Jessica Chastain plays a CIA operative in "Zero Dark Thirty." (Jonathan Olley )
With high-profile Oscar contenders "Les Miserables" and "Zero Dark Thirty" screening for the first time for guild and academy members this weekend, a measure of clarity was expected to enter this year's best picture race. That happened, yes, but if you were among those who caught the two highly anticipated films over the Thanksgiving break, you probably woke up Monday morning suffering from a severe case of tonal whiplash.
Tom Hooper's lavish adaptation of "Les Miz" screened six times around Los Angeles on Saturday, with Hooper and cast members ping-ponging between the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, the Mann's Chinese in Hollywood and the Television Academy in North Hollywood to introduce the movie and answer tightly scripted questions. The pop opera and its participants won applause and a few ovations from audiences who woke up that morning dreaming a dream and had no problem giving themselves over to material that demanded they feel something, anything, for the people and their struggles and for young girls who really, really like cute, socially conscious rich boys who don't notice them until they're dying and then, sure, now you hold me and caress me, but where were you when I was alive?
"Les Miz" also screened six times in New York over Thanksgiving weekend. At one event, Anne Hathaway, who plays the tragic (there are no other kinds of characters here) mother Fantine, recalled feeling the chills watching her own mom play the same role on stage.
"Today, to see it on this big screen in this acoustically perfect hall, you guys are the best gift ever," Hathaway said. "Thank you for loving it so much."
To which an audience member shouted, "Thank YOU!"
On Saturday at the Aero, another audience member bellowed a hearty "THANK YOU" toward Hooper as the director spoke about his decision to have cast members sing live on set. "Les Miz" just seems to inspire gratitude wherever it goes. That or the events at this weekend's screenings were as carefully choreographed as the musical's show-stopping numbers.
Afterward, during Q&A sessions, moderators dutifully hit on all the movie's key talking points. Live singing on set? Check. The difficulty of adapting such complex material? Check. Contemporary relevance in this tale of have-nots rising up against the elites for their fair share of bread crusts? Do you not hear the people sing? Check!
Interestingly enough, the filmmakers behind "Zero Dark Thirty," a movie with obvious contemporary currency, were much more circumspect about discussing its politics. Screening twice Sunday at the Pacific Design Center, Kathryn Bigelow's movie about the long hunt and eventual killing of Osama bin Laden plays as a stripped-down, dispassionate, clinical procedural. There's more emotion in Anne Hathaway's quivering left eyebrow than there is through the whole of "Zero Dark Thirty," which is about getting the facts, Jack, and, in the immortal words of Jessica Chastain's methodical CIA operative, "smoking" the bad guys and Bin Laden.
"We did want to find moments of human passion and human pain amid the history," said screenwriter Mark Boal, who appeared at a post-screening Q&A with Bigelow, Chastain and other cast members. "It was also an opportunity to gather all this information together in a way that had never been done before and, hopefully, make a movie that will stand the test of two or five or 10 years."
Fine. Fine. But will it appeal this year, now, to Oscar voters? Perhaps. Though with its potential below-the-line bounty, "Les Miserables" stands as a more obvious best picture behemoth. If we were to reorder the best picture race today, it'd look this way:
3. "Silver Linings Playbook"
4. "Les Miserables"
5. "Zero Dark Thirty"
6. "Life of Pi"
7. "The Master"
9. "Moonrise Kingdom"
10. "Django Unchained" (not yet seen)
We're keeping the top three movies firmly in place, for now, because "Lincoln," "Argo" and "Silver Linings Playbook" all manage to pull off the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences-friendly storytelling formula that uses humor, heart and an intelligence that isn't off-putting (Meaning:You have to think but just not too much). That, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, is how you become master of this particular house.