By Christian DiMartino
The 2011 Oscar race mostly consisted of The Artist-this, and The Artist-that. Why? Because the old farts at the Academy were thrilled to have a silent picture back in business. The Artist was indeed a wonderful film, and a very well crafted one at that. But come on, The Descendants was the real Best Picture of 2011.
The film is directed by the amazing Alexander Payne, who vanished for seven years following his previous film, Sideways, which sent him home with a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Clearly, he was waiting for the right project to come along. I’d say he picked it. The Descendants is a perfect film, and I’d say it is his best by far. A bold statement, considering that I’d say all of his films are aces in my book.
The Descendants is a lovely film that just gets everything right. The tone, the laughs, the drama, the screenplay, the performances. All of it works like clockwork. There is never a dull moment in its beautiful two hours, and it also features George Clooney’s greatest screen performance, yet another bold statement, but I’m sticking to it.
Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian land baron with too much on his plate. His wife has fallen into a coma after a boating accident. The doctors tell him that she isn’t going to last long. He is being pressured into selling land that his family has owned for centuries. The locals believe it is the best for everyone.
He has a rambunctious daughter named Scottie, who he doesn’t know how to deal with. He has another daughter named Alexandra (Shailene Woodley at her best), who hates her mother despite her condition. Why? That is where the plot thickens.
Once Alexandra hears of the unfortunate news of her mother (in a great scene in which she cries under water, insanely convincingly might I add), she tells Matt that before she fell into a coma, she saw her mother with another man. So out of pure curiosity, Matt, Alexandra, her goofy friend (Nick Krause, a scene stealer), and Scottie decide to pursue this “other man.”
Payne won yet another Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar here, but honestly, this film should have been a clean sweep. What do I mean? Well, Best Picture, Best Actor (Clooney), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing. I’m not lying here. The film is that flawless.
Payne, as he showed with masterworks such as About Schmidt and Sideways, knows how to beautifully blend comedic aspects into dramas (Sideways is more of a comedy but it has its dramatic elements… you get what I mean). What he does here works wonders. This is based off of a novel that I have never read, but yet, it feels purely Payne-ian.
You will laugh in The Descendants, and you will probably cry, mostly because it all feels so real. This is a film in which everything rings true. We feel for these characters and their struggles.
In portraying your everyday man, Clooney does, as I said earlier, do his best work here. It is a beautiful performance from one of our finest actors. Hell, the whole ensemble here is a work of beauty.
The cinematography is beautiful, the score is fitting, the timing of it all is just marvelous. Most of all, it is a moving and just damn wonderful, if not tragic, film about family. But not only that, I love the story arc involving Matt’s land selling. It just feels right.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, at the end of the decade, this is on my top 10. I knew as soon as I saw it that it was special, and I still love it dearly years later. I don’t know what Payne has in store for us next, but even if it’s half the film that his other films are, I’d still say we’re in for a treat.