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Stupid work getting in the way of this.  Seems like every year people say it was a bad year for the Best Actress category, which is generally hogwash, and  I especially don’t really think it is true this year.  Sure, maybe my list for Best Actor possibilities was longer, but I’m fairly certain the next five women off the list would have still made a very strong category.

1. Patricia Clarkson, Blind Date

Nobody does sullen and deadpan like Ms. Clarkson.  Just no one.  And here, to pull off that underlying sadness while playing a variety of personalities, well, it was pretty perfect.

2. Zooey Deschanel, (500) Days of Summer

I swear, it wasn’t intentional to have my top two actors and actresses match up.  Maybe it is fitting, though.  It was pretty fascinating to see Deschanel’s character morph from The One to a biatch and all phases in between, at least through Gordon-Levitt’s eyes.  Sure, the role was right in Deschanel’s wheelhouse, but she still knocked it out of the park.

3. Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria

To me, at least, a monarch at a young age is a fascinating topic.  And here, a terribly difficult role to play, as Victoria learned to play the political game while going through adolescence.  Which is insane.  I mean, think about Adventureland, only if instead of learning to survive on his own, Jesse Eisenberg had to rule a friggin’ country.  And I think Blunt didn’t get a nomination here for exactly that reason.  The Academy wasn’t comfortable with a ruler who showed such humanity.

4.  Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

I think I may have discussed her elsewhere, but wowza.  When going through the best actress nominees this year, I’d be stunned if voters didn’t take at least a second to think about writing in her name. [Edit: To clarify, I meant choosing her as the nominee they think should win.]

5.  Carey Mulligan, An Education

It isn’t just that I fell madly in love with Ms. Mulligan after the film, it is that I can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with her.  I think she took a weak script and ran with it something fierce, and with many other actresses, this film gets shut out of Oscar completely.

Just off the ballot: Meryl Streep (Julie and Julia) and Tilda Swinton (Julia).  And not just because that’s funny.

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John’s a good man and got this up before the nominees were announced.  I’m gonna see how many categories I can get through before Oscars.  Now, I’ve seen probably more 2009 movies than I should have, but I’m still slogging my way through some, so between that and the game theory of the ballot, I reserve the right to have my best of 2009 list look a little different, though ballots are due when ballots are due.

1.  Stanley Tucci, Blind Date

A remake of the same-named Theo van Gogh film, Blind Date slipped into a few theaters rather quietly, and I have no idea how it came across my radar.  Little more than Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, and a single room, it blurs the line between film and staged play.  Revolving around a husband and a wife who set up blind dates with each other as they deal with a tragedy, the role requires tremendous range and depth, and I can’t really imagine too many actors pulling it off successfully.

2.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (500) Days of Summer

He’ll have turned 30 around next year’s Oscars, so maybe he’ll finally be old enough for some Academy love.  He’s certainly built an impressive resume.  The male lead in a romantic comedy of this sort is difficult to play, in my opinion.  It is very easy to veer off into sheer whininess, but Gordon-Levitt is eminently relatable.

3. Sharlto Copley, District 9

In traditional hands, this role is played by someone like Vin Diesel.  Which would have been interesting, sure.  But instead, one of the most unlikeliest action heroes turned in something quite memorable.

4.  Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine

The movie wasn’t great, sure.  But Daniel Day-Lewis was his usual crazy impressive self.  If he had been billed as, say, Baniel Bay-Kewis, I would have had absolutely no idea that this actor was the same one who played Daniel Plainview.  His ability to morph from role to role is just staggering.

5.  Colin Firth, A Single Man

Another performance hampered by a subpar film.  It tickled me pink to see Colin Firth get a nod, because he’s been so consistently great.  Given about as much to work with as Jeff Bridges, for example, Firth creates a much more textured character, one who felt more like a real person than a caricature.

Just off the ballot: Michael Sheen (The Damned United) and Patton Oswalt (Big Fan)

Like you could live on nomination day without my thoughts on this year’s crop of Original Songs!

Rather than writing a small blurb on each of eligible songs this year (there are only so many adjectives for “bland”) I thought I’d pretend to be a part of the Music branch and nominate as if I had a ballot.

63 songs qualified this year. Voters screen three minute clips of each eligible song as it appears in the movie. I understand the idea since you’d ideally like to consider the song as a piece of a film. But clips have the effect of taking the song out of context – undermining their effect – and undervaluing final credits songs. A good final credits song can be perfect for a film as you sit and contemplate what you’ve just seen; think last year’s title track from The Wrestler. That’s lost in a clip screening like this.

Voters give each song a score between 6 and 10 with half votes allowed. A song must average an 8.25 score to qualify for nomination; there is no further guidance for what each score should mean. I take it to mean I should score 8.5 or above any song I think is worth of nomination.

The Best

“The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart: 10. Sort of the point of the entire film.

“Smoke Without Fire” from An Education: 10. I love Duffy’s smoky voice. Could be hurt by its placement on the end credits even though it’s perfect there.

Depression Era” from That Evening Sun: 10. Nice, stripped down, folksy tune from Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers fame.

Down in New Orleans” from The Princess and the Frog: 9.5. Terrifically catchy bluesy song from Dr. John. Best of the film.

Only You” from The Young Victoria: 9.5. I have a terrific soft spot for Sinead O’Connor.

Hideaway” and “All Is Love” from Where the Wild Things Are: 9 and 9. I love me some Karen O and I love me some non-professional choir singers.

The Good

Somebody Else” from Crazy Heart: 8. Jeff Bridges pulls out his twangy country singing voice.

When You Find Me” from Adam: 8.5. There’s literally nothing interesting about Joshua Radin but the duet here makes it work.

“Fly Farm Blues” from It Might Get Loud: 9. I love Jack White and I love the idea that a song he was challenged to create in ten minutes for a documentary could get nominated. Polish up the vocals and this is awesome.

The Other Contenders

You Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” from An Education: 7. Lounge-y. Not for me.

Cinema Italiano” from Nine: 8. Kind of not good but also kind of appealing, at least when it gets fast. A lot of film lingo in the lyrics, which is funny.

Take it All” from Nine: 7.5. Marion Cotillard can sing.

(I Want to) Come Home” from Everybody’s Fine: 7. Bland Paul McCartney.

The other songs from The Princess and the Frog aren’t as good as “Down in New Orleans.” “Almost There” (7) is a likely nominee but too simplistic after a nice intro. “Ma Belle Evangeline” (7.5) is admittedly the best love song I’ve ever heard a Cajun firefly sing. “Never Knew I Needed” (6.5) is the Ne-Yo song I never knew I needed.

The Funny

Dove of Peace” from Bruno: 7. Fake celebrity benefit song gets an extra .5 since it’d be funny performed on the Oscar telecast

Stu’s Song” from The Hangover: 8.5. Amusing!

Other Father Song” from Coraline: 8. Crazy short! Yes that’s the whole thing. The problem with short catchy songs is they get stuck in your head.

Petey’s Song” from Fantastic Mr Fox: 7. Even Jarvis Cocker is sub-par in this movie. Wouldn’t mind seeing a nice banjo tune on the telecast though

The Schmaltzy

I See You” from Avatar: 6. No. Even worse than “My Heart Will Go On.”

Invictus 9,000 Days” and “Colorblind” from Invictus: 6.5 and 6. No and no. “Colorblind” may be the worst of the bunch. And god, so literal! Perfect for a Clint Eastwood film.

Winter” from Brothers: 6. U2 makes schmaltzy crap? Who knew! And again so literal!

God Bless Us Everyone” from Disney’s A Christmas Carol: 8.5. Maybe it’s just Andrea Bocelli’s voice but I think this could make a nice standard Christmas carol.

The Different

I Bring What I Love” from Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love: 6. Youssou Ndour wrote a song for a documentary about himself?

Innocent Child” and “Let Freedom Reign” from Skin: 6.5 and 7. A little bit better African music

Loin de Paname” from Paris 36: 6.5. The winner of a “make a song that sounds French” contest. Yes there are accordians.

Un Boquete de Violettes” from New York, I Love You: 7.5. Opera. Kinda of bizarre especially after Paris, je t’aime had such a great song.

“We Are the Children of the World” and “We Love Violence” from The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus: 6.5 and 7. I can’t say it better than New York Magazine: “We Are the Children of the World” is a mockery of celebrity charity, sung by urchins at a glittery A-list benefit. “We Love Violence” is a rowdy celebration of police brutality shouted out by vicious police officers, who conclude their ditty with spectacular flatulence.

The Hannah Montana

Hannah Montana The Movie qualified five songs just to torment me. Let’s get this over with

Back to Tennessee“: 6. Nice they let Billy Ray have a song. Awful.

Butterfly Fly Away“: 6. Awful.

Don’t Walk Away“: 6. Awful.

You’ll Always Find Your Way Back Home“: 6. Awful.

“Hoedown Throwdown”: 7. This is a square dance rap. Yes, you read that right. It goes into the “so awful it’s kind of catchy” territory! SO BAD YOU MUST WATCH! BOOM BOOM CLAP!

The Awful

The Word is Love” from Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!: 6. If I didn’t know better I’d say this is a joke video. Also features a horrifying Bruce Vilanch.

New Divide” from Transformers 2: 6. Transformers + Linkin Park = awful.

Possibility” from New Moon: 6. I can’t get over how bad this song is. I don’t know who you are Lykke Li, but you are on notice.

Na Na” from Couples Retreat: 6.5. What AR Rahman does after winning his Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire.

Blanco” from Fast and Furious: 6.5. To be fair reggaeton can only be so good.

One Day” from Post Grad: 6. Jack Savoretti wishes he was Jack Johnson. So that he could be mediocre instead of awful.

AyAyAyAy” from The Maid: 6. I don’t do slow hispanic tunes.

Legendary” from Tyson: 6. Bad Nas song.

“Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” from Ponyo: 6. Available in Japanese and English (the latter with a little Jonas and a little Cyrus!). Monumentally irritating!

The Boring

Raining Sunshine” from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: 6.5. Is Miranda Cosgrove ever not boring?

Being Bad” from Duplicity: 6.5. Is this a cha-cha?

Forget Me” from I Love You, Beth Cooper: 6.5. Acoustic version is a little better.

“My One and Only” from My One and Only: 6.5. Did you know Kevin and Bacon and Renee Zellweger did a movie together this year? Anyway, lounge-y and bad.

“Brothers in Arms” from Brothers at War: 6. I had been wondering what the guy from Five for Fighting was up to. Or not. Whatever.

Here” from Shrink: 6. I like Jackson Browne but this is a snoozer.

If You’re Wondering” from The Lightkeeper: 6.5. Yet another female crooner.

Through the Trees” from Jennifer’s Body: 6.5. This band, Low Shoulder, has a future entertaining teens and irritating me.

“Trust Me” from The Informant!: 6. More crooning. Still love the movie.’

“You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Old Dogs: 6.5. Bryan Adams needs to go away.

The Ineligible But I Wish They Weren’t!

I Can See in Color” from Precious: 9.5. Mary J Blige brings it!

Help Yourself” from Up in the Air: 9.5. Sad Brad brings it! Whoever he is. Good song but it also works very well in the film.

Final Tally

That’s 58 of the 63 songs reviewed; the others I couldn’t find. Average score: 6.9. Yikes! I rated eleven 8.5 or higher, indicative of being worthy of nomination in my eyes. Now what bland, derivative songs will the Academy choose?

The end of the month means top 5 time around these parts. But top fives jive nicely with our “If I Had a Ballot” posts, so I’m mixing them together today! Lucky you!

First, the top 5. I have been on record really enjoying the cinema of 2009, but I had yet to see a film that really knocked my socks off, that had that intangible “wow” factor. Well this month I’ve seen two and they catapult to the top of the list. But every time I see something else I love it gets harder and harder to make these lists!

1. Avatar

2. In the Loop

3. An Education

4. Zombieland

5. Up

Now on to the ballot. I’ve been pretending I’m part of various branches of the Academy and submitting my hypothetical ballots. All branches get to vote for Best Picture. So today I will be a member of, oh let’s say… the Public Relations branch. What a lame branch! Precisely the type of branch I’d belong to.

People say that ranked ballots allow voters to vote honestly and not have to vote strategically. Not true! If you have an interest in several films making the nomination list there is still reason to vote strategically and I will do so below!

It’s also been argued that you should fill out all ten slots on the Best Picture ballot, which apparently some voters have had trouble with. Not true! You should never vote for something you think is undeserving, even if that means only voting for a couple of films. Furthermore, if you have a film very likely to secure a nomination near the top of your ballot, the rest of the slots on your ballot are likely unnecessary. Don’t hurt your little Hollywood brain trying to name ten good films.

My ballot:

1. In the Loop. First place ballots are golden – securing about 3% is probably all that’s necessary for a nomination – and this film needs all the help it can get.

2. Zombieland. For fun.

3. The Informant! Would potentially still be in the running.

4. An Education. Probably the vote that would be cast from this ballot.

5. Up. If #4 has already qualified, this bubble film will probably get the vote from my ballot

6. Avatar. Doesn’t need my help. By the time my vote falls to slot four, it will have long been nominated. If I put it in slot #1 my vote is wasted on a near sure thing. The surplus rule allows votes for a film with overwhelming support to move forward on a proportional basis (e.g. ballots for a film with twice as many votes as needed move on and are worth half a vote), but I want my entire vote to count! But I put it here just in case.

7. Moon

8. Julie & Julia

9. Up in the Air

10. I Love You, Man

Finally, I’ll finish off as is customary with a film that would have made my top five had I seen it earlier in the year: World’s Greatest Dad. What if you were a single father, an awkward high school teacher and struggling author, whose son was a total dick that everyone, including you, disliked? Then what happens if suddenly everyone’s opinion of him changed and only you remember how much of a dick he was? Bobcat Goldthwait(!) directs Robin Williams as this character in an incredibly black comedy.

The first half is wonderful and Williams is terrific. I think it gets a little too zany by the end – it needed to either go even darker or hew a little more back to the realism of the first half – but it’s still quite an original ride.

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 would enjoy being a member of the Academy. I would like getting to feel important and vote for things and have dozens of screeners arrive in the mail. Unless my life takes a drastic turn, this is unlikely to happen.

Nomination ballots are in and the announcement is around the corner. What if I were a member of the animation branch? What would have been on my ballot, currently being tabulated by PriceWaterhouseCoopers?

And why the animation branch? Because I was looking for categories I felt knowledgeable enough to comment on, that’s why. But why see so many animated movies? Animated films often have two elements I love in the movies: they create new worlds and they allow for a wide range of stylistic expression. Things that cannot exist do in animation, be they computer-generated, hand-drawn, or painstakingly sculpted. In a bad live-action film you only have the actors’ ugly mugs to look at. In a bad animated film at least you often have interesting visuals to carry you through.

Unlike many other categories, Best Animated Feature nominees are not determined by ranked ballots. Instead, branch members making nominations are required to view, in theaters, 80% of eligible films. The voter gives each film a score of a whole number between 6-10, with 10 being excellent, 8 good, 7 fair, and 6 poor. Which is an interesting system since a 6 can run the gambit between mildly disliked to downright awful.

Any film with an average over 7.5 is eligible to be nominated. The top three receive nominations (or, like this year, the top 5 if 16 films qualified).

It’s pretty impossible for a regular joe to actually see 80% of the animated films since many barely got a qualifying release. Some were even straight-to-DVD releases their distributors stuck in theaters for a week to qualify and increase the chances of five nominations this year. But I have seen half and that’s pretty good.

Up: 10

It’s hard not to call this an excellent film. It has so much heart and earned emotion. Most people remember the terrific and heartbreaking opening sequence, but they forget how genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny it is too. It is beautifully animated and backed with wonderful characters.

Fantastic Mr. Fox: 6

A major misfire for me. Instead of fun or clever or funny it’s just smugly quirky and completely listless. Wes Anderson is so wrapped up in his own style that he doesn’t tell a compelling story. Even the stop-motion animation is wasted by not providing much in the way of fun visuals.

Ponyo: 8

This is really a beautiful film. I think I’ve given anime short shrift if this is how it usually looks. The narrative elements of the film are all over the place, with plot elements coming unexplained out of nowhere and immediately forgotten, and the voice acting sounds like teachers reading a book to students: slow and overly animated. I understand it’s probably a stylistic choice but it drove me nuts. But it’s gorgeous, imaginative, and adorable with some terrific music.  Everyone’s going to want their own Ponyo.

9. 8

I really enjoyed the look and style to this film and appreciated its dark edge and unique premise (at least for animated films). I just wish the story didn’t play out so unoriginally. The action sequences are entirely by-the-number and there’s no sort of development to any character’s motivations- I felt like I had walked into a film already in progress. But the second half is a significant improvement and its dark turns provide a fun ride.

Mary and Max: 9

An Australian claymation film telling the story of a lonely Australian girl and her middle-aged penpal with Aspberger’s in New York. I loved its visual style, from the smooth claymation to the sparse use of color. The story deals with some surprisingly dark themes but without ever losing its humor. A very unique film.

The Secret of Kells: 7

No 2009 animated feature had a more distinctive style. Its bright colors and playful disregard for perspective are quite entertaining, which is good because the story left me utterly baffled. I believe it’s based on an Irish legend about the creation of the Book of Kells, but I’m familiar with neither the legend nor the book so the whole thing was confusing. I loved the Celtic music too. With a better story this would have been a real winner.

Coraline: 8

This is pretty much an animated horror film for kids and it really is seriously creepy, especially some parts at the end. It’s imaginative and lovely to look at. I wish the plot points were as intriguing as the premise, however, as the story – especially the climax – plays out routinely, albeit with a nice helping of creepiness.

Monsters vs. Aliens: 6

Not bad, but not recommendable, hence the score. DreamWorks did terrific work both visually and narratively for Kung Fu Panda so it was a little disappointing to see it fall back on run-of-the-mill kiddie action for this one. It has a few hilarious jokes and the monster characters are pretty amusing, but this one is pretty forgettable as a film and as animation.

The Princess and the Frog: 8

I’m happy to see Disney return to old-fashioned hand-drawn animation. There’s really no inherent benefit to computer animation, it’s just a stylistic choice. Plus this Disney animation is a nice American tradition it would be a shame to lose; in fact this is the only hand-drawn film eligible this year. I enjoyed its very colorful palette, amusing characters, and some of the songs, though I did find the story a little blah. The plot and theme are a little all over the place, like it can’t decide on just one direction and it tries to pack too many lessons. Disney could have gone for another routine computer-animated yarn about forest animals, but instead took a chance on a hand-drawn fairy tale set in 1920s New Orleans starring black characters. A very nice return to tradition.


Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: 7

This is, by far, the funniest of the animated films I saw. There are dozens of very funny jokes. But the animation is nothing special and the plot unfolds unimaginatively, including several uninspired action sequences. I wish the sort of talent that went into writing the jokes could have been applied to any of other elements of the film.

For what it’s worth, here are the other eligible films:

  • Intriguing Belgian Gumby-style claymation film A Town Called Panic.
  • Computer-generated forgettables Astro Boy, Planet 51 and Battle for Terra, as well as computer-generated forgettable blockbuster Ice Age 3.
  • The latest motion capture film from Robert Zemeckis, Disney’s A Christmas Carol.
  • The depressingly-successful Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.
  • Straight-to-DVD until Disney put it in a theater to push the number of eligible films and therefore the number of nominees, Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure.
  • And two foreign computer-generated imports: the Peruvian The Dolphin: Story of a Dreamer and Spanish The Missing Lynx (produced by Antonio Banderas). I know the former was picked up by Fox to bolster the number of eligible films but I’m not sure how the latter got distribution. Unless it’s seriously entering the competition and not a cynical ploy to help a major studio. As if!
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