THE RACE IS ON: THE 2012 ACADEMY AWARDS

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Romney, Santorum and Co. might be out there on the campaign trail in the Republican primary race, but c’mon: We here at Viva! — yours truly, especially — know that the only race REALLY worth caring about is the race for that little gold statue called Oscar. Well, it’s that time again — this year’s Oscarcast is scheduled for Sunday, February 26th — and, in keeping with tradition, here are my picks for who, and what, deserve to take home the gold. (Remember I’m not discussing who WILL win, but who I think DESERVES  to win.)
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The envelope, please!
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My choice for Best Picture is …
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“THE DESCENDANTS”
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There’s an old saying in boxing: sometimes you’ve got to knock out the champ to beat the champ. Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” has been at the top of my list of Best Picture nominees for months — yep, that’s how long it’s been “the champ” — and after having seen the competition, I can safely say that its crown is secure; no one has KO’d it yet.
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Starring as a middle-aged Everyman with a dying wife and two spirited young daughters, George Clooney has a kind of shabby, pouchy-eyed weariness about him that we rarely see these days. The girls, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, are revelations (particularly Woodley), the direction by Payne (helming his first film in years) is top-notch, and that final scene between Clooney and his comatose wife is, indeed, a tear-jerker. This is a movie that isn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. It’s a weeper, but a good one.
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And the rest of the list,  in order of preference, goes like this:
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“HUGO”
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A visual treat from first frame to last. Asa Butterworth as an adventurous young boy in 1931 Paris; Ben Kingsley as a cranky old shopkeeper; Helen McCrory and Chloe Grace Moretz as Kingsley’s wife and daughter, respectively … they’re all great. Director Martin Scorcese has put together the total package. “HUGO” is as complete and satisfying a motion picture experience as you’re ever likely to see.
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“EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE”
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Another weeper, even more shamelessly manipulative than “The Descendants”, featuring an amazing performance by first-time thesp Thomas Horn (plucked right off the set of a Jeopardy! kids’ tournament!). A race to solve a mystery involving his Dad, who perished on 9/11   … encounters with all kinds of folks the boy hopes will
help him along the way … an unlikely bond with a silent old man beautifully played by Best Supporting Actor nominee Max Von Sydow … director Stephen Daldry crams an awful lot in here, and it works.
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“THE ARTIST”
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Ranks this high because of the way French director Michel Hazanavicius manages to make a silent movie about silent movies not only viable, but also touching and downright entertaining. Doing so very much with so very little, Jean Dujardin plays a Hollywood icon of the 1920s whose career goes downhill when his studio decides to invest in talkies. Berenice Bejo, as a pretty young starlet who also happens to be madly in love with him, is his fetching co-star. I’m no fan of silent movies, but this sweet little film won me over. A unique and wholly satisfying effort.
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“THE HELP”
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A serious film (yet one that is not without humor) featuring a large cast of fully-realized characters, “The Help’ focuses on the racial divide that separated whites from blacks in early 1960s Mississippi. Emma Stone, charming as always, stars as an idealistic young writer researching a book about the lives of her town’s maids and nannies (including the wonderful Viola Davis and Olivia Spencer). Soon, long-held secrets — some of which had lain dormant for years — are revealed, and lives are changed forever. Written and directed by Tate Taylor, this is a beautiful film.
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“MIDNIGHT IN PARIS”
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Hardly more than a trifle, this charming little romance not only has its heart in the right place, but features one of the best screen gimicks in ages. Who wouldn’t want to go back in time and meet his heroes? The people who have thrilled him, excited him, inspired him? Hack novelist Owen Wilson, vacationing in Paris with his impatient fiancee and her ultra-judgemental parents, escapes every night by visiting with the likes of long-dead celeb ex-pats like Hemingway, Dali, and Stein.
Far-fetched? Yes. Does the film rely on that who’s-he-going-to-meet-next gimick once too often? Sure. But the script is funny, the shots of Paris are dreamy, and Woody Allen, at his romantic best, clearly has something important to say. From beginning to end, a delight.
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“MONEYBALL”
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A fine film — well-acted by Brad Pitt as a desperate baseball exec, and Jonah Hill (abandoning his usual clown personae) as the Ivy Leagure economics grad and stats geek who shows him how to reverse his team’s fortunes — but an oddly uninvolving one, as well. Maybe more scenes with the ballplayers would have helped, or maybe even a few more tiffs with the always excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman as the team’s fed-up, old school manager. Not a bad film by any means, but by the time the credits appeared even this sports fan had to wonder what all the fuss was about.
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“WAR HORSE”
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Visually, one of the most impressive films of the year, almost (but not quite) on a par with “Hugo”. Panoramic views of lush English countryside … scorched-earth shots of a once fertile land decimated by war … magnificent horses, sleek and muscular, running and leaping and plowing the fields. So why is it so far down my list? Not enough screen time for the story’s TWO-legged characters, for one thing; star Jeremy Irvine — who does a fine job as Albert, the farm boy turned soldier — has a lot to do in the first act, a bit less in the third, and practically nothing at all for most of the second, when the focus shifts to Joey the horse, and the boy all but disappears. I know the movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, but did he have to make it so family-friendly? Until the gritty final act, it hardly ressembles a war movie at all. Too Disney-fied, too PG-13, almost too pretty, “War Horse” —   in this year’s race for Best Picture honors  — finishes out of the money.
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“THE TREE OF LIFE”
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Ponderous and pretentious, Terence Malik’s look at a typical middle-class family in 1960s Texas hardly ever settles down long enough to tell its story. Instead, we’re subjected again and again to images of the Big Bang, the beginnings of life on earth, and the dinosaur age. Malik is talking about Life and Death, that much is clear (someone dies, off camera, at the very beginning) –and he obviously has things to say about the American family — but so much is told in shorthand (there is, at times, almost as little dialogue here as in “THE ARTIST”), so much is left for us to intuit on our own, that the movie very quickly becomes a chore, and all the effort we have to put in to figuring things out becomes exhausting. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are fine as the parents, and young newcomer Hunter McCracken is excellent as the oldest and most troubled of their three boys. And some of the images are, undeniably, gorgeous. But this is a “message” movie with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Kudos to Malik for trying something different, but chalk this one up as a noble failure.
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Now, my picks in some of the other major categories …
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BEST ACTOR: GEORGE CLOONEY, “THE DESCENDANTS”
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How can I give the Best Picture nod to “The Descendants” and not honor its star, its leading man, the glue who holds the whole film together? In his Hawaiian shirts, baggy shorts, and flip-flops, Clooney steps out of his comfort zone and turns in a gem of a performance. (And that closing scene! I’ve still got the sniffles.) A grreat job all around.
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BEST ACTRESS: MERYL STREEP, THE “IRON LADY”
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Streep is nothing less than magnificent — as always, living in the moment every moment — as British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, both in her dotage and in the prime of her career. The makeup helped, and the accent was (of course) flawless, but it was Streep’s ability to dig deep into the heart of her character — putting on full display the woman’s strength of will and resilience, but also her pain and vulnerability — that really resonated. A riviting performance.
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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: MAX VON SYDOW, “EXTREMELY  LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE”
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An acting tour-de-force: Von Sydow, as an old man who can’t (or won’t) speak, somehow manages to communicate anyway, both with his handy notepad and without it. He disappears from the film far too early, but the time he does spend with us is priceless.
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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS; JESSICA CHASTAIN, “THE HELP”
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As the white trash blonde who defies convention in her racist Southern town, Chastain — is a small but meaty role — is sweetly comical yet achingly vulnerable, and brilliant from start to finish. (A close second: Octavia Spencer as her sassy, no-nonsense maid. Together, they make quite a pair.)
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BEST DIRECTOR
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Eliminating Terence Malik and his high-minded ode to Life and Death, “The Tree of Life”, we’ve got Michel Hazanavicius, who pulled off a miracle of sorts with his utterly enjoyable silent flick, “The Artist” … Woody Allen, who charmed us all with his romantic fantasy “Midnight in Paris” … Alexander Payne, who make us laugh and cry at his extraordinarily moving “The Descendants” … and Martin Scorcese, who combined stunning spectacle with solid storytelling in his love letter to the movies, “Hugo”.
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My choice? I know I’m splitting my vote here, but after giving the nod to “The Descendants” for Best Pic, I’m going with Scorcese and the breathtaking way he combined style and substance in the flashy but heartfelt “Hugo”.  And he proved once again that he has a way with actors, too, coaxing splendid performances out of all concerned, especially young Asa Butterworth as Hugo himself, and old pro Ben Kingley as the boy’s cantankerous arch-nemisis, Monsieur Melies. A wonderful film, indeed.
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And now, on to a pair of catagories they should recognize at the Oscars every year but, unfortunately, don’t. (I wonder why … )
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MOST EGREGIOUS OMISSION OF THE YEAR
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Lots of stiff competition here. For example, why wasn’t the hot-button political thriller “The Ideas of March” not nominated for Best Picture? Twists and turns … unexpected betrayals (the title echoes Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” for a reason; et tu Brutus?) … tons of suspense — “Ides” had it all, plus some nifty performances by a top-notch cast led by Ryan Gosling and (back as his old slickster self) George Clooney.
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And what about that other political drama this Oscar season, “The Iron Lady”? Superbly played, and not just by Streep, tightly written, sensitively directed, “The Iron Lady” captured my attention in the first scene and never let it go. Where was the love?
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Finally: What about the cast of “Hugo”? Were the Academy voters so hypnotized by the film’s visual panache that they forgot about the actors? Butterworth, Kingsley, Moretz and McCrory (and yes, even Cohen) formed one of the best movie ensembles of the year — if not the best. Splendid work by all — yet somehow, every one of them was ignored by the Academy.
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And, last but not least: WHAT IS THIS DOING HERE?
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The “winner”, if you can call it that, is “Midnight in Paris”. Yes, I know I liked the movie. Yes, I know I ranked it higher than, oh . . . “The Tree of Life”.  The difference is this: “The Tree of Life” is exactly the kind of “meaningful ” film, filled with big, bold images that the Academy loves. (Hell, it might even win.) “Midnight”, on the other hand, is a piece of fluff, and about as substantial as cotton candy: sweet, certainly — tasty, even — but not something you can, well … sink your teeth into. Some of the points it makes — about life, love and family — are just as important as the ones Malik tries to hammer home, but Allen makes them subttly, gently. A gossamer-thin
comedy like “Midnight in Paris” going up against all those bigger, flashier films on the Best Pic list?
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What was it doing there, indeed?
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Next up: My Oscar REVIEW piece. Who won? Who lost? Most importantly — how did Billy Crystal do?
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Be here in a few days to find out!
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OSCAR PREVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien