Oscar season is my favorite time of year. And to celebrate each year, I see every film nominated in the Best Picture category. I get all giddy comparing the nominees — seeing whether each film deserved the nomination and whether other movies who didn’t make the cut got royally snubbed.
This year, thanks to the Academy’s frustrating new system, I had to see not five but 10 contenders. So to make it easier on anyone who didn’t have time to catch them all, Bill asked me to write mini-reviews of each one.
I have seen what is now the highest-grossing film of all time twice. The first time, I was surprised. I expected James Cameron’s film to be dazzling, with its new technology and high-tech acting. And it was — a painting come to life with glorious colors and striking images. What surprised me was how moved I was by its story — an emotional tale of intergalactic imperialism.
But the second time seeing it, I realized something: It doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings. The 3-D gets annoying, it starts to look obviously fake.
In the end, Avatar is an experience everyone should witness once. But an experience and a great movie are two different things. Sometimes, a movie can be both — the original Star Wars was. Avatar seems more of an experience than a well-made film. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s as beloved years from now, when the only place people can see it is on DVD.
THE BLIND SIDE
No, it doesn’t belong in the Best Picture category. It’s too predictable, too sappy, too pre-packaged. The Blind Side is the biggest example that while having 10 Best Picture nominees allows a few more deserving films to creep into the category, the rest of the race is padded with undeserving choices. Still, Sandra Bullock is charming as a conservative Southern rich woman who takes in a homeless black boy and helps lead him to football stardom. And the film’s messages — about football, generosity, racism — will tug at your tearducts.
I was intrigued by its mysterious trailer: aliens landing on Earth and carelessly hoarded into sanctioned-off villages, derided by racist humans. The film delivers on that promise. It’s both smart science-fiction and a tense action film. And to me, its haunting, thrilling visuals are more affecting than Avatar‘s. Plus, Sharlto Copley delivers one of the most underrated performances of the year.
The tale of a young girl’s exciting yet hurtful introduction to both love and deception in buttoned-up 1960s Britain makes the 10-nominee rule a bit more bearable. It’s old-fashioned filmmaking that deserves the recognition — a simple story, strong performances from every single cast member, sharp writing, understated direction and a touching lesson in life. For all the talk about Sandra and Meryl, Carey Mulligan actually gives the year’s best female lead performance. And Alfred Molina, as the young girl’s frustrated and frustrating father, was snubbed in the Best Supporting Actor race.
THE HURT LOCKER
I actually watched the Best Picture front-runner in pieces. I was so bored by the pacing and lack of action early on, I literally kept falling asleep and had to press stop. But when I finished it, certain scenes kept haunting me. I realized Kathryn Bigelow’s story about a bomb-diffusing squad in Iraq was a collection of memorable images and affecting moments — a collage of sorts that doesn’t need a story to strike you. Plus, Jeremy Renner is electric in the lead role.
Quentin Tarantino is the reason I love movies — a man capable of making me laugh and squirm, while creating his own motion-picture universe in the process. Basterds, a smirking fantasy set inside Nazi Germany, is easily 2009’s most original movie — and Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction. There are many reasons to se it: the hodge-podge collection of comic-book World War II characters, the trademark converging storylines, killer QT dialogue that still manages to sparkle in subtitles and a bevy of foreign languages. Most of all, though, see it for Christoph Waltz’s amazing portrayal of Hans Landa — the definition of brilliant.
Precious is almost too hard to watch. The handheld camera work can cause occasional queasiness. The images of destitute apartments, scrounging for food and domestic abuse are unsettling. Nothing about Precious — the story of a teenage black girl who is raped by her father, beaten by her mother and forgotten at school — is uplifting. But the acting performances from newcomer Gaby Sidibe and Mo’Nique are magnificent — if only for the latter’s final monologue, which is creepy and sad at the same time.
A SERIOUS MAN
It’s a weird experience: a Coen Brothers’ movie loosely based on the Book of Job, set in the Midwest-in-the-1960s world of their childhood. A Serious Man — about a Jewish man’s quest to find anything in his miserable life to enlighten him — opens with a perplexing Yiddish parable about demons. From there, the humor is dark and the pacing is unorthodox. I enjoyed it, but it’s easily one of the oddest Best Picture noms I’ve ever seen.
I put off watching Up. I didn’t think a cartoon could be as glorious as people were saying. But I was wrong. Who cares if it’s animated? I quickly forgot it was as I watched the heart-tugging opening sequence — as touching as anything you’ll ever see in a live-action movie. And I was swept away in the second half of the film, when an old man and a Boy Scout fly away in a balloon-enhanced house and meet up with talking dogs and a bird named Kevin. I didn’t expect the humor to be as hilariously random. It’s a cartoon for the modern, quirky-thinking age.
UP IN THE AIR
My favorite film of the year. I’m sad this once Best Picture favorite has fallen from contention. Jason Reitman’s gem of a movie is the definition of a well-crafted motion picture: tightly directed, intelligently written, amazingly well acted. And its topic — finding love and meaning in a world where the economy has slashed jobs and ravaged lives — is timely. I came out of the theater knowing I learned something, felt something and saw something that I truly, truly enjoyed.