Greetings Front Porch Readers. I am a film professor at Metro State University of Denver and a Stapleton resident. This is the inaugural column of a regular feature that will review films you may not find anywhere else: independent films, foreign films, documentaries, and other art-house fare that are either new releases or available on DVD/instant streaming. You can find reviews of popular films anywhere; I aim to bring you the hidden gems.
For this first column, however, I am reviewing the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. The Oscars will be awarded on Sunday, February 24. I hope this column entices you to catch one or more of the films. Thank you for reading and I look forward to writing future columns.
When Steven Spielberg presented the Oscar for Best Picture in 2011, he said: “In a moment, one of these 10 movies will join a list that includes On the Waterfront, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, and The Deer Hunter. The other nine will join a list that includes The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, The Graduate, and Raging Bull. Either way, they’re all in good company.”
The gist of Spielberg’s introduction is clear: the best film doesn’t always win, and the winner is often puzzling. This neatly sums up the Oscars—it’s great fun, it’s great theater, and we honor the best artists in the world, but in the end, eh….
Here is a rundown of this year’s Best Picture nominees:
Lincoln (Director: Steven Spielberg) is the frontrunner and the type of film the Academy loves: it is epic, well-directed, well acted, and well scripted. Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln is spectacular, and the supporting cast is superb. It covers an important chapter in our nation’s history and it leaves us feeling good about our country. Yet, it left me wanting more. I felt as though in between each stirring Lewis speech, the action was predictable and the visuals a bit limited. Such a vibrant topic and important era in our nation’s history deserves a more enigmatic camera. Too often the visuals take a back seat to the dialogue.
Les Miserables (Director: Tom Hooper) is big. Everything about the film screams monstrous melodious melodrama: from the story to the performances to the camera moves to the sets, the film recalls the grand epics of the silent cinema. Some may be turned off by the incessant musicality or the over-the-top-melodrama, but the film knows exactly what it is and it delivers on that promise. Hugh Jackman is lively and capable, Anne Hathaway steals the movie for a (too) short time, and the supporting cast is excellent. Russell Crowe’s performance is the wild card here: he is clearly not as musical as the rest of the cast, yet he imbues the character with such force and emotion that we feel for him even though he is the antagonist. The cinematography is utterly spectacular, and the sets and costume design are dazzling. It is a daring film, but it works and ultimately, it moves. Cinema was born into melodrama, and Les Miserables knows it.
Argo (Director: Ben Affleck) is an expertly crafted and interesting film that flames brilliantly at times. Affleck will be a great director, and he shows studied skill here in alternating styles and moods. The story is fascinating and the cinematography is particularly enthralling when it takes chances—such as a spot-on homage recalling the signature filmic style of the 70s: wallpapered music, slow-motion, and split screens. Ultimately the film itself is secondary to the story it tells, and it can slow down at points.
Zero Dark Thirty (Director: Kathryn Bigelow) follows the realist aesthetic of Bigelow’s last film, the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker. It is a fascinating and controversial story, but it is difficult to make tedious intelligence work sexy (even with Jessica Chastain in the lead). The underlying themes are enticing—“Is torture necessary?” “Did torture lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden?”—but the lack of reflection on the topic is both troubling and telling. There are moments of energy and a front row seat to the raid on bin Laden, but too often the film falls in love with itself and forgets it is a film.
The Life of Pi (Director: Ang Lee) is simply astonishing for much of the film. The unbelievable story of a boy lost at sea with only a tiger for a sea mate has some of the most arresting visuals of the year. The frame story—the boy as a man, telling his story to a writer—drags on the film and interrupts the action.
Django Unchained (Director: Quentin Tarantino) is a throwback to the spaghetti Westerns of the 60s and 70s. Explicitly violent, gruesome in its characterizations, and unforgiving in its view of 19th-century America, the film has been criticized for “glorifying violence” or being in love with violence. I take the point, but a Western set around slavery begs for this treatment: it shows how brutal and violent our country was at this point in history. Is a shot of blood spraying onto blooming cotton over-the-top? Maybe. But the symbolism is poignant.
Silver Linings Playbook (Director: David O. Russell) is an acting tour-de-force and a view of relationships we rarely see on Hollywood screens. The film is well worth a viewing for the performances; it is a romantic comedy for those who despise romantic comedies.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Director: Benh Zeitlin) is the gem of the group. The story of a young girl and her distant, violent, drunken father living in the Mississippi Delta is fresh, inventive, unpredictable and touching. The performance of 6-year old Quvenzhané Wallis is downright magical, and that magic pervades the rest of the film. It is full of unexpected wonder and poetry in the midst of filth and abuse. The film will never win the Oscar, but it has my vote. (This is exactly why film professors do not get to vote.)
Amour (Director: Michael Haneke) At press time, the film had not yet opened in Denver.