Washington, DC, January 13, 2012 — This month, Oscar buzz is the name of the game. An announcement of the nominees will be rolling toward us on January 24, and the winners will be honored at the Academy Award Ceremonies on February 26.
The presence of love in each film in my picks may not be intuitively obvious to the critics. But it’s the key to “getting” what transforms each of these flicks into great ones.
My list of picks appears in alphabetical order. I love each for a different reason. And after all, a number has no meaning when love is the answer.
Each entry gets my love-key and a trailer.* (Don’t miss the footnote.)
The Artist: Hollywood, 1927: Silent movie matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, charismatic star of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies) is the reigning silent screen idol. He’s got the elegant mansion, the elegant wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), and the devoted chauffeur, Clifton (James Cromwell). Young, adorable extra Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a dancer set for a big break, enters, and we’ve got conflict.
This movie bears the touch of brilliance and risk that has become the Weinstein brothers’ signature (Did you see I’m Not There? Great Dylan flick. The Weinstein brothers financed that one, too.) For The Artist, they took a chance on writer/director/editor Michel Hazanavicius.
Love-key: This film must be seen in the theater because it’s in black and white and is virtually silent. The Artist proves why we go to the movies: for the love of narrative, for the love of the group experience, for the love of that big screen.
Beginners: Beginners’ subject is love: Mike Mills wrote, directed and based this moving, funny screenplay on his own father’s coming out at age 75. Oliver (Ewan McGregor) tells the story. He meets actress and elusive persona Anna (Mélanie Laurent of Inglorious Bastards) after his father Hal Fields (Christopher Plummer) has passed away.
Love-key: This flick’s screenplay stunned me and I wrote about it, along with another movie you should see that won’t make many others’ lists: “The Debt.” Read about both here: “Find LOVE: The Butterfly Effect.”
Oliver’s parents’ flawed marriage circles back and forth in his memory of childhood as we observe him caring for the dying and paradoxically vibrant-living, loving father. But Oliver can’t seem to find love. He’s overcome by grief when he meets Anna. The movie’s circles of love are transformative.
A Dangerous Method: This flick tackles the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), as well as both analysts’ relationship with Sabina Spierein (Keira Knightley). David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, Crash) directed from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons), who adapted his stage play The Talking Cure.
Love-key: This flick unconventionally explores the intimacy between therapist and client that the talking-cure must straddle in order to be effective. Jung crosses a boundary that Freud protects. Both therapists understand that the client must love the therapist to find the love of self that frees.
The Descendants: Alexander Payne (Sideways) directed and helped write the screenplay adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Matt King (George Clooney), inattentive, work-obsessed husband and father of two girls (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) goes on a journey of self-discovery when his wife falls into a coma after a boating accident, and he learns she’s been having an affair. His journey explores betrayal in a different Hawaii that’s not usually brought to the screen. We are not in paradise. We are in a real world.
Love-key: Watch the blanket that covers the unfaithful wife Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) as she lies unmoving. This blanket reappears at the close of the movie and it reveals the complexities of love and betrayal. Her survivors live and love under her mantle where goodness will continue to unfold, flawed and human.
Drive: Ryan Gossling gives a startling performance that includes an opening in which he doesn’t speak for five minutes. He plays a stunt driver, auto mechanic by day and getaway driver by night. The movie is stylishly directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Oscar Isaac all shine.
Love-key: This violent, tense film is held together by Gosling. His scenes with Carey Mulligan and with her son infuse a tightly driven, often bloody film with humanity. Love drives this driver and the violence becomes part and parcel of salvation. Hard to believe? You gotta see it to believe it.
J. Edgar: Clint Eastwood directed Leonardo DiCaprio’s career-capping performance. Hoover, a part of the American legend for good or for bad, is shown here in his inhumanity, his manipulation and his battle with himself.
Love-key: Eastwood’s choices in J. Edgar define humanity in the inhumane. He deals with Hoover’s duplicity and sexuality. On the question of Hoover’s homosexuality, he reveals it without the kind of cinematic voyeurism that might be expected. This is direction that comes from love. Unfortunately, Eastwood is too-often ignored by the award mavens. Apparently, his talent has become so large they can’t see this forest for all the lesser trees.
Margin Call: Written and directed by J.C. Chandler, this thriller, in a jam-packed 24 hours, takes on the banking debacle that fueled the U.S. financial crisis. Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci and Kevin Spacey anchor the film’s core to the extent that the humane is allocated space inside its frame. Meanwhile, Jeremy Irons is the very embodiment of the unscrupulous.
Love-key: I wrote about this film and Moneyball here.
The key in Margin Call is that love is missing. We discover instead a vacant and soulless financial world. Watch for the cigarette smoked in the early morning and Peter’s (Quinto’s) inquiry about Sam’s (Spacey’s) son, a tender moment that defines what is missing.
Midnight in Paris: Written and directed by Woody Allen, this film takes us on a literary and romantic tour of Paris, where Gil—Owen Wilson in the best-ever imitation of Woody—finds Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein at the stroke of midnight with a fateful step into a Cinderella-like coach.
Love-key: The Woody we love is back. The irony that underlies the tale and Woody’s take on literary idols and superficial intellectualism give this film legs. You can’t help but leave with a smile and believe that you’ve just seen a romantic comedy unlike any other – except perhaps Manhattan.
Moneyball: Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, real-life general manager of the Oakland A’s. Beane hires brainy, Yale-educated Peter Brand, played with unabashed vulnerability by Jonah Hill, who does statistical analyses of players’ strengths and weaknesses, leading to a fundamental breakthrough in how modern ballplayers are recruited.
Love-key: The relationship and ultimately unspoken love between Beane and Brand drive the film. Watch for the moment when the statistician Brande shows the discouraged Beane a film clip of a player doing what no one thought he could do. The viewer soon sees that the narrative arc is less about money, less about statistical reasoning and more about what can be done against all odds. That’s love.
My Week With Marilyn: It’s 1956. Marilyn Monroe, played in an Oscar-deserving performance by Michelle Williams, has gone to London, invited by Sir Laurence Olivier to play opposite him in The Prince and the Showgirl. The film purports to be the story of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), based on his real-life diary. But Marilyn and Michelle Williams are the story here.
Love-key: Without trying to look like Marilyn, Williams embodies her, heart and soul. The complexities of being loved by the world, overwhelmed by crowds, and never really known as a real person encompass the conflict. Michelle Williams enfolds them all, bringing to the screen the real Marilyn we knew we loved. To be so loved and to never have found love is the heartbreaking key to unlocking this picture’s wealth of human emotion.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Tomas Alfredson directed with the author John le Carré close at hand. It’s 1973 and we are in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), a.k.a. MI6 and code-named the “Circus.” The complicated, often hard-to-follow search for a mole, the spy among them, lies at the core of this complex film.
Love-key: The key is that the plot doesn’t really matter. Love does. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Tom Hardy all play characters who make their choices for love. While the movie sends us on the complex search for the spy in their midst, we learn that the Circus requires that all agents forgo love. Yet these characters, arguably and with duplicity, are driven by it.
The Tree of Life: Terrence Malick’s masterpiece relies on modules and fragments that knit together by film’s end. The story defies synopsis. Brad Pitt stuns. Sean Penn resonates. Jessica Chastain is ethereal.
Love-key: Follow Sean Penn’s struggle as Jack. Follow the young Jack played by Hunter McCracken and you will follow the struggle to forgive our parents’ flaws and find our own humanity in the face of loss.
Love is the answer. Now what was the question? That is the question.
One thing’s for sure: Love defines those 2012 movies that deserve the Oscar, whether they win one or not.
*Today’s movie tip: For a flat-out, heart-pounding, rollicking good time, go see Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol on the big IMAX. Not the point here, but love even drives this one.
Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and The Woman Who Never Cooked. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster” Find out more at http://maryltabor.com
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