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Our take: 2012 Best Picture Nominees

By STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 14, 2012

Up for best picture this year at the Academy Awards are many movies set in times past, several set in popular travel destinations and a few that feature animals. To find out more, read on.

“The Artist” 

An homage to the last days of film’s silent era, “The Artist” wowed the relatively few people who actually saw it. They loved the authentic re-creation of late-1920s/early-1930s movies; the charming performances of previously unknown (in the United States, anyway) actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo; the tap-dancing scene; and, of course, the dog. Academy voters went crazy over the story of a silent-film star who falls out of favor and into flophouse desperation when he refuses to do talkies, and the plucky young actress who gets a boost from him on her rise to the top, then tries to return the favor. “The Artist” received 10 nominations including best picture, best actor, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, best director and best original screenplay. 

And then the backlash began. Critics have called it insubstantial and unworthy of Oscar’s top prize. The biggest bone of contention seems to be the sense that the Academy is shoving this movie down voters’ throats, creating an all-but-certainty that it will win. Me? I walked out of the theater dazzled, though I’ve since cooled on the film. It’s an enjoyable way to spend two hours, but it doesn’t have the emotional resonance or heft to be called the best picture of the year. However, with a large and polarizing field, it doesn’t need a lot of votes to win, and unless the Academy members develop voter’s remorse after their “Artist”-nominating binge, this is the one to beat.

— Karen Willenbrecht, Pacific web editor 

“The Descendants” 

Everything about “The Descendants” is gorgeous — the screenplay, the acting, the Hawaiian scenery, George Clooney. It’s also refreshingly current. In a year when the Academy was gripped by nostalgia fever, this is the only nominee set entirely in the present. 

After his wife is critically injured in a boating accident, lawyer Matt King (Clooney) makes the difficult decision to terminate life support. But when he retrieves his older daughter from boarding school to say goodbye, she shakes his world with the revelation that his wife was having an affair. Meanwhile, another major decision looms: his extended family has opted to sell their huge parcel of unspoiled land on Kauai, and the deadline to choose a developer is just days away. King takes his girls on a quick visit to the island, where he tracks down the lover (and his charming and unsuspecting wife), ponders the implications of selling the land and begins learning how to connect with his daughters after years of being the backup parent.

If all this sounds depressing, it’s not. The movie was written and directed by Alexander Payne, who’s nominated for best director and best adapted screenplay, and he infuses the movie with the same mix of subtle wit and laugh-out-loud moments he showed in “Election” and 2005 best picture nominee “Sideways.” Clooney gives the performance of his career as a man struggling to figure out his responsibilities to his children, his comatose wife and his community. He got a much-deserved best actor nod; Shailene Woodley, who plays his rebellious-but-not-really teenage daughter, was criminally overlooked. With several best picture awards already under its belt — including the Golden Globes and the National Board of Review — and the inevitable backlash against frontrunner “The Artist, “The Descendants” has a decent chance of taking home the Oscar.

— Karen Willenbrecht, Pacific web editor

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

This film has taken flak for its nomination, even leading Paste to wonder if it is the worst-reviewed Oscar nominee in history. While the movie, based on the best-selling 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, is at times overly sentimental and frequently too talky, it’s a worthy nominee. It isn’t because of its source material, or its adaptation. It’s the acting. Not the delivery, but the quiet, graceful moments that remind us it isn’t always about who gets the coolest lines in the script.

The protagonist is 9-year-old Oskar Schell (newcomer Thomas Horn), whose father, Thomas (Tom Hanks, seen in flashbacks), died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Oskar, who might have Asperger’s syndrome, has been given a mystery to solve by Thomas, who knows the puzzle will take him all over New York City and force Oskar to interact with people from different walks of life. A year after his father’s death, Oskar is still working on the challenge when he stumbles onto a new one — finding the lock that fits a key found in his father’s closet. The only clue is the word “black,” written on the envelope containing the key. Oskar dominates the film with his relentless pursuit of answers and with overly chatty voice-over narration. His impaired social skills and neuroses, which intensified in the wake of 9/11, make him a hard character to like at times. Fortunately, the picture is somewhat salvaged by the skillful actors who surround Horn. 

Max von Sydow’s performance, for which he received a best supporting actor nomination, is worth the price of admission. As The Renter, a mute-by-choice tenant who lives with Oskar’s grandmother, von Sydow communicates through notes written in Sharpie on the pages of hardbound notebooks (except for the common answers “yes” and “no,” which are written in the palms of his hands). The Renter joins Oskar on his quest to find the mysterious lock. Von Sydow gives a clinic in acting with facial expressions and body language. He communicates more with his eyes and the twisting of his features than most actors convey in two hours of dialogue. He briefly becomes the fatherly figure that Oskar is missing, but The Renter is on his own quiet quest in post-9/11 New York.

For the most part, Hanks is the earnest Hanks who has become a national treasure. But he also proves why he’s a two-time best actor winner. In most of his scenes with Oskar, he’s the goofy, doting dad, the one who truly understands his son. In one scene, though, frustration forms in a facial tic and his physical attitude. It’s one of the few moments when we see Thomas Schell as a real person rather than the remembered, idealized version of himself. Sandra Bullock, as Oskar’s mother, Linda, doesn’t have nearly as meaty a role as Hanks and von Sydow. She gives a compelling performance nonetheless as the silently suffering widow who is resented by her son for being the wrong parent to survive “The Worst Day.” 

Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright, who play a married couple falling apart, have small but compelling roles. Oskar encounters Davis’ Abby Black early in the film and Wright’s William Black near the end. Both excel in their scenes, and Wright’s masterful interaction with the boy late in the film is a highlight.

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is at its heart about a fatherless boy trying to connect with his deceased dad and a widow trying to reach her living son. To a lesser degree, it’s about an old man trying to find home and a couple torn apart trying to find their way back to each other. Oskar’s journey puts him in contact with many of his fellow New Yorkers. Directly or indirectly, they were touched by 9/11, as were we all. And that’s why this film earned its nomination. Graceful performances populate a story that centers on a universal, terrible touchstone for Americans. More than 10 years later, we, like Oskar, are still trying to make sense of “The Worst Day.”

— Sean Moores, assistant managing editor/features

“The Help” 

Set in Mississippi in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, “The Help” is about a black maid (Viola Davis), working for white women, who finds her voice by telling her life’s story in a book written by a young white woman trying to find her own voice. It’s not the story that makes “The Help” a best picture nominee, but the fantastic performances by three of the movie’s actresses — wonderfully enough, the three nominated for their roles: Davis, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain. Davis brings a quiet dignity to her role as a long-suffering maid, and can make her point with a glance. She also lifts the acting of everyone with which she shares a scene. The favorite to win best supporting actress, Spencer nearly jumps off the screen as a bold and sassy maid who isn’t afraid to tell the women she works for what she really thinks, often to her detriment, but to the audience’s joy. (Even if you know about the “Terrible Awful” because you read the book, you will still love the reveal. Trust me.) And supporting actress nominee Chastain makes you feel her awkwardness as a naive but well-intentioned woman desperate to fit in and be a great wife.

There was a lot of pressure on “The Help” — it is based on the very popular book by Kathryn Stockett. “The Help” was well-adapted, remaining fairly loyal to the plot. But the film feels a little too sunny, too bright and too slick. It’s also a bit heavy-handed with its message. I didn't feel the tension, the fear and the sense of isolation several characters experienced in the book translated to the screen. But the essence of the material — the joy, the anger and the sadness — did translate, thanks to the acting. 

“The Help” is available on DVD. 

— Danielle Kiracofe, entertainment editor; @dorogaya26 on Twitter

“Hugo” 

Several of this year’s best picture nominees open a nostalgic window into an era of the past including “The Artist,” “War Horse” and “Midnight in Paris.” “Hugo” also takes a rosy-hued look at a bygone era – the early days of film — and uses up-to-the-minute computer-generated graphics to enhance the experience. I’ve seen many 3-D films in recent years, ranging from the gimmicky but interesting, to the waste of my extra three or four dollars, but from the opening shot where snow seems to be drifting down from the screen to the viewers’ laps, I was captivated. Director Martin Scorsese’s use of the technology adds many layers to already-beautiful Parisian scenes and interior shots, and also allows his characters to playfully stick their faces – or muzzles, in the case of a dog – out into the audience from time to time. (That’s as close as I ever hope to come to Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the slightly slapsticky villain role here as a gimpy station manager determined to hunt down the orphans who, in his mind, are a scourge to his train station.)

Scorsese, known for his talent but also for his violent fare, has tamed his inner beast – or at least successfully channeled it in a more family-friendly direction – with “Hugo.” The plot is lovely and affirming without being cloying; though if you’re watching the movie in 3-D, you’ll enjoy it whether or not you follow along. The characters who populate this Parisian train station might or might not realize that they, like an “automaton” machine Hugo keeps and attempts to repair in memory of his father, are broken. They have pieces missing, and it’s often up to Hugo, directly or indirectly, to lead them to restoration.

“Hugo” has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards, making it the most-nominated film of 2011. After experiencing the movie’s wonder, it’s not hard to imagine it capturing many of those honors.

— Kate Maisel, Features editor

“Midnight in Paris” 

Writing for Stars and Stripes, I’ve sometimes wondered what it was like to be with the organization during World War II. One of our reporters back then was Andy Rooney, who later found fame as the cranky guy on “60 Minutes.” Under fire on the way to the liberation of Paris, Rooney dove behind a wall and realized with a start whom he’d landed next to. “Jesus,” he thought, according to his 1995 memoir. “Ernest Hemingway.”

Which brings us to Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” a romantic comedy with a dash of sci-fi — or at least fantasy. Owen Wilson plays an American writer in Paris who is transported nightly to the 1920s, where he hangs out with Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso – and, yes, Hemingway. Each morning, he wakes up in the present, where his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) doesn’t believe a word of it. Wilson’s character spends most of the movie falling in and out of love, deciding which era he prefers, and talking in the same earnest, confused voice that Wilson has used in every movie from “Bottle Rocket” to “Wedding Crashers.”

The whole thing adds up to kind of a nostalgic hot mess in the City of Light, but that’s a good (and entertaining) thing. Besides the best picture nod, the film is also up for three other Oscars, including best director for Woody Allen. 

“Midnight in Paris” is available on DVD.

— Bill Murphy Jr., Washington Bureau reporter

“Moneyball” 

You don’t have to be an ardent baseball fan to enjoy “Moneyball,” the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics — but it helps. Early on, we learn the A’s cannot afford to compete for World Series titles with teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. So Billy Beane — the quirky, sometimes brilliant general manager of the A’s — enlists the help of Peter Brand to find a way to make the A’s competitive without breaking the bank. Anyone can understand that concept. But when Beane (Brad Pitt), Brand (Jonah Hill) and the baseball scouts start talking about on-base percentage, OPS and pitch counts, the non-baseball lovers might feel lost. Still, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s convincing portrayal of manager Art Howe is enough for the audience to understand that Beane’s approach to the game is unconventional. 

The movie is easy to follow, although there’s little character development other than Beane’s personal story. And even then, some attempts are rather lame. In one scene, Beane’s daughter sings the song “The Show,” the title of which is a euphemism for Major League Baseball. The song is used to tell Pitt’s character to worry less and enjoy the ride. However, you have suspend reality, as film is set in 2002, but the song wasn’t released by Lenka until 2008. 

Ultimately, viewers are led to believe Beane’s out-of-the-box thinking was a resounding success. What the movie fails to mention is that much of that success could be attributed to a monster pitching staff that included names like Mulder, Hudson and Zito. The film garnered six Oscar nominations, including best picture, best actor for Pitt and best supporting actor for Hill. Traditionally, baseball movies don’t get a lot of love from the Academy. No baseball film has ever won the Best Picture award, and I don’t think this year will be any different.

“Moneyball” is available on DVD. 

— Sam Amrhein, deputy managing editor 

“War Horse”

“War Horse,” with its intense special effects and camera work, is a deserving nominee. The film is great, although it doesn’t measure up to the London stage production “War Horse” I saw a few months ago. I found the film version lacking by comparison.

The story follows the life of a pet horse, Joey, whose fate is altered by World War I. He is taken from Albert, the boy who raised him, and sold to the British army to help pay the family’s rent. The story follows the horse’s heroic struggle to overcome and survive the brutalities of combat.
“War Horse” is not a sappy story about a boy and his love for a horse. It’s a violent, bloody story of war. Some scenes are heartbreaking. When Joey and other horses struggle to pull a heavy German artillery gun up a steep hill, the close-up shots of the horses’ hooves sinking into the mud as the animals strain to climb the slippery hillside are gut-wrenching. When Joey goes berserk on the front lines, galloping through barriers and finally collapsing in a heap of tangled barbed wire, it’s horrifying.

Obviously, the star of the movie is Joey, and the humans in the film seem to underplay their roles so the spotlight remains on him. That’s why, for me, the film fails to convey a real and deep bond between boy and horse that was so evident in the play. And the roles of Albert’s parents were much stronger on stage, especially that of the mother, who had a fiery temper that reflected anger and frustration at her lush of a husband.

— Pary Smith, Europe web editor

“Tree of Life”

Editor’s note: We left this one for last. We had a hard time finding anyone who had seen the movie “Tree of Life” — and could find no one who liked it. One reporter explains why he didn’t. 

Much ado is made whenever mercurial director Terrence Malick releases a new film. The last flick of his I saw was 1998’s “The Thin Red Line,” the cool kids’ war movie released the same year as Steven Spielberg’s iconic “Saving Private Ryan.” I dug “Thin Red Line,” especially its meditative vibe and that one frame where U.S. troops are low-crawling and come face to face with a nasty-looking snake. But that same meditative, meandering style left me exasperated when Malick deployed it in “Tree of Life.” 

Frankly, I hated “Tree of Life.” I’m always open to fresh takes on different subjects and complex, difficult movies that make you think. But jeez, so much of Malick’s interpretation of familial loss in “Tree” is maddeningly self-indulgent. How many times am I supposed to watch a curtain flutter, then a quick frame of a toddler running, then hear Brad Pitt whisper, for the gajillionth time, “My son. …”

I was willing to give it a shot, believe me. But when they launched into the forever realm of nature’s wonders, I was done. The cinematography here was gorgeous at times, but it felt like footage that makes movie snobs nod sagely, while the rest of us scratch our heads. Again, I can handle higher thought in films, but this just didn’t work for me. At all.

And by the way, what was up with the dinosaur sequence during the nature-is-wonderful section of “Tree of Life?” Dinosaurs?? Bah! 

“Tree of Life” is available on DVD.

— Geoff Ziezulewicz, reporter

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