Oscar Smack-a-thon!

Eric Volkman - Contributing Writer
Have you finalized your picks for the current crop of Oscar hopefuls yet? No? Well, allow us to help you. In this, our second annual Oscar Smackdown, we pit the nominees for Best Picture against each other. We’ve Smacked most of them at one time or another over the past year, but never in direct competition.

With nine contenders, we can’t make this a series of pure one-on-one contests. Instead, we spice up the event card by featuring a trio of main bouts, plus a three-way slugfest in the finale.

That anyone-could-win feeling is what we’re trying to engender here, kind of like the real Oscar contest. As always, there are underdogs that likely won’t get many votes for the statue. As much as audiences seemed to like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour, for example, they feel like token outsiders added to the contender list. Likewise, Django Unchained’s maverick auteur Quentin Tarantino doesn’t play the Hollywood game and thus lacks support from the Academy elite.

Two clear front-runners have emerged from the remaining six films. Lincoln is a prestige project and a safe selection due to its gravitas and fine pedigree, but director Steven Spielberg has enough Oscars and, honestly, few are connecting emotionally with this flick as they did with E.T. or Schindler’s List. Argo, on the other hand, has climbed up the ranks, powered by multiple craft and critics awards to emerge as a late frontrunner. Really, any these six contenders could conceivably go the distance.

Of course, the Smackdown judges don’t always agree with the Oscar picks. So until those Motion Picture Academy members learn to get it right, you’ll have to come here for all your down-and-dirty, movie-on-movie action. This year, it goes like this:

Zero Dark Thirty vs. ArgoZero Dark Thirty vs. Argo

It’s a covert war between these two movies featuring CIA agents as main characters engaged in epic, historically authentic operations across the globe. In Zero Dark Thirty, our heroine Maya (Jessica Chastain) is convinced that several al Qaeda operatives festering in the agency’s custody could lead her to the whereabouts of our era’s arch-villain, Osama bin Laden. Over the years and across several countries, she patiently extracts information, using whatever means necessary, and follows the bread crumbs to a big house in Pakistan, from where her quarry controls his terrorist empire. Too bad for him that a Navy SEAL team has been dispatched to end his reign.

Rewind several decades past to the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. In those dark days, Argo’s clever spook Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) is given the unenviable task of “exfiltrating” a group of American embassy workers who’ve escaped the siege of their place of business and gone into hiding. In what’s admittedly “the best bad idea we’ve got,” he hits upon the notion of disguising them as Canadian crew members of a Hollywood film project scouting locations in the city. But the Iranian revolutionaries are quickly closing in on the missing employees. It’s very possible our would-be escapees won’t collect their next government paycheck.

Zero Dark Thirty is a diligent yet controversial piece of work dissecting the effort that went into finding America’s (and Democracy’s) biggest enemy since Hitler. That’s no surprise, given that screenwriter Mark Boal is a recovering journalist. But it’s weighed down by an awful lot of detail; we don’t need to witness every step in the hunt, especially since the film’s characterizations are so thin and the historical episode’s glaring moral questions go largely unaddressed. This movie would have been a crisper, more involving effort given some strategic trimming.

Argo is a snappy thriller that explores a lesser-known but no less interesting aspect of the events around the embassy takeover. The fake movie idea is a wild throw, and it’s fun to watch how it unfolds and how the unflappable Mendez negotiates its difficulties. What Argo needs more of is suspense and tension; we don’t get as strong a feeling of menace as we should, considering that the hidden Americans would probably be shot/jailed on sight if caught. When the dramatic tension does ratchet up in the story’s resolution at the airport, the filmmakers resort to gross fictionalization for effect. This is no sin, but it’s done in such a formulaic, traditional action movie way it shakes the viewer’s belief and bleeds away the story’s originality.

So ultimately, both of these movies fall a bit flat. Zero Dark Thirty is better at cranking the suspense, even if the journey’s too long and we’re well familiar with the ending. And in contrast to Argo, it doesn’t feel the need to resort to tired Hollywood conventions in its final act. Plus, who doesn’t like to watch a nighttime raid by Navy SEALs? Zero Dark Thirty, then, takes this spy vs. spy contest.

Les Miserables vs Beasts of the Southern WildLes Miserables vs. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Trapped characters in trying circumstances take the lead in our next pair of films. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) in the musical version of Les Miserables has every reason to be miserable; unjustly jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, he’s watched constantly by a determined psychopath of a cop, Javert (Russell Crowe). When our hero escapes the clutches of the French penal system, he’s pursued relentlessly by his antagonist. Along for the ride is a young orphan he saves from a life of destitution, Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen as a child and Amanda Seyfried as an adult).

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a low-budget but high-imagination fantasy about an isolated community in the Louisiana bayou of the near future. Despite living in what’s called “the Bathtub” – a small area separated from the rest of humanity by a levee – five-year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her unbalanced dad Wink (Dwight Henry) somehow eke out an existence. But then they get into a fight, a storm approaches and, oh yeah, scary creatures thawed from the Arctic ice start to drift down to their general vicinity. That doesn’t bode well for Hushpuppy’s future.

Les Miserables is competently made but the style’s off-kilter – for a film with such grand set pieces, there are an awful lot of tight shots. This infuses a big-budget production with a small-movie sensibility, and the two don’t combine well. A movie like this should produce a feeling that you’ve gotten a glimpse of a big world, not the claustrophobic sensation of being trapped in a series of tight spaces with a bunch of people singing in your face. And let’s face it, those tunes are nothing to hum along to; they’re dull, generic, and empty.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a Sundance favorite that advanced up the ranks from festival selection to general release and now, Oscar contention. While the story is thin, writer-director Benh Zeitlin (working on a script he wrote with Lucy Alibar, from her stage play) succeeds in portraying a world that’s utterly magical – not because of the fantasy elements of young Hushpuppy’s imagination, but because of the sense that the rest of the film’s unfamiliar world is so real. The fact that Zeitlin himself reportedly lives a pauper’s life in the Louisiana bayou enabled him to bring this hidden slice of Americana to the screen, earning not only a Best Picture nomination, but also making Wallis the youngest actress nominee in history.

Beasts vaulted over its competition at Sundance with a limited budget and no stars. Les Miserables is competently done, but as the umpteenth version of Victor Hugo’s tale, it needs to be significantly better than its predecessors to distinguish itself, and it isn’t. That’s why Beasts of the Southern Wild stomps its way to victory in this mini-Smack.

Lincoln vs Django UnchainedLincoln vs. Django Unchained

Slavery is one of the ugliest chapters of American history, and star filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino should be applauded for approaching the subject so directly. Given their radically divergent styles, though, it should come as no shock that they handle the theme in much different ways. Lincoln (played by presumptive Oscar shoo-in Daniel Day-Lewis) is a sober, hew-to-the-facts exploration of the title President’s Congressional battle to outlaw slavery in the waning days of the Civil War. That might even be a tougher fight than taking down the Confederacy, given the intractability of the bill’s opponents, the fractious relations between Lincoln’s allies, and the ineffectiveness of his lobbyists.

Django Unchained is set in the same general time frame, but far away from the capital and its machinations. Django (Jamie Foxx) is an escaped slave thirsting for revenge against his former oppressor. He has a great deal of help in the form of the dapper bounty-hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz frees Django from his current captors and enlists him in the search for a trio of hired killers. This very odd couple embarks on that mission and also decides to rescue the now-ex-slave’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the “property” of sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Lincoln is a fine, all-around quality piece of moviemaking about an important set of events in our history. The stakes are high and the story is well-told without getting stuck in boring details about the politics of the time or legislative procedures. Abe as character is well fleshed out in this film, thanks to director Spielberg, writer Tony Kushner (adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on the subject), and of course the always-great Lewis’ vibrant performance. The supporting actors are well cast and fill their roles effectively.

But we didn’t find it as grandly entertaining as Django Unchained. In spite of that film’s self-indulgence and long running time, the title character not only wins his freedom and some measure of justice, he claims the win in this Smack as well.

Pi-Silver-AmourLife of Pi vs. Amour vs. Silver Linings Playbook

In our culminating battle royale, we’ve got three very different but nonetheless worthy contenders duking it out for supremacy. Silver Linings Playbook unspools a twisted love story about Pat (Bradley Cooper), a manic-depressive, going through hell – not to mention major football-fan stress and a ballroom dance competition – to find happiness in the unlikely form of a fellow emotional wreck, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Life of Pi is director Ang Lee’s take on the popular Yann Martel novel, about the title character (Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi, Suraj Sharma as the teenager), weaving a fantastical tale about surviving a shipwreck with a tiger as a companion. Amour is essentially a chamber piece about an aging French couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) coping with the effects of disease when the female half is struck with dementia.

We found Silver Linings Playbook to be uneven and somewhat over-complicated, although we liked director David O. Russell’s offbeat approach and the humor he brings to the material. Our SmackRef Sarah Harding found Life of Pi to be a very well crafted, thoughtful film with a fine central performance by Sharma (not to mention the visual effects army that expertly animated the tiger named Richard Parker and the other shipwrecked zoo animals). But neither is good enough to win this one, as fellow Smacker Arthur Tiersky listed Amour as one of his ten best films for 2012. He found it to be extremely well acted and deeply affecting, and that emotional lift gives it the power to be the victor in this bout.

That’s how the Best Picture Smackapalooza looks from this ringside seat. Feel free to chime in with your own comments below. Better yet, if you like your Smack-action fast and furious, drop by our February 24 Oscar party on Facebook (www.facebook.com/moviesmackdown) and help us live-blog the ceremony on Oscar night.

Oscar Party with Movie Smackdown!

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