It seems that over time, the Documentary Shorts category of the Academy Awards has become a bit of a checklist. Indeed, this year like many other, the category seems to be dominated by a laundry list of serious-minded yet emotionally wrought films about “serious” topics. Sub Saharan Africa, poverty, homelessness, cancer – these are topics that should by no means be asked to be made into easy sits, nor should they be expected to be cold and clinical.
While these illuminations can feel enlightening, this approach can often do a disservice to its subjects. By drawing awareness to the negative elements, it separates the audience from the ability to connect with the subject. Visual elements can often linger on the bleak realities of poverty often void of life and color Treatment of the subject as pitiable creates a psychic wall of “otherness” between the world of the viewer and the world of the subject. Finally, these portrayals often rob their subjects of agency in the process of social mobility, as a helpless subject tends to be more emotionally compelling.
For better or for worse, this year’s bunch seem to typify this trend with overwhelming waves of well-crafted sentimentality. However, within these films exist surprising and unexpected glimpses of humanity that give meaning to the pathos. At their best, these films subvert the audience expectations of approaches to poverty, death, and even life itself.
Honorable Mentions: Bernie, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook, The Queen of Versailles
Dishonorable Mentions: Prometheus, Cosmopolis, Django Unchained, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
While it might be easy, after taking due presumption of course, to beat up on Spielberg’s usual flair for melodrama and tendency to sentimentalize, Lincoln is so carefully wrought, so judiciously constructed as a whole, it could easily be one of the brighter lights in the oeuvre of John Ford. Nuff said.
I know it’s not a bracing treatise on the human condition or anything, but man, is it an effective, gripping thriller. When it comes right down to it, the amazing thing about movies (or any other kind of storytelling) is that when they’re good, they make you sincerely care about something that you know isn’t really happening right in front of you. Argo is all about artifice, tricks, and lies. It’s a celebration of them, even. It’s manipulative in the best sense of the word, and sometimes that’s the most impressive thing that a movie can be.
10. Django Unchained
Tarantino’s orgy of revenge returns with Django. As Tarantino has shown a distinct love for throwbacks to classic film genres, it seems fitting that he would take on the spaghetti western. It’s somewhere between an homage and a reboot, but never too much of one or the other. The highlight of the film is, as in most Tarantino films, the dialogue. Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and to a lesser degree, Jamie Foxx, are given the kind of witty repartee that is so much fun to listen to. Waltz, as in Inglorious Basterds, shows himself as an actor who really knows how to deliver Tarantino’s lines, and can find the comedy, the tension, the venom – he’s constantly making great choices. Though the ending of the film keeps it from being higher on my list, there are enough great scenes to make it one of the best films of this year.
It’s once again that time of awards season, which of late has started to be as long as the Christmas season, wherein we get to see the shorts that have been nominated for an Academy Award. Truth be told, these are among my favorites every year as telling a story succinctly and effectively is a skill that sadly few feature filmmakers possess. Different muscle entirely. I have been given the honor of watching and reviewing the Animated Shorts, which are almost always the best of the shorts. These five films all have the distinction of being completely dialogue-free (save for a few guttural noises and grunts) and rely on their vastly different visual styles to move their stories along. Go figure. So, let’s begin, in that time-tested fashion of alphabetical order.
Adam and Dog
This film tells the story of the first dog meeting Adam (you know, from the Bible) in the Garden of Eden, becoming friends, and learning where it stands after Eve shows up. That sounds like it’d be funny, but it isn’t. It’s incredibly touching as we see the story from the dog’s point of view, trusting Adam, then being cast aside by him. The look of the film is very simplistic, and is, as far as I can tell, hand-drawn with minimal backgrounds, but the movement of the characters is very naturalistic. And if you’ve ever wanted to see how you draw a naked man for a cartoon that isn’t about the man being naked, this is the film for you.