Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture 2012

By the votes of the approximately 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, these are the top nine films of 2011. They’ve also been assessed by the critical community who have appreciated them and articulated why and how these film

THE ARTIST


Relative to their take on other films, critics were in strong agreement when it came to “The Artist,” Michel Hazanavicius’ black-and-white ode to silent films: They love it.

Among the 182 reviews surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes, 97% gave the movie high marks, including all 39 that were written by “top critics.” It’s the website’s highest score for any of the nine Oscar-nommed best picture candidates.

” ‘The Artist’ feels as bold and innovative a moviegoing experience as James Cameron’s bells-and-whistles ‘Avatar’ did a couple of years ago,” Steven Rea wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Retro becomes nuevo. Quaint becomes cool.”

Many critics acknowledge the film comes with a storyline made up of familiar ingredients — the dashing star at the top of his career who meets a beautiful ingenue in the late 1920s, about the time Hollywood is transitioning to the talkies and just before his world comes crashing down. Several writers, in fact, reference 1937’s “A Star Is Born” and 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain” in their reviews.

But this pic stands out because it’s not one of “the noisy, neurotic assault vehicles that movies have become,” according to Ty Burr of the Boston Globe.

“End-of-the-year plaudits equal bigness in most people’s minds, and ‘The Artist’ is a small, exquisitely-cut jewel in a style everyone assumes is 80 years out of date. That assumption, of course, is wrong,” he wrote.

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle agreed: “To see ‘The Artist’ is to realize how much movies have lost from having gained so much technical sophistication.”

In his review, Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic observed that “The Artist” refers to the movie’s silent-film idol, played by the Oscar-nominated Jean Dujardin. “For Hazanavicius whose brilliant work has produced one of the year’s best movies, it’s an apt description as well,” Goodykoontz added.
– Jerry Rice

THE DESCENDANTS


Released last November, “The Descendants,” Alexander Payne’s deft adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel, swiftly ascended the rankings of numerous noted film critics, wooed by George Clooney’s quiet and nuanced performance as Matt King, a cuckolded husband struggling to raise his two angry and confused daughters (played to perfection by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) while his philandering wife lay dying in a coma following a boating accident on Waikiki Beach.

“This is Clooney’s show, and he is hands-down terrific as a harried father and wary husband trying to make up for lost time,” wrote Los Angeles Times film critic Betsy Sharkey. “The actor has opened up his heart, allowing waves of resentment and regret to batter him, loyalty and love to test him.”

Critics also appreciated Payne’s careful handling of a story that could have easily slipped into melodramatic territory.

“There are times when you laugh or gasp in disbelief at what has just happened,” wrote New York Times critic A.O. Scott. “An old man punches a teenager in the face; a young girl utters an outrageous obscenity; Mr. Clooney slips on a pair of boat shoes and runs, like an angry, flightless bird, to a neighbor’s house — and yet every moment of the movie feels utterly and unaffectedly true.”

The film also contains a “lively and complicated mesh of plots and subplots,” noted Scott, particularly the storyline in which King, descended of Hawaiian royalty and the chief trustee of his family’s estate, wrestles with the decision of whether to sell a pristine hunk of beachfront land on the island of Kauai.

But King’s Hawaii is no surfer’s paradise. Rather, it’s an archipelago of familial strife and searing emotional pain. This sobering twist on the idyllic Hawaii of most bigscreen fare struck a trenchant chord.

“(‘The Descendants’) delves into the notion of legacies — the good and bad that we inherit, the love and hate we leave behind,” wrote Sharkey. “It also deals with the raw emotions that life-threatening moments stir up, a very rare bit of honest refection for an American movie.”
– Malina Saval

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE


An adaptation of the critically acclaimed 2005 Jonathan Safran Foer novel about a precocious young boy trying to make sense of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that claimed his father, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” pulled critics in different directions, but while the film had its detractors, many of the nation’s top critics were both articulate and passionate in defense of the film’s extremely ambtious and challenging material.

It was “genuinely moving and often lovely” (Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times), ” “moving and incredibly compassionate” (Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press) and “impeccably acted” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone). But Travers also noted one aspect of the film that seemed to be at the heart of the less gentle critiques that greeted the film’s release.

Travers said “Extremely Loud” was also “self-important in the way that Oscar loves.”

In the movie, newcomer Thomas Horn stars as Oskar Schell, who finds a key left behind by his father and then goes on a quixotic journey through New York City trying to find the lock it belongs to. The performance, which has him in nearly every scene, won kudos from several critics, including Lisa Kennedy at the Denver Post.

Horn “carries the weight of Oskar’s sorrow and the responsibility for the movie’s emotional tug on his slender shoulders,” she wrote.

Horn’s castmates — including Max von Sydow in an Oscar-nommed performance as the mysterious mute — also received attaboys. For example, Steve Persall, writing in the Tampa Bay Times, called Von Sydow “the most genuine part of this movie.”

In the New York Observer, Rex Reed summed up the critics’ conflicted views, noting, “in a film that distills the varied and decimating emotional traumas of 9/11, it’s easy to overlook the flaws.”

But Matt Soergel, a critic with the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, was plenty moved and gave the pic 3.5 stars out of 4. And when it comes to the film’s manipulations, he asked, “Don’t all films manipulate?”
– Jerry Rice

THE HELP


Director Tate Taylor’s cinematic adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling 2009 novel, “The Help” enamored those critics who fell hard for the powerful, tear-jerker performances of a cast including Oscar nominees Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer.

“Onscreen, Spencer and Viola Davis, both great actresses, have given Stockett’s words the shape, the rhythm, and the pitch of their own temperaments,” wrote the New Yorker’s David Denby. “They sound right.”

“Viola Davis possesses phenomenal concentration. When she fixes her eyes on another woman, she seems to see right into her soul, and the effect is unnerving. Octavia Spencer has a baleful eye and wicked timing; she turns her defiant scorn into expertly delivered riffs. It’s deliciously satisfying to see her play a woman who won’t hold her tongue.”

How
ever many critics followed a line that began with the publication of the film’s source materal, issuing objections to Stockett’s premise, in which Skeeter (Emma Stone), a privileged, young white woman, pens a book in the voices of black maids in Jackson, Miss., during the civil-rights movement. That Skeeter’s effort ultimately serves as pop cultural entertainment for a town full of upper middle-class racists is not lost on those who take issue with the film’s nuanced account of segregation in the Deep South.

One especially sharp critique came from the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, who contested the film’s “conceit that the white characters, with their troubled relationships and unloved children, carry burdens equal to those of the black characters.”

And Nelson George, critic and author of “Hip Hop America,” called “The Help” “a chick flick about something which is basically set in the era of Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the civil-rights movement.”

But from Denby’s perspective, the film’s strengths — in its heartbreaking moments (Davis’ nurturing maid character torn apart from a wailing toddler) and terrific ensemble cast –eclipse the film’s essential gentleness, which some perceived as soft .

” ‘The Help’ …” countered Denby, “opens up a broad new swath of experience on the screen, and parts of it are so moving and well-acted that any objections to what’s second-rate seem to matter less as the movie goes on.”
– Malina Saval

HUGO


If ever you needed proof that Martin Scorsese is loved by film critics, you need go no further than to pull up reviews for “Hugo.”

Typical of the critical reaction is Andrew Lapin, writing for NPR and calling the pic “a marvel of spectacle, a sensory feast steeped in cinematic lore that proves pure joy is attainable in three dimensions.”

Reviews for the pic — a family film made in stereoscopic 3D that integrates pic preservation and pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies into the plot — have been over the moon in love with the intricate production design, tight script, engaging performances and, most astonishingly for critics, the way it uses 3D. Peter Debruge of Variety found Scorsese “invigorated” by the new technology and how he uses it on items as small as dust specks and snowfall to add enchantment to the tale.

However, few reviews go into specifics, preferring instead to focus on how well-suited “Hugo” is for Scorsese despite having apparently little in common with “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” or “Goodfellas.” In contrast, dissenters seem to have looked deeper at the actual movie and found it in some ways too perfect a fit for Scorsese’s interests.

“For all the wizardry on display, ‘Hugo’ often feels like a film about magic instead of, well, a magical film,” wrote David Edelstein in New York magazine.

More than a few critics also asked how well this film, nominally aimed at families, would connect with youths.

“Scorsese is one of the great cynics and ironists, but place him at kids’-eye level and you have taken away his chief skill,” said Kyle Smith in the New York Post. “The result is a movie that’s kinetic yet slow, whose joys are architectural more than spiritual,” added Mick La Salle of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The rarity of the criticisms of the film is remarkable, and lends credence to the common notion that, as Debruge put it, ” ‘Hugo’s’ timeless qualities should distinguish it as an achievement with the style and substance to endure.”
–Thomas J. McLean

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS


The playful but high-minded “Midnight in Paris” has become one of Woody Allen’s most successful films, at the box office and in the critic’s corner, scoring Allen his biggest haul of Oscar nominations in years, for writing, directing, picture and art direction.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times described the movie as a kind of “daydream for American lit majors” because the story so meticulously follows the paths of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and other expats who made Paris their home when America failed to enchant them.

But Ebert was also aware that some critics and film fans might expect the film to treat these literary heroes more reverentially and warned that “Midnight” was “not for everyone,” even though its lighter touch might lead you to believe it was appealing to a larger audience

For instance, Lawrence Toppman of the Charlotte Observer also complained the film “fell apart” as too easy, too mainstream and not “consequential” for a helmer known for his insights into the darker side of human nature.

Among the supportive critics, Stephanie Zacharek of Movieline and David Edelstein of New York magazine gave the film kudos for taking a kind of wistful romp with characters who long for bygone eras that they romanticize primarily because they never had to live through them and their actual complications.

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone also praised the film for taking apart the kind of nostalgia that makes someone think any era — except the one in which they live — would be a more interesting place to be. Despite the fact that Allen gives his characters a more gentle treatment in this film, the bulk of critics still found it thoughtful, provocative and among the helmer’s best efforts.
– Karen Idelson

MONEYBALL


It might not sound sexy to make a movie about statistics, but when the film “Moneyball” combined them with baseball, American ideology about fairness and the giddy thrill of seeing a sport played live, those numbers became compelling for most critics and audiences.

Early on, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times remarked on Brad Pitt’s subtle but edgy performance, with Ebert in particular pointing toward the film’s depth and intelligence.

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and Peter Debruge of Variety also gave the film raves for Pitt’s performance and for taking a good long look at the soul of professional sports from a perspective that was critical of the sort of thinking and spending that drives up the payroll of teams like the New York Yankees, yet compassionate toward those who still feel inspired to play the game despite the inequities that exist within it. And Richard Corliss of Time came right out with an endorsement of Pitt’s performance as worthy of an Oscar nomination.

While the buzz was overwhelmingly positive, there were some holdouts who weren’t moved by the film’s storytelling and even found it to be just something of a niche sports film that didn’t completely overcome the limitations of the genre.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub and Slant’s Bill Weber were two who were not siding with the majority of the critics, citing it for too freely sliding between fact and fiction. The Chronicle criticized the film for taking a lot of liberties with the actual “chronology and context” of real events in the service of cinematic technique.

Overall, however, most critics were won over by the overall power of the story and what it aimed to say about a sport that’s held up as America’s pasttime as it comes to terms with its own complicated future.
– Karen Idelson

THE TREE OF LIFE


No film was as rhapsodically raved about this year by some critics — or argued about as vehementl
y by others — as “The Tree of Life.”

Debuting to boos and applause at Cannes, critics heaped near-universal praise upon the ambitious Palme d’Or winner, with many calling director Terrence Malick’s portrait of childhood life in post-war Texas genius and confessing it moved them to tears and beyond.

“In uncanny ways, the central events of ‘The Tree of Life’ reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me,” wrote Roger Ebert. “If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this.”

Critics were most split by a risky sequence almost universally compared to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” that recounts the birth of the universe and features CG dinosaurs.

“When he stays within the multiple minds of his various characters, Malick is working here at the level of genius,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle. “But when he ventures into explorations of the universe and its origins, the work becomes general and less interesting, like warmed-over Kubrick.”

Justin Chang of Variety disagreed, however: “Viewers may not always be sure of what they’re looking at during this sequence, but that’s no hindrance to appreciating the sublime imagery or the rhapsodic force of the accompanying choral and orchestral tracks.”

Drawing the most debate is the film’s ending, with Sean Penn playing one of the now-grown children having a spiritual revelation. “The dinosaurs, I can take; the souls on the beach, the hugging and the rapprochement with God, that’s too much,” said Jason Solomons of the Guardian.

While the overall result is a wave of critical praise, there is a minority of dissenters who found the film’s focus on big ideas and capital-A art distancing and overreaching. “It is rare to see naked emotions portrayed so vividly, especially in an American film, but the qualities captured in those moments are diluted, not enhanced, by Malick’s attempt to relate them to an earthly continuum,” argued Leonard Maltin.
–Thomas J. McLean

WAR HORSE


In adapting the popular 1982 Michael Morpurgo children’s novel turned Tony award-winning stage play “War Horse,” director Steven Spielberg earned high marks for his ability to tug at audience’s heart strings, stage homages to classic films and create inventively realistic war scenes.

But it’s how well the mix of those disparate elements went down that defined the critics’ responses.

“I will admit now that I shed tears watching this film. More than I’d like to admit,” wrote David Poland at Movie City News. “And I don’t feel like I was manipulated at all.”

Dana Stevens at Slate summed up a more common refrain: “One minute, you’re rolling your eyes at its corniness; the next, you’re discreetly dabbing at those same eyes with the back of your hand.”

Reactions to the various episodes in the story differed radically, with the restrained, but not whitewashed war scenes earning the highest marks.

Of particular mention is the charge of an unsuspecting cavalry into a forest laden with machine guns and an execution where the actual killing moment is hidden briefly by a windmill blade that New York magazine’s David Edelstein called “among the most merciful depictions of murder I’ve seen, yet still unspeakable.”

The impact of the huge tonal shifts, multiple episodes and the film’s non-human protagonist elicited a variety of responses.

Although the film has proved to be a solid boxoffice winner, many critics questioned its appropriateness for young audiences.

Roger Ebert, describing Joey as “such a helpless protagonist that watching his adventures becomes painful — especially, I suspect, for younger viewers.”

But the primal appeal of the story and the care with which it is told, won the day for many critics.

“If you are not moved to tears … then you need to see a doctor,” said Rex Reed of the New York Observer.
–Thomas J. McLean

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