Best Picture: Why each nominated film could win.
For those who haven’t seen “Argo,” it may be surprising that among the more memorable lines of this historical thriller is the mantra, “Argo fuck yourself,” or that Alan Arkin is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for a particularly wry, witty performance in the film — a stark contrast to several of the other more somber nominees. Despite the dark subject matter — a CIA plan to rescue embassy workers during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis — parts of the film are genuinely funny, and the unlikely method for getting the hostages back to the U.S. is just crazy enough to work. This balance is what makes “Argo” a film that is not only exciting on the first viewing, but also light enough to be just as enjoyable the eighth time around.
Make no mistake, though: Often times “Argo” is gritty and suspenseful, and it climaxes with an incredibly gripping finish. Unlike many Hollywood thrillers, the nail-biting intensity never feels cheap, partly because so much of the movie is sharply realistic. In terms of character, the embassy agents are just as they would have been in reality. Unlike other nominees (such as “Zero Dark Thirty”), muted colors aren’t used to create a darker atmosphere, and the use of special effects is kept to a minimum. As a result, the film feels authentic visually. In all aspects an exceptional film, “Argo” is, at the very least, one of those rare Oscar nominees that will have you fidgeting in your seat while apprehensively chanting “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”
— Kyle Somers
Zero Dark Thirty
What “Zero Dark Thirty” has to say about torture is not entirely clear. The community has had quite a lot to say about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s newest collaboration, a controversial portrayal of the years leading up to the capture and subsequent death of Osama bin Laden. Questions involving Bigelow’s apparently “positive” bias toward the efforts of torture may have contributed to a Best Director snub, along with a general wariness to support a film that might be supporting waterboarding. But be careful what you wish for — if truth is what you want, it’s what you’re gonna get, and Bigelow is unafraid of making that dead clear. What “ZDT” isn’t ambiguous about is the hell those operatives went through to take down not just Osama, but an entire terrorist operation.
The sweeping deserts and malnourished conditions of both hostage and host are hard to take in, and the hopeless time frame doesn’t help to alleviate this. Years go by, lead after lead goes nowhere, and still those ground operatives fight. Jessica Chastain’s determination is evident not just as a component of headstrong Maya, but also as a loud testimony to the importance of “ZDT.” The Best Actress nominee carries this film with a grace and strength that would seem implausible in her situation if not for the undeniable fire that brims beneath her lines: “If bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away, and no one will be the wiser. But bin Laden is there. And you’re going to kill him for me.” And Navy SEAL Team Six does. When they take down the Abbottabad compound, those final moments are quiet. Simple. It’s this simplicity and exposure that makes “Zero Dark Thirty” such a grating experience. We expect heart-pounding scores and perspiring facial close-ups. What we get is the exhaustion and conviction of the people who could never tell this story for themselves, and one woman’s tireless resolve to finish the job.
— Jacey Aldredge
Someone must’ve really pissed Quentin Tarantino off. The director’s last couple blockbusters (“Kill Bill,” “Inglourious Basterds”) have centered on exacting ridiculously violent revenge. “Django Unchained,” Tarantino’s latest offering, fits right into this mold.
The pre-Civil War period piece centers on Django (a growling Jamie Foxx), a freed slave who joins forces with an eloquent German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to rescue his enslaved wife. This story seems secondary to the main plot, though, which Django sums up with the line, “Kill white people, and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?” This mission takes “Django” from a spaghetti Western to a plantation run by the deliciously despicable Messr. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and overseen by a bug-eyed, entirely anachronistic head house slave (Samuel L. Jackson).
When the film reaches the plantation, things get (more) violent. Because it’s Tarantino, this is really no surprise. But there are two treatments of violence here. There’s the typical ketchup-y bloodbaths, which are damn entertaining. But there’s also realistic violence, reserved for depicting the atrocities of slavery, making parts of “Django” difficult to stomach.
The moral dimensions of “Django” go deeper than depictions of violence, though. Django’s partner is likeable, but he revels in his “corpses-for-cash” business. Django himself acts as a brutal slave trader in the singular pursuit of his wife. In short, this film demands intense moral flexibility of its viewers. This complexity, paired with Tarantino’s brilliant script and better soundtrack, makes “Django” one of the best films of the year.
— Sebastian Brady
Michael Haneke has a way of implanting a subtle idea — a creeping, haunting universal truth — at the core of his films, and then allowing those notions to slowly unravel beneath our feet until we’re suddenly caught in a psychological free-fall. In his fantastic horror film “Cache,” this notion was the past. In his Palme d’Or-winning “White Ribbon,” it was paranoia. The very title of Haneke’s latest film (which also took home the top prize at Cannes this year) seems to gleefully announce the Austrian auteur’s next field of study. But as it turns out, love is a complicated thing.
“Amour” centers on the least romantic love triangle you’ve seen all year: an elderly couple (the excellent Jean-Louis Trintignant and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”’s Emmanuelle Riva) — one of whom is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s — and their daughter (played by a very raw Isabelle Huppert). Haneke’s unnervingly austere visual style and pacing remain, but the claustrophobic sets and committed central cast make the intricate cross section of tenderness, repulsion and nostalgia that much more immediate. “Amour” is cathartic, and at times even horrific, but its power lies in its unflinching commitment to unpacking love in all of its messy forms.
— Ren Ebel
Silver Linings Playbook
In David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” bipolar but relentlessly optimistic Pat (Bradley Cooper) embarks on a quest to reconnect with his wife through neurotic widow Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), resulting in a quirky and unexpected love. Russell keeps the camera work simple and the settings ubiquitous, drawing the audience in comfortably and allowing the story’s excellent characters to interact organically. This bracing realism is sustained by a subtle soundtrack that enhances the ambiance without constantly reminding the audience that the drama unfolding is fictitious.
Though the story’s frank honesty in dealing with the complications of mental instability in modern relationships is both refreshing and interesting, it is the characters of “Silver Linings Playbook” that make it an excellent contender for Best Picture. Both blunt humor and raw vulnerability run through the film’s excellent script and lend a distinct feeling of plausibility one doesn’t typically expect from Hollywood. Pat and Tiffany are well-written and believably drawn, but Cooper and Lawrence bring them to life, fleshing out these broken but hopeful lovers. The supporting cast only accentuates this, with Robert De Niro and Chris Tucker giving wonderfully subtle performances. It’s exceptionally difficult to make an audience smile while leading them to an uncomfortable reality of life, but “Silver Linings Playbook” does so with grace.
— Jonah Yonker
Despite its popularity as a stage production, if you asked the average student to tell you about “Les Miserables,” they most likely would only be able to sing you a snippet of “I Dreamed a Dream” instilled upon them via middle school choir. That is, until director Tom Hooper managed to attract both theater geeks and ordinary folk alike to see his sprawling two-hour-40-minute affair — an achievement in and of itself.
With a star-studded cast, Hugh Jackman anchors the film with a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of Jean Valjean, and Anne Hathaway delivers a short but incredibly heartbreaking performance which will hopefully earn her the Best Supporting Actress award. While there may be some missteps along the way, such as Russell Crowe’s indistinct singing, even this low point is infinitely more tolerable to the ears than Tarantino’s brief cameo as an (alleged) Australian in “Django Unchained.” And to Crowe’s credit, it should be noted that all the singing in the film is recorded live on set, a technical achievement never before done on such a scale.
Hooper channels his cast into a film that manages to balance the deeply personal with the sweepingly epic, resulting in a film that epitomizes filmmaking as grand spectacle. The intimate tale of Valjean’s redemption is set against the idealistic image of the June Rebellion, and the contrasting narrative strands deliver the most powerful emotional punch this year, making “Les Mis” the frontrunner for best picture.
— Dieter Joubert
Life of Pi
No gay cowboys, no martial arts and no Jane Austen bonnets were needed to earn this Ang Lee-helmed film a Best Picture nod: just a boy, a boat and a computer-generated tiger. Wooed by the allure of “Life of Pi”’s intense adventure and deep philosophy, the Academy has given the movie 10 other well-deserved nominations — only one behind leading contender “Lincoln.”
An adaptation of Yann Martel’s modern classic, the story follows the coming-of-age of an Indian child prodigy Pi, played by newcomer Suraj Sharma. By a stroke of bad luck, the film’s hero ends up on a nightmarish Noah’s Ark-turned-animalistic “Hunger Games,” ultimately leaving Pi in the middle of the Pacific with the tiger. A strained alliance is formed between the fearsome feline and the resourceful teen, as both fight against the odds of nature and struggle to keep their will to live.
At its core, the film could easily have become a droning adaptation of “The Old Man and the Sea,” but instead, it turns into a thrilling psychological journey. With its shockingly realistic CGI and Sharma’s authentic portrayal of the lead, the movie seems at times to be more of a documentary than an epic film, due in part to its consistently theological undercurrent that leaves the audience pondering God, religion and faith. Its thought-provoking and abstract complexity, stunning cinematography, strong acting and beautifully rendered visual effects all make “Life of Pi” a film to watch out for on Oscar night.
— Jacqueline Kim
Beasts of the Southern Wild
On the surface, Benh Zeitlin’s debut “Beasts of the Southern Wild” may not seem much different from its competitors. Be it Tarantino’s spaghetti Western, Spielberg’s historical colossus or Hooper’s tragic musical drama — all of them engage in similar themes essential to humanity: struggle, isolation, loss, love and belief.
However, what makes this film stand out from the rest is its interesting style of narration, told through the eyes of 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis). The film tells the story of Hushpuppy’s fight for survival after an apocalyptic storm hits the isolated swampland that she and her ill father (Dwight Henry) live in. With her mother dead and her father’s health deteriorating, Hushpuppy is soon forced to take care of herself.
In the course of the film, we see Hushpuppy grow into a self-reliant girl whose courage, childish naivety, strong imagination and implacable zest for life help her to cope with the hopeless situation. Expressive, poetic imagery with elements of the fantastic — beasts frozen in gigantic icebergs drifting slowly into the Arctic Ocean — emotionally loaded topics and Wallis’ incredibly authentic performance transform “Beasts” into an artful film that creeps under one’s skin immediately.
Especially powerful are the scenes in which Hushpuppy transforms from a perspicacious young girl — there was “no time to sit around crying like a bunch of pussies” — into an anxious child hiding from fire inside a cardboard box: “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces. I see that I’m a little piece in a big, big universe.”
“Beasts” is a small film among big, big ones — slightly peculiar, with a strong emotional core and an inspiring perspective on life.
— Alexandra Fergen
Described as the Rolls-Royce of the Oscar scene, “Lincoln” is arguably the favorite to pick up the award for Best Picture. While director Steven Spielberg has in the past created more amusing and emotionally seductive films, “Lincoln” is a bold and brave masterpiece, perfectly blending the political and the historical. The precision and lucidity make it an engrossing watch while it serves as a valuable history lesson, intently following the second term of the 16th U.S. president.
Daniel Day-Lewis offers a master class in acting as President Abraham Lincoln alongside Sally Field as first lady; Spielberg follows the last stages of the Civil War as the anti-slavery amendment struggles to pass through the House of Representatives. The outstanding cast, the gentle score by John Williams and Janusz Kaminski’s superior cinematography make “Lincoln” stand out in this legitimately contested race for Best Picture. The film resonates history and will no doubt go down in history more so than the other contenders in this race for the coveted title. Surely Spielberg’s engrossing drama deserves to trump its rivals with this weighty, flag-waving historical piece.
— Lara Budge
Best Director: Benh Zeitlin
The winner of the Academy Award for Best Director has to do more than just make the best movie. Like a general in the army, the winner must be able to command a crew over the toughest of hurdles and make it out on the other side with a piece of cinema worth giving a damn about. If “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin were an army general, he’d be the type fighting on the front lines with his fellow soldiers.
Created as a collaborative effort with his startup film group Court 13 in the heart of New Orleans, Zeitlin orchestrated an entire battalion worth of artists and filmmakers in the Louisiana swamps. Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee, talented as they are, represent a more traditional form of directing, sitting in the director’s chair and sending lieutenants and officers to carry out the dirty work. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a unique beast indeed, built from the ground up to perfection. Each trailer home, makeshift raft, and gorgeous set dressing was handcrafted by Zeitlin and Court 13. Such devotion to craft can only come from someone new to the game who doesn’t care for the distinction between amateur and artist. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” proves that talent can come from the most extraordinary of places, whether its source is a New Orleans pastry chef or a 7-year-old girl with an unpronounceable name.
— Rusteen Honardoost
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence
The Academy has recognized a very diverse group of actresses vying for Oscar gold this year: Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of a tenacious Osama bin Laden-hungry CIA officer, Emmanuelle Riva’s take on a stroke-stricken wife, Quvenzhane Wallis’ interpretation of a young heroine named Hushpuppy and Naomi Watts’ poignant performance as a tsunami survivor — but none deserve the highest honor like Jennifer Lawrence’s pointed blend of comedy and calamity as the erratic young widow Tiffany Maxwell in David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”
After her somewhat more somber roles in “The Hunger Games” and “Winter’s Bone,” (which also landed her a well-deserved Oscar nomination), Lawrence proves her cinematic versatility by showing that a character can be good-humored while simultaneously maintaining dramatic integrity. Lawrence’s performance is one of inner turmoil following the death of her husband and her subsequent sex addiction. She is crude, sexy, dirty, funny and vulnerable all at once. The unhinged and uncensored performance Lawrence delivers effectively blends the line of neurosis and humor. No best actress list is complete without the one woman who doesn’t take shit from anybody, even if it’s from the man she loves.
— Pablo Valdivia
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis
This is the category to place bets on, because if there is one guaranteed winner, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” While watching the film is akin to watching the classic Disneyland animatronic stage show “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” —untouchable, reverent and life-affirming even as you catch yourself falling asleep — Day-Lewis’ performance is on another level. The Lincoln we see in popular culture is all too often a caricature of strength (deep, rousing voice and all), but Day-Lewis took another approach. The subtle Lincoln in this film is not the one you’d expect; instead, we hear a quiet timbre to his voice that brings the president to life. Plus, if he wins, Day-Lewis would become the first man to win three Academy Awards for Best Actor — a deserved feat, considering he is arguably the best actor alive.
— Arielle Sallai
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway
You know Anne Hathaway is good when she’s on screen for less than 30 minutes of a two-and-a-half hour film and still lands a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in “Les Miserables,” Hathaway does a compelling adaptation of Fantine, a poor, struggling mother who eventually turns to prostitution. Her bony figure adds to the mental depiction of her character’s struggle for survival, and her on-screen death leaves the audience shocked and silenced. Hathaway’s emotional performance of “I Dreamed A Dream” was sung not only beautifully, but also live during the shoot. She might as well start preparing her speech, as she’s already won a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award and an award from the BAFTA for her excellent performance in the movie. Of course, she’s also the only nominee who bravely sacrificed her long locks for dramatic effect.
— Lauren Craig
Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin
For a movie about the Iran hostage crisis, Ben Affleck’s “Argo” can be a surprisingly funny film. In between moments of intense drama, the film is balanced by these bits of levity. Alan Arkin composes most of “Argo”’s humor as fictional movie producer Lester Siegel. His humor is biting, almost bullying; he’s the grandfather you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Yet at the same time, he is one of the most complex and endearing characters in the film.
Perhaps the best example of the kind of character gymnastics Arkin performs is a scene fairly early in the film, when Affleck’s character pitches him the idea to sneak out the hostages through the cover of a movie production crew. Arkin’s character tells him how completely impossible it is, how ludicrous even suggesting it is — in moments, he shuts them down and gets up to leave. Then, he looks at the television, sees one of the hostages with his head covered by a bag, and tells Affleck that he’ll do it. From that moment on, we are firmly behind Arkin. He never fails to give us a laugh, and in a movie like “Argo,” that’s a herculean feat. Incredibly economical in his use of limited screen-time, with biting wit and a complex performance, “Argo” would be a far weaker film without him.
— Nathan Cook