Few would argue against The Tree of Life being one of the very best films of the year, but it remains the biggest wild card of awards season, a massively beloved masterpiece whose impressionistic style and ostensible inaccessibility have presumably prevented it from surging forward as a sure thing. Since claiming the Palme d’Or (which does mean something despite the common lack of Cannes/Oscar overlap), the film has landed on scads of top ten lists and picked up Best Picture wins and nominations from the BFCA, the OFCS, the Chicago Film Critics, the Detroit Film Critics, the Houston Film Critics, the San Diego Film Critics, the San Francisco Film Critics, the Toronto Film Critics, and the Gotham Independents. It has not, however, managed to declare itself an all-but-certain holder of a Best Picture slot a la The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo, War Horse, Moneyball, The Help, and Midnight in Paris. Its complete Golden Globes shutout is hardly surprising, ditto its SAG snubs, but yesterday’s diss from the Producer’s Guild was a bit more unexpected, and a lot more crucial in terms of its overall Oscar hopes. Even with all the resounding support, can The Tree of Life stay in the big race?
There are certain things that Malick fans should hope for if they want his enveloping opus to pull through. The mass-market Tree of Life DVD has a prompt that appears before the film starts, a message from “the DVD’s producers” that advises viewers to “play it loud.” Here’s hoping the Academy screeners have the same prompt. Here’s hoping all who didn’t catch the film in its full theatrical glory are getting the best possible home-viewing experience. Here’s hoping most aren’t watching it on a computer, but on a large screen with optimal sound. In the theater, Malick’s creation sequence alone is a spectacular and humbling existential experience, rendering one helpless and small as he stares on in amazement. Here’s hoping that experience isn’t lost on many voters. Here’s hoping those same voters watch the movie more than once. As is typical of so many of the greatest films, The Tree of Life is extraordinarily richer upon second viewing, not to mention far more penetrable. Roundabout peculiarities that left some viewers mystified prove to be part of something very straightforward, while Malick’s indulgences, particularly those surrounding young Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) adolescence, are much more palatable and cohesive once one has already been exposed (the perfection of the symphonic first hour becomes more evident throughout). Here’s hoping voters’ screenings aren’t interrupted. Here’s hoping they blocked out time and locked the door. Here’s hoping they find that the film is not a trying sit, but a fluid machine of engaging angles and near-constant movement.
It’d be a crime if The Tree of Life didn’t clinch four specific nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography. The Original Score by Alexandre Desplat isn’t eligible, and in truth, it shouldn’t be, seeing as Malick also incorporates a lot of borrowed music. And while the fine performances from Supporting Actor Brad Pitt and Supporting Actress Jessica Chastain have their fans, both actors shone brighter this year in other films, from which their only probable nominations will be drawn. But the awesome visuals of this movie are undeniable, and the efforts of D.P. Emmanuel Lubezki and the editing team (which includes Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, and Billy Weber) should make each a lock in their respective categories. The sheer number of times Lubezki allows sunbeams to pierce the frame without ever seeming overwrought is a mini-cause for celebration, and that’s just one observation among hundreds. On the splicing end, the amount of frameable pieces that were linked together to reach the end product is staggering. If a film like The Bourne Ultimatum can snag an editing Oscar for presenting hyperkinesis in three-seconds-on-average bits, surely The Tree of Life can do the same for nailing a comparable feat with the whole of existence.
One would think Malick would be a warm favorite for a Directing nomination. He is most certainly the type of filmmaker whose movies are seen as gifts, and there’s bound to be a great deal of love for him in the director’s branch. Like his film, he’s amassed a good number of precursor citations, but it’s his career that’s most liable to hoist him into the top five. Regardless of where one stands with this film, and to what degree one is able to embrace its transcendence, there’s very little room to dispute its stance as a colossal achievement for its spiritually-minded maker. Here’s hoping the folks who responded to the crushing mortality that pulses through The Thin Red Line also react to the interconnecting grace of Malick’s latest. Here’s hoping there are still quite a few of them who grew up in the 1950s, preferably in Texas. Here’s hoping everyone who approaches this movie does so with an open mind. Because while it may seem that Malick has crafted something artistically obscure, he’s actually made a film for everyone.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Director, Terrence Malick; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Visual Effects.
Possibilities: Best Supporting Actor, Brad Pitt; Best Supporting Actress, Jessica Chastain; Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: Best Supporting Actor, Hunter McCracken.