When the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards were announced two weeks ago, there was one Best Picture nominee that yielded a great sigh of relief from me. It was less that I felt it was deserving (it unquestionably is, but to quote “Unforgiven,” deserve’s got nothing to do with it when it comes to the Oscars) than the fact that I was actually going to have something to passionately champion.
The line-up that was settling into place until that time, I have to say, was lackluster. I mean, I think “Midnight in Paris” is delightful. I’m incredibly happy for Martin Scorsese and his personal ode in “Hugo.” “The Help” really did affect me emotionally when I saw it in August. “The Artist” is charming. But none of it is really enough for me. Elsewhere, “War Horse,” well, I don’t really have any strong feelings on it. And “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” fit like a square peg in a round hole for me. “Moneyball” was really the closest I could have come to having a rally cry, but it still wasn’t on the proper echelon for me.
So to hear not just Terrence Malick’s name called as Best Director, but “The Tree of Life” for Best Picture, as well — let’s just say I was so pleased to have “my” horse in the race (because we all know “Margaret” wasn’t going to come close).
With that in mind, I watched the film for a third time Sunday night as preparation for the upcoming fifth-annual “top 10 shots of the year” column. (Yes! It’s coming! OMG!) And I settled into its rhythms easily and naturally, finding every level of added nuance I expected to discover on repeat viewings, the surround sound cranked up, the visual and aural experience of the film as glorious as ever.
I’ve written about “The Tree of Life” twice now, both times at In Contention’s former space. The first was a day-after consideration during a jury duty lunch break that noted a desire to revisit and further consider. But I wanted to get some thoughts out as the film had just played Cannes and was very much the talk of the cinephile world for a few days. (And all these months later, I’m so happy Fox Searchlight had that handful of screenings in New York and Los Angeles immediately following the Cannes bow, fearlessly opening all the flood gates.)
The second piece came 10 days later, after a second viewing and with the particulars of the film firmly in my head, its imperfections fully considered and noted, its lovely thematic strokes coming across appropriately soft yet not maddeningly nebulous. I left the film then and knew it would rank rather high on whatever my year-end collective of 2011’s best films might be. And I watched it take on its own life, first in the marketplace, then on home video and finally, on the awards circuit as one of the most laureled films of the year.
On that score, it’s worth pointing out that “The Tree of Life” is second only to Best Picture-frontrunner “The Artist” when it comes to critics’ Best Film prizes. Just looking at the ones we’ve curated over the last several months (and I’m sure we’ve missed a few), “The Artist” has a whopping 15 wins. “The Tree of Life” has eight, while “The Descendants” has seven. “Hugo” and “Drive” each have two. It doesn’t mean anything because critics don’t vote for Oscars, but it’s indicative, as always, of a more thoughtful place in which the Oscar race should probably be.
Of course, the critics were always going to be the most likely champions of the film, but I was nevertheless surprised it stood out that much along the circuit. And perhaps revelatory of the faith I have, I still expected both the film and Malick to come up short on January 24.
I recognize that “The Tree of Life” has fierce detractors. Some want to tell the “it’s a screen saver” joke for the hundredth time or act like the 15-minute effects sequence at the tail end of its first act is superfluous when it’s THE ENTIRE POINT OF THE MOVIE, but that’s okay. Malick and his work (for which, I should note, I’m not full-blown in the tank) have weathered that kind of criticism for years.
Others still will take umbrage with Judeo-Christian imagery and considerations that run like a current through the film. I get how that kind of thing will chafe, but it misses the point. This film deals in micro/macro, and those elements are important to that construct. A religious family’s story is bound to be told in these kinds of strokes, but the film itself is ultimately much more universal, even in its purposefully vague “afterlife” interpretation at film’s end.
But “The Tree of Life” is mainly important for one reason, and it’s been my line on the movie since day one, so I’ll reiterate it now: It makes us feel small. Art can be about countless things. It can be emotional celebration, it can be personal expression and it can paint a portrait of a time and place. At its best, though, it contextualizes. And when you boil everything down, “The Tree of Life” is the ultimate contextualization.
So say what you will about it, but no other film in this year’s Best Picture line-up sports a density such as this. Often films working on this kind of rhythm don’t even make it to the big dance, and indeed, if not for the allowance of more than five Best Picture nominees, I’m betting Terrence Malick would have been our lone director nominee this year. (We can’t be sure of this, of course.)
But that’s all beside the point. It did make the cut. It’s there to be championed. There’s an opportunity present in phase two of the Oscar season that is all too rare: A true landmark is in the running for Best Picture. And not to push the issue on AMPAS members too much, but if you’re even thinking about voting for it, you probably should. You’ll feel really good about yourself in the morning.
For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.
Sign up for Instant Alerts from In Contention!