Today is always a very special day for every life-long escape artist like myself. The Oscar nominations give us a hook to re-live the hundreds of hours spent over the past year blotting out American life as we know it: The credit card “adjustments” from 7.9% to 29.99%, the $40 charge by Audi to give you the code on your own goddamn radio deck, Lloyd Blankfein’s $100 million bonus, plastic surgeons scraping bone off 23 year-old Heidi Montag’s back, Glenn Beck continuing to convert perfectly good oxygen to CO2 … all the insanity and affronts to rational thought.
Having been a movie critic in a previous incarnation, I like to keep my butt in tune, and find it much easier to do it now that I’m NOT a critic. Why? Because these days I don’t have to carpet-bomb my few remaining neurons by watching anything made by Michael Bay (“Transformers”) or starring Megan Fox. I pick and choose my escapes of choice. Much healthier. Much easier to love the movies again.
I’ve never pretended that the Oscars are genuinely about acknowledging the “best” of the year, at least not according to my definition of “best”, which would include artistic inventiveness, the existential relevance of the story told, and a certain canny, determination to provoke thoughtful controversy. (Classic examples: “A Clockwork Orange”, “Dr. Strangelove”, “The Conformist”). Mostly the Oscars are about what the 6000 or so people who make movies think was pretty damn good last year and might hold the potential for work for them in the future.
Anyway, here are my assessments, as though I were an Academy voter. Which I should be, damn it:
Best Picture. (10 nominations this year for the first time in decades.)
“Avatar” — Clearly the movie of the year, a genuinely revolutionary event in movie-making technology and movie experience. Yeah, yeah, you’ve seen the story a dozen times, mostly as westerns, but the overall effect was both compelling and immersive. And as fashionable as it might be to rip the story, the basic values, amplified from an uber-American source like Hollywood to the entire damned globe is commendable.
“The Blind Side” — A noble, feel-good lightweight, nominated only because it did excellent box-office and the nominations jumped to 10 this year.
“District 9” — In terms of my criteria for “Best”, a near bullseye in every regard, and at 10% the cost of “Avatar”. The rock ’em, sock ’em ending was a predictable sop to box office, but the underlying story lingered longer than almost any other.
“An Education” — In a fair and just world Carey Mulligan would beat out Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock for Best Actress. The movie falls apart when her older, and heretofore sensitive and guiding lover is revealed, but Ms. Mulligan is a terrific character. Loved her scenes with Emma Thompson.
“The Hurt Locker” — Frankly, a disappointment when I finally got around to seeing it. The technical stuff — the sense of place and point of view — are extremely well done. But director Kathryn Bigelow really doesn’t have the chops for explaining the “whys” of her adrenaline junkie central character, and any intelligent viewer wants to know what is making this guy tick.
“Inglourious Basterds” — Two long scenes, in the farm house at the start, and the tavern at the 2/3 point are essentially the whole movie. And they are extraordinarily well-written, directed and edited. But everything else is just a silly movieland souffle.
“Precious” — Grim meets bouyant. The spirit of survival, sometimes via delusion, could be a universal virtue. I’m not sure. But it was a punishing experience.
“A Serious Man” — I love ’em, the Coens, and this one was their best pure comedy in years. Very funny. Entirely enjoyable, in an excruciating, guilty, self-mortifying way. But the boys do themselves a disservice when they play as cute and coy with their essential theme — the raw hand of randomness, I don’t know.
“Up” — Utterly charming and poignant. The passing of the old man’s wife in the early going was as emotionally compelling as any scene this year. Vividly imagined, but in the end “just” a wise parable.
“Up in the Air” — I didn’t buy for one second the “twist” to the Vera Farmiga character. But up until that point, no other movie in 2009 quite captured the American zeitgeist of these times.
My vote: “District 9”.
Jeff Bridges — “Crazy Heart” — Slam dunk. And every “Lebowski-ite” had to have cheered as Bad Blake rolled his ’78 Suburban into the parking lot of … “a bowling alley”. The movie was also very well-directed, in an entirely unobtrusive way, and should have taken “The Blind Side’s” place in “Best Pictures”.
George Clooney — “Up in the Air” — Not exactly a stretch for gorgeous George. But the guy has a heart and he puts it into his work. Still, a character like his would have manifested a few more holes in his psyche than we ever see here.
Colin Firth — “A Single Man” — Closeted angst and articulated depression. Valid. But not the sort of thing I could exactly embrace.
Morgan Freeman — “Invictus” — After playing God, isn’t Nelson Mandela a step down for Freeman, who can play this stuff in his sleep?
Jeremy Renner — “The Hurt Locker” — I get that he’s an adrenaline junkie, and he’s got good macho swagger. But the script makes almost no attempt at explaining “how” or “why” he got there?
My vote: Jeff Bridges.
Sandra Bullock — “The Blind Side” — Like Clooney, not exactly a stretch for her to play a tough-minded, well-to-do suburbanite rescuing a hulking black kid.
Helen Mirren — “The Last Station” — (Hasn’t opened here yet.)
Carey Mulligan — “An Education” — A whip smart 17 year-old. The acknowledged class golden girl, months and years ahead of classmates, teachers and parents. We’ve all known a few. And even they missed an occasional clue or two along the way, too. The best of this bunch.
Gabourey Sidibe — “Precious” — Very, very tough to watch. She was good, but other than basic human empathy, it was tough to relate to so extreme a predicament. Just sayin’. Sorry.
Meryl Streep — “Julie & Julia” — The great old gal had a very enjoyable time playing Julia Child.
My vote: Carey Mulligan.
James Cameron — “Avatar” — Nothing approaches the work — the convergence of cutting edge technology on both story and a next generation of physical sensation — that Cameron had to put into this movie, maybe ever. Not D.W. Griffith shooting “Intolerance”, Sergei Bondarchuk filming “War & Peace” or David Lean in Morocco with “Lawrence of Arabia”. A complete invention — other than the “Little Big Man” story — in every pixel of every second of every scene. And it worked.
Kathryn Bigelow — “The Hurt Locker” — A former Mrs. Cameron, she has superb control of setting and verisimilitude. But can’t connect as well with the motivations driving the reckless-to-supernaturally lucky actions of her main character.
Quentin Tarantino — “Inglourious Basterds” — The guy’s an entertainer. You gotta give him that. But let’s be real, there’s not a lot of depth there.
Lee Daniels — “Precious” — Solemn and sensitive. A classy, earnest effort.
Jason Reitman — “Up in the Air” — In most regards, a fine piece of work. Reitman shows not just a concern for the current condition of the country, but an ability to take an audience through material that in many cases they’d avoid like the plague. It just goes to show the power of a good looking leading man and a lot of snappy dialogue with a couple sharp-witted gals.
My vote: James Cameron.adp easypay nice