Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar Predictions / Those Who Deserve And Those Who Get: 2010 Edition

The Academy Awards, which will recognize quality in films from 2010, are only a couple of days away. And as always, there will be a disconnect between those who deserve to win and those who do win. The granddaddy of film awards has always been political, and how can it not. So, there isn't much point in getting in a huff about those that made the cut, and those that go on to win. Yes we all have our favorites, and yes a win can mean a lot for a Hollywood career. But after a point, it seems silly to get worked up about the awards; there are more critical things in the world to lose sleep over. So using minimal ink, and following a tradition from last year, here are my predictions for the wins this year in the major categories. 

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
At year’s end, it appeared that there was only one dog in this fight, as The Social Network was lapping up the top prize in one award ceremony after another. And then the inevitable fatigue set in, and in the past few weeks, The King’s Speech got the tail-wind to forge ahead and has been sweeping the awards shows. The conventional wisdom therefore is that The King’s Speech will win the top Oscar. But like in the remarkably similar race from last year (remember the see-sawing between Avatar and The Hurt Locker) I have a suspicion that staunch defenders of The Social Network (I am not one of them) may come out en masse to show their support for their film. So this category is not a done deal yet in my books.
Who should win: 127 Hours
Who will win: The King’s Speech

Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky
The Fighter, David O. Russell
The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper
The Social Network, David Fincher
True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coens have been recognized in this category too recently. The Fighter and Black Swan just do not have that much support in the big (Best Film, Best Director) categories. Suspecting that The King’s Speech will clean out most of the categories, I have a feeling voters will want to grant an acknowledgment for the other film that was leading up until now. And I suspect this will translate to a win for David Fincher.
Who will win: David Fincher, The Social Network
Who should win: Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours
To win the trophy in the Leading Role category, it appears that two conditions need to be met. One needs to be nominated for doing a good job that year. And more importantly one needs to have reached that undefinable critical mass in public opinion, when it is generally acknowledged that it is time for the person to win the award. Sometimes this happens relatively quickly in a career (Halle Berry, Adrien Brody) and sometimes it takes decades (Jeff Bridges). Be that the situation, nobody can deny that Colin Forth has gained that elusive critical mass. He was nominated for his wonderfully restrained performance in A Single Man last year. And here he is again, with a high level of difficulty role in The King’s Speech. The others just don’t have the right alignment of recognition and critical mass to pull off this win.
Who will win: Colin Firth
Who should win: Colin Firth (with a tip of the hat to James Franco. Of course if it were up to me, Ryan Reynolds or Ryan Gosling would be taking home the prize, but don’t get me started)

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
Bening did the best job of these five in my books, and has been denied the prize in the past despite multiple nominations. It would seem unusually cruel to not hand the award to her yet again. But Natalie Portman has that elusive critical mass right now, where everyone just believes that its her time to win. And win she will.
Who will win: Natalie Portman
Who should win: Annette Bening (with a shout out to Michelle Williams).

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
The Supporting Role categories are refreshingly free from the critical mass requirement, and hence we often see surprise winners in this category (because nobody expects the winners in this category to have consistently paid their dues over a long period of time). The fight here, and it is a tight one, will be between Christian Bale and Geoffrey Rush. I have to concede that both have put in frankly amazing performances. Many expect Geoffrey Rush to pull through to the podium on the heels of general goodwill for The King’s Speech. But I would not put it past Bale to finally get recognition from Hollywood. This is the closest race amongst all the categories.
Who will win: Geoffrey Rush
Who should win: Mark Ruffalo

Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom
This is the one category that has the most uncertainty. Melissa Leo had an early lead, but got bad press of late due to some goofy ads she placed on behalf of herself in contention for this prize. Jacki Weaver is too unknown. And Helena Bonham Carter and Amy Adams, while putting in solid performances, just did not have that show-stopper moment in either of their films. Hence, overall I believe this prize may actually fall in the very young, (but not undeserving) hands of Hailee Steinfeld.
Who will win: Hailee Steinfeld
Who should win: I don’t particularly have a dog in this race (amongst those nominated), but if I was forced to choose, I would go with Melissa Leo.

How To Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3
I am not going to belabor my minority opinion that How To Train Your Dragon was a superior film than Toy Story 3. And I have not yet seen The Illusionist. But this is the one sure lock amongst all categories: the Pixar folks are going home happy on Oscar night
Who will win: Toy Story 3
Who should win: How To Train Your Dragon (unless The Illusionist wows me even more)

127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone
All of the nominated films had amazing writing, no question about it. But I believe the academy will not drop the ball on this one, and will nominate the one script that has had people talking for months: Aaron Sorkin for his fast, smart and incisive script for The Social Network. This prize is Sorkin’s to lose.
Who will win: The Social Network
Who should win: The Social Network

Another Year
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
This is a tough one to predict. If The King’s Speech pulls a complete sweep, then it is likely it will grab the prize here too (and I would not be one to begrudge it). I am wondering though if those riled by Christopher Nolan being denied a directing nomination, may choose to award his film with a prize here instead. I am going to go on a whim here and predict that Inception will pull an upset win.
Who will win: Inception
Who should win: The Kids Are All Right, with a pat on the back to Another Year

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Best of 2010: Performances

Here are film actors who made their mark in 2010, and then some. The ones in bold are those that knocked my socks off; the rest are listed alphabetically.

Actor, Male
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Ryan Reynolds, Buried
Jim Carrey, I Love You, Phillip Morris
James Franco, 127 Hours
Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine

Actor, Female
Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Naomi Watts, Mother and Child
Annette Bening, Mother and Child
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Lesley Manville, Another Year
Naomi Watts, Fair Game
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Supporting Actor, Male
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey RushThe King’s Speech
Christian Bale, The Fighter
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Sean Penn, Fair Game

Supporting Actor, Female
Mila Kunis, Black Swan
Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
Rebecca Hall, The Town
Emily Mortimer, City Island
Ruth Sheen, Another Year

Best of 2010: Oddities

Best opening credits: 127 Hours
Best ending: Buried
Best remake: Let Me In (based on Let The Right One In)
Worst remake: Clash of The Titans
Most sorry to see endCity Island
Most happy to see end: Hot Tub Time Machine
Best film seen by no oneBuried
Best film poster: The Social Network, Buried
Best comic book adaptation: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Worst comic book adaptionThe Last Airbender
Most unexpectedly goodUnstoppable
Most unexpectedly awful: The Tourist
Most overcookedShutter Island
Most original: Dogtooth
Most universally reviled: Sex and The City-2
Most universally adored/overrated: The Social Network
Glen Beck's worst nightmareI Love You Phillip Morris

Most ink spent on a film: Inception
For shame, Hollywood: Skyline
Best Clueless homageEasy A
Most judicious use of nudityMother and Child
Least judicious use of nudity (or You look great naked, now go put on some clothes please)Love and Other Drugs
Most surprising lack of nudity: Black Swan
Sexiest sexagenarian: Helen Mirren in Red
Didn't I Just See You? (or Most hardworking actor): Matt Damon in Green Zone, Hereafter, Inside Job, 30 Rock, and True Grit
Most wasted talent, female: Diane Keaton in Morning Glory
Most wasted talent, male: Morgan Freeman in Red
Biggest snub, actor, male, at the Oscars: the two Ryans - Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine and Ryan Reynolds in Buried
Biggest snub, actor, female, at the OscarsJulianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right, Leslie Manville in Another Year
Include immediately in Acting School curriculum: Michelle Williams/Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine
Yeah okay, the camera loves you: Angelina Jolie in Salt
Give this man some respect please: Ben Affleck for directing The Town            

Monday, February 14, 2011

Best of 2010: Movies

Here is my completely biased list of the ten best films of the year. I had a simple criterion for the inclusion of a film on this list. It should have, simply, moved me. 

Endeared me. Provoked me. Amazed me with recognition of my own life's stumbles. Made tears escape my eyes in spite of myself. The movies on this list are those that have, in some manner, reached out and turned on some switch within me. By this yardstick then, some films fell away. So Inception is not on the list; it blew my mind but did nothing for the heart - I could not have cared less for the characters in the film. Likewise, The Social Network had better writing than any movie this year, and was sophisticated and slick, but alas, it failed to evoke what Roger Ebert calls 'elevation', that feeling when you completely connect with a film. I did with the ten films below.

1. 127 Hours  Most movies would like to think that they have earned their euphoric ending; few actually do. When the protagonist in 127 Hours stumbles out of his personal hell in the last act of the film, I was shaking in my cinema chair with so much uncontrolled exhilaration. When a movie produces such a visceral, physical reaction, one has to bow to it. If you already know the premise of this film, and think you lack the nerve to see it, do not let that stop you. For a film about a man stuck in a canyon for 127 hours who finally begins to introspect his life, the movie is remarkably kinetic, made that much more frenetic by Danny Boyle's direction. Like the best films, it reflects the universe through the experience of a single person. 

2. The Kids Are All Right  When I was not beaming from cheek to cheek while watching this movie, I was marveling at how precisely tuned the film was to the realities of all families. The movie makes it irrelevant that the kids in the film had two mothers (instead of a mother and a father). Because it reveals how all families are the same in their universal struggles: in the way that only family members can hurt us (because who else knows us well enough to do that) and also accept us despite our considerable faults. Featuring a bravura set of performances from its five lead actors: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, this movie has a big enough heart to find compassion for all of them. Witty, heart-breaking, sexy and clever, as far as I am concerned this film gets everything right - from start to beautifully understated finish. 

3.  Buried: This is the year’s best film that nobody saw. Just when you think that in the hundred plus year history of cinema, everything that can possibly be done on camera has already been done, along comes a movie that shatters that perception. Do you think that someone can make an engaging full length film that features only one individual and which never ventures out of the tight inner space of a coffin? Ladies and gentlemen, this has just been done. This film, about a man (Ryan Reynolds, in a cracker-jack performance) trapped alive in a small underground space who has to use limited resources to try and engineer his rescue, will make you forget to breathe. It takes a singular concept that is almost deceptively simple, and builds on it cleverly layer upon oppressive layer until it gets to a feverishly unbearable pitch. You are depriving yourself of one of the better cinematic experiences in quite some time by not urgently seeking out this film. This is work of breathless beauty.

4. The Town In another year, this film would have easily topped this list; it is that good. A fast-paced, tightly plotted heist movie, it has ambitions of being what few films aspire to: grand. And grand it is. In its scope, in its execution and in its emotionality. In case this sounds too high-minded, let me also say that this is the best action film of the year, featuring three amazing bank robberies that tether a wildly twisting storyline bouncing off one terrific episode after another, including an amazing piece late in the film set in the underbelly of Boston’s Wrigley stadium. And the film also makes a strong case for Ben Affleck to spend the rest of his film career behind the camera; as a director Affleck is the real thing. Underrated now, I suspect that in years to come this film will be regarded as one of the great heist films of all time. 

5. How To Train Your Dragon: This film had more heart than any other this year. And I realize that I am in a singular minority when I say this, but as fine as Toy Story 3 was, the best animated film of the year was How To Train Your Dragon. For years in a row, the Pixar annual release has made it into my year end list; but not in 2010. Examine how Dragon brings home its messages (of unflinching tolerance, of giving a fair chance to a long considered enemy, of the possibility for anyone to rise to exceptional grace under pressure) with tremendous emotional clarity. The film also features the most amazing depictions of diving through the skies; the movie one-ups Avatar in this regard by utilizing likely a tenth of the budget. This film just spoke to me, at every level. And the delirious sense of joy it left me with has stuck with me more than six months after seeing the movie.

6. Hereafter  This film is not on anybody’s list of best movies, but I found it a deeply moving meditation. On finding closure from traumatizing events. And of the very human need to connect with others. Clint Eastwood can do no wrong as far as I am concerned; his string of fully realized and successfully executed films of mind-boggling diversity (in tone, in subject matter, in style) from the past six years, continues unabated. Eastwood chooses an uncharacteristically tempered (but ultimately right) pacing to tell the story of three geographically separated characters, each trying to deal with a personal affliction - and delivers something surprisingly complex. That this film dares to not provide all the answers is its greatest strength. There is a scene late in the film, of the interaction between two of the three principal characters that broke me down into spontaneous tears. Confirming again, Roger Ebert’s conviction that what moves us most in films is not the terribly tragic, but it is people doing good under impossible circumstances.

7. The King’s Speech  This is not your father’s stuffy James-Ivory British period piece. What it is though is an instant classic. I suspect people will be watching this movie five, ten, twenty years from now. The story of the relationship between an unwilling British monarch who stutters and his unconventional Speech Therapist hardly inspires must-see ardor. But like the best narratives in any medium, this one leaves you wondering afterward as to why nobody ever thought to tell this story before. From the get go, there are little treasures to be discovered in almost every scene of this movie - when you smile in admiration at what has been achieved with just solid, hard-working, filmmaking skills. Those who find this movie conventional are really missing the point: when you have a film this good, being unconventional seems irrelevant.

8. Black Swan  Like a tropical fruit left on the vine too long, this movie is gloriously, unapologetically pulpy. And what an overripe mango this is. That the film fails to fit comfortably in any genre (is it an All About Eve style ode to women clawing their way to the top?  is it a psychological thriller? is it a Rocky-like celebration of the underdog?  Or is it a flat out horror film even?) is its greatest asset. This movie may be a lot of things (indulgent, frustratingly non-committal, sleazy, manipulative), but one thing it is not is predictable; I loved how this film trumped my expectations at every corner, and took me on a wild ride. This is the story of a (physically and emotionally) fragile ballet dancer who after winning the highly coveted lead role in a new production of 'Swan Lake' is unable to handle the pressure of playing the dual role of the innocent white swan as well as (and particularly) the uninhibited, malevolent black swan. As she starts losing her grip on reality, so too the film starts to come unhinged. This is not for everyone, but for those seeking a trippy cinematic experience, you are in for a treat.

9. Band, Baaja, Baarat (Band! Drums! Wedding Procession!)  This 2010 Indian film is a minor miracle. Disguised as a thoroughly conventional entertainer (the quintessential masala film), it subversively drives a knife through the heart of one tired convention after another. And by doing so it joins the extraordinary new wave of movies that are bringing maturity to Indian cinema. When most Indian films are so fraught with insecurity that they feel compelled to cram as much content as possible into the three hour running time, this movie aspires to be only about one thing. About the relationship between two individuals fumbling on the path to a love they are unprepared to acknowledge or handle. And what the film does with these two characters is altogether revolutionary: it allows them to be real and flawed. It allows their character arcs to get complicatedly unpredictable, growing in directions contrary to their personalities. How else to explain the highly cynical female lead with a lifelong contempt of corny, exhausted concepts of love who finds to her horror that she may have to rethink her stand. Or the male lead who has always carried a torch for the girl, but after an unexpected night of intimacy with her, cannot reconcile his feelings toward her and starts to inch away. That an Indian film even dares to consider, as a plot device, the repercussions from a relationship that unexpectedly turns physical, is cause for celebration. And what glorious alignment of brilliant writing, acting and directing. Welcome, little movie, you can walk side by side with the few others in their march toward intelligent filmmaking from the Indian subcontinent. 

10. Waiting For Superman  There were many fine documentaries released this year, but none that carried a stronger emotional wallop for me than this one. While making a damning case for fixing a broken educational system in America (which includes a frighteningly imbalanced wielding of power by the Teachers' Union), the movie also wisely weaves its political stand with the real life stories of five kids struggling to buck the system by winning one of a few coveted slots in better schools - available through a lottery system. That one has to rely on lottery at all for better education speaks to how far we have come from the implicitly assumed right of every American child to a good education. And the suspense the film generates from the reveal of the eventual fate of each of these kids far exceeds anything in a fictional film this year; after all only the future lives of these kids is at stake. Like the best documentaries, this one has the ability to change our world. 

Honorable mention: What a great year for cinema that any of the following films could have just as easily stood proudly on best of the year lists: Blue Valentine, Fair Game, Mother and Child, City Island, Let Me In, Inside Job, Ghost Writer, Easy A, Ishqiya and True Grit.