Movie Pairings: Who To Watch (and Not Watch) The Best Picture Nominees With

Movie Pairings: Who To Watch (and Not Watch) The Best Picture Nominees With

Feb 21, 2012

“Movies are where dreams come to life!” says a character in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  True, but they also can be used to distract people while you steal their wallets/virginity. 

It’s Oscar season again.  That time of year when Hollywood gathers to bestow awards upon great artists and to celebrate itself while we watch from our couches and forget, however briefly, about our troubles.  Film is important – at its worst, it can simply provide an escape; at its best, it can bridge the gap between those difficult moments in people’s lives that often leave them stranded and alone.  Plus, the theaters sell huge tubs of popcorn.

Still, people have different circles of friends who prefer certain types of films. Whenever the best pictures nominations are announced, people gather together and scramble to see as many as they can.  It can be exhausting and cause in-fighting among friends who might prefer to see some films but not others.  So keeping that in mind, what follows is a primer on the 2012 Oscar nominations for Best Picture.  I’ll give you a brief synopsis of the film, tell you why it was nominated, suggest the friends you should see it with and those you shouldn’t take with you.

You’re welcome, America.

Movie: Hugo

Synopsis: A love letter to early cinema.  Set in a 1930’s Parisian train station, an orphan (Hugo) sets out to repair an automaton with the hope of receiving one last message from his late father.  Along the way, Hugo uncovers the secrets of a shop owner who turns out to be a pioneer of early film.

Why It’s Nominated: Martin Scorsese is a master craftsman. Working with a story based upon Brian Selznick’s book, he creates a Dickensian narrative around historical fact, which allows audiences to rediscover the work of visionary director George Melies.  The story is oddly touching.  Melies, a brilliant but creatively bankrupt man who has been beaten down by life, wins his freedom, not through the support of a major studio or articles in the press, but because a lonely kid with a makeshift tool kit and access to a film library works tirelessly to uncover his secret. That provides the key to unlocking the buried hope within each of them. This is powerful stuff. Plus, it’s Scorsese’s first “kids” movie and foray into 3D. 

See It With…

  • Children (relatives, one hopes, and not random kids you’ve taken from the park)
  • Creative types for whom art is a passion.


Don’t See It With…

  • A first/blind date (It sets the wrong mood.)
  • Sad shopkeepers who aren’t secretly film pioneers.


Movie: The Artist

Synopsis: A silent film (well, except for the Tom & Jerry soundtrack) about a pompous 1930’s movie star (Jean Dujardin) who gets his comeuppance when the “talkies” usher in a new era of film that leaves him alone, out of work, and embittered.  Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an extra whom he helped (and fell in love with) along the way, has skyrocketed to stardom. Will she help the poor guy? Only pride and the stock market crash can get in his way.

Why It’s Nominated: It is shown in a theater that has heat, if you’re cold.  I dunno. Some people are drawn to light-hearted fare that requires rapt attention but does not deliver anything too important. People are also perhaps drawn to the medium of silent film, an archaic delivery system that leads to fevered nightmares about the re-introduction of the printing press because of its “uniqueness.” Most likely, it is the subject itself – Hollywood redemption – that has invigorated Tinsel Town. The old maxim proves true: know your audience. Director Michel Hazanavicius does. Oh right, there’s also a dog.

See It With:

  • Someone you’re casually seeing. If s/he likes it, you’ll look sophisticated; if s/he doesn’t, you can shame her/him into accepting another date.
  • Grandparents, preferably your own.
  • A deaf friend (The movie will help you to avoid using/learning sign language.)

Don’t See It With:

  • Someone who tap dances – it will fool them into thinking it’s an acceptable art form
  • A negative and depressive friend.  They will shoot holes through the movie and your spirits.
  • Anyone.  Instead, pay someone the $9 ticket price to kick you in the groin.  It has the same effect as watching the film but only wastes a fraction of the time.


Movie: The Descendents

Synopsis: George Clooney plays Matt King, a passive man who searches for answers upon hearing that his comatose (and dying) wife cuckolded him.  Bereft, Matt must learn to be a better parent to his two daughters (Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller) and make a firm decision about the fate of his inheritance. 

Why It’s Nominated: Director/Co-Writer Alexander Payne has made a career out of adapting relatively obscure novels and using all of the tools in his arsenal to elevate the material. Instead of painting broad strokes over characters’ idiosyncrasies, Payne magnifies them by focusing on the small (but true) moments in the characters’ lives. It’s a solid film, lagging in parts and played almost too passively by Clooney (who, when looking into the distance, does not convey thought but boredom), but in a time when movies celebrate teenagers’ ridiculous entryways into manhood, it’s nice to see a middle-aged man’s journey into manhood as well.

See it with…

  • Your blood relatives (parents, siblings, etc).
  • Yourself.  It’s a good family drama that can be seen solo.

Don’t see it with… 

  • A long-term partner.  (It will highlight all of the relationship’s flaws.)
  • The husband of the wife you are secretly sleeping with.


Movie: Moneyball

Synopsis: Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has an unpopular idea: what if you could use math in real life?  With the help of Yale nerd Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), his idea might come to fruition. Using analysis, Beane and Brand fill their roster with statistically successful ballplayers while keeping within their shoestring budget, much to the chagrin of the owner, the scouts, the coach, the players, and even the fans. Will Beane and the A’s win? It’s based upon a true story.

Why It’s Nominated: The movie is in the Hollywood tradition of taking something inherently boring – math – and spicing it up with charismatic actors and flashy graphs. At the heart of every good story is a villain; however, this movie does not supply us with one. Beane has the support of the team’s owner. The only thing standing in his way is the differing opinions of his underlings. It is essentially the struggle of one man, who against almost no odds, makes a decision that probably made baseball a lot more boring. “Walks are as good as hits!” is not good chatter. Still, it keeps your interest all the way to the last frame.

See It With…

  • Your buddies, especially if they’re into sports.
  • Writers.  Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, two of the credited screenwriters for this adaptation, are the best and most prolific working writers today. The film is a crash-course in film writing.
  • Your dad.

Don’t See It With…

  • A date (unless both of you are statistics nerds).
  • George Steinbrenner.


Movie: Midnight in Paris

Synopsis: Gill Pender (Owen Wilson) and his fiancé (Rachel McAdams) spend a week in France with her family. While out on late night strolls, Gill is magically transported to 1920’s Paris, where he keeps company with seminal writers and artists of that time. 

Why It’s Nominated: Think of it as a cheap alternative to Cliff’s Notes for the Lost Generation. The film does possess a sense of whimsy and delightfulness, which is a welcome departure from the cynicism found in most movies and in my soul. There’s a nice message, too: don’t live in the past. Still, it’s all sort of ridiculous and plays into our fantasies of celebrity. Most artists don’t linger in cafes discussing the meaning of life followed by passionate embraces; they toil alone trapped in their own sadness. But, hey! There’s Hemingway! And Kathy Bates (from NBC’s hit show Harry’s Law) appears! Long-time Woody Allen fans will be disappointed (the film plays like Purple Rose of Cairo – Lite) but those casually acquainted with his work will understand why he is an icon. It’s a fun movie.

See It With…

  • Your high school English teacher.
  • Any date.  This is a great film that springboards into after-dinner conversation.

Don’t See It With…

  • Your high school gym teacher.
  • Your dad. (Unless he’s an English professor or Woody Allen.)


Movie: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Synopsis: Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), an isolated nine-year old boy (who may, in fact, suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome), traverses the streets of New York City in search of a lock that fits a key that once belonged to his late father (Tom Hanks), who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It’s based upon the book by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Why It’s Nominated: It’s like taking a walking tour of NYC, only without the effort (or the smells). When a movie latches its premise to a national tragedy like 9/11, I imagine how powerful the film would be if one of its leads instead died in a random fire or Taco Bell bean machine explosion. In this instance, the resulting drama is affecting but not nearly as emotional. 9/11 left us with indelible scars that resonate so deeply, you can see the audience perk up when Oskar replays the final messages left by his father, who was trapped in the tower.  Those scenes are devastating and play into our memories and fears of that time on that day.  The rest of the narrative, however, is a paint-by-numbers story about how time heals all wounds. Ironically, after nearly 10 years since 9/11 occurred, the movie and its nomination prove that some wounds are unaffected by time.

See It With…

  • Your spouse/long-term partner.  It’s an experience that will pull you together.
  • A young adult who didn’t experience 9/11 firsthand.

Don’t See It With…

  • Anyone who lost a relative or friend on 9/11.
  • Members of Al-Qaeda.
  • Someone you are uncomfortable crying in front of.
  • The friend who owns every DVD in the Ernest series.


Movie: The Help

Synopsis: Set in the 1960s (and in the midst of the Civil Rights movement), a group of African-American maids (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer) empowers a white girl (Emma Stone) to achieve her dreams of writing a book… about the subjugation of African-American maids.

Why It’s Nominated: The movie, based upon a book Kathryn Stockett (seriously, Hollywood, write something yourself) is affecting. Even though Emma Stone has proven star power, the movie belongs to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who imbue the characters with real pain and hope. America has a penchant for celebrating its long overdue social revolutions and Hollywood follows suit. You could argue that the film does a disservice to the actual struggle by avoiding the darkness and bitterness that must have existed, but the film is engaging and entertaining. It is what it is.

See it with…

  • A first/blind date.  Somehow this is a mood-enhancer.
  • Your mother.

Don’t see it with…

  • Your racist in-laws.
  • Your maid.


Movie: Tree of Life

Synopsis: Terrence Malick’s film about a man’s (Sean Penn) childhood memories of his father (Brad Pitt) interspersed with long sequences detailing the origins of life.

Why It’s Nominated: Hollywood productions employ thousands of people so it’s a win for the economy. The film is impressionistic and delivers more questions than answers about our place in the world, in time, and in spirituality. Pitt provides a powerful performance as a stoic (and terrifying) father in a small town during the 1950s. The story is vague and open-ended allowing for the audience to fill in the gaps with their own experiences, perceptions, or air horns (which I set off repeatedly during viewing).  Audiences and critics were divided – some believe it to be a masterpiece; others, not so much. Regardless, Malick’s technical abilities and vision are astonishing and the acting, when there is dialogue, is top-notch.

See It With…

  • A “Film Studies” class – you can later discuss the film techniques Malick employs.
  • A shotgun.

Don’t See It With…

  • An abusive father.
  • A creationist.


Movie: War Horse

Synopsis: Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpugo’s novel about a boy who enlists to fight in WWI so that he may find his beloved horse, which was sold to the British cavalry.

Why It’s Nominated: Spielberg. Conventional wisdom dictates that war is hell. But what do the horses think? Thankfully, we are treated to a film that explores the horrors of war by way of a delightful (and unfortunately mute) horse. The horse must endure unspeakable torture and we, as the audience, wish all of this nonsense would stop. Not for the soldiers, but for the pretty horse and his master Albert. You see, this is the story of friendship between man and beast with a pesky World War that keeps getting in the way. The film features realistic and terrifying battles scenes on par with Spielberg’s far better and emotionally wrenching Saving Private Ryan, and the sentiment is strong and carries us along.  At his worst, Spielberg still produces a solid flick, but this will not be remembered as well as his other, better films. At times, I thought about enlisting in the army to avoid seeing this film.

See It With…

  • Steven Spielberg.  He’ll be easy to recognize; he’ll be the only other one in the theater.
  • Your pet.

Don’t See It With…

  • Your friend who works at the glue factory.
  • Expectations.

Categories: Awards, Features
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