SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 21, 2013

Oscar season: Talking about the movies everyone's talking about

Rini Cobbey
The Salem News

---- — With the Golden Globes over, 2013’s “award show season” is official, culminating in the Oscars on Feb. 24.

Entertainment awards matter. The Academy Awards matter in particular, despite the often awkward show itself, because they reflect what our mass entertainers present as “excellent entertainment,” in all the complexities of both those terms. The nominated movies don’t always make the most money, so they don’t reflect the “people’s choice” — although social media certainly brings us critics populous out in force.

Indeed, here I go.

This year, the Academy nominated nine films in the Best Picture category. As of this writing, I’ve seen seven. One of the remaining two, “Amour,” hasn’t yet been screened near me, and the other I’ll see later. As a film professor, I try to see every nominated film in the top categories by Oscar night. But should you? With just a few weeks remaining, you may need to make some choices.

After all, movies offer us many different experiences: We’re entertained, persuaded, challenged and connected. Do you want to see the movie everyone’s going to be talking about? Or a movie that will amuse you, make you — for a while at least — feel more happy or excited than usual? Do you want to see a movie that will teach you something new, or provoke you to think or act in more enlightened ways? Or perhaps you’re looking for something well-crafted, aesthetically excellent as a whole?

The most flat-out entertaining film of the lot is “Argo,” and with its Golden Globe win for best picture, it’s a hot water-cooler pick, too. I could fake an international relations conversation about it, but ultimately, this story of a CIA agent extracting a few American embassy employees from the middle of the Iranian revolution includes great dialogue, pacing, visual design and concept, and not much nuance or insight.

Also entertaining, a lot more complex and not so broadly recommendable is “Zero Dark Thirty,” the story of Osama bin Laden’s killing, from 9/11 on. Audiences disagree on whether the movie glorifies the torture in its opening sequence. I don’t think it does, but it certainly works to justify torture as necessary in achieving its glorified goal — and that troubles me. I was horrified by the torture, and then not only cheering for but enjoying the end it brought about. It’s both entertaining and disturbing, and I’m not convinced everyone needs to see the movie to have the hard conversations it provokes.

“Life of Pi” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” both may leave you with something to talk about, but the uncomplicated story of the former and unfocused narrative of the latter, coupled with the odd interplay of the grossly realistic with the fantastical, made them interesting to watch but unsatisfying. Both are visually striking, unusual stories with sympathetic characters who spout philosophical observations about the nature of nature and God, but in incohesive ways. For something new, they may be worth a view.

“Les Miserables” is not so different or new, but why would you not see it? It is gorgeous and grace-filled, but maybe too big for its musical treatment. For me, too much of the movie is broad strokes that distract from a few very powerful individual moments of angst and revelation.

I have not yet seen “Django Unchained,” but I will. Quentin Tarantino is an amazing artist, so talented in constructing films that I conclude the good work he does is bad, because his films make human violence beautiful and funny, which is, of course, a hellish lie. I’ll see “Django” and consider the many proposals I’ve read that its treatment of abolition is more true than in “Lincoln,” but I’ll see it with a bias and won’t recommend it for its entertainment if it follows its auteur’s path.

The two best movies of the list that I’ve seen are “Lincoln” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” While “Argo” may entertain more thoroughly or consistently, that’s all it did — it amused and I moved on — while these two stayed with me and keep coming back to mind. Lincoln, the man, in this film is fragile, sweet, funny, sad and smart. It’s remarkably conventional filmmaking, but with rewarding characterization and dialogue. I watched the historical politics through the lens of today. As I did, I gained some sympathy for the compromises inherent in rhetoric and process, and consequently I’ll see it again.

“Silver Linings Playbook” is the movie I most want to see again. I laughed, I cried, I was surprised, and I saw truth, hard and hopeful. Using the tools that film uniquely provides, director David O. Russell reveals the joy, pain, consequences and complexity of being a broken human being in physical, spiritual and psychological relationships.

“Silver Linings Playbook” is the story of a young man who struggles with mental illness, attempting to control the uncontrollable through attitude and physical exercise. There’s a moment where I laughed out loud at the refreshing audacity and ridiculousness of honesty. There’s another where I cringed as a fellow viewer laughed at what was an ugly, unfunny horror.

It’s a surprisingly earnest yet appropriately unstable story that made me want to be — and to love — a little better and more authentically. It won’t win Best Picture, but I’m glad the filmmakers with influence in Hollywood deemed it good enough for a nod, because that may mean what they make next will be good, too.

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Rini Cobbey is an associate professor and chairwoman of the communication arts department at Gordon College, where she teaches film criticism.