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OSCARS 2012: PRESS PLAY contributors argue for their favorites

OSCARS 2012: PRESS PLAY'S staff picks their favorites

After last week’s announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees, a handful of Press Play contributors gathered together via email to discuss the highs and lows in some of the major award categories.  Below are some of the highlights of the conversation, and as always, we encourage you to keep the discussion going. The site’s consensus picks for the films and individuals that should win be announced next week, starting Monday.

Matt Zoller Seitz: Has anybody seen A Better Life, for which Demián Bichir was nominated as Best Actor? That seemed out of left field. I feel like Gary Oldman might be a lock for that one, what do you think?

Glenn Close and Rooney Mara nominated for Best Actress is interesting, too. Some thought Close’s work was too stunt-y. Mara seems a total surprise for me, as her character is so not Academy-friendly (in terms of looks and demeanor), and Mara is not anywhere close to a known quantity.

Ali Arikan: Rooney Mara has been lauded by the critics and the industry, and the studio had been hyping her since the summer, so I’m not at all surprised that she got a nomination. Despite the fact that the Millennium books are terrible, people seem to love them, and Lisbeth Salander has become an iconic character. Plus, she also did sterling work in a solid film. What is interesting, however, is that either she or Glenn Close edged out Tilda Swinton for We Need to Talk About Rosemary’s Omen. I thought she would be a lock.

I am happy about Moneyball, a film I thought I would hate, but ended up loving. I am one of the few in “our circles” who felt The Tree of Life was lacking, and I don’t think it deserved a Best Picture nomination over Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Extremely Loud and The Help are just risible. The latter was always going to be in there, but I thought Bridesmaids might have snuck in instead of Extremely Loud. Either way, having nine nominees obviously shows that the field is still pretty wide open.

Matt: I like The Tree of Life best of the Best Picture nominees, though I know opinion in this thread is mixed. It’s the most unconventional of any nominated film, so much so that I am pleasantly surprised that it became a sort of event when it hit theaters. I think more films that experimental should be made at the Hollywood level. There are not too many directors holding down the fort for that kind of experience, not even Malick’s fellow ’70s movie brats Spielberg and Scorsese.

Aaron Aradillas: I would argue that in their own ways, both Hugo and Tintin are experimental films. I mean, if it wasn’t for their directors, I seriously doubt a studio would’ve rolled the dice on ’em.

Sarah D. Bunting: Margin Call got a Best Original Screenplay nod. Shut up, Oscars. Barf.

Ali: I also second Sarah’s barf. Ewww.

My feelings about Melissa McCarthy mirror Scott Tobias’ thoughts on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I disliked Bridesmaids, but I despised her performance.

Aaron: I’ve yet to fully grasp the dislike for her performance. I know it exists, but I don’t get it. I don’t remember anyone being offended when Kevin Kline won for making a mockery of being a dumb, sexist man.

Nick Nolte is terrific in Warrior, but it is clearly a great performance of something he does well. He makes look effortless what Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton huff and puff and make look so tiring. Besides, Nolte did a better version of this in Affliction.

Christopher Plummer gives his career performance. There’s no fat on it. Unlike The Insider, where he’s a hoot, Plummer doesn’t push it in Beginners, and that’s why he leaves such an impression on those of us who love the movie. The way he embraces life at such a late date is funny, touching and ultimately quite sad. Ewan McGregor’s character never acknowledges it, but he learns his father’s final lessons and that’s what leads to the movie’s astonishingly hopeful and romantic ending. He is finally his father’s son. Plummer’s presence is felt in every scene. It be McGregor’s story, but it’s Plummer’s film.

I’m a fan of Midnight in Paris, but Woody Allen’s screenplay is not entirely original. It’s kind of a variation on The Purple Rose of Cairo. Margin Call is a script written about how we’re living right now. It trumps Mamet by not getting all tangled up in being clever with its verbal scenes.

Mara’s my second choice in the Best Actress category, but Viola Davis is the only lead actress who literally has to create a character from scratch. The other performances all have something already existing that they’re working off of.

Ali: I am not basing my dislike of McCarthy’s performance on a curve. It was too easy, without any nuance and did not add anything to a film that definitely needed some sort of a breakout-star factor to make it less boring (and, you know, funny). So, I’d love to hear the case for her.

Aaron: The beauty of McCarthy’s performance is there isn’t a trace of self-loathing or self-doubt that would probably get in a dozen other comedies with a character like hers. She is the most confident and aware person in the circle of Bridesmaids.

I’m willing to make a gentleman’s bet that Meryl Streep will not win Best Actress. I think Viola Davis is going to “surprise” everyone and take it home.

Kevin B. Lee: If anything, Davis is the odd sober person surrounded by a carnival of sass, crass and crazy in The Help. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain are like intrepid migrants from John Waters-land, while Davis anchors it in gravity and respectability ‒ she’s the whipped cream atop the shit pie. I’m not sure whether she saves the movie or adds a layer of Oscar-mongering disingenuousness to what really should be an all-out camp farce. But her final scene standing up to Bryce Dallas Howard is a feat of acting gymnastics, going through a series of emotional states in lightning succession.

In contrast, The Iron Lady is pretty much all Meryl Streep (and everything that implies, good and bad). But it’s an MVP performance; she actually made me like Margaret Thatcher for two hours.

Lisa Rosman: The Help is a tepid movie at best, offensive at worst, but as is so often the case, the performances far outstrip the film. Viola Davis never gives up an inch ‒ she may cater less as an actress than anyone else in Hollywood ‒ but so much goes on behind the eyes that she ignobles what could be a wretched role. And on that note, I love Rooney, but this is not the film for which she should win an Oscar. It’s a one-trick-pony role and though she does it well, it doesn’t have enough shades to win a golden naked man.

I hate hate hate hate the idea of McCarthy winning this. The role is not just unfunny; it’s mean-spirited and she executes it more poorly than she’s done anything else in her career. (Wherefore art thou, Sookie?) Nay, for me it’s Janet McTeer, who does everything that Close herself fails to do in the otherwise craptacular and super outdated Albert Nobbs. It’s a finely tuned performance that brings real pathos and humor and at least three dimensions to the kind of person that Hollywood always, always gets wrong.

The rest I am less adamant on. I love Malick but The Tree of Life is not legible in ways that actually matter to me. Scorsese should take Best Director for Hugo, but I can understand why others do not agree. Gary Oldman should, of course, take it; it’s a terrific performance, and Tinker Tailor the Thief Cook should get Best Adapted Screenplay. I don’t love any of the Best Picture nominees but think Moneyball comes closest to being what I want a big movie to be. And sorry for the barfers, but I love Margin Call for Best Original Screenplay.

Aaron: I’m for Brad Pitt. I think he gives a star turn and acting powerhouse at once. George Clooney is great (and I have no problem if he wins), but he was going deeper into a character he does best: the good-looking asshole who is brought up short by life.

There is real mystery to Pitt’s take on Billy Beane. He loves the game, but knows the game is changing. He knows he has to get wins in order to keep his job and is more than willing to modernize for that reason. But he also knows there is something you can’t calculate about the game of baseball. The scenes of Pitt driving to work or sitting in the locker room show a man who is constantly trying to figure out the odds and knowing deep down that there are some things you can’t figure out. Also, Pitt is a great subtle comic performer in the scenes where he’s making deals or bossing around others in the room. Like Jesse Eisenberg, he is a natural when it comes to Aaron Sorkin’s writing.

Kevin: I think Pitt’s performance falls under the same school of acting I endorse. (Clooney, on the other hand, is on autopilot).

Aaron: Clooney’s not on auto, but I’ll leave it at that. I do know Pitt is happy as can be to be nominated in the same category as Gary Oldman. His death scene in Fight Club is inspired by Oldman. Pitt says on that film’s commentary, “No one dies like Gary!” It should also be noted that Pitt gets a slight advantage in that his work in both Moneyball and The Tree of Life show how wide a range he truly has.

Lisa: I actually agree Clooney’s not on auto, but I disliked the conceit of the casting of that film immensely. (Alexander Payne loves to get notoriously charismatic actors to play schlubs; it underscores his misanthropic view of “average people.”)

Ali: I, too, am for Pitt, even though I liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Doo-Dah Doo-Dah more than any other American film this year. Goldman is magnificent as George Smiley, closer to John le Carré’s vision than Alec Guinness’ portrayal, and he explodes with understated pathos (paradoxically) the one time he shows his emotions (the incredible Soviet national anthem scene where he sees his wife having it on with Colin Firth).

That said, I have a problem with his voice and accent. He sounds like a constipated baboon trying to do an impression of Ian McKellen. It was but a minor quibble when I first saw the film, but after three times, it’s just grating. (For what it’s worth, Tom Hardy gives the best performance in that movie.)

As for Brad Pitt, first of all, his is an almost old-fashioned movie star performance. He’s charming and cheeky and funny, and hella good looking. (Yes, I’ve just used “hella” ‒ I am a 14-year-old kid from 1998.) I have no idea who Beane is, so this is my estimation of the character as he is seen on the screen: as Aaron said, here is a person who decides to ride the waves of change. Pitt plays him as a nexus of frustration; he never made the big time, so he is trying to make up for that lost opportunity. He is clever, though. He knows that he is unable to see the forest for the trees (the final scene with Jonah Hill, the earlier conversation with his daughter, etc.), but that’s what obsessive-compulsive people are like. They know what they’re doing is irrational, but they have to keep doing it.

Also, the final shot shows him in full command of his face ‒ an incredibly important skill for a screen actor.

Matt: What about this Demián Bichir fellow? Nobody’s really mentioned him as a contender….

Aaron: A Better Life is good, and he’s really good, but not award-worthy, especially when you consider someone like, say, the criminally underrated Steve Carell or Kevin Spacey’s triumphant return to good acting in Margin Call. If one is going to label his nomination the Indie Nod, I much prefer Michael Shannon. Take Shelter is far from perfect, but Shannon is amazing.

The biggest problem with A Better Life is the character of the 14-year-old son. The actor is pretty bad and the character, as written, is pretty thin. An old-school Mexican dad would not put up with half the shit this kid gives him. Compared to the father-son dynamic in A Bronx Tale, A Better Life comes up short.

Can I make my case for The Help one more time? If the best 9/11 movies are not explicitly about 9/11 (Zodiac, Munich), then why can’t one of the best films about race today be a movie about recent history? The outcry from so-called open-minded liberals was telling in that just because the movie was supposedly playing it safe by telling a story we all can agree on that it wasn’t also making people think about the here and now.

Race is the one truly unspoken-about issue in this country. When it is spoken about, it is in an obvious safe way. The Help is about the moment when an open discussion was needed in order for change to occur. What the movie also makes clear is that discussion needs to be ongoing. And that is simply not the case right now.

Just because the movie delivers its “message” in bawdy, emotional, mass-appeal entertainment doesn’t make it unworthy of praise (or awards). The Help not only attempts to keep recent history fresh in our minds, but also old-fashioned awards-worthy entertainment alive as well.

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These commentators are so disappointing. Spouting platitudes and speaking in lofty absolutes without bothering to explore the nature of their thoughts. Also, agreed strongly with CHUCK: to not even discuss THE ARTIST reeks of a lazy effort to offer deeper analysis when really it ignores one of the few truly imaginative visions in cinemas this past year. I was half expecting a final exchange to the tune of, "Oh, and none of us have seen THE ARTIST yet, but I'm sure we'll speak briefly about it once we do."

Hogwash, all this.

Ian Grey

I'd just mosey in to add that I think that Mara's work in DRAGON was flat-out bonkers-brilliant, nuanced yet epic, microcosmic yet explosive, that it was all these things when needed and literary in design and there is nobody on the Oscar list even thinking of trying anything as boldly crazy artful as what she's mastered in this creation.

This is like Laurie Anderson and Cindy Sherman if they were actresses, and Tilda Swinton if she could scream (and mean it), and Jennifer Jason Leigh at her GEORGIA *and* TraLaLa prime if she were a part-alien Swede.

I fully believe that this is a turn that will be studied, referenced and its many new riffs added to the actors language.

Yojimbo Slice

Rooney Mara's accent was utterly nonsensical in that movie. The amount of praise she's getting for being unlikable, annoying, and faux-European is frankly, stupid. Regardless of how harrowing her performance was at points, it was not consistent. Alright as you were.


I would like to see Michelle Williams win best actress for such a great "impressionistic" performance but I'm sure that Streep or Davis will win. I'd rather see Davis win, but the Iron Lady was a shitty film. Can't believe Albert Brookes from Drive isn't up. In the best actor race, I suspect Jean Dujardin will win, and he is charming, but I'd prefer Clooney to win, because I just loved the film and him in it.


Why is everyone so bothered by this years nominees? i do think there are some that were surprises, bad and very good surprises. What i think people are forgetting is that when it comes to the oscars, it's not only about giving a nomination or the final award to someone who is thought to be thought provoking or insanely unmmisable in his or her performance. I think what a lot of the negative reviews have forgotten is that these so called actors who are that good, just aren't appealing. This year was the year or comedy and light hearted drama, which is the reason the majority of roles are very fluffly and light hearted, where as last year it was down to layered, complicated characters. i think we need to give the academy a break, because they can't give a nomination to everyone, but that doesn't mean they don't try to…

Roy Munson

Um …Zodiac is about 9/11???? Someone please explain!


I'm surprised no one said anything about "The Artist". I mean, just because anyone who was alive during the silent film's heyday make up for – I'm guessing – less than 3% of everyone alive today doesn't me THIS generation can't have an open mind about it and possibly enjoy it. You don't necessarily need color and dialogue to tell a great cinematic story. Who knows? "The Artist" may just be the first silent Best Picture since… well, the very FIRST Best Picture, "Wings".


How did Viola Davis create a character from "scratch" when the Help is based off a book?


Good to see all the good comments about "Moneyball". As much as I love baseball I couldn't get into the book, didn't see how it could be turned into a feature film & was shocked (that is exactly the correct word) at how well it turned out. It's my favorite film of 2011.
"Tree…" & "Tinker…" were 2 movies I was really looking forward to seeing & they both bored me to tears.
Rooney Mara & Jonah Hill gave the breakout performances of the year.


Glad to see Aaron gives The Help some love. I avoided the film completely till about a month ago when I was bored and gave it a go on On-Demand. I wish I had seen it with a huge group in a theater. It really is what great films should be: crowd-pleasing, fun, touching, and yes, it is "about something". But it really played against my expectations. I actually wanted to watch it again after I saw it! The only other film I can say that for in that huge pile of nominees is Tree Of Life, which was a beautiful artistic achievement, if at times frustrating. They are two opposite films… Tree of Life challenges the medium while The Help is an example of a film which preforms the way the masses love. It is HARD to please the masses. It bothers me, as filmmaker, that film-snobs poo-poo any film that manages to be a crowd-pleaser. As if a film can't possibly be worthy of anything unless the less intelligent among hate it or are dumbfounded by it. The Help put a big smile on my face. Tree Of Life left me in awe. The other films caught my attention and moved me, but not the way those two films did. If only every film could be either The Help or Tree of Life in terms of what they do with the medium.


I couldn't disagree more with Ali's comment about Gary Oldman. He deserves the Oscar above all others. He is the greatest character actor alive!


not a single mention of The Artist, the film that deserves, and is odds on favorite according to a fair few, to win best picture, best actor and best director. I understand maybe not favoring ti to win, but at least mention it, you mentioned every other film, afterall. Is it because it's silent and its stars are French?

What kind of half-assed critics are you guys?


Margin Call should have gotten several more nominations, imo. Great film. And I'm also in Brad's corner for the win! Clooney's always playing himself!

Scott Nye

Damn, still no line breaks! I'll keep it brief then. My problem with THE HELP is not its message about race (and I agree with the way Aaron put it), but its depiction of racism. It posits a national (and more specifically regional) mindset as stemming from a single person. The rest of the cast is stocked with people who are, at their core, decent and kind, and wouldn't have a racist bone in their body if not for societal pressures. But what pressures? Does Hilly Holbrook have the dirt on all of them? THE HELP makes racism into an abstract concept, and in the process makes Aibileen's journey (much less victory) less triumphant. Turns out all she had to do was say something!

Scott Nye

"Margin Call is a script written about how we're living right now. It trumps Mamet by not getting all tangled up in being clever with its verbal scenes."

It also doesn't get tangled up in being terribly interesting.

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