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23. Pirate Radio

Was looking forward to this one for awhile because, well, Richard Curtis + classic rock + Philip Seymour Hoffman?  I’m not capable of dreaming up scenarios that awesome.  It was released as The Boat That Rocked in the UK but changed in the States because, um, pirates are cool?  This was the last of the 2009 movies I watched for this list, and it took the usually reliable Netflix almost a month to get the thing to me.  But I’m happy I was able to watch it with Megan (if only because it prevented either of us from making a decision about which movie to watch).  Anyway, the trailer doesn’t do the film justice, but I’m not really sure anything could.  The film doesn’t exactly have a story, per se, just a series of humorous events with the same cast of characters in a loose timeline.  It isn’t about character development so much as having fun with the characters. And the tremendous cast which includes a bunch of Curtis stalwarts, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Rhys Ifans, January Jones, and Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, and Jack Davenport.  Also Gemma Arterton and Talulah Riley, but we’ll get to them next post.  Just a really fun movie.

22. 2012

Speaking of fun movies!  Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow are clearly superior, sure.  But this one is still an excellent disaster movie.  Saw this one in theaters with Brian and Zack, and I think it exactly met our amped up expectations.  The film isn’t going to sway anyone’s opinion of Roland Emmerich, I don’t think.  And yeah, we are talking about some broadly-drawn characters.  But give me a fun cast (highlighted by a hilariously bonkers Woody Harrelson), lots of stuff blowing up, and a little bit of a completely unsubtle morality play and I’ll be a happy boy.

21. The Invention of Lying

When are people going to cotton to Ricky Gervais movies?  It sure seems like they have the recipe for success.  They are funny, sweet, tell an interesting story, and have great cameos.  Just doesn’t make sense to me.  OK, I could see how the send-up of religion could be mildly offensive to some, I suppose.  And the movie did start to trail off a bit at the last third.  But come on.  What a brilliant concept.  Plus, Rob Lowe as the bad guy!

20. A Serious Man

Glancing over our thoughts on the film, seems a safe bet that this was the most thought-provoking Oscar film for the Grouches.  Heck, I reread my full recap and still have no idea what I thought (or think).  I do know that it was rather unfortunate to have A Serious Man and A Single Man come out in the same year.  Unless maybe they helped bump each other up at the box office due to mistaken viewing of the wrong film?  Even now, I struggle to come to terms with my thoughts on the film.  Which makes the movie unique in this year’s class, so that’s something.  I may not always like the Coen Bros., but their ability to consistently churn out thought-provoking films to which I have a visceral reaction is nearly unparalleled.

19. The Blind Side

Back to back Best Picture nominees!  We’ve had plenty to say about this film, including John calling the nomination (well done, John!) in our wild and crazy picks post.  Oddly, I seem to be a little lower on Sandra Bullock than my fellow Grouches, but a little higher on the film.  Maybe I’m just more in touch with my emotions than them.  I’m guessing that where they found it a little schmaltzy, I thought it consistently hit solid emotional notes.  Sometimes cliches are cliches because they work.  Did the film bring anything new to the world of moviemaking?  Probably not.  But I still think it is a very fine piece of work.

18. Away We Go

Saw this one in theater in New Jersey with my uncle and brothers.  I went back and saw John called this film “painfully contrived.”  Isn’t that any road trip movie (which this is, essentially)?  I suppose if one called this film a little too precious, I’d have a hard time disagreeing.  But I thought it had a lot of a heart and a good sense of humor.  The supporting cast is chock full of talent, including Paul Schneider and this year’s Oscar nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal.  And perhaps each supporting character is just a tad too outsized.  But I sorta thought that was the point of it all.  I dunno, I’m surprised there’s any divisiveness on this one.

17. Julie and Julia

Saw this one at Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse with Adam and Dylan as part of a two-city double feature.  Because that’s how we roll.  By the way, what’s the connection between this one and Away We Go?  Chris Messina (aka the guy who isn’t Stanley Tucci, Amy Adams, or Meryl Streep).  I kinda got the feeling that all the actors had a good time making this one, and it shows.  Don’t quite know how it worked out this way, but most of the movies in this post seem to follow the same general pattern of a fun, mostly positively movies with a few touching emotional moments that soon get swept away with humor.  Brian is still alarmingly wrong about the Julie part being better than the Julia one.

16. The Answer Man

Was among my most anticipated 2009 movies.  Why?  Hm.  I’m not entirely sure.  I really like the cast (Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Olivia Thirlby, Lou Taylor Pucci, Kat Dennings, Tony Hale).  And I guess the concept just kinda appealed to me.  A lot of stuff just worked in this movie.  Jeff Daniels and Lauren Graham go really well together as the leads in this romcom.  Daniels is fantastic as the philosopher with none (and yet all) of the answers.  The misanthropic character is a familiar one, yet it doesn’t feel tired.  Like my life, needed more Kat Dennings.

15. Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

We’ve written a bunch on this Oscar nominee.  It surely took an unconventional Oscar path.  It was Geoffrey Fletcher’s first produced screenplay, the second film directed by Lee Daniels, and starred an overweight newcomer and a BET regular whose recent filmography includes Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins and Phat Girlz.  But it would have been impossible to overlook this film.  And in particular, Gabby Sidibe and Mo’Nique.  It is staggering to me how Mo’Nique outdistanced herself from the competition.  By the end, it wasn’t even a matter of concocting a path as to how someone else could win Supporting Actress, it was a matter of figuring out if there was any possible way she wouldn’t win unanimously.  So I think it says quite a lot that going up against a performance like that, Sidibe more than held her own.  I didn’t quite understand the Directing and Adapted Screenplay nominations (let’s not talk about the writing win), but I do want to make it clear that I thought the film was very very good.

Well, here we are. I want to make sure to say thanks to Adam, Brian, and John for joining me on this ride. I’ve got no life, so it was relatively easy for me to catch these nineteen films (plus the other contenders we saw). But I know that you all made some sacrifices to make it happen. And thanks for all the discussions (both on- and off-blog). You guys rock.

Inglourious Basterds

Adam and I tend to have fairly similar taste in movies, so it was surprising to me that we disagree so much about Inglourious Basterds. He told me he didn’t think I would like it, leading me to believe that deep down he knows the film just doesn’t work. Sure, there are stretches of brilliance: the first few minutes of the opening scene, the whipped cream scene, most of the scene at the underground bar, everything about Christoph Waltz’s character. But Tarantino appears to be a guy who needs someone to keep him in check. Just about every scene goes on too long. And the story never comes together into a cohesive unit. I admire the film’s ambition and respect Tarantino’s vision. But the film left me unmoved.

Avatar

I’m not a particularly visual person, so while I personally can’t excuse Avatar‘s script, I guess I can understand how someone might get swept up by shiny things. But I don’t understand why this logic only applies to James Cameron. Criticisms of Michael Bay movies invariably levy charges of being bloated, overly-reliant on CGI with no character development and having things blowing up nonstop. Aren’t the exact same things being said about Avatar, more or less? Adam talked about not putting mindless action flicks up for Best Picture. That’s a stance I don’t understand to begin with, and I think the Avatar nomination discredits in practice. I’ve yet to hear any sort of logical argument about how the distinction between a “fun” movies and a “good” one isn’t arbitrary. As such, I’ll continue to only rank movies based on how much I enjoy them.

An Education

Possibly one of this year’s most fun collection of actors. It is just too bad they didn’t really have much to do. Think about the memorable scenes in the movie. Molina falling under Saarsgard’s charms. Thompson arguing with Mulligan. Williams arguing with Mulligan. Pike being a ditz. The birthday party with Mulligan’s former beau. Almost all of these things have the barest of setups or followthroughs. What is Emma Thompson doing in the film, anyway? As is, shouldn’t her character just been merged with that of Olivia Williams? The point is, I buy it is the right cast, the right screenwriter, and heck, the right director. But what if you didn’t bind Nick Hornby to a set of memoirs where apparently nothing happens, instead just describing the characters and themes? I think that could have been something really tremendous. And also probably would have had an ending.

A Serious Man

I’m still amazed this film received a Best Picture nomination. Not talking about its merits, just that the film had no discernible buzz, at least that I saw. The Coens and I clearly operate on different wavelengths. Not drastically different, just enough that I don’t quite get them. Plus, I don’t think they are as funny or clever as they think they are. Their work does have a timeless quality, though. I could have seen this movie being made ten years ago or twenty years ago. And (as with almost all of their films) their work is refreshing, an oddball little piece of cinema not quite fitting in anyway. Which I can definitely appreciate. And I don’t mean to completely badmouth the film, I did find that I generally enjoyed myself, even if I still haven’t quite figured it out. Assuming there is anything to figure out, I guess.

The Blind Side

I liked this film a little more than the other Grouches. Possibly because I have a heart. Personally, I think it delivers exactly what it sets out to do. It is a big, broad movie that tugs at the heartstrings (but not too much) and ultimately leaves you feeling a little better about things. Is there anything so wrong with that? Sure, it never really tries to reach for anything higher, and that’s maybe why I didn’t fall in love it, but it is a solid, solid film. I think some of the criticisms hurled at it are kinda weak. Yes, a rich white lady helps a poor black kid. No, that doesn’t automatically mean you can toss around the phrase “white guilt”. Partially because this stuff, you know, actually happened. And I found it to be a fairly faithful adaptation of the book (other than the book’s discussion of the history of left tackle, of course). Not sure I could imagine anything better, actually. Well, except for maybe removing some of Lewis’s bias. But that’s probably a good thing.

Precious

We’ve been over the faults of this film’s script numerous times. The auxiliary characters weren’t sketched out well and the plot isn’t that interesting. What the story did do, however, was provide ample opportunity for Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidibe to dominate all over the place. And sometimes, that’s enough. Like Avatar, oddly enough, when the film was allowed to play to its strengths, it was magical. In certain sense, the film captures drama better than anything else this year. The relationship between Sidibe and Mo’Nique is really unlike anything I’d seen on screen and while it was often hard to take, it was just so so powerful.

Up in the Air

Here’s another film I feel like I’ve unintentionally badmouthed a lot. There were lots of things I liked about Up in the Air, very few things I disliked. It was a very good film, and I’m happy it got nominated. My complaints were more about the acting nominations than anything else, I guess. And, well, not thinking that it was a great movie, because it didn’t quite get there. It was funny and dramatic and thought-provoking, just not very funny or very dramatic or very thought-provoking. Still, a smart film, Jason Reitman is crazy promising. What did I like, though? Hm. It was a fun ride throughout and rarely boring. Kept a solid pace. Made me laugh some. I don’t know, exactly. Just a well-made film.

The Hurt Locker

The dichotomy here is fascinating. $15 million grossing art house movie? Totally Oscar. Iraq war movie? Not Oscar. Cast filled with relative unknowns? Oscar. Action movie? Not Oscar. Finally rewarding a director who paid his dues? Oscar. Finally rewarding a director who paid her dues? Not Oscar. With a quality script, this film would have been something truly special. As is, it’s a fine piece of film making, and extraordinary example of how great a taut, exciting action film can be. Kinda interesting to compare to Slumdog Millionaire, in terms of a movie that didn’t make all that much money and about a topic not necessarily of general interest, and certainly wasn’t necessarily guaranteed to be here on Oscar night.

District 9

Speaking of great action films, I have no clue how District 9 ended up with an best picture nomination, but yay. Something went terribly right for that to happen, because honestly, does it seem like an Oscar movie in the least? I guess maybe if you squint. It is proof that action films can be totally riveting. Maybe next year can be comedy’s year? Nah, that’s crazy talk. Well, unless Peter Jackson produces a comedy. I guess that would be OK. Kinda rambling at this point, because the red carpet has started and Brian and Adam are arguing about something. Not sure what, but I’m sure it is ridiculous. But yes, everyone should see District 9. And be amazed at the effects, the action, and really the touching story. I know some other Oscar nominated movies about aliens the year seemed to imply that it wasn’t possible to have a great story with your alien action, but I assure you, that’s false.

Up

Yup, there’s little question that Up is the year’s best film. Pixar doesn’t make animated movies, they make movies. No need to gush about that opening sequence, because yeah, just out of this world. And I’ll be the only Grouch who likes agreeing with John. Up is consistently funny, definitely one of the funniest movies of the year. (And Adam, I’ll take the bait, yes, I laughed more at She’s Out of My League, but that’s an argument we are going to have in 2010 discussions.) But it was also one of the most exciting films, with one of the interesting stories. Just all around a fantastic movie. Never slow, never dull, always amazing. The Grouches don’t all agree on our favorite Pixar movies, but I think we all agree that at their best, no one tells stories like they do. And if you tell a story as close to perfectly as they do, well, you are going to get my vote for movie of the year.

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.

We’ll each putting up our own thoughts on Best Picture. Except now, when I’m publishing Adam’s writeup. Guess he wanted to continue his streak of not posting.

So, for the grand finale, I’ve decided to forego my previous format and write what I thought about each movie. Unfortunately for you, dear reader, none of the other Grouches have written their posts yet so I am forced to confine my analysis to the movies and my critiques of the others (if they should appear) will be constrained to hearsay and personal experience. So, without further ado, I give you The Nominees:

Precious
Throughout the year, we watch a lot of movies in preparation for the Oscars and I find that my opinion of some of these movies varies greatly from my initial impression as time goes on. As I rank the movies I’ve seen throughout the year, I constantly compare previous views to more recent ones to come up with the best possible score for each – some fall, others rise, and some stay steady throughout. Precious was definitely one of the fallen movies. I thought it was a fine movie, but realized that my initial opinion of it was artificially raised due to all the hype and praise surrounding it. As I time went on, I realized that the script wasn’t all that strong. Decent dialogue was scarce and most of the scenes were pretty blasé (with the notable exceptions of the apartment/stairs scene and the final social worker scene). Mo’Nique’s performance was terrific, granted, but Sidibe’s was, honestly, forgettable. No one will remember her performance in a year or two – if that. The directing was also fairly weak. The dream sequences were unnecessary and heavy-handed, and the other scenes were set up less than ideally. It may seem like I hated the movie, but I didn’t. I gave it a 5.8 out of 10 (though it started at a whopping 7 if you can believe it) so I didn’t think it was horrible, I just want you all to realize that the hype surrounding it is just that – hype.

An Education
An Education actually suffered the opposite fate as Precious. It actually moved up in my ranking as time went on. At first, I couldn’t get over what I viewed as a ridiculous plot. I couldn’t understand how we, the audience, were supposed to buy into the fact that a random older gentleman randomly picked up a school-girl; started to date her immediately – well, as soon as he was able to convince the girl’s very conservative and old fashioned father he was on the “up and up” via a 2 minute conversation, in which he told a joke; and convince her to quit school just shy of graduating. As time went on though, I was able to separate the weak story and horrible scene transitions, and appreciate the strengths of the film. Carey Mulligan actually puts on a pretty great performance – especially given she had very little experience prior to this. She was able to take on a leading role and make it her own. This was one of the few well written lead female characters I saw this year and it is due, in no small part, to Mulligan’s performance. The other fantastic performance was Alfred Molina’s. My respect for him (due in no small part to his role in The Man Who Knew Too Little) dropped dramatically with his part in Spider-Man 2 (one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen). However, he has totally redeemed himself by being one of the brightest spots in this movie. I am very disappointed he wasn’t nominated for Supporting Actor over Damon.

The Blind Side
The Blind Side has a higher score (6.5 out of 10) than I anticipated going into the movie. And, while the script wasn’t anything to write home about, I found myself enjoying the movie, nonetheless. Bullock does a decent job as a Southern, Tennessee-hating, heart-of-gold mother of two (then three), and her nomination for Best Actress is deserved. She was definitely the most impressive part of the movie and I am actually quite happy that she is the front-runner for the win. I have, for the most part, quite enjoyed Ms. Bullock over the years and am glad she has a chance to take home the gold. Other than that, there isn’t much to say about this movie. It is like Precious in a lot of ways – teenager with a troubled past and parental issues is taken in by a strong female character who tries to better them. The biggest difference between the two movies is the tone. While The Blind Side is, on the whole, light and fun (and has an uplifting ending), Precious is a study in just how wrong things can go in a child’s life (and that not everything has a happy ending). For whatever reason, though, I found myself enjoying The Blind Side more than Precious and more than I originally thought I would.

Avatar
As you may have realized by now, I have ordered these movies in ascending order. Which means that the second highest grossing film in history, and the film sure to take home the most amount of Oscars is only 6th on my list of Best Picture nominees. While this may seem confusing to most (I’m looking at you John), anyone who actually watched the movie (and has any taste) can tell you that this movie is over-rated by far. First of all, let’s get this out of the way: The film was absolutely visually stunning. Seriously. They did a tremendous job with the CGI and 3D scenery and sequences. Unfortunately, they stopped there. It is a beautiful façade over a weak structure. The most important part of the movie is the script. This movie’s script was decent – when it was used in Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and Fern Gully. If you are going to steal another movie’s idea/script (which I don’t necessarily disagree with – I mean, look at my boy Tarantino), at least improve upon it. Or, at the very least, make an attempt to change it in some way. The only thing they seem to have done is make the dialogue worse and delve less into every single one of the characters. I am actually floored that a 3+ hour movie had absolutely no character development. And don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of a bunch of movies with little to no plot, no character development, and awful dialogue (I mean, I watch mindless action films by the truckload), but I don’t nominate them for Best Picture. I don’t care what John tries to tell you – don’t drink the Kool-Aid on this movie. See it because it is visually stunning, not because you are looking for an actual Best Picture movie.

A Serious Man
I don’t know how Jared and John write so much. I’m not even half way through this and I’m exhausted. Major props to them. So, now on to A Serious Man. First of all, I’d like to say that I was a huge fan of the opening scene of this movie – especially once the film was over and I realized that I couldn’t figure out how it fit into the rest of the movie. Second, this movie had one of the most interesting characters of the entire year. It was fascinating for me to watch the actions and reactions of this character as we delved deeper and deeper into his mundane, depressing, and all too real existence. I am a huge fan of character studies (if done well). While this isn’t in the same league as Michael Clayton, it is a serviceable replacement for the year. It also has one of my favorite side-stories of the entire year. The scenes with the Korean student are absolutely hilarious.

Up
I’ve talked about this movie a couple of times. I can’t get over how the rest of the Grouches basically have an orgasm whenever they think or talk about it. Yes it was decent, but it wasn’t THAT good. It definitely had its moments (which is why it made it into the top 5 of contenders), but it fell well short of Pixar classics like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. The talking dog was pretty fantastic, and the little scout had some pretty great lines, but that is pretty much it. A lot of the jokes seemed forced or were predictable. The plot was weak, and the villain, one of my favorite elements of most movies, was very weak. I just couldn’t get invested in any of the characters or laugh at many of the jokes (I’d actually like to hear whether Jared thought he laughed more during Up or She’s Out of My League). I will give it this, though, the opening scene was very well done. Squirrel!

District 9
District 9 definitely had one of the most interesting takes on a tried-and-true story. Having the an alien race living in slums, cohabitating to humans, and regulated to second-class status in all things was brilliant. Telling the story in the form of a documentary (The Office style) was pretty fantastic as well. The surprisingly humorous script was augmented by and equally surprising strong cast (surprising in that it is comprised of unknowns). The reason this movie isn’t higher on my list, though, has to do with the plot. While the background and premise of the movie was original and interesting, the actual story was less than stellar. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s more that it didn’t live up to the promise of the movie’s premise. It was decent, not spectacular. I also felt it didn’t flow as well as it could in a couple of different areas, but that’s really just nit-picking. Overall, a very enjoyable movie that I recommend, and I am very glad to see it make it into the Best Picture nominees.

The Hurt Locker
This is another movie that has increase its ranking as time has gone on. I put it slightly lower on my list originally due to the lack of thought put into the overall plot of the movie. What were all those highly entertaining scenes leading up to? Who is SSG William James and why should we care about his story? However, discounting that, this was a fantastic movie. Kathryn Bigelow does a phenomenal directing job here and I very much hope her Best Director hopes are realized – she deserves it. The tension she is able to create in almost every single scene is nothing short of amazing. The bomb scenes are some of the best I’ve ever seen – due in no small part to the great camerawork. Let’s not forget about Renner either. Even though I didn’t know why I should care about him or his story, I couldn’t help but be fully engrossed in whatever he was doing due to Renner’s extremely strong performance. I seriously wish the Academy wasn’t going to hand over the Best Actor award to Jeff Bridges solely as a “Lifetime Achievement Award” because Renner far-and-away out acted Bridges this year. There is a reason this is in my top 3 of nominees. This is a terrific movie, and, had it had a better script, could have been a serious contender for my favorite movie of the year.

Up in the Air
What can I say about this movie? My fellow Grouches have, on many occasions, ridiculed this movie – its script, acting, and directing – and I can’t understand it. Not because I liked it so much (though that is an extremely valid reason in-and-of-itself), but because they all profess to like it as much or more than me. The lowest score it got between us is an 8.4. It actually has the third highest average score of any film we’ve seen this year (beaten by Zombieland and Up). That’s saying quite a bit. I thought it was great. Since Michael Clayton, my respect for Clooney has skyrocketed and I think he does a great job here. Not only that, the two female characters in this movie are both widely different but equally well written and portrayed. Kendrick and Farmiga both shine as opposite sides of the same coin (the professional woman), and complement Clooney’s character as few roles do, now-a-days. I thought the script, while not out-of-this-world, was very well done – with humorous, contemplative/deep, and sad/depressing moments sprinkled in throughout the movie. I actually also really like the directing here as well. Reitman was a very close third to Tarantino and Bigelow this year. Each gave very strong efforts this year, which were rewarded with equally strong movies. I will admit that this movie struck a nerve with its portrayal of the constantly traveling businessman (as that was my life for 2 ½ years), but even discounting that, this was a pretty great movie.

Inglourious Basterds
The Big Kahuna (and no, not Big Kahuna Burger) – nine down, one to go. Since seeing this movie, it has topped my annual Top 5 with only one other movie even coming close to toppling it (Zombieland for those keeping track). Quentin Tarantino is one of my all-time favorites and he doesn’t disappoint with this dialogue-driven, Nazi-killin’, action flick. From the first scene, Tarantino is able to fully invest the audience into his world. How many other directors/films would have such a long, dialogue-heavy opening scene? And how many people actually noticed that the scene went on for so long after the first couple of minutes of interplay between Waltz’s SS Colonel and the out-matched farmer? Tarantino’s ability to take the seemingly most inane scene and turn it into a focal point of a movie based solely on the dialogue (and underlying story) never ceases to amaze me. And he does this more than once in the movie (don’t forget that amazing bar room scene). All this is without taking into account the overall story or the wonderfully violent action scenes. Tarantino gives us a movie that is entertaining on multiple levels and does so with style (plus, he killed Hitler…come on!). If it were up to me, Basterds would receive Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, and Film Editing along with the almost assured Best Supporting Actor for Waltz. Alas, it is not to be.

Grouching Week continues with our discussion of a category that we all feel is depressingly sub-par: Best Screenplay Written Originally for the Screen. First, your nominees:

  • The Hurt Locker” Screenplay by Mark Boal
  • Inglourious Basterds” Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino
  • The Messenger” Screenplay by Allesandro Camon and Oren Moverman
  • A Serious Man” Screenplay by Ethan and Joel Coen
  • Up” Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter and Thomas McCarthy

Jared kicks us off again, with some wishful thinking this time:

    As with the adapted screenplays, four of the five films nominated for Original Screenplay also garnered Best Picture nominations. I have the feeling the others Grouches are going to disagree with me here, [Ed. note — WRONG] but I think this category is extremely weak. Granted, it wasn’t a particularly strong year for Oscar-contending original screenplays, it is just unfortunate the Academy lacked imagination when deciding these nominees.

    As much as Adam might be upset about The Messenger getting a nomination, I wonder if he’d be more upset if I made him watch it for no reason at all. I honestly have no idea what other people see in this film. Military deaths are horrific things, and I cannot possibly imagine the toll it takes on their families or what it must be like to be the one who delivers the news. Everyone involved in this horrible scenario absolutely deserves to have their story told. But told well, which I don’t believe is happening here. I would have believed this film was a Lifetime channel original. The story has no cohesiveness, the dialogue doesn’t lead to any memorable scenes, and frankly, nothing really happens.

    I really think Quentin Tarantino needs a writing partner, as his self-indulgence reaches all sorts of new heights in Inglourious Basterds. I’m fairly certain every scene ran at least two minutes too long. And where the use of disparate storylines was an effective storytelling device in most of his prior work, here it serves no real purpose other than imprinting the film with his watermark, along with his homages and in-jokes and lots of other things which may add up to his distinctive style, but obscure the actual film.

    The support for A Serious Man is completely baffling to me. Mostly because I don’t really think it is exists at all. I clearly don’t connect with the Coens the way other people seem to do so. And while I didn’t find this film nearly as frustrating as some of their other works, I don’t really see the genius behind it. Sure, I’ll give them some credit for a relatively novel main character. But otherwise, seems like middling stuff with a few unnecessary arthouse tricks.

    As I mentioned before, I found The Hurt Locker’s screenplay to be relatively weak. I think Bigelow, her cast and her crew put forth a yeoman’s effort to rescue Mark Boal’s script. To be fair, I’m positive some of the action scenes were delicately and exquisitively scripted. But there’s probably a legit argument that while the interactions between the bomb squad (and between the squad and the bombs) were pretty strong, everything else could have used some sharpening.

    So almost by default, I’m going with Up, and not just due to residual bitterness over WALL-E‘s loss. Sure, the opening montage was better than just about anything else in movies this year. But the rest of the film was also consistently strong. It managed to run the gamut of comedy, drama, action, and adventure while never really seeming hokey, no small feat if you consider the specifics of the story. And if you think about it, the characters weren’t especially likable, at least not at first. The script may not have been hard-hitting, uber-dramatic, or even trendsetting. But to me, it was undeniably entertaining throughout, and ultimately, isn’t that what a film should be?

    If I were choosing, I’d have gotten rid of four of these nominees, so I imagine I feel there are many snubs. The most obvious one, of course, is (500) Days of Summer. A huge miss by the Academy, in my opinion.

John is surprisingly succinct in his dismissal of this category:

    I agree with Jared that this is a fairly weak slate. Which isn’t to say any of them are poor efforts, but they don’t really jump out at me as clearly outstanding.

    Three of them suffer from the same problem: they create several great scenes that don’t really add up to a terrific whole. Inglourious Basterds doesn’t even really try to add up to a whole as it’s a series of vignettes. I’d argue the film succeeds more on its performances and visual style anyway. Some of the scenes in The Messenger are absolutely gut-wrenching, but the narrative around those scenes sort of falters. And I’d say the same is true with The Hurt Locker though it works better.

    It’s a tough call for me on the last two. I’m still puzzled by A Serious Man, but it sure is fascinating to ponder. It’s thoughtful, interesting, funny, and clever. But my winner is Up. One thing I had sort of forgotten about it until I watched it again recently is how ridiculously funny it is- one of the funniest of the year in fact. It has all you could ask for in an animated film: intriguing premise, developed and interesting characters, clever and funny dialogue, and a compelling story full of intelligence and heart. Pixar certainly makes films that look great, but they really shine because the writing is always so terrific.

Here are Adam’s thoughts, and I’m just thankful I wrote mine after his:

    Will Win: ?. I’m actually not sure who will win this one (or I do, and I just don’t want to key the other Grouches in on it). This has to be the closest race in the top 8 categories. I think it definitely will come down to The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, though.

    I Want to Win: Inglourious Basterds. As stated above, Quentin Tarantino’s fantastic script is in the running for the award and I couldn’t be happier. In my mind, this was the best script of the year (followed by In the Loop). I can’t believe that people are unsure whether to pick this over The Hurt Locker.

    Dark Horse: The Messenger. And thank god it IS a long shot. In the case of this script, I fully agree with Jared’s assessment.

    Ranking:
    1. Inglourious Basterds
    2. The Hurt Locker
    3. Up
    4. A Serious Man
    5. The Messenger


    Grouches Critiques:
    As of the writing of this, I have only seen Jared and John’s write-ups. While I agree with them that this is a weak slate of movies as well as their comments on The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, and The Messenger (especially Jared’s), both of their takes on Inglourious Basterds are way off the mark. The only thing I can think of is they went into the wrong movie. Otherwise, I have to get used to the fact that John’s horrible taste in movies is starting to rub off on Jared. Also, Up is not as great as they both seem to think it is. I actually am a big fan of a lot of Pixar’s work, but it’s last two movies…while good…were not the darlings that everyone seems to think they are. Wall-E was funnier, and Up had a less annoying plot/message, but they were no Incredibles or Finding Nemo.

    Random Notes: Wow. What a weak slate of movies.

And here are the correct opinions, written by Brian:

    Even though I liked all five of these films more than you, Jared, I still think this is a weak group, but I don’t think that (500) Days of Summer would have saved it. This category was pretty much screwed from the beginning — unless of course they included Zombieland, though we all know that would never have happened.

    Having just watched The Messenger last night, I was at first a little befuddled by Jared’s comments. I thought Luc Besson’s directing was pretty good and Mila Jovovich was outstanding. But then I watched the correct movie, the one with Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, and I understood. But I don’t entirely agree — the first hour was riveting — each time they knocked on a door I tensed up — fearful of the next death announcement. But once the focus shifted from their duty to Foster’s personal life and attachment to Samantha Morton, it sort of went off the rails. There was a good movie in there — somewhere — maybe a great live-action short, but the script failed halfway through the film.

    I’m still trying to understand what the hell happened in A Serious Man, and while Slate published a pretty good analysis today, I still don’t think that bodes well for the screenplay. I appreciated a lot of what the Coen brothers did with the script — and the schlubby portrait of the titular character Larry Gopnik was quite good — but no script should be this obtuse and senseless. Maybe if they made a pop-up video version of the movie it could have been more successful.

    The Hurt Locker was a tremendous piece of filmmaking — but the script wasn’t a contributor to it. Jeremy Renner’s side-trip into the streets of Baghdad was unneccessary, and the mystery of the body-bomb kid was too transparent. The film will get deservedly recognized elsewhere — it doesn’t belong in this category.

    Gah, am I really going to agree AGAIN with Jared and John? Inglorious Basterds was brilliant in its own way. I was hoping that Adam would go into greater depth on why he loved it — but maybe he’s holding his fire for the Best Picture category. As for why I liked it, well, its Jews killing Nazis. What’s not to like? Beyond the strength of the plot, I thought that Tarantino’s willingness to throw historical accuracy out the window was refreshing — and his whimsical take on the sober subject of World War II captivated me.

    It’s a very very close race for me, but Up takes my vote. Its such an imaginative script, and the characters are incredibly developed considering how long we get to know them. And it has a TALKING DOG!

Admission time: I haven’t thought about the Oscars in more than a week. I haven’t read any movie news, I haven’t written a post, I haven’t even seen a movie. Why? The Winter Olympics, of course! And I know I’m not alone, judging by the amount of curling talk Jared and I have been doing.

But this blog has been silent, which got me to thinking about finding any damn thing to write about something to connect these two February passions.

So here we go: What if Oscar movies were Winter Olympic sports?

The Blind Side = Figure Skating: Liked by those who don’t like real sports/sports movies.

A Serious Man = Curling. Engrossing but tough to figure out.

Inglourious Basterds = Snowboarding: Flashy and entertaining

Avatar = Bobsled: Very technological and travels down a well-worn track.

Up = Ski Jumping: Short, sweet, and pretty.

Up in the Air = Short Track. Your life/race standing can be upended at any moment.

The Hurt Locker = Hockey. Burly men with lots of equipment bust some heads.

These are a big stretch you say? Yeah, well, shut up.

I am not a member of the Academy. I am instead but a lowly professional economist. Which means not only do studios not send me dozens of screeners but every time I go to the movies I’m always wondering if it’s worth my money.

But today I am pretending I’m a member of the acting branch and casting my ballot for Best Actor.

Acting nominations are made by ranking up to five actors in each category. If the ballot’s number one choice does not have the support needed to receive a nomination, the ballot is counted instead as a vote for the #2 choice, and so on. There is no guidance as to how to separate between Lead and Supporting categories; that determination is left up to individual voters.

1. Matt Damon, The Informant!

Damon puts on the pounds and a mustache for this film, but it’s his complex performance and not the gut that make it so memorable. His squirrelly character is outrageous but not flashy and even though he’s exasperating we’re always able to empathize.

2. Peter Sarsgaard, An Education

I’m not sure whether this is really Lead or Supporting. If I had a ballot I’d put him in both categories just to make sure. He must walk a thin line as a character that’s both charming enough to win over a teenage girl – and the audience, to some extent – but also creepy enough to be trying to win over a teenage girl. At least Damon got a little recognition and a Golden Globe nod; the utter lack of respect this awards season for Sarsgaard is confounding.

3. Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man

This film is essentially two hours of the world shitting on the main character so the man portraying him better be someone the audience wants to watch. The role calls for Stuhlbarg’s exasperation to forever increase while never overcoming his nebbishness and I think Stuhlbarg does a great job of keeping us all frustrated but empathetic.

4. George Clooney, Up in the Air

I’m always impressed by Clooney’s quiet performances. He’s one of those uber-famous, attractive Hollywood types that it’s easy to forget is damn good at what the does. He’s interesting in zany roles like in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Men Who Stare at Goats, but there’s so much talent in his subtle acting that requires a role like this one or in Michael Clayton to really display.

5. Paul Rudd, I Love You, Man

Not a conventional choice,but the man needs some recognition for his wonderfully awkward performance. I don’t think it’s easy to pull of bumbling faux machismo. Most comedies in this vein feel a little rough around the edges in the performances, like the punchlines don’t come across quite polished enough. No offense to the Jonah Hills of the world, but Rudd has the comedic chops and smooth delivery that are often lacking even in the comedies I love. Rudd was so great in this and Role Models and I hope he gets more and more leading roles.

Next on my list were Sam Rockwell for Moon and Michael Sheen for The Damned United.

I didn’t get it.

After disliking No Country for Old Men and darn near loathing Burn After Reading, I thought maybe I stopped liking the Coen Bros. altogether.  But after dwelling on A Serious Man for a little bit now, I think they just have a completely different sensibility than I do, and I can’t decide if that means they are wrong.  More specifically, what for the Coens might be sublimely absurd is for me dumb (Burn After Reading) or inconsequential (the other two).  I did like A Serious Man more than their recent prior output, but I still feel like I fail to connect with it on some fundamental level.  Though, to be fair, the subplot with the Asian student is probably one of the funniest things I’ve seen so far this year.

Take the opening scene, for example.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only theater patron to question if I had accidentally gone into the wrong movie.  And while it may have been the most entertaining scene of the movie, I have absolutely no idea why it is in the film.  I mean, yes, I could probably BS something about thematic elements, but really, there’s no reason it is in there.

As for the story proper, it is interesting enough, but feels a bit undercooked.  The premise, basically, is that a physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) goes through the somewhat-familiar crumbling of his life, albeit set in a 1960s Minnesota Jewish suburb, so it is a nebbish life.  His wife wants to leave him for another man.  His kids ignore him, other than to have him adjust the TV antenna.  He’s having trouble getting tenure.  His brother isn’t exactly all there.  His bills are piling up.

One thing I liked about A Serious Man is that it doesn’t play out as a typical movie might.  I’d say there are two normal resolutions to this scenario.  One is that the main character learns how to man up, wins back his wife, and wins over his kids, co-workers, and whomever else might be in the way.  The other is that the character realizes he needs to break free from his dreary existence.  In this case, he is fine with his no-good wife leaving him for some schmuck, because he knows at the end of the movie, she’ll realize her mistake and come crawling back,  because he’ll be off following his heart’s dream of being a scuba instructor, and tagging along will be the secretary/co-worker/best friend who was always there secretly pining away for him.

But A Serious Man isn’t like that at all.  Instead of the main character learning how to be a man, he more questions what a man really is.  I was asked if you had to be Jewish to appreciate the finer points of the movie and responded that I didn’t think so.  There are some scenes surrounding a bar mitzvah and some Hebrew is read aloud, but really, unless you have absolutely no idea what a rabbi is, I don’t think being raised Jewish is particularly relevant to getting the movie.  Except, thinking about it now, I don’t know.

Because I think there is a sensibility more prevalent in the Jewish culture than many others of the henpecked husband.  Obviously, yes, lots of guys from all religions are run over by their wives and lots of Jewish guys have the upper hand in their marriage.  But generally speaking, I think the stereotypes would confirm my assertion, at least.  In any case, all I’m trying to say is that the character’s reactions to the obstacles life throws him seemed “real” enough to me and I could see other people viewing it slightly differently.  Perhaps better put, you don’t have to be Jewish to best appreciate the film, just able to empathize with a browbeaten husband.

I was not a fan of the movies’ flourishes.  The first scene, the title screens with the rabbis, the fantasy pops, really, everything not focused on the main character felt distracting and inorganic.  As if they were compensating for the relatively spare story.  Which didn’t bother me as much as I might have expected, I even can justify the ending in ways I never could with No Country.

So where does that leave things?  Beats me.  Took me this long to piece together any sort of semi-coherent response to the film.  I think I liked it and I know I didn’t love it.  It won’t be in my top ten movies of the year, but if I limit the list to films with an actual shot at Oscar, I’m guessing A Serious Man will be right on the bubble.

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