front runner for Best Picture? Yes. As a result, was it the movie I was most looking forward to? Yes. Did that stop me from sleeping through about 20 minutes of it? NOOOO!

    Don’t worry, I caught enough. But even so, I don’t know what to think about The Artist. I really don’t.

    It was certainly charming and definitely smart. The opening scene, a-play-within-a-play torture segment involving a character screaming “I won’t talk!” is interestingly meta. I don’t really have a problem with The Artist winning Best Picture. But I didn’t totally enjoy it, and I doubt I’ll ever watch it again (whereas I plan on watching Moneyball and The Help many more times, and I’ve already seen Tree of Life twice).

    The problem I have with The Artist is the same problem I have with Roberto Bolaño. Namely, that self-analysis is great, but has its limits. Now, if you’re a normal person, you’re probably asking, “Dude, Christian, who the HELL is Roberto Bolaño?” He’s a novelist who gained praise for The Savage Detectives, about a group of Mexican poets who wander around the desert having sex and talking about Octavio Paz, but that praise kind of died down after it became apparent that all Bolaño could do was write about writers. I’m sorry, isn’t the power of Leo Tolstoy and other great writers derived from their unparalleled ability to empathize with other humans instead of just writing about writing (basically writing about yourself)? The power of art is recognition that you aren’t the center of the universe. When art has to resort to talking about itself, it’s kind of failed, I think.

    Hopefully you survived that paragraph. My point is, I see The Artist as the film equivalent of The Savage Detectives. It’s good and fun, but it shouldn’t be replicated. Unfortunately, since this year’s Best Picture nominees seem like attempts to replicate The King’s Speech (happy, harmless, historic, non-American), it might just be. Kill me now.

    Midnight in Paris

    Now for the home stretch! Two things you should know before proceeding:

    1. This is my first Woody Allen movie.
    2. I am a Francophile.

    Keep that in mind if I start becoming dangerously ebullient about this movie.

    The great thing about having an RTVF major for a roommate is that he can tell me about why certain critically acclaimed movies really are great. As he told it, Woody Allen’s genius lay in his writing: brilliant but unpretentious, very funny and somehow very natural. Throughout Midnight in Paris I found myself roaring with laughter at lines that, on paper, don’t seem that funny. But the delivery captures the reality of interacting with a funny person.

    Remember how I was just ranting about the distressing trend of movies about movies? The other annoying trait among this year’s movies is nostalgia for the past, particularly the Golden Age of Hollywood (puke). Of all these nominees from the year 2011, only The Descendants is 100 percent set in the year 2011 (incidentally, The Descendants was my favorite movie from Day 1, so that should give you an indication of how I feel about this whole thing).

    Luckily, Woody Allen is here with a vicious takedown of nostalgia. Well, I shouldn’t say “vicious.” Like Anna Karenina, Midnight in Paris mocks a point of view by completely, utterly and enjoyably embodying it. The protagonist, perhaps best referred to as Woody Allen in an Owen Wilson Suit, is in love with the fantasy of 1920s, Lost Generation Paris. When he time travels there (yeah), he finds characters idealizing 1890s Toulouse-Lautrec Paris. And so on. Great message: People long for the past because the present is always unsatisfying, just as life is always unsatisfying. Plus, it takes place in Paris, a city I’m in love with, as evidenced by the moment near the end of the movie where Woody Allen in an Owen Wilson Suit walks by famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company and I was so happy I nearly hurt myself ripping out my phone to tweet about it. I think Midnight in Paris actually ended up being my favorite nominated movie.

    Drum roll, please…it’s time for my final rankings! Here’s how I rank the nine nominees for Best Picture, with some random attempts at ranking justification:

    1. Midnight in Paris (great writing, sweet premise, France, attacks a worldview I hate)
    2. The Descendants (real, visceral, funny, great acting, Hawaii, set in the present)
    3. The Help (amazing acting, emotional without being sappy, long without dragging)
    4. Moneyball (Brad Pitt, Aaron Sorkin, baseball, cool)
    5. Hugo (ambitious, beautiful)
    6. The Artist (cute, I guess)
    7. War Horse (horse porn)
    8. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (sucktastic)
    Q. Tree of Life (even after two viewings I don’t know how to rank it against other movies, much less the other nominees)

    So Midnight in Paris was my favorite, with The Descendants close behind. But I don’t care about them nearly as much as I cared about The Social Network. I’m fine with The Artist winning Best Picture, which it almost surely will.

    Enjoy the Oscars!


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