Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscars 2010: Best Picture

Only three days left! Today we're looking at the biggest category of the night, Best Picture, and tomorrow I'll put up my thoughts on all of the technical categories, including Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Foreign Language Film.

I actually really like this year's Best Picture field; in fact, I think its one of the best in recent years. Unlike last year, where I despised one of the nominees (The Blind Side) and the jury's still out on another (A Serious Man), I genuinely enjoyed all ten films this year and think they're all at least good films (the weakest, in my opinion, is Winter's Bone, which I consider a very good, borderline-great film). Overall, 2010 in film was merely decent overall for me, but I heartily approve of all these films being Oscar nominated.

127 Hours

127 Hours is a tricky movie by design: for most of the 90 minute running time, the protagonist, canyoneer Aron Ralston, is trapped in a Utah canyon, his arm crushed between a boulder and the wall of the canyon. He can't move, and he'll eventually have to do the unthinkable (i.e., cut his arm off with a dull pocketknife) in order to survive. Most people who saw the film knew the story going into it, and many watched in anticipation of the amputation scene, supposedly so graphic that it caused people to faint at screenings. However, outside of these claims, what the film should be remembered for is how incredible it is. Director Danny Boyle applied his usual hyperactive style to the story, with plenty of edits and frantic pacing, but he uses this to the film's advantage by exploring the mental processes of Ralston while he's immobile, not to mention getting the audience's adrenaline pumping. It also doesn't shy away from showing Ralston as a reckless young adventurer, so sure of himself that the incident serves as a major wake-up call. Though he may have been down there for 127 hours, the film flies by, leaving a gut-turning but ultimately inspirational impact on the audience. The film is kind of a surprise inclusion, since many were dropping it from their final predictions to make room for The Town (or, in my case, Blue Valentine), so I highly doubt it will end up victorious.

 Black Swan

The Oscars don't have a long and glorious history with horror films: only a handful have ever been nominated for Best Picture - most notably The Exorcist and The Silence of the Lambs in 1973 and 1991, respectively - and only one has ever won (The Silence of the Lambs). But then again, there's never been a horror film quite like Black Swan. Its a film that dives deep into the violence within ourselves, as ballerina Nina Sayers wrestles with her innocent White Swan and her repressed sensual id of a Black Swan, both in the production of Swan Lake in which she's been cast and in her own head. Its a dizzying example of psychological horror, a delirious fever dream of a film in which the audience can't distinguish gruesome reality from gruesome reality any better than Nina can. Director Darren Aronofsky does his best work yet with this, accomplishing a feat that very few horror films do nowadays: the film is genuinely disturbing, rattling viewers to their core and pushing the audience far, far, FAR out of their comfort zones. Given how few nominations the film received overall compared to what was expected, there's only a slim chance that it will walk away with Best Picture, but it deserves to at least receive serious consideration.

 The Fighter

Perhaps there is no sport quite as visceral as boxing. That's probably not true anymore in this age of MMA and 400-pound linebackers, but cinematically speaking I believe it holds up. You've got two men in a ring beating the crap out of each other, the ultimate good vs. evil; its no wonder then that the Oscars prefer boxing over every other sport. The Fighter, however, isn't your average boxing film: there's still a couple of scenes in the ring, but most of the punches come in the relationships between Mickey, his family (especially mother Alice Ward and half-brother Dickie Ecklund), his girlfriend Charlene, and the town of Lowell, Massachusetts as a whole. The result is an electric mix of dominant personalities trying to exert their influence over Mickey, who doesn't really seem to have much say in his own life. David O. Russell assembled a phenomenal ensemble for the film, and his direction brings a fresh perspective to the genre, resulting in one of the best and most interesting boxing films in recent years. The film's lost a lot of traction since it received seven Oscar nominations, but with a tally that high and a popular genre, I wouldn't count it out as a potential spoiler for the prize.


Inception is exactly the kind of film that studios need to learn from. Not in copying the plot over and over again, as I'm sure they're planning on doing to diminishing returns every time. What they should learn is that investing in big-budget auteur projects such as this one, in which writer/director Christopher Nolan created a giant tangle of dreams-within-dreams as Cobb and his crew attempt to convince a businessman to break up his father's energy conglomerate through his dreams. It sounded confusing, sure, but upon repeat viewings the film begins to make sense, and with multiple theories on what the film is really about, its sure to have people talking for a long time in the future. The result is, in my opinion, the year's best film, a headscratcher that's perfectly crafted to ensure both closure and ambiguity. But here's what the studios need to learn from the film, particularly its box-office: people will go see smart blockbusters, so stop working on Wrath of the Titans and bring us more intelligent films. Inception is probably a longshot to win, but if it were up to me, it would be the night's big winner.

 The Kids Are All Right

Ah, the dysfunctional family comedy. This is the stuff that Ben Stiller has made his name with and Robert De Niro has sunk himself with, a genre that rolls out several films a year, all to varying degrees of success. The Kids Are All Right, though, puts a new spin on it, exploring an "alternative" family and the relationships between them all, particularly when the kids' donor dad enters their lives. The result is a funny, touching portrait of the American family, making no big statements about the fact that the parents are lesbians. What the film touches on then is the universality of family dynamics, claiming that it doesn't matter what your sexuality is, certain things will always be the same. The best cast of the year, headlined by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the central couple Nic and Jules, features terrific performances all around, and Lisa Cholodenko's direction is easy and masterful. Unfortunately, The Kids Are All Right doesn't have a chance at winning this award, but thank goodness it managed a nomination.

 The King's Speech

With a leading 12 nominations, its obvious that The King's Speech resonated with Oscar voters. For good reason, too: its a great, old-fashioned story of two men who form an unlikely friendship, learning from each other and bettering themselves in the process. It just so happens that these two men are Prince Albert, Duke of York, who's nickname is "Bertie," and Lionel Logue, a failed Australian actor who's now an unconventional speech therapist in London. Bertie is set to become king, and as such he must overcome his stammer in order to lead his people, and Logue helps him "find his voice" in the process. The cast is excellent, featuring strong performances from Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce. And director Tom Hooper crafts the film in the vein of the old royalty spectacles that used to populate theaters in the 1960s. Its a great film, an antidote to the sometimes-overwhelming cynicism in films today. Thanks to its sweeping of the guild awards, its the new odds-on favorite to win, but I'm just not sure the Academy will choose it over another film that dominated the conversation earlier in the year.

 The Social Network

The opening scene of The Social Network gave us everything we needed to know: fast-paced, witty dialogue, superb performances, and an immediate understanding of what kind of person Mark Zuckerberg is. It also lays down some important clues for the rest of the film (notice that Erica mentions liking rowers, and Mark doesn't take interest in the Winklevii until they mention they row crew). Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't always live up to that scene. I have to confess that I originally shrugged off the film with a "meh" (my original review here), but I recently rewatched the film and have to say its better than I originally gave it credit for. That's not to say I'm a fan now; I think its a great movie, but it still wouldn't crack my top 10 of the year. That being said, Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is a delight, and the performances are across-the-board fantastic, especially Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg and Andrew Garfield as his shafted best friend Eduardo Saverin. The film lead the pack as the frontrunner for most of the awards season, but once it was ignored at the guild awards it fell back to underdog status. I still think its going to win: the Academy has had a string of honoring edgier, non-traditional movies as of late, and The Social Network winning would give it major cool points. In the end, I think the producers should go ahead and order their "I'm an Oscar winner, bitch!" business cards.

 Toy Story 3

There's been some debate as of late as to whether the highest-grossing film of 2010 is really a great movie on its own, or is it great because it wraps up a great trilogy? To be fair, a lot of the emotional impact of the film is derived from hoping that viewers have seen the previous two films, and if you have, it probably does make the ending that much more emotional. But I think that Toy Story 3 is a great film on its own, with a zippy, fun plot about the toys being sent to the Sunnydale Day Care Center, which seems like a paradise where they'll be played with forever but is really a prison of unmentionable horrors. At its core, though, behind all the sometimes-pointless new characters and few lowest-common-denominator jokes, is a beating heart, and the film makes its theme of letting go and accepting the next part of life meaningful and touching. Of course, I'm from a generation that grew up on Toy Story (the original was the first film I ever saw in a theater), so the nostalgia factor did have a strong impact on me. But I don't think that diminishes Toy Story 3 as a stand-alone film at all, but rather only makes it better. The film will probably have to accept an Animated Feature Oscar as its main prize, since I don't see it winning here this year, but one day I'm sure an animated film will win this prize.

 True Grit

The Coen Brothers, despite their genre-hopping and time-jumping, have always made films that are undoubtedly influenced by Westerns. You can see that mentality in Raising Arizona, Fargo, and, most notably, No Country for Old Men. Until now, though, they've never made a straightforward Western, and though it isn't packed with the usual Coen quirks, its still unmistakably their film. And True Grit is an excellent film, with gorgeous shots that capture the beauty of 1870s Arkansas and a rich collection of offbeat characters on a quest for justice. The performances are exciting to watch, especially newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who completely walks away with the movie, stealing scenes from much-bigger stars Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin. And through it all the film asks one simple question: at what cost was justice found? Though its seemed to have lost a lot of steam over the last few weeks, I still think True Grit has a good chance at spoiling in this race, but its not the contender it was a month ago.

 Winter's Bone

Out of all the films nominated this year for Best Picture, Winter's Bone is the quietest and, perhaps, the most unlikely. Released in the summer, this micro-budgeted indie about a young girl trying to find her meth-cooking father before they lose their house in the Ozarks debuted to ecstatic reviews, especially for Jennifer Lawrence's phenomenal lead performance. But most people wrote it off as an Indie Spirit Award contender, until it started to pick up major steam from critics' prizes and, viola, it has four Oscar nominations, including this big one. This backwoods noir is not a flashy film, and relies heavily on atmosphere to tell its haunting story. Overall, I think its the weakest of the Best Picture nominees, a borderline great film that presents a strong heroine struggling to take care of both her siblings and herself. Its bleak material, and given its small status I doubt it has what it takes to win this prize.

Here's how my votes would go:

1. Inception
2. Black Swan
3. The Kids Are All Right
4. Toy Story 3
5. 127 Hours
6. The Fighter
7. The Social Network
8. The King's Speech
9. True Grit
10. Winter's Bone

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