Small Moments, Big Awards: Oscars 2012

Life of Pi Screenshot

Scene from Life of Pi, one of this year’s Oscar contenders.

For me, 2012 was a year of small but startling moments in film: Bruce Willis realizing who the Rainmaker was and why he had been given that name, all in the course of about one second in Looper. Denzel Washington snorting cocaine, the camera shooting up like a rocket to a high-angle shot, the screen saturating with color and Joe Cocker on the soundtrack singing “Feelin’ Alright” (a song that returns at the end of the movie in a very different context) in Flight . “Eve” telling Daniel Craig her last name and Javier Bardem saying, “Life clung to me like a disease” in Skyfall. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cop revealing his nickname in The Dark Knight Rises.

What do all these films have in common? That’s right: None of them were nominated for Oscars. I’m sure that, in some parallel universe where I have unwisely been appointed God, they would have been (except for The Dark Knight Rises, which was just another bloated and pretentious post-Batman Begins Christopher Nolan Batfilm). But enough about films that didn’t get nominated. Here’s my assessment of the films that did, in roughly reverse order of preference:

Amour. The moral of this film, I think, is please don’t let yourself get old. But if you make the mistake of doing so anyway, please don’t let anybody make a film about it, because they might inflict it on an audience. One hour and 40 minutes into the movie, something actually happens. I noted this because this was the first movie I’d ever seen that could have reduced its entire plot to 15 seconds without seriously losing anything. I suppose if I were younger I might have wanted to see this film, but at this point in my life I’ve already lived too much of it and never want to see it again. And, just to warn you, nothing else happens in the final 20 minutes.

Les Misérables. Not as bad as I feared it would be, but that’s the best I can say for it. When I saw it on stage I thought I didn’t like it because I couldn’t understand the sung-through dialog. Now that I can understand it, I realize I was wrong. Not understanding the words actually helps. Worst moment: The first stunningly vivid image of a foundering ship filled with prisoners dragging chains, who then embarrassingly break out into “Ole Man River.” (Oh, wait, that’s a different show!)

Beasts of the Southern Wild. An unpretentiously charming film about the false divide between humans and the rest of nature (hint: the “Beasts” of the title aren’t just farm animals and the occasional anachronistic aurochs), with a seemingly untrained cast that you’d really like to share a beer with in a sunken Louisiana bar, but Beasts was a little too much of a rough indie for my tastes. Nonetheless, I liked it.

Zero Dark Thirty. Too long by half and surprisingly lacking in dramatic tension, but it still managed to be vastly better, or at least less rambling, than Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which won this award a few years ago. I have to defend it against charges that it was pro-torture — “depiction isn’t endorsement,” as Bigelow puts it — and of being anti-Arab (if anything, the movie justified every nasty thing that Arabs have said about the west since the Crusades), but the movie is slow. If it hadn’t thrown in the occasional explosion, it might have turned into Amour.

Argo. Okay, so the last 15 minutes of the film pull out all the hoary, hokey screenwriter tropes that Hollywood eternally gets blamed for, but everything else is great. I’d put this in the Top 5 for the scenes between Alan Arkin and John Goodman alone. I laughed, grinned and sat on the edge of my seat through much of the film and not because it was some kind of intellectual James Bond pastiche. It was simply a good movie. Period. It certainly doesn’t deserve the backlash that it’s gotten.

Silver Linings Playbook. David O. Russell is such a quirky filmmaker that I don’t think it’s fair to ever accuse one of his films of being “just” a rom com. Russell is incapable of doing a movie that could be described that simplistically. What it is is a wonderfully funny and idiosyncratic film with Bradley Cooper (who I’ve liked ever since he was in Alias) and Jennifer Lawrence (who I think is a thousand times better than that Jennifer who was in Alias). I’ll even forgive SLP that whole stupid betting-on-a-dance-competition subplot just for the chance to see Cooper try to lift Lawrence over his head. I was utterly, completely charmed and fully expect Jennifer Lawrence to become the next Katharine Hepburn. Or at least Audrey Hepburn.

Lincoln. Yeah, it was talky, but what talk! Politics may be hard to put across on film, but when you’ve got a team like Spielberg, Kushner, Day-Lewis, Jones and most of the national political figures of 1865 channeled through Doris Kearns Goodwin, it’s hard to produce anything short of brilliant. This was fascinating, riveting, and I’d be happy if it wins.

Django Unchained. Tarantino has become a true artist. His particular art is for turning the small, unexpected moment into the stunning, jump-right-through-the-ceiling moment, something he can do in the tiniest possible fraction of a second. He understands, like George Stevens in Shane, that violence isn’t something that goes on and on and on but something you build, winding the tension so tight that the slightest twitch of a pinky finger will make the screen explode. That was what made Inglourious Basterds great. Here he goes further, making violence arise out of seemingly banal, tedious conversations that in the end turn out to be neither banal nor tedious (not that you ever thought they would be). What’s most amazing, though, is that he’s found an actor — Christoph Waltz — who is the precise human equivalent of his quirky, out-of-left-field writing and directing approach. I could happily see this film win the Oscar.

Life of Pi. A moment ago (though it probably seems like eons if you’re reading this in one sitting) I said that 2012 was the year of small but startling moments in movies, none of which got nominated. Actually, one of them did. At the end of Life of Pi, Ang Lee changes your entire view of the movie in about four lines of dialog in a way that would take most writers and directors entire scripts. Up until then the movie is beautiful, riveting, eminently watchable and everything a movie should be, but it is that brief exchange of dialog, when you suddenly realize what the movie has been about, that changes a very good film to a transcendent one. If any of these last three films wins, I’ll be happy, but if this one wins, I’ll be ecstatic.