On Saturday, for the second year in a row, my wife and I participated in a special brand of torture called the Oscar Best Picture marathon. We saw four of the nominated films in one sitting, which instantly quintupled the number we had seen.
The marathon has been running for years, but with the expansion of the Best Picture category, they now spread it out over two days. We skipped the first day, which meant that, unfortunately, we would miss The Descendants. However, we had already seen Moneyball, we felt no urgency to see War Horse, and with the radically varying opinions on The Tree of Life, we were reluctant to sit through it in a theater without access to a rewind or fast-forward button.
As we did last year, we decided to take a proper dinner break (there is one scheduled break of one hour; the others are 10-15 minutes) and skip the middle movie, which in this case was, according to the ID tags AMC Theaters prepared for us, Extremley Loud and Incredibly Close. (Welcome to the 21st century, where proper spelling by big organizations is optional.) Although the theater gave each participant gift cards to use at the snack bar, we bypassed the popcorn in deference to my wife’s recent gastrointestinal surgery. We did eventually buy one box of candy and a soda larger than our bathtub.
Our day began with a 3-D showing of Hugo, followed by The Help, and after our dinner break, The Artist and Midnight in Paris. I tried to find a common theme among the four films. They are all set, at least partially, in the past. Two are about the silent movies and two evoke the joy of Paris. Eh, that’s all I’ve got.
OK, Cranky, expand your bladder and tighten your sphincter: you’re going to be sitting in your seat for a long time.
TRIVIA QUESTION ASKED AT THE MARATHON: Which 2011 film received the most Oscar nominations without receiving one for Best Picture? Answer below.
PLOT: A young boy, living secretly in a Parisian train station after his clockmaker father dies, tries to unravel a mysterious message from an automaton while trying to avoid being sent to an orphanage.
FEAR: Can it really be a Martin Scorsese picture without DeNiro or DiCaprio, without violence or curse words? Plus, I’m a notable skeptic about 3-D; my one experience with Avatar was a bad one – badly smudged glasses and gimmicky effects.
REALITY: Despite hermetically sealed new glasses, the 3-D experience starts badly, as they project the first five minutes in 2-D, causing a disruption that makes it hard to get into the story at first. However, by the time Hugo (Asa Butterfield) teams up with the captivating Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle, Scorsese is reeling me in hook, line and sinker. He keeps the gimmicky effects to a minimum, making me forget it is 3-D but rather just a movie with really cool depth perception. Scorsese’s love of the movies, magic and creation resounds in every frame.
OSCAR-WORTHY: Yes, especially the magnificent technical achievement and Scorsese’s masterful direction.
SURPRISE PERFORMANCE: Sacha Baron Cohen’s amusingly repressed performance as the Station Inspector is a delight. Bonus points for his dog, whose frightening presence is heightened in 3-D.
SCENES I’D LIKE TO SEE AGAIN: The train crashing into the station; Scorsese’s recreations of Georges Melies’ sets; Isabelle giving the British pronunciation of “clandestine.”
AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO DIDN’T KNOW UNTIL THE CREDITS: That Jude Law did the cameo as Hugo’s late father?
NEGATIVE: Can I have a do-over on the first five minutes?
DID IT EVOKE TEARS: Yes
APROPOS OF NOTHING: Being a longtime buff of old films, I’ve seen Melies’ A Trip to the Moon and I’m more charmed by its crude but imaginative effects than I am by anything CGI. Also, although many of the details of Melies’ life are portrayed accurately in the film, he never pretended to have died in the war and his wife Jeanne was actually his mistress when she appeared in his films. (Hey, a movie for children doesn’t need a nuance like that!)
PLOT: In 1960s Mississippi, a white aspiring writer, Skeeter, wants to write an honest book about African-American servants and their experiences.
FEAR: I am skeptical of any movie about racial discrimination, even the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, which centers on a noble white character.
REALITY: I misjudged. Although Skeeter initiates the plot, it is the story of the African-American characters, especially Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), which propels it, whether expressed visually or through reminiscences. There are moving scenes about the indignities, both small and large, to which the black women are continually subjected. Also, to my surprise, the movie tackles sexism, with Emma Stone’s unmarried, careerist Skeeter causing consternation because she follows a different path than her peers, who are expected to merely look good and produce babies (which they promptly turn over to the help to raise properly).
OSCAR-WORTHY: Yes, for the top-notch acting. Davis’ steely, wise and proud Aibileen and Spencer’s alternately hilarious and furious Minny deserve to win, Jessica Chastain’s nominated performance as the “white trash” Celia is a hoot, and Emma Stone continues to be a screen charmer.
SURPRISE PERFORMANCE: I tend to scorn one-dimensionally evil characters, but Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance as the racist Hilly is a joy to boo.
SCENES I’D LIKE TO SEE AGAIN: When Minny tells Hilly the secret ingredient of her pie.
AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO DIDN’T KNOW UNTIL THE CREDITS: That Sissy Spacek played the senile Mrs. Walters?
NEGATIVE: The romance between Skeeter and Stuart felt like filler; I tend to cringe at swelling strings on the soundtrack that try to manipulate my emotions.
DID IT EVOKE TEARS: Yes
APROPOS OF NOTHING: To the ladies sitting next to me in the theater: Just because the dialogue hasn’t started yet doesn’t mean you can continue talking.
PLOT: A beloved silent film star, George Valentin, refuses to adjust to the sound era and watches his career crash and burn while that of Peppy Miller, the young dancer he discovered, rises to new heights.
FEAR: I enjoy silent films – I’m a big fan of Chaplin and Keaton – but is this one too much of a gimmick?
REALITY: It’s a gimmick all right, but it sustains its premise marvelously. It is both funny and moving where intended. The evocation of the silent film milieu is loving, the chemistry between George and Peppy is evident, and George’s dog is a constant joy. Although the story is slight – it does resemble that of my favorite musical, Singin’ in the Rain – it has a worthy message for our time: adapt or die.
OSCAR-WORTHY: Yes indeed. Jean Dujardin has both the insouciant charm for George’s scenes as a star and the gravitas for his scenes of despair; Bérénice Bejo is thoroughly delightful as the energetic Peppy; Michel Hazanavicius’ direction is skillful and effective. And though it’s not Oscar bait, John Goodman’s cigar-chomping appearances as a studio chief made me grin.
SURPRISE PERFORMANCE: One of the greatest dogs in the history of cinema.
SCENES I’D LIKE TO SEE AGAIN: The numerous takes of the early scene where George dances with Peppy (especially his change of expression when the camera begins to roll); the scene when the dog saves George’s life.
AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO DIDN’T KNOW UNTIL THE CREDITS: That the pawnbroker was played by the guy who wrestled Borat in the nude?
NEGATIVE: George’s descent seemed a little long; instead of hitting rock bottom, he bounced a couple of times.
DID IT EVOKE TEARS: Yes
APROPOS OF NOTHING: The film reminded me of my favorite Chaplin scene from an early short in which he plays a rich playboy. The screen shows a “Dear John” letter written by the wife who is leaving him. Chaplin is then shown, back to camera, with heaving shoulders as if he is sobbing. Slowly he turns to the camera and you realize he is actually mixing a drink for a party in which he is celebrating his new freedom.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS:
PLOT: Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter turned novelist, falls in love with Paris during a visit and re-evaluates his relationships after magically going back in time to attend parties with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso and Gertrude Stein.
FEAR: I haven’t seen a Woody Allen film since 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and I haven’t felt like I’ve missed anything.
REALITY: From the opening Parisian montage that evokes the beginning of Manhattan, I’m charmed. Allen still writes with considerable wit and attracts top-notch actors. He romanticizes Paris’ golden eras without ignoring the negatives (like no access to Valium!). I share his disdain for pompous pseudo-intellectuals like Michael Sheen’s “pedantic” Paul. And who wouldn’t love spending another 94 minutes in the City of Lights?
OSCAR-WORTHY: Yes, the screenplay is a marvel of wit and intelligence. Bonus points for snide barbs aimed at Gil’s Tea Party-sympathizing father-in-law-to-be, as well as a joke about Luis Buñuel’s film The Exterminating Angel which 80% of the audience probably didn’t get but which reduced me to giggles.
SURPRISE PERFORMANCE: Corey Stoll’s hilariously deadpan Ernest Hemingway. Bonus: Marion Cotillard’s alluring Adrianna.
SCENES I’D LIKE TO SEE AGAIN: Any one involving Hemingway; the flirtations between Gil and Adrianna; Salvador Dali pronouncing “rhinoceros.” Hell, any shot showing the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe.
AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO DIDN’T KNOW UNTIL THE CREDITS: That Adrien Brody did the amusing cameo as Salvador Dali? Hey, come on, at least I knew it was Carla Bruni playing the guide at Versailles!
NEGATIVE: Although Owen Wilson did a good job as Gil, he wouldn’t be my ideal choice to play a young Woody Allen-ish character. And I wish the fiancée played by Rachel McAdams wasn’t so humorless.
DID IT EVOKE TEARS: No
APROPOS OF NOTHING: I sell used CDs and books on Amazon, and I recently sold a book about the history of pornographic movies to a woman at New Line Cinema. When I Googled her, I learned that she develops projects for Owen Wilson. So if Wilson stars in a movie as Ron Jeremy in the next few years, blame me.
BOTTOM LINE: Add in Moneyball, and I’ve seen five nominated films deserving of thumbs up. (For the record, my favorite is a toss-up between The Artist and Hugo, with Moneyball a close third.) In a day when too many Hollywood movies are intended for teenage boys, it’s good to be reminded that it’s still capable of producing films of intelligence, wit and artistry.
ANSWER TO TRIVIA QUESTION: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.