The statuettes have been handed out; the celebrants have dispersed. Here are my own rankings, starting at the top. Like last year, I am combining Best Picture and Best Animated Feature nominees.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
There might be a movie (or at least a good magazine piece) in the political reaction to Zero Dark Thirty. First, while the film was being made, came the rage on the right. The pundits knew in their guts that the movie, set to be released shortly before the election, would be a giant pro-Obama propaganda piece. Typical Hollywood–pointing out that Obama did “get” bin Laden, right in the middle of a political campaign. Then the film came out, and it seemed to suggest that maybe, just maybe, torture yielded a bit of valid information. My stars, whimpered the left, you never heard me praising that movie. No no no no no. And there's a sad aspect to this: The underlying logic seems to be that torture is justified if it produces any useful result at all. This is the thinking of much of the political arguing class, across the spectrum. Hmm. Once upon a time, “The end justifies the means” was very much an arguable proposition.
Zero Dark Thirty breaks from typical storytelling in a couple of ways. First is the role of women. A completely fictional screenplay about a CIA analyst with a single-minded focus on getting a major terrorist might cast a woman as the analyst. But you can be sure she would be not only smart, but a master of the martial arts as well–because the ability to physically pummel someone is Hollywood's true measure of heroism. Now, Maya may have been a tough cookie, but I don't recall her dispatching anyone with ninja kicks. And having cast a woman in the central role, your traditional script would have surrounded her with square-jawed men to be her fellow heroes. But ZDT places a second woman, Jessica, in a key role in the bin Laden hunt; and there's even a third woman, Lauren, who comes up with a key bit of information. Oh, reality–you're really overdoing it with the women, aren't you?
The second atypical feature, reflecting genuine courage and originality by the filmmakers, is the handling of the raid on bin Laden's compound. Many reviewers were baffled that in the last act, a complete group of newcomers to the film carry out the raid. Good God! How dare they vary from formula and keep the main character outside the action! Of course, writing Maya into the raid would have been a hacky gesture, but some of the critics apparently wanted to see that, or to have the raid taken out of the movie. The rules of plotting must be obeyed, no matter how much they harm the final product!
2. Les Misérables
Obviously, I liked this film a lot; even Russell Crowe was welcome. (Russell Crowe is always welcome.) I've had limited experience with Les Mis; I had never heard the musical (though five years ago I watched the 1934 film–it was phenomenal), and was prepared for something tiresome along the lines of Evita or Phantom. It was much better than those. I didn't mind all the close-ups. Some critics carped that the character of Éponine was underutilized, but this happens in musicals and opera all the time.
Some of my affection arises outside the merits of the film itself. Apparently this musical has caught on particularly well with young people, and it's pleasing to think that another generation has been charmed by musical theater. And part of the story's message–that there are plenty of people in great need who ought to be helped–argues against some of the nastier sentiments expressed in today's politics. There are still plenty of people who would happily give someone five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.
This is a punishing film, depicting the sad downward spiral of a loved one's health. But it's restrained and humane–well, as humane as we're going to get from Michael Haneke. It's life's end as a horror story, with just enough compassion that it doesn't entirely crush the soul. This thread of compassion, a lifeline to the viewer, starts at the opening scene of the movie, when police break into an apartment to find.... Well, I won't spoil it.
4–5 (tie). Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook
These two films were so different that I couldn't compare them well enough to rank one above the other. Both had good storytelling and great performances.
Perhaps the dryness and tight focus of Lincoln's subject–the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery–forced Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner to work at their highest level; there's little room for mawkishness or bombast when you're trying to make a series of meetings into an enjoyable feature film. And of course Daniel Day-Lewis's humanizing performance brought the story to life. A personal note: I knew it was coming, but I still got chills from Seward's line, “Now he belongs to the ages,” which I first learned from a View-Master slide many decades ago.
Silver Linings Playbook is Hollywood fare when Hollywood is running on all cylinders. Who doesn't want to see two sweet, damaged people work things out?
6. Life of Pi
This comes from the My Great Adventure vaults, with Ang Lee as the beloved uncle you look forward to seeing on holidays. And there's a little spike at the end of the story that makes for great after-film discussion.
Here Hollywood pats itself on the back, but you don't really mind; it's a good yarn with enough historic truth in it to make you feel a little uplifted.
8. Django Unchained
I think it's Quentin Tarantino's film-geekdom that makes him such a master of set pieces, and most of them work in this revenge fantasy. Also welcome, among others, are Jamie Foxx in a starring role, and Jonah Hill in a hilarious cameo. I even got some chuckles out of Tarantino's appearance.
9. The Pirates! Band of Misfits
In ranking the animated features, I asked myself which one entertained me the most. This offering from Aardman Animations was most on my wavelength–congenial and clever, and not specifically pitched to kids. The leads, voiced by Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, and David Tennant, are all great fun.
10. Wreck-It Ralph
This is a charming adventure, if the candy colors don't drive you to distraction.
Add another Disney princess to the castle. Fantasies in Scotland never grow old.
The parts–family pet resuscitation and monster invasion–don't quite hold together, but there's lots of quirky imagination at play.
This one is all right, but it stays well within the kids' safety zone, which can get a little boring.
14. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Many have taken this very original film to heart, but it didn't quite work for me.