The last two weeks have been a scramble as I aimed to watch all Best Picture nominees before the Oscar telecast. Sadly, the challenge only led to viewing a disastrously weak award show. Bleh! Nevertheless, I was glad to have watched all ten and here is how I rank them.
10. The Winter’s Bone
While this is at the bottom of the list, “The Winter’s Bone” is far from a bad movie. Witnessing Jennifer Lawrence’s gutsy performance is enough of a recommendation. The movie centers on a tough and determined daughter in search of her criminal father, who may or may not be alive. The setting is a bit bleak, almost unworldly. The Ozarks, not quite the familiar movie location, is one of those places that itself becomes a character too. I’m glad I visited, but I don’t know if it’s worth revisiting. Once its dark mystery is exposed, I was relieved to finish the movie.
9. The King’s Speech
This might be the most disappointing movie of the bunch. Even more disappointing now that it won Best Picture. I sincerely wanted to love the British drama, but it was only okay for me. Maybe its front-runner status hyped it too much for me. The last time I felt this let down was when I watched “Brokeback Mountain,” but at least I recognize that film’s cultural impact. “The King’s Speech” feels too safe and an obvious Oscar-bait. I found myself drifting off in some scenes (this included the “climatic” speech scene). This is really more in the vein of a HBO historical drama, rather than a cinematic experience. Colin Firth s-s-stammers well, but then so what. I found him a weak lead (although he does portray a somewhat weakling character). I was more engaged with Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter in supporting roles. These actors have the usual flair for eccentric characters, but it was refreshing to see them adeptly sustain more modest roles. I was actually secret rooting for Geoffrey Rush to win. He was the best thing in the movie.
8. True Grit
Though based on an old novel (which also produced a John Wayne classic), “True Grit” is one refreshing Western. Maybe this is in part to newcomer Hailie Steinfeld’s presence, as the assertive teen who is gung-ho for revenge. In the film, to track down her father’s murderer (Josh Brolin), she enlists a gruff marshall (Jeff Bridges), rumored to have “true grit.” The odd duo travels into the wild and they make a suspenseful, enjoyable journey. To boot, Bridges provides a weary and nuanced comic relief. Sometimes his words sound so garbled that you don’t understand what he says. But I did become accustomed to the Western-speak and by the end, it seems so cool that I wished I had the tongue for it. There is an inexplicable comfort in Coens’ unusual sense of vision (the image of a bear on a horse). It’s really what makes their films more or less memorable. Though “True Grit” did not gun me down with emotions, it trots confidently as a well-made, solid entertainment.
7. 127 Hours
It is challenging to make a movie about a guy who is mostly stuck in one place. But Danny Boyle does his darnest to make the film move and he succeeds. He’s a visionary with a stimulating style that makes visuals pop. Just to show you that 3-D is for the lazy. Of course, a lot of praise must also be given to James Franco, who delivers a remarkable and haunting performance. He is able to convey a rush of conflicted emotions, even with limited monologues. His naturally confident Aron Ralston is not only intriguing, but a true inspiration. It is admirable that he doesn’t initially panic. He’s analytical and resourceful. He thinks his options through before he is stripped down to bare desperation. “127 Hours” is an unforgettable movie, an unflinching film. I dare you to mentally cut away from it even after the movie is done.
6. Toy Story 3
It’s common knowledge that Pixar produces first-rate films, and I truly believe that in a matter of few years, they will not only snag Best Animated Feature, but also Best Picture. My reaction has been consistent to most Pixar movies. I am smitten and amazed when I am watching them but a few months later, I vaguely remember the feeling. I can recall some great scenes, yes, but I don’t feel enraptured at the recollection. “Toy Story 3” had me tearing up (I think you know which scene) and I also enjoyed its clever plot and nice mixture of comedy and action. But you know, I will reach that point when I have to move on and toss the movie aside. That’s just life.
5. The Fighter
In an article, Sports Illustrated purported “The Fighter” to be the best sports movie in a decade. It made me want to see the movie, but the claim also made me skeptical. Now that I have watched it, I would confirm its greatness, but in terms of knockouts, “Million Dollar Baby” wielded a better blow. If there’s a weakness, it’s its lukewarm lead. Mark Wahlberg is a capable actor but I think he got buried by a fierce supporting cast. Newly minted Oscar winners Melissa Leo and Christian Bale are great. She’s effectively domineering and he’s wonderfully odd. But my favorite is the emotionally intense Amy Adams, who plays the foul-mouthed and protective girlfriend. The movie has great boxing scenes and it is inspirational.
4. The Kids Are All Right
In terms of ensemble, I think the cast of “The Kids Are All Right” was the best. (“The Fighter” could have been a contender if not for its lead). For those looking for chemistry and how characters relate to each other, the movie is wonderfully realized. The premise seems like sitcom material: two lesbian parents raise a son and a daughter and their world turns upside-down when the sperm donor shows up. There’s curiosity as to how this “modern” family interacts and credibly, there is something innately familiar about them. Annette Benning and Julianne Moore are truly believable as the lesbian moms and Mark Ruffalo provides a wild-card energy as the sperm donor. I love how their personalities clash because of their unreal situation. But the film proves its greatness in showing the characters’ willingness to change and achieve a greater sense of peace.
3. Black Swan
Sandra Bullock won a popularity contest last year. Natalie Portman won this year for a breakthrough performance. She plays an up-and-coming ballerina, who becomes unhinged as she masters her craft. While the movie provides Portman some heavy dramatic scenes, the pretty actress also shows she can acutely display subtlety. I just love these little raw moments where she’s overcome with emotions and she tries to contain them. The movie is definitely weird, in a fragmented and delusional point of view. I was expecting some grittiness as displayed in Darren Aronofsky’s prior film, “The Wrestler.” But this is more in the vein of of a lite psycho-David Lynch trip. Go and see the movie for Portman’s tip-topped performance. Stay for the trippy WTF experience, accompanied by a feverish Tchaikovsky score.
2. The Social Network
Despite the critical raves, I was doubtful of the movie based on the premise. But Aaron Sorkin delivers a solid screenplay that maintains its fascination. Very hard to do. And he does this mainly through engaging dialogue while Fincher deftly keeps the momentum forward. I think everybody knows the story by now. While Mark Zukerberg was in college, he came up with Facebook, a social network site that will soon poke millions and millions of friends. Its popularity will lead to financial disputes, ego games and emotional bruising. When I saw it in theaters, I felt for Andrew Garfield’s character Eduardo, the moral center of the film. When I saw it for the second time in DVD, I grew more fascinated by Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as the CEO bitch. I think I totally bought him in this iconic role that I had forgotten that he could play other nerd-ish roles. It’s realization I made after seeing him in “The Solitary Man.” While the real Facebook master seems more normal in real life, Eisenberg made him infinitely cooler and even more bogglingly interesting.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” made such a big impact on me that I have been craving for movies that boldly takes it to another level. And I think “Inception” has aimed high and hit that glorious sweet spot. Its dream within a dream within a dream premise is a mesmerizing convolution … and yet, as complex and complicated it was .. It was something that could entertain and satisfy millions and make a lot of money in the process. And deservedly so, for “Inception” is the most generous movie in a long time. There is no deficit in visual wonder, adrenaline rush, brain stimulation, and emotional impact. Christopher Nolan’s Oscar snub in film direction is really a shame. It is just too bad that the film couldn’t plant the idea in Oscar voters’ mind that this is masterpiece. “The King’s Speech” may have all the winning spark now but “Inception” (like “2001”) will be one of those movies that will prove its luster overtime.