I thought this was a strong year with a mostly impressive set of nominees. As for alts, I'd probably say The Master, though I'd push for it more enthusiastically under Director than Picture, as I thought it was a dazzlingly made, piercingly acted movie, but I didn't feel the pieces of the story entirely gelled by the end of it.
The only nominee I actively disliked was Les Mis. I'd seen the musical several times on stage, and though it was never a personal favorite, I never disliked it. I severely called that opinion into question while watching the movie, though I conclude that its real problems were a director without a bone of musicality in his body, and too many actors who just weren't remotely up to the vocal challenges of the music.
Beasts of the Southern Wild had arrived with raves out of Sundance. When I saw it on opening day, I thought it was...fine. It had compelling elements -- a child performance that was far more natural than most, a rousing score -- and I admired Benh Zeitlin's work in creating something that was clearly its own strange unique thing. But while the film had some strong scenes, overall the story felt pretty aimless to me, and I didn't see the greatness in this affecting but minor effort that so many others did.
Django Unchained had a lot of elements that make Tarantino films appealing -- memorable characters embodied by actors having a lot of fun with their roles, clever dialogue, set pieces that provide real visceral thrills. But, more than a lot of his movies, it was bogged down by his excesses as well, namely a lack of discipline in storytelling. Which is to say, simply, the movie is way too damn long. The Candyland segment feels like it just goes on forever, and by the time we got to the big shoot-out, I assumed that was the story's climax. Nope, a whole new act kicked in, and I wasn't really in the mood to sit through all that. Not an unworthy effort, but one that feels more like a rough draft of a Tarantino movie than a fully realized one.
I found Argo to be a perfectly enjoyable film -- it was as consistently suspenseful as many of the best thrillers, but was more fully grounded and intelligent than much of what passes for that genre today. When critics praised its '70's-style aesthetic, they weren't wrong. The thing is, I wouldn't rank this remotely close to a top-notch effort from that era -- it was more typical of the kind of thriller that seemed to come out every few weeks in that decade. I think the movie's coronation says a lot about how low mainstream movies for adults have fallen, that a smart and well-crafted but not especially original or profound film like this could be viewed as such a blast of fresh air. And the uproar over Affleck's snub is a great example of actors getting graded on a curve when they turn to directing -- I've liked all of Affleck's movies, but I find the director far more a solid craftsman than any kind of visionary. Far more unique filmmakers have been denied director spots to far less outrage.
The bulk of Life of Pi has some of the year's most beautiful filmmaking. With basically one location, only one human character, and minimal dialogue, Ang Lee and his collaborators found a way to turn a seemingly unfilmable story into a breathtaking spectacle of color, sound, and effect, that also brought to life a gripping and powerful narrative. Ang Lee hasn't always been a visually ostentatious director, but I've always found his work impressive in this era -- here, I think he should put to rest any criticism that he doesn't bring a lot of imagination to the table in that department. All of that being said, the bookend sequences were pretty clearly a problem -- at one point, the narrator's friend said something like "It's an amazing story...but what does it all mean?" and I just about audibly groaned. The blunt and clunky nature of the writing in this chunk of the movie didn't severely detract from my appreciation of the rest of it, but it does prevent me from voting for it.
I was surprised by the hostility Silver Linings Playbook received in some quarters, because up to that point, I hadn't ever enjoyed a David O. Russell movie as much as this one. He had always seemed to me to be a very erratic director -- obviously talented, but with a sensibility that didn't always lend itself to creating emotionally resonant, coherent narratives. I had no such problem here, as I felt his reckless energy provided the perfect edge to counterpoint the film's romantic comedy tropes. In a way, that great dance number at the end is a perfect reflection of the film itself -- a little bit ungainly, awkward in spots, but full of life, humor, and an emotionally joyous ending. I do think the movie sometimes wants to have its social issue cake and eat its romantic comedy movie too -- and Harvey Weinstein's peddling of the film as an IMPORTANT movie about mental illness was pretty obnoxious -- but I found it very pleasurable, with a completely winning cast.
My votes in both categories would come down to the remaining three movies, and they all seem so different in their aims and aesthetics that it's very difficult for me to choose. I can see why many have gravited toward Amour. It's a bracing piece of work, an honest and brutal portrait of the physical and emotional experience of dying (and watching a loved one slip away), filled with the sort of shocking horrors one would expect from Michael Haneke's take on this subject. And yet, I don't know if the director has ever crafted scenes as emotionally heartfelt as those in this film (Riva's "It's beautiful...life...so long" scene as she flips through her photo album is a thing of simple delicate beauty.) I watched the movie again recently, and found it just as powerful as I had in the theater...but I will acknowledge that it's a smallish effort, and I think I'm drawn a bit more to the scope of the remaining two films when declaring movie of the year. But I'll pick Haneke as Best Director, as tribute to his impressive filmography, the terrific performances he gets out of his leads, and the way he manages to preserve his singularly bold sensibilities while lending them an emotional heart.
He also gets my vote because Kathryn Bigelow is not on the ballot, and her omission under Director was absolutely my biggest disappointment of nomination morning. I don't think Zero Dark Thirty is as thoroughly wonderful a movie as The Hurt Locker -- its labyrinthine web of investigative leads and red herrings sometimes gets a little murky for me, even after multiple viewings. But on the whole I think it's another stellar effort from the director, a consistently gripping, politically thorny thriller that packages very recent history into a drama that feels both urgent and cathartic. And the raid on the compound is a dazzlingly directed sequence that's frightening and, by film's end, overwhelmingly sad -- scenes like Chastain identifying the body, or sitting alone on the plane, reveal the weight and personal cost of her endeavor in a manner that never feels jingoistic. It would have been a perfectly worthy Best Picture choice.
But, in a very close race, I'm going to go with Lincoln as Best Picture. dws, THIS was the recent Spielberg film where I felt he was channeling John Ford to most impressive effect. The repeated shots of Lincoln as iconography -- often framed by doorways or windows like an image in a photograph -- seem straight out of the Ford bag of tricks, and serve both to memorialize and demyth America's sixteenth president and his place in history. This was, I think, Spielberg's best film in some time, though oddly, a lot of that has to do with the fact that the director often just stays out of the script's way -- although Lincoln is a very good-looking movie, a lot of the visual flourishes we've come to expect from Spielberg take a back seat to Tony Kushner's terrific script, which does a wonderful job of showcasing the ways in which politics have very personal effects on individual lives. I think it's one of the best films about the political process in America, and its story of compromises, shady deals, and betrayals makes the film seem far less like an embalmed history piece than a political drama that still feels deeply relevant today. And it even has a completely unexpected but thoroughly welcome sense of humor! Throw in the year's best cast (from the towering work by Day-Lewis at its center down to every terrific day player), a patriotic yet mournful score, and a terrific sense of period detail, and you have a film I'd have been perfectly happy to see crowned Best Picture.