Tag Archives: Oscars

Oscar Schmoscar 2017

Each year, when I do these quickie reviews of Oscar nominees that I’ve seen, a few of them are marginal categories — like sound editing, or costume design — but this year I think I’ve got a better slice. I still may not necessarily love the winners, but I’m glad that doing my Oscar-viewing “homework” gets me to enjoy a few films that I would otherwise have overlooked.

arrivalArrival

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Adapted Screenplay

A film that I would definitely have watched (and not overlooked) regardless of if it had been nominated, Arrival falls into one of my favourite sub-genres: brainy sci-fi. The movie is about Amy Adams’s character, Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is employed by the US military to translate for an alien race whose 12 ships have appeared around the globe. Part of what raises this story to a higher level is how it imagines the challenges of a task like this more realistically than previous sci-fi. The movie shows us how it would understandably be much more difficult than learning another human language. Nevertheless, it’s not just a dry science-y stuff about a first encounter situation. It’s also interwoven by a story of Banks’s own life experiences, having a child who dies of a fatal disease. The movie presents the story in a non-linear fashion, jumping around in flashbacks to various memories and moments in her life. The look of the movie, with its giant monolithic spaceships, and smoky-foggy atmosphere only add to the moodiness and dreaminess of the film — which seems par for the course with brainy sci-fi. That tone also seems to be cinematic shorthand for emotional depth and profundity. As you may have realized from my vague comments, this is actually a tricky film to pin down since it is very non-traditional. Nevertheless, I found it moving, thought-provoking, and really enjoyable — and I hope it wins Best Picture (4.5 out of 5).

lalaland-featureLa La Land

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Original Song (x2), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Original Screenplay

On to the front-runner… I have to say that I found this movie (which has won a lot of awards already) to be way over-hyped. The semi-musical about an aspiring actress (played by Emma Stone — who I love!) and a struggling jazz pianist (played by Ryan Gosling — who I think is pretty cool) does not have that magic that makes it a Best Picture in my book. The movie tries to capture some old Hollywood musical flair (like a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, or Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain), which it actually does fairly well. The scenes flow smoothly into song-and-dance numbers that are well done and look very nice. However, I didn’t feel like the musical numbers had any point other than as bits of flash. I like it when musicals use songs to allow characters to express themselves directly to the audience in a way that they might not be able to through dialogue. This movie starts out with a traffic jam that breaks into song, and later there’s a Hollywood party where the extras sing and dance — it’s all fluff. Stone and Gosling are on their third cinematic pairing, but I didn’t feel the chemistry this time between them. Don’t get me wrong, their scenes together still aren’t bad (and they’re both so attractive that it’s easy to think of them as a couple) but maybe it’s because they didn’t have as many scenes of good interaction as they should. To top it off, I didn’t find their voices very compatible, so when they sang together I cringed a little. The music wasn’t bad (and the haunting “City of Stars” theme is still playing in my head) but in the end, the overall movie was not very satisfying. The theme of following one’s dreams (in Hollywood) and what that might cost has been done to death. There was a bit of play with the storyline and “what-ifs”, and to that bit of editing and storytelling I would give some credit, but it still left the ending kind of flat for me. (3.5 out of 5)

andrew-garfield-hacksaw-ridgeHacksaw Ridge

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing

This true-life story really caught my attention, despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of war stories. Andrew Garfield plays US Army Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who would not pick up a gun despite tremendous opposition and pressure from everyone around him, including his commanders. Becoming a medic, Doss’s heroics saved many of his fellow soldiers, and turned a very difficult and almost hopeless battle into a victory against the Japanese. Director Mel Gibson has a visceral and gory style when it comes to violence in film (which is evident in an early pre-war scene of a young man who gets injured in a car mishap and his leg wound is spurting blood). Nevertheless, the main battle scene is very well done and conveys the kind of anxiety and tension that the soldiers must have felt fighting in the trenches. Unfortunately, the script has an overly sentimental and simplistic style: early scenes are always paid off later in the movie, or characters (namely Doss) start to feel larger-than-life and unshakeably noble. I was also bothered by the demonization of the Japanese (the few scenes depicting Japanese soldiers showed them either committing ritual suicide after defeat, or deceptively surrendering to US troops only to throw grenades when they got close). Overall, there was just a lack of sophistication to the script. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this movie, because I definitely did. It was thrilling, inspiring, heartfelt and moving in parts — and I guess that’s really what it was supposed to be. (4 out of 5)

florence_bFlorence Foster Jenkins

Nominated for Best Actress, and Costume Design

I watched this movie mainly because I am in awe of Meryl Streep, who inhabits her characters and never gives a bad performance. As good as she was playing the title character — a wealthy New York socialite and arts patroness during the 40s — I don’t really see why this movie was made, and why this true-life story was interesting to tell. Jenkins was a huge devotee of music and loved to put on concerts to an audience that gave her praise despite the fact that she was a technically terrible singer (and Streep is a good singer, so it’s even part of her good performance to be shrill and out of tune). The story was arguably sadder because Jenkins didn’t realize that the kudos and adoration often weren’t genuine, but means of getting her patronage. Even her husband (played by Hugh Grant) was living with another woman on the side. After Hacksaw Ridge, which is set in the same time period, it seems even more trivial that this rich woman was putting on concerts out of vanity while the war was going on. Coincidentally there was a scene(actually a pretty good one) that made this incongruity even more pronounced where Jenkins had given free tickets to some of the military troop for her performance at Carnegie Hall. The soldiers all came across as boorish and uncouth as they were laughing and booing Jenkins’s terrible singing. So much of this movie is about how everyone around her tries to protect Jenkins from learning the disappointing truth for fear it will break her heart. In fact, there’s even an almost so-bad-it’s-good admiration that many felt for Jenkins, along with a genuine appreciation of her magnanimous spirit. Interestingly, in a parallel way, it feels uncouth for me to dislike this movie. On the surface it seems trivial and vain, but to paraphrase one of the movie lines “it’s singing its heart out”. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m not appreciating the spirit of this film. Nevertheless, I still think it only merits at 3 out of 5.

amancalledove_trailer1A Man Called Ove

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Makeup & Hair

Going out to left field a bit, I also wanted to review a foreign film nominee. I have a sweet spot for Scandinavian cinema, so A Man Called Ove sounded like a good choice. A relatively subtle film about an old curmudgeon who lives in a suburban housing complex, Ove is very set in his ways. When he loses his job, it’s finally time to join his deceased wife and he decides to commit suicide. Unfortunately (or fortunately) every time he makes an attempt, he is interrupted by his disturbing neighbours and he starts to find reasons to stick around a little longer. Eventually he befriends (or he is befriended-by) a new neighbour — a pregnant Persian woman — who helps Ove’s life get brighter and brighter. I say this film is subtle because it’s not a single heartfelt incident, or an important and touching conversation that melts Ove’s heart. Instead, it’s a series of mundane events that bit by bit nudge his life and his character in a different direction. Interspersed through the film, Ove has flashbacks to events earlier in his life, especially with his beloved wife Sonja. It’s wonderful to see the triumphs and tragedies that led him to become the man we see. The Oscar nomination for hair and makeup is probably for the ageing of the main actor, who apparently looks nothing like the balding Ove. I’m not sure if this award is deserved (especially over movies like Star Trek Beyond or Suicide Squad) but even the physical transformation was very subtle to me. This kind of film is far from unique, but when done well it can be both touching and inspiring. I haven’t seen any of the other Foreign Film nominees, but I wouldn’t mind if this one won. (4 out of 5)

zootopiaZootopia

Nominated for Best Animated Feature

I really love Zootopia and think it deserves to win. It’s not as artsy as some of the other nominees, but this movie about a small town bunny who starts her career as a cop, is so enjoyable. On top of the cuteness and the fun, it’s also a great hybrid of an animated animals story with an actual buddy cop storyline. The characters are wonderfully (and hilariously) conceived, and their expressions and looks are memorably great. As a fan of animated movies, I also found this movie carefully-able to tread that fine line between animals that represent people (which is good) and animals that parody people (which is bad). Zootopia doesn’t just have animals acting like humans  — which always leads to terrible puns — but it’s more like the animals are their own society based on humans. [I know I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this distinction — and you probably don’t care — but to me this makes all the difference between a Shark Tale and a Finding Nemo.] On top of the great characters, hilarious scenes, and fun adventure, this movie also throws in some bigger themes like racism, stereotypes, political corruption, etc. Whether or not this movie wins the Oscar (which I hope it does), I really want Disney to make a sequel as well (4.5 out of 5).

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Oscar Schmoscar 2016

I’m really cutting it down to the wire this year (since the Oscars are tomorrow) to give my two little cents on some of the nominated movies. As usual, please don’t expect me to predict the winners or have some Oscar-calibre comments. I started this series of annual posts when I didn’t really care about the Oscar nominees and this year seems to be a mixed bag (in my opinion), and I still don’t care too much (definitely don’t have a lot of nominees that I’m rooting for, but I wanted to see a few so that I have some skin in the game, at least). Here’s what I think about the few that I’ve watched but not previously reviewed:

spotlight

Spotlight

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing

Though I hadn’t heard of this movie before its nomination, I am a huge fan of nominated director Tom McCarthy. This movie is a bit different from his usual focus on somewhat ordinary people and their relationships. However, this movie about the investigative reporting team at the Boston Globe who broke the story of Catholic priests molesting children and the coverup throughout the Catholic clergy still portrays the reporters as real-life, ordinary people. I appreciated the nominated performances of Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams (I always love watching Rachel McAdams). I liked how this movie steered away from the tendency of these kinds of movies to make everything seem so “insider” (like we shouldn’t understand the stakes or the emotions involved if we aren’t ourselves investigative journalists). I found this entire movie very relatable and down-to-earth, despite slightly extraordinary events.

stevejobs1c32a

Steve Jobs

Nominated for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress

While Michael Fassbender did pretty well in his nominated role as the late Apple CEO, I can see why the movie was not a best picture nominee. It’s basically a series of vignettes staged before each of several major product launch presentations given by Jobs. Backstage before these keynotes, we are given certain scenes of Jobs talking to his colleagues and underlings, as well as his daughter and her mother. I’d be surprised if these events truly played out in the way the movie shows. The scenes feel pretty stagey and contrived. I don’t think they were meant to give a very full picture of Jobs, but maybe only to capture certain aspects of him (and definitely not those aspects that make me actually like him). I kept waiting for some kind of plot arc, and when I realized that there wasn’t going to be any, I felt kind of let down — I guess the same lack of plot was there in director Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, but I didn’t really feel it that time. I think Fassbender did a pretty good job with the scenes and portraying Jobs with a kind of clever arrogance that we might expect, however, I never once felt that this was the same man that I kind of knew from the Apple keynotes. It felt very much like a character, rather than the real Steve Jobs.

shaunHIGH225700_883356

Shaun the Sheep: The Movie

Nominated for Best Animated Feature

Like Pixar, Aardman Studioes gets nominated for most of their animated features, however, I feel this one was quite inferior to previous nominees like Chicken Run or Wallace & Grommit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Animation was just as good, but lacked a few of the crazy spectacle scenes similar to those other movies. As for actual story, I felt that Shaun the Sheep was ridiculous (and not in a good way). I wish this story of sheepy misadventures could have stayed on the farm, where sheep act like sheep (although exceedingly clever ones able to dupe the farmers — I love it when they all line up to jump over fences as the farmer is counting them in order to make him fall asleep — so meta!) rather than going into the city and starting to act like people. I hated the fact that the humans were so unbelievably thick that once the sheep could walk upright and wear human clothes, they became indistinguishable from humans — not being detected as imposters even without the ability to show their faces or speak! Ridiculous! To me this movie was a waste of some pretty good stop-motion animation.

sanjay's super team

Sanjay’s Super Team

Nominated for Best Animated Short

This short movie (which showed before airings of The Good Dinosaur) was not bad — excellent Pixar animation as expected — but it wasn’t anything super-imaginative or lyrical. Some of these Pixar shorts are wonderfully inventive stories of their own, but this one (about a child who imagines his Hindu deities as something akin to comic book characters) seemed like a brief scene from The Incredibles or any number of super-hero cartoons.It was wonderful that this movie represents some true cultural diversity, since it is firmly rooted in a kid’s Hindu-based daydreams. However, it’s simply over too quick, with very little to say for itself.

martian113830146

The Martian

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design

Though it was kind of like a cross between the movies Gravity and Castaway, this realistic movie about an astronaut left to fend for himself on the surface of Mars was quite enjoyable. Matt Damon made a believable astronaut-scientist and even though it might seem too hard to accept that he’d really have been able to pull it off, Damon’s character makes you want to root for him and overlook some of the incredible stuff. I’m not exactly sure what warranted a nomination for production design — usually that goes to period films with lots of sumptuous and elegant backdrops. In this case, would it be the uniforms and the design of the Martian base? Or maybe it was for some of the computer interfaces or the space vehicles. In any case, if it was about how convincing everything looked, then I think they should win. It felt very real — I even kind of forget once in a while that this is not depicting an actual story, but fiction. I could easily see this as something from the near future (or alternate present), and I think that can be a credit to the production design. As far as best picture goes, I thought that it was a well-paced story and didn’t go over-the-top in an attempt to be thrilling. Also, the script deserves to be nominated for a light touch both in terms of melodrama as well as staying focused on the storytelling rather than bashing us over the head with technical jargon.

Oscar Schmoscar 2015

It’s Academy Awards time, and that means it’s once again time for me to weigh in with my ignorance and inability to appreciate an Oscar-worthy performance. If you’re like me, you’ll want to cram-watch a few more of the nominees in time to at least have an opinion for the awards next week. Let me help you out a bit by telling you what I thought about a few of the nominees.

birdmanBirdman

Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography

Tied with The Grand Budapest Hotel for the most nominations, I was really expecting to enjoy Birdman. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former comic-book movie star who tries to make a comeback on the Broadway stage. Obviously there’s some life-art reflection going on with Keaton’s own previous role as Batman, but that doesn’t seem to be so important to the movie. Edward Norton and Emma Stone are also nominees for their supporting roles: he plays an acting divo who challenges Thomson’s ideas about the play, and she plays Thomson’s daughter/assistant recovering from addiction and trying to find a connection to her father. While I’m not altogether fascinated with movies about the art and craft of acting, I thought this might be a bit more interesting because of the superhero elements that are woven in. When the movie starts, Keaton is meditating in his dressing room, levitating a few feet off the ground. However, if there’s any true connection to the overall arc, I’m really missing it. The Birdman persona is some kind of a conscience figure and as I was watching, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a previous movie about darkness, art and a fantastical alter-ego, Black Swan (with Natalie Portman) — I didn’t really comprehend that film either. This movie has also been touted as funny — and while I see the joke, I found the humour kind of slap-sticky and juvenile. (3 out of 5)

The Grand Budapest Hotel - 64th Berlin Film FestivalThe Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hair

While having the same total number of noms as Birdman, this movie did not receive any acting nominations at all. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it more. Director Wes Anderson has a quirky style that makes the story into something like an adult’s storybook. It doesn’t hurt that the visuals, costumes, and production design really add to that feeling. From that angle I really appreciated this rather convoluted tale of a hotel manager (played by Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy running to and from all manner of predicament after a very wealthy patron dies under mysterious circumstances. It was a lot of fun and unpredictable, and full of odd and charming characters. However, that same quirky style also made me not really care about these characters or what happened to them (when I could follow the plots). It was hard to keep track, and characters would do things for very odd reasons (which were all very rational to them, but not to me). I really hope this film does win for Production Design and Costume Design because those aspects are really fresh in this movie. As for the other major awards, I don’t really think this movie has the weight to deserve those. (3.5 out of 5)

boyhoodBoyhood

Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing

Another heavy-hitter in the nominee department is this independent movie about a young man coming of age. The uniqueness of this movie is that the cast remained the same over the course of the 12 years that it took to film. Ostensibly that’s kind of a gimmick, but it adds some weight to the realism of these performances (which is probably why Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette both got noms for their supporting roles as Ma and Pa Evans — that’s not what they’re really called). The story of their blended family (the parents have split up even before the movie began) and their various ups and downs over the 12 years was normal and ordinary (almost to the point of being boring), with only a few relatively “dramatic” incidents. Ellar Coltrane, who plays the titular boy, Mason, portrays him with a very mellow attitude, quiet and thoughtful. He’s kind of an every-kid. So while this exercise in long-term film-making has been a success, I wonder what about it makes it a Best Picture contender. Is it the ordinariness? (Does it take a lot of work to look this ordinary?) I always like writer-director Richard Linklater and his style of dialogue (though I appreciated it a lot more in the Before Sunrise trilogy). I did enjoy Boyhood, but if it hadn’t been a 12-year labour-of-love, I don’t know that it would have felt as interesting. (4 out of 5)

nightcrawler1-1200x710Nightcrawler

Best Original Screenplay

I had not even heard about this movie until someone at work raved about Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance (though surprisingly he did not receive an Oscar nom). He plays Louis Bloom, a thief-turned-news-cameraman who spends his nights listening police radio in order to be the first to arrive at a crime scene and film it for the late news (oh, and he’s kind of a psychopath). Things get more and more risky as he starts to manipulate crime scenes in order to improve his work. One night he comes upon a grisly murder-in-progress and sets in motion a series of even more dangerous events. Even though I normally don’t have much opinion about good acting, I was amazed at how Gyllenhaal lost 20 pounds to play this creepy guy. The way his eyes looked and the way he spoke, I had chills every second that he was on screen. The script was also very well written, mostly around creating this character who used a lot of the same business rationale and ideas that we use in our day-to-day work to explain and justify his amoral ambitions. It definitely made for a very memorable performance and a memorable film. (4 out of 5)

the-boxtrolls-imagem-2The Boxtrolls

Best Animated Feature

While I totally loved Disney’s Big Hero 6, I kind of think this movie is more deserving of the Oscar this time. Though this movie was made by an American animation studio (called Laika — I know, I hadn’t heard of them either, but they previously created Coraline and ParaNorman), it is set in Victorian England and features a primo British cast including Isaac Hempstead-Wright (who plays Bran on Game of Thrones), Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Elle Fanning (an American doing an alright British girl impersonation). The folktale-style story is about a town where every night, scary creatures called “boxtrolls” (part box, part troll — duh), come out to steal children and take them under the ground to devour them. This is, naturally, not what the boxtrolls really do, but rather propaganda spread by Mr. Snatcher — an odious, ambitious man who is trying to grab a place in upper-class society by ridding the town of boxtrolls. When Snatcher one day captures a boxtroll named Fish, that leads a young boy named Eggs to come up to the surface world to save his foster father. This movie not only contains a great blend of humour and adventure, but also a nice balance between sentiment and satire. Themes range from prejudice and the class system, to being courageous in embracing personal change. The animation has a kind of Tim Burton-esque spindliness, but it looks great, and I am amazed at how they were able to achieve some of the more complex action scenes during the climax. I think this movie is not only creative, with a literary pedigree (it’s based on a non-comic-book called Here Be Monsters!), but also fun, heart-warming, and well-meaning as well. (4 out of 5)

Oscar Schmoscar 2014

This year, I wasn’t sure that I’d have an “Oscar Schmoscar” post as I had hardly seen any of the major nominees. I don’t know why this year seemed to be the year of “individuals going through incredibly difficult ordeals”. From being adrift in space, to being held hostage by pirates, to being abducted and sold into slavery, none of those stories seemed to be something I’d enjoy for two hours. So, I kept putting off watching these movies (even Gravity, which kind of piqued my interest, being the sci-fi geek that I am). In the end, I’m glad I did watch them, not only because I have something to cheer for on Oscar night, but also because I’ve always felt that one of the goals of storytelling (especially filmmaking) should be to give the viewers a vicarious experience that they would not likely face in their own lives. It opens our mental universes up to all kinds of experiences. For that achievement, most of these nominees are winners already in my book.

gravity

Gravity

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects

It’s almost easier to list out the categories that Gravity was not nominated for this year. I have to say, I am especially gratified that the Academy is honouring a science fiction film (but I guess it might be because part of its big achievement is how unlike “fiction” it really is). Sandra Bullock does a pretty good job playing a loner scientist/astronaut who ends up largely alone when an accident kills the rest of the crew and destroys the space shuttle. If you didn’t already know, don’t get me wrong that this is a futuristic crew complete with jet-packs and laser pistols. The triumph of director Alfonso Cuaron and the rest of the film making team is that this is so realistic and contemporary a story that you can practically feel the carbon-dioxide building up in your own 2014 lungs as Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone tries to get herself to safety between orbiting space stations. I like this film for all those sound and editing awards because it is an awesome achievement what was done here. Granted, I have no actual baseline to compare what it might actually feel like to be adrift in space, but this movie feels viscerally real. The visuals of everything from a shuttle or space station being pummelled by fast-moving fragments flying through space, to the little drops of water suspended weightlessly like jewels in midair all add to the “right there with you” quality of the film. Gravity should definitely win for visual effects. I am assuming that most of the movie was done with visual effects, but I really couldn’t tell you where they begin or end. While any solo performance in a movie of this kind is going to be an achievement, I don’t know that Bullock deserves the Oscar here (though I haven’t really seen the other nominees either). Nevertheless, I guess she deserves a lot of credit for giving most of her performance through a space helmet. (4 out of 5)

gatsbylily

The Great Gatsby

Nominated for Best Production Design, Best Costume Design

As great as it was for flamboyant director Baz Luhrmann to make a return to the screen, it’s not a big surprise that the only nominations for The Great Gatsby are for design categories. As usual, there is a whole lot of visual flair to Luhrmann’s reinvention/adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald literary classic. Bringing back Leonardo DiCaprio, Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet lead, as the titular self-made big-spender was a savvy choice as DiCaprio gave us the perfect debonair, twinkle-eyed charm with a slight dusting of obsessive, red-faced mania. Archetypal ingenue Carey Mulligan is also well-cast as Daisy Buchanan, the object of Gatsby’s romantic quest. But the cherry on top is Tobey Maguire again playing to type as the naive narrator Nick Carraway, caught in the middle of all the glitz and drama. I don’t know the original story (nor the 1974 Robert Redford, Mia Farrow film version) so I don’t know if Luhrmann has taken any liberties with it (as he might in the interest of his romantic, melodramatic style). The film is set in the 20s, when enigmatic, rich, man-about-town Jay Gatsby was known to throw lavish, spectacular parties regularly for all the elite of New York. His neighbour Carraway is a young bonds trader who stumbles into the middle of a love triangle (more of a pentagon, actually), between Gatsby, Daisy, Daisy’s husband Tom (and his mistress Myrtle and her husband George). It’s all very sordid and tragic, but it looks great. I kind of feel like Luhrmann chose to adapt Gatsby solely because of the opportunity it gave him to stage these gigantic, opulent parties full of fountains and singers and sparkle wherever you turn. It’s kind of like the Moulin Rouge on no-fixed-budget. As you can imagine, the costumes from the 20s (well, the one-percenter costumes, anyway) look fabulous and both the men and women are always dressed impeccably in Luhrmann’s world (even in the slums!). As much as I enjoy the kind of back-of-hand-to-forehead storytelling in this movie, I can easily see how it didn’t make the cut for any of the other Oscar categories, but I’m really pulling for it to win these two. (4 out of 5)

12-Years-a-Slave-Epps-Threatens-Solomon

12 Years a Slave

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years a Slave was another movie that got rave reviews on the festival circuit and wide release, but the synopsis (a 19h century free black man is kidnapped and sold into slavery) was so clearly going to be unpleasant that I didn’t really know why I might put myself through enduring it. However, Best Actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor always gives a great performance (I know him from Serenity and Kinky Boots, but I see that he’s also done many more sombre roles) and he was excellent as the main character, Solomon Northup. Unfortunately, I really struggled to enjoy and admire this film. Tragic as the story was, and as unjust as Northup (and other slaves’) experience was, it didn’t feel to me as if a new story was being told. Not only had I heard this story in some form or other (maybe it wasn’t a free man who became a slave by kidnapping, but since no one chooses to be a slave, it’s all kidnapping to some degree) and the southern white characters were so horrific and broad. Once I saw Paul Dano on screen as one of the overseers, I knew exactly how he was going to be petty, spiteful, and take violent revenge on Solomon for some kind of perceived insult — totally called it. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson gave strong performances as slave owners, Mr. and Mrs. Epps, but take away the fancy frocks and antebellum setting and they were like two psychos. When they were arguing (Mrs. Epps threw a heavy crystal decanter right in the face of one of the slaves), I felt like I was watching some kind of tightly-wound horror movie. I realize that the message that slavery is a monstrous injustice never gets old, and that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but I don’t feel like this film proved that another film needed to be made about pre-Civil War slavery. When I look at all the nominations this movie has received, I am not sure that I would give any of them to this film. (4 out of 5)

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Captain Phillips

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Adapted Screenplay

If it weren’t for the Best Picture nom, I probably wouldn’t have seen this movie. The idea of watching a realistic depiction of how a commercial freighter captain survived the boarding of his ship by Somali pirates was not something that sounded like fun. However, I am supremely sad that director Paul Greengrass did not get a nom because I think he did an amazing job. This movie was gripping (i.e. my hands were gripping the armrest the whole time) and emotionally riveting. (That makes me want to go back and watch Greengrass’s United 93, which I also avoided similarly not wanting to live through such a harrowing experience on screen as the 9/11 flight hijacking.) Similar to Gravity, this movie can quickly be summarized by its premise and adding the words “real life” in there somewhere. I’ve watched many Die-Hard-esque action movies with similar situations where bad guys board a ship and take the captain hostage, but while I kept kind of waiting for Tom Hanks’s Captain Richard Phillips to lock and load, or take down the pirates with his bare hands, I also knew that wasn’t going to happen. This movie was based in the real world — in fact, it’s based on the account of the real Captain Phillips himself. That was never more felt than when the pirates are approaching the ship and Phillips orders them to turn on their big weapon — the hoses. I thought they were going to be like water cannons that the crew would fire at the pirates, knocking them into the cold ocean. Instead, they were more like fountains off the side of the ship, spraying in all directions as a deterrent to being boarded. Despite how underwhelmed I was at the hoses, at the same time I was extremely engaged as one of the crew struggled to reattach one of the hoses that had gone off target, allowing an opening for the pirates to attach a ladder to the side of the ship. Tom Hanks’s performance was so average it was amazing. Hanks has made a career out of playing the Everyman, regardless of the crazy situation Everyman finds himself in. I give him great credit for making me ask myself constantly throughout this movie, “Oh man, what would I do if I had been in his situation?”. Where that was most true was at the end of the movie when Phillips is safe and breaks down a little from the emotional strain that sneaks up on him, I was also having a very emotional reaction to that moment (which is incredibly wimpy, I know, since I was neither held hostage by pirates nor acting as if I had). For giving me that little episode alone, I think Hanks deserves the Oscar. As for Barkhad Abdi’s nomination for supporting actor (as Muse, the Somali pirate “captain”), I don’t know what to say. It’s hard to judge a person’s performance with so few words but so much yelling (it seems all the Somalis do is yell). If it means anything, I totally saw him as a Somali pirate, one walking a very thin line. I would love if this movie won for Best Picture, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. (4.5 out of 5)

Oscar Schmoscar 2013

Each year I write this post for two reasons: 1) to show how much I don’t really care about the nominees (not really true) and 2) do quickie reviews of the nominated movies that I haven’t already reviewed separately. Back when there were fewer Best Picture noms, I tried to watch all of them by Oscar time so at least I would have someone to root for. Now there are just so many nominees from so many different movies, I often find that I have no time or inclination to catch up with all the major ones. Nevertheless, here are a few more that I’ve watched that have not received my particular brand of commentary until now.

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Les Miserables

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Original Song, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing

I don’t think many were surprised that Les Miserables received so many nominations. A beloved dramatic musical, based on a classic piece of literature, featuring an all-star cast, with an Oscar-winning director (Tom Hooper, who won in 2011 for directing The King’s Speech) seems like pure Oscar-bait. Nevertheless, that didn’t mean it could escape my expectations as a huge fan of the original musical. Part of the challenge for Hooper would be how to pull off the musical performances while trying to keep the movie from being too stagey or cheesy — that’s always the challenge of movie-musicals. Too often the scenes are shot so far off, in order to capture the spectacle and grandeur of a scene, that we don’t get a close enough view of the performers singing. On stage we feel the immediacy of the performances because they’re live in front of us, but in a movie if we can’t see them sing we lose that dramatic connection and what’s the point? I’ve been told that Hooper wanted to capture the authenticity of the live performance by having the actors not pre-record their audio but sing it in the scene. That can be a challenge for the actors, but it seems to have made the performances a lot more dramatic. Hugh Jackman really got to show his chops as main character Jean Valjean (a prisoner who spends his life on the run when he breaks his parole and later takes care of a young orphan). His singing is able to carry the same kind of emotional weight that a spoken performance would have. That’s even more so for Ann Hathaway’s performance as Fantine (the mother of the orphan Cosette and former factory worker turned prostitute), and especially her gut-wrenching rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” that was so raw and sad that I’m not sure I’d want to watch it again — and that’s part of the problem.

I don’t think anyone who did not already love these songs before would have been won over by hearing them in this movie. I couldn’t believe how quietly the orchestration was mixed in to already more-subdued vocal performances (I seriously question that nomination for Best Sound Mixing). Whenever one of the solos would start, you could hear the people in the audience clearing their throats or shuffling in their seats, without any music to drown them out. I found that unnervingly distracting. Also, perhaps Hooper didn’t want to use the music as a dramatic crutch, because there are certain moments that a fan comes to expect where the orchestration is supposed to swell and the singer hits a note that “stirs the soul”. A few times in this movie, that note was much quieter in favour of providing a more intimate feeling or a clearer understanding of what’s being said by the lyrics. Complaints aside, the movie version has a lot to recommend it. I loved seeing the scope of the story (the realism made it more obvious how terrible the conditions of the poor actually were, and how small a rebellion the events of this movie really depicted) played out against a backdrop of actual buildings and other magnificent sets and scenery. Also, it was much easier to understand what was happening (though again that made some of the conceits of the musical a bit harder to swallow). Other notable performances include Russell Crowe being mediocre (acting not bad, singing was “meh”) as the pursuing officer Javert, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the always-clever, sneaky inn-keeper Thenardier and his wife. All in all, it was an adequate movie, but because it doesn’t fully satisfy as a dramatic film or a movie-musical, I don’t think it deserves to be Best Picture (4 out of 5).

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Moonrise Kingdom

Nominated for Best Original Screenplay

This movie made plenty of 2012 top ten lists and that will always be a huge surprise for me. While I’ll admit that the quirky story of two kids in love who sneak away from their families (and scout troops) in order to be together, causing a local panic and several search parties, is cute and a little bit fun, I don’t understand the unadulterated praise for this movie. Director Wes Anderson has a very distinct style that comes across in the dialogue and the way all the characters seem to be in a slightly off-kilter reality from our own. (All the actors — including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton — seem like they are trying very hard to keep a straight face.) Add to that the 1960s styling and this movie has got charm to spare. Since this movie is also relatively static, I can see how it’s really the script that carries a lot of the weight. To that end, I guess this is not a bad nomination for Original Screenplay. Overall, however, I give it only a 3.5 out of 5

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay

I confess that I was originally drawn to this movie by the title alone (I still think that is a fabulous title regardless of what the movie is about), but then I started to hear how this too was one of the most acclaimed movies of the year and I started to wonder what all the hype was about. Sadly it also did not live up for me. Quvenzhane Wallis got her Oscar nomination for playing Hushpuppy, the precocious young daughter of a gruff father who together try to live day-to-day in the stormy, flood-drenched part of southern Louisiana. This might be a movie about Hurricane Katrina, but it’s mostly about this young child and her father. Without doubt, Wallis’s performance was impressive, but it reminded me of Anna Paquin’s Oscar-winning performance in The Piano, where a young girl is lauded for acting like a young girl. I have never been a good judge of acting performances, and I’m not sure I really understand this one (the movie is odd and a little surreal). I would be amazed if this movie won for Best Picture, but Wallis might have a chance at her early Oscar. (3.5 out of 5)

Best Animated Feature nominees

I may not have watched all the Best Picture nominees, but at least this year I have seen all the Best Animated Feature films (the same was not true of last year when the ballot contained a couple of foreign animated movies). I am a big animation fan, so this won’t be surprising, but what is sadly surprising to me is that there is no clear winner in my mind (not even in a year with a Pixar nominee!). I enjoyed Brave (see here for my full review) but it was not Pixar’s best effort and is not a shoo-in in my books.

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Pirates! Band of Misfits

Aardman Studios has never been one of the big animation studios, though it’s always been the king of the smaller ones and it seems that most of its feature projects tend to get Oscar nominations. In the case of Pirates! I’m not sure it’s really that well-deserved. The movie about a second-rate pirate captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) trying to rebuild his reputation and hitching his star to a dodo bird is good, silly fun to say the least, and the animation is as good as any other Aardman production (which is to say top-notch stop-motion) but the movie was still just a lot of nudge-nudge wink-wink humour and the overall story seems chaotic and hard to really care about. (3.5 out of 5)

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Wreck-It Ralph

I was so certain that this movie was going to be the Pixar movie that Brave did not turn out to be (even though it’s not made by Pixar). That is to say, like The Incredibles, I thought they were going to take a genre (in this case video-games rather than super-heroes) and create a world full of fun characters (many of them being the actual characters from video games) to tell a fresh, original story that plays with the genre. Unfortunately, I found Wreck-It Ralph to be a bit disjointed, telling the story of Ralph trying to become a hero rather than the villain he was always playing in his own Donkey-Kong style game, but also the story of Vanellope, an adorable little girl who races in a candy-themed video game. I was incredibly disappointed that the characters that were borrowed from actual games had only brief, passing cameos at most and once we got into the main story only the new characters created for this movie actually played any significant role. John C. Reilly did a wonderful job as the lovable lug of a main character, and Sarah Silverman was sweeter than saccharin as the spunky Vanellope. Unfortunately, I felt that this movie was too much of a bait-and-switch, exchanging a clever video-game satire for another girly-kids animated adventure about self-worth. (3.5 out of 5)

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Frankenweenie and ParaNorman

While Hollywood always seems to come out with movies in pairs, I was surprised that one of this year’s pairs is a set of stop-motion animated movies about young, unpopular boys who cross the line between life and death. Frankenweenie has the amazing pedigree of director Tim Burton at the helm (after his previous macabre, animated masterpieces such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride). Loosely based on the Mary Shelley characters of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creature, in this story, a modern-day young Victor grieves the loss of this faithful dog Sparky until he realizes that he can be brought back to life with lightning (and all kinds of other meaningless scientific doohickeys). The movie is charming with many satirical horror movie references, and tries to achieve some matinee-movie magic by being filmed in black-and-white. Thankfully this movie is more creature-feature than melancholic elegy as Victor’s “friends” get carried away and pretty soon the town is amok with reanimated little monsters. I found this movie to be a lot of fun and clearly a labour of love for Burton and the animators, but it felt a bit too much like an homage and not enough like a fresh new story in the way that ParaNorman achieved a little better. In that movie, Kodi Smit-McPhee (you may remember him as the quiet boy who befriended a vampire in Let Me In) voices Norman, a young kid with spiky hair who also sees dead people. This makes him misunderstood by his family and unpopular with the other kids (including an oafish bully unfortunately named Alvin). Before long, Norman learns that his curse/gift is part of his destiny and intended to allow him to stop a witch’s curse on the town which will cause the dead to rise again. He forms an 80s-style rag-tag band of teenagers with his sister, his new buddy Neil, Neil’s brother Mitch, and Alvin the bully in order to save the town from the curse. A few predictable things happen, but many more unpredictable things happen as well. While I enjoyed both these movies immensely, I do not recommend them for young kids (as they are both horror-movie-themed and a little scary), but I do recommend ParaNorman (4.5 out of 5) over Frankenweenie (4 out of 5) for kids and adults old enough to enjoy them.

I usually get to review animated shorts, but I didn’t have the time to hunt for them this year. Also, I’m going to try to watch Argo when it comes out on video in a couple of weeks to add to my list of viewed Best Picture nominees (hopefully before the Oscars), and I’m planning to finish watching the Foreign Film nominee from Canada, War Witch. Maybe I’ll even update this post with a few more comments.

Oscar Schmoscar 2012

Last year’s nominees had a few pleasant surprises that I would have regretted missing out on if not for the noms. This year, nothing really compelled me and it’s unfortunate that I didn’t find the Best Picture nominees to be much of a checklist for exploration. Even the critics don’t love them all, since Hugo and The Artist (maybe Moneyball and The Descendants) are probably the only ones with universal acclaim. Of the ones I’ve now seen, I enjoyed Midnight in Paris the most. Let’s see how things go on Oscar night.

The Artist

Nominated for Best picture, Best actor, Best supporting actress, Best director, Best original screenplay, Best cinematography, Best art direction, Best film editing, Best costume design, and Best original score (Phew, that’s a list!)

Wow! So much hype/buzz for this movie! The reviews are incredible, but I gotta say, it didn’t live up for me. It was hard for me to bring myself to watch this movie since it is black and white (not my favourite format) and also a silent movie (even worse in my books). Those two choices clearly fit with the story, since it’s about a silent film star named George Valentin (sounds like a thinly-veiled allusion to matinee idol Rudolph Valentino) who goes from the heights of stardom all the way to self-destructive rock-bottom as talkies come on the scene and take over Hollywood. Parallel to his story is the opposite tale of Peppy Miller, the young ingenue who gets her start from a shared photo-op with Valentin, which leads to a Hollywood rise to the top. Valentin is played by Oscar nominee Jean Dujardin, who is incredibly charming and really knows how to work his mustachioed smile. He does a great job expressing himself in a silent film (I can’t wait to see him in a regular movie). In fact, I think a lot of these nominations were given to this movie for the result that this movie is an amazing recreation of the original silent films of the 1920s. As I was watching, it was very easy for me to forget that this film was made in 2011. The look (a nom for art direction), the style (noms for cinematography, costumes and editing), and the performances (noms for actor and supporting actress) all testify to their success. But unlike the Academy members, that homage (loving and meticulous as it may be) was not enough for me to fully-enjoy this movie. I’m a bit surprised at the screenplay nom because I didn’t really think there was a lot of imagination in this story. Plus, I actually felt these characters were a bit unrealistic (I guess even that was meant to be exaggerated like a silent movie). If someone is interested in films of that era, I’d sooner recommend the actual silent films (not that I’ve seen many) than The Artist. This movie was too much like a self-referential replica (3.5 out of 5)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Nominated for Best actor, Best adapted screenplay, Best original score

For a spy movie, I found this one almost inscrutable. A far cry from the high-tech hijinks of Tom Cruise and his IM Force, this movie (based on the John LeCarre classic novel) harkens back to the Cold War days when spies were more about secrecy than stunts. The movie starts out with some kind of exchange of secrets that leads to a double-cross and cobblestones red with blood. After that event, so many things became a blur of betrayals and innuendo that I definitely couldn’t keep track. Adding to the challenge was the fact that the movie itself skipped back and forth in time so that the truth about certain events were revealed in bits and pieces. Unfortunately it was not very clear (in other words there weren’t any real visual cues) when a scene was from the past or the present. Gary Oldman, nominated for his role as spymaster Smiley, was suitably subtle and calm most of the film. Perhaps there was some kind of subtext, some kind of tension that I missed which added to the calibre of Oldman’s performance, but frankly I didn’t see it. Much like most of the film, it snuck right by me. (3 out of 5)

Bridesmaids

Nominated for Best supporting actress, Best original screenplay

I don’t really understand Oscar nominations for comedies. It’s hard to see them competing against the dramas which always appear more substantial. There’s been a lot of hype already about the infamous bridal shop bathroom scene, but can that really rival a tense emotional stand-off, a dramatic piece of speechifying, or a heart-rending moment of tragedy? How can it? I know lots of people love this movie (box office receipts confirm it) but I didn’t even like it. It seemed too much like a regular Judd Apatow (also a producer on this one) movie where the protagonist is and becomes a loser in every way possible until at the end he saved by the love of friends and/or love interest. The only difference this time around is that it’s all “shes”. Yes, we get the point, women can be as crude, insecure, hot-headed, immature, vulgar, childish, horny, bizarre, callous, and unromantic as any man. Once I’ve conceded that point, it’s like torture to watch star Kristen Wiig as situation after situation goes to town with Murphy’s Law and takes her life down to rock-bottom. These situations are so ridiculously over-the-top that they almost absolve the character from our judgment since it’s clearly not her fault for being jealous of her best friend’s new best friend that all these insane things occur. I don’t really get how those quiet naturalistic scenes where one friend speaks frankly and honestly with another can exist alongside a scene that has the bride taking a dump in the middle of traffic wearing an expensive designer wedding gown. As for Melissa McCarthy’s performance, I’ve always found her quite enjoyable on TV, and whether this odd role of the brazen, raunchy sister-in-law-to-be is worthy of the Oscar is hard to say. She does successfully blend the crazy with the sensitive to turn her character into someone who actually goes from repulsive to lovable over the course of the movie. That’s got to be worth something. (2.5 out of 5)

The Help

Nominated for Best picture, Best actress, Best supporting actress (x2)

This movie is kind of the flip-side of Bridesmaids, also featuring a cast dominated by women (men are barely seen) but despite its humourous moments, it touches on much more serious subject matter. Ostensibly this is the story of two strong-willed maids, played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (they’re the ones with those Oscar noms) who struggle against the oppression of their employers (led by a villainous queen bee(hive) played with civilized, lipsticked hatred by Bryce Dallas Howard). That being said, it’s not really as subversive as it pretends to be. Is this our first time learning that white employers in the 1960s American South did not treat their black maids with much respect? However, I guess this is a story of one of those little revolutions all over the US that led to the Civil Rights movement. Keep in mind this is a fictional story, so it’s got that nice no-wax Hollywood shine — complete with liberal-convert character, played by the wonderful Emma Stone. She’s the would-be journalist who helps the ladies get their story published. I’m guessing the reality for these women was probably a lot messier. In any case, I thought this movie was dramatic, enjoyable, and definitely made me think. If that was its goals, then it deserves its 4 out of 5.

The Adventures of Tin Tin

Nominated for Best original score

The lack of a nomination for Best animated feature for this movie is a bit of a surprise. True enough, the story was not the most coherent. Most of the time we just follow along with young reporter Tin Tin as he chases after clues that only he can put together. However, it’s enough that the addition of magnificent CGI visuals would be enough to make the movie worth a nom. Anyway, the gist of this story is that Tin Tin and his buddy, Captain Haddock are trying to find out the plans of villainous Mr. Sakarhine and how they relate to a model ship that Tin Tin acquired which represents an old sailing vessel known as The Unicorn (which was captained by Haddock’s ancestor). There’s treasure involved as well as all kinds of swashbuckling adventures as the gang (which includes an adorable canine sidekick called Snowy) hop around the world in pursuit of answers. While it was still very clear that Tin Tin was an animated character, the design was a perfect blend of the original two-dimensional version with a motion-captured, fully-rendered three dimensional figure. As you might expect, the landscapes and backdrops were also masterfully animated. From the deserts of Morocco, to several European ports, the scenes always felt very deep and immersive. The superiority of the CGI camera is always that it can fly around the artificial location much easier than an actual camera might. Director Steven Spielberg is usually quite a hit-maker, so it’s sad to see that this movie wasn’t as well-received given its potential to be a fresh and lucrative franchise. Voice performances from Jamie Bell as Tin Tin, and (an unrecognized by me) Daniel Craig as the villain, were pretty good. Motion capture maestro Andy Serkis also appears in this film as the voice of Captain Haddock, along with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the twin inspectors Thomson and Thompson. Sadly, I don’t actually recall the Oscar-nominated score (so I doubt that it’s going to win). All in all this is a fun-hearted movie that had all the right pieces, but just couldn’t get that extra something to put it into the winners’ circle. (3.5 out of 5)

Oscar, Schmoscar 2011

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.

127 Hours

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)

Black Swan

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)

Winter’s Bone

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)

The Gruffalo

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).

Incendies

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)