2013 Oscars: Nominee Reviews

To kick off my 2013 Oscars blogs, I decided to take a slightly different tack. Instead of jumping right in to the nominees, I’ve decided to do a quick review of most of the movies that were nominated for an award. Not really sure why I decided to do this; maybe just another chance for me to hit you over the head with my Oscars opinions.

Over the next few days, I’ll break down most of the Oscars awards races, offer some of facts, some rumors, some opinions and maybe just some plain bullshit.

Amour
Best Picture, Director, Writing (Original), Actress, Foreign Film
I’ll start by saying that it’s a good film, but not a great one. Not a lot of foreign films get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in the United States, so you’d have thought that they’d have chosen a better told story than Amour. The film is essentially about a retired man taking care of his wife, who has some form of Alzheimer’s. Over two hours, the director walks us through virtually every single bad thing that can happen in a situation like that, slowly, painfully, lingering in every detail. The performances are good and the movie is beautifully shot, but I don’t appreciate two things: (1) Hitting me over the head with your point and (2) Movies whose singular points are “Life Sucks, and then You Die.” Life’s a bit more interesting than that, and this one doesn’t deserve an Oscars win.
Jack’s Verdict: 2.5/4 stars

Anna Karenina
Best Cinematography, Costume Design, Music, Production Design
This seemed like certain Oscar bait for Keira Knightly, but the film fell flat on its face. I’ve never seen a movie so terribly over-directed as this one; it was as if director Joe Wright felt the need to jump up and down, waving his arms, screaming “Look at me, look at me, I’m an AAAARTIST!”. The movie was mostly filmed in an old theater which is clever…for about five minutes. Then the moving scenery gets distracting, taking your attention away from the various characters whose motivations and interests take 40-45 minutes to even get a sense of. It does get better after that point, but the stage never really makes sense and you get the sense that Knightly had more to give to the role.
Jack’s Verdict: 2/4 stars

Argo
Best Picture, Writing (Adapted) Supporting Actor, Film Editing, Music, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
One of these days Ben Affleck will get out of Hollywood jail and he’ll get an Oscars nomination for directing. It’s unfortunate that not enough people have gotten over Gigli and J-Lo to acknowledge Affleck’s work for Argo, which is outstanding. The story is taut, well-told and his not an ounce of fat on it. You now how it all ends, but Affleck still does a great job of building the tension and upping the stakes with each passing scene. He also did some amazing technical work (which I’ll cover in the Director posting). Even the casting was close to perfect; John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston and Victor Garber each added something extra each time they came on the screen. Any one of them could have seen a nomination at the Oscars.
Jack’s Verdict: 4/4 stars

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Best Picture, Director, Writing (Adapted), Actress
There’s always at film at the Oscars that, while it is a pretty good movie, it somehow gets Hollywood hipster cred, and Beasts is that film this year. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a well done film and a decent story, but it doesn’t belong on the top stage. The story is intense and the effects are pretty great for a movie of its budget, but it suffers from a bit of over-direction and deliberate pacing. You also are left a bit wanting; this is a film without a true end-game that’s more about the journey. Still, the performances are top-notch and it’s a lot better than what most of the big budget studios put out every year.
Jack’s Verdict: 3/4 stars

Django Unchained
Best Picture, Director, Writing (Original), Cinematography, Sound Editing
You can almost always tell when you’re in a Quentin Tarantino movie. There’s a lot of swearing, particular emphasis on racial slurs, people get killed in bloody and imaginative ways, and they like to talk about seemingly unrelated topics but yet somehow the tension crackles and builds throughout the conversation. Django is Quentin Tarantino in rare form, for better and worse. The characters are all well developed and their interactions are terrific. The story takes a LONG time to reveal itself to you, which isn’t really a problem, but there are some scenes that could be condensed or cut. Not at the level of Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds (which I felt was superior to and should have beat The Hurt Locker in the Oscars in 2010), but a lot of bloody fun (pun intended).
Jack’s Verdict: 3.5/4 stars

Flight
Best Actor, Writing (Original)
Flight is not the movie you think it is, particularly from the marketing. It basically starts with a climatic scene, and then spends the next two hours going through the ramifications it has on its principle character, played to perfection by Denzel Washington (who picked up an Oscars nomination for his efforts). It’s surprisingly introspective, as Washington’s character Whip Whitacker battles various personal demons and tries to put each to bed. John Goodman also adds a bit of devilish fun in a small supporting role, which is written and presented so well, you wish there could be an award for “Best Character” at the Oscars. Overall the result is real and satisfying.
Jack’s Verdict: 3.5/4 stars

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Best Production Design, Visual Effects
The first Middle Earth film to not be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and with good reason. Let me first say that I loved the original LOTR trilogy; I have the special editions (yes, the ones that total up to 12 hours of movie) at home, and watch them once a year. Those are three books made into three four-hour movies. The Hobbit, unfortunately, is one book made into (apparently) three three-hour movies. You get the feeling that Peter Jackson just didn’t make any choices with the material; he took virtually every idea, threw it in to the mix and then filmed them. The film is so poorly paced that it’s difficult to stay awake. Hopefully Jackson will learn from his mistake and cut the next two films to two hours apiece, with a greater focus on the main story, rather than the politics of Middle Earth. Still, the story (when it’s on the screen, which is about half the time) is pretty good, the acting top-notch and the film looks beautiful.
Jack’s Verdict: 2/4 stars

The Impossible
Best Actress
You have to tell yourself over and over throughout that what is unfolding on the screen was true; it’s that amazing to watch. Its two leads (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) are at the top of their game, and even the kids casted turned in top performances. The story is well-developed and well-told, and every bit of emotion can be felt in the audience. It’s another one of these films that, even though you know how it ends (see the title if you don’t know), it still is incredibly tense throughout. My only beef is that I don’t see Watts as Best Actress at the Oscars; the screen-time merited a Supporting nod, and her part didn’t really lend itself to a statue (even though she did good with what she had).
Jack’s Verdict: 3.5/4 stars

Les Miserables
Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Production Design, Sound Mixing
Les Miserables became the first film in recent history to allow its actors to sing live (instead of lip sync), allowing them to actually act and react while belting out their songs. The editing is also amazing (I’m at a loss to figure out why they didn’t get an Oscars nod); there’s a lot of cutting back and forth between the characters during the numbers that really adds to the tension and better reveals each of the character’s motivations. Like with Chicago, this is done well enough that it’s actually a better film than stage play. Each of the actors did a great job singing (even Crowe, who isn’t a stage-caliber voice and somewhat different than the others, but not bad). The film could have better benefited from a grand opening in the classic musical tradition rather than dropping you straight into the movie. Though the opening number was well done, it was disorienting enough that it didn’t feel as emotional as it should have. The film was a shade long, as well. Its slight flaws may cost it at the Oscars.
Jack’s Verdict: 3.5/4 stars

Life of Pi
Best Picture, Director, Writing (Adapted), Cinematography, Film Editing, Music, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects
They should have called this movie “The Impossible”, as anyone who has followed this seemingly doomed production and/or read the book would have thought that this one couldn’t have been done. But Ang Lee found a way; developing a terrific narrative technique and combining it with some eye-popping visual effects to create a well-told and enjoyable film. Newcommer Suraj Sharma does a good job of holding down the film’s leading role, and we should see him again soon, even though he didn’t get an Oscars nod himself.
Jack’s Verdict: 3.5/4 stars

Lincoln
Best Picture, Director, Writing (Adapted), Actor, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Music, Production Design, Sound Mixing
In a movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Stephen Spielberg it may sound strange to start by talking about the writing, but the screenplay is what really jumps out at me about Lincoln. Tony Kushner initially wrote a 500 page screenplay (figure 1 minute of screen time per page, so this was an 8 hour movie initially) that he eventually whittled down to the politics of passing the anti-slavery amendment. In doing so, Kushner created a unique and engaging portrayal of Lincoln the politician as well as Lincoln the man, putting this movie far above any run of the mill biopic. Then you add in Day-Lewis’ knockout performance (does he ever have an off day?) and Spielberg’s story-telling ability, combine them with a series of terrific supporting characters, and you get a Best Picture nominee, true Oscars bait. If only it was as easy as it sounded.
Jack’s Verdict: 4/4 stars

The Master
Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress
I HATED this movie. It was one of the most pathetic attempts to tell a story that I’ve ever seen. 150 minutes, and I have no idea what the story was really about, what the point was, or why I should care. Though I don’t know what it was about, it was a terrific re-introduction to Joaquin Phoenix, in its first release since coming back from the fake rapper performance art he did with BFF Casey Affleck. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams were both good as always, but not terrific. Hoffman has won at he Oscars before, Adams will win someday, but neither will win for this one. I was happy to see it get passed over for Best Picture and Director Oscars.
Jack’s Verdict: 0.5/4 stars

Moonrise Kingdom
Best Writing (Original)
Another of writer/director Wes Anderson’s Little Movies That Could. Anderson specializes in quirk, and his full range of talents were on display in this film, which is really about two kids who experience first love at summer camp. Filled with funny and unusual supporting characters, each with their own kins and quirks, each passing scene adds something heartfelt and fun. This is a movie you can watch over and over and still enjoy it. Should have seen more Oscars nominations.
Jack’s Verdict: 4/4 stars

The Sessions
Best Supporting Actress
A true story about a 38 year old man who has been crippled by polio when he was 8 and has since lived his entire life in be, only able to move his head. He is a poet and a full-time writer, but due to his condition hasn’t experienced a real relationship, so he consults a sex therapist. Helen Hunt (who plays the therapist) has all but disappeared over the last few years, but this is certainly her reintroduction into Hollywood, and her performance is pitch-perfect. Hawkes, who plays the man, is amazing, especially considering he can only move is head, and was robbed of a nomination. The film is well-told, sweet and enjoyable.
Jack’s Verdict: 3.5/4 stars

Silver Linings Playbook
Best Picture, Director, Writing (Adapted), Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Film Editing
There’s little about this movie that isn’t top shelf, and you can see it in the nominations. While the media likes to talk about the total number of nominations, you can count on one hand the number of films that received nominations for Best Picture, Director, Writing and all four acting categories. Bradley Cooper officially arrives on the A-list with his Oscars caliber performance, delivering results we’ve never seen before from him. Though only 22, Jennifer Lawrence picks up her second Best Actress nomination with a breakthrough performance of her own, portraying her character as tough and vulnerable, independent and crazy, all at the same time while still allowing us to like her at the same time. Robert De Niro turns in his best performance in years in a movie that’s funny, heartfelt and tightly told. It has a great chance of cleaning up with multiple Oscars.
Jack’s Verdict: 4/4 stars

Skyfall
Cinematography, Music, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
A lot of people talked about this one for Best Picture at the Oscars, but I frankly didn’t see it. Yes, it was far superior to the last bond film, Quantum of Solace, but it didn’t beat Casino Royale by any measure. Daniel Craig as Bond is always terrific, and director Sam Mendes added a style the franchise has been lacking for years. But the writing was pedestrian; the story had a ton of loop holes and questionable motivations for its primary villain. Javier Bardem so overplayed his character that he actually detracted from the story. So long story short: keep Craig and Mendes, drop everyone else.
Jack’s Verdict: 2.5/4 stars

Zero Dark Thirty
Best Picture, Writing (Original), Actress, Film Editing, Sound Editing
Director Katheryn Bigelow returns to the desert to tell another story from the front lines of the War on Terror, this time the true story behind the hunt for the master terrorist himself, Osama bin Laden (she cleaned up at the Oscars in 2010 for The Hurt Locker). Zero Dark Thirty is the exploration of one woman, based on a real life CIA agent, and how she literally loses herself in the hunt, her successes, failures and everything in between. It could have been a fully story-driven movie, but Bigelow’s Maya is a fully realized character who you can root for and enjoy. The story takes some time to get going but once it does, it’s tense and thrilling to watch.
Jack’s Verdict: 3.5/4 stars

Oscars night is on February 24; I’ll be back each day between now and then to talk more Oscars stuff. To see a full list of Oscars nominees, click here.