Last chance for On Demand: It's the Paris-set Best Picture Oscar nominee that will transport you back to a magical moment in cinema history! No, not The Artist. Hugo is Martin Scorsese's attempt at making a movie his tween daughter could actually watch (in 3-D, no less — though obviously it ... will not be presented in that format if you rent it at home).
Though it was marketed as a family film, my own friends with kids report that Hugo is too boring for younger children, and too twee for older ones, encompassing as it does old-timey movies, analog clocks (which Hugo spends his time covertly winding, in the Paris train station, after the death of his father), and steampunk (an automaton plays a pivotal role). Maybe The Artist — still available On Demand — is a better choice for a family movie night. At least that one has a cute dog.
The end of any Oscar season also marks the end of all of that season’s narratives, and when those wrap-ups are unexpected, you retrace your steps and try to figure out which signals you missed. In this case, there’s not a lot of retracing to do, since even the surprises of Oscar night didn’t feel especially surprising. (For those of you who kept score, I went a mediocre 14-for-24 in my predictions — but of the 10 awards I got wrong, eight went to movies I said would be the runners-up in two-way races.) The biggest of the official “upsets” was in Best Actress, where the complicated narrative of Viola Davis and the history of African American Oscar contenders and the opportunities they do and do not receive proved to be no match for the simpler story of Meryl Streep, which was that a 29-year wait for another Oscar was more than long enough.
We’re almost there! Three days until the winners are revealed, after which in no time flat the 2011-12 Oscar season will become an ancient, bitter memory and we can nurse our collective grudges and figure out how everything could have gone so wrong. Or, better still, scratch our heads in delighted surprise. Here’s hoping.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Oscars, as I hope we’ve established by now, are not simply a beauty contest. But when it comes to the half-dozen categories that reward visuals, that can be hard to remember. Here’s this year’s rundown:
Best Art Direction
The Artist Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 Hugo Midnight in Paris War Horse
It’s been almost six months since I wrote my first column on the 2012 Oscar race, and we’re finally at predictions week. The ballots are in (or will be by tomorrow); the votes are soon to be tabulated; the hopes and dreams of 80 percent of the nominees are currently being ground into a fine powder. And it’s time to put your money where my mouth is. All this week, I’ll be announcing my guesses and doing my best to simulate an actual Oscar telecast, meaning that I will be starting with the stuff you don’t care about, taking immensely long pauses, and making you wait forever for the whole ugly business to end. Join me, won’t you? Imagine that Billy Crystal has already done his shout-outs to Brad and George in the front row, made a Harvey Weinstein reference (cut to reaction shot of Harvey looking amused/anticipatory/terrifying), and made one really funny joke I can’t think of that will end, “ or, as they’re known in Hollywood, The Help!” Hooting! Approving applause!
Voice-over! “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome to the stage two of our brightest stars, Cynthia Nixon and Sean Hayes!” No, wait, that’s the Tonys. “Please welcome to the stage ” Hmmm. Who’s big enough for an Oscar presentation but new enough so that you can stick them with the awards nobody else wants to give? Oh, my God, it’s CHANNING TATUM AND EMMA STONE!
If I were feeling less generous and more cynical on this holiest of all Oscar-calendar mornings, I might say that to decipher this year’s Academy Awards contest, we need only look for inspiration to the GOP presidential race. The Artist is Mitt Romney — desperate to please, doesn’t stand for anything in particular, not especially popular with the general public, will eventually keep most of its money offshore, and, though dinged up and trash-talked, will probably cross the finish line first by default. The Descendants is Newt Gingrich (emotionally unsteady, hard on wives, doing better than expected, but probably can’t go all the way). Hugo is Rick Santorum (a little slow, doesn’t really like anything that changed in the culture in the last 80 years). And The Tree of Life is Jon Huntsman (believes in evolution, probably a little too classy for this field).
I’d like to thank the Academy for throwing an extra mystery at those of us who treat predicting the Oscars as something between a hobby and a blood sport: This year, we have to figure out not only which movies will be nominated, but how many. After concluding that the appropriate number of Best Picture contenders was five for 65 consecutive years, and then 10 for two consecutive years, what the Academy’s board of governors has now settled on is “from five to ten.” How can we narrow that down? Well, the Academy did offer one clue by revealing that when it experimentally retabulated the ballots from 2001 through 2008, the results yielded, in different years, five, six, seven, eight, and nine nominees — but never ten.
The most sentimental and manipulative movie of 2011 stars a great, stoic beast that is something of an enigma to those around him. Lacking words, he seems to have an almost human sense of what people need and expect from him — although they often underestimate his strength and endurance. Some audience members may be irritated by the self-consciously mythic way he’s presented, or by his uncanny, not particularly believable ability to survive despite the carnage that surrounds him. And it’s easy to feel jerked around by a score that seems to oversell his heroism at every turn, or by a visual style that overtly evokes movies from decades earlier. But by the climax, your heart may swell when you realize that he’s come through, the hard times are over, and he’s going to be okay. Don’t you hate sappy clichés like that? I do too. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed Ryan Gosling in Drive.
What a frenetically busy weekend it was in the handing out of shinies and sparklies and mantel-trinkets to chronically underappreciated movie people, who at other times of the year often have to survive for weeks without winning anything. Critics’ groups in Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco announced their honorees, as did online critics in New York; conclaves in Detroit and Houston revealed their lists; and the American Film Institute named its 10 best movies. That’s a lot of noise! All of these simultaneously live-tweeted prizelets are microtwitches in the Oscar race, and it’s true that come ballot time, no Oscar voter is going to find himself frozen in indecision, his pen hovering above his ballot as he frets, “But dare I go against Detroit?” However, it’s still possible to pull some larger trendlines from this surge of hyperbolic over-celebration of film achievement. And if it’s not, let’s pretend it is.
In thinking about the race for Best Picture this week I found myself drifting unhappily back to the 1980s, specifically to a stretch during which the Oscars reacted to an uncertain (i.e., post-Raging Bull) period in high-end American moviemaking by retreating to a safer, more virtuous and conservative definition of "prestige" films. In a period of just seven years, Best Picture Oscars were won by Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Amadeus, Out of Africa, and The Last Emperor. Some of those movies were good, and all of them had their virtues. But collectively, all they told us about the world and times in which they were made is that apparently nobody in 1980s Hollywood wanted to think about 1980s America.
This year’s Best Picture contest is starting to feel afflicted by a similar sense of what I would call belligerent nostalgia. The two movies to win high-profile prizes so far, The Artist and Hugo, are both being hailed as odes to the early days of cinema. But really, they’re not. The Artist tells you everything it knows about the painful transition from silents to talkies in its first 10 minutes: It’s an undeniably charming but extremely slight comedy-drama that mimics the most basic elements of silents (They were black-and-white! The screen wasn’t wide!), but seems more engaged by their poignant quaintness than by the visual language, wit, beauty, complexity, or psychological richness of the movies it purports to honor. And as enchanting as it can be to enter the glittering, hermetically sealed but vividly three-dimensional toy chest/train station universe that Martin Scorsese has created in Hugo, there is something slightly self-adoring about the story it tells. Hugo is not a valentine to the dawn of movies — it’s a valentine to people who send those valentines, a halo placed lovingly atop the heads of cinephiles and film preservationists. (And, not incidentally, film critics and Oscar voters.)
With zero new films in wide release, this weekend was won (again) by Breaking Dawn, fast on its way to earning all of the world's money. Below, your Top Five movies.
1. Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (weekend: $16.9 million; total: $247.3 million)
Jesus, Twilight fans. Enough! Topping the box office for the third consecutive weekend is fourquel Breaking Dawn, which has already earned more than half a billion dollars worldwide despite being even worse than the previous three Twilight movies.
The National Board of Review announced its annual movie awards today, and although this remains a deeply weird organization whose membership is opaque and whole method of selection is — to be generous about it — impenetrable, we should probably not hold it against any of the many, many movies or people that managed to win something today, so bravo to all of them. The big victors were two films that got blanked the other day by the New York Critics Circle: Hugo, which took awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and The Descendants, which won prizes for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Shailene Woodley), and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The box-office slump continues as not even vampires, Muppets, and a 3-D kids' movie about film preservation could prevent a 12 percent drop in grosses from last year's five-day Thanksgiving weekend. Below, your Top Five movies.
1. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1 (weekend: $62.3 million; total: $221.3 million)
Teenage America saved money on turkey over the weekend, opting for this appetite-suppressing sequel starring Robert Pattinson as a sparkly midwife who delivers a demon baby via C-section with his teeth. Breaking Dawn's 10-day take is good but down a bit from that of 2008's less disgusting New Moon, which made $230.9 million in its first two weekends without chewing through any umbilical cords.
In covering the Oscar race so far, I’ve tried to focus on movies that have already opened. But this week, I’m tossing that approach, because effective immediately, the attention of the Oscar-punditry universe swivels decisively forward. The last eight weekends of 2011 will bring more than two dozen movies with aspirations as modest as a single acting nomination and as grandiose as sweeping the slate from Best Picture to Best Makeup.
So from now until year’s end, the goal of every contender that opened before November 1 is simply survival. Think of the next two months as a tidal wave, and of early hopefuls like Midnight in Paris, The Help, and Moneyball as trees along the shore line. Some of those trees will topple — and a couple of months from now, those still standing may look that much taller. Same goes for the movies in the big wave; some will arrive with obliterating force while others will weaken the closer they get. (Please take the above tortured analogy as my tribute to Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter.) With that in mind, this Oscarmetrics installment is a cheat sheet — a map of the parallel tracks of reality and hype along which the race will now proceed.
It's his first foray into live action, but this new trailer for M:I 4 bears traces of director Brad Bird's The Incredibles. Taking a page from Nolan, Bird shot many of the primary action sequences in pure IMAX (not blown-up 35 mm), and Tom Cruise performs many of (if not all) his own stunts — like hanging 124 stories off the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai. Also, audiences should prepare themselves for lots of shots of Cruise running. Is there another actor who, when asked to run in a film always does so at a sprint? Dude’s a pro.
Verdict: “No safe house. No Support. No extraction.” No qualms about this one.
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (March 2, 2012)
Aside from its trailer's manipulative use of the Polyphonic Spree's "Light and Day," this adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ 1971 environmental cautionary tale looks pretty strong. From the same team behind last season’s underrated Despicable Me, Lorax could be one of 2012’s animation Oscar contenders.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 barbaloot suits
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (November 11)
This trailer for the Brazilian thriller is action-packed and stylish in all the right ways. It's been compared to The Wire and the work of Scorsese and Coppola. Expectations are high.
Verdict: It’s got a nice early John Woo feel, too.
Into the Abyss (November 11)
Here, fearless doc-maker Werner Herzog once again investigates the darker corners of the human condition, interviewing death-row inmate Michael Perry (scheduled to die eight days after he spoke with Herzog). This trailer is engrossing from the first shot.
Verdict: A potential must-see.
Hugo (November 23)
The second trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is just as rousing as the first. It looks like Scorsese used 3D in a non-gimmicky, story-enhancing way. Looking forward to this one.
Verdict: Early word is excellent. This trailer doesn't disappoint.
The Secret World of Arrietty (February 17, 2012)
From legendary Japanese animation Stuio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki (writer only) The Secret World of Arrietty’s trailer is pretty stirring.
Verdict: As an added bonus, the film features the voices of Amy Poehler and Will Arnet.
The Muppets (November 23)
The marketers for The Muppets had a tough job, making a classic franchise relevant for a new generation without turning off original fans. But over the past few months they've run one of the most creative campaigns in years. And this new parody trailer is pretty hilarious.
Verdict: Let’s hope the movie's as good as its marketing.