TOO BIG AND TOO LITTLE: Wanted to talk a little bit about two Best Picture nominees and how their problems are mirror images of each other. The first is Life of Pi, which I saw tonight (had wanted to see Zero Dark Thirty, but the showtime I wanted was sold out even though I got there an hour early). Without spoiling anything, it's safe to say that well over half of the movie takes place on a lifeboat with one human character, and is ultimately a pretty small story. That's not inherently a bad thing--indeed, Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks did pretty well with a similarly constrained storytelling tool for Cast Away. However, what Lee (partially in a desire to be faithful to the source material) tries to do is make this story have gigantic cosmological implications, with massive CGI fantasy sequences. He's not exactly helped along by Suraj Sharma, the unknown playing Pi, who isn't really a commanding screen presence. A lot of the imagery in the film is gorgeous (and having seen it in 3D, I can see why several critics said to see it that way), but it left me feeling like it tried too hard.
On the other hand, there's Les Mis. Les Mis is a pretty damn epic story, spanning almost 20 years of major French historical events, massive casualties, sweeping love stories, and the like. However, for the vast majority of the film, the decision's been made to present things in a series of close-ups rather than a broader, more epic standpoint. I'll be the first to admit that there are times this approach pays dividends--Anne Hathaway is going to win an Oscar off a rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream" that was only possible through the decision to focus in on Fantine's personal pain in that moment rather than the more epic scope that song has traditionally been given. However, moments that should have more sweep--"One Day More" and "Red and Black" in particular--wind up becoming so intimate that we don't get the broader importance. Admittedly, the choice to hold back on something sweeping until the finale does help give the finale a little more punch, but I wonder if the film would have been stronger with more evenness in scope and emotion.
FWIW, my current best picture rankings are probably Argo>Lincoln>Silver Linings Playbook>Les Mis>Life of Pi, with 4 left to see (Zero Dark Thirty will definitely be seen, Django and Beasts of the Southern Wild probably will be, but I'm not sure I can manage Amour)--though I'd go Day-Lewis/Lawrence/Arkin/Hathaway on the acting ballot as of now.