Best Picture Oscar Party, with lots of “Tree of Life” screen shots

Two of the very best movies this year were “Drive” – a taut, gritty graphic novel of gangsters and a hero who almost hammers a bullet into a dude’s head – and “The Guard” – a total scream about an amoral Irish policeman, which would easily go down as the greatest, never-to-be-surpassed Will Ferrell movie ever made, if Will Ferrell had starred in it instead of Brendan Gleeson.

“Margin Call” was the most timely – personifying the greedy banking culture that killed our economy. That film’s killer cast members (Jeremy Irons OR Paul Bettany should be up for supporting actor) play high-level Wall-Street executives justifying and explaining themselves after realizing the disastrous societal crash they caused is about to begin. Compelling! Profound! “Margin Call” earned its adjectives.

Oh, and so did “Take Shelter.” And “Young Adult.” Not only were Michael Shannon and Charlize Theron (respectively) totally snubbed despite delivering two of the year’s most interesting performances, the movies themselves were truly great. And, like “Margin Call,” they boldly reflect our current times (though in totally different ways: “Take Shelter” is about a man who thinks the world’s about to end; “Young Adult” is about the culture of superficial reality television).

I could go on. Obviously. (“The Skin I Live In”! That movie was so creepy and brilliant! Bwaaaaitwuzroooooobbedwwwwaaarrggg!!!!) If you’re interested in catching up on what really were the best pictures of 2011 – a big part of the fun come Oscar time – I’d suggest renting the ones listed above.

But Oscar, as ever, picked a lot of good movies to nominate for Best Picture. While a few don’t belong, others certainly do. What follows is the argument for and against each, in descending order of how much I liked them. Keep in mind I don’t really think any of these is last year’s Best Picture, but I’m just a dude in a Jim Brown jersey typing on his girlfriend’s computer in a bar at 2:30 p.m. on a weekday.

“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”
Didn’t see it. Good start so far. I’ve watched the trailer loads of times, and it pisses me off. Bothers me deeply, though I’m not quite sure why. The movie appears to be about a boy, played by someone I don’t want to watch (based on two minutes of preview), whose dad Tom Hanks dies in the 9/11 Twin Towers attack. The dad left a key, the kid doesn’t know what the key unlocks. He tries, successfully, to get loads of people to cry and trade gentle touching. I don’t mind 9/11 heavy and I don’t mind painful – “United 93” is so awesome – but I just could not bring myself to see this movie. It seems manipulative, maybe. Anyway, more than half of all the critics on the internet panned “Extremely Loud,” (according to Rottentomatoes.com), so it won’t win.

“Hugo”
For: Scorsese in 3D. The beloved director steps out of his wheelhouse (violent gangster movies) to direct a kid’s flick about a boy who lives in a bus station winding clocks and randomly befriends a once-great silent film director. That totally sounds like the kind of movie that would win best picture to me. There’s a lot of affection for the characters in “Hugo,” but also for movies themselves. The entire efforts seems to boil down to an argument by Scorsese that movies must be archived and saved forever, lest treasures of the past be forgotten. It practically sucks up to Oscar-voting movie makers, reassuring them that what they do matters.

Against: Scorsese has made so many movies that are better than this, and didn’t win him any Oscars (“Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas,” “Raging Bull,” “Casino,” “Gangs of New York”). Also, if you actually see “Hugo,” you may find yourself growing incredibly bored as it slogs through a final third, tiresome once the mystery of the robot and the key has worn off and “Hugo” starts ruminating on a silent-film director most movie goers have never heard of and don’t really care about. Did kids really like this movie? I feel like if it weren’t so cool looking, they would hate it.

“Midnight in Paris”
For: It’s the lightest, most purely entertaining flick in the field. “Midnight in Paris” is funny, and a lot of fun. I think quite a few of us have wished at some point or another we had been born in an earlier, less stupid age. If the voters were newspaper reporters, “Midnight in Paris” would win in a landslide. Watching a likable Owen Wilson banter with Hemingway and Dali and the Fitzgeralds and all those other classic artists is a hoot, and Woody Allen’s style – where clever writing trumps all else – is totally refreshing.

Against: Has a time-travel comedy ever won best picture? I’d doubt it. “Midnight in Paris” is cool, but it feels like a lark for director Woody Allen, not a movie meant to stand as one of his greats (like “Annie Hall” or “Crimes and Misdemeanors”). Of course I have no way of knowing this, but it seems to me he’s just kind of goofing around with a silly script and some game actors.

“The Help”
For: This is a powerfully acted, emotionally charged film about deep-south race relations between women of the 1960s. It’s also, amazingly, a really entertaining popcorn flick. That balance is a tough trick to pull off. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are totally going to win in the actress and supporting actress categories. There’s been a lot of reporting lately on Oscar voters, and how most of them are old, male honkies. Picking “The Help” as Best Picture would counteract some recent bad press, like “See, we don’t just pick movies for old white guys!”

Against: It’s a little fecal-centric, with a pie made of poop and frequent conversations about where and when characters can go to the bathroom. “The Help” puts a glossy sheen on an incredibly serious subject – the famous murder in Jackson, Miss., of Medgar Evers gets mentioned as a brief aside. Race relations are tricky to pull off, especially framed inside America’s recent history, and while “The Help” is a serious movie, it’s also a little too cute. Still, though, I think this flick could totally upset “The Artist” and win. It has more long-term potential to be remembered for this year.

“War Horse”
For: Just last year we had a World War I movie win Best Picture (“The King’s Speech”). Let’s keep the streak rolling! There’s also the straight-forward accessibility of a plainly anti-war message. This horse’s instinct tells him to run away from fighting, and yet he finds himself running into battles. A character says that out loud. “War Horse” is a tear jerker. The production values are huge. The scene that begins with our petrified hero jumping over a tank and ends with him tangled in a mess of barbed wire might be the best I saw in any film all year.

Against it: Low on the totem pole of Spielberg-helmed classics, with a distinct lack of complexity in its characters. “War Horse” isn’t even as good as “Minority Report,” and that flick got zero Oscar love. It’s a terrific movie, but it isn’t a classic. No movie with an animal as a main character has won Best Picture. (However, four movies with animals in their titles have one best picture. Can you name them? Answer at the end of this post.)

“The Descendents”
For: The chemistry is special between Clooney, the daughters, and “‘sup-bro” Sid – like they spent a year becoming friends before filming. The acting makes this movie brisk and likable. So does the Hawaii setting, bathing all in breezy warm sunlight. The story strikes such a solid balance between sad and goofy. These characters are like our friends, fighting proudly through an awkward situation sparked by a secretive wife-and-mother’s coma-inducing jet-skiing accident. (Hyphens!) Can a person be mad at an unfaithful loved one in a coma? It’s a deep question. (I highly recommend this short piece in Slate, which makes a genius’s argument that “The Descendents” is “a sneakily profound film made by an artist in peak form.”)

Against: It’s easy to ignore the bigger themes – Are we worthy of our ancestors? – and dismiss “The Descendents” as merely very good, rather than great. It doesn’t feel like a contender. The same director, Alexander Payne, made an wonderful movie about normal, neurotic people called “Sideways” several years ago, and that movie got shafted, big time, by Oscar. I’ve argued before that movies about normal people don’t win Best Picture. That’s not completely true, though – “American Beauty” won over a decade ago. And before that, there was… uh… a very long stretch of time.

“The Artist”
For: “The Artist” appears to be the front-runner, based on everything I’ve read online. The tale of a blockbuster actor in the early 20th century, terrified by the switch from silent films to talkies, is a thoughtful take on cinema itself. More basically, the movie’s really charming and easy to enjoy. Look, we live in an age of constant noise, and there is something truly self-fulfilling about sitting through a silent movie like “The Artist” and realizing that the whole facade of “movie magic” isn’t really necessary, so long as what we’re watching doesn’t suck. Best movie dog I can remember.

Against: Front-runner backlash? “The Artist” eschews an entire essential element of modern film making: the sound effects. I don’t know if that’s a demerit, but voters are people in the movie industry, and I would think they have an opinion on the importance of sound. It’s also kind of gimmicky.

“Moneyball”
For: A hyper-intelligent, yet totally accessible, screenplay from supergod writer Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”). Brad Pitt is one of almost everyone’s favorite actors, and he is scary sharp in “Moneyball,” absolutely in the zone spitting Sorkin’s cutting dialogue. Pitt’s star power dominates the film, intimidating the hell out of everyone around him, and raises the entire project to another level like no other performance in any of the rest of these Best-Picture nominees. I hope he wins Best Actor. There’s something unique and wonderful about a movie this entertaining actually teaching its viewers something fascinating about a subject so elemental as baseball.

Against: It’s a sports movie. Perhaps the baseball-is-mathematics ethos – really, a reflection on how far the game has come at its highest level – won’t stick with older, stuffy Oscar voters. Most voters, I’ve read, are movie producers. Based on what’s out there, it doesn’t seem that a talkative think piece like “Moneyball” is what they believe people want to watch.

“The Tree of Life”
For: This film is like the world’s greatest art gallery – a collection of images and sounds, tenuously tied together through a few common characters and themes. I have never seen such eye-popping cinematography. Really. Each shot is amazing, whether we’re in a post-war America suburban front lawn or at the center of the universe watching creation crank up. “Tree of Life” is more ambitious than any other film in the slate, by far. It tries to harness and portray the meaning of life by drawing a line from the Big Bang to a family in 1950s Texas to modern cities full of sky scrapers. Remarkably, it works.

Against: Artsy like you wouldn’t believe. This is an abstract film with none of the story elements we take for granted, like a story. There are almost no conversations, as the dialogue is mostly voice-over lines like “Tell us a story from before we can remember,” and “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” If you believe movies are more than just two-hour entertainments, that they can enlighten us about what it means to be alive, then “The Tree of Life” is the year’s Best Picture winner. I don’t think enough people believe that, and I’m not sure I blame them. “The Tree of Life” won’t take Best Picture, but it better win for cinematography.

Answer: “Silence of the Lambs,” “Dances With Wolves,” “The Deer Hunter,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

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