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It's Oscar week! So let's talk movies!

I never managed to see all the Best Picture nominees back when there were only five, but last year I made it to six and this year I've watched all ten.

Fun as it is to see more great films recognized, I like to speculate about which ones would make the cut if the Oscars were as they used to be and only five could score a nomination. Just for kicks, here is my ranking of this year's Best Picture-nominated films (lots of cuts for lots of pretentious rambling about films):


10. The Kids Are All Right
Unfulfilled personal lives, career frustrations, and children growing up and becoming independent put strain on a marriage, with the result that one partner stumbles into an affair with the friend she'd turned to for support. But the couple work it out in the end, because their kids remind them of what's important. Hasn't this movie been made before? Several times? Just not with a lesbian couple, their sperm donor, and their children. But Oscar-worthy films should be original, and despite providing some laughs and touching moments, this one just isn't.

The title, in my opinion, is an apt descriptor, though perhaps not in the way the filmmakers intended: the kids are lovely and will grow up to be lovely adults, no thanks to the actual adults in their lives, all of whom I found to be unlikeable by the end of the movie, even though the script does its best to make us believe they all learned a lesson, though what that lesson is I'm less sure of.


9. Winter's Bone
This adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's novel caught my attention because the story--an impoverished teenage girl in the Ozarks struggling to care for her younger siblings and mentally ill mother while her meth-dealing father is on the lam from the police--has echoes of one of my favorite books, Catherine Marshall's Christy. (It even features Dale Dickey, who played Opal McHone in the short-lived Christy TV series.) Winter's Bone is a poignant story and a fine film, well-executed in every department, particularly acting, for which it garnered two Oscar nods. However, the pacing is ponderous, which, while befitting the somber, even futile mood of the piece, unfortunately makes the film rather forgettable (with the exception of one extremely vivid and disturbing scene of a corpse's hands being sawed off). Justly or not, Bone ultimately lacks the sparkle to make it a real Oscar winner.

**(If I could have it my way, Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right wouldn't be nominated at all, while The Town and How to Train Your Dragon would. But no one ever asks me for my opinion about these things.)**


8. The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right isn't the only nominated film to suffer from lack of originality. Two years ago The Fighter came out, only then it was titled The Wrestler, and it was a better film the first time around. Mostly because when it's Mickey Rourke vs. Marky Mark, the winner is obvious. Christian Bale steals the show as a crack addicted has-been who lands himself in prison, and Melissa Leo and Amy Adams hold their own against him as his trashy, foul-mouthed mother/manager and Mark Wahlberg's bartender girlfriend, respectively (refreshing to see Amy Adams break out of her doe-eyed type-casting for a change and literally beat the crap out of another woman). A film's actors, however, can be recognized without the movie itself garnering a nomination, although the documentary film-within-a-film motif provides a fresh framework for a tired tale, and makes it possible for a plot twist that hits the viewer like a sucker punch to the gut.


7. Black Swan
If lack of originality is a problem for The Kids Are All Right and The Fighter, Black Swan possibly errs on the side of too much creativity. Only Inception has more twists and turns--and Black Swan could do with a bit of Inception' overload exposition to clear up just what the heck is going on! No, the ambiguity and confusion are part of the fun, if a movie as dark, creepy, and just plain screwed up as Black Swan can be called fun. I'd like to re-watch this one, because about half-way through I began to suspect that any image reflected in a mirror was all in Nina's (Natalie Portman) mind. And Natalie Portman does deserve every award she's won for this performance; hopefully they--and an Oscar--will finally allow her to shake the dust of the Star Wars trilogy off her feet.


6. Toy Story 3
I love this movie. It is indisputably one of the best movies of the year. But for me it doesn't make it into the top five because I'm not sure how much of my love for it is dependent on the previous two Toy Story films, or how much it stands on its own. The prevailing feeling I come away from Toy Story 3 is that the film was a long goodbye from the writers, director, animators, and voice actors (and through them, vicariously, the fans) to the franchise. That's not a criticism, really; the best movies are statements of love, and the makers of Toy Story 3 expressed thatin the universally poignant story of a young man saying goodbye to his beloved childhood playthings. It made me cry (as every Pixar film since Monsters, Inc. has made me do). But speaking of other Pixar movies, Toy Story 3 is no Up (which earned the first Best Picture nomination for an animated film since Beauty and the Beast made the top five back in 1992), and when I compare the stories and themes, I have to think Toy Story 3's nomination honors the Toy Story trilogy as a collective body. Which, again, is not a criticism so much as an observation; The Return of the King's 2004 Oscar sweep rightly recognized the achievements Lord of the Rings franchise.

Toy Story 3 certainly will win the Best Animated Feature Film category--though I can't help but think, for the first time, that a non-Pixar film is more deserving this year: I'd love to see How to Train Your Dragon slip past for a surprise win.


5. The Social Network
The Social Network won the Golden Globe for Best Drama and is neck-and-neck with The King's Speech (which won the BAFTA) for the Oscar, but I almost didn't place it in my top five. Though a fascinating and enjoyable movie, it just doesn't scream Best Picture of the Year to me. It's a smart film--written by Aaron Sorkin, it has to be--but not brilliant. It is, however, an important film, if for no other reason than years from now it will provide a snapshot of the increasingly isolated generation that necessitated social networking, as represented here by the character of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. I say character because this isn't a straight biopic, deviating pretty wildly from the facts and person of Zuckerberg, and I don't think the film would have resonated with audiences if it had been an accurate depiction. The real Mark Zuckerberg might not have started Facebook because he was just trying to fit in, but the story of someone so socially inept ironically being responsible for a global social network--and managing to remain an outsider--speaks to the part of all of us that seeks connection, while at the same time making the concession that the line between relationship and mere interaction is tenuous at best.


4. True Grit
There's something irresistible about a good Western. True Grit isn't just a good Western, it's got an almost Shakespearean quality about it. Maybe it's the language, the lack of contractions that makes the (often hilarious) dialogue feel poetic and grandiose and not quite realistic for the genre, which in turns makes the characters seem like the icons of theater. I can't pinpoint it, exactly, but it works. As does the unusual but effective soundtrack which consists largely of piano arrangements of the hymn standard "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"--a truly inspired choice that is not only appropriate for setting the right tone for the setting, but also provides a moral foundation to the story and underscores the transformative power of the heroes' journey. If there could be a surprise upset for Best Picture, I'd love to see True Grit take home the prize* as a shining example of quintessential American cinema.

*My opinion of this film might be slightly influenced by the fact that I know a real-life Rooster Cogburn.


3. 127 Hours
The prospect of a gruesome amputation scene almost stopped me from watching 127 Hours, but I'm so glad I grinned and bore it. (Actually, I covered my eyes.) I also didn't love the idea of an entire movie about one character trapped in one space, not having been a big fan of Cast Away--and that one man show was the incomparable Tom Hanks. But James Franco earns his place among the Best Actor nominees this year (no small feat, with the likes of Colin Firth and Jeff Bridges). It's so much more than what I expected it to be--the story of a guy who did something stupid and paid for it; instead it's the story of a smart guy with impressive survival instincts and skills who is the victim of a freak accident that makes him re-evaluate himself and his relationships. Through the use of stream-of-conscious flashbacks and hallucinations (and a quirky split-screen effect), as well as the camcorder which provides Franco's Aron Ralston the opportunity to talk through his ordeal with a frequent self-deprecating humor, director Danny Boyle gives us a raw, unfiltered look at a man literally caught between a rock and a hard place (which is, I think, the title of Ralston's book upon which the film is based) and his survival not only in body, but in mind and spirit as well.


2. Inception
What I love about Christopher Nolan's movies is how he takes the central theme of his story and infuses every inch of the film with it. In Memento, the story of a man with no short-term memory, that means the entire movie happens backwards, in brief scenes. The Prestige is about the face-off between a real magician and an illusionist, so the three acts of the movie are constructed like the three acts of a magic trick. Inception, which is more like a dream than a movie, nails it by constructing the plot with the mythological and psychological aspects of dreams and visuals that feel like places and scenarios we've all visited in our own dreams--falling cars, stairs that lead to nowhere, upside-down corridors, zero-gravity hotel rooms...Even the narrative flows across disjointed scenes which, as Lenardo DiCaprio's character points out, reflect how in dreams you never know how you get to a place in a dream, it simply makes sense that you're there. An apt summary of the film, which is a truly memorable sci-fi thriller deserving of Oscar gold.

And the Oscar goes to...


1. The King's Speech
Even before the end titles rolled, I wanted to watch The King's Speech over again. I didn't--but it's that kind of film. ([livejournal.com profile] drumher has seen it twelve times, though this may or may not have to do with Mr. Firth's sex appeal.)

If True Grit is the quintessential American movie, then this film speaks of what it is to be English. In an Oscar race in which one of the biggest competitors is a film about broadcasting one's life in potentially the most public of all forums, it's interesting that the other strong contender focuses on the idea of privacy--private pain, and private struggles. Though learning to open up about his emotional wounds is a crucial part of King George's journey to overcome his stammer, it's also made evident in the contrasting tabloid-worthy lifestyle of his elder brother that there's virtue in not displaying one's personal affairs for the world to see. Interestingly that's the same idea at the heart of The Social Network: that technology necessarily changes how humans interact, but it's up to us to determine how we allow it to change us.

And that's where this film has the edge: The Social Network ends with ironic fragmentation, but The King's Speech not only brings friends together, but unites a country, in one of the most rousing scenes I've seen in a movie. It made me proud to be English...except that I'm not. But that's why we go to the movies, isn't it? To be transported.

I'll return later this week for my Oscar night predictions, but for now, what are your thoughts on this year's films? Am I way off base? Any movies you feel were overlooked?

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