Since my brother has called me out Karate Kid 2 style (“Now, you are dead to me”), I guess now I need to protect my honor and challenge him to a fight to the death. Or, you know, post something.
Instead of posting a top ten list, I will instead rank the Oscar nominees, since I have managed to see them all this year.
My biggest joy last Tuesday morning when the nominations were announced was seeing the Internet furor over the Best Director ’snub’ of Chris Nolan. Nolan is a Geek God, but hack does not even begin to describe the guy. Between The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and now this muddled chunk of ass, no one in movie history has been as overrated. Some might say this is an opinion, but I honestly think it’s fact. The action sequences are incoherent, the dialogue filled with wordy/nerdy exposition, and the absurd plots treated with the self-serious reverence of an Arab-made Mohammed biopic. Lighten up, Francis.
Has Chris Nolan ever dreamed? The last thing in the world I associate with dreams are rules… reams and reams of rules. Way to rob a basic human experience of all its mystery, danger and anxieties. Look at movies like Mulholland Drive or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for brilliant visualisations of the subconscious. Those movies show the id onscreen. Inception shows what look like a bunch of videogame levels (was no one else reminded of Goldeneye during that snow level?) with no sense you were driving deeper into his psyche the more levels you went down. All stitched into a retarded action movie. To me, this renders the entire central mystery of the movie moot. Who cares whether or not DiCaprio is dreaming the entire time, a topic over which billions of keystrokes have been tapped, if the fabric of reality isn’t substantially different than the dreamworld?
Now, OK, I’ll grant you that I did not see this on the big screen and that may matter. I recently rewatched Avatar at home and was appalled at how much I raved over the movie on this very site. Until that moment, I did not realize the extent to which the theater experience could alter your opinion. But that movie had groundbreaking 3-D, a glimpse of the future. This had a 100-foot tall Leo DiCaprio, so I don’t think the theater would have enhanced it very much.
9. The Kids are All Right
My most frequent critique of naturalistic (or slice-of-life, or character studies or whatever you want to call them) movies is that they don’t conform to my experience of how the real world works, or how people actually behave. After all, how can you connect to a story, or its characters, if you can’t imagine them in the real world of your experience? The characters and situations in the Kids are All Right might as well exist on Mars.
How about the good looking star athlete from a well-adjusted family who has only one friend who is psychotic and mistreats him? Remember making fun of that loser in high school? How about the beautiful teen girl who can’t get a guy who obviously likes her to hook up with her? Remember those hot lonely girls? Uhh… not that one either huh? How can I be expected to be drawn into this world for two hours when it is so alien to me?
8. Toy Story 3
From here on out, I like all of the Academy’s selections. The Pixar guys make good movies, don’t get me wrong. But I do think the adult adulation is sometimes a little overwrought. Don’t get me wrong, I waaaayyyyy prefer watching Cars, or Finding Nemo, or the Toy Story movies over the Disney Channel pap my son will often watch. And for that alone, Pixar holds a dear place in my heart. But let’s be real. These movies are not The Godfather.
7. The King’s Speech
Strip away all of the palace intrigue, which is really just an excuse to show the pressure the king is under, and this is simply a tale about a guy who goes to a speech therapist for a stutter. Classic Oscar bait. We’ve all seen those cliched over-the-top portrayals of those with physical defects during awards season (I am looking at you Leo and Sean Penn). Luckily, the actors here deliver thankfully understated performances. Colin Firth, as the titular King, really nails it. His stutter isn’t flamboyant, but that of a man who is doing everything he can to mask it. It’s very believable. Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist is a little bit more of a problem, as his unorthodox but effective eccentric who takes no guff is a tired movie trope. Plus, the movie plays fast and loose with the history, since the entire royal family were at least somewhat in favor of appeasement to the Nazis, and were morally not on very solid ground. But that is a minor complaint.
6. Black Swan
Black Swan was Mike’s choice for best movie of the year, and it is very enjoyable. But my problem with the movie mirrors one of its themes – the tension between technical perfection and emotional abandon in the making of art. It would not surprise me that Darren Aronofsky has struggled with this as a filmmaker. And where I think he found that balance in The Wrestler, I think he falls a little short here. Obviously, Aronofsky is a technical master. His shots are always striking, the details always painstakingly in their proper place. No letdown on that front in Black Swan. But the movie never transcends that. It always feels like there is a puppet pulling the strings. You know where its going in the first few minutes, and you have a pretty good idea of how its going to get there. There are no surprises. The movie never lets loose with truly crazy camp. You never go “whoa – I can’t believe he did that” in the movie. For a movie obsessed with letting go, Aronofsky holds on a little too tight.
5. True Grit
A minor film from the Coens is still a major event. And though this is their highest-grossing movie ever, I do think it sits somewhere in the middle of the Coen pack. I think the main performances are a little slack. Jeff Bridges just a little too often reminds you of Sling Blade. Matt Damon is too much a bland nice-guy to play a Texas Ranger. And Hailee Steinfeld is just barely adequate in the lead role – as Mike pointed out in his review, she doesn’t bring alot of emotional range to the table. Of course, the Coen’s strengths are on full display - the dialogue crackles, the vistas are grand, and the plotting thorny and intricate. I guess for the Coens it’s a little bit of a letdown to just say that this is “just” a really solid and entertaining Western, but it’s still certainly one of the best movies of the year, and deserving of a nomination.
4. 127 Hours
Certainly the most criminally underseen movie nominated this year, which is a bit baffling considering that, at least to me, it plays like a crowd-pleaser. Yes, there are some squirm-inducing moments, and the 75% of the movie takes place in one spot, with only one actor. But the movie, made by Danny Boyle with the same propulsive energy that made his Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire huge hits, is never boring or plodding. A lot of the credit for this has to go to James Franco, whose performance is magnetic, creating a very real portrait of a strange guy that you never tire of rooting for.
Like I said in my review, I do think it suffers in comparison with Cast Away, its closest cinematic cousin. 127 hours is content to tell a ripping yarn (literally), while Cast Away was always going for something bigger, something epic. But this is a slight criticism I would urge those who haven’t already to check it out.
3. The Fighter
As I noted in my review, The Fighter is more of a Rocky than a Rudy – a good old-fashioned sports movie. The kind that has more to do with the characters and the events outside of the sport. Filled with knockout performances, particularly by Melissa Leo and Christian Bale, this is terrific entertainment. It’s a standard sports movie – underdog (Irish Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg) overcomes adversity with the help of a good woman to win the title. But it has a lot of nuance in terms of how the family is feeding off of Ward, and how he has to break free of them to have success. It helps that it’s based on the career of one of boxing most all-time entertaining fighters. Check it out.
2. Winter’s Bone
I guess with the Best Picture race expanding to ten, you have to take the bad (Inception) with the good. This is a movie that would never stand a chance at a nomination in the old format – a little indie that not many people saw, but might now get an audience. Worth checking out, it’s about a teenage girl (the terrific Jennifer Lawrence – see best actress below) who is taking care of her entire family on her own. Her mom is an invalid, and her father, a notorious meth dealer, has vanished. The father has jumped bail, and the family house is in jeopardy if this girl can’t find her father and convince him to turn himself in. It all takes place in the Ozarks, and meth-dealing is a huge part of the local economy.
The Ozarks scenery is bleak and imposing, and that’s how the movie is. But it is also thrilling. Lawrence’s search brings her deeper and deeper into the incestuous criminal underground at the heart of the Ozark culture. Everyone seems related to everyone else. There is such distrust of the government that the only real law is meted out by the locals. She is constantly putting herself in grave danger because she has no choice. If she doesn’t, she and her family are homeless, with no prospects. The mounting tension becomes suffocating after a while, and only when the movie is over can you breathe normally again. Excellent movie.
1. The Social Network
I recently watched The Social Network on DVD for the FOURTH time, something that I haven’t done with a movie since I had a kid. Admittedly, I’ve seen some movies on cable and watched them a bunch of times, but rarely do I go out of my way to watch something this often. Not only was it my favorite movie of the year, but it is easily my favorite of the last several. To me, it’s that rare combination of a movie that provides lightning fast entertainment and is also legitimately provocative.
Aaron Sorkin’s script is amazing. Sorkin rivals Tarantino and the Coen Brothers for the best dialogue crown. The movie crashes out of the gate and never slows down – and almost the entire thing is drenched with dialogue. This is an amazing feat, and mostly achieved through the structure, which zips back and forth between the two lawsuits and the events that led up to them. This is a quick way to provide context for what’s going on without having to slow the movie down to show or tell you. It’s also a sneaky way to add narration to some scenes without really having a narrator. Everything is designed to keep the pace quick, and man, does it work.
I also think this is the definitive movie about the Internet. About the difficulty in assessing intellectual property in an industry with no barrier to entry, which means many innovations will be slight variations of existing ideas. About how the Internet has the potential to break down class barriers, and flatten out society. About how social networks are ultimately redrawing those class lines, and redefining exclusivity, as ultimately the same organizing principles of the analog world (the desperate need to be accepted and have power) will naturally be the building blocks of the digital and undermine that idealism in a way.
Or something like that.
The point is, it makes you think about it in a non-trivial way, which is a rare cinematic quality.
Come the Oscars, I will be rooting for it.
Not seen – Javier Bardem, Biutiful
4. Jeff Bridges, True Grit
As I said above, a performance that detracts and distracts (to get all Walt Clyde Frazier on you) from the overall film. I didn’t care for it, though it wasn’t terrible.
3. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
I’ve always sort of disliked Eisenberg, who I thought of a Michael Cera ripoff, and god knows, we’ve gotten enough of that act the last few years. But Eisenberg escapes Cera’s shadow here, with a nasty, egotistical portrait of Mark Zuckerberg.
2. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Firth manages to pull of the disease of the week role without making it schmaltzy. He’s a shoo-in to win, and I’m OK with that. He deserves it.
1. James Franco, 127 Hours
Franco owns this movie. He is mostly the only thing onscreen, and the fact that he continues to command your attention is impressive. I also like that he makes the character a little nutty, and almost unlikable but not quite. This is a much riskier performance than Firth’s, and a much more unique creation.
Not seen: Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole / Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
Certain to win, but massively overrated. Portman does her usual naive little girl schtick (the White Swan part), and never has to do anything else. At the end, she goes a little crazy, in a completely uninteresting way that any Lifetime Movie actress has done 100 times before. She is a terrible actress. Please stop giving her awards.
2. Annette Bening, The Kids are All Right
Although I didn’t like the movie, the acting is solid all around, and Bening is far and away the best thing in it. Her talent deserves better.
1. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
A powerful performance as a woman with no choice but to enter the heart of darkness. What’s nice about it is she doesn’t play it like the super-tough broad or hysterical teen as so many lesser actresses (see: Nicole Kidman and Natalie Portman) would stoop to. Hopefully, this is a star-making performance for her.
Best Supporting Actor
5. Jeremy Renner, The Town
Not sure where all the kudos are coming from. I liked Renner alot in The Hurt Locker, but this is your standard inner-city amoral thug. Not to be invoke racism, but how many black actors have pulled off this type of performance with 10 times the realism and flair as Renner, and been completely ignored by the Academy?
4. Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech
Like Renner, this performance does not transcend caricature. We’ve seen the unorthodox eccentric a million times, half of those from Rush himself.
3. Mark Ruffalo, The Kids are All Right
See Bening, Annette.
2. John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
Hawkes, who you may know as the Jewish banker guy from Deadwood, is really good as the uncle of the Jennifer Lawrence character. He transforms in the movie from somebody you hate to somebody you are really rooting for, without ever really changing the core of the character. Nicely done.
1. Christian Bale, The Fighter
For all of the talk about how he is difficult to work with, Bale is one of the few consistently exciting actors working these days. He is hilarious and sad as Micky Ward’s older brother, the boxer Dicky Ecklund. It is a tour-de-force performance.
Best Supporting Actress
Not seen: Jackie Weaver, Animal Kingdom (though I really want to)
4. Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
To compare this to Jennifer Lawrence, who I’m sure is a bit older but is playing someone reasonably similar in age, this is the performance of a little girl. It’s not horrible, but not worthy of an Oscar nomination.
3. Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
Just an indication of how weak this category is. This is an extremely minor performance in this movie. Any number of other actresses could have done the exact same thing. Nothing stands out. Just competent.
2. Amy Adams, The Fighter
Another good but not great performance. At least Adams turns against her usual type here and does the tough broad. She’s good, but nothing spectacular.
1. Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Leo plays Wahlberg and Bale’s mother and manager, and delivers an awesome performance. It’s hilarious but believable. This is so head and shoulders above the rest in this category that if she doesn’t win, I’m turning the TV off.