2012 Oscars: The Year of The Artist

This year, Hollywood came out to celebrate movies about, well, old Hollywood. Here's our recap.

While 2011 gave us some wonderful films, no single movie seemed to rise above the fray to distinguish itself in the minds of moviegoers or movie critics as an "instant popular classic." This was not a Titanic, The Godfather or Lord of the Rings year. It was more of a Crash or Driving Miss Daisy year. Indeed, only one Best Picture nominee, The Help, cracked the $100 million at the box office. It seems fitting then that a mostly average year at the movies would produce, well, an average Oscar show.

This year, the Academy seemed extraordinarily nostalgic. The Oscars are Hollywood’s awards to itself, so it’s not surprising that they are often a little too self-congratulatory. But it seemed to hit a conspicuous peak this year. The night’s two biggest winners, The Artist and Hugo, were both extremely unsubtle love letters to film history. Indeed, the entire Oscar seemed haunted by the Ghost of Hollywood Past. The stage had a vintage Hollywood throwback design, complete with a faux box office in the background. The short video features sprinkled throughout the show largely consisted of Hollywood personalities reminiscing about how wonderful it is to sit in a movie theater (read: please spend money on movie tickets; Netflix and piracy are killing us). Even the ultimate choice of host, Billy Crystal in his ninth stint, seemed to harken back to a bygone (albeit, a little more recent) era of showmanship.

Yet in spite of (or perhaps because of) the nostalgia, the 84th Academy Awards show could, at best, be described as “pleasant.” The Oscar telecast has to be an extremely difficult show to produce, especially when it’s been tried 83 times before to varying degrees of success. To be fair, the show has always been 30 minutes of envelope-opening stretched into three-plus hours of stargazing, montages and Hollywood in-jokes. While it was nice to see Billy Crystal smirk, Melissa McCarthy drink and Octavia Spencer cry, nothing truly memorable or moving or outrageous occurred. The Oscars was probably the most-watched program on TV last night, but I envy those brave few who realized earlier in the evening that Mean Girls was playing on TBS and decided to check the award results the next morning.

So rather than wasting any more space recapping which mildly entertaining moment was better than the next, let’s skip straight to the one post-Oscar exercise that all real movie lovers can agree on—namely, disagreeing over the winners. Here are some thoughts on just a few of this year’s winners:

Cinematography

All five of the movies nominated were gorgeously photographed, so it’s hard to argue with the gorgeous blues and golds of Hugo. And yet Emmanuel Lubezki’s use of natural light in The Tree of Life is equally as astonishing. Lubezki created a domestic setting that is both recognizable and otherworldly, all while capturing once-in-a-lifetime performance moments from child actors. This must have been extremely difficult.

Art Direction/Makeup/Costume Design/Visual Effects

Martin Scorsese’s oft-awarded art department pulled off another exceptional and award-worthy feat in Hugo. However, it is a crying shame that after eight wonderfully detailed movies, the Harry Potter franchise has been awarded with exactly zero Oscars for its extensive production design and visual effects work. Voldemort’s snake nose alone should have locked this down years ago.

Supporting Actress

While Ms. Spencer plays The Help’s Minny very nicely, I honestly didn’t think she was nearly as memorable or as vulnerable as her multidimensional co-star Jessica Chastain. Compare Chastain’s work in The Help with her work in The Debt, and we see an actress with incredible range and nuance.

Film Editing

Winning their second straight Oscar after The Social Network, David Fincher’s editing team once again brought perfect rhythm and clarity to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s complicated material. Although the Bourne series revolutionized the craft a few years ago, it’s nice that this award is going to best editing and not “most editing.” And yet why on earth was The Tree of Life, a movie that derives much of its power from comparative imagery, missing in the group of nominees?

Documentary Feature

This is the most tragic category of the year. Although I’m sure Undefeated was a worthy film, the Academy’s bizarre and byzantine rules managed to disqualify most of the great documentaries of the year, including Steve James’ The Interrupters, Errol Morris’ Tabloid, Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss and Bill Cunningham New York. Here’s some suggested wording to replace the current rule’s verbiage: “All documentaries released in theaters in 2011 are eligible.” Too complicated?

Supporting Actor

Easily the weakest performance category this year. Roll the dice (“Christopher Plummer!”) and shrug. (However, the Beginners actor's other accomplishment of the evening goes undisputed; he's now the oldest actor to win an Oscar.)

Screenplay, Adapted

The nominees for Adapted Screenplays are five incredible movies, and certainly a great film, The Descendants, went home with an Oscar. Still, anyone who has read Moneyball or Tinker Tailor Solider Spy knows how daunting the task of adaptation must have been for these two films. Maybe you don’t get points for difficulty, but you do get a mention in this article. Congratulations.

Actor

Easily the strongest performance category this year. Roll the dice (“Jean Dujardin!”) and rejoice.

Actress

Meryl Streep is one of the greatest living actresses of our time, and it's difficult to be too upset about her third trip to the podium in 17 nominations. But Michelle Williams’ work as Marilyn Monroe was at least equal to that of Streep’s as Margaret Thatcher. I still see some “acting” in The Iron Lady, but Williams' performance in My Week With Marilyn was nothing short of a transformation.

As a side note: I was sickened by the “controversy” surrounding Viola Davis’ role in The Help. Many pundits complained that the nomination of an African-American woman playing an uneducated housemaid was somehow demeaning. Davis has an extremely varied résumé, and perhaps all the naysayers are forgetting the black actress chose this particular role.

Best Picture/Best Director

I’ve already mentioned the extreme nostalgia that marked the 84th Academy Awards. The Artist is a truly wonderful example of the way movies used to be made, and no one can deny the sheer joy of witnessing the momentary resurrection of an old art form. But as delightful as The Artist is, I think Hollywood’s self-love affair this year gave the Oscar to a film that will be largely forgotten over time. Is The Artist a classic, or does it merely remind us of classic movies? Best Picture should go to the greatest comprehensive achievement in moviemaking in a given year. Polarizing as it was, The Tree of Life pushed the boundaries of the cinema language into new territory, into the sublime. I know where to go to find out how to make a silent movie, but I have no idea how Terrence Malick concocted his masterpiece of sight, sound and spirituality. In my opinion, Malick may very well be our next Stanley Kubrick: too much genius too soon.

What did you think of 2012's Oscars? Which awards did you agree or disagree with? Let us know in the comments below.

Dan Cava is an independent filmmaker and the co-host of Moviemakers podcast, available soon on iTunes. Dan's directorial work can be seen at vimeo.com/dancava. He writes film reviews for RELEVANT magazine.

15 Comments

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Martcom commented…

"Warrior" made my brother felt like he really seen a great movie; and he is the biggest movie critic of all time!! he is 56, and extremely open-minded.

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Sonnet commented…

The fact that Tree Of Life didn't win anything - or was nominated for more - is a shame. I know that there are lots of people who downright hate that movie, and even I don't fully 'get it', but I'm still in awe of it and respect the director and actors who put it together. It was perfectly cast, visually stunning, and yes, a new way to tell a story.

Best Actress was definitely a hard choice. I loved Michelle Williams's performance and was rooting for her, and of course Meryl Streep was spot on, yet if anything, Viola Davis could have won simply because she took a controversial role and made it great, and because there are so few and far between nominations for black actresses. There just aren't as many Streep-type roles for black actresses as there are for white, so while I understand and even applaud Streep's win as long overdue, I Davis has also shown a consistency in acting which I hope will be appreciated more in the future.

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Grayjoel commented…

Agree w tree of life comments, but hated Clooney in descendants--not believable, flat performance. I think he is slipping as an actor--unhealthy life choices?

Christine Moran

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Christine Moran commented…

Totally agree with the comments about best supporting actress. Ms Chastain's character was my favorite from The Help. The worst thing about the Oscar's this year was the terrible audio feedback in their microphones. Did anyone else notice that?

mpreedy

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mpreedy commented…

I didn't see The Artist before the awards, but as someone who has seen and studied films from 1910-1930 The Artist was nothing short of Amazing. Taking an element as simple as sound and removing it makes the view remember that it is something we can take for granted in entertainment. It was a bold, artistic (no pun intended) choice and I am thrilled to see that it was rewarded with such an honor!

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