After Argo collected nearly every major industry award in the lead-up to the Academy Awards, in the process emerging as this year's Best Picture frontrunner, it came as a shock to everyone to see Ben Affleck shut out of the running here given how often Best Director and Picture coincide. It's with some irony, then, that two filmmakers who've emerged as the main contenders in Affleck's absence are also among the very few previous winners here whose films were denied Best Picture trophies: Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg. But let's try to rid our minds of the deplorable notion that Spielberg and Lee are contending for an award that belongs to Affleck. Stripped of this context, an Affleck-less battle for Best Director has all the makings of otherwise good Oscar drama.
Ben Zeitlin (#1–10 of 2)
As a Southern-gothic fairy tale about post-Katrina New Orleans, Beasts of the Southern Wild could have easily turned out to be a crass and unwittingly exploitative work. Co-writer/director Ben Zeitlin's fanciful approach to his understandably touchy subject matter theoretically seems glib. Thankfully, every time Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar threaten to oversimplify their story with mawkishly twee sentimentality, they steer the film's elemental narrative in another direction. The hopefulness that viewers take away from the film, the most buzzed-about title at this year's Sundance, feels earned thanks to Zeitlin and Alibar's focus on their characters' fears of imminent abandonment and annihilation. As a film about the seductive and essential power of hope, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a warm, accomplished, and fitting tribute to the fighting spirit of New Orleans.
This is the film you might get if Terry Gilliam conflated David Gordon Green's George Washington with Alice in Wonderland. We follow Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl that lives with her single father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a remote region of New Orleans only referred to as “The Bathtub.” Since Hushpuppy spends much of her time by herself, all of her fears are filtered through a convoluted system of icons and symbols. This proves that she's a product of her environment. She listens to animals and people's hearts because her father has a heart condition, fears cannibalism after a Bathtub resident teaches her that all living things are “meat,” and even fantasizes about wild rampaging boars because Wink has a big fat black hog on his farm.