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My writeups, if you haven’t already gathered, rank  the nominees in reverse order of how I like them.  But here, as John mentioned, we’re ranking the best picture movies as if we were Oscar voters.

1. The Artist.  Yeah, picking this film is almost cliche at this point in awards season.  But that’s only because it is the best film of this lot by leaps and bounds.  The others really aren’t in the ballpark.  At this point I’ve waxed rhapsodic about so many aspects of the movie that really, all that’s left to say is that all these wonderful aspects of the film: writing, directing, acting, cinematography, just everything all combines together into one really great movie.

2. Midnight in Paris.  It is a sign of how poor an Oscar year it is that when I saw the film over the summer, I was wavering over whether I thought I’d give it Oscar consideration and now it is my second-favorite film of those nominated.  It is light, fun, and not particularly deep.

3. The Help.  It is a decent movie, and pretty much nothing like what people are projecting onto it.  Race issues get people riled up, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but if you can look past all that, you’ve got a fine movie.  Maybe a little bit bloated and unfocused at times, but it is funny, warm, and entertaining.  Not one of the nine best movies of the year, but certainly no outrage.

4. The Descendants.  And here’s the part of the list with films that make me go, “Eh.”  I currently have  this film as the 36th best movie of the year.  There are certainly plenty of good things about the movie, like George Clooney and Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard and Shailene Woodley constantly being in a bikini.  Each of us has voiced our problems with the plot, chiefly the underdeveloped plotline surrounding the land deal.

5. Moneyball.  As I’ve mentioned, great job figuring out how to turn the book into a movie, but they didn’t get quite all the way there.  Every single supporting character seemed underdeveloped and underutilized to me.  But hey, it is hard to be angry about a best picture-nominated film about the economics of baseball.

6. Everything Loud and Incredibly Close.  Another one of those issue movies where people make all sorts of outlandish claims about the film trying to “solve” some really huge issue and obviously failing to do so.  It is insane, to me, that anyone could think this film was about healing the wounds from 9/11.  Sure, clearly, the events form the backdrop here, but the movie is much smaller than that.  It is about a kid who lost his dad, isn’t particularly close to his mom, and is trying to figure out his world.

7. War Horse.  Not as bad as some people would have you believe, but hardly a great movie.  My biggest problem was that it was hard to get attached to any character, so while obviously it was sad when they died and happy when they lived, it wasn’t that sad or happy.

8. Hugo.  Just a bad movie and and a horrible movie-watching experience.  Sure, it is pretty and it is great that it references the birth of cinema.  But I dunno, I prefer my movies to have an interesting story and not be boring.

9. The Tree of Life.  Speaking of boring movies that don’t have a story!  Look, I understand if you want to make the argument that this film is high art.  I won’t even disagree.  But as a movie, it is horrendous.  One of the items on the film’s imdb trivia page states that in an Italian theater, two reels of the film were switched and nobody realized the mistake for an entire week.  If your film can be shown out of order for an entire week, there is something seriously, fatally, tragically wrong with it.  I’m not saying it is the worst movie I’ve ever seen in my life, but I’m also not saying I’ve ruled it out.

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We continue with our chat where we reveal our ballot for this year’s Independent Spirit Awards (occurring right as this is posting!). Part 1 is here.

BEST MALE LEAD

The nominees:

  • Demian Bichir, A Better Life
  • Jean Dujardin, The Artist
  • Ryan Gosling, Drive
  • Woddy Harrelson, Rampart
  • Micahel Shannon, Take Shelter

WINNER: Michael Shannon (19 points – 12 from Brian, 7 from John)
Other votes: Jean Dujardin (1 point – Jared)

Jared: So you guys want to talk about your love for Michael Shannon?

John: He’s so intense!

Jared: He really is fantastic

Brian: I can’t imagine anyone else doing that role

John: He’s got the face, the voice, the demeanor for that role

Brian: There were only two categories I really truly cared about — and it was this and Supp. Female — but I didn’t realize you all agreed with me!

Jared: I thought this category was really, really strong, I wavered back and forth on voting for every single nominee.

John: This is all around a good crop of nominees though

Brian: I never considered voting for Gosling but other than that, the strongest batch of the nominees for sure

John: I agree that there wasn’t quite enough for Gosling to work with

Jared: I think Gosling managed to turn a little into a whole heck of a lot. Bichir has a kind of similar argument. Harrelson always seems to create these indelible characters.

John: I wish I liked Rampart more, but Harrelson is good. Dujardin is good. Bichir is good in a more subdued role. Good good good. I was a tad worried about Dujardin winning. Not because he’s not great but because I feel like someone else needs to win the Spirit. That’s why I fought the urge to take points from Shannon when I needed more elsewhere

Jared: I guess I want the best to win, but I see what you are saying.

BEST FIRST FEATURE

The nominees:

  • Another Earth
  • In the Family
  • Margin Call
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Natural Selection

WINNER: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Jared: I actually kinda liked all of the Best First Feature nominees, not sure I loved any of them, but all are worthwhile films. Our nominee, though, will be Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Brian: Wooooo, that’s who I would have voted for

John: Good movie

John: I can’t believe Margin Call and MMMM are first features. Those are some real up and coming talents

Adam: It was fine. Not great, but had interesting elements

Brian: I fear that Margin Call will be a little bit of a one-trick pony

John: It depends on what Chandor does next. He’s gotta do something different. imdb says his next project is called All Is Lost. “A journey of one man’s fight to survive.” Starring Robert Redford

Jared: I thought MMMM did a good job of maintain tension throughout.

Brian: yes, it was incredibly tense

Jared: So In the Family is a 170 minute film about an gay, ethnically Asian man from Tennessee (completely with drawl) and his battle to cope after his partner dies leaving behind a biological son the two had been raising, and his battle to win custody of said kid. It also is surprisingly watchable.

Brian: I can see the ads now: “Surprisingly Watchable’

Jared: I mean, there’s no way to describe it so it sounds interesting. And the guy is desperate need of an editor or something. But writer/director/star Patrick Wang managed to put together a pretty compelling film.

John: I can see how that would make a compelling movie

Jared: I wouldn’t say to go out of your way to see it, but you probably won’t be disappointed.

BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM

The nominees:

  • A Separation
  • Melancholia
  • Shame
  • The Kid with a Bike
  • Tyrannosaur

WINNER: Shame

John: OUR vote for international film is Shame

Jared: Good thing Adam zoned out an hour ago, otherwise he’d be yelling at you a lot.

Adam: I would, but I am completely unsurprised that John chose the inferior film.

John: I know you all didn’t care for it, but it mesmerized me and it really affected me. I just wanted to curl up in my seat and then go take a shower

Brian: oh god

John: The last 30 minutes or so is so intense

Brian: or pointless

John: It reminds me of the finale to Requiem for a Dream. Just increasingly bleak and awful. I’m talking of the scenes in the lead up to his return home, which I cared for less

Brian: I’d love to hear about Melancholia instead of ragging on John about why Shame is terrible

John: You guys won’t like Melancholia

Brian: so… you loved it?

John: No I did not. I can see how people liked it though. It saves the best for last. The last 20-30 minutes is the impending doom of the apocalypse and it gets increasingly uneasy. So it ends with a tense bang

Adam: It looked absolutely awful

John: But holy hell the first hour is rough. The Kirsten Dunst character is at her wedding and has a serious case of cuntitis. She’s mentally ill, but still

Adam: YES!!!!

Jared: That may be the best line of the year, by the way. [ed note: “cuntitis” is a joke from Cinematography nominee The Off Hours]

Adam: That’s staying in

John: Tyrannosaur is terrific also, by the way

Jared: Adam, I believe Tyrannosaur is done by the guy who played Jason Statham’s partnerish guy in Blitz.

John: I heard some complaints that it was just another British bleak picture, but it has plenty of story and packs a punch

Adam: Oh. Maybe I’ll see that then

John: I also was underwhelmed by A Separation. Two hours of people being stubborn

Jared: That’s disappointing to hear, looking forward to seeing it this weekend.

Adam: John doesn’t know what he is talking about

Brian: thats good to hear, but I’m going with John’s evaluation so my expectations are lowered

Jared: That’s generally my operating assumption.

John: Everyone else seems to love it though so your mileage may vary. I just really expected it to be up my alley

BEST FEMALE LEAD

The nominees:

  • Lauren Ambrose, Think of Me
  • Rachel Harris, Natural Selection
  • Adepero Oduye, Pariah
  • Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

WINNER: Rachel Harris (20 points – Adam)
Other votes: Elizabeth Olsen (9 points- 5 from John, 4 from Brian)
Michelle Williams (7 points – Jared)

Adam: YES!!

John: ha

Brian: Hahahaha

Adam: Clean sweep

Jared: Wanna tell us why you gave her so many points?

John: And here I was worried that someone would outvote Olsen with Williams

Brian: I can support this nomination, but I too want to hear why you loved it

Adam: Sure…I gave her so many points because fuck Michelle Williams

Jared: Hahaha.

Adam: And I like Game Theory

Jared: I was actually really surprised by Harris’s performance. I thought she did a fantastic job.

Adam: I actually agree. I was pleasantly surprised by the movie itself, but she made the movie

Brian: Me too — it could have turned into a Tracey Ullman like parody, but it didn’t. I found this category the hardest, actually

John: Until the last second I was throwing a point to Ambrose. Wish I had left it now!

Jared: John, I almost did the same! I really like Lauren Ambrose and thought she carried the film something fierce. She was playing a tough character and thought she did an admirable job.

John: The movie was meh but I can definitely see why she was nominated

Brian: Agreed

John: Yeah all were good but I never hesitated picking Olsen

Jared: She was a revelation, it is true.

John: Actually, I will say Oduye was a lesser nod to me.

Jared: Agreed. She was fine, but unremarkable.

John: Truth be told I found a few other performances outshone her. Specifically Aasha Davis as her friend and Sahra Mellesse as her sister in a small role

Brian: and Kim Wayans

John: See I wasn’t taken by Wayans

Jared: In Living Color 4 life!

John: Wayans is the mom, right?

Jared: Yup.

John: It’s an uneven movie for acting

Jared: I also have to defend Michelle Williams here. Thought she created a rather memorable Marilyn Monroe…fragile and strong, sexy and insecure and always larger than life.

John: I didn’t like the movie at all but she is indeed good. The big snub for Actress was Liana Liberato for Trust. I was really surpised that film didn’t show up anywhere. She’s so good for a child actress

Jared: I agree with John, people should watch Trust and praise her role

BEST SCREENPLAY

The nominees:

  • Footnote
  • The Artist
  • Win Win
  • Beginners
  • The Descendants

WINNER: The Artist (6 points – 5 from Jared, 1 from Brian)

Brian: I guess I’m not in alone in feeling like the First Screenplay group were much stronger than the Screenplay group.

John: Definitely. And how does Take Shelter get love in so many categories but not screenplay?

Jared: It is a crime that 50/50 isn’t in here.

Adam: I am also surprised that 50/50 is not here

John: I believe that scripts can either be in screenplay or first screenplay, not both. I may not be right about that but I think that’s the case

Jared: Also, how did Midnight in Paris miss?

Adam: Also, while I didn’t always agree with the overall story, Midnight in Paris had some of the best dialogue of any movie this year

Jared: Instead we get Win Win and Beginners.

John: Obviously I would have voted for Midnight in Paris if it had been there, but I can understand spreading the love around, like the way Clooney wasn’t nominated

Brian: I liked Win Win much more than Jared

Adam: I am also fine with Win Win. Beginners should not be here

Brian: Beginners was so trite

John: Beginners is about 40% awesome and 60% navel gazing whiny crap

Brian: with an unoriginal take on the manic pixie dream girl

John: Yeah really. More gay dad please! We want gay dad! We want gay dad!

Brian: Win Win wasn’t anything new either, but well done

John: The weird thing with Win Win is that there isn’t much drama. It’s quite pleasant but that’s about it. Even the sullen teen is a good kid.

Brian: since when do you care about drama?

Jared: Did any of you guys actually like The Descendants script?

Brian: MORE LAND DEALS!

John: I suppose I would have voted for Descendants by default if I had to vote but I clearly didn’t care enough to bother. It has some really great elements but it just doesn’t cohere in a way that I hoped

Jared: Agreed. Maybe Footnote will be really awesome.

John: So weird to me that Footnote is in here

Brian: I guess we should talk about the winner, Jared?

Jared: oh. Everyone already knows The Artist is awesome.

John: I liked the ratatat patter of our winner

Brian: making a screenplay work for a silent movie is no small feat

Jared: And I’m glad people realize that a script is so much more than dialogue. Everything that happens has to be in a script first.

Adam: Says the Aaron Sorkin fan

Jared: [walks down a hallway]

John: Yeah I’d say my problems with The Artist are probably more in execution than in writing. I hope you like stage directions because that script is full of them

Brian: [says self important things]

BEST DIRECTOR

The nominees:

  • Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
  • Mike Mills, Beginners
  • Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter
  • Alexander Payne, The Descendants
  • Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

WINNER: Jeff Nichols (9 points – 6 from John, 3 from Brian)
Other votes: Nicolas Winding Refn (6 points – 3 from John, 3 from Jared)

John: Oh good. I was worried after that last category that The Artist was ready to sweep our votes. Both Drive and Take Shelter are real directors’ movies. All about execution. I liked Take Shelter better than Drive so I gave it more points, but kudos to both

Jared: I think Drive has the script of a direct to DVD movie, but Refn worked really hard to make every single shot memorable and elevate it to something arthouse.

Adam: Yeah..I agree with that I wasn’t blown away by any of these movies directing. If I had to pick though, it would have been for Drive

John: I agree fully, Jared. If we have issues with it it’s from the script. Refn gives it some real style: Camera work, scene staging, sound, music, editing. And the same could be said for Nichols. I’d say the only problem I have with Take Shelter is the pacing through some of the middle. It could have used some trimming, I think. Nichols is really good at ratcheting up the tension and doom

Brian: Drive was all flash, no substance. I put some of that on the director. Actually I thought he kept getting in the way of the small semblance of plot that was there. But Take Shelter — those visuals were so arresting and haunting

John: Getting in the way, by being too awesome?

Brian: by being distracting. The violence was the definition of gratuitous

Jared: Refn didn’t really seem to try to be invisible, he wanted you to know someone was Directing, dammit.

John: Yes, but that’s literally the point. This was an exercise in stylish violence

Brian: but it was pointless

John: Well, it was the point

Brian: the point was that it was pointless?

John: I don’t disagree for the most part. But the point seemed to be nothing but to do some stylish violence

Brian: how is that in the plus column?

Adam: Wasn’t that one of your complaints about Inglourious Basterds?

John: Yeah it was my complaint about Inglourious Basterds and I have the same complaint about Drive. I’m just saying the violence isn’t pointless, it is the point. As a directorial exercise it’s great. It just needs some more substance

Brian: see I think Basterds and Drive are totally different. the violence in Basterds had a point — it was war and there was vengeance. in Drive — we knew nothing about The Driver

John: Are we talking writing or directing then

Brian: both. the director chooses what to do with the script . he choices he made didnt make much sense to me

Jared: Anyone have anything to say about the other nominees?

John: The Artist is also all about directorial vision. And people seem to like it. I think Mills gets in based on his segues when McGregor is rambling about shit over montages and the talking dog. Otherwise, why the hell is he there. If you think it’s a good movie you probably like it for the writing and the performances. What is there that makes it particularly well directed?

Jared: Nothing, frankly.

John: And Payne… whatever. He picked some nice Hawaiian music I suppose

Jared: Or the music supervisor did.

BEST FEATURE

The nominees:

  • 50/50
  • Beginners
  • Drive
  • Take Shelter
  • The Artist
  • The Descendants

WINNER: The Artist (10 points – Jared)
Other votes: Take Shelter (8 points – John)
50/50 (3 points – Brian)

Jared: Victory is mine again!

John: Jesus if The Artist wins the Spirits too then what’s the point

Jared: The best movie should win best picture.

Brian: yeah John I dont really think your argument makes much sense

Jared: The Artist is a black and white silent film…that seems pretty independent to me.

John: Mostly I just wish it cost a few million more so it didn’t qualify and we could have our own little playground here without The Artist juggernaut to deal with

Brian: made by French people!

Adam: Ugh…notice how I didn’t vote for it at all. Stupid French

Brian: Next time Adam is in charge of the voting so he rigs it

Adam: You realize that’s EXACTLY what would happen

John: Next time Brian doesn’t waste all his points so we can put up a fight against Jared’s taste in Best Feature

Adam: That said, I am more than happy to be in charge of voting

Brian: I’m actually fine with the selection though I’d have preferred Take Shelter or 50/50

John: So did The Artist warm your cold heart, Jared?

Jared: Yes. The Artist was fun and funny and also surprisingly dark and bleak. Also, it has a great doggie.

Brian: UGGGIE!

John: To me it was just too thin. The style wasn’t enough to get me through. I was on board for about 20 minutes

Jared: The movie managed to placate my entire family, which has pretty much never happened. There’s a really interesting story in there, though

John: It needs another viewing I think.

Thanks for reading. We’ll find out tonight if any of our selections won!

The 84th Academy Awards is almost here! Leading up to the event, we’re going to put all the hours we spent watching these films to good use by giving our thoughts on all the categories, big and small. We may not be experts on everything, but I daresay that’s never stopped anyone from blogging before. On the (very remote chance) you disagree with us or the (much more likely chance) you want to applaud our picks, please chime in below.

Actor in a Leading Role

The nominees are:

  • Demián Bichir, A Better Life
  • George Clooney, The Descendants
  • Jean Dujardin, The Artist
  • Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • Brad Pitt, Moneyball

JOHN

Actor is the hardest category this year. It’s a super strong line-up and I’m having a hell of a time picking a favorite. Honestly, I don’t think you can go wrong. It may even be the best slate of nominees in a major category since we’ve started this project. There’s also a convenient split in the type of performances represented here: the subdued and the classic movie star.

In the former category I’d put Bichir and Oldman. Neither are showy performances but both make a powerful impact. Bichir does a great job of selling the desperation of his situation as a man who is not used to displaying much emotion. I really liked his scenes with his son and the mixture of awkwardness and exasperation in their interactions. Oldman, meanwhile, turns in one of those blank slate performances that wow me every so often. He’s a closely guarded guy, used to the secrecy and politicking of spycraft and yet he can say so much with a little flicker or movement. Every action is so precise and measured.

Clooney, Pitt, and Dujardin instead shine as classic leading men. They have the charisma, conviction, and, indeed, the looks to really lead a film. You may say that’s not all that impressive, but think of how many films sink as their leading men can’t carry them on their shoulders. How many films must sink under Ryan Reynolds’s floundering?

I’ve been a long time Clooney proponent and have given him great praise in this space in previous years for Up in the Air and Michael Clayton. I know people seem to think he plays the same role again and again, but I maintain there’s nothing wrong with taking similar roles. While within something of a “Clooney Realm,” all have their own impressive nuances. His part in The Descendants is a great match for him and he gets to show a little range compared to the previous Best Actor nods. The film bounces around tonally and it works partly because he carries it, balancing the anger, bewilderment, sadness of his predicament. (The narrative doesn’t work nearly as well but that’s not his fault.)

Dujardin brings great physicality to his silent role in The Artist. Presumably he’s never tackled such a role before but he’s a natural. The heightened emotiveness needed for a silent film could easily come off as mimickry or over the top in less suave hands. He just has a magnetism that makes it work. I have a bit less to say about Pitt. The guy is always solid and he does a good job, though I didn’t really find myself thinking, “Pitt is awesome” while watching Moneyball. But I understand that to those who fell for the movie his performance was a big part of it. A good, confident leading performance.

So who should win? At any given moment I could go for Clooney, Dujardin, or Oldman. But I suppose I’ll pick one and I’ll go with Gary Oldman, who is also sort of a sentimental pick. Though this decision is prone to change at any time!

It was a strong year all around for actors. As great as this slate is, it would have also been great to see Michael Fassbender (Shame), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), and Leonardo DiCaprio (J Edgar). I don’t know how I’d pick just five out of all of these great performances.

JARED

I’ll give Adam the voice he’s lacking: Where’s Brendan Gleeson?!  Playing basically a mix of all the characters who did get nominated, he absolutely belongs in this list.

I like Gary Oldman a lot.  If I ran the world, he’d probably already have at least one Oscar.  I’m thrilled he finally got a nomination.  But I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger here.  He’s received lots of plaudits for his super-restrained, barely emoting performance.  At some point, though, doesn’t that just translate to a boring performance where nothing happens?  I wouldn’t go that far here, but I’m not seeing what others are.

It is too facile to dismiss Clooney’s role as another one in a series of charming Clooneyesque guys dealing with #whitepeopleproblems. I also wouldn’t have gone so far as to give him a nomination.  There’s a lot of good stuff here, though.  And I think Clooney was a solid choice to portray the not quite sympathetic “hero” of the story because he certainly makes the film more watchable, and he adds a lot of needed nuance to the script.

I have to make a conscious effort to not just say for all of these guys how much I like their body of work.  Brad Pitt is no exception.  But I’m just not quite seeing it here.  To me, he’s just doing a Coach Taylor imitation.  And granted, everyone should be doing a Coach Taylor imitation.  But I’d love to see Oscar and Pitt better line up with each other.

I’m tickled pink that the Academy saw fit to nominate Bichir.  A Better Life went out super early to members, so maybe that turned out to be an effective strategy.  For me, this performance was a case study in how a role doesn’t have to be showy to have a big impact.  There’s nothing you’d expect from a typical Oscar performance, such as wild swings of emotion.  Bichir commands the screen here, nearly flawlessly portraying the character and turning it into something quite real.

It was always going to be Jean Dujardin for me, though.  Not because his is the biggest and broadest role of the bunch.  But because he is just so darn good in the role.  I mean, honestly, even his crooked half-smile lights up the day.  Dujardin creates a character that feels so much like the actors of yesteryear would pull off, screwball and slapstick while also being dramatic and serious.  Dujardin nails the range and the depth of the character. And it feels like he is having tons of fun, a feeling that can’t help but be infectious.

BRIAN

Jean Dujardin

ADAM

Jean Dujardin

The 84th Academy Awards is almost here! Leading up to the event, we’re going to put all the hours we spent watching these films to good use by giving our thoughts on all the categories, big and small. We may not be experts on everything, but I daresay that’s never stopped anyone from blogging before. On the (very remote chance) you disagree with us or the (much more likely chance) you want to applaud our picks, please chime in below.

Directing

The nominees are:

  • The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius
  • The Descendants, Alexander Payne
  • Hugo, Martin Scorsese
  • Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen
  • The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick

BRIAN

At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll just skip the pretense and toss the award to Scorsese for Hugo. Despite my minor qualms with the pacing, I loved the 3D and the general feel of the film. That it was so out of character of Scorsese makes it even better. Quickly with the rest: The Artist was a delight too; only a skilled director could make a silent film work with today’s tastes. Midnight in Paris and The Descendants each had major problems with their scripts, and since both were directed by their screenwriter, it’s hard for me to judge them separately. Oh and Tree of Life? HAHAHAHAHAHAH. Right.

JOHN

In the context of this season, the nominees for Director are quite good. I might not be all that fond of most of the nominees but even they are directorial achievements.

At the very top of the category is sort of an embarrassment of riches for me. Midnight in Paris is my favorite film of the year. The writing and acting really put it over the top, but Allen does a masterful job striking the right tone and keeping the pace zipping along. He also elicits a number of fine performances from mostly lesser known actors that readily recall the real life people they are portraying without slipping into caricature.

But my winner in this category is actually my second favorite Best Picture nominee, Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life. It’s a film that’s packed to the gills with directorial ambition, combining images, music, and a wispy narrative into a fragmented memory poem, audaciously scoped against no less than the history of the universe. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced. Even if it still leaves me somewhat bewildered it made an unforgettable impact. There’s no other director who imparted such vision.

Two other lesser nominees also presented visions that didn’t always work for me, but I appreciate the efforts. I enjoy seeing directors like Scorsese and Hazanavicius take chances and really make their marks. I think both had pacing problems, but the worst thing I can say about either is that they just didn’t connect with me, which isn’t a terrible fault. If a film is going to misfire, it may as well do it with some panache! And while Payne directs with less flair, I do give him credit for building a film with a good sense of tone. In a jumbled story it’s the atmosphere that really pulls The Descendants through.

It has been quite a year for ambitious directors. My top nine of the year (https://goldengrouches.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/top-nines-through-january/) is filled with stylish, atmospheric films, from the cool (Steve Soderbergh’s Contagion and Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) to the disturbing (Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Steve McQueen’s Shame). Even something that was ultimately disappointing to us, like Drive, heralded the arrival of a promising talent.

ADAM

Woody AllenMidnight in Paris.

JARED

It isn’t exactly right for me to say I hate Terrence Malick.  I think it is more that I hate the Academy voters (and anyone else who gave The Tree of Life a glowing review) for giving me a good reason to watch the film.  Also, for all I know, Malick may be a warm and generous person.  So perhaps it would be more fair for me to say I hate his work.  Whatever promise the script may or may not have showed (and Sean Penn is on record saying the script was way more logical, one of the best he’s ever read, and nothing like what ended up on screen), Malick as director brutally hacked and mangled until it was something so stupefyingly awful, that pretentious snobs everywhere were all but forced to acknowledge it as a masterpiece.

I think I like everything about Martin Scorsese except for the movies he makes.  A lot of my problems with Hugo were with the script.  But I also found the movie generally boring, and a lot of that is on the director, for not finding ways to keep me engaged.  I don’t really have much to say about Alexander Payne.  I seem to be a little bit lower on him than other people, but not exorbitantly so.  I’m not entirely certain what all the fuss is about with the film, but I’m also not sure I would have liked it much more with anyone else directing.

You have to admire someone who is Woody Allen’s age who can keep cranking out movie after movie.  Some directors take years and years to make something that won’t look or feel nearly as good as Midnight in Paris.  I really appreciate that about Allen.  In particular, I think Allen did a good job differentiating between the different eras.  And especially, while the film is obviously in some way a love letter to Paris, Allen makes sure never to allow the film to go overboard and become a Love Letter to Paris.

But I think it has to be Michel Hazanavicius here.  Making a silent, black and white film that’s a crowdpleaser?  Give me a break.  That’s insane.  How many directors would have the balls to attempt that, much less be able to pull it off?  The Artist manages to have the feel of a old time movie as well as a new one, while always feeling classic.

The 84th Academy Awards is almost here!  Leading up to the event, we’re going to put all the hours we spent watching these films to good use by giving our thoughts on all the categories, big and small.  We may not be experts on everything, but I daresay that’s never stopped anyone from blogging before.  On the (very remote chance) you disagree with us or the (much more likely chance) you want to applaud our picks, please chime in below.

This time we are going to talk about Adapted Screenplay.

Adapted Screenplay

The nominees are:

  • The Descendants, Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
  • Hugo, John Logan
  • The Ides of March, George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
  • Moneyball, Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan

JOHN

No need to beat around the bush here. This category has a very clear winner, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan pack an incredible amount of detail into this story. I understand there’s a lot more going on in the original novel and they have performed a master work of consolidation and narrative structure. Just think of the precision needed to properly order the scenes for the mystery to slowly unwrap. You can’t just rely on the novel for that when excising so many other plot lines. I also appreciate the intelligence the script assumes of the audience. It rewards careful attention and rarely feels the need to stop and explain things. There are no stray lines of unnatural dialogue meant to catch the audience up. I understand that some viewers found it confusing, but it kept me incredibly engaged.

Because we are the Grouches, let me whine about a couple of the other nominees. Moneyball improved a bit on second viewing with me, but it still feels like maybe a quarter of a story. Odd parts get a lot of attention: the big dramatic sports moment is the attempt at a 20th straight win, which is a cool achievement but wouldn’t a film about the quantitative revolution in baseball acknowledge that it’s still just one game, no more or less important than any of the other 161? And then it speeds right through the team’s upswing. The movie moves from several big trades to a montage where Billy Beane and Peter Brand are giving the players advice and the team begins its ascent. But these are unrelated episodes. What would a series of personnel movements have to do with telling players to take more pitches? If you’re changing the way people think about baseball, why would you wait to have these conversations until mid-season? And its quick presentation glosses over these important aspects of the Beane philosophy. As a baseball fan, a lot of little things like this hit me just a little wrong. And I’m not even as steeped in the game and the numbers behind it as some of my colleagues here on the site.

And while I’m ranting, what’s the deal with The Descendants? There are three major plot threads running through the movie: George Clooney’s wife is dying, he discovers she cheated on him, and he needs to make a decision about the development of his family’s land. Why don’t all of these come together better? I don’t often say this about movies, but give us more about the land trust! There’s probably a pretty profound statement to be made by connecting these threads about the responsibility to family and one’s place as a link in the generational chain but The Descendants just doesn’t do it. It has several wonderful scenes but it really needs to come together better.

I’ll finish with something that’s been driving me nuts about The Ides of March. the story hinges around the fact that Ryan Gosling’s character met with the campaign manager of the other candidate. This is viewed as a huge betrayal. But it never explains why. These guys are all Democrats. They run in a small circle of elite political consultants. They’ll all be on the same side after the primaries are done. Why is it so horrible to talk to the other side? This is all too under-explained for me and it really took away from the film’s impact.

JARED

Coming into Oscar season, if you had told me that the nominees in the category would include:  An actor on Community, the guy writing the upcoming Bond movie, a political thriller, a script about baseball and economics co-written by Aaron Sorkin, and a spy thriller, well, you could have made a lot of money betting with me.  But had I believed you, I’d be one happy camper.  Until I saw the movies, that is.  What a horribly disappointing category, chock full of uninspired scripts.  There’s nothing even to root for.  I realize the  films eligible don’t overlap, but for comparison, here are the films nominated for Best Scream-play at the 2011 Scream Awards: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2Black SwanScott Pilgrim vs. the WorldSuper 8, and X-Men: First Class.  I mean, geez, that’s not even close, Academy.

Since this category matters a bunch to me, I’m going to delve deeper.  Hugo is a bad movie for a number of reasons, chief among them, I’m sorry to say, is the script.   It is impossible to get attached to any of the main characters, since none of their developments are fluid.  The stuff with the early movies feels tacked on.  The bits with the characters who inhabit the train station are  a huge waste of time since they aren’t developed enough to care about them. Oh, perhaps most importantly, the movie is really really boring.

Speaking of boring, hello Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy!  Maybe it is just me, but I’m of the belief that if you are going to have a spy movie about uncovering which one of four or five people are actually double agents, then those people should appear on screen for more than two or three scenes before the big reveal.  Because I totally was not invested in the outcome.  I honestly don’t understand complaints that the action was hard to follow, because there wasn’t really much action to speak of.

The Ides of March is a great idea, in theory.  But it sputters in practice.  I agree with John’s points above about the movie under-explaining things.  He talks about the meeting, but that’s just one of any number of plot points where the film didn’t explain to the audience why it was such a huge deal in the context of the story.  It isn’t much fun to have a movie about the game of politics if the film doesn’t explain what the rules are.

Moneyball was always going to be a tough sell.  I’ll give credit to Chervin (and/or whoever) for figuring out how to turn the book into a movie.  That wasn’t an easy nut to crack, and a clear case where the adaptation from the source material required some serious work.  But a truly successful adaptation apparently required more work.  I’m a tough judge here, since baseball and economics are my thing.  But you know what?  I’m more or less OK with how they handled that aspect of the film.  I’ve more a problem with characters and how they flitted in and out in a desultory fashion.  I get that this is a film about Beane and Pitt.  But if you are going to have other characters in the film, you might as well use them with some coherence.  Also, and this goes to what John talked about, I think the writers got sidetracked a little too often from the main story about Beane learning, adopting, and arguing for this new line of thinking.

John also mentions this above, but all of the Grouches agreed that we wanted to know more about the land deal in The Descendants.  If we all are agreeing about a plot point pertaining to real estate, I have to think we are right on this one.  There’s nothing particularly memorable about the dialogue, either.  And I just realized by default that this movie gets my pick.  So I should say something nice about it, I guess.  Um.  It wasn’t terrible?  No, that’s a little harsh.  The script is fine.  I think it does a pretty decent job sketching out the different characters and making them distinguishable, and also like they seem they are from the real world.  Sure, the daughter’s boyfriend or the grandfather may be a little cartoonish, especially at first, but they get smoothed out over the course of the script.  Which is kinda like real life.

The 84th Academy Awards is almost here!  Leading up to the event, we’re going to put all the hours we spent watching these films to good use by giving our thoughts on all the categories, big and small.  We may not be experts on everything, but I daresay that’s never stopped anyone from blogging before.  On the (very remote chance) you disagree with us or the (much more likely chance) you want to applaud our picks, please chime in below.

This time we are going to talk about Cinematography and Film Editing.

Cinematography

The nominees are:

  • The Artist, Guillaume Schiffman
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Jeff Cronenweth
  • Hugo, Robert Richardson
  • The Tree of Life, Emmanuel Lubezki
  • War Horse, Janusz Kaminski

JOHN

When I saw War Horse, I thought it was being projected incorrectly. Particularly in the opening act as our remarkable horse is mucking about in the mud, the lighting is so bizarre that I thought it looked like a sound stage. It turns out they were specifically going for an old-fashioned visual style and lit accordingly. But, well, it’s not for me. I understand that shooting in black and white requires some special considerations from equipment to lighting and The Artist certainly has some visual flair, so I suppose I won’t begrudge its nomination. Dragon Tattoo and Hugo both look great, though the 3D was sort of a miss for me in the latter, but The Tree of Life really takes this in a walk. Even though it drives my colleagues nuts, the bulk of the film is a stream of exquisitely crafted shots. Lightbeams, clouds, reflections. A little meandering, but gorgeous! It’s really just a visual delight. And while I know that’s all part of Malick’s style, DP Emmanuel Lubezki still captured those images and they aren’t the delicate, crisp visuals that they are without him.

ADAM

As much as it pains me to say it, The Tree of Life should win Cinematography (if for no other reason than it shouldn’t even be considered a “movie” without the fantastic camera shots).

JARED

There are differing schools of thought on just how invisible good cinematography should be, but I think everyone can agree that great cinematography shouldn’t be distracting.  Well, everyone save for Janusz Kaminski, apparently.  His shots may be pretty, but they are so repeatedly in your face, demanding you acknowledge their beauty.  If I were to guess, it seems like there were a few specific shots that locked in his nomination here, and I would have edited every single one out for taking away from the film.  The cold, gray feel of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems rather appropriate, though I’m not sure anything stands out in particular.  Here’s some thoughts from Robert Richardson, cinematographer for Hugo, on the film.  I’m not sure if it is fair or not, but I’m docking the film some for the 3D here.  If Hugo represents the new frontier of 3D movies, then to me, 3D is dead.  Here’s an interview with Guilluame Schiffman, cinematographer of The Artist.  I was struck by how the film managed to look both old and new.  It is impressive to end up not looking like a replica, or a parody, of old black and white films while still feeling like it was something more than someone just hit the switch for black and white.  Schiffman talks about light in the interview, and I really liked the lighting of the scenes just before the fire.  In the end, though, if John and Adam can agree on something, seems like I’m going to be with them.  Whatever my thoughts on The Tree of Life as a movie, it seems impossible to argue against the cinematography.  The shots were, yes, beautiful and memorable and exquisite.  But they did all that while feeling so essential to the movie as a whole.

BRIAN

I wish I knew more about how the film industry, the production aspect essentially. I don’t wholly understand how to split out film editing from directing from cinematography from each other. Who makes specific decisions on how to film a particular scene or splice a set of scenes together? Who should I really be giving credit to? Hopefully, the Oscar voters themselves know how to divvy up the credit, but I’m probably giving them too much credence. No matter, I’ll use this space to offer the first in a series of why Hugo is my favorite movie of the year.

I have seen two movies that give me hope for the future of 3D technology: Avatar and Hugo. The former bombarded me with visual awe, in part because that’s what James Cameron does and in part to obscure the weaknesses in plot and character development (also what James Cameron does). But Hugo uses the technology to create the atmospherics surrounding Hugo the character. The opening sequence especially threw me into the world of early-20th-century Paris — first the snow that appeared to be falling on my feet and then the journey through the clock gears of the Montparnasse station. The movie itself is a mash note to the early days of film and the imaginative spirit of the industry’s pioneers – and Scorsese and his team created a film that the Georges Melieses of the world would have made had the technology existed. I was enthralled by the film for multiple reasons, but the aesthetics made me yearn to be a part of Hugo’s world.

As for the other nominees, I’d also be pleased to see recognition for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Artist, as both also built a world in which even if I don’t want to visit it (those Scandanavians are scary!), I feel as though I understand the types of characters who live there.

MoneyballWar HorseThe Descendants and Tree of Life — all of them leave me cold and uninterested.

Film Editing

The nominees are:

  • The Artist, Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius
  • The Descendants, Kevin Tent
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
  • Hugo, Thelma Schoonmaker
  • Moneyball, Christopher Tellefson

JOHN

Film Editing is an interesting category, partly because I’m not sure I’d always be able to tell a well edited film! The Artist, Hugo, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo all had bloat issues. I know that’s not all editing; it’s not the editors’ fault that the script for Dragon Tattoo calls for a story that just refuses to end. On the other hand, I had significant problems with The Descendants and Moneyball but still found them slickly edited. The visual style of Moneyball gives a film about numbers some flash. The segues between scenes are something I definitely noticed on a second viewing. I suppose I pick The Descendants as my winner for its tonal balancing act. The dramatic parts don’t become over the top and the comedic parts are nicely balanced by pathos. Yes, that’s also parts writing, acting, and directing, but hitting the right beats and matching with the right shots are all within the Editing realm.

Snubs: To me, the master Editing work of the year is in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In such a dense, non-stop story, the editing needs to be precise to keep it all coherent. But this is also a film that keeps its revelations understated, allowing the audience to figure things out for itself. With that in mind, editing is key. A shot lingers just long enough to register who that character is out in the courtyard or to note that there’s something odd with one man’s shoes. It’s always just enough to tease without hammering its points home.

JARED

I feel completely out of my depth when talking about editing, so I’ll keep it brief.  I’ve found the article I’ve read on the discipline fascinating, but it kinda seems that without knowledge of the script and total footage the editor had to work with, bestowing honors is something of a crapshoot.  I’m going with Moneyball.  I had a number of problems with the movie, one of which was some of the weird scenes that felt out of place from the standpoint of the story.  But these stylistic touches, or flashes to statistics from a computer, or video from a baseball all felt like they organically flowed, and I’m going to chalk that up to the editing.

I’ve been trying to think for some time now why the plot of The Descendants seems so familiar.  To briefly sum up, and I think I’m not describing anything that wasn’t in the trailer, George Clooney’s wife gets into a boating accident that leaves her on life support.  Things hadn’t been going great in that relationship, but Clooney is still surprised when his kid (Shailene Woodley) tells him that Mom was cheating on him.  While all this is going on, Clooney, as a result of land that goes several generations back in the family, is negotiating with his family to determine which of the various buyers he’ll sell the land to, transferring the largest lot of virgin land left in Hawaii and garnering a huge windfall.

So, OK.  Our cast of characters includes a cheating wife (and later on we are introduced to the guy with whom she was cheating) and various family members who aren’t really sketched out aside from the fact that they are bickering over who to sell to and are somewhat greedy, especially consider they didn’t really do anything to earn the land other than get lucky in the gene lottery.

Then it hit me.  That’s the plot of at least one episode of virtually every single mystery show I’ve watched.  And I’ve watched a ton of them.  I can turn this movie into an episode of Murder, She Wrote in three easy steps.  First, Jessica Fletcher gets involved in the case either because she is George Clooney’s cousin on the other side or because she was visiting an old friend who ended up in the same hospital as Clooney’s wife and she is the biggest busybody in the world.  Second, deviating from the movie a little, the police get called in and lock Clooney up for attempted murder, because they find his wife’s boat had been tampered with.  Third, Jessica now does all the stuff Clooney’s character did, except she snoops around a lot and figuring out who the real murderer was.

So perhaps it won’t be surprising to hear that I’m dismayed at all the acclaim the movie is receiving.  And not just because it isn’t actually a detective story.  I’m not necessarily shocked, though.  Other than not taking place during WWII, the film seems built to hit all the Academy notes.  George Clooney gets you half the way there, of course, but he’s playing a dad and husband who never really figured out what that means, though he’s trying to do so now.  Combined with the accident, you’ve got George Clooney as a flawed-yet-nearly-perfect rich single dad who lives in Hawaii.  Heck, I’m practically swooning over him.

For the straight males somehow immune (or pretending to be, most likely) to the charms of Clooney, you’ve got the beautiful Woodley.  She’s racking up the supporting nominations, but really, it is the bikinis she’s constantly in that should be getting the nominations for supporting her rack.  Ouch.  I’m sorry.  That’s a terrible line and I should know better.  Look, Woodley is a great actress and while I can’t yet say if she’d be in my top five, I’m certain I won’t be upset should we hear her name called nomination morning.  That said, she’s constantly wearing bikinis.  Even when no one else is in a bathing suit.  And John/Adam/Gavin made this point first after we left the theater, so I know I’m not just being pervy.

For issues voters, there’s Clooney trying to figure out how to be a dad and also dealing with white man’s burden.  And for the small percentage of geeks, there’s Judy Greer (with her Arrested Development cred) and co-writer Jim Rash (Dean Pelton on Community).

But frankly, I just don’t see how the film is deserving of all the acclaim it is receiving.  Since I know Adam isn’t going to write anything up, I’ll voice his complaint with the script: that it was uneven to the point where one scene would hit and the next would miss badly, suggesting it was pretty obvious the film was written by different writers.  I don’t necessarily disagree, even if I didn’t find the differences between scenes quite that stark.  Regardless, the script was maddeningly inconsistent.

The film found its biggest success when focusing on Clooney’s relationship with his kids (and by extension, his wife).  A “single” dad learning how to be a father to his kids isn’t exactly virgin cinematic territory.  But compare The Descendants, to, say, The Boys are Back, and you’ll see how this film is so confident and grounded in reality that the story never feels like it is one of those movies, in the sense that it is super easy to pigeonhole the Clive Owen movie as never escaping the single dad genre.

The other subplots, however, weren’t nearly as well-written.  The land deal, in particular, wasn’t fleshed out nearly enough.  The screenwriters didn’t figure out a way to adequately integrate that subplot with the rest of the film.  Which was frustrating, because it was interesting enough that I wanted to know more.  As is, however, it was pretty distracting.  To the point where I had zero emotional reaction to the inevitable scene of them looking out at their family’s land, other than wanting them to move things along.  I found the stuff with the wife’s infidelity adequate.  I liked all the actors involved (Mary Birdsong/Rob Huebel and Judy Greer/Matthew Lillard), but none of their scenes really stood out to me (save for Judy Greer’s final scene, of course).  That said, I appreciated how it served the family drama that I liked so much.

The Descendants is currently a near-lock for Oscar nominations for Picture, Director, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay, with Supporting Actress looking a pretty decent bet.  I enjoyed the film, but it is currently sitting around #25 in my list of 2011 movies, so you won’t be seeing the movie or script in my best of list.  As I mentioned with Woodley above, I’m OK with the seemingly inevitable Clooney nomination.  I’m not sure if he’ll end up in my personal top five, but I imagine he’ll be close enough that I won’t really get worked up over it.  Mostly, though, I’m confused about the passion this film seems to inspire in people.  I’m glad they are moved, I just can’t see why.

September 2017
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