BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: 127 Hours

127 Hours
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy (screenplay), Aron Ralston (book)
Starring: James Franco, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, and Sean Bott

Aron Ralston cut his own arm off to escape a boulder that pinned him against a canyon wall.  That much we know.  The rest, drawn from his hallucinatory recounting in his autobiography and combined with some creative liberties from a passionate filmmaker, is a story waiting to be told.

It’s interesting to think how certain directors would handle different source material.  A story like this could tell how Aron recovered after his ordeal, or it could show his ordeal.  If you’re looking for the gooey easy way out, the former is your best bet, but Danny Boyle isn’t going for the easy way out.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right
Directed by: Lisa Cholodenko
Written by: Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Mia Wasikowska

You usually watch a movie about the inner workings of the suburban American family expecting to see it deconstructed, but sitting through Lisa Cholodenko’s bracing, hilarious The Kids Are All Right you watch something strange: it being rebuilt.  Following an economic crisis and subsequent rethinking of what it means to be American, Kids comes at the perfect time.  It rethinks the nuclear family on the silver screen by doing the most daring thing: not mentioning it.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), the two moms at the center of the film, were each impregnated by the same sperm donor.  Now that their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has turned 18, her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) pressures her to contact the donor (Mark Ruffalo).  They do, it’s awkward, and it almost tears the happy family apart.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3
Directed by: Lee Unkrich
Written by: Michael Arndt, John Lassetter, and Lee Unkrich (screenplay)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, and Don Rickles

You always know the latest entry from the people at Pixar is going to be a marvel.  To see how great they are, like a Hattori Hanzo sword, you compare it to every animated movie that wasn’t made by Pixar.  In that respect, the Toy Story trilogy is the greatest animated trilogy animation has ever seen, with help from the exceptionally brilliant third entry.

Adult themes are always under the beautifully varnished animated images of the best animation, and nobody does it better than Pixar.  Last year’s Up was probably enjoyed more by adults than it was by children for that very same reason.  Though this is a story about play-things, the despair over uselessness has never been done quite so well.  Though the film is hilarious, it is at times also heartbreaking.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone
Directed by: Debra Granik
Written by: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (screenplay), Daniel Woodrell (novel)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey

In the realm of regional specific tales of mortality, Winter’s Bone is endowed with the element that puts it in the caliber of every other movie in this subgenre: hollowness.

Just like the dryness in Frozen River or the arid feeling in No Country for Old Men, the film holds an empty feeling that results from holding itself to the conventions of convention-bucking indie cinema. The conventions rely on being as minimalistic and realistic as possible, which is indeed interesting and brave, but results in a complete lack of tension, which is key for a character based thriller.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Atonement

Atonement
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Christopher Hampton (screenplay), Ian McEwan (novel)
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, and Vanessa Redgrave

Atonement isn’t a time capsule for your grandparents.  If you’re looking for the lavish period drama with the costumes as the stars, it’s gone with the wind.  This movie, yet another adaptation of a well-received if faded from memory book, is a love story for the modern age; that is to say, a pretty damn depressing one.

The movie starts off on a perfect 45-minute grace note, setting up the passionate exchange between Robbie (James McAvoy) and Cecilia (Keira Knightley).  Cecilia is a wealthy daughter of an affluent family, Robbie is not.  The thing that separates this fairly common class clash is bitter jealousy, brought along in the form of the innocent young Briony (Saoirse Ronan).

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Milk

Milk
Directed by: Gus van Sant
Written by: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch

Biopics may be one of the trickiest genres to pull off successfully.  This is because they are probably some of the most over made, over praised films made today.  It’s also because you need to tell an honest story that shows your subject’s dark side, but you also need to have some deep connection with them as well.  Gus van Sant’s Milk is so refreshing not because it redefines the biopic, but because it raises the bar impeccably, almost impossibly, high.

Thanks to a terrific cast led by Sean Penn’s bone-deep performance, a deservedly Oscar-winning screenplay from Dustin Lance Black, and van Sant’s film making moxy and deep connection to the material, Milk flies on the wings of creative passion.

This being said, it is not a perfect film.  If not for Penn’s incredible acting, Harvey Milk would almost be a two dimensional character.  It’s dangerous to have such a kind human being be the subject of a biopic.  Nothing against the kind, but they can be boring.  Luckily, Penn is a live wire, and lets us see the mischievous politician behind Milk’s crowd-pleasing rebellion.  His total immersion in the role earned him his second Best Actor Oscar of the decade, and he totally deserved it.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Inglourious Basterds

Image courtesy of IMDB

Inglourious Basterds
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino (screenplay)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Eli Roth, and Diane Kruger

I consider myself to be a rather big fan of Quentin TarantinoPulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Jackie Brown all have their place on my list of favorite movies.  I am disheartened to announce, then, that Inglourious Basterds is without a doubt Mr. Tarantino’s worst film.

By no means does this mean it’s a bad film, it just lacks that all-important vibe of urgency and humanity that brings his other genre pieces to such vivid, unmistakable life.  Is it cool?  Sure.  Is it entertaining?  You bet your ass it is.  But it just doesn’t resonate.  I watched it in the theater and then kind of forgot about it until it was coming out on DVD.  It’s like Avatar in that way.  I liked it, but I won’t remember it.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: An Education

Image courtesy of New York Daily News

An Education
Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Written by: Nick Hornby (screenplay), Lynn Barber (memoir)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, and Rosamund Pike

Warning: boring period piece this is not. Adults looking for a time capsule back to the early 60’s should stick to AMC’s Mad Men.  Though evoking that same atmosphere, An Education is a decidedly modern film, especially thematically, and that atmosphere will most likely be one that those growing up in the period don’t remember.

A wise-beyond-her-years 16 year old falls for an older man in pre-Beatles London. It sounds like a boring premise, but it couldn’t be more exciting, hilarious, and well-executed.  Director Lone Scherfig, working with an excellent adapted screenplay by Nick Hornby, makes sure of that.  Scherfig is yet another female director to emerge out of the 2009 renaissance.  Along with Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Scherfig’s movie is the best to come out of it so far.  Those at the top questioning whether or not female directors have the capability to do more than low-brow  romantic comedies should look here.

While Scherfig’s film is both romantic, and a comedy, it does not fall into either of these genres.  In a way it is anti-romantic, and the humor arises more naturally than the stupidly forced punchlines of The Proposal or The Ugly Truth.  Also unlike those two horrible films, it comes second to the character development, refusing to make caricatures out of its characters.

Newcomer Carey Mulligan gives  the greatest performance of 2009 as Jenny, pressured by her father (Alfred Molina) to go to Oxford and rebelling by having fun instead. Mulligan does the type of acting that many veteran actors still can’t do.  The raw, youthful nature of Jenny is perfectly captured.  She can say more with a look and the way she holds her cigarette than Sandra Bullock does during the whole movie in The Blind Side.

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