So let’s break it down, with a few observations.
How are some Christmas movies like Christmas trees? They’re dead by New Year’s. I have before me screeners (thanks, Online Film Critics Society!) of Anna Karenina, Hyde Park on Hudson, Hitchcock, This is 40, Promised Land, and The Impossible. (The latter two I saw at screenings before the discs arrived.) None are exactly terrible–the much-nominated Silver Linings Playbook was a much harder sit–but I knew while watching them that none were going to amout to much in end-of-year contests, which frankly is what they’re marketed for. And, outside of a few technical nods and Naomi Watts’ live-through-this performance in The Impossible (a triumph of her ability to wear Lon Chaney levels of makeup, which strangely went unrecognized, and spew metallic gunk for two minutes), I was right. Promised Land (an OK, eat-your-vegetables “issues” movie stuck with a terribly ill-conceived twist) and The Impossible were slaughtered by the traditional early January horror movie, Texas Chainsaw 3D, their first weekend in wide release. There won’t be many others as they slink off to home video.
One you must see. Today’s wide release of Zero Dark Thirty was clearly timed to take advantage of yesterday’s Oscar nods, and they should have some effect. Then again their impact has likely been blunted by all this “torture endorsement” talk that’s been in the air since when I saw it last month; indeed, some of that chatter came from commenters who hadn’t even seen the film, which was an absolute disgrace. Does the movie endorse torture? No. Do you have to be a goddamned pundit to understand the movie? Not at all. All you have to do is watch the exquisite Jessica Chastain as her character immerses herself in the hunt for Bin Laden; it’s all there is her actions and bearing shift as the pursuit grows more and more fraught. We never lose sight of the stakes–the chilling opening reminds you of them–or the human toll. (We hear echoes of 9/11 in the lamentation of the close; terrorism is a zero sum game, no one wins.) And we are captivated by Kathryn Bigelow’s terrific filmmaking, even by the little things–was I the only one to hear a thrilling John Barry riff in Alexandre Desplat’s score as the helicopters take off? Am I the only critic to comment on the unexpected humor in Mark Boal’s screenplay? Go, enjoy, make up your own mind. How I hate pundits.
The tenth nominee. I’ve seen seven of the nominated films thus far. Six have the makings of the a credible Top Ten list. (I saw no silver linings in that relentlessly phony dramedy.) What should the mythic tenth movie have been? I found The Master cold and aloof. Can’t get overly excited about Moonrise Kingdom; I get the love, yet temperamentally I’m slow to get well and truly involved in any Wes Anderson picture. Looper‘s best chance was screenplay. I would have gone with Bernie myself, a weird and beguiling slice of Americana, with an impeccable Jack Black performance. (Oh, and Matthew McConaughey; it was his year, just not with Oscar.)
Not Skyfall? Robust critical and commercial support aside I never saw it as a top-of-the-line contender. Its five nominations, however, are a grand way to celebrate the franchise’s 50th anniversary, which we can only hope the 85th Oscars don’t mess up too much with its planned “salute” (groan). How nice it would be to see those perennial Oscar bridesmaids Roger Deakins (DP) and Thomas Newman (composer) go home with statuettes for their stellar toil on behalf of her majesty’s secret service.
Sorry, Adele. Your indelible theme, the first to receive a nomination since “For Your Eyes Only” 30 years ago, and a big hit here (No. 8) and abroad (No. 2 in the UK, and the country’s biggest-selling song of the year), will be trumped by the new Les Miz track. Tough luck–but it’s gratifying to see this underutilized category so unusually competitive again.
Also competitive: Animated Feature. My daughter tired of Brave pretty quickly (didn’t yours?) which leaves the field wide open for a non-Pixar candidate. The Pirates! Band of Misfits has a solid pedigree; Paranorman, the most surprises. Not sure what to pick. “Collating,” as Ian Holm says in Alien.
No complaints. The critics usually have a field day tearing apart Best Documentary Feature. Not this year. A strong slate.
Biggest complaint. John Goodman gave fabulous performances in Argo and Flight. So what happens? Alan Arkin’s more workmanlike effort in the former gets the nod in a category full of past winners. Disappointing. (And a lackluster showing for Argo, a movie that more or less everyone likes, which can be more useful in awards contests than being loved. Not this time. That Ben Affleck failed to score a nomination as Best Director went rogue on the DGA sealed its fate; it will go home empty-handed.)
Actor weirdness. Loved Jacki Weaver in her nominated performance in Animal Kingdom but after the first act of Silver Linings Playbook she’s sidelined to reaction shots, making “crabbies” for the hoarily overwrought Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. Surely a case of a rising tide lifting all thespians (the first single-film “sweep” of the acting categories since 1978’s Coming Home)–which didn’t help the male halves of the intensely coupled Amour and The Sessions.
The agony and the ecstasy of Harvey Weinstein. On the one hand The Weinstein Company pulled off more nominations for Django Unchained, The Master, and Silver Linings Playbook than anyone might have guessed; on the other, only Jennifer Lawrence is a sure thing (it’s her year), with De Niro a possible sentimental favorite, not that SLP has been particularly merry at the boxoffice. (For one thing it’s hard to find, even in New York.) With no King’s Speech or Artist to push he’s largely sidelined; in the major categories, it’s Lincoln‘s year.
Seth MacFarlane? There’s time.