When I first started my “Oscar Schmoscar” posts a few years ago, I was tired of the kinds of nominees that Oscar was coming up with. I lumped together some mini-reviews to let readers know what I thought of some of the nominated movies, but it was meant to be kind of dismissive. A few years later, I feel like the choice of nominated films has changed. Also, I’m really loving the 10 Best Picture nominees idea. Last year I tried to watch as many of them as I could and it was a fun exercise. I discovered amazing movies like Precious, and An Education. This year, the expanded selection really helped me to discover some good movies that I might otherwise not have bothered to watch.
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score, Best Song, and Best Editing.
Not only am I surprised that I got up the nerve to watch a movie about a guy who frees himself from being pinned by a rock by cutting off his own arm, I can’t believe how much I enjoyed it. Actually, I have enjoyed almost every movie from director Danny Boyle (including Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire) so I should have expected nothing less from 127 Hours. James Franco has never really impressed me much, but he did a great job in essentially carrying this entire movie solo. He is full of youthful bravado, but also came off as heartfelt and relatable. Given the climactic moment with the arm, this may not be the kind of movie people see over and over, but for those people who are as hesitant as I was, let me assure you that there’s a lot of movie besides the amputation scene (you don’t just spent 90 minutes anticipating the squirminess you’ll feel when you watch it). That being said, it’s a scene well done and you really feel the pain, without a lot of gore. Nevertheless, it’s all compensated by the overwhelming elation you’ll feel at the movie’s true climax which follows. Simply stated, I think everyone should see this film … at least once. (4 out of 5)
The Kids Are Alright
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay.
I don’t know why I thought that the story of a family which includes two lesbians and their son and daughter who seek out the sperm donor who is their biological father would be funnier. There were a few light moments, but this movie is generally just a naturalistic drama. Nic, the slightly uptight doctor, is played by Annette Bening, and Jules, the slightly aimless landscaper is played by Julianne Moore. Both actresses give pretty good performances as they face the emotional chaos that occurs when sperm donor Paul (played with leather jacket and motorcycle loving swagger by Mark Ruffalo) comes into their family’s life. The kids find a cool new father figure (though he’s more of a free spirit than a knowing-best type of dad), and Nic and Jules find their relationship shaken up a bit. I guess it’s common in this type of movie that no one is really very happy until an interloper like Paul comes around, then everything gets broken and put back together. Unfortunately I just didn’t really connect with any of the characters, so I was just kind of along for a slowish ride. (3.5 out of 5)
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography.
Upon finally seeing this over-hyped tale of a ballerina (Natalie Portman) coming unhinged while trying to perfect here prima role in Swan Lake, I felt sadly disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, Portman gave an excellent performance as the fragile, tightly-wound Nina Sayers; and the climactic scene where she becomes the role of the lusty black swan was thrilling. I also enjoyed Mila Kunis as her sexy rival, Lily. However, the overall story felt too full of cliches. It wasn’t as fresh and inventive as I expected. Seeing ballerinas and stage moms obsessed with perfection is completely textbook. The All About Eve style jealousy and rivalry among has-been and up-and-coming dancers was also de rigueur. Lastly, the idea of linking obsessiveness, madness and some kind of animal metamorphosis is so classic that it actually comes from Greek tragedy. It feels a bit like director Darren Aronofsky was pulling his punches, holding back on Nina’s hallucinations and dark descent, not wanting to be too artsy for the common movie-goer. It also seems like he muted the fantasy elements of Nina’s swan-morphosis so as not to seem too freaky or sci-fi (I mean, how many times can we see and be surprised by the unexplained wounds on Nina’s back suggesting that her wings are growing in? We get it. Show us more!). Black Swan was well made overall, but too much of a normal ballet drama (not a particularly favorite genre of mine) and sadly didn’t transcend its mise–en–scène enough to become much more. (3.5 out of 5)
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Winter’s Bone is this year’s Precious. Teenage girl needs to gather the strength to survive in poverty and neglect. However, this time the story takes place far away from the urban projects of Chicago in the Ozark mountains. Ree Dolly is seventeen and taking care of her two young siblings and mentally-ill mother. When she learns that her absent, deadbeat dad has put up their home as collateral for his bail bond, she sets out to find him and make him show up for his court date. As she starts her quest, she finds more threats and warnings than information. It seems like everyone knows more than they’re letting on. Though all she wants is to save the roof over their heads, as she pokes around for it, the truth begins to uncoil like a waking rattlesnake. Though the plot is conducive to becoming something of a thriller, it maintains a natural, real-life tone throughout. On another level there was even a fascinating almost-tribal, folktale element as well. Ree walked the bleak landscape, traveling from location to location. At each place, a woman stood guard as a gatekeeper, judging Ree on her worthiness to enter and speak to the man within. Jennifer Lawrence (no, I’d never heard of her either) gave an excellent performance as the strong-willed teen. So did John Hawkes (recognize the face but not the name) as her uncle Teardrop (an ironically delicate name for a gruff character). Like Precious, Winter’s Bone is not a movie that I want to watch again (even though there were definitely portions that I didn’t quite follow) but I was captivated nonetheless. (4 out of 5)
Nominated for Best Animated Short
The Gruffalo was a pretty sweet adaptation of a children’s storybook for the screen. A mouse saves himself from predators such as a fox, a snake, and an owl with cleverness and a quick tongue. He intimidates them all by hinting that he is meeting up with a mythical monster known as the Gruffalo. His plan works pretty well, but what happens when the Gruffalo actually shows up? (4 out of 5)
Day & Night
Nominated for Best Animated Short
This animated short was featured before Toy Story 3. It is a bit more esoteric than your typical Pixar short, featuring two cartoon silhouettes: one who represents night, the other day. As these two cartoons interact, we also see images of the night or day within their bodies (it’s hard to describe). While I applaud Pixar’s efforts to produce animated shorts that are a bit more creative and artistic, it definitely didn’t hold my interest as well as the ones they’ve made in the past. (3.5 out of 5)
The Lost Thing
Nominated for Best Animated Short
I really enjoyed this 15 minute film which is also adapted from a kids book. It was basically the story of a young man who finds a “lost thing” (which looks like a cross between a giant, alien, hermit crab and a large steel furnace) on the beach one day while collecting bottle caps. Treating it like a stray animal, he takes it home but eventually tries to find a new home for it. The animation style is wonderfully stylized, with long cylindrical heads on the people, and a muted sand and grey colour palette. The story’s world is a highly-industrial, urban dystopia, but the narration and music make it all seem very charming. This movie is fresh, imaginative, and subtly heart-warming. In my mind, this kind of film is what animation is good for and I wish that people made more of them. (4 out of 5).
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
Wow, what a stunning film! I mean “stunning” in its most literal sense. The story is essentially about twin brother and sister whose mother passes away, leaving with them a letter to be delivered to their brother (who they didn’t know existed) and their father (who they didn’t think was still alive). Their quest takes them to Lebanon, where they gradually unravel the shocking, disturbing history that their mother kept from them all their lives (we get to see a lot of it in flashback). While there are some very big bombshells dropped in this movie, it’s amazingly subtle about it. The characters deal with their shock seriously but not as melodramatically as you’d expect. I am assuming that the events in this movie are not typical of people who have survived the Lebanese civil war, but it nevertheless brings home the horrific yet nonchalant brutality with which people on both sides were treated. (4.5 out of 5)