Best Picture: The Artist
Drew Morton: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011) has been the favorite in this category pretty much since awards season kicked off. No other film, including the greater ode to silent film Hugo (2011), had a chance. I don’t loathe The Artist, but it strikes me as the cinematic equivalent of Madame Tussauds: a charming, nostalgia-filled tribute that ultimately comes across as being shallow. It does have a cute dog in it, though.
Matthias Stork: The Artist had been the frontrunner for a long time. And its win still may inspire vitriolic reactions from ardent cinephiles. The film has been unfairly maligned as a superficial remediation of silent film conventions. In my opinion, it offers more than its surface reveals. It’s a charming picture that explores the spectrum of human emotion from unbridled ethusiasm to unrestrained melodrama, without ever devolving into faux sentimantelity. It’s a worthy best picture winner. But it’s no The Tree of Life (2011).
Jordan Poast: Debating the winner of the Best Picture is an exercise in futility. From critics to fans, arguments rage on long after the envelope is opened, especially so in a year where the nominee field expanded to nine. With perhaps Schindler’s List (1993) being the most recent Best Picture to attain a cultural consensus of superiority, it would be silly for me to indignantly bemoan the snub to either The Tree of Life or Moneyball (2011). While The Artist too often resembles a hackneyed mélange of silent film hallmarks, the unrelenting magnetism of the two leads and the studied approach of its director made the bubbly and energetic French yarn a predictable, albeit underwhelming, selection by the Academy. What’s new?
Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Like Best Picture, Best Director winner Michel Hazanavicius has been the favorite in this category since taking the Director’s Guild of America Award last month. The winner should have been Martin Scorsese for Hugo (2011), and Nicolas Winding Refn should have been nominated for Drive (2011). Given how anti-climactic and short-sighted the DGA Awards were this year, I’m glad I didn’t blow an evening watching them.
I still haven’t seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), the winner of the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. I wasn’t particularly won over by any of the other nominees, except maybe Asghar Farhadi for A Separation (2011), which had amazing characters and a tight structure, with one nagging loose end.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, and Nat Faxon, The Descendants
The Descendants (2011) is my least favorite entry in Alexander Payne’s filmography (yes, I realize I’m being an Awards season buzz kill). Somehow, The Descendants (adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) managed to make Payne’s baggily structured obsession with men in the midst of a midlife crisis feel overly familiar. Steven Zaillain and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Moneyball (2011) – a film that I only recently watched after reading Jordan’s reaction to it – is the truly worthy nominee in my book for taking two potentially boring subjects (statistics and baseball) and making them endlessly fascinating.
Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Jean Dujardin’s performance may neither be as profound nor as subtle as the other nominated actors’, but it’s unquestionably the most charming one. Brad Pitt and George Clooney delivered peak performances, but Dujardin’s charisma and nostalgic mimickry have earned him a spot in the upper echelon of film acting. Nevertheless, I still argue that Gary Oldman should have received the award for his brilliant protrayal of George Smiley in the criminally underrated masterpiece Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011).
Best Actress: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Meryl Streep’s win for The Iron Lady (2011) floored me. What an upset! I was rooting for Rooney Mara, who gave a fearless performance as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), a character that will continue to inspire and disturb audiences. I expected Viola Davis to win for her magnificent work in The Help (2011). I have not seen Meryl Streep’s performance, but judging from her Oscar history, it may have been yet another routine nomination, her seventeenth (and third win). But Meryl Streep has earned her stature, and I am willing to believe that her iron lady is a worthy choice. During her Oscar acceptance speech, she certainly demonstrated that she is, at heart, a classy lady, full of charm and humility.
The supporting actor and actresses are inarguably essential for a film’s success, as often their performances make the movie for the audience. For example, what would All About Eve (1950) be with out George Sanders’ portrayal of the loathsome yet charming Addison De Witt? Cabaret (1972) would not have been nearly as memorable without Joel Grey as The Master of Ceremonies, and Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) maintains the film’s tone by blurring the line between delightfully eccentric and frighteningly creepy. Sadly, the performances of most the nominees this year don’t stand out like the winners listed above; but in fairness, the nominated films, with which many of the performances are associated, also fall short of true greatness.
Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, The Help
Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of Minnie Jackson, a severely mistreated maid who takes a great risk in standing up for herself is…okay. While many people (critics included) find both the film and the performances (not only Miss Spencer’s) to be “moving,” both compare better to high school theater. While the actors around Spencer overacted, creating cartoonish, irritating, and stereotypical characters, Spencer’s performance does stand out among them for simply appearing human. In short, she did the best she possibly could with the material she was given. Does that make for an extraordinary performance? No.
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Christopher Plummer won for his portrayal of an elderly, gay man who does not come out until after his wife’s death. His character, Hal, is barely present through the film as we get to know him through his son’s flashbacks. Plummer gives a good performance as usual; however, both his nomination and win appear to simply serve as a celebration of his body of work, now that he is in his 80s. Plummer himself is an extraordinary actor, who certainly deserves recognition for his achievements, but Beginners falls into the realm of a standard good work rather than a marvelous production – and its performances are no exception.
The winners of the Best Supporting Actor/Actress categories is a perfect reflection of this year’s Academy Awards as a whole: nothing special.
Best Animated Feature: Rango
With the conspicuous absence of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011) (the reasons for which have still not been totally disclosed), the only legitimate contender to the throne of Best Animated Feature disintegrated, leaving Rango (2011) free to saunter to the finish line. This lack of competition, however, should not diminish the considerable accomplishments of Gore Verbinski’s kinetic masterpiece, which joined an elite company of animated films like Fantasia (1940) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988), which transcend the typical, pandering popcorn fare and enter the realm of lyrical art. Infused with sharp wit and marvelous action, this is one of the few cartoons with enough substance to be a worthy adversary to the Pixar monster.
Best Cinematography: Hugo, Robert Richardson
I’ve been waiting for a sign that the 2012 apocalypse was forthcoming. Now we have it. While Robert Richardson’s elaborate and intricate camera transports the audience through the hidden corridors of a labyrinthine Parisian train station, the cinematography in the Oscar-winning Hugo is not remotely comparable to Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking photography in The Tree of Life. While Terrence Mallick’s magnum opus remains one of the most polarizing films in recent memory, fans and critics alike have joined in their admiration for the film’s enduring visual poeticism. Compiled as a tapestry of snapshots, The Tree of Life hinges on Lubezki’s detailed and nuanced lenses to capture images that contain in them volumes of depth. Without being overdramatic, it’s simply the most vividly shot movie of all-time, both in resonance and in breadth, and it’s a shame it will not be immortalized as such.
Best Editing: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter
Despite the fact that they were so flabbergasted at having won the award for best Film Editing that they frantically departed the stage before giving acceptance speeches (even going so far as to say, “Let’s get out of here,” before scurrying off), Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter were the clear-cut deserving recipients for the honor. Masterfully bleeding in bits of the past into an ever-expanding mystery of murder, the editors set a tempo and tone that magnificently aligned all the elements of David Fincher’s film together in grim harmony. While the measuring stick for an editor’s success generally revolves around their invisibility, when the work is this well-executed, it demands attention.