I cannot believe it’s Oscar season again already! It seems not too long ago that I was lamenting Nolan’s luck (or lack thereof) with the Oscars. It has been a year, however, and unfortunatelyI haven’t managed to catch up on all the Oscar nominees this time around either, although I have watched a couple of movies that I thought would appear on the list, earlier in the year.
Of the nine movies nominated for best picture, I’ve watched 4 thus far, and here are my thoughts on them:
1. Midnight in Paris:
I hear that a lot of people are on the fence when it comes to Woody Allen movies, and I will just preface this by saying that I am decidedly not one of them. I couldn’t name a more gifted screenwriter or one who surprises me or makes me laugh more often, and Midnight in Paris did not disappoint. Much.
It is a movie that centers around Owen Wilson’s character, Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter and his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) who are vacationing in Paris. Gil is disenchanted with Hollywood stories from the start, and being in Paris only makes him more nostalgic for the 20’s and (to his mind) all the inventiveness and artistry and freedom associated with the period. And so it is, one night, that Cinderella-like, he is whisked away in an antique car (sorry folks, no pumpkin, here!) at midnight to a bar populated evidently by people form the 20’s. Meanwhile his finacee is off galivanting in 21st-Century Paris with the pseudo-intellectual Paul (Michael Sheen). At the bar, Gil runs into his idols -Ernst Hemingway, F.Scott fitzgerald and his wife Zelda ,Cole Porter and even, momentarily, Pablo Picasso. And this is where the movie is at it’d best. These lengendary artists are portrayed with all the little neuroses that they are known for, in popular culture. It also gives Woody a chance to fill the movie with great music and great art, which he does masterfully well. However, upon leaving the bar to get his manuscript (to be read by Gertrude Stein), Gil finds himself sadly back in the 21st century. He attempts to return, the next day, promising his fiancee the most incredible adventure. However she loses her patience pre-midnight, and chooses to go dancing with Paul, leaving Gil to his adventures once again. He then encounters Picasso’s current muse, Adrianna, whom he is instantly taken with. The question then becomes whether Gil will choose to live in a time other than his own, and also as to what will be of his fiancee.
I thought Owen Wilson was surprisingly good. He wasn’t necessarily your typical speed-talking, anxious lead Woody-character, although the director’s influence was evident throughout. The rest of the cast form the 21st century were disregarded, I think, and they seem to have been constructed to be loathed. I feel like perhaps that entire storyline could have been dispensed with. On the other hand, the characters from the 20’s were wonderfully charming and well fleshed-out and generally a treat to watch. The sights and sounds (best soundtrack!) were a treat, really. Overall, though, I was left slightly underwhelmed. I would still recommend the movie, though, so there’s that.
2. The Descendants
Directed by Alexander Payne, The Descendants is this year’s ‘dysfunctional family’ entry at the Oscars.When Matt Kim (George Clooney) is told that his comatose wife isn’t making any improvement, he is spurred on to clean up his act. He finds himself a father unable to control his kids- the younger, precocious, handful of a child , Scottie ,and her older troublemaker of a sister, Alex. He must find a way to break the news to his youngest daughter as well as the relatives and good friends of his wife. Through meeting his wife’s friends and Alex’ shocking revelations, Matt learns of a different woman from the wife he thought he knew. The film follows Matt’s struggles with keeping his daughters in check and forgiving his wife, with several unpleasant confrontations along the way as well as several reminders that he still has a loving, crackpot family. In addition to this, as trustee of several acres of untouched land , Matt has a tough decision to make regarding its future and that of the descendants.
The trouble with this movie is that any insight or difficult moment is followed by a bunch of contrived, painfully unfunny moments that are meant to temper the film, but fall flat without fail. I thought the movie succeeded where it did, because of excellent performances by the two younger actresses and a decent performance from Clooney. I wish the director hadn’t reined the story in so much, but overall it was a pretty enjoyable watch and certainly nothing like anything I’ve seen before. I doubt it’ll take home the Oscar, though.
This was the movie with the most unusual central idea, out of all the movies I watched. I mean, we’ve all watched Jerry McGuire and so it isn’t strange because it’s a ‘sports movie’, but rather because it is a movie that argues for a statistical approach to player-selection. Moneyball is a movie about Oakland Athletics general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt)’s attempt to assemble a strong baseball team on a tight budget. After hemorrhaging their best players, who move on to better-paying teams, Oakland Athletics are left with big shoes to fill, and with seemingly hopeless candidates to fill them with. That is, until Beane hires Peter brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale Economics graduate who convinces him that an excellent team is still well within his reach, so long as he’s willing to disregard everything but the players’ on-base percentage. Billy faces criticism from well-established scouts and even the OA’s manager early on, but sticks with his strategy, which ultimately leads to a string of unparalleled victories for the Athletics.
The story itself didn’t really rise beyond that victory to the underdog-aspect that one would expect. However, it did feature several good performances. Jonah Hill was a revelation as Peter, and full y deserves his Supporting Role nomination. Brad Pitt, I thought, was rather out of his element at the start of the movie, surrounded by a set of much more believable scouts. His performance tended a little to the theatrical, but got more on-base as the movie went along (I thoroughly enjoyed his negotiating skills!), with the result that I wont begrudge him his Best Actor nomination, although I’ll be surprised if he wins. The movie overall is pretty enjoyable and I’d recommend a viewing.
4. The Tree of Life
Early in the movie, Mrs. Obrien (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram informing her of the death of her son. This leads to an examination of life and loss through the memories of Mr.Obrien (Brad Pitt) , his wife and their eldest son, Jack (Sean penn). Their reminiscence paints a picture of Mr. Obrien as a bitter man, whose talents go unrecognized and who consequently pushes his sons, that they may achieve what he cannot. He is often tyrannical, and yet obviously loves his sons dearly. He is as ‘nature’ to his wife’s ‘grace’ in his unforgiving , harsh, impartial beliefs. And yet he is far from perfect, himself. As Jack grows up he gradually begins to see this in his father- that he is not infallible, himself- and grows to resent it. He cannot fully forgive his mother for her acceptance or her easy tolerance, although he recognizes his father’s traits in himself and appreciates her ability to follow the path of grace. Jack’s loss of innocence is beautifully played out, and disturbing as it is, is universally identifiable and true. In the absence of his father (who takes a short business trip), Jack goes through a trying adolescence, and that is the last we see of him as a child, before Mr. Obrien returns.Jack the adult, we learn, is an architect, in whom the influences of nature and grace still compete.
These memories and each character’s search for meaning in death is interspersed with sequences showcasing the history of all life, even as the history of the dead brother’s is examined in its entirety. The movie reminds us of the fleeting quality of life and its insignificance in the grand scheme of things. It seems to say: why does this matter? And also simulataneously : what could possibly matter more?
I’ve never watched a more ambitious film and the juxtaposition between a single life/all of life and more that Terrence Malick makes is ingenious. Regardless of the Oscar outcome, this is a stunning movie that will be discussed over and over for years, I think. Need I add that nothing will make me happier than its winning the Oscar as well?