So far I’ve seen six of the nine Oscar nominees for best picture. Still unviewed: Amour, Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook. Of the ones I’ve seen, four are superb. It’s tough to rank them in order of preference. In any case, I won’t be howling at my TV if any of these four should win. Here are my impressions so far:
Argo. I still haven’t forgiven Ben Affleck for his preening Gigli era, but his last couple of movies have moved him a long way toward redemption. One of the remarkable things about Argo is how it can be such a taut thriller even though its outcome is widely known. That’s the mark of a great director. I don’t know if Affleck can be called a great actor, but this film deserves all the love it’s gotten. Besides the story, I really dig the attention to period detail. As someone who worked at a newspaper while all this Iran hostage stuff was going on, I can say that it all looks pretty authentic — down to the goofy facial hair, enormous glasses and polyester sport coats that typified the era.
I like Argo for the same reason I love Lincoln: It lifts you out of the cineplex and puts you in another distinct time and place. You suspend disbelief. You come out thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly the way it must have been.” Except for the chase scene at the end, of course.
Lincoln. If Affleck has emerged as a gifted director, Daniel Day-Lewis proves again he is one of the best actors of modern times. Working with an economical, historically solid script and Steven Spielberg’s restrained direction, he has humanized and redefined the popular image of the 16th president for decades to come. It’s what I consider an Important Film for a number of reasons, not least of which is its nuanced look at why the banishment of American slavery was so damned complicated. Important, yes, but I enjoyed it anyway.
Life of Pi. The only one of my top four that’s not about American history — or even about objective reality, when you think of it. I read the book a few years ago and remember thinking that it wouldn’t make a very good movie. I was wrong. I still don’t know how Ang Lee accomplished some of the incredible visuals in Life of Pi, and I guess I don’t want to know. I’d call it magic, except that implies a reliance on dreamy vagueness and CGI. Far from it. The amazing thing about this movie is that its fantastic premise is so hyper-real on the screen. You’re in a real boat and that’s a real tiger, not the lovable Disney version you’d prefer in such a situation.
Zero Dark Thirty. I’m not sure why its depictions of torture are so controversial; to me they seem pretty restrained — about what you’d expect from a First World government frustrated in its inability to apprehend a Third World nihilist. I don’t see a justification of torture, just the acknowledgement that it was used, and may or may not have elicited some intelligence in the hunt for Bin Laden. In any case, I think it’s useful for the public to see what waterboarding really is.
Which is part of why Zero Dark Thirty is also an Important Movie: It offers an authentic (I think) look into what it takes to take down jihadists. It works as a movie because it acknowledges, but does not dwell, on the boring bits that comprise about 98 percent of the work done by the CIA and U.S. military. It acknowledges, but does not glorify, the brutal violence that must always accompany the defeat of fanatics. It just shows how these things are done, and that technology is only part of the equation. I think we need to know that.
The other nominees I’ve seen are Les Miserables and Beasts of the Southern Wild. I discussed Beasts earlier: two thumbs down. Watching Les Miserables was not a painful experience, but after thinking about it I guess I’ll have to admit I didn’t care for all the singing. That’s an odd objection to a musical, I know. Mostly I was put off by the unrelenting closeups on the actors, and the way that somehow undercut the more memorable songs. Sometimes Broadway shows just don’t work as well on film. This is one of those times.