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Yikes, it seems that I do this later and later each year. But you can’t rush quality.

So therefore I’m going to rush this a bit. It’s time to reset the site for 2010 but we cannot move forward til I weigh in with my top ten. It’s in the bylaws.

I thought 2009 was a great year for movies and a huge improvement over 2008. The trend seemed to have been fewer great movies each year but more good ones. I’d say that reversed in 2009; plenty of great movies but a smaller collection of merely pretty good ones.

1. Avatar

Say what you will about Dancing With Smurfs, but Avatar creates a world, gives it rules, and sticks to them. It’s a stunning visual achievement with a plot full of heart. Truly epic. I loved this movie.

2. In the Loop

Intensely hilarious, spectacularly vulgar, and cleverly satirical. Government was never so funny. I loved this movie.

3. The Informant!

Winner of Matt Damon of the Year! A simply delightful film that had me giggling and smiling throughout. I loved this movie.

4. Zombieland

Pure, balls out fun. Very clever, very funny, and very entertaining. I loved this movie.

5. An Education

It’s hard to say what I liked best about this film because everything is so right. A simple story with a powerful impact and an astonishing performance from Carey Mulligan. I loved this movie.

6. Up

Hilarious, heart-warming, touching. I loved this movie.

7. Summer Hours

It’s a film with themes and not much else. It’s kind of hard to make it sound appealing: a French matriarch dies and her three dispersed children try to figure out what to do with her estate. I dug its exploration of modern family dynamics. It also takes an interesting look at how we ascribe value to objects and how those values change over time, particularly as we move through our lives and beyond. I’m not talented enough to make it sound interesting but believe me it’s totally fascinating. I loved this movie.

8. Up in the Air

A slice of modern times and an effective look at the disconnected way we live our lives. Effective in characterization and atmosphere more than plot with terrific performances from George Clooney and Vera Farmiga.

9. I Love You, Man

Not as vulgar or spleen-splittingly funny than some of its Apatow produced brethren, but I think it’s a little more loony and genuinely heartfelt. I also know a guy just like the Paul Rudd character so it makes me laugh and laugh.

10. Julie & Julia

The 2009 surprise for me. Just utterly charming. I think it works so well for me because I was able to relate to the Julie character, easing the disparity between the two women’s stories that most people felt.

Some honorable mentions of films that I thought did something special:

Two films that I thought for sure were going to be on this list before I actually wrote it out and found out how many movies I really liked. Moon shows how a fantastic story and a terrific performance can succeed even on a small scale. A sci-fi thriller that will hang around in your head for quite some time. That Sam Rockwell Oscar campaign really should have received some traction… The Invention of Lying takes an interesting premise that could have followed the same path of a half dozen Jim Carrey movies (a man in a world where lies have not been invented!) and takes it in an entirely unexpected direction. Who thought it would turn into a treatise on religion? I found it thought-provoking and funny even if the premise gets stretched a bit by the end.

The Cove, the Oscar winning documentary, looks at a dolphin slaughter that occurs in Japan. For me, the success hinges not on the exposure of the slaughter itself, but the story of that exposure. The lengths these filmmakers go to in order to get their footage rivals any heist film… I know I’ve noted the aspects I dislike about World’s Greatest Dad, but the parts that work are just astonishing. The places this film goes are haunting and memorable… And finally, The Hangover, which made me cry with laughter.

Onwards to Oscar season 2010!

Nominees:

  • Sandra Bullock, Blind Side
  • Helen Mirren, The Last Station
  • Carey Mulligan, An Education
  • Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
  • Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia

Brian starts the discussion:

    Unlike the Best Actor category, where all the nominations made some modicum of sense, there are a couple of headscratchers here. On the other hand, I can’t really think of many other strong female lead performances from this year, so maybe its just one of those years. Perhaps I’d include Emily Blunt in here for Young Victoria, but otherwise, it was a lackluster year, unfortunately. There are two nominees that are clearly superior to the rest of the batch — and its a shame that they are not the two expected to duke it out on Sunday night.

    To dispense with those two first: Streep is the second best actress in Julie and Julia — Amy Adams shows a wider range of emotions and is the heart of the film. Streep does a fine impersonation — and is good filler for the non-Julie Powell moments — but I found myself much more caught up in the modern day love story than Julia Child’s background. Which is odd, because I’m a history dork and all. I’m more interested in Julia’s next phase of life — when she became a television star.

    Sandra Bullock is the best part of The Blind Side — but thats truly faint praise. In a bastardization of a solid, nuanced book by Michael Lewis, The Blind Side is a poor-man’s Erin Brockovich. I think Dana Stevens said it best over at Slate: this is Bullock’s “Least Objectionable Thing She’s Made in Years.” Ergo, since this may be her only shot ever at a nomination, give her the career achievement award now. Her actual acting in the movie is good — but much like the rest of the movie, its cliched and devoid of any intrigue.

    Helen Mirren was fed a filmful of Oscar-worthy scenes, and she did her usual bang-up job with them. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with material as weak as The Last Station‘s — your performance has to transcend crap. And Mirren, this time, did not — and I’d also question her position as a leading actress on this one. If they had pushed her for supporting — I think that she’d have gotten a lot more recognition than this film — which I am still convinced that no one actually saw before nominating Mirren. Now THAT is the power of a strong brand.

    My two favorites: Mulligan and Sidibe. Carey Mulligan was brilliant as the young teen taken in by Peter Saarsgard’s creepiness. Stuck in an era when her parents (and society writ large) told her she could be a wife or a teacher, and thats it, she yearned for something more. It was a trite subject, but Mulligan expressed the highs of love and the lows of devastation with great aplomb. I cannot wait to watch what she does next.

    But my vote goes for newcomer Gabourey Sidibe. It’s hard for me to judge what she’s like in real person — and how much of her performance was “ACTING!” — but wow. I never once doubted the pain and hardship that Precious had to deal with — and watching her eventually open up and tread a path away from her current life situation was heart-wrenching. I place the success of the film’s bittersweet and ambiguous ending on Sidibe’s shoulders. Had she not been so good — I think the film would have fallen a lot flatter, with no hope and only despair for Precious’ future.

John adds his two cents

    I think too much as been said about this being a “weak” slate of actresses. It’s fine. I’d say not weaker or stronger than average with three terrific performances.

    Nothing against Helen Mirren, but without a better constructed film she’s just wailing and chewing scenery aimlessly. It’s hard to show any nuance when the material doesn’t allow it.

    The way this year has turned into The Year of Bullock is perplexing. Yes, I know she was snubbed for The Net, but is this the way we want to make up for it? The Blind Side is not a good movie though I did like Bullock’s performance in it. But I can’t help but think a lot of her support comes from playing a strongly-written character with an accent. Sure she dominates the movie, but with the other elements so underwhelming that’s pretty easy.

    Sidibe is swell in Precious and I’m really interested in seeing what she does next. Her performance is so monotone, which I know is what the role calls for, that I think it opens the door for some others to outshine her. She does a very good job of leading the film despite being a new actress and her range is impressive.

    I’m a little surprised I’m not choosing Mulligan because it’s the type of performance I’m so drawn to. It’s a restrained performance, but perfectly-crafted and we totally understand how her character could get into the mess she finds herself. She’s so enchanting on screen and can do so much with just a look. It’s true she’s helped by playing a character that’s so well-written, but she nails it.

    But I choose Meryl Streep. She’s just such a delight to watch and brings what I’d say is just the right amount of camp to the role. And it’s more than an impression; this really is a full-throated performance. We gave Morgan Freeman a tough time for (partly) adapting a South African accent and walking like Nelson Mandela. Streep shows how you play a well-known, real person and put your mark on it.

    I’m pretty perplexed by Brian’s assessment of Streep and the film. I thought I was going out on a limb by saying the Julie half of the film was not significantly inferior to the Julia half. He’s the first person I’ve ever seen assert that Julie was better. This is dumbfounding. If anything, Streep is so dominant she overshadows the rest of the film.

Adam is the charmer, as always:

    • Carey Mulligan
    • Sandra Bullock
    • Meryl Streep
    • Gabourey Sidbe
    • Helen Mirren

    Will Win: Sandra Bullock. There was a pretty big push for her throughout the Awards season and I believe it will pay off. While I don’t think this role was all that taxing, Bullock still put on an impressive performance so I’m not upset that she will win here. I’m more excited that Meryl Streep won’t win…for some reason, I just don’t like her.

    I Want to Win: Carey Mulligan. She’s beautiful. But that’s not why I want her to win (ok, that’s not the ENTIRE reason I want her to win). I had major problems with the script (e.g. plot, flow, dialogue wasn’t too bad, etc), but I will admit that despite its faults, it generated two strong performances from Alfred Molina and Mulligan. Given her less than bulky resume, she puts on a surprisingly strong performance…and she’s beautiful.

    Dark Horse: Carey Mulligan. While not out of the realm of possibility, there is little chance she would be able to overtake Ms. Streep or Ms. Bullock – much to the audience’s dismay.

    Ranking:

    Grouches Critiques: Since only Brian has written one so far, I will confine my review to him – lucky him. First off, some praise, his introductory statement is accurate enough. Actress this year was pretty weak. I have to question writers as a whole’s ability to write strong and/or good female leads. His review goes downhill from there though. I hate to say it (because I like Adams MUCH better than Streep), but Streep definitely outshone in her half of the movie. Adams’ character and storyline were, overall, quite boring. Adams played an uninteresting, selfish bitch…and not the fun kind.

    His comparison of The Blind Side to Erin Brockovich is confusing and incorrect. I have no idea what part of which is comparable. It’s much easier to compare it to Precious, in fact, though, in my opinion, neither is as great as people seem to believe. Even his review of The Last Station is off and we both disliked it. I am actually a big fan of Mirren, but while her performance most likely fit the role as written, it was a horribly written script so her performance suffered the same fate. There was not one “Oscar-worthy” scene in the entire movie. I also can’t say I agree with his view of women striving for more than being regulated to a wife/mother/teacher as a “trite” subject. Guess we’re seeing the “real” Brian.

    Finally, his conclusion is way off the mark. Don’t believe the hype , folks. Precious is not that good. Sidibre does a fine job, but ultimately there isn’t a lot of range required in the role and the script was pretty weak in both story and dialogue – and the lackluster directing didn’t help either.

    Now I can sit back and bathe in the glow Brian’s hatred of me will give off.

    Random Notes: Write better female characters Hollywood writers. There is a ton of talent out there and few good characters for them to portray.

Jared has had a little to drink and is writing at 4 in the morning:

    Finally, I get to both go last and disagree with Brian.  It is a bad call to say it was a poor year for lead actress performances.  Add Blunt and Deschanel in here, and you are hot to trot.  Relatively weak year for mainstream performances? Maybe.  But one you get into Julia and Cheri and Trucker, I’m not so convinced.  Hate to say it, but I kinda agree with John.  Probably about an average year.

    I’ve loved Sandra Bullock since Love Potion No. 9 (here’s where I totally geek out and make a Donovan Tate joke (that’s some baseball prospect humor for you!)).  I really don’t understand the Oscar love for her this year.  Thrilled that’s she’s in the running. No clue what makes this role so special.  Honestly, and I’m completely serious here, I don’t understand why she wasn’t up for an Oscar for Miss Congeniality.  I dare almost any former Oscar nominee to pull off that role. I gotta question Brian, though.  “Devoid of any intrigue?”  You read the book and know the story, dude. What intrigue were you expecting?  Oh, and the book isn’t nuanced. Sorry. Not like I needed to bring all this up. The minute you cite Slate in an argument is the minute you lose.

    And while we are ragging on Brian, I’m totally with John about Julie and Julia. Brian, you are no longer ever allowed to make fun of my appreciation of romcoms. The Julie side of the film was better? Bold statement there, boss. I heart Meryl Streep to pieces, I just think we could maybe hold back on the automatic check next to her name. Though, hey, she seems to be the only one who can get nominated for comedies. So more power to her.

    Unsurprisingly, Helen Mirren was pretty great in The Last Station.  It is unfortunate that the movie was roughly seventeen hours long. That’s how it felt at least. The unsteadiness in the script came through as Mirren’s character was not only a biatch, but sorta all over the place. Mirren salvaged it admirably, but still.  I’ll agree with Brian here (since I made the point first).  No one saw Last Station.  No one.

    Top two are really tough for me. I’ve gone back and forth numerous times. So screw it, I need to get some sleep, I’m calling it a tie between Gabourey Sidibe and Carey Mulligan.  Sidibe is all kinds of powerful asPrecious. Maybe few established actresses could have pulled it off for physical reasons, but I also think few could have so completely owned the character. Sidibe took a relatively weak script and turned the character into something magical.

    I’m madly in love with Carey Mulligan and not ashamed to admit it. No one who saw An Education should be afraid to admit it either.  Again, she took a subpar script and created a character I won’t forget for some time. Maybe she had it easier because of how attractive the character was (both inside and out). I dunno. I do know that she took a character who had been seen time and again (smart pretty girl who loses her naivete) and made it her own.

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.

Thanks to those who joined us for the liveblog. For those who didn’t but are still interested in all our hilarious comments, including the time I ridiculed Michael C Hall for wearing a skull cap inside when it turns out he has cancer, check below the fold for a full transcript.

Hopefully we’ll have a couple analytical thoughts up early this week.

Your list of winners:

  • Best Picture, Drama – Avatar
  • Best Picture, Comedy/Musical — The Hangover
  • Best Director — James Cameron, Avatar
  • Best Actress, Drama — Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
  • Best Actor, Drama — Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
  • Best Actress, Comedy/Musical — Meryl  Streep, Julie & Julia
  • Best Actor, Comedy/Musical — Robert Downey Jr, Sherlock Holmes
  • Best Supporting Actress — Mo’Nique, Precious
  • Best Supporting Actor — Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
  • Best Foreign Language Film — The White Ribbon
  • Best Animated Feature — Up
  • Best Screenplay — Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
  • Best Original Score — Michael Giacchino, Up
  • Best Original Song — The Weary Kind, Crazy Heart
  • Best TV Series, Drama  –  Mad Men
  • Best TV Series, Comedy  — Glee
  • Best TV Miniseries — Grey Gardens
  • Best Actress, TV Miniseries — Drew Barrymore, Grey Gardens
  • Best Actor, TV Miniseries — Kevin Bacon, Taking Chance
  • Best Actress, TV Drama — Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
  • Best Actor, TV Drama — Michael C. Hall, Dexter
  • Best Actress, TV Comedy — Toni Collette, United States of Tara
  • Best Actor, TV Comedy — Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
  • Best Supporting Actress, TV — Chloe Sevigny, Big Love
  • Best Supporting Actor, TV — John Lithgow, Dexter

Read the rest of this entry »

Is there anything better than being blown away by a film out of the blue? That “I can’t believe how great that was” enthusiasm as the credits roll? My latest surprise revelation was Julie & Julia. I had only middling expectations going in. I’m not really the target audience and the critical reaction had been mixed: Meryl Streep was supposed to be wonderful as usual but only her half of the film was worthwhile.

Well I found myself entirely enchanted. Yes of course Meryl turns in another terrific performance. But it’s an all-around entertaining time and I didn’t even feel like the “Julie” part paled significantly compared to the “Julia” part.

Sticking with Julie for a bit, I think it’s true to say that a story of one woman blogging a cooking challenge isn’t going to be a cinematic as the Julia Childs story of revolutionizing cooking forever. And while I would agree the script doesn’t develop Julie as well as it perhaps could have to make the viewer care for her more, the Julie story is not a notable let-down compared to Julia.

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I related to Julie. We’re a hyper-connected and creative generation and that yearning to make a mark in the world – or at least to find a worthwhile outlet for expression – resonated. (I mean, here I am writing on a blog after all.) Maybe Julie’s need to create and connect and overshare just doesn’t have the same impact on people who didn’t grow up with Live Journal. One’s connection with Julie can vary widely, but I imagine it helps if the entire point of her story isn’t dismissed outright.

The fact that Julie isn’t necessarily a likable character doesn’t detract from the film. In fact I think it probably makes it more interesting. Without a dynamic character that’s allowed to have some large flaws I think the Julie story really would fall flat. And it’s nice to see Amy Adams in a role where she can dial down the chirpiness.

That said, it’s undeniable that the Julia story is wonderful and the real heart of the film. Streep is just delightful and I found the journey through Childs’ life fascinating and enjoyable. One of the more interesting elements is her marriage to Paul, played superbly by Stanley Tucci. Their deep devotion to each other is played straight and without false drama, which is refreshing and not at all boring. Even while sharing scenes with the marvelous Streep playing the larger-than-life Julia Childs, Tucci shines and their chemistry is sparkling.

It seems likely Streep will get a Best Actress nod here, and it would be well-deserved. I wonder if someone else gives the exact same performance, would even get consideration? On the other hand, who else could give the exact same performance? And Tucci would get a (again, well-deserved) Supporting Actor nomination if he wasn’t probably going to get one for The Lovely Bones instead. And I’d be happy with an Adapted Screenplay nod as well since the story is so infectiously enjoyable.

I caught Julie & Julia on a flight where I was already jet-lagged out of my skull and my previous two nights had been spent on an overnight bus hurtling down a Kenyan highway and on an airplane, so I’m looking forward to seeing it again while in a more normal state of mind. If it charmed me even while I was completely out of it, I’d call that a good sign. And this time I’ll be able to eat more than airline food while watching it.

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