There's the battle against slavery in Lincoln and Django, the inevitable approach of death in Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables and Amour, the exotic in Beasts of the Southern Wild and Life of Pi, the funny side of family, love and mental illness in The Silver Linings Playbook and the maddest instance imaginable of the American can-do attitude in Argo. Wildly different films in conception and delivery, and unsurprisingly our critics have some wildly different views of their relative merits.
Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow's intense drama about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden has divided critics, with some accusing it of being pro-torture while others have praised its unflinching look at the cost, as well as the benefit, of the “war on terror”. Either way, few are unmoved.
Certainly very few have called it boring. As Craig Mathieson puts it, the film is “157 minutes long and not even a second is wasted. Astounding.”
For Jake Wilson, Bigelow's film is “the most haunting of the nominees. It's conflicted rather than neutral – we're meant to be thrilled and troubled at the same time. It's also a cagey character study about a woman trapped inside a machine.”
Sandra Hall admires the film for its “audacity in treating some big political questions with an uncompromising seriousness you don't often see in mainstream American film-making”.
This “fascinatingly difficult, visceral, conflicted film”, as Philippa Hawker puts it, is, in Ed Gibbs' view, “thought-provoking”. It is testament to her skill as a filmmaker, he adds, that the film “neither shies from the ugly realities of torture, nor panders to a domestic agenda”.
It is, says Paul Byrnes, “a serious, thoughtful, open and disturbing film about what was lost and gained in the hunt for, and killing of, Osama bin Laden”.
What some people have taken as a lack of sensibility Byrnes sees as its greatest virtue. “The leftist critics want an open denunciation of torture; the right wants no doubts about the methods and outcomes,” Byrnes wrote in his review. “The film offers no comfort to either extreme.”
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Philippa Hawker thinks of Benh Zeitlin's southern ramble as “a haunting combination of quotidian detail and fantasy, a resilient child's experience of chaos”; in Craig Mathieson's view it is “an ambitious, messy movie that was held aloft by the relationship between child and parent as their world comes to an end”. But Jake Wilson just doesn't understand why some people fell for its magical realist leanings. “Zeitlin has an obnoxious kind of facility, but it's basically an old-fashioned idyll about poor black people and their joyous independence from civilisation,” he says.
On the other side of the fence is Ed Gibbs, who says the film “raised the bar ever higher for everything that followed in 2012”. Gibbs adds that its “essential message of environmental awareness and community spirit rings true, in an uplifting, inspiring journey of hope against all odds”.
Paul Byrnes is a fan, too. “It is harsh, poetic, tinged with fantasy and vernacular speech that's sometimes hard to understand,” he wrote, but once you click into its rhythm it is “beautiful, moving and memorable”. It is, he concluded, “an astonishingly sensual film, violent in weather and emotion, but completely memorable”.
Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell's film about family, love and mental illness is an intensely personal project, with he and star Robert DeNiro having in common children with mental health issues. In Ed Gibbs' view, that lends the project “an assured focus and a joie de vivre that recognises and celebrates the importance of the family unit without resorting to mawkish sentiment”. Craig Mathieson praises the film's willingness to “flail and fight and exhaust the audience instead of stroking them to easy satisfaction”, and Jake Wilson judges it “unpretentiously funny and tender, especially when it becomes a study of a community of battlers rather than a lone hero”. Sandra Hall, though, suggests that while Russell has “delivered a great actor's picture”, his empathy with his characters makes for a slightly unpleasant experience: “Such is Russell's eagerness to put you right inside their heads,” she wrote in her review of the movie, “that he leaves you with an acute case of claustrophobia.”
Paul Byrnes judges Steven Spielberg's tale about the efforts of the fabled American president to end both slavery and a bloody civil war as one of his finest moments. “Everything about the film is classy, considered and sober,” he wrote in his review. “The film is superbly constructed as political theatre. This is a film about the worth of politics, not the disappointment of it. That is a radical approach in our times, when cynicism about the political process is so rife. Lincoln is a superb illustration of why politics matters.”
Sandra Hall praises the film's seriousness of intent, too, but while conceding it's “an intelligent film on several levels”, Jake Wilson finds Spielberg's manipulation of every aspect of the story discomfiting. “It's like having a conductor wave a baton at you while you watch,” he says. In the end, he adds, “it's a comforting bedtime story about how the end justifies the means”.
The film is “heavy on dialogue and detail, albeit with some glaring oversights on accuracy”, says Ed Gibbs, who adds that it's “typically long and reverential”.
Life of Pi
With its unashamed embrace of CGI and magical realism, Ang Lee's adaptation of the “unfilmable” book by Yann Martel was always going to divide critics, if not audiences. Though Lee is, in Jake Wilson's view, “one of the best directors in mainstream cinema”, there's something “irredeemably phony” about the film, which Wilson dismisses as “pseudo-spiritual uplift designed to give the illusion of thought”.
On the other side of the fence is Sandra Hall, for whom the film is the best of this year's contenders – “funny, spectacular and thoughtful without being po-faced about the story's religious aspects” – and Ed Gibbs, who calls it “sumptuous”. “Though it's topped and tailed with a needless syrupy coating,” he says, “at its core lies a beautifully rich metaphor for how we interact with each other, and the world in which we live.”
It's bloody, it's knowingly derivative and it's wildly historically inaccurate. What's not to love about Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained?
The answer for Jake Wilson is the lack of development of his female lead. “Tarantino has a thrillingly tactless way with hot-button topics, and we all know he's brilliant with actors, but I wish Kerry Washington's character was more developed,” he says. “How does she feel about her husband turning into a hardboiled killer?”
Philippa Hawker says Django is “a wild, gleeful, thought-provoking movie in which Tarantino holds up a bloodstained funhouse mirror to America's past”, and Ed Gibbs thinks critics of the film, such as Spike Lee, who are riled by its take on slavery “are missing the point. This is bold, inventive storytelling that takes a stand.”
Paul Byrnes thinks Django Unchained “may be Quentin Tarantino's most violent film yet, and his most meaningful”. Yes it's violent, unbearably so at times, he wrote in his review, “but what should a film about slavery be like?” Ultimately, Byrnes wrote, the film is “an extraordinary achievement – as disturbing as it is audacious, as brutal as it is beautiful. It's another alternative history, a fantasy. Would that it were not based on so much awful truth.”
Ben Affleck's based-on-fact (give or take) story about an audacious American rescue mission may have firmed as a likely big winner at the ceremony (though not for Affleck himself, who has been overlooked in the best director category), but our critics are less impressed.
Jake Wilson describes Affleck as “a beginner next to Spielberg”, and says the film is a “shrewdly calculated historical fairy-tale about the can-do American spirit”. Much of it, though, feels “second-hand”.
For Sandra Hall, Argo is “a lot of fun and a great political adventure” but she finds in it a somewhat unsettling “whiff of old-fashioned triumphalism”.
Ed Gibbs is more positive, finding it “a revelation, a joyful dig at the absurdist nature of Hollywood, and a timely reminder of sorts of a truly bizarre mission that could have so easily failed”.
It may have earned nominations for its stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, and it doesn't stint on the tragedy, but Les Miserables has left our hard-nosed judges unmoved. “Victor Hugo was one of the masters of melodrama, but this film is all climaxes – the plot has no chance to breathe,” says Jake Wilson. “The songs are uninspired and even the better actors get lost in the sound and fury.”
For Ed Gibbs, Tom Hooper's film is “grand and unashamedly earnest” but ultimately it feels “overly simplistic” despite some “admittedly strong performances”.
Austrian veteran Michael Haneke doesn't do easy viewing, and his portrait of a loving couple struggling with the wife's mental and physical descent is as unsettling as it is real. It is, says Philippa Hawker, “an austerely observed portrait of mortality, age and degeneration, coolly unsentimental and painful to watch”.
The director “has a way of narrowing the focus of a film till it reaches a point of maximum intensity” says Jake Wilson, “but I can't tell if he likes his characters, or even believes in them”.
In Ed Gibbs' view, this reflection on love and death “is breathtaking in its intensity and simplicity, and surprisingly warm and engaging”. It is, he concludes, “Haneke's most personal and compassionate film to date”.
Paul Byrnes agrees, describing it as “a film of infinite compassion”. There's no suspense in it, he says – “the first scene shows us where the story will end – but “it is hard to overstate how beautiful and terrible this film becomes”.
The critics: Jake Wilson and Philippa Hawker review films for The Age, Sandra Hall and Paul Byrnes for The Sydney Morning Herald, and Craig Mathieson and Ed Gibbs for The Sunday Age and The Sun-Herald.