Oscar Rundown, Part III: SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, AMOUR, and LIFE OF PI

In this final stretch of examining the nine Academy Award nominees for Best Picture (don't miss parts one and two), the focus switches from the large, patriotically minded spectacles to more personal endeavors. Typically, such efforts tend to be smaller in scope, which is true of the first two, Silver Linings Playbook and Amour. But the film that this series will end on, Life of Pi, is the rare case of an intensely "inner" movie on a vast cinematic scale. 

Preferences and opinions about these three films run to wildly varying degrees, but for my money, each is a bona fide work of greatness, each earning a spot on my 2012 year-end top ten. One is my own top pick. For further thoughts and connections amid these three otherwise diverse celebrated films, continue reading... (Spoilers here and there...)

Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings Playbook is writer/director David O. Russell's off-kilter idea of a romantic comedy. Achieving the rare feat of scoring a nomination in each of the four acting categories, as well as noms for Best Director and Best Picture, among other things, it's a film that very much continues to surprise people. Like the fragile mental states of every character in this deceptively tight knit film, it presents itself as scattered yet obsessive. But Silver Linings is as poignant as it is repeat-watchable.

Once the eye-opening success of Three Kings and the loopy memorable head-trip of I Heart Huckabees faded from the collective consciousness, Russell became more known for an infamous on-set outburst video and having his next film fall apart well into production. Rising from these professional and public relations disasters, he embarked on what can now be seen as a pair of "second chances" movies, 2010's The Fighter, and Silver Linings Playbook.

Where The Fighter socked the audience with straight-ahead underdog victory through inner city grunge, Silver Linings is considerably cagier. Both adhere to the ultimate tenants of their respective genres (mainstream movie-goers will get the payoffs they went in looking for), but in arriving to the inevitable movie ending, wrapping everything up as well as can be expected, the latter film slips in uncomfortable moments of confrontation, family strife, and mental breakdown. Knowing what we know of David O. Russell from his filmography alone (films both finished and unfinished), it's not a longshot to suspect that he may know a thing or two about these topics. No character in the movie is "okay," and they each are burdened with varying degrees of "issues." 

Silver Linings is, like so many of its fellow nominees, reflective, transformative, personal, and soul-searching. But it's also funny, knotty, clever, and, as it turns out, impeccably structured. It took my seeing it twice to truly realize how wonderful this film is. It's the rare movie that asks to put on your dance shoes, a sports jersey, and a garbage bag.


Amour

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Over at my own site, ZekeFilm.org, prime contributor Paul Hibbard singled out Amour as his number one film of 2012. Here are a few choice passages from his moving full length review of the film:

Amour is nothing less than a beautiful, painful, heartbreaking, gorgeous, disturbing, gut-wrenching, draining piece of pure art. It is called Amour (love) because it is about love. A bold movie that has no problem giving itself such a broad title. Haneke is a confident director. He will hold his camera still, completely still, for long shots because he is confident in his characters and their story.

Most movies about love are really just characters talking about love. Saying they love each other. Describing the ways they love each other. But Amour is the movie about what you would do for love. Love isn't standing on top of a building on New Years Eve in Paris with the Eifel Tower in the background proposing to your beautiful 20-something year old girlfriend while you also are in your 20s and also beautiful. Love is changing your 80-something year old wife's diapers and cleaning up after her as she no longer recognizes you.

But remember, this is a Michael Haneke movie, and Michael Haneke things happen; so be prepared for everything. You will see the heights and the depths of humanity. But if there's anything that will bring us to both such heights and depths as humans, it's love.

(Thanks Paul.)  Without question, Amour is deeply personal. It's a personal experience for all who see it, as it's central issues - aging, death - are among the most painful of universal confrontations. Certainly it's personal for Haneke, and his amazing, courageous actors. In them, their own long life experience somehow peering through, intense reflection and soul searching (one of the major re-occurring themes of this year's Best Picture nominees) touches us, even as it forces our gaze. There's a transformative, difficult internal power at work in Amour, positioning it as perhaps the film of this bunch most likely destined for legacy status.
 
Many of Amour's deeper human qualities are shared with Ang Lee's ambitiously visionary adaptation of the 2001 novel "Life of Pi". Both are tremendously internal and in their own ways, deeply affecting. But perhaps that' s where these otherwise vastly different films diverge. Where Amour is heartbreakingly terminal, Pi holds focus to the spiritual, the unseen wonder beyond this mortal coil. While Haneke offers unblinkingly rare end-of-life, Lee serves up something almost childlike, rife with danger and mystery, but no less immediate. Here are excerpts from my own full length review of Life of Pi - my own top film of 2012: 

Life of Pi

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Lee utilizes and refines the unconventional visual experimentations he first hatched in his 2003 comic book film Hulk, resulting in a breathtaking 3D survival tale. (The 3D truly is top tier, with Lee brazenly violating the proscenium of the screen - that is, pursuing the "gimmick" of 3D, things flying out at viewers - rather than merely utilizing it for greater depth; the "tasteful" approach to 3D most filmmakers opt for.) the seafaring portion of Life of Pi is at once claustrophobic and dire, but also at times as vast and life affirming as the ocean itself. Sometimes it gets hallucinatory and weird. Sometimes, Lee shifts the aspect ratio of the screen itself to communicate the conundrum in a bold, underused way. Sometimes, it's as though hundreds of flying fish are flopping into your lap. All part of this journey of life...

That's Life, but what about Pi? Most know pi as a concept. An unsolvable mathematical concept that goes on forever and ever; a steady stream of seemingly arbitrary repeating numbers. But the numbers are not arbitrary - they cannot be, for this is math, the single most absolute field of essential study. (The rules of reading and writing can, do and will continue to change, but math cannot.) Likewise is our protagonist, a grown man, also named Pi (although not for the equation) who hails from India with a most incredible tale to tell.

It's holy depth against utter Darwinism - a frightful and extreme translation of the parent/child dynamic, or even committed teacher/ungrateful student. Ultimately though, doesn't it have to be about God and us? (The 3D is too good for it not to be!) One is an unchanging, unending mystery; the other is hungry, always guided by a hunger for more. Being crafted in His image allows for transcendence, which is so much of our hope as we are tossed about on the sea of life, starving and adrift, wondering where and why it's all going wrong. Life of Pi puts all of this out there. It in fact is what it's all about. 


And so... Who will win?? Who can say. Some film lovers cling tightly to their favorites while others dismiss the whole horse race with a hearty "who cares". Both reactions are entirely valid, as movie adoration runs deep, wide, shallow and narrow. Whatever names are in those envelopes (and this year remains full of more question marks than most any in recent memory), we can hopefully agree that 2012 yielded some pretty fantastic films, many of which we've been given further opportunity to discuss, ponder and consider throughout this awards season. 

What are the movies saying to us, and to each other? The cinematic tapestry formed in any given year is always an unpredictably telling thing. Hopefully, these Oscar Rundowns offered up a modicum of additional perspective. (And if not that, then at least enjoyment.) Films, as escapist as they can be, at their best, inform us of life. And life can be as messy as Hollywood is glitzy. The red carpet awaits... vacuuming.
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