This evening is the presentation of Academy Awards for movies released in 2012. Here's my ranking of the nine "Best Picture" nominees from best to worst (despite the impossibility of comparing movies that are very different in ambition, scope, and subject matter).
1. Amour: Director Michael Haneke makes horror films, and this is one of his most hair-raising, as an elderly couple face terrors that go to the very core of their existence together. The performances of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant — well known from several seminal films of the last half century — are extraordinary.
2. Zero Dark Thirty: Kathryn Bigelow has become our best chronicler of the horrors and obsessions of modern warfare. This movie is as good as The Hurt Locker, and her choice (with screenwriter Mark Boal) to view the events from the perspective of a CIA analyst was brilliant. The controversy over the depiction of torture is ridiculous: Only a moral dolt would approve or disapprove of torture based on its efficacy.
3. Silver Linings Playbook: Of all the quirky love stories in recent years (e.g., Moonrise Kingdom), this is one of the quirkiest. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper put in two wonderful performances as seriously broken people who find a way to discover trust and love. The dance contest at the end surprisingly manages to transcend cliche and be totally satisfying.
4. Beasts of the Southern Wild: Considering the limited resources used in making this movie (16-mm film, non-professional actors), this is a minor masterpiece of poverty, survival, and metaphor on the other side of the Louisiana levees in a fishing community threatened by the rising seas of climate change. In comparison, every other movie on this list looks over-fed and bloated. Quvenzhané Wallis puts in a marvelous and often harrowing performance as Hushpuppy.
5. Lincoln: The Realpolitik maneuvers employed by Abraham Lincoln to pass the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives makes a great story, but for me it was spoiled by Spielberg's insistence on making sure the audience knows a ponderous speech is underway by the swelling John Williams score. It's as if Spielberg is sitting on your shoulder instructing you when each tear is supposed to fall.
6. Les Misérables: The use of on-set recording make this movie one of the best integrations of film and singing ever. It's too bad that the music itself is so dreadful — perhaps the most plodding score ever written, a relentlessly monotonous barrage of stiff quatrains and prosaic rhymes, punctuated by a couple more lyrical but sappy tunes. Some excellent performances (e.g., Anne Hathaway) are completely nullified by the abominable singing voice of Russell Crowe.
7. Life of Pi: This is a great use of CGI and 3D in recounting the travails of a young man trapped in a lifeboat with a hungry Bengali tiger. But this is a movie that has a much bigger fish to fry, and seems to want to say something about the human condition. The message, however, is completely muddled because it unfairly portrays only one of the two alternate realities and leaves the other to a brief spoken narrative. If this movie were more like Rashomon, the other version of the story would be more realistic, and hence disprove the supposed existence of God the movie pretends to be. Seriously flawed.
8. Argo: All historical films contain inaccuracies, simplifications, and fabrications, but the ones in this movie are so extreme as to render it a complete absurdity. This is a Hollywood movie in all the bad senses of the term, and a self-congratulating one at that.
9. Django Unchained: Towards the end of this film is a marvelous long suspenseful scene at a dinner table reminiscent of the similar cafe scene in Inglourious Basterds. There is no doubt that Quentin Tarantino is a talented filmmaker, but this is a despicable foray into torture porn and revenge fantasy. Tarantino seems to have done most of his research about slavery from a 1970s blaxploitation movie, and pays homage to that movie by using the term "Mandingo fighting" to describe the mythical staged fights between slaves. A movie that portrays the horrors of slavery has very special obligations, but this one is as dishonest in its own way as the notorious racist lies of Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.