Ten films are up for the Best Picture category this year. As you’ve probably heard, they are: “Inception,” “The King’s Speech,” “Black Swan,” “Winter’s Bone,” “True Grit,” “The Fighter,” “The Social Network,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “127 Hours,” and “Toy Story 3.”
It’s an odd year for me since I’ve seen most of them now, so may actually have a chance to see them all before the big event (eight days and counting). This hasn’t happened in years, so I thought I’d make the most of it and do my own review.
Now, I plan to eliminate one right off the bat. In my opinion, it has absolutely no bloody business being in the category, and it’s an insult to film that it is. So, I plan to just disregard it. I mean really, a third generation, animated kids movie? No way.
So now there are nine. And of these nine, I have seen all but “Black Swan” and “The Fighter.” Or should I say, really only “Black Swan.” I mean, between “The Wrestler” and “Invincible” (the Mark Wahlberg football movie), I believe I have seen “The Fighter,” but maybe I’m wrong… Anyway, I feel pretty good about rejecting both of these, even without seeing them, because of what I already mentioned about “The Fighter”…I mean it just has been done and done and done, and isn’t part of landing Best Picture that it is different, new in some way? Jeez, I hope so. And then there’s “Black Swan.” When I first started seeing the trailers, I was interested. We haven’t had a good ballet movie since “The Turning Point ” (Shirley MacLaine and the eternally gorgeous Anne Bancroft), and Natalie was getting a lot of great press…and her makeup in the movie poster is just awesome. Doesn’t look like her at all. Oh, and there is also the perennial fascination with good versus evil that “Swan Lake” so weirdly captures in Odette and Odile. But then came the last part of the trailer when they ruined it for me: the feathers popping out of a raw spot on her shoulder. I feel easy about telling you since the trailer shows it every time. That one shot told me what the movie is. It is not serious. It is supernatural. Nothing wrong with that, but now it approaches horror, and that just isn’t Best Pic material. Natalie Portman or not. So it gets the boot. BTW: I’ll let you know if I have to change my mind after I have seen it, but that’s doubtful.
So now, on to the others…I am on solid ground since I have actually seen the remaining seven.
“127 Hours” is easy to knock out. It’s not that I don’t like James Franco; I do. And it’s not that I thought it was gross; it was. And it’s not that it did not convey the actual events; it did. I just thought Aron Ralston’s real story that we all heard and then had re-enacted in minute detail in his return canyon visit with Tom Brokaw was actually much more intriguing than the movie. It was just too hard (for me, anyway) to get fully associated with an actor playing this incredible story. It is, after all, a story of the mind, not of events. The drama plays out in his mind as he wastes away day after day, unable to move, reduced to drinking his pee and finally cutting off his arm. These events, though, pale in comparison to the mental anguish he experienced, and I, for one, already gave myself an incredibly visceral experience of it when I first read his story. My mind mastered the tortuous circumstances in a way Hollywood could only vaguely portray through hackneyed hallucinatory sequences. So no. This is no comment on Ralston’s ordeal, but “127 Hours” is not a contender.
“The Kids Are All Right” has two great actresses (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) who both do their best in their roles, but they just did not convince me. The story itself is contrived and, true to Hollywood, has to have male/female naked sex as the main event, even though it is a film about a lesbian couple. C’mon. I do give the Academy hats off for honoring a portrayal of lesbian life, since this is even less done and more stereotyped than gay storylines. But “The Kids Are All Right” tries too hard to show how normal lesbians are (how ridiculous for those of us who already know it and how impossibly unconvincing for those of us who don’t), and it plays at humor without much success. ‘Nuff said.
“Inception” was a wild ride, and I loved having to crook my head to watch guys crawling on the ceiling and up the walls. I also love Leonardo so would see him in anything (and I proved it by seeing “Shutter Island“), but this picture just wasn’t his vehicle. In the end, I left feeling a bit played…exhausted by all the action sequences and trying to remember which layer of which guy’s dream I was in. Leonardo, please do something good this year! “The Social Network” I put with it and simply say, like “Inception,” it was great entertainment, prurient through and through. Who doesn’t like to see really rich guys whom everyone envies shown as mean and calculating? After all, we can all feel so much better that we are poor and NICE. But this fictional biopic just doesn’t have the gravitas to win Best. I will acknowledge two of “The Social Network’s” performances however: Jesse Eisenberg for staying squarely in such a cold fish character and Armie Hammer (great-grandson of oil mogul Armand Hammer) for a portrayal that fooled me completely (and for being so easy on the eye!).
That leaves three. And now it gets more difficult. “The King’s Speech” is terrific because it’s another film that unmasks the British (and we Americans just love that), and this time, British Royalty, no less. And, of course, because of Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush (not to mention Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, and more – jeez, is everyone in it?) Each plays their part brilliantly, pure joy to watch. Bonham Carter is surprisingly effective playing the Queen Mother after so many drug addicted, insanely made up characters over the years. Rush is his usual effervescent self and enlivens Lionel Logue honorably. Firth stammers painfully and interminably, all while his hard princely heart is cracked open by Logue. I vote for Colin getting Best Actor…seems like all actors get Oscars for playing roles with disabilities, so why not he? And he really is darn good time and again, relievedly self-effacing, and doesn’t have his Oscar yet. But, although “The King’s Speech” is a thoroughly satisfying film, it falls short of Best Picture material simply because, underneath all the great acting, it feels predictable. And not the historical film predictability, but the telling kind. The Prince-King is too good a guy, too easily rooted for against his nasty father, as long as we don’t look too closely at George VI’s politics, which the film makes utterly possible, since it doesn’t either.
Okay. “True Grit” and “Winter’s Bone.” Both films made whole by their young female actors (Hailee Steinfeld and Jennifer Lawrence). Both films depicting strength of character in these young women in extremely hard conditions: the Old West and the Ozarks, respectively. This is a tough call. But if I have to, and I do for I am forcing myself, I will choose “True Grit.” And the reason is this: the film is perfection. It is in every quality what it is supposed to be. Actors act without appearing to. Scenery is what it depicts. Dialogue (as written by the brilliant Charles Portis) is pure treacle to the ears. Good is good, bad is bad, and the end is not a sell-out to sappy audiences. Terrific actors are lined up in this, too: after Steinfeld, Bridges – just off his own Oscar win for Crazy Heart – and Damon, as well as Barry Pepper and Ed Corbin, with a stunning portrayal of the bizarre Bear Man. The Coen brothers deserve the Best Pic Oscar for this masterpiece.
And that leaves “Winter’s Bone.” Why not choose it? Well, there are a lot of reasons to have done so. It too depicts place in an almost documentary-like way, with attentive language and accents. Jennifer Lawrence is solid in her role as the dirty-faced, determined Ree. The story is good, as is its pacing, which matches the languorous mood of the Arkansas backwoods. Debra Granik deserves huge kudos for this sleeper, and I was tickled when I heard it was on the Best Pic list. (My sister too must be thrilled, since she called this the best pic of the year some months ago, prompting me to see it.) However, one thing troubled me: the story implied something much darker, much more sinister at work in this hidden community, but the film never played it out. I was, in fact, relieved that it did not, but that it didn’t was its downfall. In the end, the story ended too easily, too happily for its characters, and this made the film feel a bit thin. I am surprised to find myself writing these words, since I would not have wanted to witness the grim end that the story needed to fulfill its promise. “Winter’s Bone” lets us off way too easy, and that, a film of this texture, substance and artistry, should never do.
That’s my say on it. What’s yours?