By Bernie Jablonski
Park Forest, IL–(ENEWSPF)– If nothing else, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ new rule of having its members vote in ten Best Picture nominees rather has attained two positive goals. It gives a polish to blockbusters that might otherwise seem artistically “tainted” by that popularity, but probably more importantly, it boosts little, little-seen independent movies further into the public discussion. I always make it a point to see (or at least try to see) all the Picture nominees, in part because I’m a completist about some things, but largely because of the now-larger feast that is being spread out in front of me.
Which doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t only five “real” contenders on the list. The way I see it, based on this year and last, the movies we looked at last week, the “expose,” the visceral Western, the naturalistic biography, the British movie, and the character study-art picture-horror movie are the ones with any chance. And it’s certainly not just me- most of the money seems to be on THE KING’S SPEECH to win, although my hope is for THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Failing that, I really think that TRUE GRIT and THE FIGHTER would be exciting choices, while BLACK SWAN is too loony (pardon the obvious avian pun), although it is beautiful to look at and intensely acted.
What remains are two small independent movies, one epic-looking, independent movie, an animated feature, and a massively-made massive movie. “In a weaker year” is a caveat the Oscar prognosticators use to describe well-made (or popular) movies that are in the running but don’t really have a chance. Here’s how I experienced them.
I walk away from INCEPTION remembering Ellen Paige. Is that weird? She and Marion Cotillard as the “ghost” of the movie had the most heart in what was basically a film about thieves stealing something valuable from someone vulnerable, Oh, stop complaining. Yes, the cinematography was stunning, the editing superb and the conceit of entering the dreams of people was intriguing, but “mind-blowing?” Hardly. Yes, seeing it twice probably helps, but it wasn’t THAT hard to figure out. One just had to remember what level we were on. And please, can we hold a moratorium on end-of-the-movie-ambiguity, please? A good, extremely well-crafted movie, to be sure, but not ALL that, in my opinion. Sorry.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST broke the ground that made it palatable for last year’s UP and this year’s TOY STORY 3 to be nominated for Best Picture, despite their being animated films. I have no trouble with TOY STORY 3 being in this category, as it is indeed a movie with enough compelling plot, wonderful characterizations, suspense and sentiment to rival many of last year’s live-action movies. (I saw a posting on Facebook wherein someone said that nominating an animated film for Best Picture was “a slap in the face to actors,” but isn’t Tom Hanks in here? Joan Cusack? Don Rickles, for the love of Pete? Of course, the real controversy is when an actor doing a voice in an animated movie is nominated for Best Actor or Actress. Hmmmm…makes the controversy over gay marriage pale in comparison, doesn’t it?)
I cried when I saw TS3. Of course I did. Wept openly. And why not? The memories of taking the first steps to adulthood and assuring the proper placement of our childhood never go away entirety, and life is a series of transitions. This movie was as brilliant as (and deeper than) the first, but hearts have to melt a little bit more before an animated movie will win Best Picture.
Talking about THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT is a source of frustration for me, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of lesbian couples raising children. In that movie, a happy lesbian couple (one’s a physician, the other drifts, but is trying to start a landscaping business) lives with their two children, each woman giving birth to a child using the same sperm donor (the term “father” is never used). The younger son, a teenager, yearns to learn the identity of his father, but since he is not old enough to do so by law, engages the help of his half-sister, who has just turned eighteen. The children quietly meet their “father,” he is introduced to mothers, and the plot develops from there.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT is an excellent movie, with top-notch performances, progresses in a realistic, yet humorous fashion….but something bugged me about it. I don’t know. What I like about most indie movies is that they are stripped down to bare essentials, free of the plot contrivances and political correctness that a lot of Hollywood hope-to-be-blockbusters-written-by-committee outings are, and this is certainly a good example of a nice, straightforward independent movie. Maybe I wish the dialogue were wittier, snappier (it’s up for Best Original Screenplay, so lots of someones must like it), maybe it progresses too matter-of-factly from scene to scene, maybe the tinny music that accompanies the transitions is annoying, maybe one plot thread is not resolved to my satisfaction…yeah, you guessed it. It’s not the movie. It’s me.
Despite my existential crisis, I really would recommend the movie. The acting is outstanding, with Annette Bening as the somewhat controlling doctor and Julianne Moore as the rather adrift, hippieish landscapist. The chemistry between them is quite real, and one wonders why Bening got the nod and Moore didn’t. Mark Ruffalo acquits himself well as the successful restaurant owner that seems to be going through a hippie phase himself, and is quite believable and ultimately empathetic. Word around the water cooler is that Natalie Portman has it in the bag for Best Actress, but Annette Bening is to be reckoned with. Ruffalo, however, is out of his league here, and probably will lose to Christian Bale for THE FIGHTER.
WINTER’S BONE is the darkest horse of all, a truly spare, absorbing, and, well, dark view into one young woman’s dauntless pursuit of her criminal father. He has jumped bail, and the bond that holds him is for his house and acreage, which will be forfeit if he is not found. His daughter Ree, played by Sarah Lawrence (an Oscar-nominated revelation) searches through hell as it exists in the Missouri Ozarks, the stakes- the welfare of her, her young sibling, and her comatose mother.
The movie existed for a good part of last year in a sort of obscurity because it was difficult to find. It is a must-see, and available on DVD an OnDemand in the Oscars section. It is immediately, inescapably atmospheric because of the countryside and the complete, believable earnestness of Lawrence. Also deepening the tension is the presence of Ree’s uncle, Teardrop (also-nominated John Hawkes, the bespectacled temple-minder Lennon on LOST), whose allegiance to her is always in question. Both actors are terrific, and if I had my druthers, WINTER’S BONE would be my pick of this batch for Best Picture.
Finally, after hearing so much hype about it, I got to see 127 HOURS- and was not disappointed. As everybody on the planet (other than, perhaps, the two fellows in that Geico commercial involving a billboard) know by now, this is the fact-based story of Aron Ralston, the young hiker (literally) caught between a rock and a hard place (the name of Ralston’s book, incidentally) in a remote part of Utah who is forced to…you know. So, we have here a great cinematic feat: how does one make suspenseful the story of a man that history states cut off his arm in order to escape a natural trap.
Director Danny Boyle is instrumental in that solution, using the same sort of verve and energy that he employed in Best Picture SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, supplemented by brilliant editing, scoring, and especially the ability to make the vast expanses of red and orange and yellow of the Utah desert stand in such stark contrast of the menacing blues. blacks and greys of Aron’s canyon prison. We are not confined to the canyon, however- we perceive the situation through filmed scenes of Aron’s memories, yearnings of having arrived where he’d intended to, and in a now-famous scene, a TV interview he has with himself. These scenes are there to relieve the tension and dire situation somewhat, sure, but also to get us more involved in them.
Getting us involved in the entire gambit, is, of course, James Franco, who makes Aron a relatable, empathetic everyman, a young man full of the joy of life who make the near-fatal error of not telling anyone where he’s going. To say his performance anchors the movie is to not do it justice. Asain, a picture not to be missed.
All ten of the Best Picture nominees are either at the moviehouses, on OnDemand, or on DVD. The 83rd Annual Academy Awards will start Sunday, February 27th, at 7pm Central Time on ABC. Though some feel the results are forgeone conclusions, the pageantry is always the thing to behold.