Oscar rewind: The Year that The Pauper Beat The Prince

Looking for some DVD’s or a movie to rent? Each week we will travel back in time. We already reviewed the Oscars for 2011. So time for an Oscar rewind: Let’s go back in time.

We start things off with one of my top films of  2010, Black Swan. What an outstanding and disturbing picture. It’s one of the few movies that freaked me out a little.

Part of that comes from the major emotional investment you feel toward the movie almost immediately. And that is almost entirely because of Natalie Portman’s incredible performance, which rightfully netted her Best Actress. One scene in particular stands out:  She’s calling her mother to tell her she got the lead role in “Swan Lake” and all at once her face is frightened, excited, anxious, fulfilled, and in short: conflicted.

But I should also point out that director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) does his best work in this film. Both he and Portman do the “normal person slowly going crazy” better than I’ve ever seen it. Because her transformation is so subtle that you almost don’t notice it happening. It’s not for the queasy or the prude but if you can sit through it without getting nightmares you’ll be blown away. Even if you’re probably also a little depressed.

A film I’m almost completely unenthusiastic about is The Fighter. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just not very good.

It’s pretty much every boxing movie ever except the boxer isn’t persevering for reasons you can really root for. The reasons are: “my brother was supposed to be the boxer but he’s a crack addict and my mother was shrill and Boston-y enough when she yelled at me repeatedly that I need to be a fighter just to shut her up.”

Christian Bale (The Prestige, Batman Begins) steals the whole movie as the brother who went wrong, Dick Eklund. He’s not in it enough (I thought) and after a whole lot of films through the years that he’s completely absorbed into himself, I’m glad he was finally rewarded.

But too much of it was Mark Wahlberg (The Departed, The Happening) being bland and his mother in the movie shrieking. I was never big on family drama and this movie is basically just that.

In a perfect world the Best Picture would be Inception. This film is an incredible juggling act between tons of genres, multiple storylines, and various “meanings” that it holds as a film. All the while simply being a personal story about a father who wants to see his kids again and is trying to deal with the death of his wife.

This movie is almost perfectly paced. It doesn’t waste a single scene. Every scene is giving you information and doing it in a natural way. People talk about how confusing it was but most people come away from it understanding it. It exhilarates you with every scene like an action movie does, without having needless action.

Ironically, if you removed the action from the movie it might have been a contender for Best Picture. In addition to the pacing, the script is genius and Hans Zimmer’s score is amazing. Don’t get me started on how much Nolan was snubbed by not even being nominated, and his snubbing at not winning Screenplay. So Academy: don’t make Nolan the next Hitchcock. Because he’s already getting there talent-wise, and he doesn’t need the award-snubbing part.

As my adrenaline levels lower I will tell you about The Kids Are All Right. I had mixed feelings about this movie. I was pleasantly surprised by this movie but  it’s still a little bit too much of a stereotypical Indie picture.

My good friend Kyle described another film as “trying too hard to be quirky” and that’s what I’d say about this movie. It’s about (married? Domestic partnered?) lesbians who each gave birth to a child from the same sperm donor. Those kids are grown up and want to meet their father so they seek him out and it’s Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac, The Avengers).

You can’t get much quirkier than that.  The dialogue was especially good, but then it gets dark. They seeked him out and essentially forced him into their lives and then they forced him out at the end because he was “wanted to feel like a father too badly and it was needy.”

It took what was essentially a really fun concept and turned it into a quirky Indie film inside of a serious Indie film and that doesn’t flow. I enjoyed it for the most part but at the end of the day I’m not sure it was about much of anything other than to say: “lesbians can be dysfunctional and have adventures too.”

A movie that is odd to place on an alphabetical list is 127 Hours. Now this is a great movie. And James Franco quite literally carries almost the entire thing by himself. Most of its 94 minutes are spent with him pinned to a rock but it’s somehow enthralling.

I had a very interesting experience watching the movie in that the whole time I was thinking, “well James Franco is doing a great job but … meh. I already know he cuts his arm off so … meh.” And then at the moment when his soon-to-be-rescuers are walking away from him and he uses what’s left of his energy to cry out for help, I just lost it. I loved the rest of the movie because of that scene and how it transformed everything you’d just been through.

Because his character (who is also a real person of course) has to regain the will to live throughout the film. It probably occurred to him way earlier to cut off his arm, but he kind of wanted to die. He had lived his life as a daredevil because he wanted to feel something but he never did. Then he realized everything his life could be and that he was in a prison of his own making (both emotionally and physically) so he wanted to cut out the part of him that was holding him back and keep the rest.

So when he cries out for help at the end, it was so emotional because he was proclaiming to the world that he wanted to live. He was acknowledging his own weakness and mortality. And ever since then he’s been living his life to the fullest, with every cliché that entails. But they never put it in those words. They show it to you. That’s the difference between sub-par filmmakers/screenwriters and great ones.

The movie that could prevent the crowning of the King is The Social Network. Easily my second favorite of the nominees (tied with Black Swan) this film is an outstanding example of how to balance current relevance with lasting relevance.

Because on its surface it’s about Facebook. Something that will either A) fly too close to the sun and destroy itself in a few years or B) become so ingrained in the culture that it will no longer fascinate people. It’s probably already at that second point, so if it was simply “the story of the founding of Facebook” then it’d be mildly entertaining. But the script is incredible, even by Aaron Sorkin’s high standards, and won Adapted Screenplay.

What elevates this movie to the level of “lasting relevance” is the subtext. They made real people into characters without going overboard. Because even though Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed as a genius who’s also a jerk, at the end of the day he’s just a guy who had his heart broken and wanted to feel relevant. His intelligence made him an outcast and so he invented a website that made everyone part of something. But he can never get his girlfriend back, so none of that really matters.

Pixar movies always seem to make me cry and Toy Story 3 was no exception. Along with the first two movies, this once again proves the power and potential of the animated film. I long for the day when an animated movie wins Best Picture. Because it’ll be when people realize that it takes just as much, if not more, of the exact same skills to put together a movie of this magnitude.

Toys dealing with their increasing irrelevancy is as relatable as people dealing with it. The first movie was about Andy’s god-like relationship toward his toys and Woody’s questions of identity when a new toy replaces him. The second movie establishes the question of what will happen to the toys when their owner grows up. And the third movie finally delivers on all of that buildup.

A lot of interesting afterlife imagery is in the third installment of the series. Some toys get to go play with the kids that treat them well and some are tortured and slobbered on by destructive toddlers. In describing the villain, Milton’s quote that “it’s better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven” comes to mind. Of course, the movie also is really funny and really charming and has Flamenco Buzz Lightyear. All of this leads to a sad but hopeful ending where the toys discover that even though Andy has moved on from playing with them, it doesn’t mean he never loved them.

On the other side of things, I was underwhelmed by True Grit. It’s not among the best Coen brothers movies, and not among the best Westerns either. When I was watching it I felt like it was interesting and enjoyable but it didn’t really do anything new.

The dialogue was good, as per the Coens’ usual standard, and the acting was pretty great even if they didn’t have too much to do. Hailee Steinfeld was especially amazing, and should’ve taken home the Supporting Actress award. Imagine if you’re 13 years old and your first big acting job is in a Coen brothers movie and you’re acting alongside Jeff Bridges (fresh off an Oscar win for Crazy Heart), Matt Damon (The Bourne Series), and Josh Brolin (Men in Black III). That’s pretty intimidating.

On that note, this is sacrilege but Jeff Bridges was better than John Wayne. DISCLAIMER: I have not seen the original movie in its entirety. But anybody will tell you that Wayne’s win that year was a bit of a “lifetime achievement” award. And Wayne was a larger-than-life type of guy, but the story is a little more on the funny side and I don’t find John Wayne that funny. Mostly because John Wayne never found anything funny. He was a serious dude and he totally owned that. But as a comedy I feel like it was almost demeaning because Wayne wasn’t a comedic actor.

The underwhelming continues with Winter’s Bone. I can’t even call it underwhelming actually. Because I only use that term for movies that hold merit. This movie has almost no merit.

The entire film could have been an interesting episode of CSI. Or an unusually well-put-together anti-drug commercial. It sounded really interesting to me when I read about it. The story revolves around a teenage girl in the Ozarks, which is apparently deep Meth lab territory, trying to find her father. She’s fairly certain that he’s dead but she needs to find out for sure because the court is repossessing their house due to her father skipping out on his court date.

So she needs to either A) find him and force him to go to court or B) confirm he’s dead and make the court date moot. Sounds pretty interesting right? But it was just so … boring. “Braving the elements” actually entailed walking around town and asking, “where’s my dad?” for an hour and thirty minutes. Then in the last 10 minutes someone finally says, “I’ve been lying this whole time, I know right where he is and I’ll take you to him.”

She annoyed them enough by asking ceaseless questions that they broke. No real skills involved. I really wanted to like this movie, but I was also expecting something different. I like to think of it as taking place in a boring part of the universe occupied by TV’s Justified.

And now we at last reach this year’s  winner, The King’s Speech.  (See feature photo) Don’t get me wrong, if I saw this exact thing on stage it’d be the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Colin Firth (A Single Man) does an excellent job, although Geoffrey Rush (Shine) outdoes him. It’s a movie  full of hope and promise.

But it’s not about anything. He stutters and then he doesn’t. That’s the movie.

Did Tom Hooper direct it about as well as it could have been with the script he was given? Certainly. But that doesn’t mean that he had much to do. Definitely not more than the other director nominees. So nothing is really wrong with this movie, but it gives you exactly what you expected.

No lines stood out where I said, “hmm that was an interesting thought.” No scene blew me away by a performance or a piece of music.

Not a bad year for nominees. Even if the “right” one didn’t win.

Stay tuned for the next entry which will include flying old guys, classy Nazis, and literate football players.