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Whew! I actually saw all nine films within minutes to spare before the Oscar show starts. Thank goodness I live in New York because I don’t think I would have seen them all. As one can tell from my blog, I have not been active lately in watching movies. And I owe it to my movie geekery to dive into the nominated movies through a span of few weeks. Typically, I’m strapped for cash and time, but hey, this is the prime time to truly film-indulge. In comparison, I do think last year’s group were significantly stronger. I was a bit let down, but still, they were some greatness to be discovered.

9. War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s movie had great moments. You can count on the famed director on rivetingly staged war scenes. As much I liked the titular hero, the storyline seems a bit clunky to me as the horse gallops from one European person to another. I don’t know – I just found some scenes boring. I did wish the characters were able to speak their natural tongue. It’s just awkward when some foreigners speak English and I am supposed to tell their origin from their accents. Jeremy Irvine, who plays the too-handsome lad who befriends the horse, is a promising actor to watch.

8. The Descendants

Great locale of a movie. I think this is the first time Hawaii was not portrayed as a paradise and it is certainly refreshing. As much as I like the screenplay, for some reason, it did not affect me strongly as other Payne’s films (Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways). I probably had too high of an expectation. I do commend Clooney for a great subtle performance. His character goes through a journey of complicated and mixed emotions. He makes it look effortless, but he also makes it look un-challenging. I did want something new and refreshing from him. Maybe that is why it is not standing out for me. I needed a wow!

7. The Help

I read the book and I did find it a bit average. It was only when I saw the story on the screen did I find the characters credibly three-dimensional. So kudos on the acting ensemble. I found Viola Davis’s interpretation of Aibilene different from what I pictured her to be. In the book, Aibilene talks a lot about her back story. But Davis manages to convey her better through pained facial expressions. Sometimes it’s better when the character is not quite spelled out. I am also happy with the other characters who, more or less, seemed like caricatures on the novel. Octavia Spencer did not make her Minny just a comic troublemaker. Bryce Dallas Howard subtly humanizes her thankless role as the mean-girl villain. And Jessica Chastain provides a surprising spark in what could’ve been a dumb joke of a wife.

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6. The Artist

I was smitten within the first hour. It beckoned me back to my delight in watching black & white movies. But by the end, I wished I saw a classic black & white movie instead. This movie does not even hold a candle to a Charlie Chaplin film – which was daringly choreographed. I think “The Artist” rests on its concept/style too much. It tries to steal bits of its inspirations, but I think as a whole I found it to be a respectable copycat. The true star for me is Jean Dujardin. He eerily channels a man from another era. He is quite unreal. I am rooting for him to win Best Actor.

5. Midnight in Paris

This is one movie that is growing on me. I am fan of Woody Allen, but when I watched this in movie theaters, it seemed like I was lacking something to appreciate. It seemed like the movie had great inside jokes I wasn’t able to get. If only I saw this movie when I was enamored with literature during high school. But watching it again, the whimsiness of its nostalgia is becoming clear and enchanting. Even if I am not familiar of the era and place it beckons, it’s making curious to find out more about that time’s golden art. It’s an illuminating fantasy and at its center: Owen Wilson, who is surprisingly effortless in the lead role.

4. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

For the record, I did not like the novel. It was gimmicky and too dumb to figure out it’s too smart for its own good. The film, on the other hand, was blessed with filmmakers with editing eyes. When the story is contained and focuses on the heart of the story, I could not believe how better it is. And Thomas Horn, the young actor in the forefront, gives a credible and solid performance, matching Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Some have accused the story of using the 9/11 as a stunt. I guess it’s whether you buy it or not. I guess I was cheaply manipulated since I sobbed. Or just maybe, that movie is that affectingly powerful.

3. Moneyball

No doubt about it. This is Brad Pitt’s movie. This role really shows his mastered strengths as an actor. The overall effect was astounding. He has a knack for humanizing intimidating characters (see also The Tree of Life) and also summon dead-on eccentricity which gave the movie its jolt of comedy. “Moneyball” is also the underdog movie of the year. It is an intriguing, wonderful, and real tale of how math changed an old national past time.

2. Hugo

Wow! This children’s movie is even better when you put it side by side with “The Artist.” First of all, the artist in “Hugo” is infinitely more creative and thus, the movie is more alive with imagination. And its inspired nostalgia of early cinema is quite stunning. It doesn’t copy the original source, but rather honor it. I totally dig it. And behind the movie, of course, is the one of the greatest artists of our time. Martin Scorcese, you are awesome.

1. The Tree of Life

I don’t think any movie came close to Mallick’s ambitious film. For some reason, I see this movie as both for the simple-minded (oh ah, pretty pictures) and the complex-minded (what is life? what is our purpose in this universe?). And the majority of us are caught in timidity in watching it because we are accustomed to certain formulaic movies. For the record, I totally did not like Mallick’s last film (The New World). I found it soooo slow and sooo boring. But on “Tree of Life,” I just surrendered to it because the visuals are some of the best I have ever seen in film. And I amazed that despite the plot is bare, I was able to capture the story relying mostly on quiet, intimate moments of life. This is the 21st century’s version of a “silent” movie. It’s a meditation, a prayer, a religious experience.

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