Reviews of Oscar’s Best Picture Contenders

Oh, Oscar. You’ve made it tough on us movie-goers lately.

In the past, all we had to do was visit the cineplex five times a year if we wanted to see all the contenders for your Best Picture statue. But these days? Make it 10.

If there’s anyone who didn’t have time for that, allow me to help. Every year, I make a point to see each and every film nominated in the Academy’s top category. So behold, here are my mini-reviews of all of them.

— Brent Johnson

BLACK SWAN
Is it a psychological thriller? A terrifying study of mental illness? A 21st century twist on horror films? It could be all of them — and Darren Aronofky deserves kudos for squeezing such gothic mystery out of a film about ballet. You never know what’s real — even after the credits start rolling. But in the end, it all feels too melodramatic. To me, even Natalie Portman’s Oscar-bait performance is a bit heavy-handed on the emotions. Then again, she tortured her body in ballet slippers for the role. I didn’t see Annette Bening do that.
[Read Pop-Break’s Original Review of Black Swan by Bill Bodkin]

THE FIGHTER
See it if only for Christian Bale. He crackles with wounded charm and weasel-like attitude as a boxer-turned-junkie. The rest of David O. Russell’s film? It’s an entertaining sports movie, with a strong story and even stronger cast — subtle turns from Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams, a fiery one from Melissa Leo. But all this talk that it might be the darkhorse this year? Well, I say: It’s good, but it ain’t Rocky.
[Read Pop-Break’s Original Review of The Fighter by Brent Johnson]

INCEPTION
A half-year after experiencing it in a packed theater, I’m still torn over Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending fantasy. There’s no denying the visuals are wondrous — the fold-over staircase, the suspended-in-air fight scene. Or that the storytelling is inventive — delving deep into a businessman’s unconscious to steal his dreams. It’s also clear that Nolan is a director who clearly sees cinema as something you should stretch and re-invent. But, as I said in my initial review, it’s all too complex for me. The plot hurts my brain. The acting is heavy. It makes me yearn to see Mr. Nolan make a comedy.
[Read Pop-Break’s Original Review of Inception by Bill Bodkin]

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
First things first: This isn’t a film about lesbians. It’s a film that happens to be about a lesbian couple coping with universal problems. Which is why its inclusion in the Best Picture race is one of the few reasons I’m glad there are 10 nominees. It’s not transcendent entertainment — just a small, charming movie with natural acting. Especially from Marc Ruffalo, who’s hilariously laid-back as a modern-day hippie. Like Christian Bale, he’s an actor I never understood until this year.
[Read Pop-Break’s Original Review of The Kids Are All Right by Bill Bodkin]

THE KING’S SPEECH
I don’t buy the idea that this is the kind of stuffy period piece that Oscar usually falls for. It’s too lively, too funny, too touching, too modern (at least in Tom Hooper’s glowing direction). Colin Firth is masterful as King George VI, the British monarch crippled by a stutter as his country prepares for war. Geoffrey Rush is magnetic as his therapist. Helena Bonham Carter is a picture of measured acting as the queen. Walking out of the theater, I even questioned whether I liked it more than The Social Network. Even so, I still think Oscar will be taking the easy road if if gives Speech the gold Sunday. Network is a more exciting, more deserving choice.
[Read Pop-Break’s Original Review of The King’s Speech by Brent Johnson]

127 HOURS
I was afraid this true-life story of a trapped hiker would be a chore to watch. After all, for more than an hour, the audience sees little more than James Franco, pinned by a boulder. But for a film where you know the ending, it’s remarkably suspenseful. You gasp when Franco drops his pocket knife. You pray his canteen gets filled with rain. You hope that somehow he doesn’t have to do what you know he will to free himself. Franco proves he has serious chops, carrying an entire movie with gravitas, humor and burning fear. Watch the scene where he stages a faux talk show in his imagination — it’s one of the year’s best movie moments. Plus, Hours is also the mark of a director in peak form: Danny Boyle makes sure this one-man show doesn’t drag, thanks to kinetic camera work and flashbacks that are both trippy and sad.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK
The story of Facebook’s birth has already been called this year’s Up In The Air. Just like that George Clooney movie, Network has gone from Oscar front-runner to potential runner-up. But I’ll make the comparison for another reason: Both films tap into a timely premise and turn a mirror on our fears, insecurities and relationships. Anchored by David Fincher’s lively direction and Aaron Sorkin’s dazzling script, Network captures the nasty steps that led to the creation of a brand-new form of communication — and brilliantly leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions. Plus, say what you will about The Fighter and The King’s Speech, but Network is also the best-acted film of the year. And my favorite.
[Read Pop-Break’s Original Review of The Social Network by Brent Johnson]

TOY STORY 3
Leave it to Pixar to once again make a cartoon that may be the most human film of the year. I thought last year’s Up was moving, but the third installment of the masterful Toy Story series had me in tears. Try not to cry at the final scene, where Woody, Buzz and the gang find themselves in the hands of a new playmate. Not to mention, watching the toys use their smarts to break out of a daycare center was as thrilling as anything in Inception. It seems Pixar has done something even The Godfather and Star Wars couldn’t do: finish off a trilogy with flair.
[Read Pop-Break’s Original Review of Toy Story 3 by Logan J. Fowler]

TRUE GRIT
Go ahead. Call it a Western. But I think more than anything, the Coen Brothers’ latest is a comedy. What I remember the most about their adaptation of the 1968 book by criminally underrated author Charles Portis is that I laughed a lot. Maybe more than I laughed at any movie this year. And it wasn’t at Jeff Bridges, who I think is simply traveling the same acting road he did last year in Crazy Heart. Instead, I was charmed by Hailee Steinfeld as the spit-fire young girl determined to catch her father’s killer. And I loved — LOVED — Matt Damon as a too-cocky Texas Ranger. Still, why in the world the Coens beat out Inception‘s Christopher Nolan for a Best Director nomination is beyond me. This is fun, but not groundbreaking, stuff.
[Read Pop-Break’s Original Review of True Grit by Karalynn Rapp]

WINTER’S BONE
It’s slow — very slow. And I still think The Town, Ben Affleck’s electric heist flick, deserved the final slot in the Best Picture race. But boring as Winter’s Bone may be at times, this year’s little indie that could is haunting. It has an intriguing premise: A daughter has to trek through through the Ozarks’ hillbilly crimeworld to hunt for her bail-jumping, meth-making father. It has a moody landscape: the desolate, muted tones of backwoods America. And it has two killer, Oscar-nominated performances. Jennifer Lawrence gets my vote for Best Actress for her tough, nuanced turn as Ree. And John Hawkes (you know him as Kenny Powers’ brother in East Bound & Down) is silently menacing as her uncle, Teardrop — making me feel a little less outraged that he nudged out The Social Network‘s wonderful Andrew Garfield in the Best Supporting Actor race.
[Read Pop-Break’s Original Review of Winter’s Bone by Bill Bodkin]
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MY FAVORITES

Here is how I’d rank the nominees:

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

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THE TOP FIVE

There’s a question I’ve pondered the last two years, now that the Academy has increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to 10. If there were still only five slots, which films would make the cut?

I’d say:

Black Swan
The Fighter
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
True Grit

If you asked me a month ago, I’d have said Inception over True Grit. But the Academy once again seems baffled by Christopher Nolan’s films — and also appears to be making up for all the years voters snubbed the Coens. The Academy ditched Nolan in favor of the Coens in the Best Director category and showered their stab at the Western genre with 10 nominations, the second-most of the year.

Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.