2012 Oscar Guide

The Help
— Amanda Martinek
Staff Writer

Despite the fact that “The Help” fulfills the annual feel-good-film-that-makes-white-people-think-racism-is-over à la 2009’s cringe-inducing “The Blindside,” superb acting, a fantastic soundtrack and a grounded, realistic screenplay all make “The Help” a Best Picture shoe-in.

Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” follows a young white woman nicknamed Skeeter (Emma Stone) as she interviews two black women (played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) about their work as maids for white families in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960’s.

Though fictional, the story gives a fresh perspective on an already well-documented era, providing a fascinating, non-preachy voice to a faction of women largely unheard. But what gives this film so much heart is the strong emotion seeping from the eyes and expressions of Aibileen (Davis) and Minny (Spencer), the two maids that are forced to comply with an overtly racist society, until they can’t keep quiet anymore.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
— Laira Martin
Associate News Editor

Scott Rudin’s successful film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a realistic account of one child’s life after losing his father (Tom Hanks) in 9/11. Oskar — played by capable first-time actor Thomas Horn — is an elementary-aged child whose social anxiety peaks when he discovers a mysterious key left behind by his father.

Many of the movie’s manic scenes of chaotic sound, images and emotions leave the audience feeling as overwhelmed as Oskar is. And though this is Horn’s debut role, he carries the film entirely with his idiosyncrasies and drive to do anything he can to hold on to his father for just a little longer. The audience is left in tears for much of the movie as flashbacks show the depth of Oskar’s fleeting relationship with his Dad, which ultimately brings him closer to the other characters in the film who were previously ignored. But despite its hypersensitive subject matter, “Extremely Loud” manages to dodge preachy American hoorah in the name of complicated human characters and one beautifully crafted story.

The Artist
— Angela Chen
Editor in Chief

If nothing else, “The Artist” — director Michel Hazanavicius’s film about love in the age of Hollywood transition — proves that style is substance. The critical darling features nuanced acting, an effective storyline and a beautiful score, but it will always be known first and foremost as that silent, black-and-white film in the era of CGI.

The storyline is simple: A serendipitous meeting between silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) link the two together as Miller goes on to become a “talkie” star and Valentin’s fame fades in time to the demise of his medium. The pitch-perfect expressions and gestures of the relatively unknown leads, combined with the universality of the story, give “The Artist” an edge over other front-runners like “Hugo” and “Midnight in Paris.” Hazanavicius’s “love letter to cinema” is sure to take home the top prize come Feb. 26 — for novelty, for sheer originality and for being a nostalgic reminder of what Hollywood used to be.

War Horse
— Alex Reed
Staff Writer

After his deeply embarrassing “Indiana Jones” sequel, Spielberg triumphantly surges back with this heart-wrenching epic. The noble stallion, Joey, at the heart of “War Horse” makes for a compelling character any man, woman or child can identify with — no dialogue required. Thrown into a war he cannot understand, he survives through his quick decisions, the kindness of others and sheer luck (though many humans in the film can’t say the same).

The cinematography is astounding, capturing the (PG-13) hell of war with painterly perfection, and John Williams contributes another stirring score to tie it all together. Adapted from a book told from the horse’s perspective, Spielberg does an admirable job of building the supporting characters, but wisely chooses to keep the focus on the horse, like a good ‘ol pre-Pixar family flick from your childhood.

Tree of Life
—Ren Ebel
Hiatus Editor

Like all semi-reclusive artists with distinctive style, Terrence Malick has made himself the dark horse candidate in this year’s Oscar running with his brilliantly subdued “Tree of Life.” Critics divided over Malick’s use of ultra-minimal dialogue (echoing his last film, 2005’s Pocahontas revamp “The New World”), his granting most of the film’s feel to “Children of Men” cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his Kubrickian scope (yes, there are dinosaurs in this film).

But the fact of the matter is, in all its beautiful flaws and expansive grandeur, “The Tree of Life” is undeniably the work of one of cinema’s few modern masters. From the meditative long cuts of the capable child actors, to the visually stunning finale, Malick has delivered a piece of art that is both contemporary and achingly nostalgic, an enlightening study of the nuances of brotherhood and loss and one of the best films of the year.

Midnight in Paris
—Andrew Whitworth
Associate Hiatus Editor

“Midnight in Paris” might not be Woody Allen’s best movie, or even the best movie he’s made recently (2005’s outstanding “Match Point” comes to mind), but its charming sentimentality and clean, bright visual style make it one of the year’s best comedies. Featuring Owen Wilson (playing a typical Woody Allen-replacement narrator) carousing through the centuries alongside artistic luminaries like Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dalí and Gertrude Stein, “Midnight in Paris” provides the perfect opportunity for Allen to craft a nostalgia-bathed love letter to a great city, much as he did with his 1979 classic “Manhattan.”

Though it’s no “Manhattan,” “Midnight in Paris” manages to enchant the viewer with its gleefully ludicrous plot while maintaining that effortless sense of wistful romanticism characteristic of Woody Allen’s best films.

The Descendants
— Arielle Sallai
Managing Editor

“The Descendants” got stuck with a lot of recognizable associations — the island paradise of Hawaii, the leading man charm of George Clooney, the bitter filmography of director Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) — but the film succeeds at surpassing its familiar parts, turning Hawaii into a miserable tourist trap, Clooney into a schluby workaholic and Payne into an honest sentimentalist (rather than his typical acerbic self).

Clooney plays Honolulu lawyer Matt King, the self-proclaimed “back-up parent” to two daughters. When his wife Elizabeth gets into a water skiing accident that puts her into a coma, however, he has to grapple with his own grief and the sudden responsibility of being the only full-time parent.

Mixed with a bit of Payne’s trademark dry humor, the plot may scream “dramedy,” but thankfully, it has none of the associated melodrama; it’s just a drama that revels in the laughs that often come with unfortunate situations, held together by flawless performances by the entire cast (Clooney in particular).

Hugo
—Margaret Yau
Managing Editor

“It’s Neverland and Oz and Treasure Island all wrapped into one,” says the wide-eyed young Isabelle in Martin Scorcese’s latest 3D children’s adventure “Hugo.” For the film, based on the popular book by Brian Selznick, the description isn’t too far off. Bursting at the seams with whimsi
cal characters and Scorcese’s sparkling, sepia-tinged 1930s Paris, “Hugo” has the makings of a timeless family classic.

What’s truly astonishing about “Hugo” is it how it seems to so effortlessly operate on two distinct levels: a breathtaking action-fantasy following an orphaned boy’s quest to unlock the secret of his inventor father’s quirky creations (think “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” but with more magic and adventure) and a humble homage to influential filmmaker Georges Melies and the unbridled creativity of early cinema (think “The Artist” but with more magic and adventure). “Hugo” has it all — a charming and completely inventive contender for the coveted best picture slot.

Moneyball
—Rachel Uda
Sports Editor

Moneyball — the second of author Michael Lewis’ cult books to turn summer blockbuster— owes much to screenwriters Steven Zailian (“Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin’s (“The West Wing”) adaptation.

The film, which can only be loosely described as a sports movie, has Oakland General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) struggling to find peace with his fractured family while bucking old order rules for running a small market franchise.

Zailian and Sorkin succeed in keeping with the tone of the book, striking a balance between classic underdog elements and documentary-like realism, executed flawlessly by the strong performances of Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and comic relief Jonah Hill.

To be fair, Moneyball is unlikely to walk away with Best Picture this Sunday, but the film should be lauded for its success in combining the usually oxymoronic elements of sports movie with good storytelling.

Best Actor
— Tanner Cook
Staff Writer

When determining who should receive the best actor award, the Academy inevitably took some Hollywood names like George Clooney and Brad Pitt, while admirably considering the brave performances from lesser names Gary Oldman (best known for his 1986 portrayal of Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy”) and Jean Dujardin (lead man in France’s “OSS” spy parody franchise, which earned him the title of “France’s George Clooney”).

Right away, one can toss Pitt’s name out solely because he didn’t receive this nomination for his subtle yet strong role as the father figure in Malick’s “Tree of Life” — a role that easily surpassed his enjoyable yet somewhat conventional appearance in “Moneyball.” And though Clooney puts out yet another solid performance in “The Descendants,” his French counterpart Dujardin stole his limelight along with everyone else’s, delivering a gripping homage to silent film greats like Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino. His attention to detail and expression is outstanding, considering the limits of the silent, black-and-white medium.

Best Actress
— Ren Ebel
Hiatus Editor

There were plenty of commendable performances from lead actresses this year — Rooney Mara’s astonishingly raw embodiment of kick-ass antihero Lisbeth Salander, Glenn Close’s convincing, albeit slightly perturbing, role in “Albert Nobbs,” the surprisingly believable Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe — but the true shocker was “The Help”’s Viola Davis as the conflicted black nanny Aibilene living in white-dominated 1960s Mississippi.

Davis’ performance is one of constant inner-strife (picking up where she left off with her haunting presence in 2008’s “Doubt,” a role that landed her a well-deserved supporting actress nomination). Aibilene’s obvious love for the white child that she looks after beams in every gentle word and smile, while the torturous implications of her servitude and social invisibility lingers beneath her defeated eyes and chiseled face. It’s a brave, nuanced performance in an otherwise stale crowd-pleaser, and it’s more than enough reason to remember the name of 2012’s break-out star.

Best Director
— Tanner Cook
Staff Writer

With nominations full of big names and well-known faces such as Alexander Payne, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, the Academy has its hands full choosing a winner. However, this year, two directors exceeded many expectations and blew away the rest of the nominees. Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is full of wondrous, slow-moving handheld shots that place the viewer squarely in children’s point of view. With each expert choice made, Malick pours mass amounts of emotion and nostalgia down the viewers’ throats to gorgeous effect.

But Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist” proved to be even more powerful than Malick’s reminiscing. A flawless tribute to the inspiring films of Hollywood’s past, “The Artist” reminds us that cinema is simply a moving image, not some immersive 3D experience that masks the lack of creativity that is dragging Hollywood under.

Snubs: “The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo” Score
— Andrew Whitworth
Associate Hiatus Editor

You might have noticed that two of this year’s nominees for the hotly-contested Best Original Score category are compositions by Hollywood cinema music grandmaster John Williams. Though Williams’ scores for War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin are surely replete with the kind of (admittedly generally successful) neo-romantic atmospherics that have made Williams the titan he is, the decision to include him twice seems particularly superfluous considering the omission of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ brilliantly realized score for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Combining minor-key ambient drift, densely layered gamelan, and the occasional burst of pure noise, the duo’s score provides the perfect counterpart to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s stark, unforgiving atmosphere. Furthermore, the score, with its polyrhythmic bell experiments and gently abrasive melodies, manages to sound compelling in a way that major film soundtracks rarely do. Though the Academy’s preference for safety over innovation should come as no surprise, in omitting Reznor and Ross’ score, they’ve failed to acknowledge one of the most fascinating, creative film scores to emerge recently.

Snubs: “Drive”
— Arielle Sallai
Managing Editor

The omission of Cannes favorite “Drive” in the Best Picture nominees shouldn’t have come as a surprise, considering the slick L.A. noir is too bloody and too edgy for the typically traditional Academy. But the inclusion of the mediocre “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” comes as a slap in the face to fans of the skull-stomping Ryan Gosling flick.

Anchored by a cool synth soundtrack and a confident Ryan Gosling — a perfect, near mute leading man — “Drive” harkens back to action movie classics, while adding Swedish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s romantic, Scandinavian touch to give the film a modern edge.

But not only did the Academy fail to acknowledge such thrilling filmmaking, but also the terrifying (and out-of-character) performance by Albert Brooks as a fierce mobster — and that’s the biggest mistake of all.

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