Knott: I'll start on a positive note – Viola Davis. I genuinely think she should win Best Actress based on merit. I didn't hate The Help. Nor can I decide how problematic I find its take on race issues – though at the very least it is lacking in insight and depth. But for me, Viola Davis gives a startlingly good performance – acting at a level far beyond the subtleties of the script, but still somehow fitting perfectly amid the film's broader strokes. Even if she wins for the wrong reasons – white guilt and race politics – I'd be merry as Meryl to see her at the podium.
But that's the good news. The Help's nomination for Best Picture is indicative of a category which for me is more underwhelming than I've ever seen it. The films are all just so bland and sloppy! War Horse, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Hugo… the only films that feel even slightly fresh are Moneyball, The Artist and The Tree of Life. But the latter is the only one I'll ever watch again.
Knegt: I'm struggling to start on a positive note. I wouldn't quite go there regarding Davis. I think she's fantastic in "The Help." In fact, I think pretty much everyone in that film did a downright immaculate job considering how underdeveloped those characters surely were on the page. But it still feels like a borderline supporting performance to me. Though that said, of the good dozen women that gave better performances this year, though none of them are actually nominated here (Swinton, Dunst, Colman, Binoche, etc). So sure, give it to Davis. Its certainly not the worst thing that's going to happen on Oscar night.
Though I'll be more happy to see Christopher Plummer win (and dear god it better be him and not Max Von Sydow). He was so incredibly affecting in "Beginners" and it's that rare occasion where a career Oscar is going to actually be deserved. So there, yes, I found a positive note.
But as for best picture, there's very few nice things to say. It's honestly the worst best picture lineup I've ever witnessed and I'm not just being dramatic. I pretty much agree with your assessment across the board. One great film ("The Tree of Life"), two very good films I couldn't quite love ("The Artist," "Moneyball"); a respectable film that was unfortunately also endlessly boring ("Hugo"), a very enjoyable film that was unfortunately not very respectable ("The Help"), and four of the most overrated films of the year (the other ones).
It's also – speaking of actresses – probably the most male-centric best picture lineup in years. Especially considering there's 9 nominees. Other than "The Help,' every single other film is essentially about a singular male character on some sort of journey of self-discovery blah blah blah.
Knott: I stand by my Viola Davis paean. I genuinely think she pulls off something more skillful and deserving than Swinton and even Colman. But the very act of claiming that brings me to the perennial question – how can we possibly judge? And why would we try?
I think there are very few people out there who believe in the Oscars as any sort of genuine barometer of quality. But I do believe that Oscar nominations and victories can lead to good things. I know, for example, that Tilda Swinton has said that her coronation as Academy Award Winner helped finally secure funding for I Am Love. One of the reasons that this year's nominations are so disappointing – and the race so uninteresting – is that I don't feel that any of the potential winners really need the victory. I think of films such as There Will Be Blood, A Serious Man and Winter's Bone, all of which surely benefitted from entering such a mainstream gold derby, in terms of attracting new viewers. Where are those films in this year's Best Picture line up?
Knegt: Well, I would actually argue "The Tree of Life" is sort of one of those films in a way, though I doubt this nomination will give it much of a boost in the way of new viewers. But beyond it, totally… I don't know if it was the new voting system or that voters just had a sudden stick up their asses, but they completely ignored so many worthwhile films that could have given this lineup some sort of edge: "Melancholia," "Shame," "We Need To Talk About Kevin," "Drive," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," even "Bridesmaids." 2011 was actually a really interesting year in cinema. The Oscars just chose to ignore that fact.
Knott: Moving onto a different tangent, can I lodge a quick complaint about Best Supporting Actress? I think Rose Byrne pulled off a much more difficult and superior performance to Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids (though I see why she has failed to attract the same attention). And I think Jessica Chastain was way more impressive than Octavia Spencer in The Help (I know they're both nominated, but it's Spencer who's winning). I can comprehend the attention that Spencer is gaining, but I don't think it's merited. Her performance certainly worked, but it's pigswill compared to what Viola Davis (I promise I'm not her publicist!) would have done with that role.
Knegt: Effortless-looking comedy will forever go unrewarded at the Oscars, a category which Byrne falls perfectly into. If a comedic performance is EVER nominated, it's almost always a scene-stealing, over-the-top sort of deal like McCarthy's. That said, it still kind of blows my mind McCarthy actually made it here. I remember thinking of it as some wild possibility when "Bridesmaids" started to really take off, but I don't think I took the idea seriously until a week or two before the nominations were announced.
It's kind of a similar situation with Chastain and Spencer. What Chastain pulled off is clearly way more impressive than Spencer, but Spencer got all the zingers and got to feed shit to a bitch in the film's most crowd-pleasing scene. Speaking of people in pivotal scenes involving shit, Melissa McCarthy has been BFFs with Spencer in real life. What a oddly tangled web.
Knott: I also want to ask what we are going to do about the unstoppable rise of George Clooney? I just don't get it. Payne should have cast Nicole Kidman as the lead in The Descendants.
Knegt: The more I think about "The Descendants," the more I cringe. Who are the people that love this movie? And who are the people that think Clooney playing Clooney for the eighth consecutive movie is somehow superior to Pitt, Fassbender, Gosling, Shannon, Oldman, etc… Because he fucking tears up at the end?
Knott: Your mentioning Drive raises another issue with the Oscar awarding process that has become seriously apparent this year. I didn't even care for Drive, the film, very much – but its soundtrack is outstanding and fast becoming iconic, at least if the bar playlists in this corner of London are anything to go by. And yet there wasn't even a chance of it being rewarded by the Oscars, because its inspiration lay mainly in its adroit selection and implementation of pre-existing tracks. Ditto Melancholia and The Tree of Life with their classical choices. All of these films contained standout musical moments that far superceded anything offered by the nominees for Best Original Score or Song, in my opinion. If we can reward Adapted Screenplays, can't we find a way to reward achievement in music even if it is adaptive in nature? It's not like those hoary old Alexandre Desplat and Hans Zimmer scores with their recycled motifs offer anything truly original.
On a positive note, I never thought my admiration for Brad Pitt would hit such highs as it has this year. With two multiple-nominated films, he has pulled off awards circuit omnipresence with a humility and class that a certain Mr Clooney would do well to study. I would have loved to see him nominated for The Tree of Life.
Knegt: Yeah the music categories are totally fucked. Last year there was such a ray of hope when they gave the score award to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, but this year it's all John Williams vs. John Williams again. And then there's bizarre reduction of the original song category to 2 nominees, one of which is a totally forgettable song from a totally forgettable film. Like foreign film and documentary, the music branch needs to overhaul the voting process (or yes, perhaps install new categories). But of course, they never will.
As for Mr. Pitt, I would really, really love if he won for "Moneyball" even if I agree that "Tree of Life" was my preferred performance of the two. He has really become one of the finest American actors of a generation, and I'm always impressed (at least as of late) with his career choices and tendency to align himself with the best filmmakers out there. If Dujardin beats him, fine. But if its his "bff" Clooney, whose performance is considerably inferior — not to mention Clooney has already won — I'll definitely be throwing a little hissy fit.
Whats your dream scenario across the board? If you could pick one surprise, what would it be?
Knott: I'd love to see Jessica Chastain win for The Help, and I'd love to see Tree of Life win Cinematography. The latter is by no means impossible. Other than that, I'd love to see The Descendants win nothing. I know that's a negative note to end on, but for me that's what Oscar watching is all about. I read an article this morning about the benefits of finding a more positive way to assess the Oscars. But that's not for me. For a group whose choices are so devastatingly opposed to my own tastes, I get little satisfaction from picking through their nominations and finding the odd thing to praise. For me, the most positive way of dealing with such a pompous, conservative, elitist, consistently pig-headed and overly-influentual group as AMPAS is to tear them apart each year and take great pleasure in doing so. See you back here in 2013.
Knegt: I'm with you on Chastain and "Tree." As for 2013, here's hoping we'll have at least slightly less to bitch about in a year's time.