It’s all because of “The Dark Knight.”
Last year, the TV ratings for the Oscars were in the toilet again. After all, the Batman flick ruled the box office but gathered few nominations, so viewers were not engaged in the competition. Similarly, the highest previous ratings for Oscar telecasts were in those years when two box office champs prevailed: Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
To fix this problem, the Academy doubled the nominations for “Best Picture” to ten this year. So how did it all end up? Well, we got the five we would have had anyway, plus five more of varying quality or popularity. In other words, it was a wash.
I believe this was a pretty good year for the movies, as we got a nice variety of entertainment, uplifting messages, and advancement of the cinematic arts. If there was a year to increase the number of Oscar-nominated films, the films of 2009 were a worthy place to start. Here are my thoughts on the best of the nominated films, in ascending order. I am not predicting the winner; I am naming only my preferences. Also, in evaluating films, I take a page from critic Roger Ebert, who names his best film of the year according to a single criterion: Did it make him look at film differently?
Here is how I see the ten nominated films in terms of quality and innovation.
10. THE BLIND SIDE -- As Richard Corliss wrote in Time, “For evidence of Sandra Bullock's front-runner status in the Best Actress race, look at how she pulled her movie, indistinguishable from a dozen other sports inspirationals, into the Best Picture race.” How true. There is nothing cinematically exceptional, innovating, interesting or even particularly skillful about this movie. In fact, even its veracity is in doubt. It subject, football star Michael Oher, does not promote the film, softly citing its inaccuracies. Several people I know raved about the film. When I saw it, I thought it was made in the 1970s, hardly the standard for a “best film award.” The Blind Side stole a nomination from other worthier films (e.g. Bright Star, The Young Victoria).
9. A SERIOUS MAN -- You could have titled this “Jewish-American Beauty,” as it contains many of the minimalist plotlines and cinematic tics of that earlier film. A Serious Man, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, centers around Professor Larry Gopnik, who is suffering all forms of tsuris. His wife, leaving him for a neighbor, asks Larry to move out to the local motel. Gopnik’s tenure is threatened by a student trying to bribe him AND blackmail him at the same time. His son and daughter are stealing his money. And this laugh fest is populated by some of the most offensive Jewish stereotypes I have ever seen. I guess the Academy believes that the Coens’ previous successes warrant an automatic nomination. They should think again.
8. AN EDUCATION -- Refer back to Sandra Bullock, as this film’s success rests on the charming performance of its star, Carey Mulligan. Based on a true story, Jenny, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who is bright beyond her years, is taken in by a older gentleman (Peter Sarsgaard), who seems to charm all around him. Soon the two are off to Paris and other adventures before Jenny receives some harsh life lessons. Mulligan is wonderfully believable, a star in the making who is sometimes reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. But a Best Picture contender? Not much there to support that.
7. UP -- Ah, now we begin to see the real cinematic achievers among the nominees. Pixar does it again, perhaps better than ever. Widower Carl Fredricksen sees his life withering away after he loses Ellie, his wife and the sparkplug of his life. In order to gain some control again, Carl decides to go on the adventure that he and Ellie never could. In the process, Carl learns what it is like to really live — a lesson that Ellie tried to teach him in their time together. If you think that animation is for children, experience the wordless, heartbreaking synopsis of Carl and Ellie’s life at the beginning of the film. And I haven’t seen a balloon look so thrilling since David Niven and Cantinflas traveled Around the World in Eighty Days.
6. PRECIOUS -- I got so lost in this for a while that I has to remind myself, “Wait, this isn’t a documentary.” Such is the skill of Lee Daniel’s direction that he makes this world of poverty so real. I stayed away from Precious for a while, worried that it was too depressing. Don’t make the same mistake. Unspeakably cruel at times, it shines a light on many inconvenient truths about our society. While filled with good performances, Mo’Nique shines as the mother who brutalizes her daughter in a wide variety of ways. Her final scene, staring into the camera and expressing all her guilt, fears, regrets and rationalizations is an acting lesson all by itself.
5. UP IN THE AIR -- A comedy that actually has cinematic value! Who’d have thought? Jason Reitman has created a small gem that may well turn out to be a classic among this crop of nominees. This film has it all: a witty screenplay, whipsmart performances, and movement. Yes, rather than merely talking us to death with its witty dialogue, Up in the Air actually moves us across the country , taking us into the zeitgeist of corporate downsizing. And George Clooney probably has proven, once and for all, that he is indeed this generation’s answer to Cary Grant. This may be the best, most modern film comedy that I have seen since Tootsie.
4. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS -- I haven’t liked anything Quentin Tarantino has done since Pulp Fiction. But like that earlier work, Inglourious Basterds creates an crackling cinematic energy. You must first suspend your belief, as it is, at heart, a revenge fantasy against Hitler and his Holocaust. Once you accept that conceit, the film is radiant. The art direction is luxurious, creating elegant settings to support the ambitious scenario, especially in the climatic movie theater scene. Christoph Waltz is brilliant as Hans Landa, the SS officer who veers as effortlessly between four languages as he does from comic looniness to sadistic madness.
3. THE HURT LOCKER -- Director Kathryn Bigelow creates a timely, timeless tale of the Iraq war. You will be tense throughout The Hurt Locker, which is evidence of Bigelow’s genius. She takes you into the center of a most maddening job — defusing incendiary devices. She shows how these experts may not know the intentions of those around them; even a simple cell phone may ignite the bomb under question. The only aspect of this film that doesn’t place it at the top of my list is its screenplay, which allows little story or character development. Otherwise, it is a great use of film medium, especially the art of editing.
2. AVATAR TV is eating into film receipts, as audiences can be entertained for free at home. Hollywood responds with spectacle and a larger-than-home life experience. The year? No, not now, but 1959. The film that turns around Hollywood’s fortunes? Ben-Hur.
I believe Avatar is as significant in this era as Ben-Hur was in its time. James Cameron uses all available film technology to fashion a unique work that is best experienced on the big screen. He did his homework, too, creating creatures, a new language and a culture that is literally out of this world. Say what you want about the man; he bets big and wins big (re: Titanic). But he is certainly no screenwriter. That is why my favorite of the nominees is…
1. DISTRICT 9 -- Director Neill Blomkamp debuts impressively with his allegory about extra-terrestrials held prisoner in South Africa. His documentary style places us at the center of the action. He also gets more on the screen for his $30 million budget that Avatar does for its estimated $300 to 500 million. Also, the Oscar-nominated screenplay has more wit and character development than one normally sees in a sci-fi flick. One feels sympathy for the trapped aliens who want desperately to return home. In one poignant scene, an alien trembles fearfully when forced into a weapons experiment that will surely kill him. And the main earthling, Wikus (brilliantly portrayed by Sharlto Copley), makes us part of his own descent into alienation. In creating a world gone mad, District 9 did it better, and with fewer resources, than nearly any other film I have seen.
Oscar nominations, like all lists of “the best,” open up lots of debates. I expect to hear from many readers questioning my judgment and perhaps even the origins of my birth as a result of these opinions. Not to worry. The Academy’s collective opinion will hold far more sway than mine will. Furthermore, public opinion counts most of all, as that determines which films get made. So if you like a particular type of film, support it with your ticket dollars. And vote often. I still contend that a movie ticket is one of the best entertainment bargains around.