On the eve of the Academy Awards, National Review Online gathered discerning moviegoers for some predictions, preferences, and recriminations.
Since the movies I like best are almost never nominated for Academy Awards, except in the Foreign Film category, and since among those that are nominated, I often have a hard time finding even one or two that I like, or at least don’t hate, there must be some reason for hope this year in the fact that I liked eight of the nine nominees for Best Picture. The exception was Quentin Tarantino’s stupendously bad Django Unchained. All the others I liked well enough to recommend as worth seeing, though none so well as to think it a must-see.
Of the eight, I think David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook the best, though I assume (like everybody else) that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln will win, largely because of the remarkable performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. He deserves to get, and probably will get, the Best Actor award. Jennifer Lawrence ought to win Best Actress for Silver Linings, though Emmanuelle Riva would be a worthy winner for Amour. For Supporting Actor (or anything else), I will always root for Alan Arkin (Argo), and I think that Jacki Weaver in Silver Linings was a Supporting Actress in the same league.
My own nominees for Best Picture would be six, two by American directors and four by foreigners. The two American movies are Whit Stillman’s delightful Damsels in Distress and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Among the foreign ones are Boy, by the Maori New Zealander Taika Waititi; Monsieur Lazhar, by the Québécois Canadian Philippe Falardeau; and Sister, by the Franco-Swiss Ursula Meier. Maybe there’s something about mixed ethnicity that makes for top-notch filmmaking? But I would give the prize to Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, which may be the best Shakespeare adaptation for the movies since Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear, in 1971.
I can’t predict with any confidence which movie will win Best Picture this year. It’s one of those years where everything seems a little up in the air. Argo appears to be the frontrunner, but not quite the overwhelming favorite. But I know which one I believe should be the winner, and that is Les Misérables.
No other film this year has drawn me in so completely or moved me so deeply. No other film this year compelled me to go see it three times — something I haven’t done since Tom Hooper’s previous effort, The King’s Speech.
It’s no easy thing to take a beloved stage musical and turn it into a lovable movie (witness the execrable version of The Phantom of the Opera several years ago). Hooper and company have not only succeeded in this, but they’ve gone above and beyond, bringing the world of Victor Hugo’s original novel to vivid life. The film tells the classic story of the ex-convict transformed by God’s grace, and depicts the tumultuous society around him, with a raw urgency and power that make it seem like a whole new story.
As for the copious close-ups and other unusual techniques that drove many critics crazy, well, some critics once felt the same way about Orson Welles. I know that’s a bold comparison, and I don’t make it lightly. But I have a feeling that with Les Misérables, as so often happens, tomorrow’s critics will look back at today’s critics and wonder what on earth they were thinking.
It was a good year for movies on the whole, and there are several excellent and deserving films in the Best Picture category. But there’s only one I’ll be rooting for.
I’ll watch the Oscars with mild interest this year. The Academy has actually nominated several good films (I still can’t decide if I prefer Lincoln or Les Mis), but the triumph of 2012 lay not in its more dramatic films but in what was unquestionably the greatest superhero summer of all time.
Poets should even now be writing verses in praise of The Avengers. It’s tough to remember a more surprisingly enjoyable night at the movies. It could have been a train wreck — with so many stars and storied characters jockeying for screen time — but instead it was a triumph. Funny, action-packed, well-acted, and even occasionally poignant, The Avengers was everything a superhero movie should be.
Next came the reboot of Spider-Man, a movie I saw out of a sense of duty (I must see all superhero movies), convinced that it was “too soon” for the failing franchise.
I was wrong.
The new Amazing Spider-Man — so dark as to be almost Batman-lite — was miles ahead of all three Tobey Maguire versions. At least this Spider-Man acted as if he knew what to do with his powers.
But those films were just appetizers before the main course: Batman versus Occupy (excuse me, The Dark Knight Rises). This wasn’t a superhero movie; it was a superhero film. An epic conclusion to the trilogy, it had everything — a timely story, memorable performances, and genuine emotion — and it only gets better in the re-watching (twice so far).
Avengers, Spider-Man, and Batman: Will we ever see the like? All in one summer?
So on Sunday, toast the Oscar winner (Go, Lincoln! No, wait. Go, Les Mis!), but remember that the true movie heroes of 2012 all wore spandex.
— David French is senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice.
This year’s Best Picture race is the most overtly politicized in years, in a number of ways. With four films in real contention — Argo, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Life of Pi — it’s also the most competitive.
Zero Dark Thirty, a better film than Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, has been sidelined by overtly political criticism over the very thing that makes it the most provocative of the nominees: its appropriately messy, ambiguous contribution to the national discussion about torture.
Argo — my favorite of the nominated films, and for some time the front-runner after winning a string of earlier awards — has come under increasing fire over its fictionalized Hollywood conflict and heroics (a “patriotic fantasy,” Andrew O’Hehir sniffed in Salon, notwithstanding a “faint left-of-center gloss”).
Perhaps most strikingly, Lincoln, which has largely gotten a pass on its historical selectivity and hagiographical portrait of its title character, has incurred controversy after Democratic congressman Joe Courtney of Connecticut blasted the film’s inaccurate depiction of two Connecticut congressmen’s voting against the 13th Amendment.
Meanwhile, Silver Linings Playbook — the only film to garner nominations in all six major award categories — has been quietly cruising along under the expert campaigning of Harvey Weinstein, whose record of guiding well-made crowd-pleasers to Oscar glory is unparalleled in Hollywood.
Alas, the best film in U.S. theaters in 2012, which would have been eligible for various awards last year, was ignored by the Academy: The Kid with a Bike, the latest morally serious realist masterpiece from the Belgian Dardenne brothers. (It won the Grand Prix at Cannes.)
And while I’m gratified, as a fan of all types of animation, that the animated-feature nominees include three works of handcrafted stop-motion animation, the best animated film Americans saw in 2012, Studio Ghibli’s wondrous The Secret World of Arrietty, was ignored.
— Steven Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register and creator of Decent Films.
It would be a fine and appropriate irony if the Academy denies the Oscar to Zero Dark Thirty because it tells the truth about the efficacy of torture, and rewards Argo because it covers up the incompetence of the Carter administration! But frankly, I liked two other pictures better than either. Silver Linings Playbook masterfully turns mental illness and family dysfunction into romantic comedy — no small feat. And Life of Pi takes an enjoyable but spiritually twee novel and transforms it into an epic of unbelievable cinematic beauty about the mythologizing of human experience. Myself, I’d give the statue to Pi. But I seem to be in a minority of one.
— Andrew Klavan is a prolific author in California.
JOHN J. MILLER
Hollywood and the rest of America should rally behind Zero Dark Thirty, primarily because it is an excellent and deserving movie, but also to resist the obnoxious and bipartisan efforts of Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain to bully moviemakers over the politically incorrect content of their films.
— John J. Miller is national correspondent for National Review, director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, and author of The First Assassin.
My difficulty in commenting on the Oscars is that I placed all the wrong bets. Of the movies that I privately predicted would make the Best Picture nominations (and also managed to see), only Argo and Lincoln made the cut. Les Mis and Zero Dark Thirty were movies I badly wanted to see, but life kept getting in the way. On the basis of what other people said about them and what I saw online, I would guess that Les Mis is a terrifically exciting movie and Zero Dark Thirty a rare combination of an exciting and adult one (adult on this occasion meaning adult and not adolescent). As for Amour, Silver Linings Playbook, and the others — well, I have managed to avoid knowing anything about them at all. And Skyfall, Schwarzenegger’s Last Stand, and Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise, all of which I enjoyed, failed to make the Best Picture category.
So the choice comes down to Argo, Lincoln, Les Mis, and Zero Dark Thirty. This is not a sensible set of choices. Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty were all strong movies in broadly the same category of serious recent or contemporary history. Les Mis wasn’t.
Obviously I can’t recommend a movie I haven’t seen. So between Lincoln and Argo, I would choose Lincoln. It’s a superb movie on every level, including (to my surprise) the depiction of politics. Because its scriptwriter, Tony Kushner, is famously left-wing, I had half-expected Lincoln to be the villain and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens to be the hero. But — and I watched the movie with a Lincoln scholar who checked my reactions — Kushner’s script is fair, accurate, and brilliantly insightful in its vision of how politics works. So Stevens is forced by the political logic of events to dilute his ideology and support Lincoln’s moral practicality.
Argo, also a very fine movie, is a strong runner-up — a real-life suspense thriller with wit and off-beat charm. I was mildly irritated by the pious introduction that blames the U.S. and the U.K. for delaying by a quarter of a century the imposition of Islamist fanaticism on the Iranian people. But the whole drift of the narrative ensures that Canadians and Americans turn out to be the heroes. We cheer when the ayatollah’s “students” just miss halting the plane that will return the hostages home. So that’s all right then.
Let me return to my main point, however. A single Best Picture category forces us to choose the better Apple over the lesser Orange. It can’t really be done sensibly. I would have the following five categories among the pictures:
Best Musical: On this occasion that has to be Les Mis, but in general this award will in the future be strictly limited to musicals about sailors meeting showgirls on Broadway or less elevated themes.
Best Adventure/Thriller: A strong field this year. Jack Reacher, the Tom Cruise fast-paced whodunit, was unjustly dismissed by boring liberal critics; ditto Schwarzenegger’s fine serio-comic reworking of High Noon. Both movies, incidentally, were against gun control. See both — they’re terrific. But the winner has to be Skyfall, which has revived the James Bond franchise by returning to the tough and realistic spirit of the original novels (including their greater political realism).
Best Political Drama: Lincoln has already won this award above, but I have to acknowledge that if I had seen Zero Dark Thirty, I might just possibly have awarded it the palm. Rarely for a modern movie, it has provoked genuine and quite deep political debate (by which I mean political debate that rises above a few well-worn leftist clichés). I will see it, and so should you.
Best Comedy: This year saw a lot of moderately good comedies, but nothing outstanding — at least nothing outstanding that I saw. But since Silver Linings Playbook is among the nominees and is described as a gentle comedy by some critics, I suppose it has to win this category. But it will never match Weekend at Bernie’s.
Best Romance: Several of the pictures vying for this award are those movies I know nothing about. But I’ll make a wild stab at it and propose Anna Karenina, which, to borrow an old gag, is such a solidly constructed tearjerker that it could survive even a gifted director. By all accounts, Jude Law playing the wronged husband gives a great performance.
As for the rest, well, Daniel Day-Lewis proved himself the greatest cinematic Lincoln and wins the Best Actor award. Spielberg is Best Director. Amy Adams is Best Supporting Actress because, in my judgment, she always wins in whatever category she happens to fall. And the beautiful Rosamund Pike — who refutes Solzhenitsyn’s judgment that there is no such thing as “steaming ice” — wins (though I am the only one to nominate her) the Best Actress for her role in Jack Reacher.
And I would like to thank my typist, my projectionist, my editor, and all the wonderful little people who . . .
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.
CHERYL FELICIA RHOADS
As a Screen Actors Guild member, I get DVD screener copies to vote on the SAG Awards, so I pretty much saw everything. In my opinion, this year’s Oscar nominees are generally better than in previous years. Still, while Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix can usually make a utility bill seem compelling, The Master was a self-indulgent utility bill. As I watched it on my computer, I kept putting it on pause to do “chores.” And, ultimately, I couldn’t get through this one, and so it gets my Worst Film vote.
Twenty years ago, I used to be on an NBC TV series with Ben Affleck, so I must admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for him. Even so, I really liked Argo and found it wonderfully suspenseful, even though I knew the real-life outcome. (And Alan Arkin’s “been there, done that” Hollywood producer, is hilarious!) But there was so much hype surrounding this film that when I finally saw it, I felt just a tiny bit let down, and I also found the Jimmy Carter voiceover at the end annoying.
Jennifer Lawrence is extraordinary and deserves Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook. But Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln will prove that he’s truly “the master” with his third Oscar in the Best Actor category. Without Affleck in this particular directors’ competition, Steven Spielberg may get the Oscar, too.
Best Picture is Lincoln. It bothered me that the contrarians in Abe’s own party are labeled as “conservative” Republicans, even though that term wasn’t in use back then. Apparently screenwriter Tony Kushner just couldn’t help himself. Still, this film is great and makes us inspired anew by our 16th president, now that “he belongs to the ages.”
— Cheryl Felicia Rhoads is an actress and writer, and she heads the Cheryl Felicia Rhoads Northern Virginia Acting School.
MARK RODGERS AND MICHAEL LEASER
Best Picture nominee Les Misérables beautifully illustrates the consequential differences between “the way of grace” and “the way of the law.” Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) was shown grace and transformed by it. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) enforced the law, could not tolerate any relaxing of it, and ends up being undone by his own rigidity. Grace prevails.
This stands in sharp contrast with another Best Picture nominee, Django Unchained, whose “hero” wreaks vengeance on the men who enslaved and abused him and his wife. Django chooses “the way of nature” rather than “the way of grace,” as the narrator put it in The Tree of Life (a 2011 Best Picture nominee).
The easy paths are “the way of the law” or “the way of nature.” Moralists and legalists follow the first, whereas hedonists and romanticists follow the second.
But the road is narrow on “the way of grace,” and few are willing to travel it. It is the hard road. And chances are, you will have to die to yourself on it.
In the Middle East, the road is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. In our nation’s capital, the road is intractable partisan divide. In our communities, the road is litigious. In our business, the road is Randian. In our families, the road is divorce.
In a strange way, “the way of the law” and “the way of nature” lead to the same destination: brokenness and hurt. But “the way of grace” leads to peace and reconciliation.
By the way, we are rooting for Les Misérables. What our country and the world needs right now is a good dose of grace.
2012 was, overall, a mediocre year for movies. The Academy Awards Best Picture nominees are the usual spate of foreign films nobody has seen, small “meaningful” pictures that lean heavily to the left, and soporific blockbusters. There are no clear winners this year, but there are pictures that have been ruled off-limits by the leftist press, including Zero Dark Thirty, for the despicable crime of showing that waterboarding works.
Here’s the rundown:
Amour: Treading the same ground as Million Dollar Baby, Amour depicts a senior couple enduring the horrors of mental deterioration. Predictably, the talk turns to euthanasia. Which, naturally, is a good thing.
Life of Pi: A nonsensical mess about a boy who may or may not have spent his summer in a boat with a tiger. Beautiful special effects, unbeautiful scriptwriting.
Lincoln: A long, by-the-numbers depiction of the passage of the 13thAmendment. It’s beautifully done, but the timing was an obvious homage to President Obama, who hasn’t been shy about invoking Lincoln since the picture’s release. And the film’s writer, hack leftist Tony Kushner, hasn’t been shy about comparing Obama and Lincoln, either.
Argo: Probably the frontrunner, Argo doesn’t belong in the pantheon of great movies. But it’s a very good film that shows the horrors of post-Shah Iran in detail, even if Ben Affleck probably meant to help out one of his heroes, Jimmy Carter.
Silver Linings Playbook: A dark horse for Best Picture, this not-quite-as-charming-as-it-thinks-it-is dramedy takes on the issue of mental illness — and says it can be cured by dance, Eagles fanship, and a hot post-trauma nymphomaniac in the form of Jennifer Lawrence.
Django Unchained: Entertaining, but derivative of Quentin Tarantino’s other work. And like all Tarantino movies, it’s a mash-up of brilliant and interminable.
Les Misérables: For my money, this was the best picture of the year. I’m not a fan of the musical itself — I hated it on Broadway, especially since the score is synthesized and the reprises make no sense — but the film was beautifully directed, the story remains meaningful, and the message of religious redemption is a wonderful one.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: A film with a Big Metaphor and a nonsensical plot. This is so befuddled, it should have been directed by Terrence Malick.
Zero Dark Thirty: Workmanlike, overlong, and out of contention thanks to its scenes about waterboarding.
There were solid movies this year, but they won’t be nominated because they don’t follow the prevailing highbrow Hollywood narrative. And thus the Oscars become more and more irrelevant.
— Ben Shapiro is editor-at-large of Breitbart News and author of Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America.