Oscar Movie Guide: What’s Worth Seeing, From “Pi” to “Zero”


As always, the year ended with a pileup of quality films, which we were invited to gape at and applaud en route to everyone’s destination: the January 10 announcement of the Oscar nominations.

It’s a dark bunch of work, suffused with despair, tragedy, and the bittersweet struggle to survive. That’s fine, though one wonders why this depression didn’t span a wave of tap-dancing musicals like the last one. Can’t escapism last beyond Labor Day anymore?

Oh, never mind. Let me pick through the juggernauts that have collided on the award-grubbing highway and assess their value in gold. Life of Pi is dullish until the shipwreck, and then it becomes a magical interspecies love story and the rare art house film that requires 3-D glasses. It’s head-spinning. Also beautiful, Anna Karenina uses lavish illusion to create a world of suffocating elegance that our leading lady has to break out of on the road to her own kind of madness. The film is an extraordinary “movie movie” of the type in which artifice plunges you into some sort of passion-drenched realness. Loved it!

Bad romance also fills Silver Linings Playbook, the David O. Russell film that leads to a conventional finish made for a rom-com. But despite the formula at work here—eccentric gal with no filter whatsoever is actually a dark angel—it’s surprising and engagingly witty along the way. Jennifer Lawrence‘s Tiffany is the type that hugs you one second, then slaps you the next. She’s prone to screaming “He’s harassing me” in public when you’re not and sardonically yelling, “I’m just the crazy slut with the dead husband!” But she means well, and, she does well. In fact, this little lady breaks promises and hurts you, but only to make you a better person. Amazingly, Lawrence pulls it off—she’s electric—and the dance-contest climax would even elicit tears from Anna Karenina’s husband.

But don’t use up all your compassion just yet. Historical figures have come to your multiplex, craving buckets of it. I found Lincoln admirably restrained and enjoyed the grand acting and miles of talk. But while another president (FDR) gets to change lives in Hyde Park on Hudson, the fact that the film clearly exudes its creators’ loving care doesn’t cover up the fact that it’s not all that interesting.

Hitchcock also verges on incompleteness, especially since there’s only a quick glimpse of Norman Bates and no dialogue whatsoever from Psycho. (Only wordless sequences are re-created, like Janet Leigh’s lovemaking, driving, and scrub down.) I guess the rights weren’t forthcoming, especially after that atrocious Vince Vaughn remake. Alas, working through a checklist of scenes about the making of Psycho (with Hitch realizing the dark heart of the populace) in between dealing with his growing appreciation for his wife (and the essential goodness of human nature) makes for an earnest exercise that should probably be called Schizo. But the performances are enjoyable, and there are two classic sequences: the filming of the shower scene and the bit with Hitchcock gleefully mock-conducting the Psycho score as he hears the film’s first audience shriek with fear.

They scream during Flight‘s shipwreck—I mean crash sequence—and squirm during the rocky aftermath, too. Denzel Washington expertly plays the coked-up pilot who lands a troubled plane but can’t seem to ground his own ethics. The film skirts convention by making you unsure of what to root for as the captain tries to avoid getting caught for being a mess (albeit a heroic one). He’s another one of those dark angels I was talking about. This kind of thing is in the air, as it were.

There’s no tap-dancing in Les Miserables, which is a grim exercise in redemption and deftly pulled off, as far as muddy-faced musicals go. There are too many weepy song close-ups, and Russell Crowe doesn’t soar like the other performers—just when you need him to do full creepy, he softens—but this might be the first great movie musical since Chicago, and there is some comic relief, in a grim sort of way.

Not enough nominees yet? Well, here comes The Impossible, the tsunami disaster film in which incidental Thai people sit around and watch a well-to-do European family of blah tourists sobbingly reunite—as the actors portraying them vie for honors. Bring on the waves.

And here come even more real people in stressful situations (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty), and you can add a medical twist if it’s a foreign-language film (a stroke in Amour, paraplegia in Rust and Bone). But don’t worry, we can always trump the Europeans when it comes to noble suffering. The Sessions has a 38-year-old in an iron lung arranging for a woman to lovingly extinguish his virginity. Based on a true story. Nominations all the way around.

And then there’s the fracking movie, Promised Land, which is caringly done, but—again—dullish, though the one big twist is worth waiting for. (Maybe you can catch it on an airplane. Believe me, they won’t be showing Flight.)

The critical biggie, of course, is the aforementioned Zero Dark Thirty, a dank procedural that requires night vision—it’s that bleak and gritty. As with Lincoln, it’s about a triumphant American turning point—apparently we need reassurances of our own greatness right now—but the prez is not the hero in this. It’s one disconnected woman who becomes obsessive (Jessica Chastain) and another with a similar sense of ragged determination (Kathryn Bigelow). An occasional scene with Melissa McCarthy might have jazzed things up, but that probably would have hurt its Oscar chances.

See you on nomination day. No? Argo fuck yourself.