When Oscar time comes around, movie fans get excited about the nominated films, and I’m no exception. In the past several years, I’ve done a little viewing blitz around this time, trying to catch up with some of the major nominees, but lately I’ve been a bit disappointed. Last year, I really wasn’t interested in the films up for the statuettes. It kind of soured me on my tradition of pre-Oscar prep and I decided not to put myself through that this year. Nevertheless, a couple of the nominees intrigued me even before they were announced so in the end I did catch a few. Here’s a rundown of the ones that I’ve seen (but haven’t already reviewed in my blog).
(nominated for Best Picture, double Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Score)
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu is known for his intense, inter-twined stories, but while I loved Amores Perros, I wasn’t as keen about his last film (21 Grams). Babel was somewhere in between the two for me. I really enjoyed the separate stories: I was engrossed by the husband and wife dealing with being shot in Morocco; totally captivated by the Mexican nanny taking her boss’s kids south of the border; but not so interested in the deaf-mute Japanese girl coping with adolescence in Tokyo. However, I was surprised that the movie was nominated for editing as I think that the three stories didn’t mesh very well together. As the name of the movie suggests, there’s a theme of fractured communication that unites the stories, but each would have probably made better movies on their own. The sum of the parts was not greater.
Nevertheless, both Adriana Barraza (the nanny) and Rinko Kikuchi (the Japanese girl) deserve their supporting actress nominations. Not only were they extremely believable in their roles, they both did great jobs expressing frustrations and feelings in pretty subtle performances. Overall, I think the movie was well-made, but not outstanding (and downright exhausting to watch). (3 out of 5)
Letters From Iwo Jima
(nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Screenplay)
Why didn’t someone warn me that this was a Paul Haggis co-production? (I’m a card-carrying Crash-hater. Curse you, last year’s Oscars!) I was hoping to see a relatively realistic portrayal of the Japanese side of the WW2 battle of Iwo Jima. However, as scene after scene found soldiers and commanders choosing death or suicide for reasons of misguided honour or tradition, I felt really beat over the head by the filmmakers. How much of this was a comment on actual Japanese history, and how much of it merely a statement on the continuing US involvement in Iraq? I got tired of the manipulation and started to question the accuracy of this depiction. When the credits rolled and I saw Haggis’s name, it all made sense. Clearly, he and director Clint Eastwood conspired to ensure that viewers were not left to think for themselves (which is ironic since they seem to want their characters to think for themselves and question their society’s traditions).
Despite my lack of love for the direction, I thought the actors gave good performances. Ken Watanabe (remember him from Last Samurai?) was excellent as always: intelligent, sensitive yet strong. Kazunari Ninomiya was also excellent as the young soldier, Saigo, whose sense of self-preservation led him to challenge the apparent death-wish of the rest of the troops and made him into the movie’s hero. With these actors and the central motif of writing letters home, this could have been a much more human and interesting story. (3.5 out of 5)
(nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Score)
In contrast to Letters from Iwo Jima, where I was taken out of the story by how the depiction seemed unreal, I found myself completely transported by this story of Queen Elizabeth II and her dealing with the issues surrounding the death of Princess Diana. I don’t know how much research was done for this script, and how much it was based on verifiable events, but I found myself forgetting that this was not the actual Queen who I was watching (Helen Mirren was amazing in the role) and that this was not a documentary. I was a bit surprised that the royals were so bound to their traditions and protocols, refusing to change even as a crisis of public opinion was building. Thematically, it’s surprisingly similar to Letters from Iwo Jima. As many have said, it’s kind of a slow film, but I didn’t really feel like it dragged on. I was too busy being intrigued by this peek into the life of the Queen (especially with her interactions with Prime Minister Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen). I think this movie deserves to win all the awards it has been nominated for (maybe even best picture), especially the best actress Oscar for Mirren. (4.5 out of 5)
(nominated for Best Visual Effects)
OK, I put this one on here for laughs. I have seen this sinking ship movie (on IMAX no less) but just never got around to reviewing it. It’s not a bad action movie: all the usual people in peril. There’s a downright claustrophobic scene where all the survivors are trapped in a very narrow vertical passageway that will make you want to stretch your own body in relief when it’s done. There are some dramatic scenes reminiscent of any modern disaster film where someone needs to decide whether or not to sacrifice him/herself for someone else. Josh Lucas makes a capable lead, but because of all the scenes involving water, all I could think of was how his hair was thinning on top. Sorry Josh! Being nominated for an Oscar is kind of funny. I would be incredibly surprised if Poseidon won against Superman Returns or Pirates 2 (which is unfortunate because a special achievement award was given to the original Poseidon Adventure in 1973 for its visual effects). The original also got 8 nominations and won for best original song. I guess competition is just stiffer these days. (3 out of 5)
Besides those films, other nominees that I’ve seen include the excellent Pan’s Labyrinth, and Children of Men, both of which deserve oodles of awards. Unfortunately I haven’t seen too many of the acting nominees so I can’t comment on who should win. I no longer try to predict the Oscars, but I have seen all the Best Picture winners for the last decade or so (which means I should probably go out and rent The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine).