Every year, I, like many people, make a pact with myself to see every Academy Award Best Picture nominee before the Oscars air, and every year, I, like many people, fail miserably at doing so. In 2007 – the first year I had a long enough attention span to sit through a movie not starring Zac Efron – I saw three of the five, but There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men meshed together in my mind as one big, violent movie I had no desire to see. In 2008, I skipped Frost/Nixon and The Reader, despite being a die-hard Kate Winslet fan. In ’09, I got close – I saw nine of the ten, but I just couldn’t muster up the strength to sit through the schmaltz of The Blind Side. Technically, I’ve seen all ten 2010 nominees, but it doesn’t truly count since the first time I saw True Grit was two weeks ago. Last year, I skipped both War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I’m told was a very smart decision. This year, though, I was determined not to repeat the past. I promised myself that I would see all nine nominees, and as of this Sunday, with a probably illegal computer streaming of Amour, I met my goal. No offense, but chances are, you didn’t. So, in the order I saw them, here’s what you missed:
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Surprisingly, the first nominee I conquered was the one most people probably still haven’t seen. I saw Beasts back in the summer, when it played in limited release at a nearby indie movie theater. It’s the story of a strong, imaginative young girl living in the Louisiana bayou with her ailing father. Made by a first-time director with a cast of total unknowns, it burst into fame as the little Sundance hit that could. Pint-sized, precocious Quvenzhané Wallis is as good as everyone says, and Beasts, which combines realism and fantasy, is one of the most original films I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s not my favorite nominee, but it deserves every one of its many accolades.
2. Silver Linings Playbook
If you’re a regular reader of these blogs, there’s a good chance you know that Silver Linings Playbook is my pick for Best Picture. Featuring an amazing ensemble and quick, witty writing, it’s about the unconventional relationship between two people with questionable sanity. It’s not quite a drama, not quite a comedy, but somewhere in the wholly entertaining in-between.
If you’ve only seen one of this year’s nominees, it was probably this one. With Argo, Ben Affleck solidified his role as the King of the Hollywood Comeback. He directs and stars in the based-on-a-true-story film about the CIA operative who, using the guise of a movie production, led the rescue of six Americans from Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis. It’s a smart, fast-paced thriller bolstered by a hugely talented cast. I didn’t love Argo as much as everyone else did, but I still thought it was a clever, well-made, and thoroughly enjoyable movie.
4. Life of Pi
The most visually stunning movie I saw all year. With the help of some very impressive 3-D and CGI, Ang Lee transformed a supposedly unfilmable novel into a cinematic masterpiece. The story is relatively simple: A teenage boy, Pi, struggles to survive while stranded in the Pacific Ocean, alone except for the company of a Bengal tiger. Is it reality or fantasy? The point is that you’re not really supposed to know, and that’s what makes it such a powerful film. I’ve never read the book, and while I’m sure it would have enhanced the movie-watching experience, Life of Pi was still a wonderfully satisfying film.
5. Les Miserables
Weirdly enough, the worst made nominee happened to be the most enjoyable to watch. Les Mis isn’t a particularly good movie, and I have no qualms with the Academy ignoring its director, Tom Hooper. Every single shot in Les Mis is a close-up; the sing-through dialogue would be been tiresome even if the movie weren’t two and a half hours long. Still, if you’re a fan of the show (and really, who isn’t?), you’re bound to enjoy the movie. For those uninformed, the story is set during the French Revolution and revolves around the lives of an ex-convict and the girl he raises as his daughter. The performances are great, and surprisingly, Russell Crowe is actually not half-bad. It’s the timeless music, though, that saves the movie from total disaster.
6. Zero Dark Thirty
Silver Linings Playbook may be my favorite of the nominees, but Zero Dark Thirty is a close second. What an incredible film. It’s the true-ish story of how a female CIA operative led the efforts to find and kill Osama Bin Laden, and it’s a heart-racing pleasure to watch unfold onscreen. How Kathryn Bigelow wasn’t nominated for Best Director is beyond my understanding; every scene is impeccably shot, including the extraordinary climatic sequence when the SEAL team raids the compound housing Bin Laden. It’s a powerful, important movie that deserves none of the flack its received.
7. Django Unchained
I’m not a huge Tarantino fan, but man, did I love Django. The story of a freed slave who, alongside a bounty hunter, sets out on a mission to rescue his wife, it’s clever, bold, and completely, totally, gratuitously violent. At times, it’s uncomfortable to watch, but mostly, it’s a daring, hugely fun movie emboldened by a fantastic ensemble cast.
My least favorite film on the list. Lincoln is an important movie, yes, but it’s also exceedingly long and unbearably boring. Portraying the 16th president during his fight to outlaw slavery, Daniel Day-Lewis gives an impressive performance. Other than that, though, Lincoln is a snooze-fest. Every single scene can be summed up in five words: men in a room talking. It’s a favorite to win Best Picture, which I think is a shame. Give the Oscar to a film that actually entertains, not one that puts you to sleep.
Finally, there is Amour, the heartbreaking French drama about an elderly couple dealing with the infirmities of old age. As Anne, who suffers a debilitating stroke, Emmanuelle Riva is marvelous, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, who plays her devoted husband, is equally magnificent. It’s not a perfect film, with too many scenes that drag on and make the movie feel much longer than two hours, but it’s well worth seeing. Just don’t let the title fool you – it’s a love story, yes, but if you’re expecting a lighthearted rom-com, try Playing for Keeps instead.
This essay was originally posted on TheReelist.com.