Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

Recent Entries
< PreviousBrowse the ArchivesNext >
Subscribe to the RSS Feed

My Ranking of the “Best Picture” Nominees

February 24, 2013
New York, N.Y.

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.


"The controversy over the depiction of torture is ridiculous: Only a moral dolt would approve or disapprove of torture based on its efficacy."

The controversy is ridiculous for a different reason: Depiction doesn't imply endorsement. A news organization's decision to print the photo of a screaming Vietnamese girl was a fortunate decision to depict the news, and I don't recall anyone calling that an endorsement.

A US Supreme Court "justice" explained his approval of torture in an interview, because he THINKS it's effective. Well look, if I were tortured, I'd confess to participating in 9/11. I'd probably hold out against torture for a whole minute before confessing. I don't know the details of what I'd confess to though. Someone would have to make those up for me.

I wonder why you rank the movie lower than Amour.

— Partly free, Sun, 24 Feb 2013 18:59:04 -0500

You seem to miss the point of Django Unchained.

For some good reads that will show why it's not just 'torture porn' (in fact, the violence within is less than was historical), see the review by Steven Barnes at Dar Kush -

Of course, each person will judge a movie based on his own perspective, as is right. But to judge it merely based on violence without looking beyond did make me rise to the occasion to respond.

— wraith808, Sun, 24 Feb 2013 22:05:01 -0500

Pretty much everyone agrees that Hollywood has been extremely remiss in portrayals of slavery. The most famous and well-known, of course, is Gone with the Wind, which is a gross romantic fantasy about the antebellum South. (See Sean Wilentz's article in The New Republic on Lincoln movies for a recent discussion of the Hollywood's reluctance to portray slavery honestly.)

To me, this deficiency of earlier films implies that a contemporary director taking on the subject of slavery has a special obligation to get it right. For Steven Barnes — whose blog entry you cite — the lies of earlier movies gives license to a contemporary director to compensate by going in the extreme opposite direction. Both he and I use the term "revenge fantasy" to describe Django Unchained. We agree exactly what this movie is! Django Unchained is a "feel good" movie in which slaves finally get the upper hand in a way they never did in real America. For Steven Barnes, that's a good thing. From my perspective, it's as much of a lie as Gone with the Wind.

The violence of slavery went far deeper than whippings, beatings, and other forms of punishment. The violence of slavery is intrinsic to the control over another human life for one's own benefit. Even if whippings did not exist, slavery would still be a violent practice. Yet, Tarantino chooses to portray the horrors of slavery solely through these punishments — to let the audience revel in them so we ourselves become angrier at the perpetrators and wish them harm. This is classic "torture porn."

Prior to the Civil War, there were numerous slave rebellions in America, the most famous and largest being that of Nat Turner in 1831. Yet, the retaliation against this rebellion resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of slaves, and further restrictions on the activities of slaves. This was the reality of slave rebellions. They were not successful. This is why nobody is claiming that Django Unchained is a realistic portrayal of anything that happened in America during this period. It's not history; it's not what happened; it's what we would have liked to have happened.

Rape was intrinsic to the practice of slavery in the American South. But the supposed "chivalry" and "honor" of Southern men necessitated that rape be kept hidden and secret. Rape was exposed only by the birth of children to female slaves with curious physical resemblances to the master and master's sons.

A openly flaunted harem of slaves would have been unthinkable in the antebellum South, particularly since plantations with large slave populations were also homes to extended white families. But Calvin Candie (the Leonardo DiCaprio character) seems to have no relatives except his sister. His plantation is historically absurd — men watching "Mandingo fighters" while being served drinks by a slave in a frilly French maid's outfit. Tarantino got the concept of slaves being forced to fight each other not from a history book but from the 1970s movie Mandingo.

But where did Tarantino come up with the idea of dressing a slave in a French maid's outfit? Study photographs of American slaves. Do you see any slaves wearing a French maid's outfit, or fancy dress of any kind?

The legacy of slavery is still very much a part of Southern politics, and we need to understand its history and nature more than ever. But Django Unchained is yet another Hollywood movie that refuses to face the long history of American slavery in an honest and realistic manner.

No matter how good the movie makes us feel, we need to know that feeling good is not enough. — Charles

Thanks for the response!

I didn't mean that it was historically accurate- it's laughingly not. Nor that feeling good is enough. But it's a *start*.

And to see how effective a start it is- look a the conversation surrounding its release. That's why I disagree on the subject of 'torture porn'. The movie is well-written, and has none of the usual deficiencies that are usually used to disregard such media and treatment. The production qualities, cinematography, cast, direction- all top-notch. So what's left?

The real depictions of the level of rape, torture, and murder necessary to keep a people so in bondage just *can't* be realistically depicted. To do so would enforce a sense of numbness that would stop stillborn the kind of conversation you want to happen. Tarantino even talks about it in his interview with Howard Stern and how it affected the cast. So what's the other option- the use of absurdism to stay that numbness. The sense of a justice that has never been visited to have a sense that it is OK to talk about these issues.

Right now, we cover them with Political Correctness while a great cancer festers underneath our cover of pleases and thank yous.

— wraith808, Tue, 26 Feb 2013 14:58:33 -0500

Sidney Poitier's Buck and the Preacher (1972), Larry Spangler's (Fred Williamson) Legend of N-ggr Charley (1972), Soul of N-ggr Charley (1973), Mel Brook's Blazing Saddles (1974), Jack Arnold (Fred Williamson) with Boss N-ggr (1975), Mario Van Peebles' Posse (1993), Mario Van Peebles' Los Locos (1997), John Singleton's Rosewood (1997), and maybe more movies that I've misesd all incorporated slavery into a Western motif. Wasn't marketed with cutsey hipster Southern label, but the genre has been done. Would love to see a real Western about John Brown, Bass Reeves, Nat Love Deadwood Dick or Shotgun Mary.

— Calysta, Mon, 1 Apr 2013 13:29:19 -0400

Recent Entries
< PreviousBrowse the ArchivesNext >
Subscribe to the RSS Feed

(c) Copyright Charles Petzold