When I’m not indulging at the table, you’ll find me in absorbed in screenland: I love movies.
Last week, I completed my tour of the Oscar Best Picture nominees for 2010, a silly exercise (especially so, since the majority of the films highlighted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are nothing more than bird feed) that I’ve repeated since my Freshman year in high school.
Given that the Academy doubled the number of nominees for Best Picture this year, returning the category to ten nominees (there were ten nominees in this category from 1935-1943 before the number was halved), finding and finding time to see the ten nominees wasn’t an easy task. This year, the mission was made especially cruel by a slate of surprisingly mediocre selections.
The Academy and I rarely agree.
It’s pretty clear by now that the Oscar for Best Picture will go to “Avatar.” While this predictably over-the-top Cameron production has its merits, and is certainly a more justifiable winner than “Titanic” was in 1997, my vote goes to “Precious, Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.”
Painful to watch and think about, in many ways, “Precious…” might be the most important film I’ve seen in the past year, maybe two. Mo’Nique’s five-minute confession at the end was, perhaps, the most emotion-draining five-minutes of acting I’ve seen since Viola Davis’s performance in “Doubt.”
But despite being a complete departure from my usual movietrack, “Avatar” was surprisingly good for what it was. Other than the main characters, I found the supporting cast one-dimensional and the plot increasingly thin towards the end. But, if nothing else, James Cameron finally produced something that justified three hours of my life. And I have to admit that the sheer breadth of the production was certainly worthy of nomination. I would not, however, watch it again. Once was enough.
Here is my take on the the other eight movies nominated for Best Picture:
Dysfunction seems to be the common theme among the ten Oscar nominees for Best Picture this year, and “An Education” is not the exception. Carey Mulligan was wonderful as the sixteen year-old seductee – in fact, I’d give her my vote for Best Actress this year. But while I found her and her seducer’s characters rather well-developed, her parents seemed phoned in from Central Casting, the weakest links. But overall, it was a well-told story. I hated the last line. What was that?
I’m absolutely stubborn when it comes to deviating from the historical script, as it were – especially when you’re dealing with well-known figures like Mao, or Hitler, say. And for that reason alone, “Inglorious Basterds” lost me on a certain, fundamental level. But, I will say, that it was well-acted on the part of all, masterfully by Waltz, in my opinion (who most deservedly will win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). For those who have seen this movie, what I call the “strudel conversation” was brilliant, a million thin, flaky, and sweet layers waiting to be shattered.
I lost interest in “District 9” at 15:00. I slugged through the idiocy until around 32:00, when things got a bit interesting. I clung on like a hanging chad until 49:28, when I clicked it off to go bring my brain back up to normal speed with other pursuits. I returned the next day to drag myself through the rest of the movie. It was the most unredeeming and inane film I have seen in ages. The story is shallow, its attempts at poignancy laughable. In my opinion, the special effects don’t compensate for the poor manner of execution, which was crass at best. There are subtler and smarter ways of creating a metaphor for apartheid. Second-graders make more sophisticated allegories. Awful. I could name a half dozen movies from 2009 that were more worthy of nomination, including “Nine,” “Star Trek,” “A Single Man,” and “The Young Victoria.”
“The Hurt Locker,” on the other hand, was wonderfully done. I can’t say that it was a pleasant film to watch. But I think Jeremy Renner’s performance (as with his supporting male cast) was very good. This is a movie that made every major and minor muscle pull taut with tension. It is not a movie for the feint-hearted or squeamish. Blood, guts, and violence abound. But so goes the theatre of war. Although I would vote for Lee Daniels for “Precious…,” I would not be disappointed if Bigelow wins Best Director as predicted; she did a bang-up job.
Oy. “A Serious Man” was not my speed or style. Black comedy? Maybe. Regardless, it was a rather well-captured slice of Jewish-Americana, though perhaps a bit absurdly so for my taste. A modern day Job is the best I could manage at deciphering the meandering plot, but even that doesn’t work out so neatly. Whatever it was, I can’t say I enjoyed it beyond appreciating the many Jewish-American cultural inside passes that populated the film – oh, and of course the colorful, but pathetic characters that the Coen brothers are able to fabricate so accurately. In many ways, it is a movie about stereotypes.
“Up In the Air” Clooney, played his usual, adorable self with boyish charm; predictable. Whereas Farmiga completely inhabited her character, I found Kendrick thoroughly unconvincing – she looked the part, played the part, but it felt contrived. But, I appreciated “Up In The Air” for offering a hauntingly prescient peek into a world faced with the extinction of the career and declining number of jobs. But Best Picture? I think not.
“You have to see ‘Up,‘“ my friend urged. A grown man, he admitted that the film had reduced him to tears. I have yet to see something bad come off the drawing boards at Pixar, and “Up” does not detour from the norm. “The Incredibles” is still my favorite Pixar film, but “Up” was refreshingly thoughtful and sweet. But, perhaps even more than “District 9,” “Up” is the least appropriate nominee for “Best Picture” – isn’t that what the “Best Animated Feature” category is for?
“The Blindside” is just the kind of heart-warming story that one needs every once in a while. I’ll let the rest of you sort out the accuracy of the portrayal of the real-life characters, but I found it well-acted and well-scripted on the filmic level. Sandra Bullock pulls off a good, but comfortable role. Perhaps too perfect for the part, I don’t think it required a far enough reach to win her the Oscar this year for Best Actress.
A blurring of reality and fantasy within one man’s manic and philandering-prone mind, “Nine,“ was vivid reminder to me that genius and creativity can’t be turned on and off like a tap, and are, more often than not, both ignited and arrested by distractions of the heart. Brilliantly acted on all parts, Day-Lewis and Cotillard, especially, left me quite speechless (so to speak) in parts. Penelope Cruz also earned her Best Supporting Actress nomination for her spicy portrayal of a sex symbol mistress. The best part of the production is that I found myself slipping into a decade that I probably would have enjoy living in more. If you like musicals, pageantry, women, la moda Italiana, cinema, the 60’s, tight roadsters, and a healthy measure of humor and hubris, then you will probably like this movie. But, I can easily see how many may not take to it. I counted at least six members of our audience who walked out half-way through. And, well, the critics seem divided. I loved it.
Out of the four Best Actor nominee performances I’ve seen so far, I’d give it to Collin Firth for “A Single Man” (I have yet to see the predicted winner, Jeff Bridges, in “Crazy Heart.”)
“A Single Man” had “gay designer” written all over it. Whereas “Nine” was a montage of music videos, “A Single Man” was a retro Vogue spread in motion, every still a designer-label advert. It was gorgeously composed and filmed. Even so, the execution was masturbatory – not quite precious, more self-indulgent. But running through it was quite a decent thread of yarn that both Firth and Moore plucked with amazing finesse. I can’t say I walked away a changed man, but I did walk away with a finer respect for Tom Ford and Julianne Moore, whom, up to this day, I’ve never really found impressive. In this film, she sews up the form of a regretful has-been-never-was trophy divorcee who floats through life off-kilter on booze and cigarettes (and who knows what else) with astounding accuracy. Firth, he was mesmerizing, every minute on screen worthy of nomination.
“Crazy Heart” was essentially “The Wrestler,” swapping out wrestling for a guitar, a daughter for a son, a stripper for a journalist, steroids for a bad case of the bottle, and a horribly depressing ending for a somewhat sweet, if not ambivalent one. Well-acted, no doubt, Jeff Bridges was great, perhaps, his best. I can see why everyone says it’s his year to win the Oscar for Best Actor. I think Firth was just as good, but won’t be surprised with Bridges gets called to the podium.
“Invictus:“ At parts slow – especially the first 20 minutes or so – the pace quickened in the second half and ended in a rather predictable emotional climax. Solid acting. The plot was a bit thin, but did its job efficiently. Why Matt Damon is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the rugby team captain is beyond me; it had better be for his accent, because the acting was rather forgettable. I read Mandela’s “Long Walk To Freedom” about a decade ago. I should really pull it out and relive it.
Sappy in parts, I really enjoyed Blunt and Friends in “Young Victoria,“ the story of the blossoming romance between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The suffering romantic in me couldn’t help but be swept away by the beauty and intrigue of this nicely filmed period piece. Blunt is not the most attractive girl (to me), but for this role, I think she was rather appropriate. Albert’s part, especially, was well-written and well-acted I thought. The screenwriter and director also did an excellent job of simplifying (perhaps a little too much for the historical sticklers in the audience) and explaining each character in the web of the international political schemes of the times.
I was pleasantly surprised by “Star Trek.” It preserved the camp while spinning a wonderfully constructed web of events, plots, and back-story explanations to the original television series – a fantastic revival and tribute to an otherwise passé (some might object) franchise, down to the very last “Dammit, Jim!”
Robert Downey, Jr., whom I’ve never really liked, was very good in “Sherlock Holmes.” Jude Law was fantastic. The plot was very contrived, and at parts, slow. The audio volume was a touch deafening, I became a annoyed by the 15th trailer (not kidding), and Rachel McAdams was a bit toothy and baby-faced for her part, but overall, it was entertaining. For those who get high off of that jittery, frame-splicing, Ritchie/Luhrmann style, you’ll wake up the next morning like a junkie needing a fix.
“Julie and Julia” was fun, spirited, and a good time. But it wasn’t much beyond that. Like many, I found Julie Powell’s half of the story a drag. Amy Adams plays the same, dopey-eyed innocent girl that she plays in every movie; interchangeable, annoying. On the other hand, Meryl Streep pegs Julia Child with predictable finesse. I wouldn’t be surprised if she takes home the Oscar for Best Actress. Stanley Tucci was great.