Previewing the Oscars, Baseball Nation-style

Because this site is devoted to baseball and Chris Pratt was in Moneyball and now he's in Zero Dark Thirty, Rob Neyer and Jim Baker felt obligated to write a few words about this year's Best Picture nominees ...

Rob: Hello, Jim! Oddly enough, the last time I did something like this, my partner was Jim Caple. So this should be an easy transition. I figured we would focus on the Oscar-nominated films, just because a Year in Movies thing could take us forever. But before we do get into the Oscars, I'd like to mention at least briefly some of our favorite neglected films.

Here are my favorite movies of last year that were not nominated for Best Film:

Cloud Atlas
Moonrise Kingdom
This is 40
Avengers
Footnote

Jim: I think films have to have to have at least two of the following three things going for them to get nominated: box office, gravitas, sentiment. Cloud Atlas had the gravitas, but not the other two. Same with Moonrise. Avengers had the box office, but not the other two. This is 40 might have had some gravitas, but didn't click with the critics and did OK box office. Here are my five favorite non-nominees:

The Dark Knight Rises
Skyfall
Looper
Flight
Moonrise Kingdom

Rob: I'm not sure what you mean by "sentiment", but if you mean that the movie itself is sentimental, Moonrise definitely qualifies. If you mean that people were sentimental for it, then maybe you're right but then it depends on what you mean by "people" I suspect that most of the people who saw Moonrise Kingdom -- that is, Wes Anderson fans -- have plenty of sentiment for it. I was really surprised that it didn't get a nod, but whatever; at least it made more than enough money to ensure a healthy budget for his next one.

This is 40 was terribly neglected by the critics (as a whole). It's just as funny, maybe funnier, than Knocked Up. And I found the situation and the characters a lot more believable. Of course, I'm naturally biased toward a movie that features both Graham Parker and Ryan Adams. But I've long wondered if Apatow could actually make a great movie, and now I think he has.

Dark Knight and Skyfall were basically next on my list; I do take some pride in being one of the rare birds who liked Avengers more than Dark Knight. I thought the former was truer to itself. Looper was really good, if somewhat ridiculous and utterly illogical. I really wanted to love Flight, but I wish I'd just stuck with the awesome trailer. The last act seemed terribly contrived.

Jim: By "sentiment" I meant the kind of thing where the voters think to themselves, "We'd better give ol' whatshisname a statue before he croaks" or something like that.

Rob: Ah, got it. That makes sense.

Jim: After you threw out your five, I had a bit of trouble coming up with another five. Was it a weak year, or did I just not see enough movies?

Rob: Well, I wasn't suggesting you come up with another five. But I think it was far from a weak year. I saw [checking spreadsheet ...] 30 2012 releases that I really enjoyed, including one great documentary (Searching for Sugarman). Among the "small films" I liked were Deep Blue Sea, Robot and Frank, Bernie, Safety Not Guaranteed, Sleepwalk With Me ... and I'm sure I missed a bunch of them. I think movies are as good as ever, and probably better. The high points might not be quite as high, but the middling movies are much better. Just like music's better, television's better ... pretty much all the arts, except jazz.

Jim: One of the reasons I've always valued the Academy Awards over all the other awards is because they limit the categories, not messing with dividing into genres and that sort of thing. I thought the move to more BP nominees was getting away from this exclusivity somewhat and, while giving a few deserving films a nod, also making room for even more less-deserving films. (Plus, selfishly, as someone who tries to see every nominee, it places a greater burden on me, Johnny Filmgoer.)

Rob: Well, there is that. I do miss being able to see all the nominees so easily, and I used to make a real effort too. But I did (and do) applaud the change, because it might give some box-office legs to a few extra damned good movies. Speaking of which, let's run through the nominees now. I was thinking in reverse order of Las Vegas odds? That means Beasts of the Southern Wild first, which would probably get my vote among the nominees. There were just so many things I liked about it ... the way it took us to a different sort of world (even while staying within our national borders), and the fantasy angle with the Aurochs, and the Malick-style atmosphere, including moody voiceover ... I found it captivating, while admittedly difficult to watch at times. I'm a little surprised that Beasts is the longest shot to win, at 100 to 1.

Jim: I didn't see Beasts. Not sure why I didn't see it at the art house when I had the chance. I don't have Netflix and it doesn't seem to be available on any of the 71 movie channels I get. It's not on On Demand, otherwise I'd make you pause our discussion while I watched it for the next two hours.

Rob: Well, that's your loss. Maybe if Bradley Cooper had played Hushpuppy ... So I'm taking these in order of the Vegas odds, and next up is Django Unchained. I gotta say -- and I've loved a number of Tarantino's movies -- I just didn't really get this one, at all. What's always distinguished his movies for me, or at least the ones I've loved, has been the dialogue in all its loopy and sometimes meandering glory. But that element is almost entirely missing from Django, and for me there wasn't enough left. I mean, I did enjoy it; I think Tarantino's probably incapable of making a boring movie. But it's probably his worst, and hardly Oscar material.

Jim: I still wish that the Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds had been carrying a Hank Greenberg bat. My main concern with Django is how the Foley artist got that distinctive sound he got when bullets were hitting prone bodies. It conjured up MAD Magazine's Don Martin amazing onomatopoeia: Splork!!! Splooomsh! Pretty amazing. As for the dialogue, I liked that it was sparser than in film's past. Django himself was not the kind of character who would give forth as though on a soap box, so it's to Tarantino's credit that he didn't have him saying much. Dr. Schultz certainly liked to go on in detail, as did Calvin Candie and Stephen. I get your point that the dialogue was more earthbound than in past films; the characters mostly stuck to moving the story along rather than making observations. I thought that was a strength. And you're right, Tarantino is an entertainer of the highest order. I'd like to point out that, according to Rotten Tomatoes' Audience Meter, Django scored a 94, the highest ranking among the nine Best Picture nominees.

Rob: Okay. I still say it's a misstep, and signals that his powers are waning. Which I suppose was already obvious, since his best movies were made years and years ago. Anyway, next up is Life of Pi. Your thoughts?

Jim: I learned something from this movie that I never knew before; that there was a French portion of India. How did I not know that? It made me feel ignorant. Once I got over that, I enjoyed it. The visuals were stunning -- pointing out the obvious -- but it takes great skill to keep a lifeboat story interesting and it succeeded on that level, too.

Rob: I don't think I enjoyed it as much as you did. I just noticed that I never entered it in my movie log, but it would probably rank as my 25th favorite of the year or thereabouts, in line with Casa de mi Padre and Ted (but ahead of To Rome With Love!). Funny thing, I tried to read the novel a few years ago and lost interest after about 20 pages. I'm not blaming the novelist or the filmmaker; for whatever reason, I just haven't emotionally connected with the material in either form.

Next up is Amour, which is sort of a problem since neither of us has seen it. I take no pride in this; by all accounts, it's a wonderful look at an aging French couple and I'm sure it's worth seeing. I just haven't seen it and probably won't, at least not while I'm still undiapered.

Jim: I had an opportunity to see it today at this very moment, but decided that life is too short. I'm the kind of person that vulgarians probably think is an aesthete and aesthetes think is a vulgarian, so I can go either way on this sort of fare. When it came to Amour, I went with the vulgarian side of me. I'm sure it's a wonderful look at aging, but I get an even more wonderful look at aging in the mirror and in the reports my doctors give me, so I'm going to take a permanent pass on this one and if that makes me less of a person, so be it.

Rob: Movie #5, smack in the middle of the list, is ZERO DARK THIRTY ... and I suspect that you and I could talk about this one alone for an hour, since we're both aficionados of war movies. And this is a war movie ... at least the last 30-odd minutes, assuming it counts as a war movie if only one side is actually shooting. I gotta say, it's obviously a brilliantly made film but I have a LOT of problems with it, which I'll be happy to enumerate. But we haven't talked since I saw it. What's your quick take?

Jim: Ms. Bigelow is now the pre-eminent creator of small-unit action scenes.

Rob: Uh, okay. Does she have any competition? Ben Stiller did some bang-up work in Tropic Thunder, and I thought Spielberg shot some interesting scenes in Saving Private Ryan. But I'll concede the point. My biggest problem with the movie is that acts like a documentary but makes up almost everything. I do appreciate the ambiguity and the grittiness, but at heart it's still very much a traditional Hollywood movie, and there were times when this bothered me.

I don't think this is giving anything away ... In the last shot, Jessica Chastain is sitting alone in the vast cargo hold of a military transport, and the immensity of what's happened over the last decade shows on her face, and it's not clear that she's even happy about having finally accomplished her mission. Oh, did I mention she's in the middle of a desert and probably hasn't seen a proper washroom in days? Except here's the thing ... her hair and her makeup are just perfect, which leeched some of the truth out of the moment. For me, anyway.

Jim: This gets to a larger point about what Hollywood owes us in terms of truth. We have a number of nominees this year that purport to tell true stories or that take place in a real past: Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Lincoln, Django Unchained, and Les Miserables. How many of them actually get it right? Which one comes closest? One thing I loved about Inglorious Basterds is that opening title that states, "Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France..." This is Tarantino giving himself a get-out-of-jail-free card. When people complain that it's not historically accurate, he can just point at that title, shrug his shoulders and say, "I told you at the beginning it's a fairy tale..." (I kind of expected a similar title at the beginning of Django, "Once upon a time in the antebellum American South...")

Shouldn't almost all films with historical settings carry a similar reminder that what you are about to see is going to stray from the truth by varying degrees? I'm always disappointed to learn that movies don't tell things the way they occurred -- and I should know better by now. So, I leave Zero Dark Thirty thinking it's as good a movie as I've seen all year and then start reading about where they strayed from reality and my love for it dissipates.

Rob: Yeah, I guess we can blame Wikipedia for that. How many times have I scurried home from a movie and immediately gone to The Big W to see which facts were fudged? I'll quibble a bit with you about Inglourious Basterds, because Tarantino didn't need a get-out-of-jail card; NOBODY watching that movie could have thought anything in it actually happened. He did that mostly as a joke. What's funny is that people who make movies like Zero Dark Thirty actually go the other direction, putting something like "Based on a True Story" on the screen before it starts. Well, yeah: Sort of. I will say, though, that I detected that movie's artifice well before I got home. There was just no way that one plucky young woman -- or man! -- would have done everything that Jessica Chastain's character does. I mean, it just got sort of ridiculous.

Again, though, that's Hollywood. And I'm okay with it, generally. I just think that while Zero Dark Thirty gets some points for verisimilitude, it also loses some. In the end, it does address some interesting issues and doesn't wind up with easy answers -- despite what you might have heard from both sides of the political aisle -- but it's still, in many ways, conventional Hollywood entertainment. Which is a theme I'll return to, with our very next nominee ...

Jim: So, it is therefore resolved that we'll watch the History Channel for the straight dope (especially about Ancient Aliens!!!) and go to the movies to be entertained and understand that only once in a great while, as with Blackhawk Down, the twain shall meet.

Jim: Silver Linings Playbook was a movie I liked out the door, but grew to dislike the more I thought about it -- especially the third act where the father bets the family business on a bizarre parlay. I never got my head around a guy who was a bookmaker who made huge bets based on emotion and superstition and OCD activities. To me, a movie like that, in order to work properly, has to be a bit more grounded in reality. I didn't buy into the secondary characters (Chris Tucker and Bradley Cooper's analyst), either. I will give the movie props for one thing: In old Hollywood ...

SPOILER ALERT! SKIP AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK!

... they would have improbably won the dance contest.

Rob: You're right! That scene reminded me of Little Miss Sunshine, where a similar scene ended similarly. I also agree with your other comments, but I don't think those things bothered me quite as much as they bothered you. In the end, though, for all its off-beat qualities, this too was a Hollywood movie, hitting some traditional romantic-comedy notes. In fact, it's probably one of my four favorite romantic comedies, along with The American President, The Princess Bride, and Deliverance. In my local paper, they ran the anonymous comments of three Oscar voters, one of whom gave Playbook the clean sweep: Best Picture, Best Director, and all four actor categories. Seems over-the-top to me, but it was my fifth-favorite movie of the year. And DeNiro gets my Supporting Actor nod.

Jim: I'm going to plead the 5th Amendment on the next film, Les Miserables, as I did not see it. I've seen 90 percent of the nominated films over the last 20 years, but I held my breath this year, hoping they wouldn't nominate Les Mis because I simply do not care to see it. When they went ahead and did it anyway, I decided that my completism could go to hell. I don't like the story without singing, for crying out loud.

Rob: A few months before Les Mis came out, every time I saw a movie, the pre-festivities advertisements included an extended, five-minute trailer (of sorts) for this thrilling new musical spectacular. So after seeing that two or three times, I certainly felt no need to see the actual film. Even though I do think it's sorta cool when actors sing. Anyway, I haven't seen it, either, and won't. Which leaves only two, Lincoln and Argo.

I can't honestly say that Lincoln is a great movie, except for Daniel Day-Lewis ... but Daniel Day-Lewis is so great, the movie might be. It's good enough, anyway, that I'm looking forward to seeing it again. None of the other characters really did anything for me, though, and I actually found Tommy Lee Jones, for all his talents, distracting rather than affecting. He's just got such distinctive features that every time he was on the screen, all I could think was, "Hey, there's Tommy Lee Jones playing a 19th Century politician with convictions!"

Jim: Let's say you had to present the case for Lincoln as Best Picture in a court of law. You would cite as precedent the case of Gandhi in 1982. In other words, it's the kind of movie that seems destined to be a best picture because of the weight of its subject matter. I also believe that a single, masterful performance can carry a film to the Best Picture award, regardless of what the supporters are up to.

Rob: Sure, but apparently everybody's betting favorite is Argo, which I really enjoyed but doesn't feel like a Best Picture to me. I mean, it's a Best Picture if it wins, by definition. But I don't think I could vote for it. Earlier, you outlined what it takes for a movie to become Best Picture. Here's what it takes for something to be my best picture ... First, it's got to perfect, or nearly perfect. Second, it's got to hit me emotionally. I have to either laugh a ton, or be reduced to tears, preferably as the closing credits begin to roll; when I step outside, I want to be in a sort of daze. And third, I need to feel like this movie will stand the test of time, will someday be considered a classic. Are we going to be watching Argo in 20 years? I guess that's impossible to say, but I think we probably won't.

Last year, The Artist was that movie for me, and it won. The year before, The King's Speech was not, but it won; I would have voted for True Grit, or Winter's Bone, or Toy Story 3 (that was a good year for great movies!).

In retrospect, while 2012 was a good year for movies, I don't think it was a good year for GREAT movies. Forced to choose between the nominees, I'm going with Beasts of the Southern Wild. But I resent that I can't vote for Moonrise Kingdom, which will (I think) come to be considered a classic.

Jim: I think your criteria for a Best Picture are pretty good. Mine, which extends to all movies, is how much I think about it the next day. Or in the following days, weeks, and months. Argo was a fun ride, but it was gone from my mind almost the second after the final credits. I don't think it's going to have legs, but then, a lot of Best Pictures (I'm looking at you, Shakespeare in Love) and nominees don't.

As for a movie having to be perfect, that's tough. I've seen very few perfect movies. One of the main things I look for is a movie staying true to itself and what it sets out to do. Galaxy Quest is a perfect movie. Master and Commander is perfect. Brother, Where Art Thou and the movie that inspired its title, Sullivan's Travels -- these are perfect movies to me. But a perfect movie might not be an all-time great movie. Argo might be a perfect movie (although I have come to resent the made-up drama at the end). But, as you said, it more than likely does not have what it takes to ascend to classic status.

Rob: Agreed about Argo: It's a really fun ride and maybe even perfect. But that's not really enough, or at least not every year. I'm not averse to supporting really fun rides if they're perfect, and I would probably make a case for Jaws as a fine Best Picture choice (it lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - gravitas!). But not Argo, this year.

Speaking of which, you still haven't offered your choice for Best Picture.

Jim: My choice would have to be Les Miserables, since I didn't see it and therefore cannot be prejudiced against it. Wait ... that's not right. I'm going with Zero Dark Thirty. The first casualty of war is truth, so what the heck!

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