This was supposed to be the year of Oscars gone wild. For the first time since World War II the number of Best Picture nominees was upped from five to ten, presumably so that “popcorn pictures” like The Dark Knight could get more of a shot—and that audiences illiterate of, say, The Reader might be encouraged to tune into the show on March 7.
But then the fear, and loathing, and night terrors crept in. What if the disreputably blockbusting comedy The Hangover, which won one of those upstaging Golden Globe things, got the nod? Or, God forbid, the Transformers sequel? Now that the floodgates were open, would mass trump class?
You could hear the sigh of relief all the way over here on the Right Coast last Tuesday morning when the nominations were announced. Whew—the Best Picture nominees, felt to have gone stale and parochial, were now twice as MOR as ever. No curveballs were thrown, not even ones that might have benefited the ratings without compromising the honor, like, say putting the edgily charming (500) Days of Summer into contention. (One of the few indie hits of 2009, and a pleasant surprise when I caught up with it on DVD, might have pulled in a younger demographic.) The only ones to quicken the pulse in a showbiz sense are the sci-fi hit District 9 (shepherded by Peter Jackson and a sort of consolation prize for the grave reception to The Lovely Bones) and The Blind Side.
But who am I talk? Here are the Oscar nominees, in alphabetical order:
And here are my Top 10 for 2009, in preferential order:
Of my 10, only two failed to make the Oscar cut in any capacity. And I didn’t throw The Hangover in, either, though it was a close call. But unlike the Academy I did include one out-and-out comedy, even if it was a nasty one, In the Loop.
So what gives? Have I become more middle-of-the-road in my tastes? I think it’s more a matter of self-selection—my younger, movie-mad self hardly recognizes my husband-and-father, one-movie-a-week regimen. Gone are a lot of the oddities and fringe things I used to see on a whim—and, sadly, the foreign films and independent releases that come and go from our screens or turn up On Demand and otherwise hide in plain sight. I use Netflix as a catch-all, which is why a Top 10 list, even in February, is more a snapshot than a full portrait. (Re: 2008, off comes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, on goes Gomorrah.)
Some of my Top 10 were no surprise. I had The Hurt Locker (a big hit as a DVD rental, don’t bypass it) locked and loaded as my No. 1 and it never budged. In the Loop and An Education were also comfortably slotted. I couldn’t decide if Antichrist was one of the best—or one of the worst—films I had seen last year but as it’s haunted my dreams ever since (with co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg’s new CD, IRM, playing accompaniment) I figured it had to worm its way on somehow. Damn you, Lars Von Trier. Basterds also vexed me, though the call was easier to make, and I have to admit that while I find the cinephile bubble that Tarantino lives in limiting it’s fun to have a play date there every few years.
Not that I take ranking all that seriously but a few things did surprise me when I went to line them up. I never properly reviewed Up in the Air, and should have. Even with a decent total of end-of-year honors and nominations I think it’s undervalued, and above else wonderfully acted by its deserved nominees (I had no third act problems). I saw it after a long and trying day and it cleared my head as satisfyingly as…Antichrist, though other parallels are difficult to draw. A movie perfectly attuned to troubled times.
There should be more to say on A Serious Man later this week as it resurfaces on DVD. Suffice it to say the movie, rarefied and strange even for the Coen brothers, dug itself into me like a tick. But I have my sentimental side. My wife responded so strongly to Avatar on her first viewing (my second) that it uplifted a good if problematic movie to a lower rung of my annual report. Star Trek was the more satisfying spectacle, the quintessential “popcorn picture,” and I dedicate its spot to my late colleague, Lance Berry.
Not Quite Hollywood takes some explaining. When I was a lad in the late 70s and early 80s HBO and Cinemax opened up new vistas in cinemagoing for me, and still today I have a soft spot for “Ozploitation”—grungy, grubby, dirty, off-the-wall Australian flicks that the channels put out like shrimp on the Barbie. Mad Max (pictured) was the tip of the iceberg; what was under the surface is the subject of Mark Hartley’s raw and frequently sidesplitting documentary, bursting with sex, violence, and the occasional dead kangaroo. It helps to have had my experience, but the nudity, body parts, and insane stunts should keep newcomers entertained. Tarantino, a big booster of cinema buried under rocks, turns up, naturally. The quote of the year, though, is delivered by seen-it-all Aussie film critic Bob Ellis, on the pioneering efforts of filmmaker Tim Burstall: “He was scum, really, he was a crab louse on the Australian film industry. On the other hand, all of us will always owe him everything.”
Where I part with Oscar is the noisy and overrated poli sci-fi of District 9 and Up, which never quite recaptures the peak of its beautifully realized beginning. (It’s a short in search of a worthier feature.) I hadn’t seen The Blind Side when the Oscars were announced so off I went to witness first-hand the Avatar of sports-themed movies, and found was Oscar was looking for.
The Blind Side may be the most banal film ever nominated for Best Picture. Even lightweights like Chocolat, and musicals from the 30s, have a little flavor to them. The Blind Side is basically the Glinda to the Elphaba of Precious. Where Precious offers a measure of relief The Blind Side is in a constant ecstasy of mild uplift. But it’s clever about it. The antebellum Taco Bell Republicans are gun-toting Christians, which the movie soft-shoes for audience identification if you relate and an easy, unbiased laugh if you don’t. To reassure blue-staters Sandra Bullock and her family separate themselves from the prejudiced “rednecks” who run amok at the big game (and Kathy Bates, supplying the energy that the usually bubbly Bullock is gingerly repressing, plays an enthusiastic tutor, a card-carrying Democrat). The gentle giant they’re nurturing, meanwhile, seems to materialize from District 9, Memphis projects so terrible they couldn’t possibly exist in the real world (right?).
The movie is a little too lazy to have strategized this, I think. (No one seems to be acquainted with the concept of “deleted scenes,” so every repetitive sequence of Bullock’s family meeting with coaches is included.) It’s the kind of film that passes through you like a case of the sniffles, never turning into anything else—which can win over a huge audience at holiday time and, this year, tug at the heartstrings of voters in Oscar’s new order. If only this popcorn came with a little salt.
(As for me and Sandra Bullock, well, to paraphrase a rom-com she wasn’t in, it’s complicated. Maybe more on that some other time, too.)
From The Blind Side to The Dark Side: This year’s Razzies didn’t dig deep enough. True, I fantasize what it was like for the unfortunate junior publicist sacrificed to tell Beyonce about her nomination the morning after she raked in her Grammys, before she could read about it on her iPhone and take out her entire staff in an epic diva fit. All I can say is, I’ve seen Obsessed, and Beyonce and Ali Larter earned their fate.
The rest of the Razzies, though, pick too much from the top of the vines. It’s a little too easy to roast the Transformers and Twilight sequels, when far worse movies were released in 2009. You heard it right: There were worse movies than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which had the balls to go for transformer scrotum jokes, and take a trip to “robot heaven,” somewhere supposed visionary James Cameron would never go. And Julie White showed Bullock restraint this time as the ding-a-ling mom, not at all worthy of a nomination. (As for the Twilight series, hey, the Oscars may be waiting for it to conclude before showering it with prizes, Lord of the Rings-style.) There were worse movies than G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, whose zany Paris chase scene was my guilty pleasure sequence of the year.
A disclaimer: By and large I didn’t choose to see any of these things. They found me, via screenings or screeners or cable TV or, sometimes, Netflix, to which I plead the fifth. I was the victim here. And so you don’t have to experience the horror, if you come across any of these titles just keep going.
In alphabetical order, starting, fittingly, with “F”:
Friday the 13th (remake)
The Girlfriend Experience
It’s Alive (remake)
The Men Who Stare at Goats
The Mutant Chronicles
Spinning Into Butter
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (remake)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Thank you for letting me get those off my chest. May the best—and worst—win this March.