I thought I learned my lesson last year after enduring The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but I guess not, because even though they doubled the number of nominees this year, I still decided to watch all the 2009 Oscar nominations. I mean, everyone knows that an actual academy award win doesn’t mean shit, but it doesn’t stop us from bitching about how laughable the awards are anyway. And I figured it wasn’t fair to bitch about something like Fargo not winning if I’d never even seen The English Patient. Though, I might just be a glutton for cinematic punishment: after all, one time I watched Barbie Fairytopia all the way through just to write a funny review.
And honestly, the 2009 list of nominations isn’t that bad. There were a few great movies and a few more entertaining but flawed movies, and only a couple that I wouldn’t want to watch again (you know, if I had to). For all the shit I talk on the Oscar nominations, I’d be hard pressed to find many wide release American movies from 2009 that are better than the top 3 (after that it is pretty much just a wash of flawed films of varying quality anyway). I’m sure there are plenty of semi-wide release “independent” films out there that I haven’t seen that are probably “as good as” something like An Education, but I have a feeling they would leave me equally non-plussed.
Anyway, this isn’t my list of Oscar “predictions”, and I’m not offering better alternatives (though I’m pretty sure I could find a better choice than The Blind Side at least), this is simply what I thought of the films that did get nominated. Of course, I also put them in an ordered list based on quality, because, well, that’s just the way I roll.
10 – The Blind Side
Ok, first, as a sports movie I suppose it was acceptable. I mean, you have to accept amount of cloying sentimentalism in these kind of underdog stories. What really double-fisted The Blind Side for me was Sandra Bullock (whose screen presence was pretty much the only thing going for this movie) playing the most self-righteous, ivory-towered, “a lot of my best friends are black”, less racist than thou, pieces of work I’d seen since Gentleman’s Agreement.
Sure, a black kid taken in off the streets by a rich white family will most likely have a better chance in life. From this premise, we are treated to an entire movie about the white lady who took him in feeling good about herself. Watch in awe as she says “Shame on you” to her racist friends. Admire her flexibility as she pats herself on the back. Contemplate how by accepting Jesus you too could be as “selfless” as she is! It played like a vanity project for the most insufferable person you can imagine.
I guess she was based on a real life person too. I can’t imagine anyone I’d want to be stuck in an elevator with less.
9 – Avatar
The plot was even more juvenile than the other animated film on this list. Actually, now that I think about it, it shared the same problems: oversimplification of the central issue, drama painted in such broad strokes that even a child could understand (and adults, consequently, roll their eyes), and a bunch of stupid shit like “having a slightly larger dragon than the other blue people makes me the awesomest.”
I don’t find the idea of “the noble savage” to be inherently racist, even the more problematic “white man becomes most powerful member of outside group” could be written off as “he’s the damn hero, that’s what he’s supposed to do, white or not!” But I draw the line at the intelligence insulting presentation of the whole thing.
Good effects and action (though the action scenes were often like that Warg attack in The Two Towers: overlong and unnecessary), I’d watch it again, but “best movie of the year” material? Don’t make me laugh.
8 – Precious
First of all, Precious wasn’t a bad movie. I was dreading watching this one most of all, but not only was it filmed with a reasonable degree of competence, it was also not the vortex of infinite despair that I was expecting it to be. Don’t get me wrong, the episodic narrative was none too deft in putting everything together, the dream sequences felt tired 10 years ago and the horrors inflicted upon the protagonist were so over the top that the film ended up having the emotional impact of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Though, I think that last bit actually worked in the film’s favor. I’m sure somewhere, some child has been subjected to everything that the main character went through and worse, (probably many children for all I know). But to see all of it happen at once, one thing after another, almost made it as absurdly comedic as A Serious Man. Perhaps (like the dream sequences in the film) that was just my coping mechanism, but too often I felt myself saying “oh come on…what next?”
Anyway, good performances, only occasionally hackneyed (the “noble teacher” walked a thin line), and the “uplifting” bits were handled well. Still, no matter the lack of emotional gut-punch (as if I even want that from the movie) the subject matter was still unpleasant enough that I don’t expect I’ll ever watch it again.
7 – Up
I always end up saying the same thing on these animated film reviews. Basically, as I’ve said before, these movies too often appeal to the instincts of juveniles (and not the juvenile instinct…and important distinction) and thus fail as “real cinema” for me. Up was no exception.
Granted, there were plenty of funny bits, I laughed at the talking dogs, the bittersweet love story really was pretty powerful, and the imagery and adventure was very nice. But it was still felt childish to me. Adults and children alike can appreciate fantasy and fairy tales, but these modern animated movies feel like they try to shoehorn in things that will appeal to adults and also things that will appeal to children without realizing that they are alienating both groups. Or maybe they just alienate animation hating curmudgeons like me, because I seem to be in the minority on this.
I enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong, I just don’t think you can seriously call it one of the year’s best films any more than you could Star Trek (which I also enjoyed). Still, I felt it was more emotionally affecting than Precious so I guess it gets #7.
6 – An Education
Strictly speaking, this was a stronger movie than both Inglourious Basterds and District 9. However, I felt like this was nowhere nearly as daring and thus I have to put it at number 6 since I personally prefer flawed and audacious to well-done and bland. I can’t quite put my finger on the real issue, but it is probably mostly that the lead actress (who was as enchanting as the reviews all say) really was the only fresh thing about the film. Sure, Saarsgard gives a good performance too, but I feel like I’ve seen this movie plenty of times before, especially the second half.
Maybe indie coming of age dramas just aren’t my thing (actually, that’s really a pretty safe guess). It probably also didn’t help that I was under the impression that this was a heist movie going into it. Disappointment can be a bitch.
***Edit: Apparently I somehow had this confused with The Brothers Bloom. And The Brothers Bloom synopsis still sounds a lot better!***
5 – Inglourious Basterds
I’ve written before about how tired I am of Tarantino writing dialog merely to fill space. And no matter how many times I am told that the dialog “is the point”, I still say this would have been better as a 90 minute movie. The superfluous dialog was not the only problem with Inglourious Basterds however. The script had enough structural problems (admittedly, probably from the extended “dialog set pieces” screwing up the pacing) that the movie kind of felt like a mess.
Still it was at least a cinematic mess, and a pretty entertaining one at that. I watched it twice and didn’t hate it the second time, that’s gotta say something right?
4 – District 9
It was really a toss up between this and Inglourious Basterds for my number 4. Inglourious Basterds was the more cinematic movie, but its problems were also more severe, thus I’m going to say District 9 edges it. Or maybe I’m just pissed that I’ve been inadvertently mispelling “glorious” ever since Basterds [sic] came out.
Anyway, District 9 had its issues, but the biggest problem for me was the over the top villainy of the humans. It was a movie without shades of grey, something it desperately needed if it was really going to be the “important” film it claimed it was. I will at least say that the apartheid elements were thankfully not nearly as obvious as the reviews would lead you to believe.
However, if evaluated as a bit of Science Fiction entertainment (or “action movie” entertainment if we are talking about the second half) it was pretty successful. It took chances with the story and had a slightly higher degree of intelligence than usual (despite plot holes/contrivances as big as “how the hell did Kirk run into Spock on that planet?” in Star Trek) for this kind of thing. The special effects were impressive as well (and it had a way sweeter mech fight than the one in Avatar). I wasn’t even bored once (well maybe once) during the second half’s action antics. Flawed, but good fun.
Though, I found it a bit rich that a such a supposedly anti “race/class oppression” movie went to such great lengths to demonize one particular cultural group. In the words of Chris Rock, I assume the director likes black people but haaaates Nigerians. Maybe he emailed his bank account information to a deposed Nigerian prince and swore vengeance from that day on?
3 – Up in the Air
Who knew a film about people who fire people could be this enjoyable. Clooney was well cast and even that annoying chick from Twilight was pretty good. My only real issue was that the narrative seemed to wander towards the end (including several small climaxes) and thus the movie lost a lot of focus.
Still, a good premise, and for the most part, quite intelligent.
2 – The Hurt Locker
My only real problem with The Hurt Lockeris that its message can be summed up with its opening quote: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” But, you know what, that’s ok; not every movie needs to attempt to unravel the mysteries of the universe. What The Hurt Locker attempts to do is create one brilliant white knuckle set piece after another, and in this it succeeds magnificently.
It is a finely crafted film full of excellent performances, and I was impressed with how smoothly it flowed. It never felt like “ok, here’s another bomb defusing just like the last one”. I also particularly enjoyed the ending which I felt worked a lot better than how a movie like this would normally end. In all, I would be pleased if this ended up winning best picture over Avatar (according to those “in the know”, those are the only real contenders).
Of course, this is the same Academy that chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain and Forest Gump over Pulp Fiction, so I’m not going to get my hopes up too much.
1 – A Serious Man
With the possible exception of The Hurt Locker, this was the only truly great movie of the bunch. Admittedly, when I first watched it, I was somewhat ambivalent as to how I felt (despite its superlative film craft): “Ok, so it’s about a guy who keeps having bad things happen to him and that frustrates him…is that it?” But the fact that I’m still thinking about it months later while any deep thoughts about something like An Education (that I only watched last night), are already fading away says something about its brilliance.
The intriguing commentary on mortality, the story of Job and its relationship to quantum physics has a lot more going on than is immediately apparent. The Coens have been here before (“Fair?! Who’s the fucking nihilist here?!”), in fact, they’ve probably been here in every movie they have ever made, but not only is A Serious Man their surest statement on the “unfairness” of life, it is also one of their finest movies. It is not so much a film about why one should carry on in the face of an absurd existence, rather it is a film that simply presents that absurdity for evaluation, and by its very own darkly comic existence as a work of art affirms the thing it has shown to be so fraught with unfairness. And that final scene…pure cinema.
Oh, and did I mention Jefferson Airplane?