All in the Film Family…
I owe my love of film and its tremendous influence on my life to that little (4’10”) Lady from then Spanish Harlem, my mother, Anna Lucy. From the time in the late 30s when her father, Pellegrino Renzulli, took her to Saturday matinees to see Bette Davis, Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn, the movies ruled her life.
And thus, mine, years later when she would take me to Saturday matinees to see Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor and William Holden. So you can imagine why the Oscars were the Super Bowl for my family when we were kids.
It was the only night my mother and her “movie-sense” ruled the TV. She knew what would win, why, and if it lost, what ridiculous Hollywood maneuvers were behind it. Her love of film and those stars who ruled her heaven, were bequeathed to me ever since.
So it’s with great joy that, after having seen all the nominated films in the Best Picture category, I play her role to the Movie Family out there on Movie Smackdown and let you know what I (and she, most likely) think of each film, why I was moved (or not), and what I think (based on my mother’s rules and now mine) will win and why. The order I put them in is not alphabetical or in ascending or descending order. It is based on the emotional pull of each film as it resonated with me. Much like one remembers lovers past.
We’ll start with the also-rans out of the nine nominated films and work our way up to my pick for Best Picture…
The Artist is this year’s most talked about and most overrated film. Yes, it’s charming and filled with lovely, touching performances and indelible moments of black and white reveries of movies and times past. It is a wonderful homage to an era long gone. Its obvious relevance to today is its theme of technology leaving many obsolete in its wake. There’s a familiar resonance to the despair many feel in today’s technological storm, which has left so many jobless and even homeless. But the film touches on that theme in a broad, superficial way. “Modern Times” it is not. It’s a singular, gimmicky, almost-silent film that works on every level except one of true substance. And, I believe, a best picture of the year should do more than charm.
Hugo is a tough nut to crack. I took five nine-year-old boys to see this film and they were mesmerized and didn’t move for two hours. I was stunned at their focus and riveted attention — so much so that I sent a camera-photo of the five boys watching the film to Scorsese as an ode to his vision. The movie could end up as the best picture of the year because it is a film about pictures that succeeds quite well as a stunning visual journey through film technology as well as film history. It also features the year’s (if not history’s) best 3D that actually disappears as you watch it. So what is my complaint? It’s personal. I simply wanted to be moved more, haunted more. And I wasn’t. Maybe it’s me and not Hugo, but I simply didn’t connect to these characters in a visceral way.
The Descendants braves a difficult subject with a nuanced and subtle coolness. Unfortunately, it has the lasting power of a mild affair gone wrong, not an emotional scar left on one’s heart from a real tug of war with conscience or ethics. It’s a minor though enjoyable journey through an adult drama, with performances that are solid if not memorable.
War Horse is an attempt to duplicate the emotional and visual dynamic of a John Ford or David Lean work. It portrays individual, horrific journeys of man and beast in front of panoramic vistas–a technique favored by those two cinematic masters. However, The Searchers and Lawrence of Arabia, which come to mind among other classic works, have powerful lead characters who strangle us with their compelling stories and refuse to let go; War Horse has no comparable element. While the horse in question, both real and animated, is thrilling to watch, there is little emotional connection between man and beast that propels our investment. Beautifully composed scenes cannot resonate like beautiful, fully developed individuals operating within those scenes. Much ado about almost nothing.
Midnight in Paris is a totally delightful truffle from Woody Allen that actually has some piquant, lasting flavor, but falls a few hundred calories short of a stunning French meal. While always beautiful to watch and certainly pointed in dialogue and observations, it doesn’t fill you up, as did some of Allen’s earlier work. I’ll take Manhattan… Crimes and Misdemeanors… Annie Hall… you get my drift.
Moneyball is a baseball fan’s delight. It’s hard to bring an objective eye to a movie about a sport I revel in. Brad Pitt is altogether charming and wonderful, as is almost every character populating this film. While I enjoyed every moment, it was my connection to baseball that resonated for me. I’m sure others love the film too, but it helps to worship at the altar of the sport as I do. A worthy effort but hardly the best picture of the year.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is another (almost) gem from Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader) and puts him at the top of any director’s list in my humble opinion. The film puts 9/11 right in front of us once again, but this time through the eyes of a child. Daldry is consumed with taking unlikable characters and forcing us to deal with them whether we want to or not. And this time he does it with a child most would turn away from if they could. Hugo, The Descendants, Tree of Life and to some extent, War Horse also deal with the theme of loss, but not as directly or emphatically as in this film. However, with the exception of Max Von Sydow, who is the true heart and emotional center here, there is little to hold onto that ultimately rewards the viewing effort. Its parts are truly greater than the whole as a film. But those parts, as in all Daldry’s films, are devastating and memorable. Were that the case for the entire film, it would be at the top of my list.
Tree of Life is a film that most resembles life–disorderly, moving, indecipherable, unpredictable, enlightening, frustrating, touching, ambiguous, out of our control and a complete mystery. It has fragments of performances that appear to be wonderful but we never see enough or hear enough to make that rational decision. We have to go on gut and piece together what we can out of this cinematic puzzle, much like we do with our lives. This is an editor’s dream creation and, much like its heralded creation sequence, is a film of particular taste–overwhelmingly savory in spots but lacking certain necessary spices, like a clear-cut story line or solid emotional moments that hold together long enough to be digested. Nonetheless, I can honestly say I was almost mesmerized into ethereal heaven. I’d see it again to test my sanity.
The Help is littered with the best performances of any film this year. Authenticity, an oft-maligned word these days (see the Republican wannabe nominees), is the key word to the characters in this throwback cinematic drama. It has little style or visual flair and often seems to focus on the wrong characters, settling on small subplots of little real interest compared to the main thrust of the film. But it ultimately overpowers its audience in one way no other film this year does. It grabs us emotionally at our most base level and literally does not let us go until all the frailties of the human condition and all the heartbreak that is life outside any reasonable comfort zone, are thrust upon us by the films’ characters, provoking tears, laughter and, in my case, cheers for them to succeed. I was invested in this film and the people in it much more than I expected. Like someone who, after sampling all the other human choices–some more beautiful, some more intelligent, some more passionate and some more exciting–winds up finding that the person next door is actually the love of their life. Because they (and this film) have what we all ultimately need: substance, integrity and the uncanny ability to deal with life’s unfair practices while still managing to hold their heads up. And so, that being said, warts and all, The Help is my choice for best film of the year. Because it’s about us in a more eloquent way than any of the others, despite the ordinary dressing on so many extraordinary characters.
The contenders this year remind me oddly of the 1967 Best Picture nominees. That year they included Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Doctor Dolittle. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were by far the most influential films of the year and were certainly favored to take the Best Picture Oscar. Their influence is still being felt today.
In the Heat of the Night, however, a film with little innovative film style or story to brag about, had two incredible performances as its heart and soul. When Rod Steiger (Best Actor winner) and Sidney Poitier were on screen together or separately, everything else in the film disappeared. To this day, their performances resonate as two giants turning an ordinary movie into an emotional battle of two worlds, colliding in a disturbing and dangerous moment in time for both men.
I believe, The Help may have found the same “dangerous moment in time,” only this time with three women, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain. What’s even more relevant to me is how those characters in 1963 resonate as much as these do in 2012.
One wonders how much we as human beings have changed, or can change. Film, if anything, records the human condition for all to see. And like those two films, what we see is often disturbing and heartfelt and gives us a semblance of hope for our children.