Best picture nominations 2012 – reviewed and ranked

Best picture nominations 2012 reviewed and ranked

When the best picture list was announced way back in January, it appeared to be a pretty underwhelming list of films. Over the weekend prior to the Oscars, I set out to watch all nine of the best picture nominated films, expecting to find a few films unworthy of a best picture nomination.

I actually enjoyed all of them, and discovered that, although some might look like they were lazily selected for either political reasons, or the Oscar friendly subjects they were tailored to, they are actually very interesting, thought-provoking films – and some are completely misunderstood.

That said, there were still some glaring omissions on, or rather not on, this year’s list. Completely shunning the people’s favourite Drive has done little to win the Academy back any favour among the younger movie generation. And anyone who wanted to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy make the list can only assume it was too nuanced, subtle, complex and intelligent for the Academy to consider.

Now I’ve seen them all, I can see that there are two distinct themes uniting the films: three films are clearly about nostalgia for a different age of art, and the other six are directly, or indirectly, about parenting. Given how strong the theme of parenting runs through a number of the films, it’s even more surprising that the best film this year about parenting, a film that struck fear into the hearts of pregnant women everywhere, was left off the list completely. That film was of course, We need to talk about Kevin.

The Academy isn’t perfect then, but they are not as clueless as they first looked. Don’t dismiss the films on this list, they are far more engaging and meaningful pieces of cinema than you think. This is how I think the films should have been ranked.

9. Tree of life

Director: Terrence Malick

Malick’s consummately made films(Badlands New world)  have always displayed the director’s appreciation of the natural world. With this ambitiously abstract film, he somewhat successfully attempted to put imagery on the screen that celebrates the wonder and majesty, of life, planet earth and the universe beyond.  The story – following in detail, the turbulent voyage into parenting of an American suburban couple –  is sparse, unorthodoxly told and perhaps difficult to connect to, but the operatic atmosphere of the film, the often sublime marriage between radiant imagery and powerful spirit cleansing classical music, makes The Tree of life a deeply soulful, near spiritual experience.  Malick tried to craft a film that is in the mould of Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey – often he conjures up beautiful, awe-inspiring, elegant visuals that tribute his ambition. Sometimes the human story told here is lost among the hypnotic mood, and although the family drama is organically told, it is at times a little too experimental and pretentious to have the full emotional impact Malick intended.  The mood of the film heightens the senses though and leaves one thinking about how beautiful everything is. Clearly, it is intended to create a sort of spiritual awakening in our technology obsessed generation, which is a noble ambition, plus it shows Malick is brimming with love and passion for his craft. 7/10

8. War horse.

Director: Steven Spielberg

In the Oscar race, this was always going to be an also ran rather than a dark horse, as it is a conventional narrative, but that takes nothing away from how beautifully this simple story about the love between a boy and his remarkable horse is told by the master of the family film: Steven Spielberg.  It’s a classically romantic story, somewhat old-fashioned in style, the kind of earnestly made innocent and retrospective film that you’d think modern audiences would now be too cynical to really appreciate.

Personally, I was rather snooty to War horse prior to seeing the film; it held no appeal to me, I thought I could join the dots of the plot and work out the inevitable course the horse would take; in my head I’d already redubbed the title bore horse.  I humbly remove my proverbial cap in a gesture of humility mirroring that of some of the characters, as my preconception of War horse was unfair.  It’s a heart-warming love story more than a war movie, and that genuine love that makes a young boy valiant and a show horse determined – is life-affirming, uplifting and really moving.

It does actually have something interesting to say about war though: it takes an even handed view of WW1. The film never vilifies either side, instead portraying a conflict carried out by young boys, who, like the horse, know little about the politics that has caused them to be on the battlefield. The horse is somewhat of a metaphor, representing the average soldier’s political detachment in the conflict.

This is the kind of film that you could enjoy and appreciate with your grandparents – it does have the power to transcend and unite generations decades apart. If your grandparents are still alive, take them to see War horse. It’ll silence them on their unfounded claims that, ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’. I guarantee you’ll bond with your grandparents anew and have a precious moment to savour with them.  7.8/10

7. The Artist 

Director Michel Hazanavicius

The fact that this black and white, French made, silent film broke out of its art-house origins to be a crowd-pleasing, global cinematic phenomenon, is a Hollywood fairy-tale success story that mirrors, then surpasses the narrative trajectory of the silent star within.

In these economically turbulent times, people clearly related to the story about a once successful silent movie star, falling on challenging times when the industry he walks in changes unexpectedly. Whilst the film is charming, visually imaginative, enchanting, lively and delightfully playful, I can’t help feel that people have been swept up in the romance of it all, as it is not the perfect masterpiece people claim it is, and the whirlwind of hype surrounded it has somewhat tarnished the film. It’s wonderful that director Hazanavicius resurrected a seemingly obsolete style of film-making, and proved to the world that old styles can exist alongside modern styles, displaying, with some panache, that the new doesn’t mean the old has to be abandoned.

It’s a good job Hazanavicius repeatedly thanked Billy Wilder in his best film director’s speech as he lifted half his plot from Sunset Boulevard. He should have also thanked Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly as the other half of his plot he blatantly took from Singing in the rain. Stylistically, the film is original, narratively it certainly is not. If you have even a vague knowledge of classic cinema you know exactly what will happen in this beguiling, but simplistic film.  Yes, sure, you are limited with what you can do with a silent film, but it is predictable, because that story of washed-up actor, has been done so many times before.

Given how the actor seems in contempt of his wife and as he makes no attempt to adapt, then falls into self-pity far too willingly, he is quite unlikeable and unsympathetic.

The Artist does have a wonderful sense of nostalgia and the modern, arch tone on something that looks genuinely from the past, did create a number of inspired little moments that capture perfectly the art of silent cinema. 7.8/10

6. Moneyball

Director: Bennett Miller

It’s always difficult to make a sports movie credible as there are only really two outcomes in sport – thus a simple rags to riches formula runs through all sport movies. Even the best of sports movies like Raging bull or Rocky don’t attempt to break away from that formula. Credit to Moneyball then as it attempts to break away from that formula, by showing the pressures and reality of what it is like to work in a sports industry now dominated and distorted by money. The ambition of the filmmakers mirrors that of the films protagonist: the baseball manager of the Oakland aces Billy Beane, who with the help of an economics graduate (Jonah Hill), attempts to challenge the money men, by putting a radical theory for success into practice.

As the film is trying to make a point about how difficult it is for the little guy to contest with the big players, it does everything it can to avoid being the glossy, archetypal Hollywood Cinderella story – and therefore it becomes rather unpredictable, which is some achievement for a sports movie. The social network scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin does here for dry statistical player stats analysis, what he did for dry computer programming in the aforementioned film: he makes sports talk, more lively, interesting and engaging than it has a right to be, due to snappy dialogue and heated character exchanges. The result is a film that is arresting and absorbing, regardless as to whether you have an interest in baseball or not.

There is a bruised mood that is affective and the direction often gives a near documentary fly on the wall authenticity. Pitt absolutely understands where his character is coming from; he has his trademark magnetic charisma and swagger, but behind the mask of bravado, there is a much more introspective persona, as you see a man with a creeping sense of self-doubt he hides from the world.  It absolutely captures everything that is wrong with the modern sports profession, which makes Moneyball, well, one of the most hard-hitting sports film of all time.  7.9/10

5. Extremely loud and incredibly close

Director Stephen Daldry

The critics have been extremely harsh and incredibly cynical towards this much maligned but misunderstood film.  Accusations that it is quirky for the sake of being quirky and exploits 9/11 are entirely unfounded. The plot, involving the quest of a precocious but lost young boy looking for answers to ease his torment resulting from his father’s tragic passing, may look pointlessly offbeat and contrived on the surface, but if you consider what is really going on in the film, you can see that the story is both poignant and purposeful.

The film creates a window into the world of an autistic child.  It is hinted at that he is autistic rather than overtly stated and if you don’t get that the boy is autistic, the film would seem infuriatingly artificial. If you realize what is going on, the film becomes as powerful, insightful and perceptive a portrayal of a much misunderstood mental condition as Rainman was.  With this realisation in mind, the boy’s seemingly irrational behaviour seems an understandable coping mechanism to enable him to make sense of the traumatic changes within his life; what he does then seems less absurd and more noble as he does everything in his power to retain a link to his Dad, to reduce his anguish and confusion resulting from his Dad’s passing.

The 9/11 aspect is handled sensitively – you get a genuine sense of the pain of losing someone in such an unforeseeable and horrifying event.  Plus there is a real narrative reason for the film being set around 9/11. Within the story, the boy has a key belonging to his Dad that he hopes will help him explain his father’s death. The fact that his Dad could never have been aware as to what would happen to him – he obviously didn’t know what 9/11 would occur – so what exactly the key represents remains a pretty intriguing mystery.  The explanation for the key is really rather poignant and doesn’t feel the least bit disingenuous.

Contrary to the churlish critics’ opinions, the film is genuinely moving rather than emotionally manipulative; it has a pretty interesting screenplay and a very interesting child protagonist too. 8/10

4. Midnight in Paris 

Director: Woody Allen

Woody Allen has been making films for nearly forty years. Rarely has he made a film that is as entertaining yet, purposeful and philosophical as this charming and inventive little film. Most of Woody Allen’s films have a retrospective feel to them, featuring as most of them do, wizened pseudo intellectuals, pontificating wittily about classic literature and art.

Allen’s screenplay, which took the best original screenplay at the Oscars, had a humdinger of an idea: in Paris, a writer finds a way to go back in time to the twenties, and take advice on writing, love and life from such artistic literary legends as Earnest Hemmingway and F Scott Fitzgerald. It’s an Allen fantasy that delights and beguiles, but Allen has clearly spent some time dreaming of what it would be like to slip away from the modern world into the past, as the film has an unexpected message, warning of the dangers and futility of pining for the past and seeing formative years through rose tinted glasses. It’s this idea, charmingly and amusingly delivered, that gives the film a rather important message.

Allen is not a fan of the Oscars, so he didn’t appear in person to collect the award he won for best original screenplay. Oscar host Billy Crystal passed the chance to quip about Allen’s notable absence; I think he should have said this:  Woody Allen wanted to come to the show, but he walked through a door & is now attending the Oscars in 1929.    8/10

For my first Midnight in Paris review, click here

3. The Help

Director: Tate Taylor

To those who haven’t seen it, The Help may look like bland and banal Oscar fodder. With a plot that plays on pre- civil rights movement racial tension – always a theme that gets the Academy members pulses races – and a look that might lazily be labelled ‘chick flick’ it’s understandable that, if you haven’t seen the film, that this made the list for purely political reasons. This is absolutely not the case. The Help is a much more powerful, thought-provoking and important film than it may look. The drama is both entertaining and engaging, but there is actually a lot of substance to the film too; it makes a really interesting point about what it means to be a good mother. The racial tension between the absolutely hateful over-privileged, immature, spoiled, materialistic middle class white women and the badly treated, yet diligent and maternal black house maids, creates an interesting and emotive plot that creates a metaphor to illustrate the value of good parenting. Within the narrative, we see that the black maids, treated abysmally by their bigoted white middle class employers, – with the exception of Jessica Chastain’s benevolent character –  form a stronger matriarchal bond with the children of the privileged white women, then their actual mothers do.

Making a statement that there is racial tension in the Deep South in the sixties is obviously not at all ground-breaking; but this film uses that racial tension to create an irony that, although the black women were deemed second class citizens by their racist employers, they were entrusted to raise their children – this does say something new. The film uses the racial drama to make a point that if you don’t spend time with your children and look after them dutifully, then you risk irrevocably damaging your bond with that child. Given we live in a work oriented society, in which providing your children with material possessions  is deemed more important than spending time with them,  the period set plot and drama in The Help is actually very relevant now and contains the most important message of any of the films in the best picture category this year.  If just one mum went home and vowed to spend more time with their child after watching this, the film made its point.  8.2/10

2. The Descendants 

Director: Alexander Payne

Purveyor of bittersweet tragicomic dramas Alexander Payne, made another character driven, dry witted, emotionally intelligent film in The Descendants. The film was a beautifully told organic story about an absent father reconnecting with his daughters and becoming a far more empathetic person, after a family tragedy.

George Clooney helped to make an entirely sympathetic character, moving away from his slick persona to mould a believable identifiable everyman figure. The human story was written with a perceptive sense of wit that really captures something about life and the challenges of being a good parent, with a strong suggestion that problems define human existence -whether you reside in paradise or not.  The film had an entirely unexpected emotional impact, as you can’t help but be invested in such well written, nuanced characters involved in such an engaging, acutely observed drama. 9/10

For my full review click here

1. Hugo 3D

Director Martin Scorsese

Hugo is an inspired and imaginative celebration of the magic of cinema, made by one of the most passionate and talented filmmakers working in the industry: Martin Scorsese.

Given how edgy and adult themed Marty’s films are, he seemed an odd choice to adapt to the screen Brian Selznick’s children’s novel: The invention of Hugo Cabret. It seems like Scorsese found the perfect story to display his passion and knowledge for cinema, as the narrative is an exhilarating family drama, which creates an engaging puzzle of a plot, playing creatively on silent age cinema classics, particularly George Melies much revered ‘A voyage to the moon’.

The story has an element of Dickensian child peril to it, as it features a resourceful, recently orphaned little boy, who lives within the mechanisms of a Parisian train station clock – the backdrop for an inspired Harold Lloyd homage –  and is searching for a way to start a strange automaton that he was working on prior to his Dad’s untimely demise. The boy is mistreated by both a cantankerous toy booth owner(a great performance by Ben Kingsley) and a child catching station attendant(very funny comic relief provided by Sacha Baron Cohen). There are so many adults preventing this misunderstood little boy from unlocking the secrets he seeks.

Scorsese’s direction is remarkably inspired: he brings the inventive story spectacularly to life with an eye-wateringly beautiful and spine-tinglingly enchanting vision of a Parisian train station.

Scorsese recognized the potential 3D had to enhance this story. The 3D here is entirely justified as it has genuine context and a narrative purpose. The 3D creates an immersive world; you really feel like you are entering this highly stylized vision, which is an absolutely transfixing experience. The early cinema pioneers put visuals and effects on-screen that wowed audiences in a way they hadn’t been wowed before. Scorsese has seen the potential for 3D to create that same sense of jaw-dropping wonder early audiences experienced; there are some magical moments of dreamlike wonder, in which Scorsese’s 3D creates the  surreal and hypnotic sense that you are falling into, then floating around, an avante garde masterpiece from nearly a hundred years ago. You will never take a trip to Melies trip to the moon like you do in Hugo.

The film pays homage to early cinema at every twist and engaging cascade, it is a story with early cinema imprinted in its DNA and yet, whether you’re a seasoned film historian, a knowledgeable film buff, a casual movie goer, or a small child, the film is so universally involving that you are completely invested in the well written, sympathetic characters and urging the young boy to find the answers he is looking for. Hugo is the best cinematic experience on the best picture list.  It is some achievement that Scorsese made a thrilling, entertaining, dramatic, gripping, emotive, charming, eye-popping and intelligent adventure film, with universal  appeal, out  of a plot that is in essence, an ode to the cinematic techniques and visual artistry of cinema from a by gone age. Sensationally original – it completely reinvents and reinvigorates the family adventure film. 9/10

Unless, you’ve been living in a tree, you’ll know The Artist waltzed off into the night with the Best picture and best director gongs, whilst Hugo rightfully scooped some of the technical awards for best cinematography and art direction. Martin Scorsese must be the hardest done by filmmaker in Oscar history though, as he has yet again been snubbed when he has made a near masterpiece of a film.  Will he ever get more than a token Oscar for The Departed?

So, that’s my verdict. Obviously it differs from yours and I’m bracing myself for a backlash given The Artist was so far down on my list. Did you see all nine films? Got something to say? Put it in the box below.

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About Filmfella Darren
Film critic, writer and long-time cinema appreciator. I write about cinema matters, because cinema matters. Like your clothes and your laptops, my articles were made in Taiwan.

10 Responses to Best picture nominations 2012 – reviewed and ranked

  1. Mark Walker says:

    A very fine analysis of the films nominated. As you mentioned, not everyone will agree. I would have The Tree Of Life much higher and I’ve yet to see a few of them. The Descendants was well placed but if truth be told I’m still livid at the academy for the omission of Melancholia and Drive was the best of the year for me, so far.

  2. Filmfella Darren says:

    I appreciate the comment Mark. I think anyone under 35 was disappointed that Drive didn’t get nominated. But the Academy are predominately aging white men, so I think Drive was a little too violent for their tastes. I think Melancholia should have been nominated in the Best original screenplay category, since it was a really inventive take on an idea that has only ever really been done in blockbusters. Dunst particularly was unlucky not to get a best actress nomination, since she was unrecognizable in Von Trier’s film.

    • Mark Walker says:

      If Melancholia, at the very least, received a couple of nominations. I would have been happy. It deserved some recognition. The oscars never ceases to amaze me with it’s lack of class sometimes though. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the films nominated were rather good but they always seem to omit something that deserved more.

  3. rachel says:

    Your writing is awesome! I definitely want to see Hugo and Midnight in Paris! Have you seen My Week With Marilyn? I liked that one a lot. (Rachel)

  4. Filmfella Darren says:

    Thanks for your input Mark. One of the factors that prevented Melancholia from featuring at the Oscars was the fact it is a European film. This is also true of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and We need to talk about Kevin. Ok, so a French film won this year which bucks the trend a little. But usually, the Academy tend to favor American films, presumably because they have bigger lobbying campaigns in Hollywood. Each year though, the Academy make some howlers, like not nominating Chris Nolan, but actually I think we all secretly like the fact the Academy is so fallible – their silly misjudgments always makes for a great talking points don’t’ they?

  5. Filmfella Darren says:

    Thanks for your comment and compliment Rachel. Please do see Midnight in Paris and Hugo – they are little gems. Kate and I are going to watch My week with Marilyn tomorrow evening.

  6. Filmfella Lozz says:

    Wowee…I liked Hugo; it looked great and the passion for film really came through, but it wasn’t the best film. I, like Mark, thought that the board didn’t recognise what were fundamentally better films; Drive and Melancholia – Drive being my movie of the year. There was absolutely nothing special about The Help or The Descendants. They were both mediocre films with mediocre narratives, but showcasing some great acting; more so in The Help. Out of the movies nominated, I think the board got it right, I hate to admit. The Artist was the best of a majorly sub-standard bunch of movies. All were ok, some a little better than others.

    • Mark Walker says:

      One of the better films I also seen from last year was the very underrated “Perfect Sense” with Ewan McGregor and Eva Green. It didn’t get a wide release and went practically straight the DVD shelf. A great little film. Worth checking out.

      • Filmfella Darren says:

        Thanks Mark – it’s great to see someone endorse Perfect sense here. I thought I might have been the only person to see it. We haven’t covered it yet at The Filmfellas, but it is going to be in a blog I’m going to write on recent must see art-house films. I thought Perfect sense was a very creative reinvention of the post-apocalyptic genre that found a new primal fear in losing one’s senses one by one. The romance was organic and it resonated too. It’s horrifying to see how badly this film has been treated. I’m not sure if it even got a cinema release over in the UK. You’d think they would have spent more time marketing a film with Ewan McGregor in it.
        A little background about us Filmfellas, we all met and worked in UGC cinemas (now Cineworld in Newport South Wales) Most of us were frustrated with how the independent films were treated. They had such limited releases. Sometimes we would have to wait to get the print from another cinema, so they wouldn’t go on release when the film’s marketing was fresh in the mind. They also used to shove them in the smallest screen, and on many occasions I remember turning people away from a screen that had sold-out only because there wasn’t that many seats in it. I mention it because I think Perfect sense might have been treated like that. There probably wasn’t many prints distributed. There were probably a lot of people out there who would have seen the film if they had made more copies and distributed them to more cinemas. It’s frustrating that the balance between art and commerce has entirely swung in the favour of commerce, but that was always going to happen with the rise of the multiplexes.

      • Mark Walker says:

        Very glad to hear you have not only seen Pefect Sense, Darren but also appreciate it. You’ve hit the nail right on the head there, its a digrace how some movies are marketed, while we are spoonfed abysmal Michael Bay shit, and the like. I think you’re right, I don’t remember Perfect Sense being released in the UK. I’m from Glasgow in Scotland and if truth be told, I was only drawn to the film because it was filmed in my home city. I was curious to see the locations used on film. Thankfully, I was drawn to it though, it’s one of the best and most underappreciated films I’ve had the pleasure to see of recent years.

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