It's an utter indulgence, but for the second year in a row, my wife and I have seen all nine of the Best Picture nominees prior to the Academy Awards. Indulgent, I say, because the aggregate twenty hours and nineteen minutes that we spent watching the films might have been put to more practical use doing nearly anything else, not to mention the bucks frittered away on our admission and concessions tab. Still, there are worse things you could do with your time and money, and as a means of distraction from the dreariness of winter, it's cheaper than professional therapy (and perhaps nearly as beneficial). Plus we're all set to be the hit of the cocktail party, should we ever attend one.
Overall, I found more enjoyment and enlightenment in last year's crop of nominees, a diverse lot of worthwhile films with an average running time of 125 minutes. This year's average is 135 minutes, which is the time-consuming equivalent of adding a tenth movie to the mix. More and more audiences have been exiting theaters asking, "Why? Why did the movie have to be so long?" The unfortunate answer, I'm afraid, is "It didn't."
Exhibit A: the bloated Zero Dark Thirty, two hours and thirty-seven minutes featuring a riveting half hour in which Osama Bin Laden is found and immediately killed. The technical details behind that accomplishment are fascinating, including some of the surveillance work that preceded it. However, the bulk of the film consists of Jessica Chastain compulsively fretting over the whereabouts of Public Enemy Number One. Were her character to evolve even a smidge during that time, it might be tolerable. Alas, at the end, we are left to shrug our shoulders and wonder why the whole thing couldn't have been wrapped up in a satisfying ninety minutes. Trust me, it could have been.
Or take the spectacle that is Les Miserables, one whole minute longer than Zero Dark Thirty with one hundred percent more singing and dancing. Actually, a little dancing would have been a welcome distraction given the number of musical soliloquies during which the plot does not advance at all. This is permissible on the theatrical stage, where such pauses in the action somehow work. On the big screen, however, it puts the brakes on the pacing. One moment you're caught up in the story, then you hear the opening notes of an introspective ballad, and you sigh with the realization that nothing much is going to happen for the next five minutes. Yes, Anne Hathaway turns in a nice performance, as does Hugh Jackman, and the film has a stylish look that befits an epic, but ultimately I felt Les Miz was Les Meh. Enjoyable, but I wouldn't care to sit through it again.
The longest and shortest nominated movies both provoke conversations about race and class. One is Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's genre-spoofing, over-the-top indictment of slavery via spaghetti western that clocks in just fifteen minutes shy of three hours. The other is Beasts of the Southern Wild, a 93-minute indie with a cast of unknowns led by a 6-year-old actress exploring the meaning of freedom and courage amid the material poverty of a perpetually flooded Louisiana bayou. My expectations of the pair of the films were completely upended upon actually seeing them.
Beasts, which has been widely lauded as a mesmerizing and inspiring film, seemed to me to be the longer movie. Its glorification of backwoods ignorance, a pretentious suggestion that these simple characters who endure avoidable hardship as they eschew modernity are somehow wiser, richer and nobler than the rest of humanity, is simplistic and offensive. Some of the dialogue is laughable, particular the bit in which a drawling boat captain explains why he never throws away his Chicken in a Biskit wrappers: I been eating these all my life. I keep the wrappers in the boat, 'cause they remind me who I was when I ate each one. Hmmm...makes you think, doesn't it? Beasts of the Southern Wild has the precious air of earnest filmmaking that calls attention to itself, and its chief philosophical statement is embarrassingly antiquated - "Look, little black girls can be strong, too!" If a modern audience watched the same film believing it to have been made twenty years ago, they would squirm at the unintentional racism. Twenty years from now, future audiences will.
Interestingly, it's Django Unchained that's been getting all of the bad press for its alleged racial insensitivity. This is largely due to its liberal employment of a highly demeaning and offensive racial epithet. It peppers the script like a recurring volley of racist buckshot. And that's because it is spoken by very racist characters. In no way is its use glorified (For more of my opinion on the legitimate use of this word in art, click here.) I would recommend seeing Django before condemning it. In particular, Christoph Waltz is very enjoyable as a German bounty hunter with a conscience, and Samuel L. Jackson is unforgettable as a treacherous house slave. Tarantino allows his audience to see the ugliest assortment of bigots brought to swift and outrageous vengeance, a Dirty Harry tirade against racial injustice. It neither dishonors nor minimizes the genuine suffering of human beings in our nation's notorious slave history. Rather, it exposes and metaphorically avenges the most regrettable and repulsive instincts of human nature. Violent action movies are not my cup of tea, but Django won me over with its wit and depth.
That other long movie of the Best Picture nominee list, the two-and-a-half hour Lincoln, is quite the achievement. Short in action and long in dialogue, it is nevertheless compelling viewing, all the more impressive because the resolution of the central conflict is well known by any educated audience. Daniel Day Lewis manages to extricate Abraham Lincoln from the flat mosaic of patriotic iconography and portray a rounded and believable human being. Especially riveting is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, who is advised by Lincoln to temper his adamantly abolitionist rhetoric with practical diplomacy. Albeit an historical epic, Lincoln is really an extended debate between conflicted minds over the timeless struggle of personal desire versus the collective welfare. Its lessons are just as relevant to the class and civil rights struggles of today.
Which leaves us with four movies that were content to run in the neighborhood of two hours, and it includes some of the best. Life of Pi is visually captivating and it makes you think, two qualities that I admire in movies. It can be enjoyed on different levels according to the tastes and philosophies of its audience, and its requirement of viewers to personally interpret the narrative makes it all the more engaging. Also my wife and I have since enjoyed greeting our cat with the salutation, "Hello, Rich-uhd Pah-kah!" Newcomer Suraj Sharma is terrific as the title teenager adrift alone in the Atlantic, a performance that is surely as deserving of an acting nomination as that of Beasts of the Southern Wild's Quvenzhane Wallis (and perhaps reflecting more robust competition in the Best Actor category than Best Actress).
Argo could have been a fine documentary, as the story on which it is based is remarkable and inspiring. Six Americans managed to escape being held hostage at the U.S. Embassy during the student takeover of 1979 by fleeing during the initial chaos and taking refuge in the Canadian embassy. Their eventual return home was considered at the time to be a triumph of Canadian diplomacy. In fact, our own CIA was the prime mover, inventing a seemingly ridiculous scheme whereby the six U.S. citizens would pose as a Canadian film production crew awaiting the director of a science fiction movie called Argo. If they could get the Iranian customs officials to believe it, they could smuggle the embassy workers out without incident. If Argo plays loose with the facts, mixing a little action movie tension in with history, it does so in the service of creating an entertaining film. The real story behind it is still amazing. Having seen Zero Dark Thirty take 157 minutes to tell the apparently accurate yet mundane truth, I prefer Argo.
Speaking of mundane, those who prefer a more punishing movie experience might enjoy Amour, the subtitled French import about an old man caring for his wife as she succumbs to debilitating strokes and dementia. By the end, you'll feel that you, too, have sat around patiently waiting for someone to die. Not that the movie doesn't have its strengths. There is a notable opening shot in which the screen is filled with a theater audience. You will find yourself looking at the main characters amid the sea of faces, thanks to the director's subtle technique. The couple's apartment is rendered with so much detail that it is virtually another character. Emmanuelle Riva, justifiably nominated for Best Actress under the Rain Man clause, is completely and depressingly credible. Yet the static camera and lengthy shots that might work well in another film drift on into pretentiousness. If the point was to make our experience as painful as the old man's, then job well done. Far better that those lengthy, silent pauses might have been used to show us something of their lives before their current tragedy, but no such luck.
Lastly, there is Silver Linings Playbook, perhaps the most commercial flick of the nonet. The crowd-pleasing cast includes Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. It's a romantic comedy, for heaven's sake, and rom-com lovers are unlikely to be disappointed. But Silver Linings Playbook defies its genre by giving us something more, which is a meditation on the ubiquity of mental illness and the compassion with which we accommodate it. It would have been easy for director and writer David O. Russell to make the point in lowbrow fashion by assembling a crew of lovable crazies and letting us laugh at them. Indeed some members of our audience seemed to expect just that and guffawed at inappropriate moments. Thankfully, Playbook saves its pandering for the final reel, by which time I had been thoughtfully entertained and was willing to allow some cliched nods to convention. That's due to nuanced performances by Cooper and Lawrence, whose characters have more depth than the fictional populace of half the nominated films. As Cooper's parents, De Niro and Jacki Weaver make the most of their screen time, and it's no wonder all four of the actors are up for awards. Thanks to them and Russell, Silver Linings Playbook is that rare romantic comedy that gives us plenty to chew over after leaving the theater.
Whereas last year I thought the nominated films were too diverse to be ranked, I cheerfully conclude this post with my prioritized list of Best Picture nominees, arranged with my preferred picks at the top:
1. Life of Pi
2. Silver Linings Playbook
4. Django Unchained
6. Les Miserables
7. Zero Dark Thirty
9. Beasts of the Southern Wild