It’s almost that time of year again...the time when filmmakers and actors find out if their hard work will be recognized by the crème de la crème of critics…The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
I was surprised that the number of best picture nominees was bumped up to ten this year, although they used to have that many back in the day. I’ve heard varying theories as to why the change was made, the main ones being that a) studios make big bucks on films that get Oscar nods through re-releases or longer theater stays, b) there often appears to be a few films that get shut out when going up against either bigger budgets, art house selections, or simply more palatable genres (The Dark Knight, despite its mass appeal and incredible performances, didn’t get the expected best picture nomination last year, disappointing many), and c) movie goers often tune out and don’t pay attention to the Oscars when they don’t recognize any of the nominees, so ten slots make room for more mainstream fare, thus increasing ceremony viewership. Whatever the reason, I personally feel that ten is a few too many, but it is what it is.
After making a conscientious effort to see all ten films, I have decided to rank them, starting with the worst of the lot and ending with the film I think is most deserving. It’s highly unlikely that this is the way it will all shake out on March 7th, and there will probably be a lot of people who disagree with me, but that’s the beauty of opinions, right? I tried to take elements into consideration such as visual appeal, character development, storyline, cast performance, and just good ol’ fashion gut reaction. I can say that with the exception of number ten, I actually liked all of the nominated films in varying degrees. First though, I want to acknowledge a couple of films that I feel were majorly snubbed this year:
Moon - Unfortunately, this low budget indie film didn’t get the attention it deserved, nor did its star, Sam Rockwell. It takes a lot of work to carry a film alone (even if you are accompanied by the voice of Kevin Spacey), but Rockwell did it brilliantly. It’s quite disappointing that the Academy didn’t think so, particularly when Tom Hanks received an Oscar nom for spending the better part of two hours talking to a volley ball in Cast Away. At any rate, Moon is an engaging sci-fi movie that should have made the cut.
The Road - This film had one of the most touching, heart-wrenching stories I’ve seen in a long time. Viggo Mortensen is outstanding in his role as a father trying to survive with his son in a post-apocalyptic world. True, such a grim premise doesn’t exactly send people to the theaters in droves, but the fact that it still leaves you with a sense of hope without being preachy is an accomplishment. Simply put, both the film and Viggo got robbed, but it’s not the first time for the latter.
And now for the ranking:
10) A Serious Man - Shame on the Coen brothers, and shame on the Academy. I thoroughly enjoyed Fargo and Burn After Reading, and I liked No Country For Old Men enough to be content with its Oscar win two years ago. But this film (in a kinder word than I want to use) is terrible. It plays out as if it were perhaps a short story that the brothers wrote back in college while mildly stoned. The main character, Larry Gopnik, is so pathetic that you find yourself siding with the world that seems to be conspiring against him. Pure nonsensical drivel, and certainly not worthy of a best picture nom.
9) The Blind Side - I didn’t hate this film, although I think Sandra Bullock’s performance is slightly better than the movie itself. It’s a nice story, but it is heavily watered down, probably to achieve its PG-13 rating. This is fine in terms of including a younger audience, except that there are elements to the story that would have come across a lot better had they had a grittier, more realistic feel to them. I had to remind myself throughout that this actually happened, plus or minus a few trivial details. Still, it’s worth watching, especially if you are in the mood for some warm fuzzies. It’s just not really best picture caliber.
8) An Education - I hate that this one falls so low on the ranking, because I quite enjoyed it. You’d never know it by newcomer Carey Mulligan’s constant sourpuss red carpet photos, but she is actually a lovely actress, very spunky and a breath of fresh air. Even though the whole ‘young-smart-girl-falls-for-the-troublesome-older-playboy’ story has been done before, you can’t help but root for Jenny, the main character, as she tries to navigate through life with her best interests in mind, despite her overbearing father (played by Alfred Molina). Mulligan probably won’t win the best actress accolades, but it’s definitely the start of a promising career.
7) The Hurt Locker - I had high hopes for this film, but it honestly just didn’t grab me the way it did a lot of other people. Don’t get me wrong; the storyline is solid (and quite the nail biter), and the handsome Jeremy Renner definitely deserves his Oscar nomination as the wayward, cowboy-like bomb diffuser Sergeant James. However, while it aims to be a realistic, slice-of-life story, about half of it doesn’t actually ring true to military protocol, according to some service men and women. What’s curious about this is the fact that screenwriter Mark Boal (also nominated for an Oscar) spent a good deal of time with an American bomb squad in Iraq. I have no qualms with suspension of disbelief, but it’s disappointing when a film aims to be accurate and fails. Who knows, though…the script may have started out one way and could have been beefed up at the request of studio big wigs. So it goes.
6) Avatar - This is a hard one for me to rank. People seem to either love it or hate it, but I find myself somewhere in the middle. Visually, it's one of the most stunning movies I have ever seen. Say what you will about James Cameron, but he's no hack when it comes to creating new worlds...or shedding new light on little known worlds, whether they be filled with history, terrifying creatures, or ominous futures. Unfortunately, his weakness often lies in the story and/or dialogue; it's sometimes difficult to really relate to his characters. Cameron's success doesn't seem to be hampered too much by this, though, considering all of the accolades he's received during his career. But will the amazing special effects be enough to warrant this futuristic environmental tale winning Oscar gold?
5) Up - A heartfelt promise, thousands of balloons, and a wild journey to South America...what a wonderful, endearing film! Personally, I'm not big on animated films, but this one really touched me. It has a terrific, unique storyline, and the dialogue is very witty...I actually laughed out loud several times. It's no surprise that the movie also picked up a best animated feature film nomination, as well as a slot in the best original screenplay category. Who would have thought that the adventures of an old man, an overzealous boy scout, a talking dog, and a tall, mysterious bird could make it into the best picture nominees? I didn’t, but it certainly deserves to be there.
4) Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire - Talk about the little film that could. Could Precious be this year’s Slumdog Millionaire? Of course, it didn’t hurt when Oprah and Tyler Perry decided to back the film. Powerful, gritty, and at times just difficult to watch, this film doesn’t pull any punches…and perhaps that’s part of its appeal. Sometimes real life just plain sucks, but as the central character demonstrates, it’s often one’s spirit that can make us or break us. The cast is phenomenal; newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is a force to be reckoned with, along with Paula Patton, Sherry Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz, and even Mariah Carey. But it’s Mo'Nique who will blow you away, and my guess is she’ll walk away with the Oscar statuette in the best supporting actress category.
3) District 9 - This film manages to do something that a lot of sci-fi films don't: It provides a story rich with action and intrigue (for a fraction of the typical budget) while managing to include some solid character development. Simply put, District 9 became the surprise summer hit that nobody saw coming. Even though there was a touch of controversy associated with the film, audiences still found it to be a stylish, modern take on alien "invasion." Of course, it definitely didn’t hurt to have Peter Jackson attached as a producer, even if his name overshadowed that of director Neill Blomkamp, who was left out of the dog fight for best director. Something tells me that won't be always be the case, though.
2) Up in the Air - Director Jason Reitman is carving out quite a niche for himself…and he could also end up being the youngest best director recipient in Oscar history. On the heels of Thank You For Smoking and Juno, Reitman offers up another quirky but endearing film that resonates with audiences, particularly in these poor economic times. While the performances of Oscar nominees George Clooney (who makes a lot of very wise career decisions), Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick are strong, individually they don’t quite cross the threshold into amazing territory. Not that it matters; the combination of a good cast, good writing, and good directing still manages to knock the ball out of the park every time.
1) Inglourious Basterds - Never in a million years did I think that this film would be my favorite among the best picture nominees. I’ve never been a huge Brad Pitt fan (although I think he’s a decent actor), and while I dig Quentin Tarantino’s style, I don’t typically find his movies to be Oscar caliber. This one is different, though: A fictional retelling of Nazi history in the style of a spaghetti western, the film is slick, witty, funny, energetic, and sometimes downright gruesome. It’s typical Tarantino in that it has a couple of storylines that intertwine by the end, but it’s much more cohesive than some of his past films. The end result is everything that a movie can possibly be—entertaining, thrilling, comical, and edgy. By the time the credits roll, you find yourself thinking, “Now THAT’S how it all should have went down.” Like Precious, it has a great ensemble cast that includes Pitt, Melanie Laurent, and Diane Kruger, but the stand out here is German actor and best supporting actor nominee Christoph Waltz, whose portrayal of the charming yet murderous Colonel Landa is downright chilling. Count on him for the win as well.