I did it. Yesterday I completed my quest to see each of the nine movies nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty
These films are all outstanding. With such a large and rich field from which to choose, the winner will not be justified in believing it was truly the best picture in 2012 – it will just have gotten more votes than any of the others, even if it is only by one or two.
If I were forced to rank these excellent offerings every day for a week, my guess is my rankings would change each day, according to my mood. That might sound odd to anyone else who has also seen all nine titles, because all of them are dark on some level. Yes, 2012 Hollywood was fixated on serious, stark, violent and seemingly hopeless depictions of the world’s human condition.
Lincoln and Django Unchained deal with the politics of 1860s America, the lead-up to and the four-year span of the War Between the States, and the evolution of the man who is credited for ending the shameful yet profitable practice of slavery. While Lincoln was visually and contextually riveting, Django Unchained was difficult to watch for its relentless devotion to realism. But, perhaps for the first time, it showed the truth about the hearts and souls of the enslaved people. They were not weak and stupid, but strategic and wily. Each in his or her own way found a way to survive a personal hell, but never did they lose their senses of self. They loved hard, they hated hard, and they did what they had to do.
Les Misérables, in all its musical glory, takes a similar story in a different context a step further by addressing the actual revolt of common people against tyrannical monarchy. It again deals with the rich and powerful and how they ignore the poor, who are forced to steal, sell their bodies in prostitution, and even sell their hair.
Argo and Zero Dark Thirty both take us behind the mysterious doors of American intelligence operations. Both movies are based on true stories, although Argo has been criticized by many Canadian observers who believe the roles of Canadian diplomats in the recovery of six American hostages held in Iran were seriously under-emphasized. Zero Dark Thirty, marketed as 100% true, takes the viewer on the wildly risky route to the killing of Osama bin Laden, and shines a light on the female CIA agent who pushed trough layer after layer of second-guessing to get that done. “Dark” doesn’t begin to describe the torture scenes.
Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film unlike any I can recall, tells the story of a six-year-old child living with her alcoholic father in “The Bathtub,” a Southern Delta community of impoverished Americans who are clearly just getting by on a whim and a prayer. Hush Puppy is a little girl with an imagination to match her superior intelligence who Wink, her father, is trying to prepare for life after his impending death. The combination of the grinding reality of poverty with the fantastical machinations of a child’s mind gives this masterpiece an other-worldly feel. The actress who plays Hush Puppy, now age 9, has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Decorated director Ang Lee provides the usual visual feast in his Life of Pi. The main character, nicknamed “Pi,” finds himself alone on a large lifeboat after the ship he and his family and their zoo animals were aboard sank. This story of survival is as much about the creativity of the human mind under dire stress as it is the 200 plus days Pi stays alive while drifting. It is a thing of beauty to watch.
Silver Linings Playbook was an unexpected surprise for me. Based on comments some Facebook friends had made, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a masterfully written and acted treatment of two people plagued with mental illness, with characters so appealing in their struggles, the viewer falls in love with them both. I have a strong feeling that Jennifer Lawrence, who has already won the Golden Globe for Best Actress, will also win the Oscar. She is a true star.
Although I am a big fan of foreign language films, for some reason I waited until the very last to see Amour. As it turns out, it will be the one out of the nine that will stay with me for a long time, maybe forever. It is a simple,slow-moving story of a French couple in their 80s. They are happily relaxing in their old age, when the wife is stricken with a series of brain events that leave her a complete invalid.
This is the kind of movie that doesn’t sugar-coat much and which will not let you take your eyes off the screen, in spite of very long periods of total silence and no action at all. And it deals with a topic that scares me to my core.
None of us know how we will leave this life and we definitely have very little to say about it. Yes, we all try our best to protect our hearts, our lungs, our bones and our brains, but who really knows for sure? The idea of becoming unable to move one side of my body is terrifying enough, but a second stroke could send me into speaking gibberish, wetting the bed, wearing diapers and being absolutely dependent on some other person. The character in this film has her husband, whose love for his wife is tested beyond imagination.
Who would do that for me? I cannot think of anyone I’d wish that burden upon, and let me be clear, it would be a burden. Even the people who are paid to care for patients in such dire straits are not likely to be able to resist the moments of exasperation provided by such patients. Left with nothing resembling dignity, the only power the character in the movie could wield was refusal to eat and drink.
The actors in this little film are superb. Emmanuelle Riva, who plays the patient, could very well upset the field and take the Oscar. She has burrowed her way into the soul of my deepest fears and put the finest possible point on the prospect of age-related illnesses.