TIME’s Second Annual Oscar Endurance Test—Two Days, Nine Nominees, One Movie Theater: Part II

Wherein our intrepid reporter uses another Saturday to consume as many Best Picture nominees as he can, just in time for the Oscars.

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And then there were five. Last week I watched four of this year’s Best Picture nominees back to back to back to back, and yesterday I returned to the east side of Manhattan to round out the field. There were some familiar faces: the man with his arm in an elevated cast who was sitting through his second movie marathon since wrist surgery and the kind elderly couple to whom I gave up my seat last week who were experiencing their sixth Best Picture marathon. Out of the five films that screened last night, I’d only seen Midnight in Paris­.

First up: Hugo

A man who is wise in the way of Scottish music once told me that bagpipes are a mobile instrument — the bagpipe sound is at its best when the audience is standing still and the piper is moving, either closer or further away. Martin Scorcese, Hugo’s director, feels the same way about the camera. He said as much in one of the interviews for The Last Waltz when he talked about capturing the drama of the music by moving towards and away from the performers on stage

Hugo begins with a shot that’s probably been in Marty’s head for decades; the camera swoops over a CGI-enhanced snowy Paris and into the Gare Montparnasse, past the trains, the shops and the people who’ll populate the film. It’s a stunning image, like much of Hugo, but the 3-D technology that made it possible is far from perfect. For every amazing puff of smoke arising from the screen, there’s at least one face that doesn’t quite look right. But overall, Scorsese’s love letter to film pioneer Georges Méliès beautifully demonstrates how far the technology has come.

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Next: The Help

At about half past one, we shifted gears a bit to Jackson, Miss. for The Help. This film has several great performances, including Jessica Chastain, whose out of her element newlywed is a far cry from the ethereal Texas wife/mother we saw last week in Tree of Life. There’s been a lot of talk about Viola Davis’ performance, and with all due respect to Meryl Street as the Iron Lady, Davis should go home with the statue tonight.

But it was Octavia Spencer who pretty much stole the show. Her performance had the theater both doubled over in laughter and close to tears. As an added bonus, I learned that just when you thought you’ve milked all the plot out of baking poop into a pie, there’s always room for a little bit more.

Last before the dinner break: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

I haven’t read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, the source material for this film, but my friends that have read it enjoyed it. None of them loved the movie. It’s hard to turn even a great book into a movie. People tend to say, “Oh, the book was better,” and you have to wonder whether they mean it or if they just want people to know they read a book.

With Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the “book was better” description is probably spot on. Thomas Horn, who plays Oskar Schel —  the sensitive kid who may or may not be autistic (“The results were inconclusive”), loses his father on 9/11 and then embarks on a scavenger hunt across New York for clues his dad may have left him — melted the hearts of the packed audience at our theater. By the end, more than a few people were crying. But the film’s voiceover narration got in the way of what is a pretty good story. Voiceovers are tricky, and the best ones are subtle enough, but add something to the beauty of the film instead of just allowing the viewer inside the narrator’s heads. My other biggest criticism is that John Goodman, one of my favorite actors, had about as many lines in Extremely Loud as he did in The Artist.

Speaking of which, next was The Artist

Right as Extremely Loud ended with a terrible freeze frame (a technique that has only been used to great effect a handful of times), I bolted from the theater to the tiny Mexican restaurant across the street. This was a very good decision. By the time a crowd 20-deep formed behind me for food, I was back out the door. The marathon was running behind and The Artist was starting soon.

Of all the films I hadn’t seen before undertaking this movie binge, The Artist was probably the most discussed. It’s so different from anything currently being made — its an almost all silent, black and white film — that it must have been a nightmare to get financed. Both Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are gorgeous people who managed to convey an incredible range of emotions without uttering a word or “mugging for the camera” as they “say” in the film.

Until the final 5 minutes, I was lukewarm on this one. It’s an incredible concept, I thought, extremely difficult to pull off and masterfully done, but as we said last week, I’m a history nerd. Having read a great deal about the Great Depression, about bread lines and transient workers and families that lost everything, the plight of George Valentin, who squandered his acting career on account of pride than anything else, didn’t resonate with me at all. In fact, during the scene where he contemplates suicide I found myself not really caring if he did it or not. That’s not a good thing for a movie. But that scene’s resolution is so well done that I had to clap a little. Not every film about the past is going to be an honest, complete depiction of that era, nor should it be. For what writer-director Michel Hazanavicius sought to achieve, he succeeded masterfully, and for that, I salute him.

(LIST: The Top 10 Movie Trailers of 2011)

And to round out our two-weekend adventure, Midnight in Paris

Last week, a gifted film buff remarked to me that Woody Allen has made at least a half dozen films better than this one. I haven’t seen much of his recent stuff, but I’ll agree. I would imagine Midnight in Paris was one of the last films picked, the “We need to round out the field” kind of decision. It’s not a bad movie, but as wonderful as the City of Lights is, Owen Wilson is one of the last people I want to hear drone on and on and on about it.

Like all our films this weekend, Midnight had some great performances. Corey Stoll was stoically funny, if a little over the top, as Ernest Hemingway, who drones on and on and on about bravery. Kathy Bates was great as Gertrude Stein; it wasn’t quite a Judi Dench-level cameo, but seeing her work through crises with Pablo Picasso was a treat. But no film can stay aloft based just on the historical supporting roles when you hate the lead characters. It’s hard to detest Rachel McAdams, but her materialistic fiancée is just the pits, a woodenly written character who’s more of a mechanism to show how oppressed Gil Pender, our Hollywood hack, feels about life. A film can’t be great if the main characters are this poorly fleshed out.

And then it all ended as it began, with applause, only now I can fill out my Oscar bracket just in time for the show. So what should win? I’ve now seen all nine Best Picture nominees and my money is on The Artist. Tune in tonight to see if the members of the Academy agree.

MORE: See All of TIME’s 2012 Oscars Coverage

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