Armchair Oscars – 2011

Best Picture

The Artist (Directed by Michel Hazanavicius)
The Nominees: The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse

The Tree of Life (Directed by Terrence Malick)
My Nominees: The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius), Rango (Gore Verbinski), Super 8 (J.J. Abrams), We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynn Ramsey)

The voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and  Sciences have their comfort zones.  Look  down the list of Best Picture winners of the past and you’ll find that they  commonly tread safer waters.  Standing  at a distance you might easily apply that to The  Artist, a French silent comedy that might be easy to categorize as little more than a gimmick. I think that assumption is not only misguided, it is also dismissive of what makes Michel Hazanavicius’ film so  magical. Here is a movie that invokes something of the spirit of the very early days of cinema, a kind of gentle magic that takes place in simple gestures, some soft, some broad, almost all theatrical in nature.The story itself isn’t exactly new, especially to anyone familiar with the basic storyline of Singin’ in the Rain. It tells the story of  George Valentin (Jean Dujardan), a handsome Hollywood matinee idol during the  heyday of silent pictures whose fruitful career comes to an abrupt halt with  the advent of talking pictures

The film is deeper, fuller and more finely detailed than it probably needs to be, containing moments of pure magic and pure ingenuity. Look closely at the set design and notice how the signs and billboards comment on the action. Look closely at the simple, quiet moments in the film that are purely magical. My favorite comes early in the film when the heroine, Peppy Miller enters alone into George’s office. She finds  his coat on a hanger. She slips her right   arm into the empty left sleeve  and wraps the arm around herself. George   comes in and catches her. The two share a quiet romantic moment so   tender and so touching that it  reminds us why we go to the movies.

The film contains a dozen moments like that, which is why I  put The Artist high on my ten best  list, not the top, but very high. I was happy that the academy chose this film  over some star vehicle with nowhere to go.  In fact, most of this year’s  nominees fit that category. It was a mixed-bag of different themes, different  ideas and different intentions. My favorite is probably as “outside the  box” as you could get. If I thought getting a silent film made in the 21st  century, then I can’t imagine the uphill climb that it took Terrence Malick to  get the greenlight for something like The  Tree of Life.  Here is a difficult,  challenging film, with long spaces of quiet contemplation at which we aren’t  absolutely sure what is happening or what to think
about it.  It is one of those movies that you either love  or hate, and even if you regard the film with awe, you walk away not really  sure how to explain it.

The Tree of Life, for me, is nothing  more than cinematic poetry, an elegy to the very soul of  humanity and its  evolution. It opens with a spectacular sequence that takes us through the  entire evolution of the universe from the big bang through the age of dinosaurs  and then shrinks it down to the memories of a boy growing up in Texas whose  universe seemed to end at the edge of his driveway.

Director Terrence Malick encompasses both of these elements into a poetic film  that is not always easily understood, but is never-the-less extraordinary. The  center of the movie is seen through the eyes of a thoughtful architect named  Jack (Sean Penn) who looks back over his years growing up in Texas in the  1950s. The movie follows him from the moment that he comes into the world up  until he is about to enter his preteen years. We are with him from his infancy,  through toddler-hood and on through his beginnings of his understandings of the world around him.  Into that world also  come two brothers, one of whom will tragically perish.

Unlike the opening of the film, which shows the expanse and evolution of the  universe, Jack’s world is tiny and is headed by two authority figures that seem  to make up his entire world.  One is his father (Brad Pitt), a stern and sometimes abusive disciplinarian, but not a one-dimensional bully.  He was once an  aspiring musician whose dreams withered away, forcing him to enter the  corporate world.  His approach with the  boys is harsh, but is not unfeeling. The other is his mother (Jessica Chastain), a graceful, angelic figure who is an enabler to her husband and a refreshing emotional cushion to her put-upon sons. One of the fine touches of the  film is that the adults are never given first names, they are only referred to  as mother and father.  There was a time  when no one called an adult by their first name.

The movie sees Jack’s emerging understanding of the world, but there is no firm  narrative. This is a series of memories from Jack’s childhood and they don’t  flow like a normal film would.  He remembers  the dinner table.  He remembers following  a girl home from school.  He remembers  his brothers running to the edge of the yard when daddy came home from a long  business trip.  Yet, the movie leaves a  lot of things open.  It doesn’t point to  the highlights, but rather lets us fill in the blanks.

One of the achievements of the film (and the reason I assumed it would win the  Oscar for Best Film Editing) is the curious way that Malick and his editors  present Jack’s memories.  They understand  that memory doesn’t flow in a pattern from beginning to end.  Memories take place in fragments of time, in  pieces of memory that jump around, back and forth.  We see Jack in one place, then another, and  back again like a skipping record.  All  through the film, the editing jumps from one thing to another.  At times, we understand completely what we  are
looking at, at others we don’t.  The  moments when we don’t understand what is happening are the most contemplative  because they allow us to fill in the blanks.   This is never a movie that tells you how to feel.

What is most effective about The Tree of Life is the way those  memories combine  to create specific details of childhood in the backgrounds and the foregrounds.   It remembers fireflies, wind chimes, a birdbath, grass on the front lawn. It remembers the decay of the siding on the  house and dad’s garden out back being eaten away by insects.  It remembers boys rolling on the grass in  their Sunday clothes. It remembers kids being at the cemetery and playing on  the headstones.  It remembers stalking  around in the woods with the pellet gun and making mom squirm when you brought  a reptile into the house.  Those details  are so beautifully observed and observed in a way that no other film in my  memory has done. Yet, it also remembers the growing
realization that the two  strongest forces in our childhood universe – mom and dad – are human beings who  are loving, but never-the-less, flawed.

Malick is the most reclusive of filmmakers.  Not much is known of his past.  He is so reclusive, in fact, that this is only the fifth film that he has directed in 40  years.  My guess is that The Tree of Life is a collection of  memories from his own upbringing in Texas.  His film is very spare and not always easy to  understand.  I will confess that I am  still unable to comprehend or understand the last ten minutes of the movie.  Perhaps he is saying something profound that comes  from his soul, I have no idea.  Perhaps  my next viewing will give me a better understanding.  Malick purposely leaves much of the film unexplained, leaving us with deep discussions after-wards.

The Tree of Life as you can imagine, is  not for everyone.  It is, at times,  baffling and other times just plain incomprehensible.  I like that about it.  I like that it leaves me with something to  discover.  Not since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has there been a  film that considers how minuscule we are on this planet in relation to the rest  of our cosmos, or considers how memory builds who we are and what we become.

I stated in my original review that I am going to become a student of this  film, just as I have been with 2001,watching it again and again and trying to unlock its vast and baffling mysteries. This is a film that considers the enormity of our universe and relates it to the tiny spaces in our memories.  There is no film like it, and I’ll wager that  there never will be again.

Best Actor

Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
The Nominees: Demián Bichir (A Better Life), George Clooney (The Descendants), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)
MY CHOICE: The Tree of Life
(Directed by Terrence Malik) My Nominees: The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius), Rango (Gore Verbinski), Super 8 (J.J. Abrams), We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynn Ramsey)


Before I saw The Artist, I must admit that I had never heard of Jean Dujardin.  It wasn’t until later that I even caught on that he was French.  Still, I was captivated by his performance in Michael Hazanavicius’ lovely ode to the art of silent cinema, playing George Valentin, a charming, devastatingly handsome middle-aged matinee idol whose career is derailed by the advent of talking pictures.  Dujardin has charm, charisma and an infectious smile. He really looks like an actor from the period – I think that he could double for Douglas Fairbanks. I was happy to see him win the Oscar (he’s among my nominees), but I’m afraid I must admit that looking around at the other leading performances by actors this year that didn’t get nominated; this one seems a little safe.

This was a good year for actors in leading roles. More than any other year of the preceding decade, there were more leading men in 2011 who seemed willing to take risks. Look to my nominees for just a small sampling.

My initial choice was Woody Harrelson for his devastating performance as a bad cop struggling with inner demons while trying to find some way to be a good father in Oren Moverman’s little-seen Rampart.  I found the performance to be even better than his nominated work in The Messengers, yet I felt that the film itself came up a little short. While I admired the fearlessness of the script, I felt that the movie ground to a loose-ended conclusion that left me cold.

Instead, I moved in another direction, to Michael Shannon’s work also playing a family man trying to come to grips with his own personal crises in Jeff Nichols disturbing drama Take Shelter. He plays Curtis LaForche, a construction worker living in a small town in Ohio who is married to a beautiful wife named Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and has a daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) who is deaf. It isn’t an idyllic life, all full of playground time and sack lunches. He and Samantha struggle to keep themselves afloat and to find help for their handicapped daughter.

Despite a strong family bond at home, Curtis is quiet outsider. His face is a mask of inner turmoil that we notice even before we understand why. He doesn’t speak unless necessary and even then his words seem to flow with a degree of discomfort. The discomfort comes from the atmosphere around him which seems to be telling him – and only him – that something horrible is about to happen. All indication lead him to suspect that it might be a catastrophic storm. The family lives on the spacious countryside with vast fields that stretch into the distance, and over the horizon disturbing clouds are looming.

Curtis has horrible dreams, first of the dog attacking him and then another in which the house is blown over by the storm. He has very bizarre experiences. Standing on the back porch, the rain comes down harder and harder and lands on his hands in beads of a muddy oil-like substance. While at his job he is startled by repeated claps of thunder that his co-worker doesn’t hear. At home he sees weird formations of birds that twist and turn like a swarm of locusts, almost as if they are gathering for an attack.

He reacts strongly to the dreams, beginning with the rash decision to move the family dog outside to a pen. He is puzzled by his experiences but he keeps them to himself, and doesn’t bother telling Samantha. He becomes paranoid about his family’s safety and decides on two courses of action. First, he visits a free clinic to talk to a counselor to get some feedback on what he is experiencing. His family history reveals a possible answer: his mother Sarah (Kathy Baker) suffers from paranoid schizophrenia that first hit her at about the same age that Curtis is now. Moving through the cold efficiency of the free clinic system, he gets some clues but no real answers. Second, and most devistatingly, he decides to rebuild the storm shelter out back, even taking out a very risky home improvement loan to pay for it (this is something else he keeps from Samantha). He risks his job by borrowing tools from work to get the job done and even recruits one of the men on his work detail to help him out. All of this, of course backfires and nearly brings his world crashing down. At a Lion’s Club dinner one night, he knows that the townfolk are looking at him, and a confrontation causes him to come unglued in public.

What is so fascinating about Curtis is that we can sense right away that he has been suffering long before the movie catches him. There is something going on in his mind, confusion at the things he sees and the terror that he feels. He seems spaced away from everyone else yet feels a compulsion to rescue his family from . . . something. He is a guy of average intelligence, who ventures out on his own to understand the problems that are driving him to the brink on insanity – his first step at understanding his problem is a trip to the local library.

The film follows Curtis so that we understand only what he understands. The things he is experiencing are known to us only as they are known to him. We know that eventually it will all come to a head and what is so amazing is the way in which the film turns and Curtis, in the third act, recieves help from Samantha that he never knew she could provide (I won’t reveal what that is). What comes of the story is difficult to describe because it has several interpretations. I will only say that you are left to figure out the ending for yourself.

Michael Shannon is not your normal movie actor. There’s something angular about him that seems a little off. He’s too tall; he’s not classically handsome; he’s too insulated; his eyes don’t look right; there’s something going on in his head that isn’t revealed outright. There is an intensity to his screen presence that doesn’t comfort us. I mean that as a compliment because we are experiencing an age when you can’t tell most actors apart. Shannon is a breath of fresh air. Curtis seems like a regular guy, though, one that you might not even notice in the course of your day. That angular quality makes his performance work simply because we are never sure where his journey is going to take him. Is it going to lead him to treatment, or to an institution?

Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
The Nominees:Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Viola Davis (The Help), Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn)

Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
My Nominees: Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Viola Davis (The Help), Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia), Rachel Harris (Natural Selection), Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Adepero Oduye (Pariah), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Charleze Theron (Young Adult), Kristin Wiig (Bridesmaids), Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff), Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn), Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)


Meryl Streep has been nominated for Best Actress more than any other in history.  Yet, by 2011 she hadn’t felt the gold in her hand since 1983.  She had routinely been nominated since but lost every time.  Her next win, may thought, was only a matter of time.

When it came, for whatever reason, the academy felt that her role as  Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady was the performance to  break her 28 year losing streak, a victory that made her the third actor in five years to win an Oscar for playing a British leader, after Helen Mirren and Colin Firth. I can’t complain about the  performance. Streep gives it her all, and sidesteps the trap of slipping by on mere impression. She is the best American actress of her generation and if  the challenge of playing Margaret Thatcher was of the slightest importance, I’m  glad it was she who got the chance. The best parts of her performance take  place in the present day, as we see the elder Thatcher, well into her 80s,  suffering from dementia. We see a woman who was once a towering political  figure, reduced in her old age to fussing around the house after a few meager  daily chores and struggling with a mind and a memory that are slipping away.

Those scenes are effective. When it tries to deal with her political career,  however, the movie falls on its face. Phllydia Lloyd’s biopic is half-baked,  rushing through Thatcher’s controversial career like  Cliff’s Notes with  some of the pages missing. If you were to simply box up your knowledge of Margaret Thatcher from what you see in this movie, you would learn nothing about her political career and only assume that Thatcher was a stubborn, determined woman who had a career that was made up only of red letter moments.

So, here I am, stuck with praising the driver and not the  vehicle. You have to separate Streep from the movie so that you can appreciate  what she brings to the screen. My problem with her performance is that it doesn’t pose much of a challenge. Meryl Streep can play this role  in her sleep. Other than the opening scenes, the movie doesn’t give her much to  build on.

If you want to talk about challenging, consider my choice, Tilda Swinton, for  her shattering unnominated performance as the mother of a miscreant child in  Lynn Ramsey’s difficult We Need to Talk About Kevin. Swinton never gives a dull  performance, but she is always willing to challenge herself. Her best roles  find her playing women on the edge of bursting at the seams, and here she’s never been better.

Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, a once-successful travel writer who lives alone in a run-down house that is the constant target  of vandalism. An opening flashback shows her in happier  times, during Spain’s Buñol’s El Tomatino festival.  She sleeps with a drunken stranger named Franklin (John C. Reilly), a genial fellow whom she marries, and starts a family with.  Children include a  son Kevin and a daughter named Celia. The story moves back and forth in time, breaking up present day events with  things that happened in the past so that we understand later in the film how  they all correlate.

The family unit might seem to function just fine except for Kevin who, from the  time he learns to walk, always seems hell-bent on pushing his mother’s  buttons.  Something is wrong with Kevin,  he seems to have a stubborn mean-streak that Eva seems ill-equipped to handle.  He misbehaves almost as a reflex,  almost exclusively when he and his mother are alone.  Almost from the moment he can talk he tells her that he hates her. His bull-headed resistance wells up even in the most routine acts of toddler training, especially he refuses to be potty trained, wearing diapers past age 6. As he grows, he gets  worse. She tries her best to be nurthuring, but Kevin often just glares at her like an angry dog. His anti-social behavior turns into psychotic episodes and there’s something  in Kevin’s approach around his father that is different around his mother.  Something about Franklin seems ignorant and  blind to what is going on behind his back.   He witnesses the angelic, normalcy of his son while Eva witnesses the  demon within. In his teenage years, he becomes unmanageable.

In present times, we are given information, little by little, that Kevin has recently  committed a terrible crime that has landed him in prison. Not long before, his father had given him a bow and arrow that he eventually used in a crime at school not a million miles removed from the events at Columbine. Eventually, he turned it on his family, but curiously not on his mother.  So Eva, now alone, lives in a house near the  prison within range of families who lost their children in Kevin’s rampage.

It may be possible that there never was a method of dealing logically  with Kevin.  A better equipped parent  might have known how to manage his vile behavior, but Eva is at a loss to  figure out what to do.  There is a moment early on when she struggles with Kevin and injures his arm. What frightens us is that it seems reasonably understandable. Kevin doesn’t even whimper.

What becomes  clear about Eva is that she never really wanted a family. She seemed happy in  her old life and this new adventure seems far outside of her nature. Something about  her seems displaced. She looks, at all times – even in the flashbacks – like  she is in a state of stunned silence, like a rape victim or someone who has  escaped a serious accident. She is a stranger in a strange land, connected to a  son whose behavior is beyond her control.

Her present day-to-day universe is a tapestry of a down-sized life. Alone after her son goes to prison, she lives in a small house with a small car, both of which are routinely vandalized (she moves into this house because it is close to the prison where she can visit him). Downsized too is her job, eeking out of living working at a travel agency, surrounded by people who were affected horribly by her son’s crimes. Out in public, she plays a game of duck and dodge, trying to hide from parents of the children that Kevin murdered. It  isn’t easy. When he is caught in their line of sight, they react with violence.

What is most compelling about Tilda Swinton’s performance is her refusal to ask for our sympathies. Swinton is an actress who isn’t classicaly beautiful, and often allows her characters an uglieness that comes from within. She is never afraid to look like a jerk, and she play Eva as a woman whose common sense has been turned off. Swinton’s performance, for the most part, takes place in quiet passages where she simply looks and observes.

It is hard to like Eva. It is easy to blame her for not communicating or getting professional help, but one wonders what she might have done. Here is a woman who has stepped into a situation that she clearly isn’t equipped to handle. There’s a globe-trotting life that seems perfect for her, but circumstances shrink her world down, down, down until she can hardly breath. Lynn Ramsey, the director, understands where Swinton’s best gift lies – in her piercing eyes, which make her look like a frightened animal, a woman out of place and out of her element. The film moves back and forth through the hurricane of her memory and her emotions so that we are left to wonder what might have been done with a person better equipped to handle this difficult situation.

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