Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Penelope Says on Facebook

My dad (attempting to play Penelope's crazy variation on bowling, in a very even voice): I have a feeling this will be less fun than I can even imagine.
(He sets up a pin. She knocks it over for no reason.)
Grandpa: I can't do this.
Penelope: You need to be patient!
Grandpa: Is that it? No! I can't do this. I can't set up these pins.
Penelope: It's easy!
Grandpa: Then you do it!
Penelope: No! I can't do it!
January 22 at 7:18 pm

Penelope: Daddy, aren't you going to talk to me? I thought you were going to talk to me.
Derrick: Well what do want me to say? How about, I love you?
(I keep whispering that to her.)
Penelope: No, how about something more loud?
Moments later...
Penelope: Grandpa, can you talk loud?
January 22 at 8:34 pm

Penelope and Derrick were having a pirate sword fight. After he exclaimed, "I'm dead," she disappeared and quickly returned with a role of toilet paper, saying, "I brought you some bandages!"
January 22 at 8:50 pm

Derrick playing with three-year-old Penelope is like a rerun of Derrick playing with three-year-old Grayson!
January 22 at 8:53 pm

Penelope: (singing into Derrick's ear) Dickory, dickory dare, the mouse went up in the cat. (Pauses, looks puzzled, amends) clock! (repeats confidently) Dickory, dickory dare! The mouse went up the clock!
January 22 at 9:01 pm

Penelope: (pointing to her ribs as I dry her after her bath) These are what I call my pirate ship.
Me: Why?
P: Cause! Shiver me timbers! It is cold! (Sings) Row, row, row your boat, gently till you poop!
Me: Hmm.
P: I'm not much of a singer!
Me: You're a great singer, but I question your taste as a lyricist!
January 23 at 1:25 am

So Penelope and I have pink eye. I'm not sure if that's the end of this virus--Derrick's eyes got red near the end, and Grayson's were red--or if we just coincidentally got bacterial conjunctivitis at the same time. While I was reading about pinkeye online, Penelope pointed to a picture of an infected eye and said instructively, "Mommy, that's the BLACK swan!"
January 23 at 7:13 pm

Penelope: (appearing) It's the most amazing thing!
Me: What is?
Penelope: You'd better watch out, Mama! Another Mommy is coming!
Me: What? Who is this other Mommy?
(Penelope disappears.)
January 23 at 10:51 pm

Penelope (roaring as loud as she can): ROAR! (jumping) That was a loud one! This is the kitty show. We have all kinds of tricks. That was my loudest trick. Now I'm going to...well, that was my only trick, but there will be magic tricks (long pause) later...after the movie!
January 24 at 10:03 pm

Penelope: Oh no! Someone's going to capture Pupcake!
Me: Who would want to capture Pupcake?
Penelope: The dog pound, of course!
January 24 at 10:04 pm

(Penelope puts on the stethoscope from her doctor kit and blows into it until her face turns red)
Me: What are you doing?
Penelope: (ignoring me and running into Derrick's office) I finally figured it out, Daddy, why I've been hearing that squeaking in my ears!
January 24 at 10:06 pm

Penelope (looking down at her body): Oh no!
Me: What is it?
Penelope: My shadow is gone! I know he used to be right here by me. How did he get loose again? Maybe somebody stole him. Who could have done that?
Me: Pirates?
Penelope: No, it couldn't have been pirates. He's always been with me. He wouldn't be scared so easily. Maybe I left him upstairs in Grandma's room. I'll go check!
January 24 at 10:11 pm

Penelope: (calling) Shadows!!!! They all came back, Mommy! All my shadows came back to me.
Me: How many do you have?
Penelope: (seeming surprised I would ask) Well four!
Me: Four?
Penelope: Yes, I used to have three, but then a ghost gave one to me. That's how they came alive. It's because of ghosts.
January 24 at 10:15 pm

Penelope: (pausing by the sink) Hmm. Dear me.
Me: (sounding like death as I rasp) What is it?
Penelope: Now there are two coffee cups in the sink. That's odd.
January 25 at 4:38 pm

I'd better get well soon. Tomorrow is Day 14. Derrick said he noticed a pronounced improvement then. That had better happen for me, too, because right now, I still feel like death.
January 25 at 5:25 pm

Penelope (to Derrick): This is horrible! You've got to see this!
Derrick: Oh my goodness! What happened?
Penelope: Grandma took my shadow!
January 25 at 6:18 pm

Penelope: Do boys wear dresses?
Derrick: No. (Hesitates) Well some do. But most don't. Well, not usually. Some do. But it's not common.
Penelope: But you do?
Derrick: No, I don't usually.

I'm not sure why he added "usually" unless almost five years into our marriage, there's still an exciting secret I don't know about yet.
January 25 at 6:23 pm

Aunt Merry, guess what just came on TV? An American Tail! We keep watching all your favorite movies lately!
January 25 at 7:37 pm

Penelope: I am your baby.
Derrick: You are my baby.
Penelope: The sky is my baby.
Me: The sky is your baby?
Penelope: And I can't tell you why because I can't speak Spanish. But I can speak pig and goat!
January 26 at 12:29 am (I think this bizarre comment was inspired by an episode of Dora)

Penelope: Oh! This is just like lotion!
(I turn and see that she's rubbing lime yogurt all over her hands, arms, and face!)
January 26 at 12:30 am

Penelope (looking at my computer): What's that movie?
Me: It's called A Better Life. I'm going to watch it tomorrow.
Penelope: Is it a bad movie?
Me: No, it's not bad. But I think it would be boring for you.
Penelope: Well, I think you should let me decide that. I would like to go with you.
Me: Well, I'm not going to go anywhere. I'm going to watch it on my computer.
Penelope: Oh, well, I should watch it with you because I'm quite interested in seeing it.
Me: You are?
Penelope: Yes, I'm big now, you know.
January 26 at 7:53 pm

Me: (as we watch the debate, mindful of Penelope's current obsession with space) Penelope, they're saying maybe we should send people to live on the moon. Do you think people should live on the moon?
Penelope: In houses on the moon?
Me: That's right.
Penelope: But why don't some people even have houses on the Earth? Why don't they even have enough money to have a house to live in?

I think my daughter is going to be a saint.
January 26 at 8:02 pm

Penelope: Once upon a time, we were building houses on the moon. Then an octopus came.
Me: And what did he say?
P: Nothing. He had a cold.
Me: I see.
P: And he went to the doctor, and the doctor told him, "You're not sick!"
Me: Hmm.
P: Then he died.
January 27 at 2:03 am

Penelope: I think I am getting your cold. I'm thinking of losing my voice, too. Tomorrow I probably won't talk to you.
January 27 at 2:11 am

Now Penelope is throwing up! Who has more fun than we do?
January 27 at 3:52 pm

While watching Jeopardy!...
My dad: You know what they say about the French Revolution. It was neither French, nor a revolution.
(Long pause)
Me: Are you sure that's what they say?

(After lots of thinking, I'm pretty sure that saying is about the Holy Roman Empire, but it certainly does put quite an interesting spin on the French Revolution. He really almost had me convinced, and I was trying to think how that could possibly be true.)
January 27 at 10:06 pm

Me: Do you want me to fast forward?
January 27 at 10:52 pm

Penelope: What other kinds of ice cream do you like, Nala?
Me (having already named several): I don't know, Simba. Pistachio?
P: I like (unintelligible).
Me: What?
P: Catshoe. It's like cashew for lions.
I think she's better at this game!
Saturday at 1:30 am

Penelope (seeing Derrick leave the office and grab his jacket): Oh good! Dad, will you bring me a Gatorade and something for a snack. (To me) Mom, Daddy's bringing me a Gatorade. Do you want anything?
Me: Actually, Daddy and I are going to a movie.
Penelope: Ohhhh.
Me: But we'll bring you something when we come back.
Saturday at 7:15 pm

Penelope (as we read the story Have You Seen my Potty): Why do the animals call it a pot? What do they mean?
Me (reading): Oh what a disaster for poor Suzy Sue who had something very important to do.
Penelope: Oh! A potty is a potty, and a pot is what you cook in! I see the difference. I hope the animals do, too, or that would be a real disaster!
Sunday at 12:32 am

Penelope (rediscovering her toy orange): Glad to have you back!!
Sunday at 4:58 pm

Me: Are you ready to go for our walk?
Penelope: (weird squeaking noises)
Me: Penelope, I don't know why you keep making those weird squeaky noises. I like it so much better when you talk to me with words.
Penelope: It's pinkie.
Me: It's pinkie?
Penelope (putting a hand over her blanket, like she's covering his ears, whispering): I know! It gets annoying. But what can I do? He's just a baby!
22 hours ago

Penelope's latest passion is collecting rocks. She's always on the lookout for good rocks for her collection. What makes them good? Simple. She judges them entirely on how big they are. Consequently, she's always trying to lift up boulders and big chunks of cement!
22 hours ago

Yesterday after spending the afternoon at the Cameron Park Zoo, we had dinner out. Penelope and I waited by the front door for Derrick to wash his hands. Nellie stood there and smiled at all the people coming into the restaurant, who invariably smiled at her (because she's three). When Derrick showed up, Penelope declared in joy, "Daddy, everyone likes me!"
22 hours ago

Grandma brought a sieve home for Penelope. She's very excited to take a bath because she's sure that she can carry water in it despite Simple Simon's disappointing efforts.
25 minutes ago

Fall Movie Diary: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Date: January 28, 2012
Time: 3:30 pm
Place: Regal Arbor 8 at Great Hills
Company: Derrick
Food: small cherry Icee, small popcorn
Running Time: 2 hours and 7 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Tomas Alfredson

Quick Impressions:
I’d heard that this film is difficult to follow. My husband and I laughed about that before the movie started because we hear that so often, and in almost every case, the “impossibly confusing” film in question turns out to be perfectly easy to follow (provided that you’re watching it free of distractions).

I must admit, however, that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy really is legitimately difficult to follow, and for that reason, it might not be a movie for everyone.

Why is it so hard to follow? Simple. It’s disorienting.

If you’re like us and go in blind (not having read the book or any literature about the film), then you’d better pay attention because the film itself doesn’t rely on any of the customary courtesies usually included to orient the audience.

When the film starts, we’re not given any kind of written prologue explaining events up to that point. We’re not given the date. We’re not given the backgrounds (or initially even the names) of the characters. For that reason, we’re not sure which characters deserve our sympathy. We have no idea of the scope of the story, and for several minutes, we’re not completely sure of the plot, either. We’re simply dropped into a secret conversation, dropped into a botched mission, dropped into Hungary, dropped into confusion.

But this is deliberate. The viewer is deliberately disoriented, so is that really a problem? The movie isn’t trying to be clear and straightforward and failing. It isn’t badly written and confusing. It’s well written and deliberately disorienting. (And if you miss anything—because, say, people come in after the movie has started and ask you to move so they can get to the two empty seats to your left—you will always wonder, “Did I just miss the most crucial information in the movie?”)

The thing is, even if you don’t follow each little thing as it happens, even if you don’t know exactly what’s going on, by the end of the movie, surely you’ll have the general idea. Once you get to the point when people start confessing things or denying things or referring to each other by name in long conversations, you’re going to catch up. It’s inevitable.

The Good:
I loved the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but that movie had a major failing. By adhering to certain cinematic formulas, it gave away the ending. Of course, if Fincher’s film had made the mystery more difficult to solve, it might have lost some audience members.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy doesn’t fall into that trap. Predicting the ending is not easy. Rather refreshingly, this film doesn’t hold your hand. If you get lost in the labyrinthine plot, you’d better find your way out again. The movie’s not going to slow down and come looking for you.

Is it possible to guess the ending? Of course! Gary Oldman’s Smiley (possibly the best name ever for a tight-lipped, British spy) is trying to find a mole, a double-agent. There are only a handful of suspects—alphabetically, Alleline, Bland, Esterhase, Haydon, and (to make things exciting) Smiley himself. So, of course, you can guess. Even if you haven’t seen the film yet, you can guess right now. Go ahead and guess. Knock yourself out! You have a twenty-percent chance of being right. But you won’t know for sure until the final scenes of the film, and that leaves a lot of room for second guessing.

Another thing that makes guessing tricky is that it takes a while to figure out just who all of the gentlemen named above are. Matching names to faces and remembering them will likely require your full concentration. So if you’re like me, you’ll spend a lot of the first part of the movie thinking, They’re making Toby Jones look too suspicious. So it can’t be Toby Jones. Unless it’s a trick. What is this Alleline thing they keep talking about?

Part of what makes the film so bewildering as you watch for the first time is that all of the principal characters’ names sound like insurance companies or investment bankers or government agencies. Until Gary Oldman’s lengthy monologue about meeting Karla, I honestly wasn’t sure if Karla was the name of an individual or the acronym of a spy ring. (It’s hard to know what’s a name and what’s not. John Hurt’s character is called Control. Surely that’s not his name—is it? But that’s what they all call him when the rest of them go by their surnames.) (And what makes us so sure we can trust Control, by the way?)

Also, the suspects spend almost all of their time together and have all known each other since forever (or at least since World War II). And every one of them is played by a respected actor (Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth, Gary Oldman. The least famous of the bunch over here is David Dencik, and he’s still a very established Swedish performer).

Here’s the thing, though. This isn’t a mystery. The audience is not supposed to be figuring out the answer. As a first time viewer, you do not have the expertise or the information to figure out which one of these long-time colleagues is the mole. Nobody knows for sure until the end of the movie when the mole walks into a trap and reveals himself.

I think the movie’s choice to go the disorienting route is a good one. It’s intellectually exciting to have to put together a puzzle even as the picture the pieces form is changing. Surely that’s what it feels like to be an actual spy (although the actual spies would have more to go on since they would surely know how to match their colleagues’ names and faces).

The film also contains some fantastic performances. At first, Gary Oldman’s Smiley seems a bit distant and austere, but by the end of the movie, you’re practically in love with the guy, largely because he’s the only person you get to spend much quality time with. Other standouts are Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, and Benedict Cumberbatch because it’s easier to become emotionally invested in characters who reveal some of their emotions to us. For that reason, Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs also makes a favorable impression on the audience. Not only is she one of the first characters who behaves like a warm, open, human being, but she also supplies tons of information that is absolutely crucial in our quest to figure out who everyone is and how they fit together.

Best Scene:
My favorite sequence of the movie was Ricky Tarr’s recollection of his failed mission. I must admit, however, that when Tarr first showed up, I was so preoccupied with Jim Prideaux that I still have no idea where Tarr came from. I’m not sure if the film introduced him in some way that I missed or if he really did show up out of nowhere (though certainly after that first scene, everyone seemed to be talking about him constantly).

I thought, Who is that guy in the shadows? Is that Prideaux? He looks strange. I wish he’d come out of the shadows. Who is that? It’s Tom Hardy! It’s Tom Hardy!

For me, the movie really picked up when Tarr showed up because he injected so much feeling into the story. (Tom Hardy can emote like no one else.)

Best Surprise:
If you go in blind like I did, the entire movie is a surprise. You don’t sit there waiting for a big twist because each new scene is a twist. It’s very gratifying when you finally watch a scene and realize to yourself, I know everyone’s name and what they’re all trying to do and why this is happening and what’s going on. This will take a while.

Most Suspenseful Scene:
I love the character of Peter Guillam (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) because he’s one of the few people that seems trustworthy (though you never can tell). I love the sequence when Smiley sends him into “the lions’ den.”

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Gary Oldman):
Even if Gary Oldman gave the world’s worst performance in this film, it is absolutely shameful that he’s never been nominated for an Oscar before (and the same can be said for Max von Sydow). Fortunately, his performance is great.

It takes a while to warm up to Oldman’s Smiley because he’s one cool customer, but somehow by the end of the movie, you really love him and feel like he’s the greatest guy you’ve ever met. I’m not sure how exactly this happens. Oldman does a commendable job of somehow emoting while acting reserved.

Certainly the moment that stands out as “the big Oscar scene” is his impassioned monologue about meeting Karla, though he’s also very good in the Christmas party flashback, watching his wife out the window.

When he talks about Karla, Smiley reveals an unprecedented amount about himself. It’s like listening to Sherlock Holmes wax poetic about Moriarty. Smiley sees Karla as the antithesis of everything he believes in, so every trait of Karla’s he chooses to dwell on reveals a corresponding truth about Smiley (or at least about the way he sees himself). This allows us our first genuine insight into the character and also makes the mole seem more despicable (and almost pitiable, tragic) since based on what we’ve heard about Karla, he can’t possibly have an ounce of respect for the British agent he’s using for his own ends.

The Music:
Alberto Iglesias’s score is also Oscar nominated and thoroughly deserving of the honor. It is unusual and always seems apt. The movie’s soundtrack works very well in general. I love the effect of the final song, though I realize that’s not technically a part of the score.

Everything looks bleak in this movie. It looks like the 1970s. (Good thing, too, because they’re sure not going to tell you it’s the 1970s! You can torture them if you want. They’ll never tell you!)

The Negatives:
This movie isn’t for everyone because it demands your time and full attention. You have to watch attentively and think hard just to figure out what is going on (on the most basic level). That’s not a challenge that will seem worth it to everyone. People who go to the movies mainly for mindless escapism will probably only find this film worthwhile if they use the two hours to take a nap. I’m not finding fault with such viewers or with the film. This is not a movie for everyone.

That said, everyone sitting around us seemed to enjoy it. Even the two women who came in late and took bathroom breaks at crucial moments remarked to one another how good the movie had been as the credits rolled.

The biggest flaw that I find with the movie is this. Smiley and the investment bankers have known and trusted each other for decades. That one of them is a mole is simply heartbreaking for the others and seems to be a large part of the reason that most of them keep denying that a mole exists. It’s often emotionally easier to deny true betrayal. But we don’t really get a sense of this until the end of the movie. We care about all the characters much, much less than they care about each other.

I’m not sure how this could be remedied. It’s hard to understand the emotional core of characters if you don’t even know who they are in the most superficial way. Flipped on its head, I suppose this negative could be a strength. Life is like that, too. Everyone is just as human as everyone else—we just don’t know some of the people well enough to see their vulnerabilities.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not for everyone, but if you’re interested in seeing it, you probably should. It has a fantastic cast and a genuinely puzzling, suspenseful story. I am positive it would improve with multiple viewings and look forward to seeing it again.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review of Oscar Nominees: Best Picture

The Artist
Nominated Producer(s): Thomas Langmann
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Writer: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller, James Cromwell, Uggi (the dog), Missi Pyle, Beth Grant
George Valentin, a huge silent movie star in 1920s Hollywood, finds himself suddenly displaced by the advent of talking pictures. Valentin’s swift decline happens alongside the meteoric rise of ingénue Peppy Miller, who suddenly becomes a huge star in talkies. Soon everyone has forgotten or forsaken Valentin, except Miller who is secretly in love with him.

Why It Should Win

The Artist is the perfect marriage of a high concept and a simple story. What film lover can resist a black-and-white, silent, French film released in 2011? What movie buff wouldn’t enjoy a character-driven, Hollywood love story with a cute dog, a happy ending, and a brisk, hundred-minute runtime?

Two scenes stand out in this unlikely crowd pleaser. Valentin’s nightmare—when the film threatens to take a dramatic, surrealist turn—is beautifully done and should appeal to anyone who saw The Artist specifically because it’s silent and critically acclaimed. The ending is the best part, though. Anybody who enjoys munching popcorn and watching Hollywood magic on the screen will feel an electric thrill as the potentially doomed love story ends with a brilliantly ambiguous “bang!”

The Artist also drives home an inconvenient truth about this year’s crop of movies. Most 2011 releases utilized color, sound, and at least some special effects. And yet, The Artist is the front runner for the Best Picture Oscar. Pause for a minute and draw what conclusion you will. One last thing—the dog is really cute!

Why It Shouldn’t Win

The Artist is a cool movie because it’s a paradox presented with panache. We get to watch a silent film more effective than many of the year’s talkies all about how talkies are the future of film. The thing is, yes that’s cool, but ultimately the movie is all about itself. It’s a movie about what it means to make movies. If you reach, it’s a movie about what it means to be human. (People need others. If you need help, speak up.) The audience will walk out of the theater talking and laughing and discussing symbolism and the cute dog, but I’d be shocked if anyone walks out exclaiming in giddy nausea, “My God! That was the most profound experience of my entire life! I’ll never see the world the same way after that!”

The Artist is like a fortune cookie. Who doesn’t like a fortune cookie? It’s sweet and amusing to reflect on for a few minutes, but it’s not a substitute for a meal (or for a pan of brownies and a degree in Eastern philosophy, for that matter). Does it matter that the movie isn’t particularly profound? I don’t know, but The Artist, at its heart, is not.

The Descendants
Nominated Producer(s): Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Robert Forster

Hawaiian lawyer Matt King must decide how to manage his extended family’s inherited trust of land while he tries to keep his immediate family together in the wake of a tragedy. After learning that his wife will not recover from her sudden coma, he attempts to be the best father he can to his two troubled daughters, young Scottie and teenaged Alexandra who’s had conflict with her mother. When Alexandra reveals that her mother was having an affair, Matt realizes just how out of touch he has been with his family.

Why It Should Win

I cried through virtually the entire movie, yet when the credits rolled, I didn’t feel that resentment that inevitably comes when you realize you’ve been manipulated by cheap cinematic chicanery. The Descendants is a simple story and, I’d imagine, a relatable one for most people. (Do you have parents? Do you have children? Do you have ancestors? Do you have responsibilities? Do you have to make hard choices? Do you have personal shortcomings? Do you have regrets? Do you enjoy watching George Clooney run around in Hawaii?)

George Clooney shines in the leading role largely because it’s a wonderful part, the kind any actor should dream about landing. The movie has a tight focus. It’s just a story about a man and his family. That’s it. For me, the characters in Payne’s earlier acclaimed film Sideways were hard to connect with, but I felt an instant rapport with Clooney’s Matt King. He reminds me of my own father, mainly because he loves his daughters, and even though he’s constantly reminded of his own inadequacies and failures, he remains determined to be the best parent he can. After all, his daughters need him.

Both George Clooney and Shailene Woodley give magnificent performances. (For Clooney, it’s an uncharacteristically strong performance, showing much more range than the actor usually manages.) The rest of the cast is also great. How often do you get to see Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer give strong, dramatic performances? How often does Beau Bridges even show up in a movie anymore? And the script is fantastic. (The character of Sid, for example, surprises and moves us so much because of the way the character is revealed.)

The rest of its strengths aside, The Descendants deserves recognition for the elegance of its final scene, one of the most powerful I’ve seen on screen in recent memory.

Why It Shouldn’t Win

I love almost everything about The Descendants, but I absolutely hate the way it portrays the mother. Elizabeth King is in a coma. She can’t defend herself or even offer her side of the story as she’s revealed as a reckless, whimsical adulteress motivated entirely by a desire for pleasure and the urge to alleviate her boredom. One reason that Clooney’s Matt King so shines is that despite his shortcomings, he looks like the best parent in the world next to his enormously vilified wife.

Something about that disturbs me. The woman is denied a voice or even a sympathetic advocate. (Her best friend is so annoying that her support just makes Elizabeth look worse.) Does a woman really have to die an ignominious death just so Matt King can come across as a halfway decent man?

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Nominated Producer(s): Scott Rudin
Director: Stephen Daldry
Writers: Eric Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer (novel)
Cast: Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Zoe Caldwell, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman, Stephen Henderson, Tom Hanks

A precocious but socially challenged boy struggles to cope after his father’s death in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Because his father regularly challenged him with “reconnaissance expeditions” to encourage him to interact outside his comfort zone, Oskar expects another such task. When he finds a mysterious key in his father’s closet, he assumes it is a clue to the final mystery his father wanted him to solve. His expedition to find the lock takes him all over New York City and allows him to connect with numerous interesting people, including his grandmother’s mysterious Renter, a recluse who never speaks but takes an interest in young Oskar and his troubles.

Why It Should Win

Just to be clear, this movie should not win Best Picture. Stephen Daldry has a singular talent for making the Academy’s decisions seem all the more arcane when his movies continually get nominated for Best Picture, defying all logic. (I’m not saying he doesn’t have talent, but his movies have gotten progressively worse, and the Academy hasn’t seemed to notice.)

The great strength of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close lies in the parallel it draws between the way people experienced the world in the chaos of 9/11 and the way young Oskar (who likely has an autism spectrum disorder) experiences the world all the time.

The movie is also worth seeing because of compelling performances from Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, and, especially, Max von Sydow. For such a young actor who has the burden of carrying the movie, Thomas Horn does fantastic work, but Max von Sydow steals every second that he’s on screen. By far, however, the most rewarding scene of the movie is Sandra Bullock’s final talk with her son. For me and for my husband, this scene made the movie something special.

Why It Shouldn’t Win

The movie progresses at a strange pace toward a goal no one can anticipate. Sometimes surprising the audience is a strength. In this case, however, we’re not just surprised by where we arrive; we’re stunned that we’ve managed to arrive anywhere.

I’m told that book gives the character of the Renter much more time and development. I wish the film had done that, too. On paper, the movie sounds better than the actual film the director delivers. That can’t be good, right?

The Help
Nominated Producer(s): Brunson Green, Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan
Director: Tate Taylor
Writers: Tate Taylor, Katherine Stockett (novel)
Cast: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Leslie Jordan, Mary Steenburgen, Ahna O’Reilly, Mike Vogel, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson
In the early 1960s, recent college graduate Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns to her home in Jackson, Mississippi, determined to forge a career as a journalist. Luckily for Skeeter, juicy material is all around her since her own social circle in Jackson is teeming with racism, highlighted for Skeeter by her socialite friend Hilly Hollbrook’s initiative re­­quiring “the help”—African American maids who do all the housework and take care of the children— to use a separate bathroom from their employers. Meanwhile, one of these maids, Aibileen Clark, finds herself becoming increasingly resentful of the injustices in her life after the death (through employer negligence) of her only son. Eventually, Aibileen, her close friend Minny, and several other maids agree to let Skeeter interview them for a planned expose on the unjust way maids are treated in Jackson.

Why It Should Win

Released back in August, The Help was conspicuously better than most other summer movies. It remains one of the most watchable films of the year and deserves any and every award for ensemble cast.

The Help offers the audience a coherent and (mostly) satisfying story about relationships between characters who feel interesting, real, and three-dimensional. When I saw it in the theater in a packed house, the audience remained incredibly responsive throughout, laughing, crying, cheering, and, finally, clapping at the end.

Viola Davis is nominated for Best Actress. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain are nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Not only do these nominees thoroughly deserve the recognition, but they also lead a solid cast of talented actors who all give amazing performances. The weakest link among the leads is Emma Stone (whom I love), and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her performance. She’s just surrounded by more seasoned supporting actresses, loaded with talent and charisma.

Davis can convey more with a look than most actresses can with a twenty minute monologue. Spencer makes Minny so charming that everyone watching sympathizes with her increasingly as the story progresses. And Chastain plays Celia Foote with a winning vulnerability. To appreciate Chastain’s performance in The Help, you must watch her other performances in prestige pictures this year (such as The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Debt, and Coriolanus). She has astonishing versatility.

Why It Shouldn’t Win

When I was watching this on DVD with my parents, they asked, “Is this a true story?” I replied, “No.” Understanding, they came back with, “Oh, so it’s just how we wish it happened?” Yes. The story is incredibly contrived, but in honesty, it’s still substantially better than so much of the fiction that’s written for adult women.

Tate Taylor has the good sense to recognize that Aibileen is actually the lead. Viola Davis has said that she took the role to honor her mother who worked in domestic service. Still would an award for the movie honor women like Davis’s mother or women like Katherine Stockett who wrote a book about how history ought to have been in order to sell her book? The characters in the movie feel true, but the story is not true. I honestly think the audience watching The Help with me loved all the characters and rejoiced that racism in this country isn’t as obvious and as ugly as it was in the 1960s. Still…

Another flaw in the movie is that the nastiness of the “villain” Hilly Hollbrook is never really explained. (Of course, what’s the logical explanation for racism?)

Nominated Producer(s): Graham King, Martin Scorsese
Director: Martin Scorcese
Writers: John Logan, Brian Selznick (book)
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Helen McCrory, Sasha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Frances de la Tour, Christopher Lee, Ray Winstone, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law

Orphan Hugo Cabret lives within the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s. As long as he keeps the clocks running, no one will know that his drunken uncle has disappeared. Hugo’s driving passion is to rebuild the broken automaton his late father found in a museum, and he regularly steals parts he needs from toy shop owner, Georges Méliès. One day, Méliès catches him and takes away his father’s notebook which contains the instructions for rebuilding the automaton. Méliès is shocked that Hugo knows about the automaton. Obviously, Méliès is hiding a dark secret, particularly because his ward Isabelle wears around her neck the key that will make the automaton work again. Together, Hugo and Isabelle try to solve the mystery of the automaton and end up solving the much greater puzzle of what has caused Méliès to fall into such a pervasive depression.

Why It Should Win

Hugo looks like a pop-up book brought to the screen. If you’re not going to see this film in 3D, don’t bother. To appreciate the full genius of Hugo, you must see it in 3D. Scorsese uses the 3D to tell the story. It’s not gimmicky (unless you think the entire movie is gimmicky, a nearly three-hour commercial for film restoration and preservation).

This innovative use of 3D alone makes Hugo worthy of a nomination. No other movie looks like Hugo. Scorsese knows that the right use of 3D technology can show the audience something that it has never seen before, echoing the impact that the earliest motion pictures had upon an impressionable, unsuspecting audience. Through their investigations, Hugo and Isabelle make possible the recovery of a number of extremely early films. Getting to discover these rarely seen films along with them is a great pleasure for the audience.

I’ve heard people say that Ben Kingsley deserves a Supporting Actor nomination, but though he gives a fine performance (as always), I personally think the most overlooked member of the cast is young Chloe Moretz who gives the best performance of the movie as Isabelle.

Why It Shouldn’t Win

Hugo looks like a pop-up book brought to the screen. The whole time, I felt I was watching a storybook. That made me feel distanced from the story, and I never really connected with the characters. I appreciated that they were having various crises, but I felt removed from them.

Another problem—Hugo clearly wants to introduce the beauty of old films to a new generation of theater goers by incorporating scenes from old films into a story that will excite today’s youth. But Hugo is not going to excite today’s youth. It’s probably going to bore them. The only people who will be excited about the early films after seeing scenes from them in Hugo would have been excited about the early films, anyway.

Midnight in Paris
Nominated Producer(s): Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Cast: Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Gad Elmaleh, Kurt Fuller, Michael Sheen, Mimi Kennedy, Léa Seydoux, Carla Bruni

Both Gil and Inez both sometimes enjoy eating naan, so, of course, they’ve decided to get married. But before the wedding, they accompany Inez’s parents on her father’s business trip to Paris. There, Inez quickly attaches herself to Paul, the world’s most obnoxious pedant, and Gil responds by detaching from her and everyone else in her world. A self-described “Hollywood hack,” Gil longs to be a novelist and wishes he could move to Paris. One night, he takes a midnight stroll alone and discovers a dimension of Paris he’s never had the pleasure of experiencing before. Soon, he’s in love, and he returns every night to recapture the magic. His experiences after dark ultimately teach him something very important about himself and lead to a personal epiphany about how to find happiness.

Why It Should Win

Midnight in Paris is a beautiful movie, one that will particularly appeal to artistic types who admire T.S. Eliot and feel that when they create their art, they’re involved in an ongoing conversation with those who have contributed to culture in the past.

The (rather long) opening sequence consists of several images of various parts of Paris set to pleasant music. This alone will probably win over the majority of viewers. The movie is short and sweet. It’s focused and coherent with a clear, palatable message that will appeal to artists, writers, romantics, and lovers of Paris. It’s also clever, funny, and remarkably free of truly disturbing content.

Why It Shouldn’t Win

Why are Gil and Inez engaged? Were their mouths so full of naan through the early parts of their relationship that they never ever ever got a chance to talk to each other ever?

Woody Allen obviously hates Inez and her parents. They are absolutely, irredeemably horrible, and that doesn’t seem realistic to me. Usually, when you get close enough to people—even those who are your ideological opposites—you discover that they do have some redeeming qualities. Also, the movie is clever and fun, but it helps the protagonist solve a problem that really only exists in his own mind. Would you rather be a millionaire and live in Malibu or have no responsibilities and write novels in Paris? These are not exactly the kinds of choices that keep most people awake at night.

Nominated Producer(s): Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz, Brad Pitt
Director: Bennett Miller
Writers: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin (story), Michael Lewis (book)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Brent Jennings, Kerris Dorsey, Ken Medlock, Arliss Howard

Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane realizes that he doesn’t have the budget to put together a team with the talent to beat teams with more financial resources. To avoid repeating failure indefinitely, Beane decides to make a change. He follows the guidance of a young economist named Peter Brand who suggests that a team recruited based on statistics rather than showmanship can win on a shoestring budget. In other words, players don’t have to look amazing. They just have to get on base. By hiring Brand and following his suggestions, Beane radically changes the way people think about baseball and nearly achieves the kind of success he’s initially seeking.

Why It Should Win

I’m not interested in statistics, baseball, or Brad Pitt, and I found the movie fantastically entertaining. It has a great script and perfect pacing. Who would ever guess that a movie about improving baseball by making it more boring would be so consistently funny and engaging?

Both Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill give perfectly solid performances, Philip Seymour Hoffman shines in a relatively small role, and some minor characters get the best lines and moments.

Why It Shouldn’t Win

The entire point of the movie seems to be, it’s not how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose. Then we discover, it also doesn’t matter if you lose. So what does matter? Billy Beane knows he can’t win at baseball by assembling a team by the traditional method, so Peter Brand encourages him reconsider what makes a team great. Later, when Beane realizes that he has still not accomplished his goal, Brand encourages him to reconsider his ingrained definitions of victory and defeat. Apparently, it’s not what you do that counts, it’s how you characterize what you did when you remember it later.

So what’s the point of awarding Moneyball an Oscar for Best Picture? Even if they lose, they’ve still won. (And if you don’t understand that, have Hill’s Peter Brand come and explain it to you.)

The Tree of Life
Nominated Producer(s): Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Sean Penn for some reason, Dinosaurs

A boy who grew up in Texas in the 1950s struggles to make sense of life by reconciling what he learned from his mother, what he learned from his father, what he learned from others, and what he experienced for himself.

Why It Should Win

The Tree of Life surprised me. It’s an unusual movie that doesn’t rely on the same methods of storytelling usually seen in popular cinema. Instead it uses visuals and sound as much as language to present an impressionistic portrait of a boy’s life and what it means to him.

The young actors are all absolutely wonderful, particularly Hunter McCracken. I’m not sure why McCracken has not received more recognition. As the actor who usually plays Jack, he’s our window into the world of the movie, and he’s so convincing, so authentic. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt are also quite good as his parents, each of whom represent (at least initially) a radically different way of understanding the world and the meaning of life.

Instead of being told a rehearsed story, we’re privy to the narrator’s thoughts as he tries to make sense of what is happening to him, what has happened to him. In that respect, the movie (like life) is sometimes a mystery. Why does this boy keep shying away when his father tries to express affection? There is much Jack doesn’t understand, and sharing in his process of discovery makes Jack's journey personally rewarding for us, as well.

The Tree of Life has the distinction of being genuinely different from most other movies out there. You must watch it without distractions to experience the moving beauty of the film.

Why It Shouldn’t Win

I suspect the movie would find a wider audience if it featured only the scenes set in the 1950s which do form the core of The Tree of Life. Personally, I don’t think that all the early and intercalary scenes of nature—i.e. Earth from space, volcanos erupting, dinosaurs stepping on each other—really detract from the film. In fact, such scenes actually add quite a bit. Some of the scenes with Sean Penn as the adult Jack were more difficult for me to accept, though the whole film feels so powerful that I honestly wonder if it’s my place to question Malick’s judgment, especially since I’ve only seen the film once.

Still, to sum up in one sentence why this possibly flawed masterpiece won’t win Best Picture at the Oscars? It’s too weird.

War Horse
Nominated Producer(s): Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis, Michael Morpurgo (novel)
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Celine Buckens, Benedict Cumerbatch, Toby Kebbell, David Kross, Matt Milne, Robert Emms, Eddie Marsan, some talented horses whose names I can’t find

A horse named Joey has an extraordinary life and several meaningful adventures when he goes off with a regiment of British soldiers to fight in World War I. He touches lives and inspires love everywhere he goes but seems destined to one day return to Albie Narracott, the hardworking boy who lovingly raised him on a farm in Devon.

Why It Should Win

War Horse is the kind of stagy, sweeping, family epic rarely made anymore. Its nomination over edgier films like Drive seems to reflect the Academy’s sentiment that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel; they like the old wheel just fine, thanks.

The pacing is slow, steady, deliberate. Steven Spielberg takes his time setting up the story, allowing us to become attached to Joey the Horse and the Narracott family who raise him. Then Joey goes off to war, and we meet a rapid succession of subsequent owners/friends. These people have diverse backgrounds, different nationalities, but they all quickly win our empathy and interest. In the end, the message is clear. War is bad. Horses are good. A more sophisticated moral might be that no matter how strong the forces dividing us, we are ultimately united by our humanity (and our love of horses).

Some fine performances stand out. Emily Watson is very good as Albie’s long-suffering mother, Niels Arestrup is magnificent as the grandfather of one of Joey’s temporary owners, and the black horse that Joey befriends along the way really convinces me that he doesn’t want to pull the artillery.

Several of the carefully staged scenes make a lasting impression—Albie plowing the turnip field, Jamie urging the men to “be brave,” opposing soldiers coming together to free Joey when he is in distress.

The dramatic conclusion is fittingly contrived and highly satisfying.

Why It Shouldn’t Win

War Horse feels a little tired. One of the first lessons Joey learns in the film is to pull a plow. Plowing is an important activity but not necessarily a cerebrally exciting one. War Horse is like that, too. The story is solid, and the characters are interesting, but the film doesn’t try to introduce anything new or different. It’s not a revamped take on an old-fashioned epic. It really is an earnest, old-fashioned epic. Period. That’s it. War Horse is, a long, stagy story about a horse who goes to war.

Based ultimately on a book for children, War Horse has a family friendly feel, but its slow, steady pacing and two-and-a-half-hour runtime will surely bore many younger viewers.

Yes, War Horse is a good movie, but it’s not great, though it does have a very catchy and (for better or worse) unforgettable musical theme that should make it a serious contender for Best Score.