Friday, February 25, 2011

An Oscar Post... in which I make no predictions, but opine a lot

I don’t know which film is going to be crowned Best Picture on Sunday night, though I have my suspicions. My favourites never win anyway, so I don’t sweat it. Plus, it was AMPAS, not me, that once declared Gladiator the best film of the year. It takes more than one good pick to make up for that. What you’ll read below is simply my ranking, from one to ten, from first to last, from best to worst, of this year’s nominees.

The views expressed are mine, but I’d love to hear yours.


1. Winter’s Bone
Director: Debra Granik

The bleakest nominee is also the best. Winter’s Bone is a movie without any obvious message, despite an Ozark setting that seems composed of social ills, from poverty to illiteracy to domestic violence; mental illness, drug abuse and organized crime. At the centre of this insanity is a remarkably sane teenage girl named Ree, possessed of great interior strength. She’s searching for her missing father; not out of longing, but out of necessity. If he doesn’t stand trial, they’ll lose the house.

Ree’s less interested in learning the truth than in doing what’s needed to keep her family fed. Her practicality and courage press her forward even as her quest grows dangerous. We care for her, but we admire her even more.

In a year when the woes of a New York City ballerina, a king, and a billionaire-to-be seem dominant in peoples’ minds, I’m far more compelled by this woman, blessed with more power and purpose than the three of them combined. Maybe that’s unfair. But I know that if Ree loses her house, at least four human beings will starve, for real. And she’ll be one of them, though for her, that would never be the point.

2. The Social Network
Director: David Fincher

The Social Network opens in a bar. Mark Zuckerberg is being dumped, but he speaks in a near-blur, anticipating, then assessing, then counter-arguing his girlfriend’s words so fast that even she—then, even he—can’t feel their meaning anymore. From this we figure two things: One, that Zuckerberg is very smart, and two, that he may be sociopathic.

So many of us are on Facebook now that to not be makes one odd. We self-identify on Facebook, promote ourselves via it, solidify brief-but-fond first meetings through it. Yet it isn’t ours—it’s Mark’s. The Social Network, I think, speaks to our fear that we’re dupes of an amoral man who sees us only as a commodity, and if there were not millions of us, even less than that. I don’t know if that’s true, but I have wondered.

Like Winter’s Bone, The Social Network presents us with an exceptional individual navigating an environment in which moral boundaries seem to have collapsed. The Zuckerberg character matches Ree in single-mindedness and drive, but lacks her capacity for compassion, and the challenges that come with it. For me, that’s the difference between first and second-place. For him, it wouldn’t be.

3. 127 Hours
Director: Danny Boyle

127 Hours is the story of a canyon-hopping goof stuck under a rock. In lesser hands, it would have been defined by what its character couldn’t do—relying on flashback reveals and the Big Scene to make up the difference. 127 Hours could have been Buried. Instead, Boyle gives us a believable anti-hero, revealed more to himself than to us over the course of his predicament. He doesn’t have flashbacks, he has fantasies; his video recording is a self-reckoning testament—we don’t just watch him, we watch him watch himself. The film works because we don’t need Aron Ralston’s backstory; we just need to know who he is. Boyle is one of the few filmmakers around who truly knows the difference.

4. The Fighter
Director: David O. Russell

From the trailers alone, you’d have no idea how funny The Fighter is. Well I’m here to tell you. Among ten serious and brooding nominees (Toy Story 3 included), it’s The Fighter that comes closest to real comedy.

Drug abuse, dream fulfillment and family loyalty are serious issues, so The Fighter’s plenty serious, too. But it shines best when it gives in to the silliness of its boxing brothers and their mother-manager, cuckolded father and brood of hairsprayed sisters. Yeah, their troubles get solved too easily in the end, but I enjoyed the film. Enjoyed it—as in, drew joy from it. I love to laugh.

5. Toy Story 3
Director: Lee Unkrich

Toy Story 3 is a children’s film for adults. It’s for those of us who grew to maturity during the new Golden Age of Disney animation; who watched 2-D give way to CGI and now wonder what’s coming next. It’s the logical conclusion of the Toy Story franchise, which asked innocent questions when those was enough, and now, like us, has turned inward and existentialist with age. It’s colourful on the outside, but grim within.

Toy Story 3 benefits from its two lighter-hearted prequels—its angst is balanced by their joy. But it’s also one of the few American children’s films to seriously reflect on the value, and emotional necessity, of a purpose-filled life. It achieves this more perfectly than UP, not simply by being its artistic equal, but because we know these toys—these people—and have for a long time. When they die (and Toy Story 3 has you fearing they might), we’ll feel we’ve lost a piece of ourselves. That has to be admired.

6. The King’s Speech
Director: Tom Hooper

There’s an inevitability to The King’s Speech, so crushing that it never freed me to feel inspired. Did it ‘feel good’ to watch a tortured man overcome his affliction? Yes. Was it moving and funny? Sometimes, yes. Are Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush tremendous in their roles? Absolutely. But if forging one’s destiny is a theme of this year’s Best Picture nominees (and I believe it is), then King George’s story only betters the rest by being the most palatable, inoffensive, and conclusive. I can praise its direction, its cinematography, and its performances, but The King’s Speech, for me, is too safe to love.

7. True Grit
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens and Jeff Bridges have more in common than just talent. They’re all curious men, with the courage to take risks. Their results remind me that art has new places to go, always. I admire them even when they fail.

True Grit isn’t the Coen’s best work, though it might be Bridges’. It looks great, sounds great, and Hailee Steinfeld’s dour-faced star-turn impressed me along with everyone else. But the film, overall, just didn’t stick. Beneath all its expert craftsmanship, I don’t think True Grit is about very much, which is too bad, because we get more than enough to time to stop and think about it.

8. Black Swan
Director: Darren Aronofsky

There’s never been a ballet worth dancing that wasn’t a bit overwrought, I suppose. Black Swan gave me all the mania, beauty and discombobulation I’d expect from an Aronofsky picture, but not half the humanity of The Wrestler. Ask yourself this: were the CGI goosebumps, the hallucinations, the blackouts or the transformation at the end more disturbing than the simple peeling up of a piece of skin from Portman’s fingernail? Black Swan is best in its first half-hour, exploring the damage a perfectionist environment can do to an anxious and fragile girl. When Portman’s princess morphs from OCD-case to paranoid schizophrenic, she ceases to be about ballet at all. A person this sick couldn’t make it to opening night.

9. Inception
Director: Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is better at making us talk about movies than he is at making them. Inception is an empty brain-bender; a film that has intriguing visuals but almost no forward momentum. How could it? The characters have to spend more time explaining what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it, than they can ever devote to the doing. When the action does begin, are they in peril? Where they before, but not now? Can they ever be? Some spin this as deep, but I just think it’s sloppy.

Inception is like watching an instruction manual for Inception. It should have been a video game, not a film; Nolan created a world requiring hours and hours of explanation and exploration before it can impart any real meaning. If he ever does direct a video game, I’ll be first in line to play.

10. The Kids Are All Right
Director: Lisa Cholodenko

A lesbian couple raises a pair of teens. That’s alright with me.

What’s not alright is a film that tries to say something by saying nothing. There’s no sign of right-wing prejudice in The Kids Are All Right—not even a suggestion that millions of people still oppose the lifestyle these women choose. That they face family crises—banal ones, really—seems to prove that such conflicts are universal, and not particular to, or worsened by, sexual orientation. It’s an argument by omission, made to an audience mostly in agreement.

None of this is interesting, but it would have been forgivable if the movie was any good. Its characters are shallow and thick, its problems predictable, and its solutions pat. The Kids Are All Right reminded me of bad TV: perky and pensive on cue; music prodding us to feeling; a happy ending engraved so deep into the plot that we treat it as an entitlement. At least TV writers have an excuse—the family’s got to come back next week. Cholodenko’s family, thank god, does not.

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