Wednesday, February 24, 2010

List #30: My Ranking of 8 Nominees for Best Picture

I am not the biggest movie buff and most years I only see one or two of the films up for Best Picture. If I watch the Oscars, it is usually to cheer for one of the charming, spunky, underdog films for that year, films like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno. This year I decided to watch as many of the films up for Best Picture as I could. So far I’ve seen 8 out of 10 but it doesn’t look like I'll have the time to see either Precious or Up before March 7. (When I do see them, I will add them to my list below.)

How would I rank the eight films nominated for Best Picture? Here are my subjective rankings from worst to best:

8) The Blind Side
The saving grace of this film is that it is rather faithfully based on a true story. It is a true story made for a movie; most of the parts that are trite and cliché really did happen. The plot revolves around a young man named Michael Oher who grows up in the slums of Memphis. His childhood is horrific. On account of his physical gifts, Michael finds his way into a Christian prep school in Memphis’ white, affluent suburbs. Homeless, he is adopted into a wealthy family who groom him to make him eligible to play college football and, eventually, play in the NFL. Unlike the book, the film ignores the severe ethical questions about the influence of money in college athletics. The movie sticks to the feel-good, emotional side of the story. A few scenes caused me to tear up.
Best parts: Hilarious cameos by the coaches of SEC football teams, Sandra Bullock’s star power.
Worst parts: The film’s analysis of race and racial dynamics is often lousy and many scenes come off as patronizing and preachy. However, the presence of the most annoying child actor ever (Jae Head) is what sends this film to the bottom of the list.

7) District 9
When aliens arrive from outer space they usually come to destroy the earth or to teach us some important lesson about life. In District 9 the aliens arrive to use our social welfare systems. Set in South Africa, the “prawns” (the derogatory term for the aliens) are housed in squalid townships, eat cat food, and live in plywood shacks. The prawns live under a system much like apartheid, are preyed upon by Nigerian warlords, and are horribly exploited by Blackwater-esque private military contractors who try to find a way to harvest the aliens’ advanced weaponry. I was fully engrossed when I watched this film but now I look back and can’t remember why I liked it.
Best parts: This is not a moment per se, but I think it is pretty remarkable that director Neill Blomkamp was able to create this film for only $30 million. That is extremely inexpensive for a sci-fi action-adventure movie.
Worst parts: The movie’s message is as subtle as a train wreck. OK, we get it. It is an allegory for apartheid and also for refugee crises and the military-industrial complex. On the other hand, Sharlto Copley perfectly plays the incompetent Wikus Van De Merwe. His fumbling calls to mind every project that has been botched by someone holding a position because of nepotism rather than merit. “You’re doing a heckuva job, Wikus.”

6) Avatar
I admit that I went into this film expecting not to like it. I was surprised with how much I liked it. Sort of. First of all, the film is absolutely visually stunning. It deserves enormous credit for all of its technological innovations. I can’t say enough about this aspect of the film. While I do worry that I’m going to have to wear 3D glasses every time I go to the cinema from now on (some of the 3D stuff was quite forced) I found myself absolutely mesmerized by the world James Cameron creates on Pandora. As in District 9, the allegory in Avatar was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Colonialism, Blackwater-esque private military outfits, environmental exploitation. The racial issues in the film are, at best, pretty rough around the edges and could have used some reworking.
Best parts: Exploring the planet Pandora; the acting of Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver.
Worst parts: Apart from the fact that Jake Sully’s avatar behaved like Keanu Reaves, the last 30 minutes of the movie were painfully cliché and trite. Didn’t we see all this before with the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi?

5) An Education
I am a Nick Hornby completist. If Hornby publishes his grocery list, I will read it. If Hornby writes an adapted screenplay based on somebody else’s grocery list, I will go see the movie. An Education is Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir. In the movie Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a London schoolgirl in the early 1960s who is on her way to Oxford if she can bring up her Latin grades a bit and keep practicing the cello. Jenny comes to realize the limited opportunities available to her as a “proper woman” and instead seeks out worldly pleasures with a playboy twice her age who takes her to jazz clubs, art auctions, trendy restaurants, musical performances, and Paris. It is a film about the courage, cost, and wisdom of breaking cultural norms.
Best parts: The acting of Carey Mulligan as Jenny was superb. Also, Rosamund Pike (Helen) is a joy to watch as she brings a lot of levity to the film. At times she is an airhead. Other times she acts as a caring older sister figure to Jenny. The face she makes at the classical music concert is hilarious.
Worst parts: It is hard to point to anything about this film that is bad. The film’s narrative arc was a little flat and the ending was a let down.

4) A Serious Man
It is the late 1960s and the world is changing fast for Larry Gopnik (played wonderfully by Michael Stuhlbarg.) Gopnik is a physics professor trying to get tenure at a college in a small Midwestern town. His wife is having an affair in front of his face. His children are insolent. His brother takes advantage of Gopnik’s hospitality while hiding his own legal troubles. His neighbor walks all over him. He can’t get no respect. He turns to his Jewish faith to try to make sense of his existential suffering and discover what it means to be a serious man. He turns to a series of three rabbis who give him unsatisfactory responses. It is a retelling of the story of Job.
Best parts: The film’s mysterious Yiddish beginning involving a dybbuk is very cool. Fred Melamed’s turn as Sy Abelman, a man who embraces the cultural ethos of the late 60s, is both cringe-inducing and delightful.

3) Up in the Air
Writer and director Jason Reitman gives us one of the best films of the year with Up in the Air, a film that perceptively captures the spirit of the times. George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a traveling “transition specialist” whose job is to oversee corporate layoffs. He lives by the motto that anything he can’t carry with him in his backpack—family, relationships, belongings—is dead weight that will hold him back. If he isn’t moving, he is dying. He spends 320 days a year flying from city to city and his singular goal in life is to earn 10 million American Airlines frequent flyer miles. Insert some twists and complications caused by co-stars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick and you have a movie. Add in the voices and testimonies of those who have lost jobs and you have a deep connection with the present.
Best part: Vera Farmiga’s role as “Alex.”
Worst part: I am really going to have to dig deep to come up with a worst part, but here goes: The cameo by Young M.C. Young M.C. was a late 80s rapper who, like DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, helped popularize cartoonish rap among white junior high students. His biggest hit was the song “Bust a Move.” To “bust a move” is to seize the moment, take the initiative, or, you know, carpe diem. (It just now occurs to me that this could be a great catch-phrase for a motivational speaker.) Twenty years later Young M.C. has put on some weight and, apparently, performs at corporate events, weddings, and proms. The economy is even tough for Young M.C., it seems. But, what astounds me is that one day Jason Reitman was sitting around in a room with his producers and someone decided, let’s get Young M.C. to make a cameo in our movie. Such impulsive decision making makes Up in the Air unworthy of an Oscar.

2) The Hurt Locker
It really came down to a toss-up between my favorite and second favorite Oscar contender of the year. Second place goes to The Hurt Locker. This film is set in Iraq and follows a unit of soldiers whose unenviable task is to locate and disarm improvised explosive devices. The film is relentlessly stressful from beginning to end. Jeremy Renner steals the show playing Staff Sergeant William James, a reckless risk-taker who has become addicted to the thrill of brushes with death. Even though the movie aspires to a kind of hyper-realism, parts of it stretch the limits of believability. One would think that some of James’ rogue antics would not be tolerated. If you can willingly suspend this disbelief the film shows itself to be much, much more than a war movie. It is a meditation on masculinity, courage, survival, and the limits of sanity.
Best part: Unlike many of this year’s “message movies,” The Hurt Locker manages to be deeply insightful without being preachy. Rather than moralizing the viewer into submission (see Avatar and District 9) this film, like my number one film of the year, avoids such simplistic messaging by opening up space for questions and deliberation.

1) Inglourious Basterds
If I explained and justified my selection of I. G. as the movie most deserving of the Academy Award I would give away the conclusion to the sermon I am planning to preach this Sunday. After I deliver that sermon I will make an extra post with my argument for why I. G. deserves the Oscar.
Best part: The incredibly tense first scene in which Christoph Waltz interrogates a French farmer who is hiding a Jewish family in his home.