Monday, February 20, 2012

Reel Thoughts: The Academy Plays it Safe and Weird

Is the Academy scared of genitalia and cross-dressing, at least when they involve men? It would seem so, at least when you look at who did and didn’t get nominated for Best Actor this year. Snubbed were the handsome Michael Fassbender, whose full-frontal performance as a sex addict in Shame drew raves about how he “endowed” the role, and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose coy cross-dressing was more Norman Bates than La Cage aux Folles, in J. Edgar. As I noted in my Top 10/Worst 10 List, this was a year full of pretty good, but mostly not great, films and more amazing performances than we have seen in many years. This makes it anyone’s race to win, so predicting the winners will be hard.

On February 26th, the suspense will be over and we’ll see if The Artist scores the big prize (it should!) and which one of the fantastic actors and actresses nominated will get the ultimate reward for their work.

Here are my somewhat fearless predictions:

Best Picture:
The cloying Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Steven Spielberg’s gorgeous but plodding War Horse have no business vying for Best Picture, and Terrence Malick’s pretentious drama The Tree of Life felt like it took a lifetime to watch. That these three films took slots that could have recognized the quietly brilliant Win Win, the hilarious Crazy, Stupid, Love and the riveting Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the biggest crimes of the year. While Moneyball and The Help are popular hits, their nominations will be considered sufficient reward. The magical children’s film Hugo has the most impressive use of 3D ever, but even Martin Scorcese’s name isn’t going to earn a kid’s movie an Oscar. While Midnight in Paris was my personal favorite film last year, but it has faded from the voters’ minds. That leaves Alexander Payne’s touching family drama The Descendants and Michel Hanavicius’s amazing silent film The Artist.

My pick will be the Academy’s ultimate choice: The Artist.

Best Actor:
This category yielded the biggest snubs with Fassbender and DiCaprio being passed over in favor of Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the unknown but very deserving Demian Bichir for A Better Life. Brad Pitt’s nomination for Moneyball seems like a brazen attempt to draw in more male viewers with a sports-themed nominee, leaving the big decision between Jean Dujardin’s meticulously perfect and mostly silent performance in The Artist and George Clooney’s mature and subdued performance as a grief-stricken father dealing with a comatose wife in The Descendants.

Who should win: Dujardin’s old-Hollywood matinee idol performance was spot-on and deserves recognition for its difficulty and success. Who will win: I can see the Academy voters rewarding the popular Clooney for his performance in The Descendents, as well as for his sly work in The Ides of March.

Best Actress:
This is the most competitive race, and any one of these women deserves to win. And this is with Tilda Swinton’s snub for We Need To Talk About Kevin and Vera Farmiga’s transcendent work in Higher Ground overlooked. Rooney Mara as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will not win, since her film lacked nominations in most of the other major categories, and Michelle Williams’ touching take on Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn is losing a little steam with voters. Glenn Close’s amazing work as Albert Nobbs is not as popular as Meryl Streep’s uncanny work as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, an otherwise forgettable film. Viola Davis seems unable to give a bad performance (even in dreck like Extremely Loud) but her work as Aibileen in The Help was among her finest work yet.

Who should win: Streep anchored almost every moment of The Iron Lady, and she shows extraordinary complexity as a woman suffering from mental lapses who is holding on desperately to her past glories (and deceased husband). Who will win: Davis is the frontrunner, and The Help was much more popular than The Iron Lady.

Best Supporting Actor:
Max von Sydow was the best part of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, while Kenneth Branagh did a masterful job of bringing Sir Laurence Olivier to life in My Week With Marilyn. Nick Nolte won raves for the otherwise forgotten Warrior, while a newly svelte Jonah Hill surprised everyone with a toned-down but still comic performance in Moneyball. The best performance, however, came from Christopher Plummer as Ewan McGregor’s dying gay father in Beginners. His joy as he discovers the life he’d denied himself all his married life was wonderful to watch, even though we knew he would not have long to enjoy it.

Corey Stoll really should have been nominated as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, but even then the person who should and will win is Plummer.

Best Supporting Actress:
This race seems to be The Help's Octavia Spencer’s to lose, although all five women gave vastly different and equally enthralling performances. Okay, so maybe Melissa McCarthy wasn’t exactly “enthralling” as the most obnoxious of the Bridesmaids, but Jessica Chastain in The Help, Berenice Bejo in The Artist and Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs were all highlights of their respective films. Chastain has had an amazing year, starring in The Debt, Tree of Life, Take Shelter and The Help, and Bejo was perfect as hopeful starlet Peppy Miller. McTeer’s performance as Hugo, a proud woman who lives a hearty and fulfilled life as a man in 19th century Ireland, was the finest supporting performance of the year, and one with special appeal to the LGBT community.

Who will win: Spencer. Who should win: My vote goes to McTeer.

Best Director:
Martin Scorcese charmed us with Hugo, Terrence Malick dazzled us while boring us silly with The Tree of Life, Alexander Payne touched us with The Descendents and Michel Hanavicius and Woody Allen took us back to 1920s Hollywood and Paris, respectively. All five directors transported us to perfectly revealed worlds (even if Malick’s was slumberland), but Hanavicius managed to succeed in a genre not seen since the late twenties.

The Artist was a masterpiece of a silent film, so as much as I loved Midnight in Paris, I think that Hanavicius should and will win as Best Director.

By Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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