And the nominees are:
- Slouching Black Kid, Stooping Matron: The Michael Oher Story
- Aliens and Apartheid
- WHY ARE YOU READING THIS INSTEAD OF SEEING THIS MOVIE
- Disarming Bombs Is Hard
- Turns Out Diane Kruger Isn't Nearly As Bland As I Thought
- Precious: Based on the Book of the Same Name By Some Lady Named After a Precious Stone (See What She Did There?) and the Title of Which Its Producers and Director Really Should Have Rethought Because if It Wins (Which It Won't) It Won't Even Fit on Those Columns in the Kodak Theater that List All the Best Picture Winners
- I'm Still Not Even Sure What this Was Even About Even
- Planes, Trains, and OHMYGODAGIRLFROMTWILIGHT!
And the Oscar should go to:
[UPDATED MARCH 5, 2009]
Let’s begin with me falling partially—partially—on my sword. Avatar is quite a bit better than I expected, and the technical and visual accomplishments of this film truly are the redefining forces they’re being made out to be. Cameron’s tableaux are sometimes so sumptuously beautiful as to be moving in their own right—a film nerd like me can find himself in near-tearful awe of what this man has figured out how to create. Praise must be given for that.
But like Titanic, once again Cameron has delivered a film that is spectacularly uneven in every other area. Designation as the best picture of the year must extend past mere visuals, technical wizardry, technological advancements. It’s simply not enough when the film’s other aspects—the clumsy script, the simplistic and didactic story, the wooden acting—are so lacking. For all the innovation Cameron has created, it likewise served to highlight the things he still hasn’t yet figured out how to do—mainly, how to win the tug-of-war between story and chracterization, and technical might. When an actor’s performance has moments that make you laugh—derisively—but you can’t tell if it’s the fault of the actress (Zoë Saldana) or the fact that an actress can’t possibly understand how to translate her work into a megapixeled rendering (I think it’s the latter, personally), you know that there is still some distance to be traveled on the innovation highway. Cameron has laid the groundwork for a truly transcendent, groundbreaking tectonic shift in filmmaking worthy of the industry’s highest honor. But Avatar is not it.
And it was too damn long. Sheesh.
The Blind Side
To be fair, The Blind Side turned out better than I expected, but it could have been a truly terrific. Instead, it falls victim to an enervating and distracting baseline dishonesty.
Knee-jerk liberal guilt was going to jump up and scream “Racism!” no matter what, but I don’t think that’s an accurate charge or the problem at hand. I’ll concede that the general portrayal of central character Big Mike as a galumphing dumbass with 500% more heart than brain easily takes on a racist undertone, but to discount Leigh Anne Touhy’s compassion as Great White Hope presumption treads the same ground as condemning celebrities’ adoptions of African children as racially unsavory, as if Whitey leaving them to pursue a life of AIDS and starvation were the better part of valor.
The problem with The Blind Side is not some intrinsic racism, it’s that in the face of the story’s political, racial, and socio-economical issues, the film opts to instead appeal to the sort of bright, sunny, “moving” up-by-the-bootstraps-thank-you-Jesus spirit that Middle/Conservative/Evangelical America adores. It’s pandering in the first degree—and patently false. Michael Oher didn’t pull himself up by the bootstraps; he was handed wealth and a white person’s access, and he used it to his advantage. And Touhy’s role wasn’t just that she gave; it was that she was able to appeal to her heart in order to transcend the general ideological tenor of the status quo she and her ilk tend to be a part of. I’m not saying that Hancock should have made a searing two-hour examination of race and class in 21st-century America—that’s not the point of the story—but even a cursory examination of what all that means—the macro-factors at play that necessitated a “savior” in Michael’s life, and the ones Touhy had to be able to actually transcend to be that savior—would have been more honest, affecting and impactful. Hancock & Co. would rather make mountains out of Bullock’s sassy-brassy molehills, layer on the “inspiring” and “triumphant” emotional syrup, and let the film’s detractors fend for themselves. The result is a film that isn’t particularly honest, moving but only in spite of itself and, most unfortunately, distractingly polarizing. Add in Hancock’s bland, utilitarian camerawork, and the sum total feels like an only slightly more substantial Lifetime movie. Thank God we have Bullock and the guy who played Oher—not a particularly interesting actor but one with a talent for channeling a carefully guarded reserve of hurt and fear that is deeply affecting to watch—to pull it half together, or it would be an irredeemable muddle.
Let there be no mistake: this film is terrific. Whether you’re a sci-fi fan or not (I’m not), I defy you to not have a blast watching this little South African whirligig. More to the point, what director Neill Blomkamp manages to do with so little—so little money, so little experience, so little time—is truly remarkable, and mention also must be made of lead actor Sharlto Copley, who, like the film, so adeptly keeps his two feet planted in opposing worlds: he’s as gut-bustingly hilarious as he is moving and heartbreaking.
But is it the best picture of 2009? Well…no, it’s not. The best sci-fi film? Arguably (pipe down, Trekkies. I don’t care either way. Argue amongst yourselves). Best action film? Potentially. But the Oscars are not about honoring genres. They’re about, for the most part, honoring filmmaking that speaks to the much vaunted “human condition.” That isn’t to say that “District 9” doesn’t speak to the human condition—there’s certainly plenty of commentary on social strictures vis a vis minority cultures, or something or whatever—but mostly it speaks to alien invasions and chases and cool guns and stuff. Which has its place! But, you know, the Kodak Theater isn’t really it.
I’m only going to say this one more time: STOP READING THIS AND GO SEE THIS MOVIE. It is the story of Jenny, a 17-year-old London student, who, over the course of a romance with a charismatic man ten years her senior, is whisked her out from under the oppressive priggishness of her father and afforded her first opportunity to finally fully realize her unique perspective on the world and, most importantly, herself. It’s lovely, but not without problems—mainly the sort of plot implausibilities and character 180s that we wouldn’t buy for a moment were the film not based on a memoir.
Still, the film manages to rise above these challenges with a script that is funny, snappy and heartfelt all at once, near perfect acting—Mulligan and the always terrific Alfred Molina in particular—and terrific camerawork that reminds of films from the early-60s era in which the story takes place. Not the year’s best, but definitely one of the year’s highlights, and worthy of its nomination.
The Hurt Locker
There’s just no other way to put it: this film is as near to perfect a film as I’ve seen in a long, long time. And if there’s one film this year that speaks to our era, it’s The Hurt Locker, not Up in the Air.
Finally, at long last, we have an Iraq War film that succeeds at what every other Iraq War film up to now has failed: making the war palpably real, personally significant, and grippingly identifiable. Director Katherine Bigelow and writer Mark Boal don’t take a stance on the proceedings, don’t attempt to sway our opinion, don’t extrapolate some circumstancial heartstring-pulling melodrama, don’t engage in syrupy troop-honoring cliché. They simply paint a picture, and the day-to-day minutiae comes alive—sometimes literally, as we watch the creeping slow-motion eruption of rust from a car or grains of dirt from the ground as a bomb explodes—and we see, viscerally, how abnormal “normal” is to the people in the middle of it all. It doesn’t ask us to agree or object; it simply asks us to watch. In return, we get pulled—no, yanked—into the roiling midst of it all, at once thrilled and moved and terrified, filled with a wide-eyed awe at reality, both the emotion and the heart-palpitating suspense of it.
Or, to put it succinctly: it’s fucking genius.
Inglourious Basterds is hilarious, clever, inventive, engrossing, epic in scope, and a Tarantino film through and through. Once again we’re given a fantasia of Tarantino’s signuature weave of genres—Spaghetti Westerns, old-school war films, contemporary rat-a-tat wordsmithery, winking satire, blood-and-guts-as-punchline—hat is by turns nail-biting, gut-busting and heart-rending. But seamless it’s not, and therein lies my one bone of contention. I’m willing to admit that maybe I’m just not quite bright enough for Tarantino’s movies, or at least maybe too conventional, but Basterds left me feeling like so many Tarantino films do: a sense of low-level confusion, an uncertainty that I had any idea what he was talking about—which is of course by turns thrilling and frustrating, and part of what I love about watching his movies. That said, among this list of nominees, if anything is going to upset my #1 pick, I want it to be this one. There is so, so much amazing stuff here: incredible visuals, dazzling camerawork, Tarantino’s ever-present color symbolism, the giddy tickle of Diane Kruger’s performance (and here I was finding her dead boring), the gripping work of Melanie Laurent, and the downright shocking genius of Christoph Waltz. Has Tarantino ever been so sweepingly, epically ecstatic?
I loved Precious, as I made quite clear last fall after I attended its premiere. But with a bit of distance, I’ve settled into loving it in spite of itself. First, from a technical standpoint, Precious is a bit of a muddle. Seeing it as I did, in a giant screening auditorium, and having the bad eyes that I do, I didn’t notice this, but there has been plenty of snarking about the film’s myriad continuity issues, boom mics popping up in scenes, and other vargs, to use my Nana’s Scandinavian vernacular. More importantly, the writers—both of the novel and the screenplay—make a handful of really unfortunate decisions, the most egregious of which is the sculpting of Mo’Nique’s character, Mary, into the ultimate maternal monster. Mary has not one redemptive moment, not a single frame where she appears to be human. And while mothers of Mary’s incredible brutality and astonishing cruelty surely exist, it becomes a laborious effort to continue to accept as plausible a mother who would attempt to drop a television set on the head of not only her daughter but her newborn granddaughter as well, instead of, say, just putting a bullet in their heads and being done with it. It gets to the point where you start to say, “Now come on.”
But it’s not just the implausibility that bothers me. It makes Mo’Nique’s performance easy to dismiss as one-note—which it’s not. Mo’Nique does astonishing work here, and I’m so relieved that it is being recognized, instead of being turned under by the awards season tides. Be that as it may, her constant yelling and spitting and slamming and inveighing gets to be tiresome, and that does not only the actress, but the story such a disservice. Thankfully this is a film where the cast—Mo’Nique, the equally astonishing Gabourey Sidibe, a surprising Mariah Carey, and, in moments, Paula Patton (if only she’d been directed to withhold a bit more often; she lapses into over-emotive schlock so many times)—takes hold of the film and hurls it up to a higher level. Thank God for them.
A Serious Man
This film quite simply is not the Coen brothers’ best. Sure, it’s funny and off-beat and moving and darkly hilarious and visually engaging and well shot (kudos to DP Roger Deakins, who did the magnificent camerawork in the Coens’ Best Picture–winning No Country for Old Men and is equally as lush with the camera here). But they’ve just had so many other films that were so much MORE of all those things. They’ve come up with better stories, better characters, better jokes. In a better year, or a year without ten nomination slots, I have a hard time imagining this one would be on the shortlist. If anything, the film’s performances from Michael Stuhlbarg and the magnificent, hilarious Sari Lennick should have been the focus of statuette races--in fact, it's criminal that they've not been nominated. But as for Best Picture, I can’t decide if its nomination is a function of the need to fill ten slots in a year that was without all that many standouts, or a function of the Coens officially being royalty that needs only make a film, any film, to get nominated. Maybe both?
That said, see it. It’s good for a couple of dark laughs. And that Sari Lennick. I’m telling you.
I don’t even know what to say here. I, generally, don’t even like or, more accurately, care about animated movies and even I loved this movie. When an animated film can make a cynical and arrogant lover of Film with a capital-f cry…well, that’s something.
But…I don’t know. Best picture? Really? I mean, granted, I can’t think of any substantive reason why not. My initial kneejerk reaction is that “animated movies are not in the same league as movie-movies”, what with their lack of real people and the same artistic requirements—costumes, lighting, photography—etc., but ask any voiceover artist and they’ll tell you that what they do counts as acting; and for every lack of lighting or costume design, there is some other major technical achievement involved in animation that I do not now nor will I ever understand. But, then, isn’t that why there is a separate, designated category for animated films, much like, say, documentaries?
Up in the Air
I absolutely loved this film—terrific performances, a great script, and a boatload of truly lovely moments that speak to the human condition, both in today’s times and in general. But this “masterpiece for our times” suffers from writer/director Jason Reitman’s lack of objectivity and entirely too ironclad confidence in his abilities. He’s a good director—maybe even a great one—but he is sometimes hobbled by sanctimony. The best example of this is Up in the Air’s most oft-cited “masterpiece” qualifier—the segments with “real people” reacting to being fired. The aim and goal is admirable, but the results are…well, mixed. Against all efforts, many of them come off as scripted, and what is intended to be “real” and “true” is, in fact, the opposite—these non-actors were asked to riff on what they wish they had said in their layoff meetings, what they would have said if they hadn’t instead been shellshocked or terrified or weeping or paralyzed by fury. Not only does that kind of toying around ring implausible and false, but to take that raw emotion and pass it off as true strikes me as presumptuous, maybe even pretentious, and frankly chaps my ass. I don’t need a gazillionaire Hollywood insider film director doing me those kinds of favors.
Still, SEE IT. It's wonderful. Just not transcendent-life-changing-spiritual-rebirth-Best-Picture wonderful.
So. I think it's pretty clear what my choice is.
It is just far and away the greatest film of the ten. Period. If you disagree, you're wrong.
Man, am I nervous to call this one. With the Academy's preferential voting system discussed earlier in the week, and the industry's swanning adulation of James Cameron's Avatar innovations, it's just so incredibly difficult to divine this race this year.
However, Avatar's momentum really lost traction in the past few weeks, while The Hurt Locker's has continued to ramp up since the start of awards season. Possibly voting-system antics aside, though, the "statistics" if you will--early awards wins, from the Globes to the SAGs to the BAFTAs and, most critically, the DGAs--seem to point to...
But it's gonna be a nailbiter! Still, if I had an office to go to, and that office were having an Oscars pool, and I had any money to throw at said pool, my money'd be on The Hurt Locker. Yours should be too. Unless you like losing.
Unless Avatar pulls it off! I just don't know!
No, it'll be The Hurt Locker.
Unless it ends up being Avatar!
But it won't.
But maybe it will!
But it definitely won't.
Except! What if!
*jumps up from desk, runs screaming through apartment, jumps out window*