It’s time for the Oscars — Hollywood’s own version of a flawed and ineffective reward system, akin to college bowl season, the Grammys and the Electoral College. But who will take the grand prize? This year’s nine (nine!) offerings for best picture are undoubtedly “good” movies, but they leave no clear best. In fact, not one has a shot at gaining a place of prominence in the canon of cinema. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is the heavyweight favorite, and while the other eight diversify the choices, each has its defects. The academy has screwed itself into a mediocre decision no matter how you slice it. With Oscar night typically being heavy on platitudes and light on criticism, it is only fitting that we take some time to point out why none of these movies is picture perfect.
What: Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s testament to love and loss in the face of death’s cold stare.
Grouch: You know the smell of old people — the combination of hospital, dusty memories and things that have yellowed over time? Much like a quilt from grandpappy’s attic, “Amour” elicits just such a smell. Depicting the evolving relationship of an aging couple in the face of crumbling health, its plodding pace, probably aimed at matching the slow deterfioration of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), leaves you watching the development of their own wrinkles. It is only the ninth foreign-language film to be nominated for best picture, and none has ever won. Given that “Amour” is about as pleasurable as soaking in a bathtub and seeing your fingers turn into prunes, that trend looks to continue.
What: Ben Affleck’s third foray into directing details a rescue mission of hostages in Iran through a harebrained (but true) scheme to usher them out as a film crew.
Grouch: The main problem with “Argo” lies in how difficult it is to sympathize with the six hostages. Instead, audiences are supposed to relate with Affleck’s CIA character because of the undue focus on his troubled family life. That makes plot developments, such as the supposed cancellation of the rescue mission, fall flat on their face. The Hollywood device of creating a fake film, carried on the capable backs of Alan Arkin and John Goodman, is literally and figuratively the savior of “Argo.” And Ben’s hair — it’s ’70s Rod Blagojevich.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
What: This indie relates the struggles of a small Southern bayou community through the eyes of its 6-year-old protagonist.
Grouch: It’s hard to hate on an adorable kid named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), so let’s focus on what the hell is going on in the plot. Societal outcasts have their homes threatened by a flood, a young girl looks for her mother while her abusive father’s heart problems take their toll, and ancient boar-like creatures are venturing to the South after being released from melting ice? Yeah, the “beast” part is not meant as literal reality, rather some misplaced metaphor for Hushpuppy’s revelations, but they detract more than add. When a movie takes an audience so far away from the film’s own world, it has failed.
What: Quentin Tarantino’s homage to spaghetti westerns has Jamie Foxx as a bounty hunter searching for his wife in the antebellum South.
Grouch: Like all Tarantino productions, this deserves a slow death for making viewers all too aware that it’s the brainchild of the ego-crazed director. Tarantino’s oppressive, overbearing, odious hand deserves a Razzie for most self-indulgent helmsman. Not to mention the racial ramifications of a film that drops the N-word about as many times as Skrillex drops the bass. Tarantino has alluded to this being the second of a potential trilogy (started by “Inglourious Basterds”) concerning vengeance in historical contexts. Here’s hoping the final installment doesn’t have a crossbow-toting Jesus.
What: The musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel gets the cinematic treatment.
Grouch: Before even seeing “Les Mis,” you’re sick of it: The billboards with that all-too-familiar sad girl, a title that actually means “miserable people,” Amanda Seyfreid’s goofy face. What’s next for the creative minds of Hollywood? Probably a screen adaptation of “Cats.” Its poster hook is “Fight. Dream. Hope. Love.” That’s about as generic and trite as these things can possibly be. At 158 minutes, “Les Mis” joins fellow nominees “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty” in the frustratingly long category. If not for the period costumes, theatrical history and vivid color spectrum of this adaptation … there’d still be too many open mouths and visible molars.
Life of Pi
What: Ang Lee went overboard with this tale of a young boy’s spiritual revelations while at sea with wild animals after a shipwreck.
Grouch: For all the success of the book and the film, “Life of Pi” is still about a kid and a tiger in a boat. It’s as though someone pitched an idea to (re)make Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and someone countered with “Let’s go more modern,” and “Life of Pi” was born. That or someone wanted to do a Roald Dahl story, but none of them involved enough religion — a subject matter that, instead of being woven through as a thematic undercurrent, is bashed over the viewers’ head like a caveman’s mate-seeking club. Not to mention that the 3-D renderings of the sea are enough to make viewers sick. If this wins, plenty of folks will be ill.
What: Steven Spielberg’s snapshot of Abraham Lincoln’s final months.
Grouch: From the heavy-handed opening to Tommy Lee Jones’ cartoonish turn as Thaddeus Stevens to Sally Fields’ nagging, shrill performance as Mary Todd Lincoln, the shortcomings are glaring. What ought to have been a historically accurate biopic is riddled with inaccuracies that are still being unearthed four months after its release. It’s a strung-together series of Lincoln anecdotes that do not build upon each other. When the Secretary of War says he is sick of Lincoln’s stories, someone should have heeded the remark. Daniel Day-Lewis always speaks as though delivering a speech, there are constant unnecessary swells of emotion-evoking music, Spielberg overuses high-angle shots, and the assassination scene is a total tease. (Spoiler!)
Silver Linings Playbook
What: In this rom-com, Bradley Cooper comes home to his parents after a period in psychiatric care and tries to make amends with his ex-wife.
Grouch: While the premise is far from boring, watching Cooper blunder through a world he completely misunderstands at every turn is exasperating. All in all: overdone. There’s too much of the wrong kind of crazy, not we’re-making-a-comedy crazy, but oh-my-god-this-is-painful-to-watch crazy. Jennifer Lawrence’s slut-in-pursuit-of-redemption provides another example of the same. Time and time again we have to sit through her Hester Prynne moments. It’d also be hard to stomach a best picture award going to a movie that so prominently features the Philadelphia Eagles.
Zero Dark Thirty
What: One CIA analyst’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden.
Grouch: For the simple fact that it continues a tiring discourse on America’s policy shortcomings, it shouldn’t win. If that isn’t enough, the film, and star Jessica Chastain in particular, suffer from the success of Showtime’s “Homeland.” We’ve seen the emotionally disturbed/obsessed analyst/field agent before. It’s unremarkable as a procedural thriller, rehashing territory covered by countless films since the World Trade Center fell. The only difference is that “Zero” actually deals directly with Bin Laden. And every time Chris Pratt is onscreen, it’s impossible not to think of him as Andy Dwyer in “Parks and Recreation.” Much like “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty” takes U.S. history and clips what it wants to serve its own needs.
2012 Best Picture snubs: “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Master.”
Worst Best Pictures of all time: “Tom Jones” (1963), “Rocky” (1976), “Dances With Wolves (1990), “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), “Chicago” (2002), “Crash” (2005).