I wasn’t a fan of the Motion Picture Academy’s decision to expand its field of Best Picture nominees to a crowded 10. But maybe the Academy is onto something. This year it has given its membership the opportunity to recognize a range of work that includes small independent films, big-budget blockbusters, thoughtful biographies, an animated film, a comedy (of sorts), and even an old-fashioned Western.
I don’t know which of these fine films will take home the statue, but I think I’ll be satisfied this year no matter what. Here is a quick review of each of the Best Picture nominees.
Inception. The most exciting, astounding film of the year, this psychological thriller stunned audiences with its mindboggling cityscapes folding into themselves, how’d-they-do-that weightlessness, multiple layers of reality, and action scenes worthy of a James Bond film. Added to all that are the creative musical score by Hans Zimmer (also nominated for an Oscar); knock-out performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Marion Cotillard; and an intellectual script that challenges the viewers’ perception of reality and of how beliefs are formed. Months after the film’s release, fans are still arguing about its central meaning: The action takes place inside a dream, but whose dream is it? (I know — do you?) Unaccountably, writer-director Christopher Nolan was shut out of the nominations for Best Director. Also, the film was probably too popular at the box office to take home the prize. But I’m glad to see it nominated. It’s my favorite studio film this year.
Winter’s Bone. This rugged little indie film was my happiest surprise of the morning when the nominees were announced. Ree Dolley (Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for Best Actress) is the most libertarian heroine in the movies this year. When her meth-lab father puts the family farm up for collateral with a bail bondsman, then vanishes from town, Ree must track him down and bring him to court to keep from forfeiting the homestead. She is the kind of self-reliant heroine one can genuinely admire. A high school student raising her two young siblings, she briefly considers joining the Army to take advantage of the $40,000 enlistment bonus — but she does not consider turning to the government for welfare handouts. Despite her family’s deep poverty, there is no evidence of social workers, child protective services, section 8 housing, or even food stamps. The film is set in the Ozarks, in a closed, insulated community where people eat off the land, or they don’t eat at all; and Ree manages not only to eat but to triumph over her difficult surroundings. I’m delighted that this film will be brought back for viewing, now that it has been nominated for Best Picture.
127 Hours. If Ree Dolley is the most libertarian heroine of 2010, Aron Ralston (James Franco, nominated for Best Actor) of 127 Hours is her male counterpart. When Aron gets pinned by a large boulder after falling into a crevasse while hiking in a Utah canyon, he sets to work figuring out how to free himself — which he does in a heroic and horrifying way. This film could have been claustrophobic and gratuitously graphic, but instead it is a celebration of level-headed innovation and the drive for self-preservation. Moreover, it is a powerful metaphor for life in the new millennium. We hurtled our way through the go-go nineties, pumped up by a soaring stock market and roaring real estate investments, only to be pinned down by boulders that were, as Aron philosophizes, “there all along, just waiting to meet me in that canyon.” Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for “someone” (read: the government) to fix them. But as Aron Ralston’s story clearly demonstrates, the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out. Instead of worrying about the cell phone you don’t have, assess the tools you do have. Keep a positive spirit. Be resourceful and self-reliant. Be a problem-solver. Remember to thank the people in your life and tell them that you love them. And don’t be afraid to let go of the thing that is holding you back, even if it is as precious as an arm.
The Fighter. This film about boxing brothers Dicky and Micky Eklund received its nomination largely on the strength of its cast and director (David O. Russell, also nominated). The film boasts three Best Supporting nominations, and each of them is richly deserved. Christian Bale seems to be Hollywood’s go-to guy when directors need an actor to lose a ton of weight (The Machinist, Rescue Dawn), but it isn’t just the weight-loss that garnered Bale the nomination. As the wide-eyed, hyped-up, drug-addled, former boxing legend Dicky Eklund, he lights up the screen with his cocaine-induced enthusiasm and gut-wrenching pathos. And Melissa Leo, who plays the Eklunds’ hard-driving, chain-smoking, no-nonsense matriarch in tight pants and high heels, is my favorite Supporting Actress of the year. Leo is over-the-top perfect in this role, from the moment she prances into the gym, clipboard in hand, to supervise Micky’s training session. Alice is the ultimate stage mother: pushy, strong, manipulative, and naively confident in her ability to manage her sons’ careers. Going head-to-head with her, on Oscar night and in the film, is Amy Adams as Micky’s girlfriend Charlene, who stands up ferociously to the matriarch and her seven big-haired daughters in this film. Adams is a skilled actress, at home playing charming ingénues in romantic comedies or gritty working girls in dysfunctional dramas like this one. But Leo is my Oscar choice, for her performance in The Fighter and also because I admired her equally strong performance as the investigator in this year’s weaker prison film, Conviction. Mark Wahlberg’s performance as Micky is strong as well, but he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, possibly because he’s the straight man in the cast, and those characters are often overlooked by the Academy. It’s a shame, because Wahlberg shepherded this story for several years and is the driving force behind the film.
The King’s Speech. Let’s get serious now. While the films listed above are my personal favorites this year, The King’s Speech is the film that I expect (and hope, since it is better than those listed below) to see storming the stage at the end of Oscar night. It’s a film about triumph over personal and public obstacles, as the unassuming man who would become King George VI struggles to overcome his speech impediment and prepares to lead England during World War II. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are glorious as the prince and the speech therapist, sparring like equals despite their difference in social class. Helena Bonham Carter captures the tender affection and twinkling eye that would characterize Elizabeth, the Queen Mum, throughout her life. All three are nominated. Indeed, The King’s Speech leads the pack for nominations, with an even dozen. It is likely to walk away with at least half of those.
The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t even 30 yet, and already he’s been immortalized with a film about him. Reportedly the multibillionaire whiz kid who changed the way people communicate with one another when he created Facebook (even I use it now!), isn’t very happy about the way he is portrayed in the movie. But no matter — this film is going to be the way people remember and define Mark Zuckerberg. A fascinating look at the relationships among conception, production, and capitalization in a startup business, the film focuses on the intellectual property lawsuit brought by classmates against Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, nominated for Best Actor) and the frenzied atmosphere that surrounded the beginning of the business. The musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (also nominated) contributes to that atmosphere and is likely to win.
True Grit. Wouldn’t it be fun if Jeff Bridges (nominated for Best Actor) won in this category? Then we would have two men receiving Oscars for the same role, and both for the wrong reasons. Let’s face it — John Wayne was a star, not an actor. He was good in True Grit (1969), but there was nothing outstanding about his performance. It was just his turn, and everyone knew it. Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is better in every way than Wayne’s. But better than Colin Firth in The King’s Speech? Or Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Hour? Or James Franco in 127 Hours? It’s an impressive field of actors this year, and Bridges should be grateful that Crazy Heart came out last year instead (he won the Oscar for that film). Nevertheless, I could see the Academy voting for Bridges, just for the notoriety of having two men win for the same role. Cynicism aside, I have to report that this is a wonderful movie. But it’s Hailee Steinfeld (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) as Mattie Ross, not Jeff Bridges, who lifts the film to greatness. Whether she’s negotiating with horse traders, sparring with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), or confronting Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father, she dominates each scene with her combination of spunk, courage, intelligence, and vulnerability. Her relationship with Rooster develops slowly and genuinely, building to the scene where he literally drives her horse into the ground as he races against time to save her. It’s a thrilling film in every sense. Those Coen Brothers (nominated for Best Director) can do just about anything.
Toy Story 3. Pixar was a brand new animation company when it introduced Toy Story in 1995, and the franchise has grown stronger with each installment of this clever series and its cast of beloved toys led by Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and Mr. Potato Head. Now Andy, their owner, has grown up, and as he goes off to college his mother encourages him to donate his old toys to a neighborhood preschool. Their zany adventures continue as they try to survive the rough-and-tumble children and get back home to Andy. As witty and poignant as any of the films in the series, Toy Story 3 deserves its nomination for Best Picture. Incidentally, Andy’s decision to give his toys to a neighbor girl, while perhaps satisfying popular cultural values, broke this mother’s heart. I want Andy to come back five years from now with a family of his own who will play with his old toys!
Black Swan is a satisfying psychological thriller that explores what it means for a performer to enter a role and become a character. Nina (Natalie Portman, nominated for Best Actress) is technically a superb ballerina, but she lacks the depth of character to reach into the dark soul of the black swan in “Swan Lake.” As she prepares for the role she must deal with an overbearing mother, a lecherous director, a creepy competitor, and her own repressed sexuality. Not my favorite film of the year, but certainly a creative and visually impressive work.
The Kids Are All Right. I haven’t watched this film, but I’ve seen it. I was flying across country two days before Christmas in one of those planes with individual movie screens in the back of each seat that allow passengers to choose their own entertainment. I was quietly minding my own business, playing Trivial Pursuit, when I suddenly received an eyeful from the screen between the seats in front of me: two naked men were simulating sex on a screen within the screen, followed by what looked like a stern talking to from a concerned Annette Bening –evidently the “son who’s all right” was caught watching porn. A few moments later I glanced in that direction again and saw Bening apparently watching TV in bed. Suddenly her blankets started rumbling like an earthquake, she started smiling, and Julianne Moore emerged from under the sheets. And then the men’s naked bodies were onscreen again (I guess Mom #1 needed to discuss it with Mom #2, or something). I stopped playing my game and opened a book so I wouldn’t have to look in that direction any more. I don’t pretend to know what this film is about, and I don’t have an opinion about whether it deserves an Oscar nomination. I just don’t think a version offering unedited, unexpected nudity should have been shown on a Christmas flight full of children. Or old fogeys like me.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as the entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas next summer.