When you grow up in a small town, you take what you can get when it comes to entertainment. Aside from a bowling alley and a roller skating rink located ten miles from the house where I grew up, most of my adolescent weekends were spent "dragging Main Street"...or at the movies.
I still remember when the old run-down (former vaudeville) theater, "The Grand" re-opened its doors the summer before I turned twelve. Its shabby seats, the red velvet worn thin and nonexistent in places, and the stained and peeling art deco wallpaper adorning the side walls, indicated the old movie house had seen better days. The theater initially re-opened for weekends only -- showing one "family friendly" film (nothing rated over PG 13) per weekend for a total of five shows (Friday-Sunday nights and Saturday/Sunday matinees). For $5 a teen could buy a movie ticket, a bag of popcorn, a soda and a candy bar. If you were lucky, (pun intended) you would also probably get a first (or second or third) kiss and a private, parent-free experience if you sat in the balcony. Two plus hours of uninterrupted cinema, snacks and snogging for $5 -- now that's a cheap date.
"The Grand" is still open and is still showing family friendly films at reasonable prices. Run primarily by volunteers, it is recognized as a historical site, and the recent fundraising for new seats is helping the theater get a much needed face-lift while preserving its character. The projector now boasts 3D capabilities but the atmosphere is largely the same as it was in my childhood. Friday night, date night in the Melon Capital of the World, is likely to feature dinner at a local, family-owned Mexican restaurant followed by a movie at "The Grand."
Perhaps because of this, I have always found going to the movies preferable to VHS, then DVD and now Blu-ray rentals. While we have a Netflix queue filled with films we want to see, going to the movies is one of the few things from my childhood that still feels magical. If a movie is worth seeing, I believe it's worth seeing on the big screen. Although, I'm much pickier about movie theaters now that I'm older. I want to go to a recently cleaned theater where the arm rests are movable, the floors aren't sticky, the chairs plush and comfortable with the option to recline, and the crowd mature -- both in years and in behavior.
I saw eight of the nine best picture nominees this year in a movie theater. Although I didn't see any of them at "The Grand," it will not be surprising to those who know me that my favorites this year were filled with nostalgia and transported me to a different place and time. Without further adieu, my two cents on the 2012 best picture nominees, ranked in my order of preference.
9. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close -- This movie is filled with grief...and guilt. Its uplifting moments are too few and far between to rank higher on my list. While the young actor who played the main character captured the spirit of the boy in Jonathan Safran Foer's book by the same title, I found him too strange and petulant to identify or empathize with his pain. I read the book first, which is perhaps unfair to the film, and while I admire what the film was able to tackle given the nature and structure of the writing in the book, it still fell short for me.
8. The Help - I really like this movie. I just really liked the book better. The casting and costumes were perfect in this film and the performances are certainly worthy of the number of acting nominations represented on the ballot. Read it and see it -- man or woman, black or white, it's hard not to like The Help.
7. The Tree of Life - I admire this film on a number of levels. Amazing actors (given precious few lines of dialogue minus the whispered voice-overs) and incredible images and music fill the screen in what feels more like stepping into a moving work of art or a poem than watching a movie. The title literally tells it all -- this film shows everything from the origins of life to the way life plays out for a 1950's family. The non-linear plot and unique structure make the film artistic, but for me, not as enjoyable as many others on the list. Perhaps it was because I wasn't raised during this time, or the fact that I couldn't see any part of my own family in the family depicted in the film, but at the end of the day I felt that this film was beautiful to look at, and while I'm glad I saw it (albeit on the small screen), I likely won't feel the need to watch it again.
6. The Descendants - Amazing acting performances in an oh-so-Hawaii feeling film. I, like most women in America, adore George Clooney, who doesn't disappoint in this film. This movie is also based on a book which I haven't read but when I recently picked up a hard copy and thumbed through it at the book store, I could see pieces of the voice-over narration and dialogue directly lifted from the page into the movie script. The writing is the strength of this movie, and unlike Tree of Life, which felt alien and cold to me, this family feels all too real in all of the hilarious and heartbreaking ways.
5. Moneyball - I think it is a tremendous credit to this film that I, who dislike math and don't care much for baseball, would still rank this movie this high on the list. In fact, it is the type of movie that if I had seen it as a child, I might have chosen to teach math instead of English...it's just that good. I love Jonah Hill's character and enjoyed seeing him playing a role that wasn't "another character's overweight/drunk/high/disgusting friend." His performance was refreshing and spot-on. And then of course, there's Brad Pitt. Enough said. This may be one of my favorite baseball movies of all time...but it's still a distant second to The Natural.
4. War Horse - I wasn't prepared to like this film as much as I did. But between the history, the horse, the boy who loved his horse, and the many other side stories and characters who came in contact with the horse, it was two plus hours of riveting entertainment. I loved what this film had to say about war, love, and the human experience. The cinematography was gorgeous and certain scenes felt like snippets from other epic films of the past.
3. Hugo - I was pleasantly surprised by this film as well. I entered expecting to see a really good "children's movie," but instead I was transported to Paris in the 1920's. This movie is truly magical. The train station itself is perhaps the most powerful character in the movie. Ben Kingsley (as always) is amazing, and this film is perhaps the most visually appealing of all in a list of really visually appealing movies. I didn't want this movie to end, even though I was satisfied with the ending. This is a film I could watch again and again and see something new...and it is also a movie that prompted me to buy the book.
2. Midnight in Paris - Really, this film is tied for number 1 for me. I love everything about it - the acting, the characters, the costumes, the time travel, the dialogue and writing (Woody Allen at his best), and the way it made me feel. This is an amazing movie for any nostalgia junkie or aspiring writer. I loathe Owen Wilson and I still managed to love this film (and begrudgingly his performance). This is the most "feel good" film of the bunch. If you don't want to travel to Paris, read a Hemingway or Fitzgerald novel, or put on a Cole Porter record after watching this film, I fear you are hopelessly imprisoned by the 21st Century and should seek help for this affliction immediately...ideally by watching this movie again!
1. The Artist - For me this film had it all, and also had nothing at all -- who would have thought a silent, black and white, simple story brought to the screen could say so much? If the film doesn't win, I hope Jean Dujardin does -- he tells a story without saying a word (okay, maybe one word :) and it's impossible not to fall in love with his character, who is simultaneously charming, cheeky, insecure and sad. It's tough to top a Clooney or Pitt, but for me, Dujardin is the new Hollywood "it" man -- and one more reason to love all that is French on this list!
Overall, it was a great year for films that moved audiences through compelling stories vs. over-the-top special effects. Time to pop some popcorn, pour a soda, and get ready for that red carpet. May all of your movie-going experiences in the coming year feel grand.