Michel Hazanavicius’s silent comedy “The Artist” is the frontrunner in this year’s Best Picture race. If the word “silent” in the previous sentence didn’t tip you off, this film’s frontrunner status is very strange. Essentially, the signal the industry sends by placing this film on such a high pedestal is that nostalgia and the ability to channel a lost era is now paramount. The always-charming but never-amazing “Artist” borrows heavily not only from the silent era, but from specific — and better — films (“Singin’ in the Rain,” anyone?), but it ultimately fails to rise above light amusement status. On the bright side, the inevitable “What Is ‘The Artist’?” Tumblr full of frustrated comments by fans of “The Help” should be a lot of fun to watch.
— Brad Sanders
When it comes to paying homage to film, why stop at the back end of the silent era when you can envision the fantastical whimsy of the birth of movies themselves? “Hugo” is more visually stunning and heart-wrenching than “The Artist,” and it’s a universally enchanting departure for our finest living director, Martin Scorsese. “Hugo” looks back in time while moving forward with the best 3-D cinematography to date. Doubling as a lively children’s fantasy and a cinephile’s dream, this film is exactly what the Academy needs to revitalize a love for the movies.
— Brian Welk
Set in the beautiful Hawaiian islands, “The Descendants” is anything but another typical beach vaca movie. George Clooney is masterful as protagonist Matt King, father of two girls, husband to a comatose wife and land baron who seemingly owns half of Kauai. The picturesque landscapes are juxtaposed with strained family relationships and untimely death, but, surprisingly, these dark themes do not drag the film down. Instead, “The Descendants” has quite a few moments of levity and heartwarming tenderness. Clooney is joined by newcomer Shailene Woodley as Matt’s foul-mouthed daughter Alexandra, who holds her own with the bona fide movie star and should have picked up a Best Supporting nod for the effort. “The Descendants” might not be the most beautiful film, but it doesn’t want to be. That’s not the point.
— Jonathan Streetman
“Midnight in Paris”
Six years removed from his last Oscar nomination, Woody Allen returns to the ballots this year with one of his Woody Allen-est — and best — films to date. “Midnight in Paris” examines the “golden age” concept by allowing its protagonist to quite literally examine it — in this case, Paris circa the late 1920s via Owen Wilson taking a magical nightly walk. Featuring an ensemble of great supporting performances, especially by Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway and Adrian Brody as Salvador Dalí, “Midnight” hilariously scrutinizes this age-old myth by addressing it as directly as possible, absurd and surreal as that might get. After all, we should know better than to expect subtlety from Allen, especially at this point.
— Steven Arroyo
Every now and then, a feel-good civil rights film comes along and evokes an “awww” and maybe a tear or two, then is never watched again. “The Help” is not that kind of movie. The script is crisp, expertly balancing hysterical and sometimes shocking comedy with tearful moments. Brilliant set and costume designs make the subject matter especially convincing, and the talent is top notch. However, Tate Taylor’s direction isn’t quite as strong as his script, as the cinematography and score disrupt the story’s flow too often. The Best Picture Oscar should go to the most cohesive film — one that cannot be so easily divided into its separate elements. While far from forgettable, “The Help” lacks this overall smoothness.
— Vanessa Torline
“The Tree of Life”
Terrence Malick’s most ambitious film is the year’s best. “The Tree of Life” tells the story of no less than existence itself. The film’s three parts are divided among the birth of the universe, a human lifetime and what lies beyond. The arresting middle section plunges the audience deep into the daily life of a Waco, Texas, family. Expert cinematography and a gorgeous classical soundtrack flesh out realistic performances from Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken. All of this comes together to make a film through which we marvel at our origins, relive the infinite ambiguities of childhood and question the afterlife. “The Tree of Life” is a daring, beautiful film unlike any other.
— Patrick Beane
The sports film genre has often had difficulty being taken seriously in the modern landscape come award season. “Moneyball” might change that because it is only tangentially about what happens on the field. More so, it is the story of how two men, Brad Pitt’s jaded phenom-turned-general manager and Jonah Hill’s Ivy League economic genius, go against a system and its old guard. Pitt gives a commanding performance as the man in charge in a sports film that finds its thrills through working the phones and squinting at computers rather than making diving catches and hitting home runs. “Moneyball,” based on a stats-laden true story, might be a game changer, and the Academy should recognize that.
— Max McCombs
The lone war movie in the Best Picture category, this Stephen Spielberg film gives a fresh perspective on a popular genre by showing audiences the horrors of World War I through the eyes of a horse, Joey. Chronicling Joey’s separation from his owner, Albert, “War Horse” packs raw emotional power by focusing on a friendship tested by war. Newcomer Jeremy Irvine comes of age on screen in the supporting role of Albert. “War Horse” also boasts some of the best special effects of the Best Picture nominees, rendering the horrors of the war realistic and tangible.
— Bridget Ameche
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”
This New York Times Bestseller-turned-film and its heart-wrenching, post-9/11 narrative tapped into many clichés. The use of Disney-like dialogue and over-sentimentality were notable, but much of the criticism that “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” received was blown out of proportion. With strong performances from all supporting actors and a story that needed to be told cinematographically, the film should have received a little more credit from critics. Though admittedly, “Extremely Loud” would have been much easier to watch if the leading child actor narrating the film didn’t have the most creepily uncanny, distant and sinister-sounding voice.
— Francisco Tirado