And so it all comes down to this. This is a really terrific set of nominees. Even with the expanded category it has a better average film quality than most years. It has refreshing variety and even the selections I don’t really agree with are at least interesting. It remains to be seen how “The Ten” will affect the prestige of the Oscars in the long-term, but it was a wild success for 2009 by producing such an interesting and varied group of nominees.

Counting backwards, here is the ranked ballot I would have submitted had I been a voter.

10. The Blind Side. This is not a good movie. It’s cliched, simple, and emotionally manipulative, though it is centered with a forceful performance from Sandra Bullock. I think its biggest sin is the way Michael, the poor black football player adopted by Bullock’s character, is so poorly developed so that there’s nothing to him. But I do appreciate that people felt affected by the film and I think there’s room for mainstream drama like this in a field of ten.

9. Inglourious Basterds. Second from the bottom and we’re already at a movie I really enjoyed! This is a very good sign! Basterds is an interesting film and very entertaining. I remain committed to my assertion that I wish there was more substance to complement its style. Its scenes are tense and engrossing, but sometimes last a bit too long. A better theme or story to tie those scenes together would have made it much better so that there was more to it than just being awesome.

8. District 9. I enjoyed this film on first viewing. Its unique premise enthused me and its themes kept me thinking. I was dismayed at how much it turned into a standard action movie with unoriginal sequences by the end, however. On my second viewing I was much less bothered by the action and was impressed by all the little details built into the story and the world it creates. Very good stuff.

7. The Hurt Locker. This film clearly didn’t resonate with me the way it did so many others. I really liked it and found many of its scenes painfully suspenseful. I just didn’t find it to be the gut punch so many others did, or as so many other movies on this list did to me. I thought it didn’t come together as a whole as well as I hoped. It’s still very good, just not as good as the others.

6. A Serious Man. This is probably THE movie of 2009 that has me thinking the most. I found the story totally engrossing, even as I wasn’t understanding its point. I found myself drawn to the plot more than I expected upon second viewing. There’s something delightfully subversive about a film that revels in its sometimes-there-is-no-meaning meaning. Accept the mystery. I wouldn’t be surprised that if I revisit this list in a decade that this is the movie that moves up my list the most. I’m already looking forward to watching it again.

5. Precious. Powerful, effective, emotionally hefty. But it’s also very well-made. It really takes a talented hand to not make this film devolve into utter emotional manipulation. I enjoyed the way it’s visualized, though I know my fellow Grouches generally did not. I found the tone was balanced well enough to not make it relentlessly depressing. I’m never fond of a salvation-through-literacy plotline, but otherwise the story and characters (and acting) are uniformly terrific.

4. Up in the Air. This film really succeeds in tone and atmosphere. I have a couple problems with the plot, particularly actions by Vera Farmiga’s Alex, but they’re all overwhelmed by how deeply the film grabbed me and held me. It’s a film about what it’s like to be alive now, from the economic downturn to corporate indifference and the disconnected way we live our lives in this world. It has wonderful characters and terrific performances with some insightful writing and a story that, while not twisty, proceeds in unexpected directions.

3. Up. Here are two signs of how great this film is. In the lead-up to the Oscars there are lots of stories about the nominees. I have yet to see a clip of Up that doesn’t make me laugh. We talk a lot about the brilliant and heartbreaking Married Life montage, but the writing in this film is very strong throughout with lots of clever touches, insight, and hilarious jokes. Oh man, that Kevin just cracks me up. Second, I’ve been listening to some film scores recently and the one for Up always brings me right back to the film. And not just to the plot or the visuals, but to its heart.

2. An Education. The easiest way to explain my affection for film is to say: everything works. Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard are enchanting on screen. The script deftly develops Mulligan’s Jenny so that we understand her and therefore her desires and motivations for her actions. Then Mulligan nails every aspect of Jenny while Sarsgaard is the perfect mix of charm and creepiness. Their relationship never rings false.

1. Avatar. Yes I love the way the film looks. It’s absolutely stunning and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. But it really is more than that. So many films set out to create a universe and they almost always feel incomplete. Avatar succeeds. Everything makes sense in this universe. Rules are set and they are adhered to. The clever little details to the world come together to create a fascinating whole. And people get down on the story, but it’s a fine story. It takes an outline that has been used plenty of times before, but I think all the original details make it feel fresh. All the spiritual stuff is hogwash? Well, maybe on Earth but there are different rules on Pandora. And those elements interested me.

Avatar is an experience. A film-going milestone. I loved every second of it.

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