In a little less than two weeks the glitter of Hollywood will be on display in all its gaudy glory as movie stars, directors, producers, and others in the film industry assemble for the annual presentation of those coveted gold statuettes affectionately known as Oscars. This marks the 84th anniversary of the event, and by using a formula that surely has Einstein doing slow revolutions in his grave, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has determined that nine films are worthy of vying for the top prize of best picture.
For your elucidation and edification, here, not in any particular order, is the sacred list: “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” “Midnight in Paris,” “The Help,” “Hugo,” “Moneyball,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “The Tree of Life,” and “War Horse.” As you would expect, all of these films have received raves from the critics. Well, that is all of them except one. Want to guess?
For purposes of comparison, “The Artist” received a composite score of 89 out of a possible 100 on Metacritic.com, but “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” managed only a 45. So how does a film with a less than mediocre average among critics across the country end up a nominee for best picture? I don’t know because the film is much better than its score indicates, and it also features a performance by someone who should have been nominated in the best-actor category.
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” which is based upon the 2005 novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, is the story of the devastating effect the 9/11 tragedy has on a young family. It’s a terrifically acted film with some extremely powerful moments, and I certainly consider it one of the year’s top films.
Academy Award winners Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock portray Thomas and Linda Schell, a happily married couple with a brilliant 8-year-old son named Oskar (Thomas Horn). As the film opens, Oskar is reflecting in a voiceover, and we immediately know from the depth of his thinking that he is not just an ordinary boy. (There is a suggestion that he may have Asperger’s Syndrome.)
“There are more people alive than have died in all of human history, but the number of dead people is increasing. One day there isn’t going to be any room to bury anyone anymore. So what about skyscrapers for dead people that were built down? They could be underneath the skyscrapers for living people that are built up. You could bury people 100 floors down, and the whole dead world could be under the living one.”
Oskar and his father are extremely close, and because he realizes his son is intellectually gifted, Thomas is constantly challenging him. In fact one of their favorite games is something they call “reconnaissance expedition,” which involves having Thomas throw out some clues to help Oskar solve a variety of brainteasers.
Yes, things are good for the Schells until what Oskar refers to as “The Worst Day” hits and virtually shatters their lives. After the two planes smash into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, Oskar’s school dismisses early, and he arrives home in time to hear his dad calling to report that he is in one of the buildings but that he is all right. But of course he is all wrong.
A year after the death of his father Oskar is reflecting that he has to do something to hang onto his memory.
“If the sun were to explode, you wouldn’t even know about it for eight minutes because that’s how long it takes for light to travel to us. For eight minutes the world would still be bright, and it would still feel warm. It was a year since my dad died, and I could feel my eight minutes with him were running out.”
As he is going through some of his father’s things, the boy finds a key in an envelope with the word “Black” written on it. He immediately assumes that the word refers to a person’s name, and he systematically sets out to find everyone with the last name of Black located in the five boroughs of New York in the hopes of discovering what the key opens. Oskar’s ensuing odyssey results in journey of self-discovery filled with warmth, humor, passion, and heartache. Indeed it turns out to be the ultimate reconnaissance expedition. And he’s accompanied much of the time by an old mute known simply as The Renter (Max Von Sydow).
Even though Hanks’ character does not have a lot of screen time, Thomas’ relationship with Oskar is the heart of the film, and in the production notes, Hanks offered in interesting analysis of Oskar’s dad.
“I think Thomas was someone who felt the real task in his life was to make sure that his very bright son became a well-rounded, content human being who might make the world a better place. Since Thomas himself grew up without a father, fathering Oskar was the most important thing to him. I think he loved inventing wild stories for Oskar, like the one he makes up about New York’s lost Sixth Borough, but he also very clearly designed these stories to get Oskar out in the world and help him feel safe there.
“I think Thomas wasn’t bothered at all by his son’s behaviors. Instead, he looked for ways to build bridges over Oskar’s turbulence, over his constant questions, his flights of fancy and his fears. Yet because of that, when he’s gone, it magnifies the incredible loss for Oskar even more.”
Unlike Hanks, Bullock faced the challenge of portraying the single parent left after the tragedy, and in the production notes she explained the difficulty of her role.
“I had to come to grips with the idea that the audience is seeing Linda on the screen entirely through Oskar’s point of view, and his view of her is not always very favorable. In some scenes, she can seem to be the opposite of nurturing, yet later, it becomes clear what is really going on with her. Still, I had to be okay with her looking at times like she wasn’t being a good mother to a child who is really in need. Part of it is that what Oskar sees is her grief, which is ugly and imperfect, but also very real. But what Oskar doesn’t know is that she is also very worried about him and that causes her to really try to think like he does.”
As you would expect, being the seasoned pros that they are, Hanks, Bullock, and Von Sydow all turn in excellent performances, but Horn is simply superb in his big-screen debut. He flawlessly runs the entire gamut of human emotions throughout the film, and it is an absolute sacrilege that he did not receive a best-actor nomination. Remember his name. If he decides to stay with a career in acting, he will be accepting one of the golden statuettes one day.
Although it may be a bit slow in places, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (It gets a final score of eight.) is a beautiful film rife with love, loss, redemption, and hope. I found it extremely good and incredibly poignant.