And the Nominees Are… Rundown of the Best Picture Contenders

March 7, 2010

Far be it from me to throw my two cents in as to what will or won’t win an Oscar next week. I have an educated guess on who will win what, but it’s still guesswork, and I also don’t really care. What this does allow is the opportunity to throw up some quick reviews for the films I haven’t already talked about on the site. I haven’t seen The Blind Side, as it has not been released in the UK yet and while I probably will see it, I’m really not looking forward to the experience (I will not, however, write up a snide review of what I think it will be, because ya never know, it might surprise you…right?). So there are four Best Picture nominees beyond the five already reviewed to get through, and coming up are some quick thoughts.

First of all, the five already reviewed:

Avatar

The Hurt Locker

Inglourious Basterds

District 9

An Education

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire

First of all, this film is not racist. It borders on poor-porn, but it is not racist. If you’re coming at it from a conservative slant, you might take away that blacks are evil subhumans who rape and abuse their children, sponge off the state with no desire to find a job, and whose only hope of redemption comes in taking advantage of liberal community outreach and educational programs because they’re too damn stupid or lazy to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If you take that away, then you’re pretty racist. This film does not confirm any views on african-americans in society. Aside from the dubious aspect of having middle-class folk sympathize and pity the victims of the underclass, there’s nothing inherently immoral with the story.

With that out of the way, I can now tell you that the film is just not very good. Aside from the two excellent central performances by Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique, there isn’t much to recommend. Lee Daniels’ direction of the actors might have been great, but his visual style is derivative and relies far too much on self-consciously flashy techniques when he should be holding back and letting us observe. It’s a character drama, and the way it is executed only detracts from the power of the stories and the performances. Of course, the story itself isn’t that great or particularly well fleshed-out. Once Precious starts at her special school and has the kid, her classmates who were a scene or two before combative strangers are now suddenly best friends. Her journey out of domestic is populated with one-note supporting characters who do nothing but, well, support. Pointless side plots are briefly mentioned and then resolved, such as Lenny Kravitz’s Nurse John who gets coupled up with another character out of nowhere, and it’s something that means absolutely nothing. Perhaps there was an effort made to throw in these cheap moments of audience gratification to take make such a horrifying story more palatable to mainstream audiences, but since neither the awful home life nor the redemptive school world are entirely successful, they may have overstretched themselves.

Precious reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark more than anything. A sweet, good-natured person spends the entire running time being beaten down by family and loved ones to the point of absurdity. Here, as in Von Trier’s film, the overall effect is numbing and almost comical. There’s only so much manipulation a considerate viewer can take before being pulled right out of the experience, and somewhere around Precious getting HIV was where that happened here. The misery is, in the end, too numbing and the positive influences too flimsy, and the entire enterprise is salvaged at the end by Mo’Nique’s monstrous turn as the mother finally breaking down. It’s a big scene, and it colours everything about her character that we’ve seen before. There’s no sympathy, but there’s a crucial humanization that almost everyone else is lacking. It should get her the Oscar, but it also demonstrates how good the film as a whole really could have been.

A Serious Man

After box office success with Burn After Reading followed the Oscar success of No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers came out with this little gem, though ‘little’ isn’t terribly fair. It has a cast of unknowns and character actors and was released with a small amount of fanfare. It had the makings of a minor work, but in reality it might be their best film since Fargo.

Living somewhere in between their comedies and their dramas, A Serious Man is a film about religion and faith. It’s a topic that colours the edges of so many films, but it hasn’t been dealt with quite so head on like this in a while, or maybe it has and I just haven’t noticed. At any rate, it is one of the finest in a hallowed genre, with the Coens stamping their personalities all over it. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a professor in a town in the early 70s Midwest. His life starts to fall apart all of sudden with his possible tenure under threat, his wife leaving him, and his mentally unstable brother coming to live with him. A series of Job-like tests hit him, and he attempts to make sense of it all with the help of a string of rabbis, none of whom offer much in the way of comfort or even sensible advice.

It’s a brazenly agnostic work, with each situation building upon the last and Larry is never really sure whether God exists and is punishing him or if God doesn’t exist and this is the proof. The feeling of disillusionment and abandonment with his religious community is balanced out with his son’s bah mitzvah, a unifying event that fills Larry with all the joy the comfort of religious ceremony can bring. What Larry doesn’t realize is that his son is so high he can barely walk. The supporting characters are funny in that Coen brothers way of quirky idiocy, but it goes beyond just the creators mocking and condescending to their creations. The selfish indifference and moronic behaviour of the people around Larry is part of the point, and it works to further isolate him in his existential crisis.

The acting is superb all around, the sound design is manic and controlled (the opening scenes of Larry’s daily life features a series of noises building and building to annoying levels that he seems to be totally unaware of, as though he’s just tuned out most of his life), and Roger Deakin’s cinematography gives the town an otherworldly glow. It’s a strangely personal work, not something for which the Coens are known, and in their inimitable style they’ve created something both farcical and moving. The last shot is powerful and strange and dramatic and completely perfect, and is just one small reason why this is the best film nominated for any award at this years Oscars.

Up

Pixar, aside from sending a thousand academics into furiously writing about the ‘Studio-as-Auteur’, have also managed to make a run of films that range from ‘really excellent’ to ‘outright masterpiece’. Up is a more than worthy addition to the canon, and if it doesn’t break technological ground in quite the same way as Wall*E, it makes up for it in story, humour, and a protagonist that might be the most emotionally affecting in their history.

The opening montage is a punch in the gut, to be sure, and it’s so beautifully constructed and scored that it could have been a magnificent silent short on its own. Summing up a life with all its joys and tragedies has rarely been done so lovingly and in such a short amount of time. The film never quite tops it, but what follows is a pleasing adventure yarn with just enough emotional engagement to honour if not surpass that early sequence. There’s a moment later in the film that you can see coming a mile away, and yet it still retains its power because we’ve been swept up in the beautifully crafted moments leading up to it. That’s the interesting issue throughout the film, actually, as in it often is obvious and sometimes a little too on-the-nose. The image of Carl tethered to his floating house and carrying it through the jungles he fantasized about visiting in his youth is such a heavy-handed visual metaphor it shouldn’t have worked, and yet it’s so stunningly composed (I could go on just about the rendering of the balloons) it works. The talking dog is funny and sweet, always threatening to cross the line into cutesy nausea, but staying just on the right side of good taste. So the kid isn’t as interesting as everything else, and while I appreciate the quandary the villain creates, he’s hardly the strongest antagonist in history. Giant birds and zeppelins are just the window-dressing, however, as the film is really a meditation on death and the reflection on and interpretation of a long life.

Up in the Air

I’m short on time what with my self-imposed deadline, so I’ll keep this one brief. Jason Reitman is not a great director, he’s merely a mediocre journeyman who has somehow chosen films that resonate with people for whatever reason. The over-praised Juno is still a really good film, but on the evidence of Up in the Air one realizes just how much that was down to the cast and Diablo Cody’s script. The early scenes are pretty well-done, introducing us to Ryan Bingham (Clooney, in a role he can sleepwalk through) and his world of cold, shiny airports and nice but sterile hotels. There’s a real fetishization of all the processes and routines that go through this life, as Bingham the loner needs these rituals to cope with his lonely existence, however unaware of it he is. Vera Farmiga turns up as a love interest/sex partner who adheres to the same values of Bingham, and there are some excellent back and forth banter between the two. These early scenes are the highlight of the film as it goes so off the rails into boring sentimentality, weirdly conservative and backward moralizing, and a series of one-dimensional characters and distracting cameos.

The film is smug and disingenuous. It tries to get us to sympathize with Bingham, but as much as he learns about life and how to live it, the film wants us to get on board with this notion that he’s somehow a noble man in an awful industry. There’s an unbelievable sequence where he tells a man he’s firing that this is the beginning of the rest of his life and now he can become the chef he’s always wanted to, and bizarrely Reitman seems to think we should look at this as a positive feature in the character. The recession stuff is really just shoe-horned in to try to make the film feel relevant with the times, but it comes off as opportunistic and offensive. As the cliches about the man finding himself mount up, the film moves to Bingham’s hometown for his sister’s wedding. When the event is depicted with handheld, verite techniques, I went from disliking to the movie to actively hating it. Reitman has seen other movies, but he’s not clever enough to understand them. Oscar season often sees manipulative, ‘message’ pictures and sturdy dramas elevated to the heights of art in their own self-important mind, and Up in the Air is no exception. Annoyingly it thinks it is edgy and interesting and daring when it is exactly the opposite of all of those things. I’m glad it has lost steam, and even if Avatar pulls off Best Picture, I’ll be content to some degree in the knowledge that at least it wasn’t this awful tripe.

-M

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