2012 Oscar Checklist – Part 2: Men at Work

Today’s checklist focuses on films with acting nominations, specifically the men.

Check out reviews for the other films nominated for Best Actor and Supporting Actor: The Descendants, The Artist, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Moneyball, My Week With Marilyn, and Warrior

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
— Nominated for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor

Well this is an exceedingly terrible and annoying movie. But I’ll tell you how I really feel. This is the fourth film from Director Stephen Daldry. His first three netted him Best Director nominations, and his last three have each managed Best Picture nominations despite the fact that they’ve all been crappy Oscar-bait wankfests with good performances being their sole consolation for existing (I just barely liked Billy Elliot). I wish the pact he made with the devil was for better movies and not Oscars, but I guess we all need something on which to dump upon.

Extremely Loud is about Oskar, a little boy with borderline Asperger’s trying to hold on to the memory of his father (Tom Hanks) who died on 9/11. Oskar finds a key that belonged to his father in an envelope labeled “Black,” so Oskar decides to visit everyone in New York with that last name and irritate all of them. Why does he do all of this? Well, because he’s different, and supposedly endearing in some way, and this is how he is coping. The problem is he’s not endearing in the slightest and none of Oskar’s mission is the least bit believable.

Oskar is afraid of everything, trains, busses, people, etc. He carries around a tambourine wherever he goes shaking it because it “calms” him, and this is in no way something that could get really fucking annoying. He’s abrasive, self-centered, and full of quirks that are well, have I used the word annoying yet? First time child actor Thomas Horn does his best, but this character is so unpleasant his efforts to make me like him are futile.

His mission is laughably unreal. Because he’s afraid of public transportation, Oskar walks everywhere. So, a kid with obvious social issues goes wandering around New York by himself, knocking on stranger’s doors. And the scenes with the random people he meets are weird and unbalanced. Each person treats Oskar differently, but each time it feels disconnected from how anyone would approach such a situation. There’s a final little reveal that tries to explain why these scenes play the way they do, but it comes a day late and a dollar short. And it still doesn’t change the fact that he’s alone the entire time. In what world does a parent allow such a thing (let alone immediately after 9/11 or better yet immediately after 9/11 in which you lost your husband)?

Max Von Sydow is really good as the silent “renter” living across the way, but I would not have nominated him. The film is definitely better when he’s on screen, but his arc gets dumped unceremoniously and his character is never properly paid off to be anything memorable. The film doesn’t really have a point. It’s trying to show how we are all one people and we overcome by coming together, but that’s just cloying bullshit (a shot near the end of an estranged couple reunited illustrates this perfectly). And the use of 9/11 only exacerbates the desperate attempt to put a hallmark bow on something much more confusing and messy… but it might make you cry, so why not give it some awards?

Grade: D-

– Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

Beginners is a lovely little movie. It’s the kind of indie-film that might seem insufferable on paper, but writer/director Mike Mills’ execution is so loving and genuine that the movie avoids being put in the same sandbox with all the other precious and quirky films that explore similar lo-fi rom-com territory. It also helps that the story is very personal to Mr. Mills and he has a few interesting things to say about life, death, and relationships.

The story focuses on an L.A. graphic artist named Oliver, played quietly and confidently by Ewan McGregor. Half of the movie deals with Oliver remembering the last few years spent with his dying father Hal, played by Christopher Plummer in a heartbreaking performance. The rest of the movie is about Oliver meeting Anna (Melanie Laurent) and their blossoming relationship. Oliver has some commitment issues and Anna has some problems of her own. But for once these things are actually quite understandable. In Oliver’s case, we flashback to snippets of his childhood and see bitter life lessons being imparted on him by his frustrated mother. And when we see Oliver with his father we become even more aware of why Oliver has trouble maintaining relationships.

The hook of the film is that Oliver’s father is actually gay and always has been. The tragedy is that about the same time he comes out he learns he’s dying (this is the semi-autobiographical portion). Plummer gives a remarkable performance. He should win an Oscar and has already been well-rewarded for the role (this is not a lifetime achievement award for once). It’s not great just cause he’s playing gay, which does afford him plenty of comedic moments like discovering House music for the first time. It’s great because of the little, quiet moments. Plummer, known for his gravitas, plays Hal with charm, wit, and dignity. He’s no saint though, and Plummer doesn’t shy away from any of it. It’s a complete performance and the film is smart enough not to squander a single moment.

At times the film can be a little too clever and maybe a tad too proud of itself, but these scenes give way quickly to sincere emotions. The quirky flourishes aren’t mere razzle-dazzle but comments on the characters. Yes, there is a dog we see speak through subtitles, and plenty of similar tricks, but the film is actually quite subtle about the connection between Oliver and his father, and Oliver and Anna. McGregor and Laurent have fantastic chemistry and also turn in some fine acting. The tone of the film does a lot to help keep the quaintness in check. It’s a melancholy film with a positive outlook. It doesn’t pretend to be profound but I’m sure it will touch you just a little.

Grade: B+

A Better Life
– Nominated for Best Actor

Rounding out this checklist is this mild drama from director Chris Weitz (About a Boy). A Better Life is essentially a retread of Bicycle Thieves only replace the bike with a truck and replace Post-WWII Italy with contemporary Los Angeles. It doesn’t do a whole lot and it doesn’t take a lot of chances either. It’s a paint by numbers drama with a very good lead performance. But nothing risked is nothing gained… it’s nothing terrible either.

Okay, so maybe not everyone knows about Bicycle Thieves. Well this movie is about Carlos, played by Demian Bichir, a Mexican immigrant working as a gardener. He keeps to himself, does his work, and goes home to sleep on his couch so his teenage son can have their one bedroom. His son Luis, played by Jose Julian, is all he cares for in the world, but Luis is a selfish little punk. There’s even a subplot involving whether or not Luis might join the local gang that feels pretty forced.

Carlos, trying to make life better for his son, takes a big chance and buys his boss’s truck so he can start working for himself. But when his truck is stolen, Carlos and his son work together to track the vehicle down. I’m sure you can guess already that Luis comes around in the course of their adventure. He slowly begins to understand his father and come to appreciate the hardworking man.

My major problem with this movie is the performance from Jose Julian. I hated this kid the second he was on screen. Yes, in the beginning you’re suppose to, but I never came around. It’s right up there with that tambourine kid from that crapfest I reviewed above. The performance never works for me and it especially fails in comparison to Bichir. I would not have room on my own ballot for Bichir, but he grounds out some very delicate acting in an otherwise forgettable movie.

L.A. is pleasantly shot by the talented Javier Aguirresarobe and there’s a fine score by the overworked Alexandre Desplat. The film attempts a little bit of social commentary, but really it’s all about fathers and sons. However, the script is too dull to make any kind of impact. It avoids histrionics well enough, which is something I can’t say for other crapfests. I just wish it had done something more. It’s obvious that everyone, except for Bichir, was okay with being okay.

Grade: C

Keep checking back as I continue to check off more Oscar films.

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