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« Readers' Ranking: Our Streep Fixation | Main | Red Carpet SAG: Slinky Angie, Cute Emma, Winning Viola »
Wednesday
Feb012012

Oscar Symposium Day 1: Tinker Tailor Party Guys

Welcome to the Annual TFE Oscar Symposium! The Film Experience is proud to introduce the following guests (in alpha order): Ali Arikan chief film critic for Dipnot TVNick Davis Assistant Professor of English and Gender Studies at Northwestern University and the brilliant mind behind Nick's Flick Picks;  Mark Harris author of the instant classic "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of New Hollywood" and Oscarmetrics columnist at Grantland; Kurt Osenlund Managing Editor at Slant Magazine's The House Next Door. And I'm Nathaniel Rogers, of course, your host here at The Film Experience. We started our conversation on Sunday night and here it is for you.  

NATHANIEL: Gentlemen. If I had access to the Windsor font I'd list us all in alpha order in white lettering on the same black title card Woody Allen style so that there won't be any tragic Corey Stoll business where the Screen Actor's Guild leaves one of us out when our inevitable Best Ensemble nomination arrives. Instead, as per Nick's suggestion, we're all pictured in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's conference room. That indelible orange soundproof wall! How did this movie miss an Art Direction nomination?

Despite this visual trapping, I don't for one moment want anyone reading to picture us all as "gray little men" in uncomfortable stuffy suits, withholding. (I am generally too exuberant for secrets and would make a terrible spy.) Though I love Alberto Iglesias compositions for that movie, I'll readily admit that the score inside my head this very moment is more John Williams. Before the opening credits are even over, that man will hit you with the climax, and I'm excited to begin.

Feel free to change the setting at any time (the magic of cinema) but we begin at Tinker Tailor's sad little Christmas party (Don't ask me to explain why MI6 is hosting this party to which it was not invited). All the Best Pictures just walked in. Let's mingle. Who will you avoid? Who do you trust implicitly? Where do you see tension brewing. I think it only looks like Midnight in Paris is friendly with The Artist and Hugo. He secretly judges them for trusting so fully in their own nostalgia.

MARK HARRIS: I'm enjoying this party--who doesn't love wide lapels, long sideburns and ugly plastic eyeglass frames? As for who I'd avoid: The Artist, because I'm pretty sure it'd come up to me, lick my face, hump my leg, do a little dance at my feet, and instantly want to be best friends. Too much too soon--stop being so ingratiating and let me get some punch! I think I'd go seek out The Tree of Life--the cool movie glowering in the corner that nobody's talking to because it never gets invited to parties like this.

And I would be very cautious about eating those little tarts that Octavia Spencer is passing around on a silver tray.

ALI ARIKAN: I've just been talking to Midnight in Paris, who makes for a splendid company.  That guy's full of pithy anecdotes about literary figures of yore.

Well, let's stay at that Christmas party at the Circus.  My favourite scene of the year is set there, when a spook dressed as Father Christmas and sporting a Lenin mask, leads the troops in a rendition of the Soviet National Anthem as Smiley discovers his wife's infidelity.  That's one of the two times where Smiley lets his emotions out (the other being his angry "What are you, then, Bill?" at the end of the film), and we can see how devastated he is.  Oldman's nomination was well deserved. But that film was robbed on so many fronts.  Art direction, as you mention, as well as direction and a supporting nod for Tom Hardy, who is magnificent.  

KURT OSENLUND: Being in any sized room with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is, in my opinion, too close. Moneyball and I are already flashing each other von Sydow-style hand signals. 'Is this guy bothering you?' 'YES.' We meet on the dancefloor, and tap a bit with Jean Dujardin, before heading to see what Smiley is staring at out the window. Is that...Harvey Weinstein? Smooching with Oscar voters?

More including The Artist, critical wars, Moneyball, Songs, and elevating your film...

NICK DAVIS: I would have entirely schizophrenic impulses at this party.  Like Mark, I'd gravitate toward The Tree of Life, aloof and devastatingly gorgeous in the corner.  I'd eventually work up the nerve to say something obsequious and yet totally sincere.  The verb "worship" would be involved.  But its beauty and intense charisma would clearly draw other disciples.  So, spotting an extremely maligned and incredibly surprised wallflower off in the corner, I would sidle right up.  No, I don't want to go home with it (him? her?), but I hate seeing someone walk into a party where everyone seems to hate them already, even folks who haven't met them yet.  I've got plenty of questions for this extremely awkward but incredibly interesting guest, and I'd way rather pass the time that way than around that obnoxious showboat Hugo or the smugly "sensitive" lothario in the Hawaiian shirt.

ALI: Guys, there is a horse at this party, and it just pooped in the middle of the dance floor.

MARK: Smells like manure to you, but roses to me.

ALI: Oh, I like War Horse too. And what's a Christmas party if it doesn't have some horse manure?

Mark HarrisMARK: Not to shatter the party analogy for more than a minute, but isn't it interesting that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the big outlier among the Best Picture nominees, ended up the highest grossing Best Picture nominee of the weekend? Perhaps it has actually survived the "You LIKED that!?!" backlash that every single one of the nine Best Picture nominees (except, I guess, for Moneyball) has had to endure. It is stronger than we all think? Or--back to the party analogy--is it Carrie White, unexpectedly crowned prom queen but just seconds away from further abuse? (That bucket teetering over its head is full of Uggie's pee, I fear.)

ALI: I am not that surprised about Extremely Loud's legs.  It's populist piffle, and the sort of "Oscar movie" that many people actually love.  Having said that, its nomination was truly a surprise. 

NICK: I'm not sure if I'm the only non-New Yorker in this conversation, but reporting from a major urban market that's nonetheless in the middle of the country, we hadn't even gotten a first look at Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close until the weekend before the nominations.  Whereas we've already had a month to look DreamWorks's gift-horse in the mouth and decide we're not interested--there is one theater in Chicago still playing that movie, and it's sharing a screen with Underworld Awakening!  We've had even longer to say no thanks to Scorsese's automaton.  I assumed it would lead, though I'm not yet ready to call it a hit, or The Artist a flop... though I guess if Uggie were a wolf and Dujardin had punched him at the breakfast table, it would have cruised to eight figures weeks ago.

KURT: Mark, I'd say Extremely Loud is strong in the sense that Christopher Plummer suddenly has a smidgeon of competition after months of steamrolling. But other than that, I see it as Scott Rudin's consolation for missing a Dragon Tattoo Best Pic nod, and I should hope the general public won't let its nomination crown affect their thoughts on its...sugariness. I'll freely admit those noms threw me for a loop. Ali calls it "an Oscar movie," but it seemed way too manipulative, even for that label. 

And since everyone's talking waste (horse poo, Uggie pee), shall we venture into the Original Song corner of the banquet hall?

Nick DavisNICK: That's not a room, Kurt. I think it's just the garbage chute.

I'm aiming that comment less at the songwriters than at their nominating branch, which pretends to support an art form that it repeatedly sets up for terrible falls, as embarrassing when something like "We Belong Together" is put on a path to winning as when "The Wrester" misses a nod entirely.  At what point do we recognize how little mandate there is for this category, and how totally misserved by its own voting infrastructure, and replace it with something we could really use, like Best Casting?

MARK: Best Original Song really has outlived its usefulness--it feels about as relevant to the success of a movie as Best Credit Font. I'd be happy to see them dump the Song category entirely and replace it with a music award that would allow the scores of films that use pre-existing music like Drive or Melancholia to be honored.

NICK: I'll drink to that!  (I'm on my third mojito, so I'm ready to go cut in on whomever Moneyball is dancing with.)

Oh. I see - our host has been making out with Moneyball in the corner while we've all been chatting.  No wonder he's been so quiet.  Hey, good for you, Nathaniel!  Moneyball is super cute.

KURT: I'd happily unleash the vitriol in regard to Original Song, but I don't know if I'm ready to jump on the Just-Throw-It-Out train. I'm holding out hope that they might...get it...together...someday? I have very fond memories of song performances from the Aughts. I loved that year Beyonce sang a trio of knockouts, and I LOVED the Mighty Wind duet. Is my hope the equivalent of beating a dead horse? (not you, Joey!) 

NATHANIEL: Slow down boys, SAG is on. I am going to be a few hours.

MARK: Okay, I'll be quiet but "And the Actor Goes To..." is the dumbest line spoken on any movie awards show ever.

NICK: It would be so much less dumb if you could pick the Actor that was going to you. 

KURT: I'll take Gael Garcia Bernal circa 2004.

NATHANIEL: I'll take Rupert Graves circa 1987. God, I'm old!

[Nathaniel leaves his own party, very bad host!, for SAG Live Blogging]

 

Ali ArikanALI: Oh, Kurt.  Beyonce butchered "Vois Sur Ton Chemin" that year!  But, I, too, have a few fond memories of the original song performances.  Amy Adams was delightful singing the numbers from "Enchanted," especially "Happy Working Song," and then there is Robin Williams' "Blame Canada," in 2000.  But Three 6 Mafia's rendition of "Hard Out Here for a Pimp" was risible and emblematic of how so many of the live performances go wrong -- I believe they had to replace the word "bitch" with "witch," which turned the song inexplicably into one about occult prostitution.

For what it's worth, I have been a champion of Mark's suggestion to have a new category honouring the use of pre-existing music in a motion picture.  It would also reflect the sign of our video-essay/super-cut-making times.

NICK: Joe Reid, a regular Friend of The Film Experience, also suggested this very change in a great article he wrote last week for NPR.  But before we all start rehearsing our most and least favorite Song nominations and performances of the past—and in the process sounding exacting like this year's nostalgia-addicted Academy voters—I suspect our host has other plans for us.  Having taken a quick spin through Oscar's widest roster and quickly agreed that something's very rotten in the state of its narrowest one, where are you leading us next, Nathaniel?  In fact, where are you?

NATHANIEL: I'm not entirely sure. I swear I just left the party for an instant and when I came back the place was a royal mess and none of you had stayed to help me clean up. THANKS. 

But a better question might be "When am I?" since you've all decided to embrace nostalgia (Original Songs!) and futurism (let's add categories!) instead of staying in the now. I can't embrace either impulse. I've discussed Original Song enough this year though I keep coming up with new ways to fix it. Later!

Best Casting sounds like a wonderful idea since it's easily one of the top three most important elements in making a great film. But, like editing, it's an invisible art. We don't know what they had to work with so, like Editing, it would just be a category in which the voters grabbed at well liked movies (my guess is 4 Best Picture nominees + 1 with a huge cast. Most Casting!) and they'd call it a day. It would be largely useless and I'm guessing repetitive, acting wins paired with casting wins each time.

Which leads us to Best/Most Acting. Acting is not an invisible art (obviously) but it's also a mysterious one mixing the role itself, the star persona, collaborative boosts (the right costume, the best lines to deliver, etcetera) all into one package. Of our 20 nominees, who do you think is doing the heaviest lifting -- other than Viola Davis who seems to be a consensus pick as to Someone Who Elevated Her Movie -- and why?

ALI: Brad Pitt is the MVP of Moneyball, and without him, I doubt the film would have worked half as well.  First of all, it is truly an old-fashioned, movie star performance, where Pitt is playing a "real" human being.  It's a subtle, almost mysterious, turn.  His Billy Beane was once destined for greatness, but has always had to make do with being the runner-up (at best).  His frustrations seem to bubble up inside of him, just waiting for that opportune moment to burst.  Also, it's a fun and funny performance; full of, once again, ye olde movie star charm.  You can't keep your eyes off him.  Billy Beane might not be my favourite character of the year (that's probably Smiley), but Brad Pitt is definitely my favourite actor, who turned Moneyball into something truly great.

 

MARK: I agree with Ali that Pitt is the best of this year's Best Actor candidates, but I think that's because he had to do the least heavy lifting--and that's a good thing. Pitt is supported by a terrific cast (not just Jonah Hill, but beautiful small performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Chris Pratt), by a director, Bennett Miller, who really understands actors, and by a screenplay that really understands language, character, and structure. So he can concentrate on the subtleties of his own work--finding just the right notes of brashness and ego and insecurity and middle-aged vanity within a well-drawn character--because's he's in a real movie, not a performance showcase.

I think when we talk admiringly of an actor doing heavy lifting, we're talking, almost by definition, about failure. Heavy lifting of the kind that Meryl Streep does in The Iron Lady or Glenn Close does in Albert Nobbs almost always happens either because the rest of the movie is insufficiently built to support the performance or because it exists ONLY to support the performance. I guess I'm betraying a bias against anything that looks like a star vehicle when it comes to the Oscars, unless that vehicle is so well-designed that it offers a whole set of pleasures of its own.

Kurt OsenlundKURT: I'm absolutely with the consensus that Brad Pitt was just excellent in Moneyball -- the best he's ever been and the most dteserving of the Best Actor crop. I think Mark pretty much nailed my thoughts on how his work relates to the heavy lifting concept, though. To the letter, actually. 

When I think of heavy lifting, the acting contender who jumps out at me, tits first, is Janet McTeer. Albert Nobbs was just so airless to me, and watching McTeer was like plopping down at an oxygen bar. She was the only thing in that movie that hoisted it up to a human level, however over-animated one might consider her performance (a criticism I've certainly heard). Those two performances were like outsized takes on Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar--the relatively content figure of drastic vitality and the drastically tight-lipped closet dweller. This time, though, only one of the two had soul. I don't think this was a matter of the actress consciously elevating the film she's in, but I do think McTeer pulls off one of the biggest acts of movie theft I've seen in a while. 

NICK: I'll co-sign all the love of Brad Pitt and Mark's great distillation of why Moneyball works so well.  I'd duplicate most of the same sentiments as a tribute to Plummer and Beginners, another film that surprised me by having a more ambitious and unusual structure than I had anticipated, supporting its actors in every way a movie can and allowing them to support each other gorgeously, too.  Tree of Life aside, I think Beginners is on a par with A Separation as the best-executed of all the non-documentary films on Oscar's roster.  I'm thrilled Plummer is here for really supporting a movie and not rescuing or stealing one, as this kind of role is often asked to do.

In the spirit in which you asked your question, Nathaniel, I think my answer might be Jean Dujardin.  I like The Artist less than you do and more than Mark does; not sure where Ali and Kurt stand on it.  But by the time we hit the second half, where the visuals get a little more ho-hum and the plotting hits the skids in a lot of ways (and not just with Bejo careening around in that car), the finesse, dexterity, and tremendous good will that Dujardin has gifted the movie make it seem like a much more polished conception than it really is.

ALI: Having used the incredibly witty epithet The Shartist for Michel Hazanavicius' film in some of my coverage, I have, nonetheless, been an admirer, in general terms, of Dujardin's performance.  I also enjoy Bejo's, even though her general attitude seems slightly anachronistic.  But Dujardin does have panache, and that's probably due to that incredibly expressive face, which works wonders in a silent movie.  I don't believe that he elevates the film in the same way that Pitt does Moneyball, but his performance is crucial to the eventual effect of the movie.  He carries the film, but the film, in return, farts in his face.  I can't get over the utterly baffling cross-cutting in the latter part of the film where Uggie does his best Lassie impression to get Joel Murray's attention as Dujardin fails to realise that the house is on fire (or is he contemplating suicide?  I am hazy about the details, but the gist of my argument remains).

But he seems to have already become a parody of himself: his antics with the dog at the Globes or his singing of La Marseillaise after SAG when he was asked of the possibility of his winning an Oscar.  A performance is different from the performer, obviously, but I wonder if that sort of sub-Benigniesque shenanigans won't have any retroactive effect?

NICK: "Sub-Benigniesque" Burn...

ALI: Nathaniel, I know you are a big fan of The Artist.  What say you about Dujardin?

Nathaniel RogersNATHANIEL: I'm already incredibly tired of defending The Artist. I think it's a special movie and no single film made me happier while watching it this year. People tend to use "feel good" in a derogatory way but I hardly think it's a mark against the film that it's joyous. This is why comedies have such trouble winning awards. They're always dismissed as piffles.

I am actually disheartened each year, right about this time, by the behavior of film critics. Oscar season brings out the worst in people in that it polarizes their opinions instantly. It's the "A" and "F" syndrome when the reality is that 95% of movies fall somewhere inbetween. What would normally be something that delights or annoys  becomes BEST and WORST Thing Ever and I find it lazy and reactionary. Hugo vs. The Artist and Extremely Loud vs. War Horse are perfect examples. The first combo shares a love of silent cinema but fans of Hugo seem to behave as if The Artist is an affront to cinephilia. I can't count the number of cheap shots taken at the film which seem to be operating from an ivory tower of "only the great unwashed masses who've never seen a silent would love it.". I grew up near a revival house and I have seen plenty of silent movies (one of my earliest actressexual obsessions: Louise Brooks) and I love it. Yet Hugo gets a free pass even though it's more problematic in execution.

Meanwhile Spielberg makes one of his most awkward movies yet, that never tries to earn its sentiment or bombast, but just begins as if they're a given, and is rewarded for it. Daldry shows up with a movie that definitely has its bombastic and sentimental moments but he does try to earn them (even if he fails) and he's The Devil. It's just weird to me. I always want to tell people to back away from the movies and breathe deeply. 

KURT: Yeah, I'm going to chime in on The Artist: Nathaniel and I saw that together at NYFF, and we both walked out elated. Like him, I think it's a really lovely, rewarding sit, and like him, I feel the attacks against it in terms of its misrepresentation of the silent era largely miss the point of what it's trying to accomplish. That said, my love for it has cooled a bit with distance, and though I don't begrudge it its awards season performance, I'm having a tough time loving its individual parts. Dujardin, for example, only gets my passing admiration. Ditto all the inevitably nominated visual elements. The industry and technology commentary is what remains the most effective thing for me -- and yet, and yet, I surely wouldn't place it among my own screenplay favorites. So there's that. 

NICK: I honestly don't think any of these movies has gotten a free pass this season, and certainly not War Horse or Hugo.  Nathaniel, I see your point completely about overly emphatic fall-guy arguments, which have been prevalent, but each of the movies on the Best Picture list has had to fight some resistance.  The only break in that pattern, I think, is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which (I'm aware I'm repeating myself) has the obverse problem of drawing so much vituperation before a lot of people have even had a look at it... or heard its impeccable sound design and impressive score.  

MARK: I'm going to back away from Nathaniel's point, because I think once we start questioning the motives of people who disagree with us about movies, we're in a losing argument. I, for instance, love War Horse and do not find it awkward or bombastic but in full control of the particular emotional language in which it's chosen to tell its story. It doesn't mean I'm a sucker--or that the people who disagree with me are haters, overreacters, or hypocrites. 

NATHANIEL: That's  fair and I shall spend a little time in the corner for my outburst. But haven't you ever felt that something you loved... or even something you only liked but found interesting in its failures... was greeted in a less than fair or honest way?

I've probably been most critical of War Horse and The Descendants of the nominees but I hardly feel like I've advocated setting fire to their negatives. Some of the discussions you overhear this time of year...


ALI: Well, that is interesting.  Do we hate the films during this time of the year, or do we hate the arguments for films we did not like?  I am splitting hairs, I know, but I do write about film.  It comes with the territory.

The reason I believe "The Artist" is absolute piffle has nothing to do with its being a comedy.  In fact, I agree that comedies do get the short shrift when it comes to the Oscars.  For what it's worth, a film like "Bowfinger" deserved a nomination for all the right (funny, well-made) and the wrong (star-studded, navel-gazing) reasons.  The problem I have with "The Artist" is that it claims to be something that it so obviously is not.  It is a pastiche, which is good enough, but it is also the work of an artisan and not an artist.  Its simplicity is its undoing for me, whereas that quality works wonders for others.  In a year that gave us films like The Tree of Life (which didn't work for me) or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which I believe to be 2011's best), I find it incredulous to hail this film as the ultimate in the roster.  It does start off well enough, but, man, it crumbles, and the last fifteen minutes are "you-shot-who-in-the-what-now" incomprehensible.

READERS? 

  • Do you think The Artist soars or crumbles in its last act?
  • Do you believe any movie has been treated unfairly this season?
  • If you were at a party with the Best Picture nominees which would you hit on and which would you ignore?

CONTINUE TO DAY TWO

 

 

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Reader Comments (38)

- Do you think The Artist soars or crumbles in its last act?
Neither. I think it stumbles, thanks in so small part to Bernard Hermann, and then skips to the finish on tap-dancing feet.

- Do you believe any movie has been treated unfairly this season?
Shame, A Better Life (Bichir can't even get arrested at an Oscar Symposium) and Young Adult

- If you were at a party with the Best Picture nominees which would you hit on and which would you ignore?
I'd ignore War Horse (as I in fact have all season) and I'd hit on Tinker Tailor (so little time) and Moneyball (ditto)

Great first session, guys.

February 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

In NO small part, that is.

February 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I like Mark Harris's line (I paraphrase) about how War Horse maintains control over the grammar it uses to tell its story. I think that's true with The Artist too. I guess I think it chooses a broad-brush simplicity that sort of washes out the color of the character's emotions, but because this is done intentionally with the grammar of silent film, it becomes emotional and surprising and joyous to me. I don't know if that makes sense, but yeah, I think the movie works.

What movie do I think has been treated most unfairly? My favorite movie of the year was Beginners, and I think Ewan MacGregor, the female lead, the director and the movie should have been nominated. I don't really think I'd use the word "unfair," but yeah, I wish it got more nominations.

February 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertimothy

I'd hit on EL+IC - the others are too popular and would ignore me. This film is desperate and that means easy pickings!

February 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdrian

- Do you think The Artist soars or crumbles in its last act?
I would say that it coasts: I had enough goodwill stocked up by that point that whenever it got a little too slow or a little too dramatic, I found myself reacting with an entirely non-objective "oh, whatever", and the last montage left me with such a huge grin that all sins were instantly forgiven.

-Do you believe any movie has been treated unfairly this season?
For some reason, I'm feeling extra disengaged this year, and just kind of enjoying the ebb and flow of the backlashes and backlashes against the backlashes. Malick got nominated, that was my one big horse in the race, and everything else is fun to watch. It doesn't hurt me if somebody wants to hate on the movies I liked. I still get to like them.

-If you were at a party with the Best Picture nominees which would you hit on and which would you ignore?
I would try to impress The Tree of Life by making catty remarks about The Descendants.

Incidentally, I really, really love both The Artist AND Hugo. Does that mean I get a cookie?

February 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim

@Paul- Shame and Young Adult, absolutely. I mentioned this in another post but the nominations this year indicate a huge gaping hole- (with an exception of the Tree of Life) no challenging, polarizing, bold performances or films were nominated this year. Fassbender, Theron, and Swinton who arguably gave the three performances of the year were all snubbed. Additionally Pitt gave the performance of his career in a highly polarizing film, The Tree of Life but he was nominated for his "movie star" performance in Moneyball instead (of which I'm a fan, so I'm happy he was nominated for at least one of the two). Had the acting categories been more than 5 slots each, maybe those 3 would have gotten in... I imagine that's why TOL snuck in (and thank god for that!).

February 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJonesie

If you were at a party with the Best Picture nominees which would you hit on and which would you ignore?
I think i’d hit on Moneyball and Midnight In Paris for their charming appearances and they are the types that can start and keep conversation going.
I’d avoid The Help who proves gossips can spread around so fast and also War Horse for its traditional appearance.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMikhael

If I was at the party, I'd stand near Tree of Life and listen to its philosophical conversation without really understanding, glower and make rude gestures at The Descendants when it's not looking, generally avoid being within 20 feet of War Horse or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, listen to The Help intently and hold a nice conversation, but then say mean things about it to Moneyball. I'd flirt with Midnight in Paris, but then get bored when I realize it's not actually as smart as it thinks it is. I would play charades with The Artist and have a terrific time, but not really remember the details or why I had fun. And I'd make out with Hugo in a back room.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlandshark

Do you think The Artist soars or crumbles in its last act?

Yes. I came into The Artist ambivalently after all the online backlash but found that I loved the first 45 minutes or so despite myself. But then I felt it really grinds to a halt halfway through; the stakes in the drama are just not high enough to sustain the energy of the opening half. I also found the score went from charming to annoying to assaulting as the film went on.

Do you believe any movie has been treated unfairly this season?

EL&IC is the obvious answer. I haven't seen it yet, but i liked the book and have noticed a lot of the criticisms of the film mirror those of the book. I can understand why people would find Oskar unnerving and why they might object to the way the film uses 9/11, but when i read the book I went with it and found it hugely enjoyable and moving. To be honest, I think the tonally schizophrenic and enormously patronizing story of a plucky white girl whose awareness of racism gets her a promotion in The Help is way more offensive.

If you were at a party with the Best Picture nominees which would you hit on and which would you ignore?

I'd perhaps hit on The Tree of Life while I actively campaign to have The Help ousted from the venue.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSamuel

@Paul Outlaw: (I'm always so happy when you comment!) Bichir was the perfect answer to the "heavy lifting" question, and I was mad at myself for not realizing it until later. Especially since in my Twitter response to seeing the movie, I directly compared his resuscitation of A Better Life to Viola's heroic triage on the most problematic aspects of The Help. Bichir will surface a little later in the convo, but in my opinion, you're right that this ought to have been the time.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

The Artist would have been better if Jean Dujardin had just, well, don't want to spoil but..you know.....The whole happy ending just made me wanna throw up.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLola

@Samuel: If that's how you felt about EL&IC as a book, I feel there's a good chance you'll feel the same way about the film. I didn't read the novel but I found the movie really engaging for all its high peaks, huge valleys, and strained attempts to move between them. I don't think it asks us to love the little kid, and in fact it often seems to challenge us in the opposite direction of being moved by his story while finding him unnerving and even a little off-putting, in ways he can help and ways he can't.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Hey Nick! Not only does Bichir do the heavy lifting in his film (literally and figuratively), he's one of this year's deglam champions among the nominees (along with Davis and the women in drag). That man is arguably as hot as if not hotter than Dujardin when he cleans up, which will be revealed to many when they see the first photos from the nominees luncheon.

Looking forward to the next part of the conversation.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I enjoy The Artist but have a feeling it'll take a few years before it ends up being a go-to movie night viewing. I felt the same way about Slumdog. Sadly, while The Social Network was a joy when I first saw it, all the buzzing and Citizen Kane comparisons (come on) made me lose interest for a bit. The frontrunner and the potential spoiler will always take the most heat. Ignore 'em. I love love love The Tree of Life and thought War Horse was a burning sack of poo, but hey, atleast it makes for interesting conversation. (At one point, I actually thought Crash was one of my favorites. Now I can barely sit through it.)

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Ah ah at this party I'd totally go all pretentious and pretend to care about The Descendants for free drinks, whilst I text Young Adult and Shame to meet me at a later party.

Also: I'm sure I couldn't help get into a fight with The Help because of its 'message'. I'd give it a lecture that'd last till morning.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

I think it boils down to the idea that The Artist is not the type of film that can hold up to (or should have to) the amount of scrutiny that it now has to as the future Best Picture winner. It's strength and pleasures are in it's joy as you mentioned and its reflections of cinema past. When you scrutinize joy, it's not joyous!

Unfortunately I and many others went into the movie expecting something great due to the critical and industry adulation and got, well...The Artist. The story is just flat and gets tiresome...

But wait! Those and many other criticisms I could come up with are disappointments that stem from expectations of this film being the "Best Of the Year In Cinema" which is pretty unfair.

Take The Hurt Locker for a contrasting example: a very dense, exciting, socially relevant movie of which 95% of its audience has now resulted from it receiving Best Picture. Because of those qualities it is a joyous experience for the people who sought it out, in its own right, not because it projects joy from a reflexive shell like The Artist.

So that's why I am annoyed by The Artist being the frontrunner and have a very strong feeling that 10 years from now people will list it among the worst winners ever, when it doesn't deserve it.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDean

It's so bizarre about the THE ARTIST / HUGO because other than the silent film facet I don't think comparisons between the two are...well, realistic. I, for example, am unversed in silent cinema for the most part (I didn't even know what HUGO was about before seeing it, so silent cinema wasn't really on my radar of things to observe in it) so I wasn't looking at either to see which was a better "tribute" to them, or which fulfilled the heart of silent cinema more.

I like HUGO somewhat significantly more than THE ARTIST, but I'm with Nathaniel on what claws the season brings out even though my most significant bugbear of the season has been the response, or the re-response of lovers of THE ARTIST to people who don't love it. I liked it, but had issues with it and it's more than a little annoying when my issues seem to be taken as token evidence of backlash at work. I'm with Nick that Dujardin is the film's strongest asset (he emerges unscathed, for the most part I think) and it does deflate a bit in its second act for various small reasons, one of them being the fact that I like Bejo's gameness but can't overcome the fact that she's stuck playing Peppy as someone who comes into the film in love with Valentin and leaves the film the same way, having no chance to go anywhere as a character. And, I like Ali's "but it is also the work of an artisan and not an artist" because I tend to get overly caught up in titles and their significance, but I kept waiting for George to become an "artist" and...he didn't - which didn't spoil the film, but is just so odd because the film seems to be earnest about it.

The point Nathaniel brings up about taking a step back is one I think works as excellent year-round advice, and using his analogy of WAR HORSE and EL&IC I'd like to bring up an issue that has seriously been bugging me for some time. Two actors star in a "bad" movies, yet one is ripped apart for it, while the other is applauded for "trying". Neither actor actively makes their movie worse, because both movies have issues aside from their lead actors, why is it one actor's fault that the film is bad and it's the other film's fault because it's not good enough for its actor? Am I confusing, you?

Okay, one actor is Leonardo DiCaprio in J. EDGAR, the other is Meryl Streep in THE IRON LADY. Look, I think Mery and Leo both give competent performances that cannot overcome their films but I don't get how Leo is railed at for picking another lazy film, giving another lazy performance etc, but Lloyd is the one railed at for THE IRON LADY and so many are all "Meryl is trying HARD, y'all". She DID pick the movie, as did Leo.

Anyhow, good discussion from all. Looking forward to the next round.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Mark is so right about War Horse, because it's not about trying to provoke emotions, but about language control. Spielberg is too great of a director to know that nowadays he would be overselling emotions with that score and cinematography. It's not about that: it's about provoking emotions in spite of his old-fashioned score and cinematography, like getting from moviemaking techniques some emotions that you can't get today.

Spielberg know how to move people. He is going beyond that now. He is trying to create an emotion from another era. It seems to be a simple idea, but it's not. It's not nostalgia. It's about recreating an experience, almost like Todd Haynes did in Far From Heaven (for Spielberg simple nostalgia, go to Catch me if you can).

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Fonts! Including Windsor: http://www.webpagepublicity.com/free-fonts-w2.html#Free Fonts

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYonatan

I feel like a spammer, but you know I mean good.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYonatan

@timothy - Totally with you on the Beginners love. Add a Best Supporting Actress nom for Mary Page Keller as Oliver's mother (in addition to the ones you mentioned), and we're good.

@Andrew K - Excellent point, and I don't think I've seen anyone else bring that up in that way. (This would be an excellent point for the symposium to chew on - are you reading this, guys?) It maybe have something to do with ageism in reverse? With general goodwill? People "love" Meryl; she's warm and funny and seems to be having a lot of fun being a movie star. They "respect" Leo but I don't get the sense that he's loved effusively, to the point where people are willing to overlook "mistakes". (I have no idea what his actual reputation inside the industry is, btw.) I think this also works for Clooney, and probably has a lot to do with Bullock's Oscar in it's year - we would like to think that it should be all about the performance and voters should be objective, but who of us is ever completely objective about people we know as friends, coworkers, etc?

@cal roth - fair enough, we'll have to agree to disagree on this. He didn't move me (except to frustration and boredom - so I guess he did "move" me but I don't think it's what Spielberg had in mind.)

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

The Artist is a solid film. I wasn't blown away by it, but that doesn't mean I didn't like it. It does what it sets out to do and not a single thing more.

I think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is getting a bad reputation in some circles and I don't understand. I want to shake a few people I know and tell them that they can't hate on big explosion thrillers for being too loud and random and hate on TTSS for being too quiet and methodical. Is there middle ground? Of course. But saying both styles are equally pointless makes it seem like you just hate thrillers.

At a party, I'd hang out with Midnight in Paris. We could discuss Cole Porter and Modernism and reflect upon the greatness of the previous generation. I'd ignore Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close because two people with anxiety problems in a busy party don't tend to do well together.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

It's rare enough for a non-North American/British performer to win an acting award, but the constant barrage of Benigni putdowns about Dujardin are both lazy and insulting. Plenty of American actors are goofy, ridiculous and embarrassing when making acceptance speeches or speaking in front of the press, but they're not all being lumped in together under one name. It's a good thing Asghar Farhadi has managed to control himself and give beautifully composed speeches. We wouldn't want him to be called Benigni just because he's also foreign.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnita

On the question of which actor does the most heavy lifting, I see the points about Davis, Pitt, Streep, Bechir and McTeer, but my first thought was Williams. I mean, can you imagine that movie if she didn't get it right? Sure, Branagh and the other actors are fun, and it's sort of a sweet, entertaining film, but no one is seeing that movie for the supporting cast, screenplay or anything else. It's ALL on Williams and she pulls it off. She combines the best of Davis (emotional, soulful, moving) and Streep (technical, mimicry)*. I'm not saying she should win, but I think Williams is basically carrying a that movie by herself.

* - Before any criticisms start, yes, I realize Davis' performance is also technically brilliant, even if that is rarely mentioned (she gained weight - something Zellwegger was praised for in Bridget Jones - and took on an accent - something Streep is always praised for - without anyone, much less Davis herself, bringing attention to it). And Streep's achievement is more than just technical. But those are the basic selling points for both those actresses' work, which is why I used those examples.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Anita -- i couldn't agree with you more! I mean, if Clooney weren't Clooney wouldn't he have been taken to more task for spending some of his Globe speech talking about Fassbender's penis? ;)

DJDeeJay -- i like your take on why Williams deserves that title. I wasn't as moved by it but i hear you fully.

Yonatan -- thanks. i don't know how to pull that into photoshop but i appreciate the "spam". Hee. WINDSOR! a font that brings affection thanks to Woody.

February 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Do you think The Artist soars or crumbles in its last act?

I personally thought it soared, however I also appreciate that the film is light – which is nothing against it, or its awards potential – sometimes all you need is to leave a cinema smiling.

Do you believe any movie has been treated unfairly this season?

‘The Help’ - sometimes you just want to be entertained and watch great acting in a moving, yet light movie. However with ‘The Help’ people try to tell you that you like it because of your ‘white guilt’ or that you are perpetuating the ‘mammie figure’ or ‘magical negro’ and all that other race related stuff. I just want to scream “GET OVER IT and let me enjoy the damn movie”.
When will people realise that cinema cannot be everything to everyone and just enjoy the ride. You should appreciate that a white author and director made this as it shows the attempt to understand. You should not berate them for getting it wrong - at least they tried, and for many succeeded.
I have seen ‘The Help’ 3 times and love it more and more. It is like ‘Steel Magnolias’ crossed with ‘The Color Purple’ and for me that is awesome. Watchability goes a very long way for me - even when flawed.

If you were at a party with the Best Picture nominees which would you hit on and which would you ignore?

‘The Help’ would be a gas to hang out with, and would ‘Midnight in Paris’. I would flirt with ‘The Artist’ and avoid ‘War Horse’ – it would just upset me and I would have to fork out a load of money to see the stage play again to wipe the memory of the movie away,

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Do you think The Artist soars or crumbles in its last act? : No, but I can see why some think so. For me, there are plenty of scenes in the final chunk of the movie I adored.

Do you believe any movie has been treated unfairly this season?: Probably all of them; I usually beat up The Help as being a superbly acted, poorly written movie. I do concede you're initial point Nathaniel. This time last year I saw The Fighter, liked it a lot, but almost always ended up arguing its faults over its pluses with friends because I liked it less. I'm not striving for all films to be loved by everyone - I adore breaking down even the thinnest of movies - but the vitriol on condescension that comes with it tends to scream "Me Me ME!! I know what's best!" and not enough, "Interesting point, even if I don' t agree."

If you were at a party with the Best Picture nominees which would you hit on and which would you ignore?: Ignore is easy: Bryce Dallas Howard, for fear that her one-dimension characters in The Help and 50/50 aren't an act. Personally, I'd want to hang with Joey and look into his eyes and ask, "Why do I like you so much? I thought I'd hate you."

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Z

I love Oscar Symposia! Looking forward to the second part.

At a Best Pic nominees party I would totally:

Boo at Midnight in Paris while it sings Piaf at the karaoke section.

Shake Hugo's hand with my eyes closed so that I don't get blinded by its brightness.

Get The Help and Moneyball to talk to each other because each has a lesson to teach and be taught.

Smile at The Artist and then cry while still smiling.

Have a "69" with The Tree of Life while our connected bodied flow round the room, above everyone's heads.

Say "hi" and "bye" to the rest of the group because I just can't bother for more.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

this was really funny...great symposium

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjjablo

Nathaniel - great column! I do agree with you on the unfortunate reactionary ways in which people respond to movies around awards season, and definitely agree that some people get a free pass and others are The Devil.

THAT said, I also saw the Artist at NYFF and loved it, but have cooled on it with time. I feel like my problem with the Artist is that it's just too simple and predictable. It's an impeccable movie in many ways, but I didn't feel it was as compelling as other BP nominees and certainly many others out there who missed. I feel like it doesn't give its audience enough credits, or assumes that people have never seen a silent movie before. I was also at the NYFF premiere of Hugo, by the way, and was not stunned by it either.

Honestly, of the BP nominees I would flirt with The Help (see, I have nothing against light comedies and "easy" movies) because I think that, overall, it is the best well-rounded - it has superb acting, a funny and moving story, and even some good music (song, hello Mary J!), costumes, etc. I just like the whole product the most and could probably have many more repeat viewings of it than any of the other nominees. I do love Moneyball and think Brad deserves to win.

I'd probably ignore The Descendants at that party. It's the 3rd movie in a row that Clooney plays more or less the same character. Totally over it.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJorge

The best film is obviously <I>Hugo, but the film that made me happiest is Weekend.

As for The Artist I'm with Cathy Seldin in Singin' in the Rain it "Just doesn't impress me. It's all dumb show" -- whereupon she begins to mug in a style that clearly inspired Jean Dujardin.

As for REAL acting, Brad Pitt is excellent in both Moeyball and The Tree of Life, but my heart belongs to George.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Ehrenstein

I LOVE THE SYMPOSIUM.

Do you think The Artist soars or crumbles in its last act?

If The Artist crumbles a little on its way to happiness, The Tree of Life collapses under the weight of its own importance. No matter how lovely the boys-in-pesticide and the boy-in-the-underwear drawer and Brad Pitt's emotive lower lip had been for the previous hour, the Sean Penn on the Beach stuff just obliterated them all in an avalanche of pretentiousness "Father...Brother...Help Me. I've wound up in the last reel of Longtime Companion."

Do you believe any movie has been treated unfairly this season?

The real unfairness is not in the opinions that bounce around inside the Echo Chamber of film reviewing/blogging, but in the "consensus" that builds early and sticks, creating such mysteries as a "lock" for Midnight in Paris's screenplay (Rachel McAdams must be scratching her head about that).

If you were at a party with the Best Picture nominees which would you hit on and which would you ignore?

I'd hang out at the champagne bar with The Help while making eyes across the room at The Artist.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

My ballot for Best Casting this year would be:

The Help
Midnight in Paris
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Winner)
The Descendants
Bridesmaids

Maybe Drive for Albert Brooks as a villain.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel B

@ Robert G - Walking out of the theater last night after seeing TTSS for the second time, one guy in front of me said to his friend, "It was a little intellectual for a spy movie, wasn't it?"

I love Bond in almost all his incarnations, but I think we are too used to secret agents shooting and sex-ing their way through set pieces, rather than real-world spying.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel B

While THE ARTIST has charming and comical moments for sure, it struck me as primarily a drama. It goes to some pretty dark places, even if it finds its way back to the light by the end. As much as I appreciate Dujardin, Bejo and Uggie, I don't see anything special about the script, editing, cinematography and art direction, all of which seem to be nominated due to the bandwagon effect.

Frankly, I was never able to fully understand the main character's motivation. I can make some educated guesses, but the script makes a muddle of it, IMO. So I'd be respectful of it at the party, but spend most of my time hanging around MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, hoping to catch Rachel McAdams on the rebound.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJay

* Do you think The Artist soars or crumbles in its last act?
I was thoroughly charmed but when the film ended I wasn't elated. Just pleased. I expected the film to be a little deeper, I guess, after hearing all the raves from Cannes. I certainly have no problem with it being a comedy. Some Like It Hot is one of the best comedies ever and that certainly deserved a best picture award.

* Do you believe any movie has been treated unfairly this season?
Margaret, Shame, Weekend, Source Code, Certified Copy.

* If you were at a party with the Best Picture nominees which would you hit on and which would you ignore?
I would love to spend time in the worlds of Hugo and Tree of Life. I would flee from Extremely Loud for wasting the talents of Chris Menges and Alexandre Desplat on such sappy material.

I have to add that this is certainly the cutest bunch of guys on one film panel I've encountered in a while.

February 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

Flattery will get you everywhere, Gabriel Oak. Especially since I'm already a sucker for a good Thomas Hardy allusion.

February 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Can't believe I'm only reading this now - but I loved it!

I don't think The Artist crumbles in the last act so much as it slumps ever so slightly. I also fully admit to snickering at the tap dance at the end, which really wasn't tap dancing at all (I've been a tapper since I was 10, sue me!)... but at the same time being completely sucked in by the sheer joy of the thing. So I think objectively the second act is not as strong as the first, but subjectively, I didn't care one iota.

Both Extremely Loud and The Help have been unfairly treated this season, mostly for being things that they clearly aren't. EL&IC was unfairly hated before it was even seen due to people who still hate The Reader/Daldry in general, people who hated the book, people who hate 9/11 movies, people who hate Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, and people who hate "Oscar bait". It was never going to be judged on its merits, which is incredibly unfair, since as Nick points out, it doesn't always succeed but it does try, often in very interesting ways, and it's unafraid to have a child protagonist who can be extremely unlikeable, which is commendable in and of itself. The Help, meanwhile, is a fiction, almost a fantasy, and never claimed to be otherwise, but people were complaining about it because it candy-coated the Jim Crow South. It did, but so what? It was never a gritty story, even if the book did have more interesting nooks and crannies to it, and it is a movie after all. It's another one that, because of its subject matter, was never going to be judged on its merits. Which it could have been, as it is hardly a well-made film, just a well-acted one.

I wouldn't have the self-confidence to hit on The Tree of Life, all pretty and smart and just a little bit cocky about it. I might be just shameless enough after a few drinks to awkwardly hit on the straightest guy in the room, Moneyball. I would avoid War Horse like the plague. (I'm allergic to horses. You have no idea how much I suffer because of this!) In the end, I'd probably end up dancing with The Artist. I am a sucker for Gallic charm!

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny
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