Sunday, February 27, 2011

It's Oscar-tastic!

Until this weekend, I will admit I wasn't all that focused on the Oscars this year. Heck, I hadn't even bothered to make my yearly nominations predictions. I know a huge part of that apathy came from the fact that January and February are probably my busiest months of work -- teaching, coaching, directing, work days that are sometimes 10-12 hours long six days a week. There is no time in there to see movies. Add to it the fact that my local multiplex often doesn't get a lot of the Oscar-nominated films (The King's Speech has yet to show up in town), and it becomes harder and harder to get enthused about movies I don't have the time or opportunity to see.

The King's Speech thing really started to get to me this week. I was certain that it would show up in town in time for the Oscar's. I was positive. I mean, it's one of the two frontrunners for best picture, it's grossed over $100million -- surely that would earn it a screen here in town, right? I mean, Black Swan was here for two weeks in January, and The King's Speech is certainly more middle America friendly than Black Swan, right? RIGHT!?!?!? Well, apparently not.

As longtime readers may know, I have this sort of streak going. It's probably more accurately referred to as an obsession -- and that obsession is seeing the winner of Best Picture BEFORE it actually wins Best Picture. I have had brushes with near failure. There was near catastrophic win of Brokeback Mountain several years ago. I had not seen Brokeback Mountain. (I actually hadn't seen ANY of the nominees that year.) I just hadn't had the time during speech season to see it the two weekends it was in town. I approached Oscar night having not seen the frontrunner. I was devastated. I consoled myself that afternoon by renting Crash, a movie that had been nominated but surely wasn't going to win, right? WRONG! I can remember breaking down in tears when Crash won as I realized that I had kept the streak alive by pure accident, and it was in that moment that I became determined to keep it alive for as long as I could.

And so yesterday, overwhelmed with the horror of realizing that a streak that is approaching its 25th year could be nearing its end all because my stupid local multiplex decides that the people of my town would rather see Big Momma's House 48 rather than The King's Speech, I did something rash. I scoured the internet and found a source to watch not only The King's Speech but also several other Oscar nominated films. I've spent the past day curled up in my den watching terrific films and honestly enter tonight's broadcast more knowledgeable about the nominated films and performances than I have in probably 15 years (back when I had nothing but time to travel all over the area catching Oscar movies -- sometimes seeing two or three in one day).

So with that caveat, here are my picks for tonight's ceremony.

Best Original Screenplay
Another Year
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech

Should Win: Inception
Will Win: The King's Speech
Tough call here. I've seen all of the above except Another Year. I love Mike Leigh's work, but I think this pool is too strong for Leigh to sneak in here. I was crazy about The Fighter, but I'm not sure the script is why I loved the movie as much as I did. The Kids Are All Right may be too subtle for a win here. So I see this as a race between The King's Speech and Inception. If I had a vote, I'd probably cast it for Inception, which I thought was a fascinating, creative, intelligent film, but my gut tells me that The King's Speech is going to take this one. I just don't think the Academy is looking to reward Christopher Nolan for much of anything tonight. With the Best Picture race coming down to a showdown between The King's Speech and The Social Network, I also think that screenplay becomes a way to reward both films.

Best Adapted Screenplay
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Will Win/Should Win: The Social Network
I've only seen three of the movies nominated here (although I'm going to try to fit 127 Hours in later this afternoon after a meeting I have to go to in a bit). The thing is that the reason why The Social Network works so beautifully is because of Aaron Sorkin's script. I'll talk later about how I think the King's Speech/Social Network showdown will go, but I think this is the one place where the Academy HAS to recognize The Social Network. It is the only movie where I sat and marvelled at the writing more than the acting or directing or art design. It is a brilliant, brilliant piece of writing that was able to turn what was essentially an intellectual exercise into gripping, powerful filmmaking.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Should Win: Hailee Steinfeld
Will Win: Melissa Leo
Tonight, a lot of the acting categories are going to come down to races between actors who turn in tremendous, thoughtful work steeped in subtlety and actors who turn in tremendous, powerful work steeped in, well, acting. This is the first category where the subtle take on the powerhouses. This is not to take a thing from the work of, say, Amy Adams or Melissa Leo. I thought both turned in amazing performances where they completely transformed into these characters, the kinds of characters actors would kill to land. Melissa Leo, in particular, is amazing as this tough, gritty mama bear whose desire for success blinds her to her own faults as well as those of her son. She transformed herself into this Massachusetts tigress. And yet, truth be told, I was more impressed with the acting turned in by Helena Bonham Carter and Hailee Steinfeld. Bonham Carter had a relatively thankless role that largely asked her to look on with love and support while Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush hit home run after home run. It was so lovely, though, to see the Helena Bonham Carter I used to idolize come back. I can remember watching A Room with a View countless times in high school and counting Helena Bonham Carter as one of my favorite actors. And then she went all weird and Tim Burton-y, and I kind of lost her. Seeing her here was a reminder of the beautiful, subtle actress she was and still is. In another year, I think she would be a frontrunner. So why do I place my hypothetical vote with Steinfeld? First of all, the kid is, like, 14 years old and carries an entire movie on her tiny little shoulders. Her Mattie Ross is the heart and soul of True Grit. She not only holds her own against Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon; she kind of makes you forget they're even in the movie. The maturity and grace she gives Mattie while still maintaining that childlike idealism is a stunning achievement. And yet I think the Academy is more likely to go with Leo's fierce performance (which is honestly truer to the idea of a "supporting role") than Steinfeld's quietly nuanced performance (which is really a lead role). Here's hoping this is just the beginning of tremendous work from Steinfeld. (And that maybe the rumors are true that she's a leading contender to play Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games!)

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

Should Win: Geoffrey Rush and Christian Bale
Will Win: Christian Bale
In a perfect world, tonight's Best Supporting Actor race would end in a tie. Like Best Supporting Actress, this is a race between immersion and subtlety. There is no denying Christian Bale is brilliant in The Fighter. I've struggled with Bale over the years. He's one of those actors that I largely never quite got why people were so crazy about him. I thought his Batman was weak, his John Connor was lazy, and his other work largely rather showboaty. He seems like he falls back on a lot of the same techniques and seems like a bit of a d-bag off screen. After watching The Fighter, though, I get Christian Bale. I was blown away by his work which was filled with tremendous heart. I particularly loved the scene at the very end where he's talking with Micky and this crack in his voice....beautiful. I will be thrilled to see him win tonight. And yet, there is also no denying the brilliance of Geoffrey Rush. For all the praise that (rightfully) gets heaped on Colin Firth for this film, you just can't overlook the role that Rush plays in getting Firth to that place. This is acting teamwork in action. The scene towards the end where King George is giving his speech with silent coaching from Rush's Lionel moved me to tears. Even telling my sis about it this morning over breakfast had me choking up. I know that the Academy will likely reward Bale, and I am okay with that, but I will still hope for the tie that would give Rush his moment of glory and recognition as well.

Best Actress
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Should Win: Annette Bening
Will Win: Natalie Portman
Poor Annette Bening. Seriously. When in the world is this woman going to get the recognition she deserves? She has turned in Oscar-worthy performances again and again, and every single time, she gets shafted. She should have won for The Grifters in 1991. Nope, she lost to Whoopi Goldberg. (Anyone else think maybe the Academy regrets that one just a little?) She should have won for American Beauty in 1999. Nope. She lost to Hillary Swank for being brave enough to stick some tube socks down her pants. She should have won in 2004 for Being Julia. Nope. She lost AGAIN to Swank for playing a lady boxer. And now this year.... her performance in The Kids Are All Right is magnificent in its subtlety. More than once, I felt like I was sitting in the living room of this woman and watching her actual life. And yet once again this year, Bening will probably go home empty handed. I don't want to take anything away from Natalie Portman. I think she's a fine, gifted young actress. I was not, however, all that crazy about Black Swan nor was I as mesmerized by Portman's performance as critics led me to believe I would be. Frankly, I thought she was a little over the top in spots, and while I understand that over the top acting is sort of the trademark of a Darren Aronofsky film, it doesn't mean I have to like it. Unfortunately, I may be in a very small minority that was not blown away by Portman and the film itself, so I know that my hope that Annette Bening will finally get the recognition she's deserved for 20+ years is probably futile and that it will be Portman's turn to snatch the Oscar away from Bening's grasping fingertips this year.

Best Actor
Javier Barden, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

Will Win/Should Win: Colin Firth

I'm going to start out by saying that I think Colin Firth was robbed last year. Don't get me wrong; I loved Jeff Bridges's performance in Crazy Heart, but the work that Firth did in A Single Man was a masterclass in acting. It was stunning, painful, funny, and struck a much more powerful nerve in me as a viewer than Bridges did in Crazy Heart. Obviously, I understand how Bridges won as it was a tremendous performance and the man was due. I just think Firth was the stronger performance of last year. Luckily, Firth turned around and knocked another grand slam in The King's Speech. What a magnificent performance! Is it as strong as his work in A Single Man? Maybe not, but a lot of that probably has to do more with the fact that his work in A Single Man was slightly more accessible to an audience. We could relate more powerfully to the themes at play there -- the loss and its accompanying grief was raw and terrifically moving. This year and this performance as yet another George doesn't quite have the same personal resonance, but it's still an incredible performance. The levels he gave George VI were real and powerful. The heart he gave the character was touching. I think I particularly liked the scenes between George VI and his young daughters and the way he was able to create a relatable family life in this very unrelatable existence. Tremendous stuff, and it will be such a joy to see Colin Firth finally get the recognition he deserves.

Best Director
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
David O. Russell, The Fighter
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David Fincher, The Social Network
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit

Will/Should Win: David Fincher.
First things first, I am not a fan of Darren Aronofsky's work. I think it's pretentious and weird for the sake of being weird -- and not in that delightful way that early David Lynch work was. I did not enjoy Black Swan and frankly thought it was lazy at times in terms of its characterizations and directing choices made. The other movies on this list -- I either loved or really enjoyed. I didn't quite latch on to True Grit the way a lot of other people have, but that may have more to do with the fact that I'm not generally a big fan of Westerns. I loved the Coen sensibility at play, though, and liked the film a lot. I just didn't love it the way I've loved other Coen films. As much as I loved The Fighter (and I really did), I think that film is a triumph of acting more than anything else. I would say the same is true of The King's Speech (and I'll talk more about that later). As a director, yes, of course I know that the director is instrumental in acting triumphs, but I also think that there is much more at play when considering Best Director, and terrific acting isn't enough. In any other year, I think that either Russell or Hooper would be locks for this win because they created truly terrific, powerful, moving films. Unfortunately, they are up against David Fincher this year who turned in stunning film. Sorkin's script gave meat to what is essentially a film about intellectual property rights and creation. Fincher's directing gave the script bones and form and an element of excitement and suspense. The fact that Christopher Nolan's name is missing from this list makes this a lock, in my mind, for Fincher because no one else turned in a film this year with the same level of energy and creativity, that challenged the audience while still entertaining the audience. Fincher is one of the most daring and exciting directors working today; it's time to recognize that now rather than waiting until his career has lost that spark and award a lesser film later down the road. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Scorcese...and you know it.)

Best Film
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Should Win: The Social Network
Will Win: The King's Speech
It's 1994 all over again. Friends, take a walk back with me to that time when we wore flannel, listened to Pearl Jam, drank Crystal Pepsi, and drove our Geos to the local cinema to see ... well, it kind of depended. On one screen, there was Forrest Gump, a sweet little film about a, well, retarded guy and his crazy misadventures through American history. It was all the stuff that Oscar loves -- mental or physical challenges, life affirming, and full of heart. On the other screen, you had Pulp Fiction, a gritty, in your face film about gangsters and the molls who love them. It felt full of life and vibrance and would become one of the most important films of the 1990's, influencing countless films over the course of the years that followed. When Oscar season rolled around, it was a battle between Old Cinema and New Cinema as Forrest and Jenny squared off against Vincent and Jules for the title. And of course, Old Cinema won out and Forrest Gump was named Best Picture and Quentin Tarentino went home with a screenplay award for his effort. Looking back now, doesn't it seem a bit ridiculous that Forrest Gump would beat Pulp Fiction? I mean, seriously! Which movie has more power and resonates more deeply now? I quite enjoyed Forrest Gump when it came out, but I didn't flock back to the theatre to see it again and again the way I did with Pulp Fiction. (If memory serves, I saw it six times in the theatre and bought it on video the day it came out.) This year, I think we have the same situation. In one corner, you have The King's Speech. It is a great, great film, and it is the kind of movie Oscar loves -- beautifully acted, steeped in history, inspiring, and just enough English accents to make voters feel smart and sophisticated. I don't want to take anything away from the film's win because it is a gorgeous film, but I maintain as I did above in the Best Director category that it is a triumph of acting more than anything else. The reason why that film resonates is that there are three incredibly strong performances at the center of the film that give it heart and soul. Is good acting enough to win Best Picture? Tonight, it might be, but it shouldn't be. Let's take a look at the other corner where you have The Social Network. This is a film that is of the moment, a picture postcard of a moment in our contemporary history that will have power for years to come. It is the Network, the All the President's Men of our time. But never forget that as tremendous as those films are, they lost to a little picture called Rocky -- a movie about triumph in the face of adversity. (Okay, I know Rocky doesn't technically triumph -- we always forget that Rocky loses at the end of the first film.) While The Fighter might seem like the spoiler option in this scenario, I think the added pedigree (and accents -- don't forget the accents) of The King's Speech will allow it to slide in there and take home the award. Fincher's Best Director and Sorkin's Best Screenplay awards will let the Academy recognize the achievement that The Social Network is but still let it cling to its Old Cinema sensibility by awarding the big dog to The King's Speech.

Check back in tomorrow to see how I fare. I've got the Chez Mel house pool to win again for the, oh, millionth year in a row, so.....

Happy viewing, friends!

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