'Life of Pi' and 'Silver Linings Playbook' are top flight Oscar contenders

Each year, Oscar season is a mixed blessing. One one hand, it brings an explosion of films that the studios think will be big awards contenders so it's a welcome change after the drought of good movies leading up to it.

On the other hand, if the studios hold all of their "quality" material until the end of the year, they run the risk of oversaturating the market with too many compelling, exciting movies and the box office ignores them.

This week, two of the best movies of 2012 hit the theaters at the same time. "Life of Pi" is showing at the Hollywood Southwind Cinema 12 in both 2D and 3D.

A curious young Indian Hindu boy—who names himself Pi after the mathematical constant and learns to embrace both Christianity and Islam—suddenly finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger. The tale of his survival and spiritual discovery can only be described as remarkable and director Ang Lee brings Life of Pi to the big screen with vibrant colors, a surreal palette, and some impressive 3D effects.

For most of its running time, "Life of Pi" is either upbeat and whimsical, like the time spent in his father’s zoo, or just plain gripping—as Pi struggles through raging storms and dehydration with an animal that’s always ready to eat him. As beautiful as it is, danger exists in every moment of Pi’s life and the film doesn’t soft-peddle that. Lee masterfully combines breathtaking beauty with suspense. During these scenes, the movie is thrillingly alive like no other this year.

Life of Pi sputters, however, every time it goes back to its uncomfortable framing device, where an adult Pi tells his story to a writer who has heard that it will make him “believe in God.” Only in the movie’s final scenes does it become clear why the whole movie had to be a story told by Pi, and how you interpret the revelation at the end of that story will color your view of the movie.

Either way, Life of Pi spotlights a director working at the top of his craft to tell a wonderfully engrossing tale that demands to be seen in the theater.

"Silver Linings Playbook" is also opening, although its only in Kansas City right now. If you are headed that way, it's worth two hours of your life.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in the new romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook, which is getting lots of Oscar buzz. Kansas First News film critic Eric Melin has the review and he says the buzz is well deserved.

An undiagnosed bipolar man released early from a mental institution meets a young widowed woman and says the most blisteringly honest and insulting things to her. It may not sound like the recipe for a great romantic comedy, but "Silver Linings Playbook" is that and more.

Bradley Cooper is all forced optimism—a guy with no inner monologue and a temper—and Jennifer Lawrence plays a strange mix of shame and confidence as she pursues him. The movie itself is bipolar, full of mounting tension and hilarity like a classic screwball comedy, but it’s all just barely skimming above a deep layer of darkness.

Robert De Niro turns in his best performance in years as Cooper’s OCD bookmaking Dad, spotlighting not just his great comic timing, but also a quiet sadness.

"Silver Linings Playbook" subscribes to a couple of romcom formulas towards the end, but the movie is never anything less than exhilarating. Director David O. Russell adapted the screenplay from Matthew Quick’s novel and he has such an ear for smart dialogue and quick pacing, just like the best comedies of the classic era.

The only difference is that "Silver Linings Playbook" celebrates the fringes and makes you root for dysfunction.

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