My opinion on the real Best Picture is useless unless I can convince you that it's not born of personal taste but by objective reasoning. Let me demonstrate how perfectly aware I am the difference between my taste and appropriate criticism.
My personal favorite movie from 1976 was LOGAN'S RUN. I'm a fan of the film. I've made a point to see it almost every year since release. I own the DVD and Blu-Ray. I bought the vinyl soundtrack and recently expanded digital score. I love the thought provoking story elements as much as the cheesy effects. The bad actors with the good. I love it all.
Most films were executed so well back in the '70s that a critic had little recourse but to choose favorites based upon taste. NETWORK is likely my favorite quality movie of that year. I own it. Yet I rarely watch it. Once every five years if I'm lucky. If you prefer ROCKY to NETWORK or someone prefers PRESIDENT'S MEN to ROCKY -- we're all right. No one is wrong. They're so close to each other in quality we have no choice but to resort to favorite premises and preferred actors.
I hope I've now demonstrated to you that just because I love a movie doesn't mean you should. So let's start with another demonstration of this objective ability via two films nominated by the Academy for Best Picture of 2012.
Before I saw either I wanted to see ARGO first. Why? Personal taste. It's set in the late '70s. It works in a very cynical tone about the film industry. And it stars a fellow Bostonian that's become quite interesting since THE TOWN.
Kathryn Bigelow's ZERO DARK THIRTY isn't my taste. It featured an actress I've never heard of. It exploits the open wound of Bin Laden for box office bucks. And the director was recently awarded Best Picture for HURT LOCKER,
a movie which was well made, no doubt, but over-rated industrial complex propaganda.
Most critics take these personal feelings into the cinema and review with them in mind. That's not objective criticism. The job of the critic is to isolate the film on an island by itself -- and try to review it against itself. At least at first.
In this way I was able to plainly see ZERO DARK THIRTY as a superior work to ARGO. In almost every way.
Jessica Chastain was acting circles around Affleck, who seemed content to be a cautious and quiet actor. Where I saw Jessica as a living breathing being I saw Ben doing this peculiar George Clooney impression most of the time.
I found the story reveals of ZERO to be more relevant than the now dated tale of ARGO. Where ZERO had plenty of story to tell, I caught ARGO padding -- repeating Ar-go-f%$k-yourself once too many times. ARGO felt like an inexpensive 'little' movie whereas ZERO felt epic and artful. I'm a sucker for the little movie that could, but not this time around.
So now you know how I've objectively rejected ARGO as Best Picture. I don't have to prove every other nominated picture was better than ARGO, by the by. Only one. If we have a metaphorical boxing ring, ZERO is now the champ to beat.
Two comments before we proceed:
1. We live in a global patriarchy. Male dominated society. Male dominated film industry. Did ZERO lose to ARGO because it had a female lead and female director ? Four words: you bet your bippy.
2. Neither film should have won Best Picture. Why? Statistics. They are so similar in story and quality that they should have split their votes and both lost. This is that year's smoking gun that the awards were political... if not rigged.
When I say something like this to industry types they usually say that the Academy Awards are always rigged and therefore meaningless. In this specific case I might agree, but over the many years the Academy typically gets it right. That's too easy a cop out from taking a proper critical evaluation of ARGO as best film.
So let's pit two hopefuls against our champion ZERO DARK THIRTY: DJANGO UNCHAINED and LINCOLN.
Before I saw either, they spoke more to my personal tastes and interests than ARGO and ZERO DARK THIRTY. I'd rather watch Daniel Day Lewis floss than anyone in the AVENGERS act. I have such a love/hate thing with Tarantino that I passed on seeing DJANGO in the cinema and instead chose to outright buy the film -- sight unseen -- upon digital release.
So if I reviewed on personal taste one of these movies would drop ZERO DARK THIRTY. Unfortunately for me neither competitor holds a candle. I know it sounds savage to reduce all the work and hopes that went into each of these films,
but that doesn't matter in this discussion. All of the Academy's Best Picture nominees were born of endless work and hope and yet the wrong film won. That just bugs the sh!t out of me. If you value fair play, it should bother you too.
I can easily dismiss both DJANGO and LINCOLN on length. The films took way too long to tell their 'short' stories.
LINCOLN was by far the weaker story. It wasn't about Lincoln. It was an ornate depiction of how his political operatives tried to secure votes by hook or by crook. Who cares? Whenever Lewis managed to be on camera, his Lincoln acted out the exact same scene. He'd listen to his operatives whine about how hard their jobs were, he'd bang his hand on the table, stand and pose like a statue, and heroically proclaim that change must come. I lost count around the fifth time.
DJANGO had a far better premise. Many moons ago I wanted to write a Western with a slave black lead. I was born to see this movie, which is why I bought it unseen. The sad problem with DJANGO is the problem with almost all Tarantino films: his premise is always better than his typical talky execution. You know it's bad when LOGAN'S RUN has a tighter script...
The first time I watched DJANGO I felt it was a little long. When I watched it the second time I discovered why. Here's the basic spoilerish story: slave Django is freed by a bounty hunter, Django becomes a bounty hunter, Django meets DiCarpio, Django deals with DiCaprio, Django deals with DiCaprio's slave.
See the part in yellow? Anyone who's seen the movie once will tell you that happens around the midpoint of the story. Anyone who sees it twice discovers -- in shock -- it happens only one third of the way into the story. So why does the remainder of the film take hours to do so little? As usual, Tarantino would rather make love to his stories than edit them.
If he were able to be objective and critical his INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS would have won Best Picture of that year.
Don't take my word. Snoop around the net. Folks with watches everywhere suggest Tarantino simply didn't edit the second half of this movie. I'd say the second two-thirds. Remember: I'm a sucker for this type of story, enjoy Tarantino films, adore Ennio Morricone, and this is the only movie of the four I've mentioned above that I own. That's objective, folks.
So ZERO DARK THIRTY has dropped three contenders. Let's throw two more nominees into the ring --
Personal taste speaking: I abhorred the 'epic opera' age of musicals. PHANTOM, LES MIS, and MISS SAIGON did nothing for me but make me miss A CHORUS LINE. I like singing to start... and stop. Story, song, story, song. I get sleepy and confused when they're blended, for the story crawls and the songs are more incidental music than essential melodies.
So when I started LES MIS I had no expectation of finishing it. Really. I was very pleasantly surprised. It was a solid production from start to finish. I'd watch this one again in a few years, no problem. But not tomorrow or next week.
So if I liked LES MIS so much why did I prefer not as solid SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK? Why did I buy a copy of SILVER knowing it was uneven and contrived at times? LES MIS was reliable but not terribly inspired, where SILVER was terribly inspired but not always reliable.
The main reason was Jennifer Lawrence. She held this great cast together with a performance of performances. I thought acting was nearly dead until I saw this. She was so remarkable I forgot she was the lead in WINTER'S BONE.
This is proof that the Academy can get things right --
Many bumpy moments. The nice Indian Therapist who plays a not-so-nice/career-suicide/unbelievable trick on his client. Also bumpy was making Cooper dance where he wouldn't in real life her certainly wouldn't. Both romantic letters were fairly silly. The absolutely painful parlay scene where the author abandoned the four page rule numerous times in a row.
Seriously: did Tiffany really need to come up with the idea of lying to Pat in that scene -- and force the parents permission in the same scene -- and did Pat have to figure out the letter there too? No, no, and no. Bumpy bumpy bumpy.
When this otherwise engaging tale reached its inevitable conclusion, the director missed it like his characters missed their big dance move. (A little subconscious awareness that the ending didn't quite work?) The smoking gun here is the use of a letter instead of Cooper directly addressing Lawrence. Her "Okay..." was my one word review of that entire scene.
Don't get mad at me if you're a big fan of this movie. I'm not saying it sucked. I bought it, okay? I gladly own it. I've seen it twice now and will watch it again and again. If the script had been worked on some more, it would have won picture of the year, which is all I'm trying to find in this essay. So if you're a fan of this film, so am I. Relax.
So LES MIS was solid but not inspired where SILVER was inspired but not solid. Sounds to me like ZERO DARK THIRTY is still the contender for best picture overall. Let's throw AMOUR into the ring --
If given the choice between seeing AVENGERS 2 -- or -- a foreign drama on a serious subject like death, believe it or not, my taste is bring on the foreign drama on a serious subject like death. Why? The quality drama has died in American cinema and if someone off our shores can breath some light into this dying art I'd be forever grateful. Often they do.
There is one demand I make upon such films: they must be entertaining. THE DEER HUNTER deals with the horrors of war, THE LAST EMPEROR deals with loneliness and betrayal, DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES deals with alcoholism and heartbreak, and SHADOWLANDS deals with cancer and death. Most people find these films far too depressing to watch.
I adore all such movies because they tackle terribly challenging subjects and find amazing ways to engage the viewer.
AMOUR makes no such effort. It believes that since it's presenting a couple at the end of their days in near documentary detail that the viewer should be enthralled. Well, sorry, I wasn't. I recently saw FRED WON'T MOVE OUT which was on a similar subject. FRED was far more indie than AMOUR but at least it found a way to get me through to the end, although it was trying too thought because it similarly thought it had invented this terribly trying genre.
I know art house types would ask me to celebrate AMOUR as the antidote to modern schlockbusters. Horseradish. If you present a film as a narrative drama, make it one. This wasn't. This was a dull slow story. It's my understanding that the stars are known actors in their part of the world. I don't really care about that. Again, a film should work in isolation. If it was Judi Dench and Jack Nicholson I'd still hope I'd be objective enough to say, wow, this script drags.
If you're dismissing my take on AMOUR because I didn't even do it the dignity of forcing myself to see it in its entirety, know that I haven't met one person who has recommended it. I'm all for sleepers, but not literally.
So ZERO DARK THIRTY drops AMOUR in the first punch. Ouch.
We have two films left to consider, and I'll tell you something right now: they both appear colorful and upbeat. This is important to me because my favorite movies aren't depressing. They are entertaining journeys with happier endings.
Films like SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, PAPER MOON, and MIDNIGHT RUN all have a chance to take out a movie like ZERO DARK THIRTY because my personal taste is for engaging journeys with happier endings.
I'm certain LIFE OF PI and BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD cancelled each other out because Academy voters were never quite sure which film was which. No, not the one with the tiger, the other one...
I'm going to dispense with LIFE OF PI right now. Rule it out as picture of the year. Don't get mad at me because the Academy did the exact same thing.
I know I just hurt the feelings of everyone who read the book. Attention: I'm reviewing the movie, not the book, or the book's author. Too many readers have been ruining cinema because they bring their knowledge of the books to the theater and see things in movies that simply aren't there. I watched a handful of HARRY POTTER movies and got lost quite often, and time and again Potter readers asked if I had read the books. Case closed, your honor, next case. If a movie doesn't stand on it's own, it falls like Jennifer Lawrence accepting her Academy Award. (Just teasing, Jen.)
By rejecting LIFE OF PI I'm also hurting the feelings of all Ang Lee fans. Attention: I'm reviewing the movie, not the director, or the director's work. If we are to take our personal respect for the author and director of PI, poor little BEASTS couldn't stand a chance against it. And that's as unfair as giving ARGO Best Picture when ZERO is clearly superior.
The reason why PI died for me was the constant promise of something profound to come. No, I'm not reading into this movie but quoting the protagonist. The character being interviewed about this tale promised something very profound to come at story's end. A revelation about God. So please don't fall asleep or you could miss an amazing cinematic moment.
As a screenwriter I'll share a critical story rule: you better make damn sure that if you promise a profound metaphysical message at the end of any story -- you deliver with FedX precision baby. Ever see a movie where they keep talking about the world's hottest girl -- and when she finally arrives -- you're underwhelmed? The same exact principle applies here.
The message at the end of this story is not only disingenuous but shockingly contemptuous. It renders the entire film as pointless by insulting the entire audience. SEMI-SPOILER: At story's end, the narrator is asked if this fantastic adventure story of tigers and high seas we just saw is true. With a wry little smile the narrator says the story is like religion: if you prefer fantastic colorful fables over harsh realities, then like religion, the story is true for you.
When I ask fans of this film why they liked it, most don't recall this line in the movie. At all. That's why the protagonist is smirking. He knows that most of the audience is caught up in the 3D and visuals instead of the any reality or meaning.
Thus making the author's point. The audience will leave PI with pretty pictures in their mind upon which they'll apply naive notions of faith and God INSTEAD OF realizing this cynical film holds complete contempt for such a 'stupid' audience.
As a lifelong agnostic I don't smirk along with the author. Even though I agree with this 'revelation' I don't agree with wasting my time. If religion is waste of time because it's a lie... then... why isn't this film a waste of time because it's a lie?
This is why LIFE OF PI was disqualified before it even went into the ring against ZERO. Yes, our champ still stands...
... but a funny thing happened on the way to ZERO DARK THIRTY becoming my picture of the year. A scrappy unknown fighter from Queens is about to pound the living daylights out of ZERO.
Ladies and gentleman, in this corner I give you the Best Picture of 2012 --
Remember when I spoke of patriarchy? That ZERO may have lost votes for a female director and a female lead? I believe BEASTS took a similar beating for the same reason. For what's less 'patriarchy' than a young black girl protagonist?
I'll be honest and say the first time I saw BEASTS I stereotyped the director as a Southern black lady who hated her Daddy if not all men. All the signs were there. I would have bet the house on it.
Again, I won't wax poetic or I'll end up over-selling. You need to discover this piece on its own. By yourself. Still I feel compelled to nudge you a little.
Every once in a while I stumble upon a film that is nearly perfect. PUNCH DRUNK LOVE, DAYS OF HEAVEN, and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES to name a few. These films leap beyond expectation and quality.
Each of these films contributes at least one a moment to cinematic history.
You know when Cary Grant runs from the plane in NORTH BY NORTHWEST? That's cinematic history. When the couple of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE meet on the subway platform? Cinematic history.
When Benh Zeitln reveals the location of one of Hush Puppy's family members -- it's jaw dropping cinematic history.
I know. You see a scruffy little black girl that Disney would never offer a starring role. I see, instead, all of humanity in her. Not because I'm an over-zealous liberal type but because BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is about the human condition. It's about what our souls are going through as we give the planet no choice but to turn on us and attack.
Just because BEASTS dramatizes an inconvenient truth doesn't mean the truth won't set you free.