It’s Oscar season, and we here at PW, well, we love the movies…almost as much as books (of course). In honor of Oscar season—and the fact that six of the nine Best Picture nominees are based on books—we’re holding a contest! The winner of our first-ever PW Oscar Contest will receive eight tie-in books*, among them Harry Potter Page to Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey and Hugo: The Shooting Script, along with a $100 gift certificate to use at their local bookstore. All you have to do to enter is fill out our poll and, if you correctly guess the most number of winners, the literary booty is yours!
Click here to cast your ballot.
To get you in the mood, "PW at the Movies" authors--senior news editor Rachel Deahl and deputy reviews editor Mike Harvkey—will handicap the Best Picture nominees. The rest of the race, well that’s in your hands. We’ll announce the winner of our contest on Monday, February 27, after the Academy Awards air on Sunday, February 26. The deadline for submission is Friday, February 24. Good luck!
Rachel: What a year for movies. Of course you wouldn't really know it, looking at the Best Picture nominees. To put it mildly, I was disappointed with the Academy's selections this year. With the exception of three films—Moneyball, Hugo and (to a lesser extent) Tree of Life—I can’t say too many positive things about the Best Picture contenders. I also felt more than a few films were unfairly left out in the cold. One of my favorite films of the year, which had a short run at Film Forum (after coming out in the UK in 2010), was The Arbor. Kind of a documentary, kind of not, this fascinating portrait of British playwright Andrea Dunbar (who died suddenly at the age of 29) is an examination of familial legacy and the bitter cycle of poverty. It's also unlike any other film I’ve ever seen. (It's available through Netflix, and I strongly urge you to add it to your queue.) I’m not sure what Oscar category The Arbor belongs in, though I think you could make a case for Best Documentary, but it’s a shame it didn’t make it onto the ballot. My other three favorite films of the year—Melancholia, Meek’s Cutoff and The Skin I Live In—also didn’t curry much favor with the Academy. Melancholia is probably too dark for the Oscars and, one has to assume, director Lars Von Trier’s off-color comments at Cannes about sympathizing with Nazis didn’t do him any favors. That his star, Kirsten Dunst, was left out of the Best Actress race seems particularly unfair, though—she was excellent. I didn’t expect Meek’s Cutoff to get a nomination, but I was surprised Pedro Almodovar’s masterfully done gonzo noir, The Skin I Live In, was nowhere to be found on the Oscar ballot. Not even a Best Foreign Film nod?! For shame. I think it's his best film in perhaps a decade (and I say that as one of the seeming few who really liked 2009's Broken Embraces).
Mike: I’d like to think that the book origins of six out of the nine nominees for this year’s Best Picture Oscar (a total of 20 nominated films across categories come from books) has everything to do with an increase in reading, a more passionate, booky public, and a general love of the written word, and nothing to do with the fact that Hollywood has in recent years shifted its business model so radically toward safe tent-pole product that it will produce only those movies for which there is already an audience, otherwise known as that most golden goose of synonyms: the platform. But maybe I’m just a hopeless nostalgic romantic. If so, this year it looks like I’m in pretty good company. Melancholia, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Beginners, and The Skin I Live In were the best films I saw in 2011. Others worth note were Certified Copy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Weekend, and all of them got shafted by the Acadedmy (with the minor exception of Beginners's star, Christopher Plummer, getting the Supporting Actor nod, which he should, and likely will, win).
Without further ado, our take on the nominees:
Hugo (based on the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, and published by Scholastic)
RD: My sentimental favorite among the nominees. I hope it wins, but I doubt it will. A lovely, wistful celebration of the movies, as well as an unexpected love letter to Paris. (I will add, though, that I suspect the film plays better in 2d since the 3d is distracting and upends what could have been some otherwise beautiful shots.)
MH: Of the nine films, I think this one is perhaps the most deserving to win. Scorsese embraced a new technology and made not only a beautiful film, but a history lesson in film and an experience full of warmth, nostalgia, and magic. Without being corny, it is a film that reminds us (like The Artist) why we go to the movies, what the movies can do—should do. The fact that it was made by a champion of cinema and restoration is really just gravy. Like Rachel, I hope it wins. Maybe it will. But I’m not counting on it.
Moneyball (based on the book Moneyball, by Michael Lews, and published by Norton)
RD: I really liked this film. I think it’s a great adaptation of a book that doesn’t necessarily translate well to film. Is it revelatory? Jonah Hill’s great…
MH: If anything, this film should win best adapted screenplay. I think it probably will. Zaillian and Sorkin did excellent, excellent work (as they almost always do). It is a solid entertainment that I enjoyed tremendously and forgot the moment I left the theater. If there were stronger films in contention (Melancholia, The Skin I Live In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) I would say that this film, as good as it is, doesn’t really belong here.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (based on the book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
RD: The nicest thing I can say about this film is that it's my third least favorite of the nominees. (I assumed that it would be my least favorite.) It’s cloying and pulls at your heart strings in a cheap way, but, pretty much, exactly the way you expect it would. I’m assuming it doesn’t have much of a shot at Oscar gold because it has little buzz going into the race.
MH: Frankly, this film pissed me off—and so did the book. Not only are we trafficking in something that by all rights should not—at least not yet—be fodder for entertainment (I’m not going to call it art), it does it by employing the trendy subject of autism. Though Oskar Schell says that his Asperger’s test was "inconclusive," the sheen of autism is all over his obsessive expedition that forms the narrative thrust. The book likely wouldn’t have worked without it, but I still found it opportunistic. And for Stephen Daldry, the Englishman behind The Hours and Billy Elliot, to use a man falling to his death—an image we all saw, to our horror, on "the worst day" (as Oskar calls 9/11) as something of a cinematic motif shows, in my opinion, a startling lack of judgment. He treats 9/11 and our collective anxiety as an obstacle that a precious boy must overcome in order to find catharsis.
The Descendants (based on the book The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and published by Random House)
RD: I love Alexander Payne. This film, though, felt like a less soulful, less amusing rehash of films he’s already made. In a vacuum it’s not terrible. When compared to some of Payne’s earlier films--partiularly Sideways and About Schmidt--it’s redundant, flat and unnecessary.
MH: I’m actually still not sure how I feel about this film. I’ve enjoyed Payne’s films in the past and give him credit for tackling something quite dark with this, and doing it with a very black comic tone. It’s an unusual film, though not, I think, a great one.
The Help (based on the book The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and published by Putnam/Amy Einhorn)
RD: I’ll have to quote my co-author on this one; he referred to this picture, when we were discussing the nominees, as "a great plane movie." The film is enjoyable, but it's also dangerously simplistic. Ultimately I do take issue with the uplifting tone given the weighty subject matter.
MH: Though I’m tempted to simply write, "I think that says it all," I’d like to add that the same Academy that handed the gold man to Crash could well hand it to The Help, as this film, like the book, takes a similarly surface-level look at the fraught subject of race in America.
War Horse (based on the book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, and published by Egmont)
RD: Easily one of the worst movies I saw this year, if not in recent memory. I hated this film so much that I was slightly angry when I got out of the theater. Presumably director Steven Spielberg was trying to celebrate melodramas of the ‘50s with his take on the same-titled popular stage play (and before it, book). But, really, who cares what he was trying to do. What he did do was atrocious—poorly drawn characters, terrible dialog, clichéd situations—and it makes me sad to see a filmmaker with so much talent making movies with so few virtues.
MH: I’m with Rachel on this one. Some stories are so well-suited to their medium that they lose something crucial when translated into another. I think this was the case with War Horse, which worked well as a stage adaptation because of clever theatrics: the horse was a beautiful puppet. We relished in what live theater could be, and ignored the fairly clichéd elements of the story. In the film, the horse is real (over a dozen matching horses played the indomitable Joey). Spielberg’s cinematic gifts seemed reduced like a sauce to the underlying clichés. If you’ve seen that "Spielberg face" montage floating around the web, you’ll know what I mean when I say that this film has enough face-moments to make a whole other montage—and it has little else. Rachel and I talked for a while about what this subject matter could have become in the hands of Lars Von Trier. Just imagine!
RD: This is my presumed winner, since it seems to have critical and viewer support. Most people I know loved this film. I thought it was a cheap gimmick that got old by, oh, minute ten. Celebrating silent films by making a corny silent film that mimics the most outdated elements of the format—characters who mug for the camera to show emotion, lip synching phrases to get across dialog, relying on thinly draw characters so motivations and emotions can be easily understood—doesn’t strike me as a worthwhile exercise.
MH: I liked The Artist, but also never forgot about the gimmick; of course, how could you? It screams at you with every utterly silent frame, and I’ve not shared a movie theater in a very long time with such a well-behaved audience. I’ve been a fan of Jean Dujardin for years; his and The Artist’s writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS-117 James Bond spoofs are a silly guilty pleasure. Though for my money, ultimately, Hugo’s super-saturated brand of old-Hollywood nostalgia is the better film, I think this one’s got the momentum. I say it takes the gold.
Tree of Life
RD: I can understand how someone would hate this film, but I can also understand loving it. I respect director Terence Malick’s insistence on tackling “big ideas,” but I don’t think ambition should come at the sake of logic or continuity. There is a great film in this mess of a movie, and it’s about a family in Texas during the 1950’s. Everything else—namely the dinosaurs and Sean Penn in the present/future—just mucks things up. Also, for it’s worth, I think Brad Pitt should have been nominated for his performance here, instead of his turn in Moneyball.
MH: This is my wild card pick (perhaps I should say "one of my wildcard picks'). There's much to admire about this film, and I think Malick is one of the most interesting living filmmakers. What he's doing, though not always fully successful, is extremely valuable. I loved the dinosaurs; I thought their presence was as audacious as those beautiful, beguilling dawn-of-creation movements. But, yes, Sean Penn, not one to shy away from earnest examinations of deep subjects, had an underwritten role, and was uncharacteristically awful. He simply had nothing to do. "Okay, Sean, in this scene, just sit there, look up, think about the past, man, the past, it's so heavy, and... action!" Even great actors need something to chew on. Still, Sean Penn aside, I'd be thrilled if Malliick took the bald man home with him on Oscar night.
Midnight In Paris
RD: Cute. Interesting? Thought-provoking? Above average Woody Allen? No.
MH: Though I liked this and think it can take a place in Woody’s pantheon in the top half, say, it’s certainly miles away from his best work. But when you make a film a year, you’re not gonna hit them all out of the park. This is Woody’s most successful film ever. It struck the same chord that most of the contestants struck this year—nostalgia—but struck it as only Woody can.
And here's the link to the ballot again...go cast your vote!
*All books have provided by Newmarket Press, It Books and Harper Design.