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Oscar’s Spirit - Theme for 2012: Lost and sometimes found Bill Fentum and Gary Keene, Feb 22, 2012
WARNER BROS. PICTURES PHOTO
In 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close', newcomer Thomas Horn plays a boy whose life is in turmoil after his father dies in the 9/11 attacks.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected nine Best Picture nominees for its 84th annual awards, to be handed out Feb. 26. The batch of choices is diverse, but a general pattern emerges: characters who go through loss or personal dilemmas, and search for meaning in the experience.
That’s where associate editor Bill Fentum and special contributor Gary Keene come in to offer some perspective. Here’s a look at each movie, followed by a rundown of the contenders for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Artist Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture
The last thing we expected to see in the age of big-budget, 3-D blockbusters and edgy independent flicks is this French-made tribute to silent-era cinema. Shot in black and white with only a masterful music score and a few well-placed sound effects filling the soundtrack (until the final scene), The Artist tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a debonair Hollywood actor of the 1920s who loses his fame, confidence and riches when talking pictures take over. Luckily, his loyal Jack Russell terrier and young dancing star Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) are around to save him from a sorrowful end.
If the happy ending feels a bit shallow, it’s probably because nothing really happens to give George a new purpose in life; he merely transitions from a has-been to a comeback kid in Tinseltown, likely to be abandoned again in later years. Or am I being too negative? After all, it’s just a movie.—BF
The Descendants Rated R for language including some sexual references
This is a film to see tucked up on the couch, cozy with family and snacks—just like the image in the movie’s closing scene. Although set in the wide beauty of Hawaii, the story’s focus is close: George Clooney’s Matt King is at the center of nearly every scene, serving as a besieged, bewildered and heartfelt lens for seeing into acutely and believably drawn dilemmas of life, death, parenting, marriage and heritage. The pieces are familiar from other stories—surly daughter, unforeseen adultery, end-of-life issues—yet these aren’t strung into a predictable narrative, and that makes the film both hard to describe and easy to access from multiple angles.
Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) weaves scenes of memorable poignancy, hilarity and quiet dignity in equal measure. While the various mini-plots are finally resolved, the lasting sense is of an inevitable embrace of life as it is, savored by three battered but surviving characters.—GK
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language
This unique drama draws from the massive cultural reservoir of pain that is 9/11: No story that so much as glimpses that tragedy cannot be powered by it. In this instance, the pain is indeed “incredibly close”: Young Oskar Schell loses his beloved father, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), in the collapse of one of the towers. Several months later, a key cryptically hidden by his dad becomes the token that drives Oskar on a journey to reconnect with him.
To say more would sabotage the film’s intimate revelations. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is rich in inspiring visual poetry (preachers, take note). Viewers familiar with the story’s author, Jonathan Safran Foer, will recognize his intricate creativity. And everyone will exit the theater scrambling to look up the young actor who portrays Oskar; Thomas Horn, 14, channels the impact of 9/11 in a way that is simultaneously captivating, troubling and compelling—as it has to be.—GK
The Help Rated PG-13 for thematic material
Echoes of Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes pervade this hit adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 best-selling novel, until it overflows with Southern charm and sarcasm. But it’s more than a showcase for verbal zingers. Set in the early 1960s, the tale of two African American maids teaming with a young, white journalism grad to record the racial injustices of their time and place is, at its heart, about the transforming power of trust and friendship.
We also see a solid model of faith in Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who struggles to deal with loss in her life but remains a devout Christian, drawing strength from God to tell her story to others. In contrast, the villain of the piece, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), uses her professed faith only as a shield to isolate herself from others and show no mercy. Conveyed through fine performances from both actresses, the message cannot be ignored.—BF
Hugo Rated PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking
Hugo offers two stories in one. The film’s trailers show the fantasy part, about a boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) on an adventure with a key from his deceased father, seeking to unlock meaningful secrets—which is precisely the plotline for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Here the key leads to the discovery of a second story, this one about pioneering movie director Georges Méliès (1861-1938), played by Ben Kingsley.
The poignancy of Méliès’ personal journey (a forgotten innovator is rediscovered and rightly celebrated) matches Hugo’s mournful search for connection to his father, though the clips we see of Méliès’ work are so enchanting, viewers might wish they could leapfrog from the boy’s story to see more of the old silent films. Director Martin Scorsese makes it work (the film received 11 nominations), and in the end it’s both entertaining and—like The Artist—a convincing love letter to the power of cinema.—GK
Midnight in Paris Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking
After a decade of stories with hardly a hint of whimsy, writer-director Woody Allen surprised everyone with this comic homage to the City of Light. Owen Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter who yearns to become a serious novelist and hopes a trip to Paris will provide some small inspiration. He finds more than that: Alone on the streets at midnight, Gil magically enters the Jazz Age of the 1920s, gets advice from literary heroes Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and meets a young woman (Marion Cotillard) who seems more in tune with his dreams than his 21st-century fiancée (Rachel McAdams).
That’s just the start. A charming, low-key affair, Midnight in Paris eventually reminds us that however alluring, an excess of nostalgia for the past is a sure way to miss opportunities in the present—romantic and otherwise. Not a groundbreaking message, perhaps, but you’ll never find it in a more delightful cinematic package.—BF
Moneyball Rated PG-13 for some strong language
Here’s one that satisfies by running all the bases of a really good film: a crackling script, engaging performances from a strong cast, sure-handed yet invisible directing. To top things off, it’s based on actual events.
Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, who becomes general manager in 1997 of the down-but-not-out Oakland Athletics baseball team. Lacking the funds to buy high-powered, top-dollar talent, he stumbles onto a numbers nerd (Jonah Hill) who shows him a different method—a way to “change the game” that proves inspiring for us to watch, even when most of the action takes place off the ball field. Beane’s goal evolves from winning at least some games, to aiming for the championship, to fundamentally reshaping how the management game is played. In other words, it’s a journey away from transient success toward lasting significance, full of quotable, teachable moments (and a must-see for UM appointive cabinets.)—GK
The Tree of Life Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
As a moviegoing experience, The Tree of Life has as many “branches” as the title infers. It takes us from the hard ground of Texas up to and beyond a stormy sky to the cosmos itself—as well as backward in time to dinosaurs and forward to a heavenly gathering (apparently, on a beach at low tide). Such is the scope of director Terrence Malick’s vision that as viewers, we’re compelled to respect his intent without forgoing our own questions and critiques.
An invigorating cast is led by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents of two young sons in the 1950s. The story unfolds through the eyes of older son Jack, played by Sean Penn as an adult trying to make sense of his life and searingly embodied as a boy by newcomer Hunter McCracken. As a film, it meets and exceeds the goal of stirring us to conversation and reflection for days afterward.—GK
War Horse Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence
In rural, pre-World War I England, 16-year-old Albert becomes master, protector and friend to a thoroughbred colt. Separated when the conflict begins, the young man and the horse survive years on the battlefields, both of them driven by an innate will for peace and reunion. Their journey toward home further develops a theme common to director Steven Spielberg’s work since the classic E.T. three decades ago.
This time he faces two challenges: expressing that theme through the silent actions of an animal protagonist, and giving us a PG-13 war film that avoids the graphic violence of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Given the Spielberg track record, we shouldn’t be surprised that he succeeds on both counts. War Horse isn’t perfect, lagging now and then in its pace, and leaning a bit too hard on old-fashioned convention in a few scenes. But as family entertainment with substance, it was unbeatable in 2011.—BF
Best Foreign Language Film
Neither of us has seen the five nominees in this category (most are awaiting U.S. release) but each film holds potential for at least emotional, if not spiritual, impact. Footnote (Israel): The relationship between a father and son turns complicated when the men, both scholars, are unevenly recognized by their peers. In Darkness (Poland): During World War II, a petty thief finds a number of Jews hiding in the sewer where he stashes his loot, and must choose whether to act as their protector or turn them in to the occupying Nazi forces. Bullhead (Belgium): A cattle farmer, invited into a shady beef-trading deal, must also deal with secrets from his past. Monsieur Lazhar (Canada): An Algerian refugee, teaching at a French Canadian school in Montreal, overcomes cultural gaps while learning to cope with the deaths of his wife and two children back home. A Separation (Iran): A Iranian woman seeks a divorce from her husband so she can emigrate to the West with their daughter.—BF
The Rev. Keene is director of connectional ministries and executive assistant to the bishop in the California-Pacific Conference.