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Here’s a quick round-up of what we think should win tonight. Follow along to see what Oscar gets right! (Hint: use the “John” column)

Jared John
Picture Argo Django Unchained
Director Spielberg Lee
Actress Lawrence Chastain
Actor Day-Lewis Day-Lewis
Supporting Actress Hathaway Hathaway
Supporting Actor Waltz Hoffman
Original Screenplay Flight Flight
Adapted Screenplay Argo Argo
Animated Feature Wreck-It Ralph Brave
Animated Short Paperman
Cinematography Lincoln Anna Karenina
Costume Mirror Mirror
Film Editing Argo
Makeup and Hairstyling Les Miserables
Production Design Anna Karenina
Score Life of Pi
Song Skyfall Skyfall
Sound Editing Django Unchained
Sound Mixing Les Miserables
Visual Effects Life of Pi
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I’ve kind of run out of time here. Oh well. I won’t go into any reasoning. Just assume I’m right. If I had an Oscar ballot, here is what I’d submit (voters rank their choices 1-9):

django1. Django Unchained

2. Argo

3. Life of Pi

4. Zero Dark Thirty

5. Lincoln

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild

7. Les Miserables

8. Amour

9. Silver Linings Playbook

The Oscars are quickly approaching. Because we’ve spent the time to see the nominees and because we’re really smart (and I, at least, have impeccable taste), we’re telling you what should win in all the categories.

The nominees are:

  • Michael Haneke, Amour
  • Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Ang Lee, Life of Pi
  • Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
  • David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Jared

I don’t get what people see in David O. Russell’s direction. I feel like the whole world has gone crazy. I mean, it wasn’t as bad here as in The Fighter, but that’s the lowest of bars. To his credit, he presumably had some role in coaxing great performances out of Lawrence and Cooper, and one of the first non-mailed in one from De Niro in ages. So there’s that.

There’s lots of stuff going on in Beasts of the Southern Wild. And it is technically pretty impressive. So props to Benh Zeitlin for that, but when a ninety minute movie feels like it is twice that long, I’m going to dock the director, even taking the script into consideration.

I found Amour mostly forgettable. It wasn’t quite as terrible as I was expecting, so tip of the hat to Michael Haneke for that. The film started out pretty strong. Opening up on the audience shot was fascinating. And I thought the scene with the running faucet was very well-executed.

Life of Pi has some of the smallest scenes of Oscar contenders (much of the film takes place on a lifeboat, after all) but also some of the largest (the shipwreck, that crazy island). Ang Lee superbly executes this wide range of cinematic effort. When a book that many said was unfilmable ends up looking this great, you have to applaud the work of the director.

spielbergLost in all the hubbub surrounding the omissions in this category is the fact that Steven Spielberg turns in another fantastic effort. He wrangles a massive cast of supporting characters while still always highlight the main one, creating a riveting movie out of a Congressional vote. I’m going through a number of scenes in my head at the moment, and they are all differently memorable and nearly perfectly shot.

Should have been here: I’d keep Spielberg. Ben Affleck, Argo and Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty, obviously. And then I’d throw in Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises and Robert Zemeckis, Flight.

John

The more I think about Silver Linings Playbook the more I dislike it and it is Russell’s project through and through. The tone is especially off. Meanwhile, those who love Amour likely do so based heavily on Haneke’s direction. But I was underwhelmed for the same reason. For me, it’s just too sparse.

The other three movies have their directors’ fingerprints all over them. Isn’t the best adjective for Lincoln “Spielbergian?” Exquisite production elements, powerful John Williams score, and a lack of subtlety. Beasts of the Southern Wild and Life of Pi are more directors’ showcases. Zeitlin has such a neat vision for Beasts with the music, surrealism, and bayou shantytown grunge. It didn’t always work for me, but I love the vision and it probably doesn’t work at all without it. Indie film is full of gritty poverty realism and Zeitlin tries something with much more imagination.

LOP-485  Director Ang Lee on the set of Life of Pi.But Ang Lee is my winner. Life of Pi is all vision. Think of what goes into this film: spectacular visuals, spiritual and surreal elements, and long periods of time with one character alone at sea. This movie lives and dies on how it’s realized and Lee nails it.

Should have been here: Speaking of directorial showcases, how about Django Unchained? This is Tarantino through and through (and is also a better movie than all those that were nominated).

The nominees are:

  • Amour
  • Argo
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Django Unchained
  • Les Miserables
  • Life of Pi
  • Lincoln
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Zero Dark Thirty

A few days ago I was discussing the Oscars with some co-workers and we started talking about the Best Picture category.  As I ran through the nominees, we talked about which movies they’d seen (not many), what Amour was about (my description did not exactly inspire them to go out and see it), and whether or not the Academy had nominated Argo (my co-worker was, of course, thinking about Affleck’s snub for director).  The conversation served as a good reminder that it is important to keep the Oscar race in perspective, I think.  But also the weird duality between personal and public preference.  The fact that someone may have only seen one nominee and be passionately rooting for it isn’t wrong (well, OK, it kind of is).  And whether or not the Academy ends up on my favorite is completely irrelevant to how much I enjoyed it.

I’ve written about all of these movies at length the past few weeks, and I don’t really love repeating myself, so I’ll try to briefly recap my thoughts on the films as I step through them in order of my personal preference.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is shaping up to be my least favorite movie of the year.  It didn’t make any sense and wasn’t fun to watch.  In fact, it was unbearable to watch.  I’ve been working on understanding how and why people do like the film, especially in terms of differentiating it from both other arthouse fare as well as films with a more traditional narrative structure.  Still not there yet.

Les Miserables is shaping up to be my second least favorite movie of the year.  It was a very weird experience watching it in a packed theater.  A combination of that trainwreck feeling where I couldn’t look away from the atrocity and befuddlement at how people seemed so engrossed.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a director singlehandedly torpedo a movie the way that Hooper did here.  Kind of impressive, actually.  And I guess on some level I can appreciate that he was willing to take such a risk.  But that’s the thing about risks. Sometimes they don’t pay off.

Amour is a tough watch.  I’m sure it feels honest or true or however else people who like the movie would describe it.  I left the theater unconvinced that it was a story worth two hours of my time.  The comparison may not be entirely fair, but I think the opening montage  in Up is a tremendously more powerful and engaging way of exploring similar themes.

I wanted to love Silver Linings Playbook.  And I think there may be a great movie in there somewhere.  One where David O. Russell stays far far away.  The film is an inconsistent mishmash of ideas, themes, and characters hiding behind a Hollywood-friendly concept of mental illness.  Incredibly winning performances by Lawrence and Cooper save the film, and the film does improve significantly in the second half when Russell is more focused on the dance competition.

I liked Life of Pi way more than I was expecting.  But that might be because way more of the movie was more than just a guy in a boat with a tiger.  Because really, those scenes (along with the framing device) were the weak parts of the film.  When Lee and Magee got to explore bigger environs, they seemed to explode with creativity, and who knows, maybe it is because they felt so constrained by the smaller scenes.

There were four Best Picture movies I really enjoyed this year.  Which was a pleasant surprise.  Django Unchained was clever, funny, and bloody.  So everything I’d expect a Tarantino film to be.  As I’ve mentioned, I still think he needs an editor or a running time constraint or something.  Especially if it limits the homages and in-jokes and creates a more streamlined movie.

Lincoln is a solid movie.  Bestowed with a broad title, it features a rather focused story and rather sprawling cast of characters.  It boasts strong acting performances and a generally interesting, well-paced plot.  Spielberg and Kushner almost pull the film off flawlessly, but ultimately there are just too many characters and subplots to do so.

I’ll take the last 30-45 minutes of Zero Dark Thirty against 30-45 minutes from just about any other film this year.  Or any other year, really.  The raid is absolutely fantastic.  Some of the most thrilling, edge of my seat scenes I’ve ever seen.  Perhaps necessarily, though,  the first part of the movie doesn’t really hold a candle to the last part.

I’m not tagging along with the presumptive front-runner,you can go back and check my top fives, I’ve been touting Argo since I saw it.  It is extremely taut, which makes the laughs all the bigger.  It may not be the perfect thriller, but it is the closest to perfection we’ve seen in some time.  The climactic sequence is the only one from this year that can compare to Zero Dark Thirty’s raid.  But everything leading up to the daring escape was just a little bit more engrossing.  The bureaucracy was more captivating.  Everything surrounding building the fake film was fascinating.  And once Affleck shows up in Iran, everything gets incredibly tense.  I wouldn’t say I have Argo as a blowout over the three movies I have beneath it, but it is my clear favorite in this year’s crop of nominees.

The Oscars are quickly approaching. Because we’ve spent the time to see the nominees and because we’re really smart (and I, at least, have impeccable taste), we’re telling you what should win in all the categories.

The nominees are:

  • Michael Haneke, Amour
  • Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
  • John Gatins, Flight
  • Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
  • Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty

John

This is another tough category for me. It contains a number of films I admire but trying to pick the best writing achievement from them is a hard proposition.

Amour is at the bottom of the pile for me. For those that love the movie, what do they love? The story? The dialogue? The character arcs? No, it’s probably the performances, the shot choices, the pace, and Haneke’s visual style. So vote for him for Best Director.

The problem with Zero Dark Thirty is not torture, per se. All the political hand-wringing about whether it condones torture is overblown. I don’t think it has any duty to explicitly show the downsides of torture (though it is pretty explicit about its horrors). But I think it may have been a better movie if it had. I found the story to be distressingly linear. The key to finding Bin Laden gets discovered very early in the film and much of the rest of the story relentlessly follows that lead, overly simplifying a fascinatingly complex process. Yesterday, Jeff Wells published a response from someone connected to ZDT to yet another editorial about the film. He argues that the film does show the inefficiencies of torture and the years of false starts, but cites literally two lines of dialogue to back that up. I just think the film could have been richer; the film mostly left me with a desire to read a book on the subject to get a more complete view of it. One other script quibble I have is that the film diverts to show literally every major terror attack after 9/11, presumably to add some explosions to the film.

Django Unchained is my favorite film in this category. My favorite film nominated in any category, in fact. Tarantino has made an immensely entertaining film, which is a compliment coming from me as someone who has never fully been on the Tarantino bandwagon. But while I enjoyed the story and the dialogue, all the other elements are what make it so great. The shots, the music, the visual flourishes. There’s no doubt Tarantino “authored” this movie’s success, but in the sense that I’d vote for him for Best Director. (Plus the story tends to meander a bit. People say he needs an editor to cut down on bloated runtime but I think he needs some help tightening up the scripts as well.) I could say the similar things about Moonrise Kingdom. Interesting characters and story but non-script elements make it special.

John Gatins

John Gatins

This leaves Flight, which I think is the movie whose success is most fueled by its script. It takes a story about alcoholism in a creative and compelling direction. Whip Whitaker is a fantastic and complex character. The script also injects some levity into the story, keeping it from getting too bogged down in dreariness. Denzel Washington’s performance and a harrowingly-realized plane crash are other important elements, but a lot of the film’s success started on the page.

Still, if I’m being honest, I’m rooting for Django or Moonrise so that one of them can win something.

What should have been here? I really had high hopes for Looper and it’s a shame it didn’t make it.

Jared

I get on Wes Anderson’s case a lot and I don’t regret any of it. However, his script with Roman Coppola for Moonrise Kingdom does have a lot of sweet moments. The quirkiness gets in the way of everything, but underneath is a touching story of first love and adolescence and being an adult and lots more interesting stuff.

The events of Amour are…”mundane” might be the wrong word, but they are largely commonplace. Which isn’t necessarily an obstacle to making an engaging movie, but throughout Michael Haneke’s whole script I felt like I was watching someone’s home videos. I understand that’s an appealing quality for some people, but I didn’t see the point.

The next three are among my favorite original screenplays of the year. Mark Boal’s script is part procedural and part action thriller. Perhaps unsurprisingly I prefer the latter. The first part of the movie is less remarkable, but it slowly builds to an epic climax. Boal seems really in his element writing tense war action, and maybe a little less confident in the investigation side of things.

I still maintain that Quentin Tarantino would benefit from an editor of some sort to tighten up and slim down his films. But not too much, because there’s a lot of fantastic stuff in there. Tarantino has an absolutely wicked sense of comic relief, the scene with the hoods may be one of the funniest of the year. But like the gruesome shootout at the end (which may be one of the best showdowns of the year), I question how they fit into the movie as a whole.

Great characters start on the page

Great characters start on the page

I was absolutely thrilled to see John Gatins get a nomination here. I thought he had two major roadblocks in his way: the fantastic crash sequence and the stellar work of Denzel Washington. Both of which, of course, stem from the fantastic screenplay. The story is well-plotted and the main character is fascinating. From hotel bed of sin to plane crash to hospital to farm to hearing, the film is always riveting, exquisitely paced, and thought-provoking.

Should have been here: I’d keep Boal, Tarantino, and Gatins. And I’d throw in David Wain and Ken Marino, Wanderlust and Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild, Ted.

The Oscars are quickly approaching. Because we’ve spent the time to see the nominees and because we’re really smart, we’re telling you what should win in all the categories.

The nominees for Best Actress are:

  • Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
  • Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
  • Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Naomi Watts, The Impossible

John

Whew, this is a tough category. It’s so tough that if I was a real voter I would consider not casting a ballot at all. My preferences between Riva, Chastain, and Lawrence are just that tight.

Riva plays a woman who has been partially paralyzed after a stroke. Her performance is naturally very physical and she puts that on display in a few particularly harrowing scenes, like when she’s shouting gibberish through half her mouth. Chastain is a study in resolve. She is commanding, direct, and, yes, a little cold. She’s also the one actress of these three that could be said to really dominate her movie, that her performance is a defining elements of the film.

It’s a function of the material she has to work with, but I occasionally had trouble believing the lines Lawrence was delivering. This was mostly the case when she was at either her most fierce or most vulnerable. To some extent I just don’t think the film utilizes her character well: I feel like she’s a character I want to see in a movie and I don’t know what the hell the other people are doing there. Still, it’s a good performance and except for those few quibbles she pulls the movie through some real rough spots. She’s almost a breath of fresh air when she comes on the screen, saving us from Bradley Cooper’s neurosis.

So who to choose? I’m not sure. My mind may change before the Oscar ceremony both for who

is most deserving and who I hope will win. I’ll admit I’m kind of rooting for Riva. But I will choose Jessica Chastain on merit.

Going into The Impossible knowing that Watts earned a nomination, I expected more from the role. Her struggles in the tsunami are terrifying but the final 2/3 of the movie finds her bedridden, injured and moaning. I feel like if this sort of thing appeals to you, you have Riva doing it to greater effect. And I certainly don’t begrudge Wallis’s nomination and she really carries her movie. Adages about child acting aside, I just found her the other nominees more compelling.

Jared

Quvenzhane Wallis is more anecdotal proof that child actors keep getting better and better.  I’m not sure I’d put her in my top 20, but part of that is the material and anyway I’m not going to say anything bad about someone whose age is in the single digits.

I liked The Impossible more than I was expecting, and some of that was definitely due to Naomi Watts.  Her problem here is mostly screen time.  I don’t think it would be category fraud to bump her down to supporting actress.  Because she doesn’t really have the material needed to compete here.

I suppose it is possible I’ve got a personal backlash against Amour going on, but I’m clearly missing something here.  Emmanuelle Riva was good, but if you want to give her a lifetime achievement award, fine,  then give her a lifetime achievement award.  Don’t overrate her performance.  She virtually disappears for a good chunk of the movie, leaving me wondering why Jean-Louis Trintignant wasn’t getting the awards attention.

Jessica Chastain is quickly rising up the list of actors or actresses I would cast in a movie if I had to pick a cast without knowing anything about the script.  The first third or so of the movie isn’t particularly strong, but Jessica Chastain a large part of the reason to stick through it.  The role isn’t really what jumps to mind when one thinks Oscar – there’s no big crying scene or wild emoting, which makes it all the more impressive Chastain got the nomination.

For me, though, Jennifer Lawrence is this year’s best actress.  Frankly, it is isn’t particularly close.  Saddled with a rather mediocre script, Lawrence lights up the screen, creating a vivid and interesting character.  She nearly singlehandedly turns Silver Linings Playbook into something watchable.  I firmly believe the awards love that the film and script are getting are ridiculous.  But I just as firmly believe none of that would be happening without Lawrence.  Honestly, I find it baffling that anyone could reach a different conclusion for this category.

Should have been here: My top five  goes Chastain, Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence (again), The Hunger Games; Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea; Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz

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