As you may or may not have noticed, I didn’t participate in the Muriel awards this year (speaking of, you should definitely check them out if you aren’t already). Nor did I hand in a year-end list for filmtotaal. The reason? I felt like I just hadn’t seen enough of the eligible movies. Well, I’ve been working on remedying that, and while I still have quite a few to see (check out the list at the bottom), I can at least weigh in on 8 of the 10 Best Picture contenders at the Oscars, and on a few others as well.
So here we go, from least to most liked, more or less:
I didn’t expect Avatar to have a good story. The reason I went to see it in IMAX 3-D is that I knew that there would be little to be enjoyed than the visuals… and I was still disappointed. Oh, it looks good, sure. But for all the hype about people being depressed afterwards because they didn’t live on Pandora, well, I just didn’t find it immersive at all (and even if it had been, Pandora looked fairly scary and inhospitable to me). I took my glasses off several times to see if there was a difference, something you don’t do if you’re truly “into” a movie. Furthermore, while I thought the computer-generated environment was pretty, it made Cameron lazy: I know the guy can direct, and he made at least two great movies (T2 and Aliens, if you’re wondering), but his direction here was sloppy at best, with out-of-focus objects often blocking part of the frame, weird compositions, etc. (and do read Jim Emerson on Cameron’s use of focus and other things)
And well, I could bash the storytelling, too, but let’s face it: that’s just too easy.
Another movie which supposedly was worth seeing because of just one element, in this case an admittedly great central performance, and which disappointed me nonetheless, is Crazy Heart. Yes, Bridges truly IS Bad Blake, but couldn’t a better movie have been built around him? Not only is the story a dragged out cliché, but even the details seem tired – like the name he doesn’t want to reveal in the beginning, then *spoiler* does at the end, a cheap shorthand to show that he has truly changed. The music is nice though.
Ok, don’t worry, from now on I’ll be slightly more positive. For instance, I can’t deny that I loved the montage at the beginning of Up. I’m not sure if it really belongs in a kid’s movie, but I’ll admit it, there were a few tears. Unfortunately (and somewhat typically – I had the same problem with Wall-E), the movie somewhat unravels after that: there are some nice touches, but overall it’s too slapsticky (talking dogs? Really?), and I feel they could have done more with the theme.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro. I thought it looked absolutely gorgeous, and I loved the way the details and side characters were fleshed out, but my admiration unfortunately stops there. The plot was overly melodramatic, soapy, even, and I didn’t case for Vincent Gallo’s character or performance – it’s partly the voice, I think.
A movie I should maybe rate a bit higher (but ranking is an inexact science) is In The Loop. Or should I say Fucking in the fucking loop? I might not be the most visually inventive movie of the year, but the script is razor-sharp, and the cast delivers it perfectly. I snickered. I gasped. I laughed out loud. It made me want to call random people F-star-star-CUNTs. Not all elements work perfectly (I thought the whole thing with Karen’s teeth was a bit… icky), but I had a really good time – and while I should hope it’s not an accurate representation of political decision-making, it’s scary to think that it might be.
The other movie with “Up” in the title, Up In the Air was intriguing for much longer. I didn’t really get the whole point of Ryan’s presentations – is he suggesting having no attachments is ideal for everyone? I also didn’t really buy Ryan’s “conversion” at the end of the film… but at least Reitman didn’t go for a too pat conclusion, and I DID love all the interactions between Ryan, Alex, and Natalie. And the dialogue is pretty sharp overall. And it’s impossible not to fall for the charms of Clooney and Farmiga and Keener, which deliver the dialogue perfectly. And it’s pretty funny, too – especially the scene where Natalie starts crying. I think I might be talking myself into liking the film more, actually – unfortunately, those great details didn’t quite cohere for me, and it felt oddly safe.
The same applies to An Education. It’s pretty sharply written, too, by Nick Hornby: I especially like that it doesn’t allow us to see Jenny purely as a victim. She willingly overlooks signs that her new lover might not be all that. She knows he’s an easy liar. And, as the movie makes quite clear, she’s not blinded my love: she’s charmed by David, but she’s in love with the life he allows her to lead, not with him. I’m not sure if the headmistress’s anti-semitism was necessary though, and the ending was a bit too neat. To be honest – I’m just making excuses because I liked, but didn’t love the film, and I don’t quite understand why: it’s a neat little film, and I’m glad it’s benefited from the extra 5 slots at the Oscars.
District 9 should be higher up, i.e. lower on my list, since both preceding movies are qualitatively better films… But BF enjoyed it immensely, and he’s at a conference in the US and I miss him, so I like it more by proxy, or something. And it IS a fun movie: sure, the social critique is a bit easy and gets abandoned fairly quickly, but you’ve gotta admit, it’s a nice fresh take on a familiar story. I especially liked the treatment of the central character: while at first he just seems goofy, in the first half hour you gradually realize that he is, in fact, fairly evil, the kind of bureaucrat who could have been a cog in the holocaust machine. And – aside from one decision near the end – his personality doesn’t change radically. There’s a parallel to Avatar in the human-joins-aliens plot, of course – except this movie avoids the noble-savage trap. The aliens are feral, kinda disgusting creatures – which makes the fact that the humans are oppressing them horrifyingly plausible.
As far as I understand it, The Hurt Locker is seen as the front-runner at the moment. To be honest: that’s ok with me. On my top 10 of the year, it would end up in the 5th spot at best, but I’ll admit that a) I’d love to see a woman win Best Director for the first time, b) if Avatar wins, it’ll prove once again that the Academy sucks, and this looks like the most likely candidate to beat it, and c)the two nominated films I’d rather see win – see below – are probably too eclectic anyway. And it’s a tight little movie: it’s not much narratively (if there’s a plot, I failed to see it), but the set-pieces are tense, Jeremy Renner is an interesting lead, and I like that it’s an action movie that doesn’t require you to check your brain at the door. Sure, you don’t need to use your brain much, either – but Bigelow keeps the exposition to a minimum, and the adrenaline high throughout. I’m not an avowed fan – but I much prefer this kind of action movie to, well, the usual kind.
Finally, the Coen’s latest, a Serious Man, which left me perplexed… and amazed. I’m STILL not sure what to make of it, but I think that’s kind of the point: I get why this has been called the Coens’ most personal film, since it read as their exploration of what it’s like not knowing what to make of, well, life. With, of course, their wicked, wry sense of humor on display. I have much more to say about this movie, but it would probably descend into pseudo-philosophical rambling really soon, so let’s save that for another day.
And the top movie of the year? For me, that has to be Inglourious Basterds, which I saw quite a while ago already, and which I’ve written about before. I’ve also written about two other movies already, which have (one costuming nomination excepted) been ignored by the little gold man, but which I would rank below A Serious Man, but above the others listed here: Public Enemies, and Bright Star.
Still to see: Where the Wild Things Are, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the Last Station, A Single Man, Un Prophete, Two Lovers, Julia. Not seen, but no real desire to see: Invictus, Precious, The Blind Side, Julie & Julia, Nine. Seen and liked, but too long ago to post about here: Hunger, The Brothers Bloom.