The last three movies for my Academy Award feature are “War Horse,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” and “The Descendants.” I particularly felt the need to postpone these films due to me pre-judging them, based on my knowledge that they focused on heavy subjects; something I’d prefer to put off for as long as I possibly could. After giving each its own fair chance, I regret not experiencing these movies sooner, as each film challenged me to see behind their sometimes superfluous surfaces, and see the real gems held beneath. These movies have helped show me that even predictable movie fare can still provide entertaining experiences that retain artistic merit.
Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close
“Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” is based on the best-selling novel by Jonathan Safran Foer and features a stellar class that includes Tom Hanks, Max von Sydow, Sandra Bullock, and introduces Thomas Horn in the lead role of Oscar. At its core, the story is about an immensely intelligent and peculiar young man and his relationship with a father that worked to foster and encourage his son’s curiosities regardless of how unusual they might be. Oscar’s journey is a powerful one that was both heartwarming and heartbreaking without the inclusion of the events of 911, but its unnecessary inclusion works as a hindrance to what is a fantastic movie. Even with it being saddled by the 911 subplot, “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” has enough strengths to merit a viewing.
It might be the fact that I’m a former New Yorker, but the fall of the Towers is my only real gripe with the movie and it was a constant distraction whenever any of the scenes focused on that event. Otherwise, I was moved by the complicated story that focuses on Oscar’s search for a better connection to his dead father, Oscar’s crumbling relationship with his mother, and the curious older gentleman that reluctantly befriends Oscar during his travels. These three threads are where the movie’s strengths lay, and they challenge the viewer to just sit back and absorb the movie, and not over think the multi-layered storyline as it unfolds. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” earned its nomination mostly on the strength of Thomas Horn’s performance as Oscar, and the complicated character study in grief that it portrays. Even if it cheats a little by using a great tragedy as a crutch, it is a fine piece of cinema that will have you tearing up, smiling, and filling with wonder.
Now “War Horse” is another film based on a novel that was released back in 1982 and was written by Michael Morpurgo. Where “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” was an immediate hit upon the novel’s release, “War Horse” was released to relative obscurity that garnered a favorable response from critics, but this praise did not lead to many sales over the years. In 2007, the fate of “War Horse” was changed when a dramatic version of the novel was produced as a play at the National Theater in London. This retelling of the story thrilled audiences across the UK and has led to this multi-million dollar production headed by Steven Spielberg and featuring an all-star cast of British actors.
I found “War Horse” to contain many of the story beats you’d expect in a war film, but little of the intensity that is the staple of the genre. Instead you have a film that relies mostly on the ties of a young man and a horse as they’re both thrown into the midst of World War I with little time spent on developing any of the other relationships within the movie. Once the two are separated, the movie turns into a cavalcade of short stories that follows the horse’s path from the British army ranks into German hands, then into a French commoner’s possession, back into German hands, and still changes a few more hands before the end of the film. This constant shifting of story prevents the film from building up any momentum or gravity to the proceedings, and just has you waiting for the next moment that will send the horse on its way. Yes, there are many moments of genuine sorrow, bravery, and triumph, but each lies as a tiny bubble in what is a swirling cauldron of emotion with little keeping the whole together.
Where the first two movies this week leaned on real-life events or the horrors of war to add some unearned gravity to the films, “The Descendants” takes a different route. From the very start, “The Descendants” builds a genuine story that is heart-breaking, but keeps a consistent humor that carries the film through its many real poignant scenes as we follow the family at its center. The story focuses on a character played by George Clooney and how his family deals with the tragedy that befalls his wife in a terrible boating accident. Along with the tragedy, the movies’ main focus lies with a real estate deal that is constantly looming in the background, that also allows for plenty of beautiful scenes featuring the natural beauty of Hawaii’s islands.
The Hawaiian landscape plays the perfect backdrop for what is a touching story of loss laced with the heavy weight of forgiveness. George Clooney does a great job of portraying a man who is faced with the realization that his now comatose wife was cheating on him prior to her boating accident. This complexity of emotion can also be seen in the young actress that plays Clooney’s eldest daughter, Shailene Woodley, whose performance retains its rebellious roots while still layering it with a vulnerability that is seen during the film’s more emotional scenes. Though the property deal seems tacked on, it is only a slight distraction from the well done family drama that still keeps a sharp sense of humor throughout.
Each of these films deal with death in their own ways, but only two out of the three actually give a weight and a sense of consequence to the proceedings. “War Horse” is too focused on moving its story to the next set piece to ever linger on the many deaths shown throughout the film. While “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” does take its time to fully explore the emotions involved with loss, “The Descendants” does a better job with keeping its characters as the real focus of the drama. “The Descendants” is a well written piece of cinema that keeps a well balance between drama and comedy that allows its actors to give complex performances that are a joy to watch. Regardless of my preference of one film over another, I have to say that each surprised me, and gave me a better look into why the Academy saw it fit to present each with a Best Film nod.