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Ugh.  I was halfway through this when my computer crashed and then I was out of town for two weeks.  Apologies for the delay! Thanks so much to everyone who has read these, and for commenting on them publicly or privately.  I’ve spent a good chunk on time on this, not to mention the…well, figure an average of 100 minutes per movie * 154 movies and that’s what, 10.5 days of watching movies?  In any case, it is nice to know someone else is getting at least a little something out of this exercise.  And, of course, thanks to Adam, Brian, and John for watching movies with me, exposing me to new ones, dealing with my travel schedule, and inspiring me to keep going with this. I believe that my favorite movies are the year’s best movies.  As such, if I were filling out an Oscar ballot without any considerations to game theory, this would be my list.

10. Please Give

A few months ago, I wrote up Please Give, suggesting the script was among my favorites of the year.  Seven months later, I still firmly believe that.  Characters in ensemble films can often feel underdeveloped or like stock characters because of how difficult it is to convey a character in such limited amount of words.  Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s characters here are rich and engaging.  They feel like real people, sure, but real people interesting enough to warrant being in a film.  Plus, the dialogue is always sharp and often funny.  In my mind, the Academy seriously missed not nominating this WGA-nominated screenplay.  The film was very well-cast (and thus deserving of its Spirit Award).  I won’t be a bore and list out all the actors and actresses, but they are a lot of fun.

9. My Name is Khan

If I’m not mistaken, no Indian film received a nomination for Foreign Film since the quite excellent Lagaan in 2001.  And if My Name is Khan can’t make the cut, I’m not quite sure what will do the trick.  It has an autistic main character, a love story, deals with a Social Issue (the United States’s response to potential domestic terrorism threats), has heroism in the face of tragedy (there’s a subplot involving a small town being flooded), and is an ultimately hopeful look at one man’s long journey to meet President Obama.  Is it maybe a little melodramatic?  Sure.  But to good effect, I think.  The film stars Shah Rukh Khan, who seems to be in half the Bollywood movies I’ve seen and is one of my favorite actors.  He’s a leading man in the mold of Harrison Ford or Nathan Fillion — dashing and an action hero, but also self-aware enough to handle comedy.  The story is too long to rehash here, but he has a high-functioning form of autism, ends up marrying a single mother (Kajol), and after a serious tragedy and a comment said in anger, heads off on a Forrest Gump-like road trip to see Obama.

8. Lovely, Still

This Spirit Award nominee actually features some relatively big names: Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn, Adam Scott, and Elizabeth Banks.  Landau is a depressed, lonely old man.  He lives pretty much just for his bagging job at a supermarket, where Scott is his almost overbearingly well-meaning boss.  But one day, a little before Christmas, Ellen Burstyn moves next door along with her daughter (Banks) and after a meet cute, they start dating and living life as if they were decades younger.  Writer-director Nicholas Fackler’s film is charming, sweet, and packs an emotional punch.  The resolution won’t satisfy everyone, but I found it hauntingly powerful.  Plus the performances were really solid.  Lovely, Still was clearly in my wheelhouse, I hope it finds its way to other people who feel similarly.  Each year there’s one film I wouldn’t have seen if not for awards and I’m really happy I did.  This year, this is the film.

7. How to Train Your Dragon

Saw this one on a plane.  And then again on one of the movie channels I pay too much for.  The Academy absolutely made a right call putting an animated film in the Best Picture hunt, they just chose the wrong one.  For reasons still unclear to me, Toy Story 3 lapped up all the love this year that should have gone How to Train Your Dragon‘s way.  Not that the film did too shabby, raking in almost $500 million worldwide, two Oscar nominations, and has a sequel on the way.  Many people raved about how effectively the flying scenes used 3-D, I of course can’t speak to that.  I can speak to the heart and wit showcased in the film, though.  The story was both epic and extremely personal.  And sure, the movie espoused the usual themes of togetherness, understanding, and respect, but always in a way that serviced the story.  Like everyone else in the world, I”m a big Pixar fan, but their reign at the top actually ended one year earlier than people think.

6. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

A few years ago, when I was writing for The Playlist, the editor recommended I read Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels.  I initially balked, both because I had a fear of the unknown when it came to graphic novels and if you’ve ever read anything over at The Playlist, you know their taste in movies tends to be directly opposite to mine.  I’m very glad I came to my senses.  The first volume of the series is one of the best pieces of literature I’ve ever read and the following books are all quite good.  And yet even with all those expectations, the film manages to make good on its promise.  There’s a whole other post I could write devoted to the many reasons it “flopped”, but this movie is funny, touching, inventive, charming, and altogether brilliant.  It is so perfectly cast, from the always unintentionally hilarious Brandon Routh as the super vegan to Chris Evans’s skateboarding action star to Kieran Culkin’s hilarious Wallace to the underrated Alison Pill absolutely nailing Kim Pine to the divine Mary Elizabeth Winstead figuring out the elusive Ramona Flowers.  Heck, even blog favorite Clifton Collins, Jr. has a cameo.  It is unfortunate that the country had a collective Michael Cera fatigue because he too really is quite good.

5. Hot Tub Time Machine

I suppose there was a chance I wouldn’t love an 80s throwback film starring John Cusack.  Well, OK, no, not really.  But where Hot Tub shines, is its self-awareness, whether it is Craig Robinson winking into the camera as he delivers the titular line or giving Chevy Chase a role, or all the ridiculous 80s things the film highlights.  This sort of time travel film can be difficult to pull off as it can often devolve into just killing time until the lesson is learned and the heroes just barely make it back to their present.  But Hot Tub is consistently funny and the tub itself is more a relatively minor MacGuffin to facilitate the nonstop humor.  And honestly, any movie that can get me to enjoy a Black Eyed Peas song must be doing something right.  The film was co-written by Sean Anders and John Morris (along with Josh Heald), and as we’ll soon see, I clearly dig their sensibilities.

4. She’s Out of My League

Remember screenwriters Anders and Morris from the last sentence I wrote? Here’s another one they did.  How about that foreshadowing!  I saw a sneak preview of this film with Adam, then watched on a movie network with a friend in a different city who had the DVD, and probably caught bits and pieces again.  So I’m fairly confident in my ranking here.  Broadly speaking, it is framed by many of the conventions of a modern romantic comedy: dorky guy, impossibly hot girl, wacky best friends, and there’s even a scene of people running to an airport.  (As a side note, someday I’ll get around to the post arguing those constructs aren’t really modern at all.  Taking a few liberties, that’s basically the general idea of It Happened One Night).  But She’s Out of My League places so high on my list because it subverts those conventions and does so while being really really funny.  I could spend a long time discussing this movie, but let’s take a look at the running to/in an airport scene as a microcosm of everything that is great about the movie.  We start with T.J. Miller (best friend of Jay Baruchel) calling up Krysten Ritter (best friend of Alice Eve).  This film was my first introduction to T.J. Miller, who is friggin’ hilarious.  And Krysten Ritter is nothing short of fantastic, here’s hoping Apartment 23 blows up huge this year.  Throughout the movie, these two strongly dislike each other.  In a traditional romcom, obviously, that means they’d end up together.  But no, here, they end up continuing to truly just hate each other.  Anyway, Ritter picks up Eve, true feelings are confessed, they rush to the airport where T.J. Miller, who works for TSA (or the airport, at least) hilariously barges her through security and then gets his friend to prevent the plane from taking off.  Meanwhile, Baruchel comes to his own realization, and tells off his whole family and ex-girlfriend, only to be unable to get off the plane in time.  When he eventually does, he has his own run through the airport, on one of those airport golf carts — chased by his maniacal ex-girlfriend (Lindsay Sloane).  Plus, I have a man-crush on Baruchel, and actual crush on Alice Eve.  And the film takes place in Pittsburgh, which is a refreshing change of pace.  Oh, and burying the lede here, but a Hall and Oates cover band may be involved.

3. The King’s Speech

I’m not sure how many people pegged this one correctly.  Plenty of people dismissed its Oscar prowess because the film was about British royalty.  Well, sure, but it was hardly the costume drama one normally thinks of as Oscar bait.  I won’t go so far as to claim the royalty stuff was incidental, but the film is more about the relationship between Firth and Rush than anything else.  Also, if I were angling for a Best Picture win, seems like I’d be sure to cast Guy Pearce in a supporting role.  I’m not sure he’ll be in much this year, but I guess The Wettest County in the World has to be an early front-runner for next year’s Oscar race.

2. Inception

Christopher Nolan is this generation’s defining action filmmaker, I think.  Like most action films, his films don’t really develop characters at all.  Which is certainly a problem in a relationship drama or a character study.  But I think many action films need rapidly-defined types in order for the audience to better appreciate all the explosions/destruction/carnage going on around the characters.

1. The Social Network

So, yeah.  Real original top three, I know.  And it is shocking that I would love an Aaron Sorkin script.  Can we talk for a minute about Jesse Eisenberg’s movies?  He starred in my favorite 2010 film.  He starred in my favorite 2009 film.  I wasn’t ranking movies in 2005, but The Squid and the Whale may have been my favorite movie of the year.  And I just watched Roger Dodger a month or so ago and loved that.  So I suppose you should be expecting plenty of Eisenberg movies high up these here rankings in the years to come.

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We’re going to go ahead and knock out all the sonic categories today. They happen to be some of the favorite niche categories of several Grouches.

Best Original Song

Your nominees:

  • “Coming Home” from Country Strong
  • “I See the Light” from Tangled
  • “If I Rise” from 127 Hours
  • “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3

John bemoans the state of the category:

This is such a bland group of nominees. It was a bland slate of eligible titles this year, so much so that I didn’t even bother with my annual look at this category. Usually there are a couple big names eligible in the category and a few songs I really like that come out of nowhere. And then the Academy will nominate a bunch of songs I’m mostly ambivalent about. This year didn’t have many I actively disliked, but also few really stood out. I don’t anticipate any getting listens after this Oscar season.

And yet this set of nominees still puzzles me. Only four songs got the nod, meaning only those four received scores high enough to be deemed worthy of nomination. It’s no big tragedy that any particular song didn’t get in and it wouldn’t bother me if these four had just happened to rise to the top. But it amazes me that the music branch decided it would rather forgo a fifth nominee than nominate one of the other choices. This crop gets nominations but nothing from Burlesque is even good enough to qualify for a nod??

The only one I dislike is “If I Rise,” which is almost not even a song. It’s about as low-key as music can be, with just enough lyrics to constitute a song and not a chant. I concede it works well over end credits and it’s an effective counterbalance to AR Rahman’s pulsating score through much of the film. The Dido parts aren’t bad, particularly in the beginning, but they feel out of place with the bizarre elements of the rest of the song.

The rest are all generic genre tunes to my ear. “Coming Home” is a bland pop country song that’s devoid of good hooks and is too reptitive. The bizarre thing is that there is a good song from Country Strong. It’s even called “Country Strong.” But it’s not original to the movie! Go figure.

“We Belong Together” is a nice enough ditty, but I defy you to tell it apart from any other Randy Newman contribution to a Pixar film. That leaves “I See the Light,” which is my winner by default. Again, fine enough musical number but I can’t say it had much impact. Disney purposefully only submitted this song to increase its chances at a nomination/win. I’d say there are songs that I like better from Tangled, but at least this one is thematically resonant.

Snubs: Of the weak eligible slate, the Burlesque songs really do stand out. I would have nominated them all and given “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” and given it the win, albeit without a ton of enthusiasm. I also have a small soft spot for Avril Lavigne’s “Alice” from Alice in Wonderland. She really shows off her pipes.

Jared sees things similarly

“If I Rise” is the kind of breathy atmospheric song that is instantly forgettable.  Rahman is clearly better served going big and bold.  And I’ve always viewed Dido’s successes as more plaintive numbers.  It is going to be interesting to see Florence – The Machine tackle the song on Oscar night, even if I’m not yet convinced she can salvage it.

“Coming Home” probably isn’t as good as “Country Strong”.  Either way, the titles hint at the largely generic tunes populating this movie.  “Coming Home” is the type of soaring, chorus-less song that does not exist outside of movies.  And I’m not entirely certain why the Academy insists on continuing to recognize its ilk.

Randy Newman can crank out movie songs in his sleep at this point.  I won’t go for the obvious joke there because I don’t think “We Belong Together” is that bad.  Even if the title conjures superior Mariah Carey and Pat Benatar songs.  This one, however, is pretty decent montage-y type of song.  It doesn’t have a strong presence, and tends to fade into the background at bits, but it has some decent parts to remind you it is still there.

But “I See the Light” is the only legitimate song of the bunch.  Now, OK, perhaps I was always going to liked a song sung by Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi.  I think Moore is an underrated singer.  I probably listened to “I Could Break Your Heart Every Day of the Week” daily for about a month at one point.  And most of you probably know that I have a weak spot for celebrities who dabble in singing.  So when I heard Chuck was singing on an Oscar-contending song, I mean, I was sold.  The song has its own merits.  I found myself humming the song a few times after listening to it, including a couple of times while writing this post.  I mean, yeah, it feels like a traditional Disney song in a lot of ways.  But groundbreaking songs aren’t really the Academy’s thing.  The song is pleasantly uplifting, and that’s going to be enough to take the category for me.

Best Original Score

The nominees:

  • John Powell, How to Train Your Dragon
  • Hans Zimmer, Inception
  • Alexadre Desplat, The King’s Speech
  • A.R. Rahman, 127 Hours
  • Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Social Network

John takes this one:

Score is one of those categories where I’m never sure what I’m going to like. Some music transports me back to a film I enjoyed. Some work great in the context of the movie. Some are wonderful on their own. I’m not sure any characteristic stands out for me. Atonement had wonderful music that stood on its own; Up was less of a good stand alone listen but terrific as a transport back to the film’s rich emotion. This year it’s a bit of all of the above.

When I think of the 127 Hours music, I think of a throbbing score. But most of the pieces are much more subdued. The slower stuff clearly didn’t make much of an impact, while I’m not sure I ever really got into the more up tempo music. It is a compelling artistic choice for a film about a guy stuck in a canyon.

I don’t have anything to say about How to Train Your Dragon except that if I heard it without context, I would suspect its a film score. The potential of a sweep for The King’s Speech has fans particularly annoyed in this category, but Desplat delivers a score I quite enjoy. It works very well in the film and it’s good even on its own. The repeated piano motif is nice.

I love the score from The Social Network and it complements the film beautifully. The electronic music and repeated six distinct notes reinforce the film’s themes. But it’s less fun listening to it on its own so I’m going for the bombast and BRAAAAAAAAAH! Inception‘s score just heightens its already considerable bad assery. It’s big and dramatic, fun and brash.

That said, two of my favorite scores were ineligible this year due to their reliance on preexisting work: Clint Mansell for Black Swan and Carter Burwell for True Grit, which probably would have received my vote if it were nominated.

Snubs: I really enjoyed director Sylvain Chomet’s score to The Illusionist and Rachel Portman’s orchestral accompaniment to Never Let Me Go.

Sound

There are two sound categories. Sound Editing is sound effects. Sound Mixing is the mix of all sonic elements: dialogue, music, ADR, and effects.

The nominees for Sound Editing are Inception, Toy Story 3, Tron: Legacy, True Grit, and Unstoppable.

For Sound Mixing: Inception, The King’s Speech, Salt, The Social Network, and True Grit.

Jared talks Editing:

I’m nowhere near observant or knowledgeable enough about sound editing and mixing, so I’ll abstain, even though I’ve seen eight of the ten nominees (and Salt is waiting for me at home).  But I wanted to take a minute to highlight the most unlikely Oscar nominee, Unstoppable.  I saw the film on the plane to Vegas on this trip out, so it is fresh in my mind.  I’ll save my thoughts on the film for elsewhere.  But it was generally exciting.  And considering the dialogue and characters were uniformly useless and the visuals fairly rote, I’m going to go ahead and say that by process of elimination, the sound must have played a key role in my appreciation of the film.

John talks Mixing:

I just happen to have seen all the nominees here. I can’t say I can really judge a mix that well, but I’ll point out that The King’s Speech seems like an odd choice for a sound category. What kind of audio landscape is this? Most of the scenes have two characters talking in a room with whimsical music playing in the background.

The Social Network probably has the most noticeably-mixed scene of the year with its nightclub scene. Cranking up the techno music to nearly drown out the conversation is an interesting choice. And maybe I’m falling into the more = better trap, but I’ll choose Inception for the same reason I’ll choose it in a lot of categories: there’s so much going on that the technicians who make it coherent deserve some recognition.

Oscar nominations arrive Tuesday, January 25. To prepare, we’re giving you our sharpest insight and predictions. Today’s topic: Call your longshot nominations. No guts, no glory! We actually have nailed a couple of these over the years.

John:

Everyone has 11 films vying for the 10 Best Picture slots. Something outside of that list of 11 will slip in instead. The top contenders are, in order of likelihood: Another Year, Blue Valentine, Biutiful, and How to Train Your Dragon.

Four Lions for Original Screenplay.

A big studio picture won’t take the third Animated Feature slot, instead falling to My Dog Tulip or The Illusionist.

Brian:

The academy satisfies Jared and me muchly by giving Nicole Holofcener a nod for her sweet and endearing script for Please Give in the Best Original Screenplay.

In its attempt to give the HFPA strong competition for their starf*cker reputation, the voters pull a Timberlake out of their hat, recognizing him for his role as Sean Parker in The Social Network.

Jared:

Shutter Island for Best Picture

Noomi Rapace for Actress

Rooney Mara for Supporting Actress

Vincent Cassel for Black Swan for Supporting Actor

There’s been a lot of talk about this year being a great year for animation. I went through the list of eligible animated features this year and… not so much. Actually, last year was a much better year for animated films. Look towards that crop for a group of entertaining and ambitious films.

So what if I had a ballot? Well, I would have had to see more of these, for one. Voters must see 80% of eligible films and then award scores from 6-10 to those films. The Academy defines 10 as excellent, 8 good, 7 fair, and 6 poor. To me, this means a 6 can run the score between mildly disliked and outright hated. A film must achieve an average score of 7.5 to be nominated.

And unfortunately The Illusionist, one of my most anticipated films, has not come to DC yet. When it does I’ll see it and add it to the list.

Despicable Me: 7

A cute movie, but not particularly noteworthy. It also isn’t all that funny. It just doesn’t have any spark to make it memorable.

How to Train Your Dragon: 8

I wasn’t bowled over by this one as so many seemed to be. But it is charming and has some terrific animation. A couple flying scenes really use the 3D well.

Idiots and Angels: 6

Bill Plympton has two Oscar nominations for shorts and I like that he brings a neat, hand-drawn style to this year’s race. The wordless plot follows a jerk who sprouts angel wings and changes his life. But it’s actually really boring, unfortunately.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole: 6

A standard, poorly-drawn (in plot and character development, not animation) fantasy film. But with owls. It does have some beautiful animation and I bet all the flying looked great in 3D.

Megamind: 6

I had been looking forward to this one for a long time due to its terrific premise: a supervillian whose life loses meaning after defeating his superhero foe. Unfortunately it’s seriously deficient in humor and the plot is not nearly as clever as the premise.

My Dog Tuplip: 8

A very nice film based on JR Ackerly’s memoir of his time with his often misbehaving dog. The story is amusing, touching, and frank while the hand-drawn animation style is neat. Oddly, it’s not a film for children as a surprising amount of it deals with topics like Tulip’s urination habits and procreation.

Shrek Forever After: 6

At least it’s a huge improvement over the putrid Shrek the Third. It also has a lot of good jokes. The plot is awful and barely thought-out, however. There’s nothing to enjoy between hilarious one-liners.

Tangled: 6

Another one that just didn’t move me like it did others. It always seems to be lacking something: a joke that doesn’t quite connect, an emotional connection that doesn’t quite hit home, a plot point that doesn’t quite work.

The animation is also disappointing and sort of drab. I think part of it is that I saw it in 2D. Some scenes that aren’t visually interesting are probably improved by 3D. One romantic scene surrounded by floating lanterns is dull in 2D but I bet looks neat in 3D. Similarly, Rapunzel’s animated hair doesn’t stand out as much.

Toy Story 3: 9

Again, can’t really say it slayed me like it seemed to everyone else, but still very good with a tight story.

I couldn’t see everything (for some it was actually impossible) and these are the other eligible films:

  • Box office bomb Alpha and Omega
  • DVD sequel given a qualifying run to try to push the category over the threshold for five nominees (which it did not) Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue
  • Animated hybrid Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore
  • Asian imports Summer Wars (Japan) and The Dream of Jinsha (China)
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