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Oscars Up Close

Rating the 9 Best Picture nominees

By David DiCerto

This year’s Academy Awards will mark the 84th time the gold statuettes are handed out since members of the movie industry first gathered in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room for a private dinner in 1929 – at $5 a head! The Oscar that year went to “Wings,” a silent World War I drama featuring a little-know actor named Gary Cooper. Ironically, more than eight decades later, the two front-runners for the top prize are love letters to silent cinema: “The Artist” and “Hugo.”

Perhaps of more interest to those concerned with the current moral state of movies, “Hugo” is also the first family film to lead the pack in overall nominations – it’s up for 11 awards – since “Oliver” back in 1969.

Brad Pitt stars as baseball general manager in Oscar-nominated "Moneyball."

Equally encouraging, for the first time in recent years, none of the nine “Best Picture” nominees are movies that would make this Catholic film critic cringe at the thought of it winning, as was the case with past nominated films such as “Million Dollar Baby,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Kids Are All Right.”

So if you plan on catching up on your Oscar viewing before the Academy Awards airs on February 26th, here’s a rundown of the “Best Picture” nominees (in alphabetical order):

The Artist – Having already racked up bellwether honors like the Directors Guild Award, this charming (almost entirely) silent, black-and-white love story about a fading matinee idol and a rising starlet will likely prove silence is golden come Oscar night. It’s remarkable how it can express so much about the human condition – its comedy and tragedy – without saying a word. (PG) Mature thematic elements, including an attempted suicide and romantic complications.

The Descendants – “Best Actor” front-runner George Clooney shines as a Hawaiian lawyer trying to hold his family together while coping with news that his comatose wife had been unfaithful. Despite some moral ambiguity, the film handles end-of-life issues with sensitivity, and shows the devastating impact of adultery. Faith plays no part in the grieving process, but this thoughtful film for grown-ups never “descends” into real problematic territory, and a touching final reconciliation echoes St. Paul’s assurance that “Love endures all things.” (R) Mature thematic elements, strong language and profanity.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Set against the September 11 terrorist attacks, this dark horse contender has generated concerns that the story exploits those tragic events. Thomas Horn is impressive as a young boy coming to terms with the death of his father, Tom Hanks, in the World Trade Center. But it’s Oscar-nominated, 82-year-old Max Von Sydow who steals the show. Extremely implausible and contrived at times, yet also an incredibly moving affirmation of life and family bonds that thoughtfully explores grief, healing and our shared humanity. (PG-13) Disturbing 9/11 images and scattered crude language and profanity.

The Help - Emma Stone and Viola Davis head a terrific ensemble in this uplifting civil rights drama about racism among middle-class housewives in 1960s Mississippi. No burning crosses – just the equally evil “polite” bigotry of well-mannered society. Strong performances and a positive treatment of religion “help” elevate an uneven script, resulting in an inspiring portrait of moral courage in confronting hate and affirming the human dignity of all. (PG-13) Recurring crude language, profanity and racial slurs, some mature thematic elements, and scatological humor.

Hugo – A family-friendly movie topping the list with 11 nominations? Directed by Martin Scorsese, no less? Go figure! Part fable, part homage to early cinema, this 3D adventure set in the 1930s about an orphan clock-winder living in a Parisian train station, a mechanical boy, and a toy-maker with a mysterious past lacks emotional punch, but boy it is gorgeous to look at. (PG) Action/peril and weighty thematic elements.

Midnight in Paris – Full of nostalgic whimsy and wit, this picture postcard to the City of Light is Woody Allen’s best work in years, with terrific performances, beautiful cinematography and without the grim nihilism of Allen’s more recent efforts. (PG-13) Some sexual humor, including references to non-marital situations, mild crude language and some profanity.

Moneyball – Brad Pitt hits a home run as the divorced, maverick GM of the small-market Oakland A’s baseball franchise, who tried to revolutionize the national pastime. More than a sports film, it’s a tale about personal and professional redemption that even the most casual fan can enjoy, and that affirms the value of individuals and second chances, both on and off the playing field. (PG-13) Scattered obscenities, much crass language and a few sexually-themed references.

Tree of Life – Spanning the dawn of creation to the end of time, reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick’s cinematic collage explores philosophical questions about memory, meaning and man’s place in the cosmos. It is impossible to summarize a film that involves the Big Bang, dinosaurs and Brad Pitt. The striking imagery is at times poetic, at times perplexing. The pervasive spiritual elements are open to interpretation. Love it, hate it, or just plain confused – it’s hard to dismiss. (PG-13) Mature themes, brief domestic violence and a scene of adolescent voyeurism.

War Horse – Among Steven Spielberg’s finer works, this WWI boy and his horse tale is good, old-fashioned filmmaking, sweeping in its visual grandeur and uplifting in its storytelling that finds hope and humanity amidst the inhumanity of war. Unfortunately, I don’t think it has the horsepower to nose out the competition. (PG-13) Intense battle scenes.

David DiCerto is a Catholic film critic and co-host of Reel Faith on NET TV.