They’re giving out the Oscars in two days, and for most immersed in the world of movie fandom, it’s the end of a long, if often very predictable road. The Artist will walk away with some undeserving accolades, the battle between Viola Davis and Meryl Streep will finally be resolved, and everyone will scratch their head over one oddball acknowledgement (the only question is - which category will it come from?). There will be the requisite ‘lifetime achievement award’ for an otherwise ordinary performance (we’re looking at you, Christopher Plummer) and Billy Crystal will prove, once and for all, that his reign as favored host has less to do with his contemporary ability to make people laugh and more with the recent rash of hilariously awful decisions on who should act as the show’s senior guide (James Franco and Ann Hathaway? Really?).
That’s why, a few years ago, we invented the SE&L Awards. It was our way of looking at the end of the awards season and not want to scream at the various injustices. Indeed, it seems like each and every time a group gets together and doles out the accolades, something or someone that made the year tolerable gets kicked to the curb. With the SE&LS, we can settle those differences and divvy up the prizes in a far more fair fashion. The rules here are simple - we do not acknowledge those already picked out by their peers for AMPAS recognition. They got their piece of paper - others deserve their mention. Secondly, we don’t pigeonhole a performance or production. If a foreign film was the Best of 2012, we will celebrate it- even if we later go back and pick another international entry in its own category.
Finally, like all critical determinations, this is personal. While we’d like the think the Oscars are as clued in as we are, the truth remains a far more individualized ideal. So, without further ado, here are our selections for 2012’s SE&L Awards:
The Last CircusBest Film
Every year, we critics look for a film that lifts us past the doldrums of the job and elevates our belief in the artform. Usually, four or five examples crop up, and if we’re lucky, Oscar latches on to a few of them. But it 2011, the term “good but not great” got quite a workout among film journalists, each expressing a shared sentiment about quality and the lack of a real “wow” factor. Well, it’s clear that few saw this amazing Spanish film. Best described as two insane big top clowns battling against the backdrop of Franco’s dictatorship, the results play like Quentin Tarantino channeling David Lynch by way of Sam Raimi. A true masterpiece.
David FincherBest Director - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Fincher needs to find a way to bury the hatchet with the Academy ASAP. So far, he’s lost to Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech (Boooo!) and Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (Okay). Even worse, he was never even nominated for Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, or this year’s brilliant American remake of the Swedish phenomenon. For the opening credit sequence alone he should have gained a nod. Whether or not he can win is beside the point. Fincher is one of the few directors who really ‘get’ cinema, who understand its needs and the devil in the details. He’ll win one someday, but this was as good a gold statue shot as any.
Michael ShannonBest Actor - Take Shelter
Talk about tough: Shannon didn’t even make the short list, and when you consider his past perfection - The Runaways, Revolutionary Road - the lack of recognition for this turn is tantamount to treason. An expert at the subtle and slow burn, the actor takes what could have been a bit of showboating (a man having visions of a cataclysmic natural apocalypse to come) and turned it into an internal dialogue between dire and dementia. The fact that 2011 “it” girl Jessica Chastain could hardly keep up with him is proof enough of the power in this role.
Tilda SwintonBest Actress - We Need to Talk About Kevin
After Violet or Meryl walk away with a piece of Academy history, turn off the TV, tune up your favorite content streamer, and see if you can’t locate this drop dead amazing movie starring the unquestioned Best Actress of this or any year. As a fragile mother coming to grips with her evil son’s bad intentions, Swinton is both vulnerable and vile, Mommie Dearest with a far more penetrable shell. By the end, when her offspring has literally destroyed everything about her life, it’s all about survival. Watching this amazing actress cope cements her 2011 supreme status.
Asa ButterfieldBest Supporting Actor - Hugo
Child actors have their own issues in front of the camera. Capable of getting away with movie murder thanks in part to the inherent “aww” factor in their performances, they usually make an uncomfortable transition into adulthood, or wind up fodder for TMZ. But in the case of this little UK wonder, the limits of his future match flawlessly with the restrictions on his range - meaning, there are none. As a boy who must be both believable as an urchin and desperate to reconnect with the real world, Butterfield was so believable he made Hugo uncomfortable at times. Talk about impact!
Maggie Elizabeth JonesBest Supporting Actress - We Bought a Zoo
Now this IS a weird choice. In a category where almost all the good work was recognized by Oscar in either of the female performance categories, we had to dig beyond the mainstream to make our choice - and little Ms. Jones came up trump. From the first moments she is onscreen, she’s unlike any child actor ever. It’s as if she is channeling some inner old soul, an adult trapped in infinite arrested adolescence. We get that she is supposed to be “playing” a part, but there is something about how she does it which still haunts us long after the Cameron Crowe comedy has faded from memory.
Lars Von TrierBest Script - Melancholia
Who else could take the end of the world and turn it into a character study. Beginning with Armageddon and then switching to a story centering on two sisters, the former bad boy of Dogme ‘95 has dropped all indie pretense and simply let his imagination run wild. The results - astonishing efforts like this, and his previous button pusher, the equally impressive Antichrist. Granted, he is known to stick his foot in his politically incorrect mouth every once in a while, but when you create narratives as spellbinding as this, a few Fuhrer faux pas can be ignored…if not excused.
George Harrison: Living in the Material WorldBest Documentary
As he did with Bob Dylan, living legend Martin Scorsese literally changed the way many in the “quiet Beatles” fanbase viewed the iconic guitarist. Focusing on his world after the Fab Four went South, the documentary towed the typical biopic paradigms while unleashing a litany of unknown facts and facets to the man. What we eventually learn is that Harrison was happy most of his life, didn’t mind fame as much as strive to stay sane within it, and then discovered spirituality outside the typical Western ways. Instead of acting as rock revision, it argued for peace and tranquility within superstardom.
The Adventures of TintinBest Animated Feature
What does the Academy have against motion capture? Do they honestly believe that hooking humans up to a computer and letting them lay down the groundwork for the meticulous pen and ink work to come later really diminishes the artistic triumph of a piece? Well, that’s very short sighted, and may explain why this otherwise amazing movie got overlooked by the Oscar voters. As much as it is a marvel of technology, it also represents filmmaking of the highest caliber. In a sane world, director Steven Spielberg would be walking away with another award - it’s that good.
I Saw the DevilBest Foreign Film
The serial killer. How dull. Indeed, Hollywood and its direct to DVD/SyFy/Chiller/Fear.net brethren have turned the once viable villain into a flavor of the monster month rip-off. Blame many factors, but without real imagination, this specific subgenre seems DOA. Leave it to this stunning Korean thriller to prove otherwise. While it still plays within the formulas found within the motion picture archetype, director Kim Ji-woon takes a wild, whirlwind approach to the material, measuring out as much terror and trickery. By the end, we’re not sure who to fear most - the mass murderer, or the man seeking revenge against him.
InsidiousBest Guilty Pleasure
Horror movies rarely gain award season attention. Pundits love to go out of their way in pointing out that Silence of the Lambs is one of the few genre efforts to get nominated, let alone win. So no one expected any recognition of this James Wan wonder. In fact, the continuing deterioration of the Saw franchise (which the filmmaker and his friend Leigh Whannell initiated) may have as much to do with his sour reputation as his desire to dabble in the macabre. Whatever the case, this remains one of 2011’s best, no matter the cinematic category or creators behind it.