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After John’s reveal of his love for An Education, I figured I’d get the discussion going on one of the apparently few films this year where there’s at least some disagreement in our little group.  To first set the record straight, I didn’t hate the movie.  The cast, for starters, is pretty great.  Has a Bond girl, so that’s good.  Dominic Cooper lets me break out the Starter for Ten tag.  Olivia Williams lets me note that this season of Dollhouse has been really really strong.  But perhaps more to the point, Alfred Molina and Peter Sarsgaard are both simply fantastic in their roles.  And Carey Mulligan, well, I defy anyone to not fall madly in love with her.

My problem with the film is that I don’t understand why it was a story that needed to be told.  The story is relatively simple without any particularly meaningful ending.  The dialogue, while crisp, isn’t memorable.  I’m not suggesting the movie shouldn’t have been made, rather that it didn’t leave me with any lasting impression.

Down the road, if I remember anything from An Education, it will be the cast.  I might recall not disliking the film, I suppose.  But I’m already left with a sort of vague indifference; I liked the movie because I like watching movies.  The script didn’t actively put me off the film, but it didn’t draw me in, either.  (But it is OK, Nick Hornby.  We are still tight.)

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I didn’t get it.

It sounds like the other guys don’t have anything new to add after December, but I just keep finding better movies. In fact, my list has already changed since I compiled the five below. But I’ll leave that change til next month.

1. Up. I need to watch this again because I wonder if it’s just getting my #1 spot out of routine now. But At the Movies did a segment on it in their Best of 2009 show and I still found it quite affecting so I’m not terribly concerned.

2. An Education. Welcome to the small film of 2009 I love and the rest of the Grouches hate.

3. Zombieland

4. The Informant!

5. Summer Hours. A very charming French picture. Three siblings sort out what to do with the country estate their mother leaves them after she dies. One wants to keep it in the family for another generation while the other two, who have moved far from France, prefer to sell. It has a lot to do with the decline in French culture, which isn’t really a topic that moves me, but it has a lot to say about modern family dynamics and globalism.

The estate contains a lot of artwork and antiques while the house itself served as a studio for a beloved uncle and successful artist. I found fascinating its look at how we ascribe value to items and how we interact with them even as we – our lives and our memories – are temporary.

Furthermore, the plot never slides into melodrama. The siblings very much love and respect each other but are not immune to passive aggressive tendencies. They interact realistically and give the film a wonderful emotional depth.

I don’t think there’s any way to describe a film about estate planning without making it sound dreadfully boring, but even the mundane actions are never boring in this very good film.

Finally, honorable mentions to films that will never appear on my top five list mainly due to how late I saw them. If I had months ago they surely would have deserved at least one mention on this list.

Precious. Hopefully more to say on this later.

Rudo y Cursi. A Mexican film written and directed by Carlos Cuarón, brother of Alfonso and writer of Y tu mamá, también, and also the first film produced by Cha Cha Cha, the company founded by the Big 3 in Mexico: Cuarón (Alfonso), Del Toro, and Iñárritu. Plus it reunites Y tu mamá stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna.

So it has a hell of a pedigree and it definitely lives up to it. Bernal and Luna are brothers who try to make it big in Mexican soccer. It transported me to an interesting new world of the shadiness and pressure of Mexican soccer and creates interesting, dynamic characters. The brothers have demons holding them back but the film doesn’t get bogged down in cliche and I loved the turns the plot takes. Just a very well-made and entirely entertaining film.

I don’t know what it means, exactly, but I wrote three-quarters of this post a month ago.  Unable to finish it off, I left it hanging as a draft.  About a week ago, I decided, perhaps partially influenced by the flagging buzz for the film, that I didn’t really agree with what I’d written and I should take a new angle.  Except that when I looked back over what I had written, it matched up pretty closely with my “new” revelation.

Whatever It is, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire has It.  And sadly, no, I’m not talking about Tim Curry dressed as a clown.  Sure, I guess you could argue I was biased by all the Oscar hype, but I’m not sure that has significantly affected my opinion of an Oscar contender before.  I didn’t even love Precious.  It is a very good movie, to be sure, but I didn’t think it was amazing.  Still, the film boasts a rather lustrous Oscar sheen.

Part of it is the subject matter.  Precious has some tough scenes and gets into some rather grim places.  But while the film rarely gets schmaltzy, there’s an overarching feeling of hope.  Maybe it is that feeling that lends the film its Oscar gravitas.  That seeming small space between the extremes of a dark, angry film and one with a storybook ending.

The other major part is the characters/actors, obviously.  We’ll soon find out if leader fatigue will hurt Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique.  But to me, they rank right up there with the best larger-than-life performances of late because they form such distinct, unique, memorable characters.  Sidibe’s Precious is a hulking mess of person who never had a shot.  And yet, she feels different from all prior put-upon dreamer-protagonists.  That’s partially due to her not having some sort of amazing secret talent which would make her famous/popular/loved if she were just allowed to shine.  And I think that goes a long way toward reducing any hamminess that could show up in the film.  (Bizarre fantasy pops aside.)

The consistent disgust the film throws at Mo’Nique’s character is nearly unparalleled, to my limited memory.  I’m fairly certain she could make the Terminator cry.  There’s little doubt in my mind that ten years from now, when this blog is all I have to remember this decade’s movies, I won’t have forgotten Mo’Nique’s role any more than that of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurrh.  She’s an ugly, ugly character and an extremely cutting villain.

The rest of the film, frankly, seems largely like background noise meant to make the scenes between Sidibe and Mo’Nique pop that much more.  Maybe that’s not entirely fair.  The first glimpses of Precious’s schooling are pretty compelling.  But then I started getting flashbacks to the treacly Freedom Writers.  Perhaps, in a perfect world, the lack of substance beyond the two characters would have a significant impact on the Academy.  And who knows, maybe it does.

But I think a pretty convincing case could be made that Oscar tends to fall for character-driven films.  Which isn’t necessarily bad, of course.  I’m certainly not advocating the Academy should try to honor movies with weaker characters.  Just that a solid character does not always a movie make.  Precious, though, comes darn close because of just how vividly it paints the two major characters.

The Oscar races are continuing to shake out and I think we generally know who is in the ballpark for the major awards at this point. This sort of winnowing happens every year for better or for worse. It can be helpful to know that some of your favorites have no shot so as to avoid the frustration on nomination morning. Or it can keep hopes alive so that they are cruelly crushed (see: Dark Knight). And it can be a joy to watch as time goes on and your favorite longshot still holds on (see: Richard Jenkins).

A couple developments in the Best Actor race seem notable to me.

The first is that Johnny Depp in Public Enemies has completely fallen off the map. Thank goodness. The film is one of my biggest disappointments of the year. I’ll never know how such a stylish film based on such an interesting character with an interesting life could be so dull. I never thought I’d care so little about seeing the back of Depp’s head blown off. In all it’s not a bad film, but I forgot about it about 30 minutes after leaving the theater.

Not to disparage Depp, but if he was still in the running at this point it would only be on name value alone. And when that happens it drives me nuts. (Of course when I expect the hype to be based on the name and the performance really does deliver it’s always wonderful; see: Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia.)

Completely countering my joy of not having to discuss an underwhelming Michael Mann film here is how ignored The Informant! has become. Matt Damon should be a lock for a nomination and on the inside track for the win. Instead all you hear about him is a possible Supporting nod for Invictus. What a shame. Thank goodness for the Golden Globes (the first/only time I’ll ever say that?) for giving him some proper recognition.

There’s no film from 2009 I’m more excited to see again than The Informant! and it doesn’t even appear to have a DVD release date yet. Steven Soderbergh saw a tale of corporate price collusion, somehow thought it’d make a great zany comedy, and then totally nailed the necessary timing and tone. Quite an accomplishment and, to me, the underachieving box office disappointment of the year.

At this point Damon probably has to fade in the Supporting Actor race and over take either Jeremy Renner or (hopefully!) Morgan Freeman to make it to Oscar night. Needless to say that looks unlikely. At least a Best Score nomination for Marvin Hamlisch seems probable at this point so at least one major piece of this remarkable work could get recognized.

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