Sunday, February 13, 2011

My awards show has a first name...

I am pleased to report that I had better advance planning this season than last, so I only needed to fit in 2 films before the big night, and they are both still in theatres.

It's time once again for the Drawing In Room's favorite list...

Bender's Oscar Pix
In this 2nd year of the Field of 10, we are learning to expect a big popcorn fan-pleaser, at least one mainstream TV movie that your Aunt Linda can talk about comfortably, the "hard" actors' movies, the technical envelope pusher, the Ripped from the Headlines era definer.... we'll see over time if this slotting continues.  Or if the Academy will come to their senses and dial this back to 5.

In the meantime, learning to anticipate the contenders well in advance has become a new twist on handicapping the Oscars.  Do not be confused by my rankings or my commentary.  I did like all of these films.   But only one goes home with gold.  Time to sort.

10:  The Kids are All Right - this year's Blind Side space-holder. (King's Speech, of course, is in the period English slot founded by An Education.  More on that in a minute)  Have I lived in Massachusetts so long that I forget there are people left who don't know gay couples?

Let me clarify that this story is not about homosexuality.  It is, in fact, about adultery.  There.  spoiler.  And despite whatever happened at the Hollywood Foreign Press screening to make them think it was a comedy, it is not. ("well, the sun was shining all the time, and there were flowers."  Or maybe the thought of how seriously ruined American marriages are by affairs is just hilarious .)

Some mesmerizing acting by two leading ladies, though Julianne Moore skirts the edge of her 30 Rock character and Annette Bening borrows heavily from her American Beauty turn as a different ambitious put-upon wife of a lackadaisical spouse who suddenly finds extracurricular focus.

There is a lot to like in this film, but mostly I did not like this film.  It holds #10 on my list, under films I liked even less, but will explain in time.

9:  The King's Speech -  Many people can not abide Helena Bonham-Carter.  I can, on contrary, abide within Helena Bonham-Carter.  Who I can not abide is Geoffrey Rush, so that is a shame, isn't it?  At any rate, I found her believable as the young Duchess turned Queen, and could see her aging into the Queen Mum of my own lifetime, who Her Majesty called "Mummy," right to the very end.  Good story, interesting history, a family film (which can be hard to come by), charmingly acted and beautifully dressed.  So... #9?  These bottom 5 are films I do not believe would have been nominated in the traditional field, and King's Speech is not terribly cinematic or transporting.  Then again, seen Chariots of Fire lately...? zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

8:  Inception - 1 of very few original screenplays written this year, and as written by its director, gets the "auteur" nod.  I can recognize when films of this kind are well-made, even when I find them a crashing bore.  The concept itself is interesting, but required too many repeated explainings and still didn't stick.  The thing we are risking our lives and sanity to chase is dumber than The Ring of Perspicacity, or whatever it was those hobbits were after.  And can we all admit that if you are going to have a character's murderous dead wife haunt him -- twice in 2 years -- he shouldn't be played by Leonardo DiCaprio in both films?

7: The Social Network - I don't believe for a minute that Mark Zuckerburg didn't on some level endorse a film that would re-energize interest in the Facebook just when it looked like every American who was going to get a profile did.  It may paint him in a bad light, but I don't know that anyone in there comes out a winner.  I found the story fascinating.  I really didn't know what was going to happen, or how it all was born.  Funny thing is, I was embroiled in the decline of when Facebook was born.  I had sort of missed it.

I am kind of a cheap fall for Aaron Sorkin, too.  And sue me for following J.T. wherever he goes.  The Social Network may have been nominated in a smaller pool, but not this year.  It is up against too many other films that just have it going in all directions.  It will have to go in the back of my pack.

6: The Fighter - Oh, we love our Down-and-Dirty in Massachusetts movies, don't we?  OOoo....haaah..?
It is hard to make an original boxing movie.  Man is born hard, man finds gym, man wears scary shorts, "cut me Mick," man triumphs against the odds.

Here's the full disclosure of what I personally brought to this viewing:  I saw Rocky 6 times in the summer of 1976.  I respect that Raging Bull is one of the great films of the past 50 years, but I find it unwatchable.  The Lowell dear to me has nothing to do with boxing or crack.  You never, nev-ah, think you're better than anyone else in Massachusetts, you nev-ah go outside the family, and the madder you get, the more you f**kin say f**kin in every f**kin sentence.  One interviewer described the characters as "realer than real," and film maker David O Russell replied that they actually dialed them down for the film.  I believe that.

Among the gritty true grit movies this season, The Fighter had some stiff competition, and I am going to favor the others over this one.

5: Winter's Bone - to wit.
In fact, this would be a fine double feature.  Put this in your "Setting as Character in America Cinema" film survey class.  Where The Fighter's family is loud, bold, chest-thumpingly aggressive, the Dollys are soft-spoken, quietly edgy, with long silence spaces waiting for someone to take a swing.  In fact, there is more bare-knuckle fighting in Winter's Bone than in The Fighter.  You say crack; I say meth.  Both show what the womenfolk will do just to keep the family from disintegrating.

What I appreciated more in Winter's Bone was the way nothing was explained to me, the outsider.  No one had to stand in for my character.  I just had to read the story.  When a filmmaker is brave enough to trust me to work along with her, and is skilled enough to bring me into her world, that feels like a better movie to me.  And I say she because Debra Granik of Winter's Bone does, and David O. Russell of The Fighter does less so.  But he is nominated.

4:  Toy Story 3 - Because an animated film needs a spot.  I don't suffer sequels easily.  I don't just go in for Pixar for Pixar's sake.  Toy Story 3 is different because Toy Story 3 is brilliant.

The story expands on the universe we know both more deeply and more widely, by taking Woody and Buzz to the literal brink of real danger against a truly sinister villain.  The laughs are big too -- Spanish Woody is just absurd -- and balance the tension at the right moments and in the right amounts. Lasseter and team mine new material out of the chorus of toys we thought had done all they were going to do.  And if you didn't choke up at the end of that giant "cartoon," well, there might be something wrong with you.

3:  True Grit - When I started this pick list a few hours ago, I would not have expected True Grit would appear this high on the list.  There is really nothing wrong with the original film that won John Wayne his Oscar (that is not improved upon by casting).  But set it aside from its predecessor, and it is a fine film on its own.  And simply speaking like Mattie Ross can be an enjoyable pastime all on its own.

But here are the facts: Westerns are rarely nominated in this category, and they even more rarely win.  On the other hand, the last 2 times they were, they did (Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven).  On the other hand, the last nomiee before that was in the 60's, and the last winner before that was in 1930.  So bet carefully.  I would be happy enough with a Hailee Steinfeld/Kim Darby joint podium, presenting Best Costume.

2: Black Swan -  I have seen it twice this season, which was one time more enough to spot some questionable moments in the a narrative, but maybe one too few to resolve them.  I will save that study for the DVD, and in the meantime, just respond to the fact that I didn't move in my seat through the entire film.  And I hate a theater seat.

Now this is a tough pick, because I think category-for-category, True Grit is the better all-around film.  And it is not True Grit's fault that I had seen it before.  (well, it sort of is, but you know what I mean).  So I bump Black Swan up a slot for pulling me in, even though this is in most ways the Prima Ballerina story we have seen a million times.  All I can tell you is that once a film has made a physical impression, it is a lasting one, and I can predict coming back to it many times.  And we finally got Natalie and Winona in a film  together, which has long been one of my goals.

This could be Aronofsky's year in the Director's category, though, on what was a technically difficult film to shoot.  Not as obvious as Inception, but you try laying dolly track around that many mirrors.  There's more to it than just making beautiful women look heinous, though he is good at that too.

1: 127 Hours - Surprised?  So was I.
I thought for a while, as I kept pushing it up the list, that it had the advantage of being the last of the group I saw, and I saw it only yesterday.  And there may be something to that.

If you can't stand these kind of claustrophobic Castaway locked-cave movies, I won't try to tell you it is not like that.  It is very much like that, and "we" are Wilson, witness to deathbed conversions through the digital video lens.  It is only a little less corny in its ending and a little less Hollywood in its structure. The "where the heck is the camera" tricks are just as mesmerizing.  The amputation is as bloody as you have heard -- 1000 times more squirm-inducing than Tom Hanks performing dentistry with an ice skate.

What makes 127 Hours the superior film is that it tells its story in 93 minutes.  That is some tight story-telling, controlled beats, great acting.  Castaway: 143 minutes, a lot of hair and sinew.  And much too long a denouement.  As a result, no story-telling Oscar nominations.  127 Hours: screenplay, editing, both music categories.  Not Direction, more's the pity.  This might be the first Danny Bole film I actually liked.  Someday we'll understand his fascination with human waste.

So -- my prediction?
After all this lar-di-da, my prediction is actually The Social Network.  Because the field is too large, and the votes will be split.  Because Jeff Bridges already had his party last year.  Toy Story will take the Animated Film category.  King's Speech will take a stand, but Tom Hopper is at his heart a TV director and it shows.  The Fighter and Winter's Bone will compete for the same votes.   After that, everyone goes for their personal favorites, and I think that puts The Social Network on the heavy end of the scale.

If you follow this blog, you know I am nearly always wrong.

As a special treat, the lifetime achievement award goes to Christian Bale's pecs.


  1. His pecks - oooo-ah!
    Great list and commentary.

  2. You are far more skilled at this than I, even if you are often wrong. this will be good food for thought as I watch and keep score. thanks!!

    ps: extra credit for watching the whole 93 minutes of 127 hours!

  3. Brilliant, as usual. I completely agree about "Inception!" "Crashing bore..." Love it! And nowhere near as compelling or mystifying as "Memento."
    The only other one I've seen is "Black Swan" and I'm shocked that you have it as number two. The acting and dancing was fabulous, but the whole thing was too creepy, even for me.
    I'm also shocked that you have "127 Hours" in first place! I'm dying to see it, but no one will go with me! I might have to go alone tonight.
    Anyway, where will you be on Oscar night??

  4. Miss Bender attends the church of Oscar at home, where no one talks through production numbers, and she doesn't have to explain the references. category-by-category commentary will be posted.

  5. I loved this! I have not seen any of these movies but trust your review of them more than anyone's. Very entertaining!

    I have seen Tangled, which I HIGHLY recommend. Weird, I know! But even Patrick loved it. We actually saw it twice. Go figure.


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