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2011 Academy Award Nominees -- All Ten Worth Seeing
Amazingly, all ten best picture nominees are worth seeing and therefore, for me at least, they provided an interesting rating challenge. I am a little disappointed that some "professional" critics felt it necessary to tear into a few of these films. While not a movie critic, I do write book reviews for BookscapeStL so I know the temptation. You look for anything you can criticize. After all, critics are paid to be critical. Some mistakenly think overzealously picking apart art makes them seem really smart (as does forcing internal rhyme into prose). Longtime movie critics are no doubt super-attuned and therefore easily tend toward cynicism. They might need to regain their equilibrium. Okay, so in order to recover my own balance, I’ll stop being critical of critics. (On the other hand, I hate movie trailers when they steal the best lines and scenes. I’d much rather read general info about the film, then go in cold.)
I didn’t intend to see all ten Academy Award Nominees for Best Picture. But I saw half of them without knowing they’d been nominated and then, pleased with the result, still enjoying myself, went to the last two. Common characteristics ran through many of the movies. One was a true story, three others were based on true stories, and three more were "realistic." Additionally, five have strong female characters. So, before I rate the ten best overall, I rate the ten most realistic and the ten with the strongest female characters.
For all ratings, 10 = least best ("worst" doesn’t apply here) and 1 = best.
10. Toy Story 3. No big surprise. This is Pixar. How realistic can a cartoon be?
9. Inception. Again, shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Last I checked we couldn’t shoot guns, steal money, and bend time by manipulating our dreams.
8. Black Swan. Psychologically potentially realistic.
7. True Grit. Landscape, language, characterization, and historical accuracy (as long as you don’t nit pick -- amazing at some of the online arguments about the age of characters, Civil War regiments, and dates).
6. The Kids Are All Right. Family drama made no less true by its lesbian couple.
5. Winter’s Bone. I live on the edge of the Ozarks in St. Louis county, and have 35 years of first-hand experience with Ozark culture. In Winter’s Bone, it is depicted with absolute accuracy.
4. The King’s Speech. Sort of based on a true story. Not ranked higher because it has such a slick feel to it, as if it were tailored to win Best Picture.
3. The Social Network. Based on a true story. Could be accurate, but still based on one viewpoint.
2. The Fighter. Based on a true story. Ranks higher than The Social Network mainly because of cinematography. At the beginning I felt like I was literally in a cheap paneled basement of my childhood.
1. 127 Hours. A true story.
Strong Female Characters
10. Toy Story 3 had a fairly asexual tone, despite Mrs. Potato Head, Barbie, and the cowgirl.
9. 127 Hours is about a man trapped in a canyon. Female characters are limited to a few scenes near the beginning.
8. The Social Network. Briefly, in one or two scenes, the Zuckerberg girlfriend was strong, otherwise, the women tended to be objectified.
7. Inception. Ellen Page’s character should have been strong, but wasn’t for whatever reason.
6. Black Swan. Natalie Portman’s character isn’t "strong" in the conventional sense, but the struggle with her own identity can be admirable. Mila Kunis is seductive.
5. The King’s Speech. Helena Bonham Carter as the King’s wife displays dedication, courage, and quiet persistence.
4. The Kids Are All Right. Annette Benning and Julianne Moore display characteristics we should want in both our mothers.
3. The Fighter. Amy Adams as the fighter’s girlfriend, and Melissa Leo as the fighter’s smothering bossy mother are both strong willed and relentless.
2. Winter’s Bone. Ree Dolly as the 16-year old girl trying to unravel her fathers mysterious disappearance displays courage, resolve, and true, gritty smarts.
1. True Grit. Hailee Steinfeld is the strong willed 14-year-old seeking revenge for her father’s death.
SNL Black Swan Spoof
Where the River Splits
10. Toy Story 3. Voices by Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, and so on. Normally, I’m not a fan of animated movies, Pixar or otherwise. When my kids grew out of that phase, I was grateful for "the circle of life" putting me back on top. I’d seen the first Toy Story and thought it predictable with two-dimensional characters. However, Toy Story 3 added depth to the characters and pushed them into situations that tested them in unexpected ways. Won’t win the Best Picture award because, as Time Magazine says, it’s "a cartoon." The critics seemed to love it.
9. Inception. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page. Many might question this ranking. After all, the movie was fast paced and it kept you on your toes. However, for me, Inception got so caught up in its dream within a dream within a dream premise that the underlying story and themes became muddled. NPR’s "Best Picture Cheat Sheet" calls it "super-complicated." And Ellen Page seemed in over her head next to DiCaprio. My son claims that I have to see it twice. While I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, should you be required to see any movie twice to fully appreciate it? Critics seemed split on this one.
8. The Kids Are All Right. Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo. NPR describes it as "a surprisingly tricky comedy-drama about a lesbian couple." I would add "pleasantly" surprising. My son and I didn’t know what to expect. Neither of us was aware it had been nominated. While we might have enjoyed lesbian sex scenes (we’re two guys after all), it wasn’t necessarily a story about lesbianism. As movie critic Ella Taylor writes "the action progresses to a ringing endorsement of traditional family values and an homage to the sheer hard work that goes into building, maintaining and defending a family."
7. The Fighter. Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, and Christian Bale. I didn’t want to see this movie, convinced that it would be just another well-worn "Rocky" story. But since I’d seen the other nine, I wanted to "complete" my viewing experience. However, after the jangling beginning, the characters carried this movie to its expected but at the same time refreshing ending. Critics generally liked The Fighter.
6. Black Swan. Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder and Vincent Cassel. I struggled with rating this above The Fighter. NPR describes it as "a tense, pervasively kooky psychodrama." Like The Fighter, the beginning seemed too long and too artsy, but it transformed into a weird internal struggle. Critics tended not to like this film. And, in hindsight, it is easy to poke fun at. Maybe because I went in with low expectations, I enjoyed it, and I am sticking to my initial assessment. However, I equally enjoy the spoofs. See Jim Carry SNL skit below.
Note: My top five were extremely difficult to rate. They are all uniquely excellent.
5. The King’s Speech. Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter. Strangely, I have a hard time coming up with much to say about this film. While it was excellent (you should see this film), I don’t have much of a desire to see it again. King George VI stammers and an Australian speech therapist helps sort of cure him so that he can give wartime speeches. Colin Firth’s acting will likely win him the award. Critics loved this film.
4. The Social Network. Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is depicted (probably accurately) as a socially isolated misfit. Who else to "invent" Facebook? The dialogue was excellent, fast and incisive. Leaves you wondering if Zuckerberg was really that much of an ass, and pretty sure that Sean Parker was. Entertaining, informative to a degree, and socially important. Critics generally liked this film with some reservation.
3. Winter’s Bone. Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, and Dale Dickey. From a novel by Daniel Woodrell. Made in the Missouri Ozarks, captures the criminal element of that culture perfectly. The landscape is perfect and while the story seems simple, it builds in intensity and gains a uniquely Ozark significance. Critics liked Winter’s Bone.
2. 127 Hours. From Aron Ralston's book, starring James Franco. At first glance, a movie about a guy trapped by a boulder in a canyon doesn’t seem like it could provide much of a story. He gets stuck, cuts off his arm, gets free, and hikes out. End of a true story. The facts are depicted as accurately as possible, the clothing, the location, and the equipment. However, this seemingly straightforward story becomes much more, a character study, a struggle with the vastness of nature, and ultimately an uplifting narrative of the human spirit and drive for survival. The most realistic of the ten, Time Magazine points out that "some viewers passed out from shock while watching the movie." Some critics panned it, referring to "Jackass -style gross-outs," Aron Ralston's "lack of imagination," and the director relying on "grisly stuff." Maybe you need to have had harrowing outdoor experiences (as I have) to fully appreciate this movie. But if that’s true, then it’s too bad, and critics need to put on their boots and go for a hike.
1. True Grit. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. From the novel by Charles Portis. Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin. In the 1969 original, John Wayne won his only Oscar as the drunkard marshal Rooster Cogburn. The Coen Brothers version adheres to the novel. True Grit ranks highest mainly because of the witty dialogue and excellent timing. Critics generally liked True Grit, but David Edelstein wrote "amusing and impressive as it is, is an arm's-length experience without much emotional power." Even if true for him, so what? In fact, the humor embedded in realism makes this movie rise above those with "emotional power." Though not required, True grit is worth seeing again. One online viewer commented that it had "too much dialog" and that it wasn’t "badass" like the trailer made it out to be. No doubt this viewer lives in an Ozark trailer and thought he was headed toward a Chuck Norris or Steven Segal film. (Okay, I know, I couldn’t finish without at least sounding like a gritty, cynical, true movie critic.)