It’s Oscar time again – the nominations were announced on 24 January and I must say the list of Best Picture Nominees was a bit surprising. No longer locked-in to ten movies, the Academy has found only nine to nominate this year. As regular readers will know, in the past by this stage I’d already seen about half of the nominees, but this year I’ve only seen one (Midnight in Paris – not good except by the standards of other recent Woody Allen offerings). I’d like to think that this is because it’s such a thin year and not because my cinema-going has been more than usually philistine.

Here are my preconceptions of the remaining eight…

  • The Artist – black-and-white, silent, French and many critics’ film of the year. Also featuring tap-dancing (yay!).
  • The Descendants – from the director of Sideways, starring George Clooney in a tee-shirt.
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ­– from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, about a boy who on 9/11 loses his father but finds a key.
  • The Help – being a black maid in the American South in the 1960s wasn’t entirely awesome, apparently.
  • Hugo – Martin Scorsese in 3D
  • Moneyball ­– don’t worry, it’s not all baseball. It’s also maths.
  • The Tree of Life – Sean Penn ponders his life. In other news, the universe is created.
  • War Horse – this time with real horses. Probably not an improvement.

Now, since the Oscars ceremony will be on 26 February, I’ve not got long if I want to see all nine, and so I’ve got cracking straight away with a double-bill this weekend. First, here are a few more quick thoughts about Midnight in Paris which I saw on a plane.

What the hell ever happened to Woody Allen? The hilarious clown prince of angst who segued beautifully from broad scattergun gagfests like Sleeper and Love and Death to the delightful but richer Annie Hall and then a wide array of splendid movies in a variety of genres (my personal favourites being The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Bullets Over Broadway) seemed to fatally lose his way from about 1995 onward. The 17 films which he’s made since then (and that’s more than many directors make in their entire career) have varied from the inessential (Small Time Crooks) to the tedious (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) to the insultingly incompetent (Match Point – of which my beloved Deborah so memorably said “I don’t think I would have been interested if that had been my life”).

And yet he still grinds out a movie a year – whether he has a good idea or not. The best that can be said of Midnight in Paris is that it isn’t as bad as Match Point, or actually as bad as Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Whatever Works (“why can’t everyone be a New York intellectual – it’s so much more fulfilling that anything you might think is making you happy right now”). That should be enough for at least one critic to trumpet it as a “return to form” – a line which it seems at least one critic is mandated to trot out as each new Allen movie makes its debut.

But is it good, as in Oscar-worthy? As in from the director of Annie Hall? No, let’s get real. It’s incredibly slender, a doodle in the margins of a life in which a man who has pretty much everything he could possibly want, is granted a no-strings vacation into the past to have his ego stroked by the great and the good of the 1920s. Owen Wilson is charming enough, and the various celebrity impersonations are all decent, and there’s one (count it, one) stand-out gag involving a private detective very near the end, but the rest of it is predictable, pointless and clunky with various characters endlessly stating and restating the conclusions which we cannot be trusted to find ourselves.

And there’s the issue of the relative fame of various of these characters. It’s treacherous for a person who has simply failed to connect with a piece of work to denounce it as “pretentious”. Just because my cultural intake so far hasn’t overlapped with the assumptions made by the artist does not mean that the art is worthless, and as delightful as crowing “the emperor has no clothes” can be, it’s actually a fairly feeble criticism. But it’s dramatically weak to have our novelist hero transplanted back to the very period he reveres in the first place, and I can’t help but feel alienated when he instantly recognises not just superstars like Picasso and Hemmingway, but the comparatively obscure Man Ray and Luis Bunuel instead. Wilson is Allen’s surrogate so it is impossible for him to ever be made vulnerable by not recognising someone he should – and all this despite the presence of the (typically amusing) Michael Sheen as the pseudo-intellectual poseur in the modern sections.

For Midnight in Paris to be nominated for Best Picture is certainly surprising. For it to get four nominations is unlikely and for it to be Allen’s most commercially successful movie in the USA ever is just wrong. For completists only, who will hate themselves afterwards.

Now – on with some better news. We took in The Artist and The Descendants as a rather eccentric double-bill this afternoon. Both movies look far more at home on the list of Best Picture nominees, and The Artist is the clear favourite to win with ten nominations (beaten only by Hugo with 11). The Artist is a nostalgic hymn to a Hollywood past. Set between 1927 and 1932, it charts the rise of young star Peppy Miller as the talkies sweep through movieland, and the simultaneous decline in fortune of silent movie megastar George Valentin. It is (almost) entirely silent, shot in black-and-white in the 4:3 Academy ratio and contains much to admire.

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, who star as Valentin and Miller (and who both seem equipped with a preposterous quantity of teeth) are both irrepressibly charming and are given handy support by a splendid John Goodman, who can express more with one twitch of his jowls than many actors can in five paragraphs of dialogue. James Cromwell is stiffly subservient as Valentin’s manservant but Penelope Ann Miller and especially Missi Pyle are criminally underused as his wife and co-star respectively. Malcolm McDowell also has a bizarrely irrelevant one-shot cameo but this is Dujardin and Bejo’s show, ably assisted by Uggie the dog.

Any film which depicts a silent movie superstar at the coming of the talkies is bound to evoke comparisons with Singin’ in the Rain, and The Artist just goes ahead and essentially recreates much of that film’s first act during its opening scenes – the quarrelling stars meeting their public at the first preview, the ingénue meeting the star without quite knowing who he is and not to mention the tap-dancing! And yet, despite the nostalgia which leaks out of every frame, this movie does managed to feel fresh and original for the most part.

Only daring occasionally to push the limits of the silent movie form (rather as Spielberg allowed himself one red coat in Schindler’s List), director Michel Hazanavicius seems to know what he is doing, plunging us into  despair before finally allowing the star pair to express their joyous contentment. You have to admire the cheek of a movie which depicts a silent movie star witnessing an early test of talking pictures, without even giving us a sound effect to represent the recorded speech which is about to end his career. But the overall effect is muted rather than captivating, and it never really seems to be about anything – it’s all effect and no guts.

The Artist is fun while it’s on, albeit entirely unthreatening, and will almost certainly take the Best Picture Oscar this year.

Alexander Payne’s The Descendants really couldn’t be more different. George Clooney stars as Matt King, a wealthy lawyer in Hawaii whose wife is comatose in a local hospital following a boating accident, while he tries to reconnect with his two young daughters. As he attempts to deal with this horrible situation, Payne and his fellow screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, working from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, consistently make his life credibly but dramatically more conflicted, complicated and confusing.

Entirely Clooney’s movie (we only get to see his wife’s father at her bedside because King peeks around the hospital door), he is magnificent, fighting to keep a public image in place as a ghastly set of circumstances is ranged against him. Again and again, Payne pitiless camera trains its implacable gaze on Clooney’s face as a fascinating web of emotions flickers across it.

A beautifully on-theme sub-plot is not overplayed and there is strong support from Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as his two children. For me, the only bum note was the elder daughter’s slacker boyfriend, played by Nick Krause. Both in the writing and the playing, this was a little too broad, in a screenplay which manages tone so expertly everywhere else. Consistently mining little nuggets of ironic humour which prevent the film as a whole from becoming unremittingly bleak, this is a clever, brutal, complex, grown-up story which is sentimental in all the best ways.

The Artist, for all its sparkle and dash, essentially tells us that no problem is so difficult that it can’t be solved by a really good tap-dance (or even a merely adequate one). The Descendants tells us that life provides plenty of problems that just never go away, and that sometimes you just get punished more for doing the right thing. Which is both why it should win and why it won’t!

So... what did I think about The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe?
The Oscars 2012 - Part Two - "Hugo"