There's a school of thought that says it's not right to place works of art in competition with one another. That's why George C. Scott refused his Oscar. That's why Joaquin Phoenix didn't want to campaign last year. That's why Dustin Hoffman did all this when he won for Kramer vs. Kramer. On the other hand ... we've already gone to the trouble of cobbling together nominees across 24 categories, so why not just be honest and say which one is the worst of the whole bunch.
It's almost a disappointment to say that Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is the worst nominated film of the year, because it seems like such an easy target. It would be so much more fun to size up a big, bloated prestige wannabe and nail it for pandering to awards voters. (And I still have nine movies to go, so maybe The Book Thief has a shot.) The thing is, Bad Grandpa is just as pandering, only it's pandering to different people. But there's certainly nothing fresh or challenging in the warmed-over, half-focused Jackass-brand comedy. Horny seniors, take-my-wife-please jokes, even a ripoff of Little Miss Sunshine isn't too tired a premise for Johnny Knoxville and company to warm over. The Knoxville-in-old-man-makeup was never my favorite genre of Jackass to begin with, and dragging it out to feature length is disastrous. Even more disastrous is the decision to try to turn Bad Grandpa into a narrative film, bouncing from one barely credible scenario to another, keeping the whole movie suspended in a no-man's-land where the rubes seem too fake (who are these people attending the funeral of a fictional woman???) and the characters don't seem fake enough. It fails on its own terms even beyond being juvenile and hackneyed. It's a lose-lose!
These are the things you're forced to learn as you hack your way through the heavy forestry of the Oscar ballot. So where do we stand now?
Previous Tally: 14 nominated feature films, 10 nominated short films still unseen.
Progress Report: I knew going in that Lone Survivor was not going to be a picnic. Friday Night Lights aside, I've never been much of a fan of Peter Berg, and Mark Wahlberg needs a strong directorial hand to guide him to a good performance, and I'm not sure Berg was that man. Indeed, the four lead actors—Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, and (an unexpectedly beefed-up) Emile Hirsch—were kind of adrift in this one. Acting kind of isn't the point of this film. Heroism is the point. Self-sacrifice is the point. The graphic crunch of bodies hurtling themselves down the side of a mountain. It's that quality that helped it nail down the Best Sound Effects Editing nomination, along with one for Sound Mixing. Oscar voters love military movies—recent winners in these categories: Zero Dark Thirty; The Hurt Locker; Black Hawk Down; Letters from Iwo Jima; Pearl Harbor—and these scenes are incredibly hard to watch but impossible not to hear.
You know what's surprisingly not bad? The Croods. It's not breaking any new ground, but it's a pretty engaging animated movie that doesn't abandon its familial story for wackiness. Nicolas Cage should probably always be a cartoon character, if he's not already, and at least Emma Stone has something else to hang her 2013 hat on that's not Gangster Squad.
Both The Grandmaster and The Great Beauty are grand undertakings that both left me rather cold. The technical merits of The Grandmaster are pretty undeniable, and I can't take much issue at all with nominations for cinematography and costume design. That the style so overwhelms the story isn't that surprising, but it limits the film's appeal. Style over story seems to be the whole point of The Great Beauty, but it's overlength means those hyper-doses of decadence and drama end up wearing on the viewer in a big way. I'd still say it's the favorite to win the Foreign Language Film Oscar, if only because it will probably flatter the old Hollywood types in the Academy to vote for it.
Finally, I watched the first program for the nominated documentary shorts, and as is the custom with this category, the subject matters at hand are no picnic. The three films I saw were about, in order, the world's oldest living Holocaust survivor, up-close carnage from the recent protests in Yemen, and the aftermath of an anti-gay hate crime. Make sure to get butter on your popcorn, if only to give yourself a reason to live while watching these. None of these films are terrible—the Holocaust movie, The Lady in Number Six, adopts a rather questionable thesis, but at least it has a point of view; Karama Has No Walls is a bracing, intense look at the Yemen situation, though it does show the limitations of first-person documentary in that it lacks some necessary context—but none really make iron-clad cases for themselves to win the award. Should be interesting to see if the other two doc shorts do.
Availability Updates: Foreign Language Film nominee Omar opens this weekend in New York (at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza theaters) and L.A. (at the Sundance Sunset, Laemmle Royal, Laemmle Town Center, and AMC Burbank).
Current Tally: Nine nominated feature films (below) and seven short films still unseen.
Alone Yet Not AloneDISQUALIFIED
The Book Thief
The Broken Circle Breakdown
Cutie and the Boxer
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
The Great Beauty
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Invisible Woman
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger
The Missing Picture