Oscar, Schmoscar 2009

Last year’s Oscars are pretty dead to me. Even to this day I have not watched any of the big winners (I didn’t even do an “Oscar, Schmoscar” post in ’08). This year is a whole other story. I was excited about many of the movies before they even got nominated. I’ve already reviewed The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, and even The Dark Knight (don’t be a snob — it counts!). So after the announcements, I decided to catch up with even more nominees.

Doubt

Best supporting actor, Best actress, Best supporting actress (x2), Best adapted screenplay

Is there any more amazing actress than Meryl Streep? She totally becomes Sister Aloysius, the mother superior who suspects a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman — also nominated) of inappropriate behavior with one of the choirboys. Having begun as a play, Doubt is definitely an actor’s movie. There are many speeches and scenes to let them strut their stuff. One of the standouts features supporting actress nominee Viola Davis as the mom of the allegedly abused choirboy. Rounding off the amazing cast, Amy Adams plays a naïve young nun who wrestles with her own decisions about belief and doubt. Even though it’s very talky, the drama was riveting and I was gripped with interest the whole time. 4.5 out of 5

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best supporting actress

I’m no Woody Allen connaisseur, so I’m not sure if this is a departure or par for the course. In any case, Scarlett Johansson stars as Cristina who goes to Barcelona with her friend Vicky to spend the summer. While there they meet handsome, Bohemian painter Juan Antonio (played by last year’s Oscar winner Javier Bardem). They’re all hot and sexy so one thing (obviously) leads to another. The complicated love triangle becomes even more complicated because Vicky’s fiance comes to Spain, and Juan Antonio’s ex-wife (played by best supporting actress nominee Penelope Cruz) joins the love polygon. Cruz is wonderfully sensual and fiery as the passionately unstable Maria Elena. The debate between a life of passion versus a life of comfort was very interesting, but ultimately I found it hard to relate these characters (maybe my life is just too dull). Also, there’s a very bookish narration throughout which also keeps the audience from truly getting inside these characters’ psyches. 4 out of 5

The Duchess

Best art direction, Best costume design

With no acting, writing, or directing nominations, I should not have expected much from this movie beyond something pretty to look at. However, I have a soft spot in my heart for costume drama. Plus, I’ve always liked lead actress Keira Knightley. Here she plays the Duchess of Devonshire, a fresh young thing who married a cold yet powerful man. Despite her husband, the duchess quickly became the darling of the public eye, and a pre-eminent fashion icon (sound familiar?). Eventually, the Duke even brought his mistress to live with them. The historical allegory to Princess Diana is actually pretty startling. And while I’m not sure how accurate this movie was regarding the Duchess or the Princess, it made for an interesting gilded-cage tragedy. As for the costumes, they were Oscar-worthy wonderful. I had been hoping that Hellboy 2 would have won the art direction Oscar (no, I’m serious), but since it didn’t get nominated, this one will have to do.4 out of 5

The Visitor

Best actor

This movie has been out for a while and it got great reviews, not just for the lead actor Richard Jenkins, but all around. A late middle-aged professor, Walter Vale, returns home to find his apartment occupied by a young couple, Tarek (from Syria) and Zainab (from Senegal), who also happen to be illegal immigrants. He lets them stay for while and ends up getting to know them (Tarek teaches Walter to play the drums). When Tarek is arrested for deportation, Walter’s life is radically changed. Jenkins’s role and performance are quite subtle. In fact, there’s only one brief Oscar-bait scene where he gets to make a fuss. There are very good performances all around, including Haaz Sleiman as Tarek, Danai Gurira as Zainab, and Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother, who comes to live with Walter while her son is detained. Despite the serious subject matter, this movie is generally very quiet. Nevertheless, it does an excellent job of giving a voice to people in our society who often get overlooked. This movie is well worth a watch. 4 out of 5

Tropic Thunder

Best supporting actor

Tropic Thunder could hardly be considered an Oscar movie, but it’s got an acting nom. A bunch of Hollywood actors filming a Platoon-style Vietnam drama end up getting stranded in the jungles and fend for themselves against drug lords — sounds like an intense concept. However, this one’s a comedy. Despite the all-star comedic cast featuring Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and the one who got the nomination, Robert Downey Jr., all the hype surrounded the comedic performance of a generally un-comedic actor, Tom Cruise (as the fat, odious studio chief). The farce in this film is nothing special and the satire is pretty broad, but it doesn’t quite descend into National Lampoon territory. Robert Downey Jr. sends-up Russell Crowe as a Method actor who went so far as to color his skin to take on the role of a black man. He trots out the stereotypes and gruff ghetto growl. Downey’s performance is actually pretty impressive, but not quite Oscar-worthy. While I’m always disappointed that there aren’t more funny films, in my opinion, this one doesn’t change any of that. 3 out of 5

Presto, Oktapodi, and Lavatory – Lovestory

Best animated short

I was delighted to have been able to catch a few of the nominees for Best animated short film. It’s so difficult to find a chance to see them. Presto was shown right before Wall-E, so many people saw that one. The story of a magician’s bunny who takes quick revenge on his master when he doesn’t get his dinnertime carrot is both hilarious and very well-conceived. Oktapodi is another CG animated short film that has the seeds of Pixar in it. There’s a bit less of that Hollywood polish, but since it was a student project, it is amazing. Boy octopus is separated from girl octopus, but girl octopus puts forth valiant efforts to rescue boy octopus. This very short film is full of energy and lots of fun. Lavatory – Lovestory is very sweet. With simple line-animation against a white background, the story unfolds about a Russian bathroom attendant pining for love, who one day mysteriously receives flowers in her money jar. I was very impressed by how all three films used no words and relied on animation to not only convey their stories, but also express the characters’ emotions. All of them deserve 4.5 out of 5.

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