Watching: My Thoughts on the 2011 Best Picture Nominations

I always love the title of Pauline Kael’s I Lost it at the Movies. I believe the world is divided into two types of people: those that identify with that title and those that don’t. I’ve always loved the movies (and in my snobbish moments film). In college, I used to take breaks from reading in the library by reading movie reviews from Kael, Roger Ebert, and the critics of the New Yorker and the New York Times.   I hated going to the movies with other people except my own kind in case they wanted to actually talk during the movie. I’ve never movie hopped for that would be the same as stealing from the collection plate at church.

However, time passed and adult responsibilities grew. I still love the movies, but I’ve mellowed a bit in my passion for them. I can wait for it to come on DVD now. In fact, I mostly wait for it to come on HBO or Epix now. Hell, I even check my phone or read while watching most movies now.The passion, however weakened, is still there. This year I’ve actually seen nine out of the ten nominees. Winter’s Bone is the only one that has escaped me. Cristina and I saw Toy Story 3, Inception, Black Swan and The Social Network in their original run. We saw The King’s Speech for Valentine’s Day. We are lucky enough to live next to an AMC Theater that was running the Best Picture Showcase which meant that our Saturday we watched watching 127 Hours, The Kids are All Right, True Grit, and The Fighter. So, here are my thoughts on the nominees for Best Picture:

Black Swan: While we both liked this movie, I enjoyed it more than Cristina. It reminded me of Polanski’s Repulsion which is a high compliment. The movie did a good of balancing the base with the high brow. I just don’t find it that original of a movie. It’s a good movie that is well acted and directed, but it’s just short of greatness.

The Fighter: The Fighter is not an original movie either. A boxer from a lowly family and part of town overcomes tons of obstacles to become a champion. However, The Fighter is a great movie because it makes you feel that it is new. Christian Bale deserves every accolade he has received for this role for basically losing himself in the performance. Actually, it seems that Bale does this on a very consistent basis. Mark Walberg, who is a great supporting actor and a so-so leading man, uses his stillness and nice guy image here to perfection by being the calm center at a very out of control storm of a working class family.

Inception: Inception is a great idea for a movie that almost collapses under its own weight. The story is obviously very dense with way too much going on. While Christopher Nolan might have gotten robbed of a Best Director nod, it’s not him that saves this movie from destroying itself. It is Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance that carries this movie. This is a star-vehicle if there ever was one and Dicaprio might be our best actor who is also a movie star. He manages to always be on the brink of losing control but never truly does. The role is basically a tightwire between over emoting and under emoting, Dicaprio does a perfect balancing act.

The Kids Are All Right: This movie is well acted and has plenty of laughs out loud moments. What it doesn’t have, to me anyway, is a believable script. Annette Benning’s character is so unlikable that I didn’t buy the choices that Julianne Moore’s made at the end. I don’t care if I don’t like a character; I care if believe that the character and there actions are real. Think about, there is not one likable character in Gone With the Wind, but you root for them all the same because they become real people to you. To me, Benning’s character was that all too real male figure that is just too much of a jerk to the woman she loves to deserve her even with Moore’s great speech at the end. The ending felt tacked on and cheap at best. To be honest, I thought Ben Affleck’s The Town to be a far superior film.

The King’s Speech: I read recently that this could have, should have been an HBO movie. First of all, that’s a direct insult to the director Tom Hooper who is probably most famous for making HBO’s John Adams. Second, it misses the point of how big the movie is. Yes, it would have been a great HBO movie that would have won every Emmy and Golden Globe. However, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush turn it into a big movie. The opening speech in which the Prince’s stammer get’s the best of him needed to be on the big screen. The small movements Firth does with his face beyond the stammering can only truly be appreciated on a huge 30 foot screen. In those few moments, you realize that despite this man’s privileged upbringing he has lived a life of pure torture for being different. While his back-story is told in the movie, it was unneeded. It was right there on Firth’s face in the opening 3 minutes. That’s why he deserves the Best Actor award.

127 Hours: James Franco is the movie. Sure, there are other actors in the movie, but in the end it’s James Franco and James Franco only. A story of man vs nature and man vs himself, it’s mostly told in close-ups of Franco’s face. Let’s face it, he couldn’t move around. The props themselves become characters. You know, there is only one way out and it’s not a surprise to anyone who doesn’t know the real life story. Yet there is real tension here. Franco goes through all the emotions here. A lesser actor would have destroyed the movie. If he were to win Best Actor, it shouldn’t be considered an upset.

The Social Network: Every generation has its movies that help define it. This is the movie for this generation (and the the award for most unoriginal sentence goes to this one). I have to admit I do have an Aaron Sorkin bias. I’ve pretty much loved everything he has done. And for me, at least, he is the star here. Sure the actors do fine work and David Fincher directs with a steady hand, but I was just mesmerized by the script. I used to listen to Pulp Fiction as an album when I would clean my apartment. I have a feeling that you could do the same with this movie.

True Grit: When I used to read movie reviews from The New Yorker back in college, one that always stuck with me was a review for Wild Bill. In it, Terrence Rafferty describes Jeff Bridges as the greatest actor alive. That weekend I went on a Jeff Bridges bender. With all due respect to Sean Penn and Daniel Day-Lewis, Mr. Rafferty was correct then, and he is still correct. I can’t compare this to John Wayne’s film because I was too young when I watched it. Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is a fully formed character. My favorite moment was when he told a joke in the courtroom. The enjoyment Cogburn got from his own joke made me forget that it was Bridges technically telling the joke for a least a second. Yet, no matter how good Bridges was in this movie, it’s not his movie. This movie belongs completely to Hailee Steinfeld who plays the young girl that employs Cogburn. Some critics have used the term naturalistic to describe her acting in this movie. That to me seems lazy and not entirely true. This was just good acting. The Coen Brothers also made the right choice by playing this one straight. They could have gone for quirky or absurd but instead just chose to tell a good story.

Toy Story 3: If I were an Academy voter, this is the box I would check. Sure the story and the characters have the advantage of familiarity, but that doesn’t stop this from being a powerful, heartfelt movie. The movie could have coasted on the familiarity of its characters, but it chose to tell a story of workers who for no reason of their own lose their jobs. Timely story if you ask me. No movie that I saw this year packed as much of an emotional wallop on me. And if you did see the movie, you know what was running through your head in the incinerator scene. Give the makers of the film credit for pushing us to that point instead of doing something simple and easy.

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