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Our take: 2013 Best Picture Nominees

By STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 20, 2013

Up for the an Oscar at the Academy Awards this year are some very different films. Three are inspired by historic events. One is a foreign picture, one is a musical, one is set on the ocean and one is set in a Louisiana bayou. Another deals with mental illness. The staff of Stars and Stripes saw all of the best picture nominees and had a few things to say about why they are — or are not — worthy contenders for Oscar.

"Argo"

Some of my favorite movies follow this pattern: Identify problem, identify protagonist who crafts plan to solve problem, assemble team to help fulfill plan and then implement plan. “Ocean’s Eleven,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Mummy” and “The Avengers” are a few good examples of this.

“Argo” follows this same pattern. The problem: Six staffers who escaped when the U.S. Embassy in Iran was taken over in 1979 are hiding out at the Canadian embassy there. They need to be extracted. Enter the protagonist, a CIA agent, played by Ben Affleck, who concocts and carries out a plan: Make it look as if he is the Canadian producer of a space movie who is scouting locations in Iran along with six other movie-makers — the Americans he will rescue from Iran. He gathers up his team members at the CIA, a few more in Hollywood, and ultimately the “team” in Iran.

While “Argo” might not be historically accurate, it’s still a great movie and deserving of a nomination for best picture. The movie has an incredibly interesting story, it’s well-scripted, and features a stellar cast, including best supporting actor nominee Alan Arkin. The film starts with tension and never lets up on the audience until it reaches its gripping conclusion. As the film progressed, I found myself edging closer to the end of my seat, leaning forward as the movie kept ratcheting up the tension. (If only “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Lincoln” could have done the same.) I got it — I understood just how risky and dangerous this plan was.

Affleck, who shares a 1998 Oscar for screenwriting for “Good Will Hunting” with Matt Damon, not only starred in the movie, but deftly directed it. Yes, that Ben Affleck. Any doubts anyone had as to his abilities as a director should have been wiped away with the release of “Argo.” But apparently they weren’t — Affleck, who won a Golden Globe and was nominated by several other major awards for directing this film, didn’t earn an Oscar nomination for best director. A sad oversight, especially as “Argo” appears to be gaining ground as favorite to win best picture. I hope it does.

— Danielle L. Kiracofe, entertainment editor, Washington, D.C.

"Amour"

What is love? What do our loved ones need from us? Should we give them what we think they need? Or what we need? And, of course, when (if ever) is a life no longer worth living?

These are issues pondered — or at least touched upon — in “Amour,” director Michael Haneke’s clinical look at one couple’s struggles to cope after the wife has a stroke.

“Amour” brings to the best picture nominees category what foreign films seem to do best — incredibly spare cinematography, an actual reliance on dialogue, nudity not meant to be gratuitous or titillating, and depressing, oft-ignored subject matter (end-of-life issues, in this case).

Haneke, who also wrote the screenplay, is known for his long, static shots and lack of film score, both of which feature prominently in “Amour.” We hear a piano played three or four times; otherwise, there is no sound other than dialogue or ambient noise, even during the credits.

French actress Emmanuelle Riva, who turns 86 on Feb. 24 — the day of the Academy Awards — is the oldest best actress nominee this year, and she fully deserves it. Riva’s character goes from fully functioning to a near-vegetative state in the course of this film, and never leaves the audience doubting the portrayal. The movie’s emotional impact absolutely hangs on Riva’s ability to sell this downward slide, and sell it, she does.

The movie centers on the elderly couple’s interaction, and the ways they cope — or have difficulty doing so — with Anne’s illness. Other characters’ reactions, including the couple’s daughter, are presented as well. Haneke gives us what we need to know, and not a whole lot more. The sparse quality of the filmmaking brings deep importance to even the most superficial of conversations — and, indeed, the movie’s deeper layers reveal themselves upon further reflection on these earlier, seemingly throwaway comments.

“You’re a monster, but you’ve always been kind to me,” says Anne to her husband, Georges, early in the movie, when he tries to convince her to see a doctor after what turns out to have been her first stroke. He doesn’t know how to take that comment, and neither do we. Is it a joke? He’s been nothing but gentle up until this point. There is really no context for it. Until the end of the movie, which invites viewers to ponder whether those two notions are as mutually exclusive as they originally seemed.

— Kate Maisel, features editor, Washington, D.C.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild"

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is about a young girl named Hushpuppy, played by amazing best actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. She lives far below the poverty line with her vibrant imagination and alcoholic father in an isolated bayou community called “The Bathtub.” When Hurricane Katrina hits, their community is all but washed away, save for a few survivors who would rather die than evacuate (or give up the bottle). Their harrowing journey for survival in a post-Katrina landscape turns into a coming-of-age quest for Hushpuppy to bring peace to her dying father and to take her place as an adult living like an animal in the swamps.

The acting and sets used in this film couldn’t be any better, and director Benh Zeitlin is a force of nature who deserves all of the kudos in the world for shooting such a beautiful film. However, the film did not satisfy any of the reasons why I watch movies. It couldn’t be more depressing, as you watch Hushpuppy being dangerously neglected and abused. Does she really live by herself in a shack that has a gas stove? Did her dad really just pour her a cup of liquor? She’s like 5 for crying out loud!

I found myself yelling obscenities at the screen as I watched a group of people who aren’t smart enough to get out of their own way, pulling their children down the drain with them; when they coax Hushpuppy to blow up a levee with dynamite; when they fight the people who come to rescue them; when her father fights the doctors trying to save his life; when they break out of a shelter that has been providing food, water, schooling and medical care, to go back to their shacks in the mud and their never-ending supply of alcohol.

And while there is redemption for Hushpuppy, it is barely enough to erase the bad taste this movie leaves in your mouth. There is very little chance for her survival, never mind a decent life, when the film concludes, so the only thing I took away from it was that bad parents can doom smart, innocent children before they even have a chance. But we all know this already. I didn’t really need to be reminded of it.

Wallis deserves the Academy Award for best actress, and with a weak field this year, she just may get it. Zeitlin deserves some consideration for best director, but he is a long shot against big names like Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg. (Ben Affleck was my favorite for best director; being left out of this category is a travesty.) “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a decent film, one worth seeing if you also enjoy watching car crashes, but definitely not worthy of an Academy Award for best picture.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is available on DVD.

— Matthew M. Burke, Sasebo and Iwakuni, Japan bureau reporter

"Django Unchained"

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding Quentin Tarantino’s wild, wild Western “Django Unchained,” based on the 1966 Western “Django.” “Django Unchained” is classic Tarantino. Here, he presents a violent tale of slave revenge in the antebellum South.

In the story, Django (Jamie Foxx) teams up with Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter (Christoph Waltz, nominated for best supporting actor for this role). Django wants to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from notorious plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Much later in the nearly three-hour film, we are introduced to Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s senior house slave who immediately becomes the character coined by Jackson as “the most hated Negro in the movie.”

I enjoyed “Django Unchained” because of its depiction of an unchained slave who becomes a fearless, gunslinging hero. Tarantino takes you on a captivating emotional roller coaster of feelings ranging from disgust and hatred to laughter and compassion. The Academy gave the flick a best picture nomination because of the unique subject matter: Cowboys, slavery, revenge and love. Tarantino did a great job intertwining a classic Western and a love triangle. “Django Unchained” has my vote for best picture. Let’s see if the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences agrees.

— Gerard Kelly, account executive, Washington, D.C.

"Les Miserables"

The world’s longest-running musical arrived in movie theaters and is now at the Oscars. In the film production, the characters from “Les Miserables” may be suffering more than we have ever seen before, but the cast is not — with nominations for Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) for best actor and Anne Hathaway (Fantine) as best supporting actress. The film earned five other nominations, including one for best original song, “Suddenly.”

The key to this movie — which is about the life of a released prisoner set against the backdrop of early 1800s France — is the new intensity and passion brought to the already intense and passionate musical production, which has been in theaters since the 1980s. While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think how much bigger than life all of the scenes felt — possibly because of the camerawork during the musical solos, which are actually sung by the actors when the movie was filmed. Traditionally, music is prerecorded and the actors lip sync to it during shooting. Seeing the screen almost completely filled by Jackman’s face as he sings “Who am I?” gave me chills. So did the gruesome close-ups of Fantine’s fall into prostitution, and ultimately, her demise.

Even the villains are more despicable. When I originally saw the musical on stage, I thought of Thenardier and his wife as more comic, bumbling, ne’er-do-wells who also happened to be thieves in the guise of innkeepers. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play the parts with gritty heartlessness.

Thanks to the performances and the direction, there is no doubt in my mind why the movie version of “Les Miserables” is part of the elite group of best picture nominees for 2013.

— Roni Breza, photo/graphics editor, Washington, D.C.

"Life of Pi"

The very fact that “Life of Pi” exists in movie form is an unlikely victory. Author Yann Martel, who wrote the best-selling book that the movie is based on, said even he didn’t think it would be possible to bring his story to the big screen. After all, two-thirds of the tale is about a teen boy and a tiger in a lifeboat floating in the Pacific Ocean. Aside from the obvious filming difficulties, that so much of it takes place as the boy’s solitary experiences makes anything but a tiresome voiceover treatment seem undoable.

However, director Ang Lee’s dreamy, thought-provoking style and author Martel’s message about perseverance and faith turn out to be a near-perfect marriage. On screen, the special effects are eye-poppingly wondrous, especially in 3-D. Off screen, the story of how lead actor Suraj Sharma (the teen boy, Pi Patel) was discovered — he tagged along to the movie audition in hopes of getting his older brother to buy him a free lunch — is hard to believe.

Those who read the book will be relieved to know that Lee tones down the more gruesome aspects of the story — no turtle blood is chugged on screen, for example. Lee also adds some marvelous visuals, such as the luminescent breaching whale included in a movie trailer, and some really convincing (but computer-generated) animals struggling to survive a sinking ship, then sharing a lifeboat. Lee also preserves the somewhat open-ended final chapter of the book, and actually made the author’s parallel statements about the importance of faith more clear to me than did the book itself.

“Life of Pi” has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including best picture and best director.

— Kate Maisel, features editor, Washington, D.C.

"Lincoln"

It’s likely most don’t know what Abraham Lincoln had to do to persuade the U.S. Senate to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, but a few hours in a theater with “Lincoln” could fill that educational gap.

“Lincoln” takes us through the tense days that precede the Senate’s passage of the bill that could end slavery. (The House would take it up months later.) The president’s second term was just beginning and he wanted to end the war, heal the nation and free the slaves. Director Steven Spielberg sends his Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) through the muddy streets of Washington, D.C., to the White House household where he must deal with his wife, Mary (Sally Field), who is still mourning the death of their son, Willie, years later; as well as his two surviving sons: Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose plans to join the Army only upset his mother further; and Tad (Gulliver McGrath), the youngster who disrupts his father’s meetings and plays at being a soldier.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Lincoln finds himself with a split Senate. Liberals, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), want to pass the legislation. Lincoln begins to wield his considerable political might, sending messengers to lame-duck Democrats, offering them lucrative post-Congress jobs for their votes. Anything to get that bill passed. It’s not exactly the deified image we have of our 16th president. And through acts of bribery, heroism, idealism, sacrifice and compromise, the bill squeaks through.

This is not the Lincoln we learned about in grade school. Day-Lewis shows the demons within the president, with his hunched-over frame. The movie shows his humor, as the president shares stories, almost like parables, with his staff and others.

This movie wins applause for its intense cast, its grip on history, for making us ask: “Were all those deaths worth it? What if Lincoln had not been shot?” And also: “Why can’t Congress compromise for the good of the nation today?”

“Lincoln” earned the most Oscar nominations this year with 12, including ones for best picture, best director, best actor (Day-Lewis), best supporting actor (Jones) and best supporting actress (Field).

— Kate Moloney, copy editor, news, Washington, D.C.

"Silver Linings Playbook"

I’ll admit, I’ve been known to succumb to the temptations of watching a two-hour melodrama, so perhaps I’m not the best choice to give an unbiased review of a film that resembles an Emmy award-winning Lifetime movie. But there is something special about “Silver Linings Playbook” that sets it apart. from anything the late Aaron Spelling could have ever dreamed up Perhaps it’s the characters, and how they made me question my own self.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) knows he can be manic, and he hates that about himself. So why was I rooting for him to continue obsessing over something he no longer had? He makes it a point to tell Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) that her marriage is dead, any chance that he can. So why couldn’t I say the same to him about his marriage? About halfway through, I finally realized that I should at least stop rooting for him to stay off his meds. He clearly needed them.

And why did I want him to sit on the couch with his obviously addicted father (Robert De Niro)? So that he wouldn’t lose everything the family had on some wacky superstition that involved a handkerchief and three remote controls? I should have been telling him to run, to get away from the environment that most likely created this whole mess of instability in the first place.

What about his mother (Jacki Weaver) and her perpetual face of heartbreak? Why didn’t that break my own? Why did I want to yell at her for not taking control of her household when clearly none of this was her fault?

Wait, did I just end up rooting for two mentally unstable people to fall in love and live happily ever after, while no one sought any real treatment aside from a mandatory visit to an Eagles-loving shrink and a drop-in or two from a cop who has no idea what he’s really walking into? What I do know for sure is that I sat through two hours of a somewhat predictable cadence that culminated in a dance competition and a nighttime empty-street kiss. I feel like I’ve seen this before. What’s the definition of insanity? Maybe I’m the one who’s crazy.

My silver lining is that I can’t help but compare my thoughts about Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook” to those I had of Will Ferrell immediately after watching “Everything Must Go.” There is something about taking an actor of a known typecast and creating a human being with seemingly real feelings and all-too-real problems, that makes you completely forget that you couldn’t even make it through the last time you saw him on screen without questioning the $11 you just handed the ticket agent in the booth. Perhaps that’s enough for the Academy.

— Nicole Rice, content producer/designer, publishing and media design, Washington, D.C.

“Zero Dark Thirty”

“Zero Dark Thirty” has been billed as the story of history’s greatest manhunt, a sweeping chronicle of the faults but ultimate triumph of U.S. intelligence agencies in the decade following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It’s depressing, exciting, shocking, frustrating.

I just wish I knew how much of it was true.

That’s the problem with the movie. It’s a well-crafted story that will become the defining behind-the-scenes narrative of the War on Terror, the same way that director Kathryn Bigelow’s last film — best picture winner “The Hurt Locker” — was held up as the authoritative story on the Iraq War. But “The Hurt Locker” had enough inconsistencies and exaggerations to infuriate veterans groups, and “Zero Dark Thirty” falls into the same pattern.

The story is told through the life of a single CIA agent named Maya, based on an actual agent working on the hunt for Osama bin Laden. She tracks down clues. She runs interrogations. She supervises special forces. She pouts. She dodges assassins. She turns the agency upside-down to root out the al-Qaida leader. She does everything but fire the bullet that kills him.

The victorious final act of the movie — the raid on bin Laden’s Pakistani compound — feels tacked on from another movie, one with a much more upbeat, patriotic message. Most of the movie focuses on failure: agents failing to stop the London bombings in 2005, failure to stop the deaths of eight CIA staffers in Afghanistan in 2009, failure to get close to bin Laden despite a decade of work.

The much-hyped torture scenes in the film are graphic, but maybe not as unsettling as they should be for an audience that has watched too many episodes of “24.” The movie’s producers have taken heat for glorifying and exaggerating the value of those “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but it’s hard to see how anyone watching the film walks away feeling the practice was worthwhile.

Despite the shortcomings, the movie does draw viewers in. The real-life events, the real-life fear is hard to pull away from. But, in the end, I was left wondering just how real-life the movie was, and how much of it was Hollywood’s revision of the past 12 years.

— Leo Shane III, Washington, D.C., bureau reporter

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