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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!

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Well I, for one, am finally glad 2010 is around the corner.  Writing “2009” on all my checks is just getting so boring.  Wait.  What?  It is already May?!  That would explain a lot.  Anyway, even though there’s still plenty more I’d like to see, I’m drawing the line on 2009 movies.  The other Grouches think it is too ambitious, but I’m hoping to recap all 143 movies I saw with 2009 release dates (in a timely manner).  Let’s get started with #143-#134:

143. Powder Blue

My DVD player shows how much time has elapsed in the movie I’m watching.  I try to avoid glancing at it, but a good rule of thumb is that if I do sneak a peek, the movie has become kinda boring.  When I first looked at the timer while watching Powder Blue, less than 15 minutes had elapsed.  Just an awful, terrible, nonsensical film that Patrick Swayze, Forest Whitaker, Ray Liotta, Patrick Swayze, one scene of Kris Kristofferson and Jessica Biel’s naked breasts could not even come close to saving.  Ladies and gentlemen, your worst film of 2009!

142. Fame

I saw this film while flying out to Vegas, so I couldn’t really escape it.  I haven’t seen the original, but I shudder to think it is anything like this film at all.  The movie had no plot that I could distinguish.  Just none at all.  I don’t think there was any conflict, I don’t think there was any resolution.  There was some singing and dancing.  And Kelsey Grammer pretending to be angry or something.  Let me put it this way.  This movie is entirely about high schoolers, and I don’t even think it is deserving of the effort to work in a Brian joke.

141. The Girl from Monaco

Saw this French film with my parents.  Every description I read referred to the film as a romantic comedy.  Which is pretty baffling, considering the movie isn’t romantic and sure as heck isn’t funny.  Like any French film, there’s random sex, ennui, and lofty discussions about life.  Also, a schlubby dude getting with a fantastically hot chick.  A surprising amount of French films I see contain a schlubby dude getting with a fantastically hot chick.  But otherwise there’s just no coherent story.  I’m hoping the upcoming Dinner for Schmucks helps proves this point, but I think that based on what I’ve seen, I prefer (good) American absurdity to the French kind.   Also, I think my parents love me a little less for subjecting them to this movie.

140. The International

Ever wonder what an espionage film minus action or any actual spying would look like?  Just watch The International!  Granted, the shootout in the art gallery had some really cool shots.  But the rest of the film was a muddled mess of random corporate spy movie buzz words, and absolutely no reason to care about any of it.  Perhaps fittingly, the bad guy in the movie is: the banking industry.

139. The Box

What a horrible disappointment!  As a Twilight Zone junkie, I was really looking forward to the film, which was based on a Richard Matheson short story.  But Richard Kelly is quite clearly out of his mind.  As I told my brother, this film is one time where studio interference would have been welcome.  You probably remember the basic premise: A couple get a box with a button.  If they press the button, they get a million dollars and someone they don’t know dies.  That takes up maybe twenty minutes of screen time, the rest is some incredibly bizarre supernatural surreal gobbledygook that is never adequately explained.  Probably because there is no rational explanation for the insanity that occurs.  Pretty much no decision about this movie (e.g. casting, setting, direction) was correct.  Well, I suppose Frank Langella is kinda creepy.  Oh, and Britta from Community shows up.  So there’s that.

138. X-Men Origins: Wolverine

So bad that the presence of will.i.am may not even rank in the top ten things wrong with the film.  I haven’t really been too big on a lot of the superhero comic book films because I think they spend too much time working on references to the comics and not enough crafting an interesting story.  Clearly the case here as we see plenty of cool characters, but for no apparent purpose.  But all those characters means the supporting cast doesn’t get very much screen time.  Meaning they totally waste Taylor Kitsch, which is obviously a huge sin.  I also think Lynn Collins was miscast, which originally going to be a knock on her, but a movie we’ll get to a little later has revised my opinion somewhat.  Honestly, it is movies like this one, where bombast doesn’t translate into entertainment that make me appreciate Michael Bay that much more.

137. The Code

You’ll be forgiven if you haven’t heard of this direct to DVD film starring Antonio Banderas, Radha Mitchell, and this year’s Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman (I think it also may have been marketed as Thick as Thieves, if that helps).  Ready to play a little game?  Think of a crime thriller cliché.  Boom, so did The Code!  Twists you can spot before the movie even starts!  Russians as the bad guys!  An old veteran on one last job!  A young gun looking to make it big!  A female awkwardly shoehorned into the plot!  Things not being what they seem!  I stopped caring about the movie long before I didn’t care about the twist ending.

136. Crossing Over

The immigration pastiche no one needed.  About as subtle as a hammer.  Someone needs to tell writers, producers, and directors that showing a few (barely) interconnected stories doesn’t automatically make a movie interesting.  I blame Babel and Crash for making people think these kind of films about Important Issues are good.  Because so far, they aren’t.  Really, Crash: Race::Crossing Over:Immigration.   Does nothing to disprove my theory that Jim Sturgess only appears in crappy films.  Also, if you are somehow more in love with Alice Eve than I am (which is doubtful) there’s one scene in particular that might make this movie worth watching, though I’m too much of a gentleman to describe it.  I suppose Ray Liotta as a sleazy creep wasn’t the most difficult of casting decisions.

135. The Informant!

As you no doubt recall, I was much lower on this film than my fellow Grouches.  The humor didn’t really resonate with me at all.  Again, perhaps knowing the story ahead of time hurt, but I’d argue that speaks poorly of the film, because I know the general plot of plenty of movies before I see them.  To be honest, I think seeing the one in theaters hurt my impression.  Because sitting there wondering why people around you are uproariously laughing is a pretty miserable place to be.

134. Goodbye Solo

How indie does the old white guy befriends younger not white guy shtick.  I know I repeat it a lot, and I know it makes me the scourge of English teachers the world over, but I love plot.  For me, it is the most important element of a book or movie.  So sometimes the “art” gets lost on me.  Perhaps that’s what’s happening here, since the film was warmly regarded by most critics.  And it does a pretty good job portraying two characters and their changing relationship.  But I need a reason to care.  Doesn’t have to big or broad.  I need a film to justify why I’m watching it, and Goodbye Solo didn’t deliver.

Coming up next time: two Oscar nominees, soccer, and Richard Nixon

Well this morning the Official Mistress of the Golden Grouches (c), Anne Hathaway, announced the nominations — and there were few surprises among the acting nods, a couple shockers in the Best Picture, but overall things went according to plan. Nonetheless, we still pulled together our thoughts for a short post.

Brian: My biggest disappointment is that with Penelope Cruz’ nomination, I now have to see Nine, something that I had been avoiding doing. No real desire to see it at all, but it can’t be nearly as bad as Lovely Bones, which fortunately, did indeed garner Stanley Tucci a nomination. It would have been tragic had we had to sit through that dreck for no reason whatsoever.

With the best pictures, I was quite happy to see District 9 get the nod there and in screenplay — I held out hope for director until getting slapped in the face by Lee Daniels name being read. As Jared says below, Blind Side is the only real WTF here, and even that it’s rather pointless since it has no shot at winning. This batch of nominations also has me quite excited to see A Serious Man when it comes out on DVD next week.

Other thoughts: disappointed that Damon got nominated for the wrong role and left Molina in the dust. Happy to see Moore get snubbed for A Single Man as her role was more or less the same as Susan Sarandon’s in Lovely Bones and was less funny. I had forgotten all about In the Loop until John started his well-deserved campaign for it, and I’m happy that John got something to gloat about. By far my biggest disappointment though was Marvin Hamlisch getting crapola for The Informant. His score was such an integral character in the great movie that it deserved to win the award, not just the nod.

Looking forward to stewing over these races in the “should win” discussions — especially the screenplays. Lots to ponder. And I think the 10 films for best picture was a wild success — good job…academy?

Adam: Editor’s Note: Adam did not submit anything so I wrote it for him. Inglorious Basterds: Yay. If only It’s Complicated were nominated, then I could make fun of Brian more. I’ll find other ways.

Jared, via iPhone in the DFW airport: Most surprising to me is the relative lack of true surprises. There were some, of course, but I’d guess most Oscar prognosticators did pretty well, especially if they stayed conservative.

People will hate on The Blind Side, and sure, it probably isn’t a top ten film. However, in my opinion it is miles better than Crazy Heart, Invictus, and The Messenger, all of which now appear to have been viable contenders. Like, it just isn’t close at all. So while I would have preferred Star Trek, The Hangover, or In The Loop, I can settle for the middle ground.

I’ve heard people claim this is the wrong year for ten nominees. But you know what? This a very strong lineup, and for me, stacks up against much of this decade’s best picture groups. And really, assuming the expansion got District 9 and Up into the group, I’m fully prepared to call it a success.

I’m a little surprised we didn’t see something crazy in Supporting Actress. Sorta seems like the Academy threw its collective hands in the air and gave up. There was definitely room for another film to have made a play here. No Basterds is a surprise, I guess, but there seemed a very unWeinstein-like unfocused campaign.

Finally, the screenplay categories were a general success. My efforts to not jinx them went mostly rewarded. In the Loop getting a nomination is such a good thing. But, of course, the one nomination I really really wanted to see, (500) Days of Summer, missed. Probably at the hands of The Messenger, which I interpret as a direct, intentional, personal slap in my face.

John: Before going to bed last night I nearly made a quick post amending my earlier “biggest hopes” declarations. But I decided not to and both of those hopes came true!

I had been surprised at the amount of In the Loop predictions prognosticators were making yesterday, which gave me hope for an Adapted Screenplay nomination, whereas before I thought of it as only a longshot. But then it happened! It was my big fist pump moment of the morning. It really has made my day.

My other hope was that Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs would get left off the Animated Feature slate in favor of some of the more interesting films that came out this year. When Coraline was announced first (nominees are announced alphabetically) it was obvious this wish had come true and it was fun to see what would take its spot. The Secret of Kells is an interesting choice, although not the one I would make.

A few other quick thoughts:

  • A boring slate of acting nominees. Very by the numbers. Penelope Cruz was a surprise, but only because her long-presumed nomination seemed derailed by Nine‘s failure.
  • No Avatar in Original Screenplay. Not a problem for most of the Grouches, but interesting that such a juggernaut would miss. 500 Days of Summer also missed and that had seemed like the indie that would break out in a writing category. I suspect not being in the picture for Best Picture hurt it.
  • Hooray for Invictus not making Best Picture even though it appears to be supplanted by the awful The Blind Side.
  • No Makeup nod for District 9 despite the film’s heavy use of prosthetics. Instead the aging makeup for Il Divo and the hairstyles of The Young Victoria get in, along side Star Trek.
  • No Score nod for The Informant! excludes that gem of a film completely.
  • I’m generally happy with the Best Song slate. Thankfully “See You” from Avatar was left off.

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?

Oscar nominations will be announced on February 2. We’re counting down to the big day by offering some hard-hitting analysis and incisive opinions on the toughest questions surrounding the nominees.  We can be sometimes be pretty negative, but we like stuff too!  What’s your biggest hope for nomination morning?

John: Matt Damon And Left Field

My biggest hope is fairly easy. I hope Matt Damon slides into the Best Actor race from the back of the bubble for his wonderful work inThe Informant! I’ve steeled myself for the likely eventuality that he won’t make it, but I’ll be holding my breath to see who comes after George Clooney in the alphabetical announcement tomorrow.

I’m also hoping that something entirely out of left field sneaks into the Best Picture nominations. With ten slots available, something with a fairly small amount of support can make it in. I won’t necessarily agree with the choice – I’d guess the most likely possibilities to be The Blind Side or Crazy Heart – but it’d make for some excitement to see something come out of nowhere. And imagine if it becomes something of an Oscar tradition! What film will shock everyone each year? That would be fun!

Brian: Directing District (and Dodgeball)

In Dave Karger’s list of slightly plausible shots in the dark for tomorrow morning, he posits that Lee Daniels of Precious will get pushed out for Best Director and Neill Blomkamp of District 9 will come in with the upset. I can think of no other switcheroo that would make me happier. Daniels nearly ruined my good feelings about Precious with the gratuitous use of verite camera shots, obnoxious fantasy interludes, and grotesque (and overused) zoom-ins of boiling pig’s feet. Blomkomp created a new world — based on the all-to-real world of the slums of South Africa — of aliens, super weapons, Michael Scott-inspired humans, and juiced up mercenaries straight out of Avatar that directors should be awarded for. I don’t see it happening, but man — that would be like what Gary Cole in Dodgeball calls a “two-person swing!”

Jared: Mo’ Mo’Nique, No Problems

When I first heard the Oscar buzz surrounding Precious, I immediately pictured the sheer ridiculousness of Mo’Nique getting a nomination.  Which isn’t meant as an insult to the actress, I don’t think, I’m the first one to advocate the Academy getting outside their comfort zone.  It is just that Mo’Nique doesn’t exactly fit the Oscar mold, and I still smile to think of her being mentioned in the same breath as, say, Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep.  That said, yowza.  I don’t know what I can say about her performance that hasn’t already been said.  And while it is an admittedly weak year for supporting actresses, it is instructive that there’s really zero momentum for any other contender.  Rightfully so, because Mo’Nique just towers over everyone else.  Sure, part of it is that everyone loves a villain (see Waltz, Christoph).  But it would have been so easy to take Mary somewhere comic book over-the-top, making her an unrelatable, emotionaless automaton.  Mo’Nique gives Mary depth and humanity, which just makes the character that much scarier.

The non-lock category is a little trickier.  There’s definitely some fluidity this year, so while a lot of nominees are all but nailed down, there’s no one scenario that every single person is picking.  So I’m happy there’s be some excitement.  My biggest hope lies in the categories that may mean most to me: Adapted and Original Screenplay. I’m terrified of jinxing anything, because I think my favorites are on the bubble.  I won’t name names, but it is probably obvious which movies have my backing.  So here’s hoping some of my favorite movies of the year aren’t excluded at the expense of some of my least favorite.

Oscar nominations will be announced on February 2. We’re counting down to the big day by offering some hard-hitting analysis and incisive opinions on the toughest questions surrounding the nominees. No claims the Academy is perfect.  But sometimes they seem to refuse to consider certain films or performances, which can be terribly infuriating. If you ruled the Academy, what would you decree to get a nomination?

***SPECIAL NOTE***
We exempted one film from this discussion. Look for our thoughts on that movie in the coming days.

Brian: Maybe The Film Would Do Better If It Had A Name

I write this without seeing any of the other nominated foreign films, but if I could pick a film to get some overdue recognition, it’d be Sin Nombre, a thrilling, engaging, and beautifully shot film that handles the dicey subjects of illegal immigration and the spread of MS-13 with grace. Critically, it was adored by most when it came out last spring, but it seems to have faltered pretty fast this Oscar season. I’m disappointed — there are parts of the movie that still stick with me and it’s been nearly a year since I saw it. Based on the trailers I’ve seen for the nominated foreign films, this looks much more accessible to American audiences and falls far from the cliched tropes of the dreaded “foreign film” with subtitles. Truly great and deserving of recognition.

Jared: Move the Oscars to Summer

Oscar actually isn’t doing a terrible job this year.  As always, comedy gets shafted in the Best Picture race.  My ideal nominee list would likely include The Hangover, (500) Days of Summer, I Love You, Man, and as much as it pains me to agree with John, In the Loop.  One of my pet films this year is an obscure movie called Blind Date. I’ll be talking about it more later on, but I think Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson’s performances should have been in the discussion this year.  Fudging things a little bit, if I only had control of one thing, I’d advocate for the acting in (500) Days of Summer.  I imagine Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel faced the double disadvantage of not being in a drama and not “paying their dues,” but their work absolutely contributed to the magic of the film, and it makes me sad that they were barely considered.

John: Best Loop-de-loop

I have a couple ideas of what omnipotent John would do with the Oscar nomination and damned if it isn’t hard to pick. The Informant! could be put in Best Picture or Matt Damon in Best Actor. But I’m going to go with a film I loved even more, In the Loop, for Best Picture. This is an exquisitely written film, packed to the gill with jokes and spot-on as a satire. I don’t think a plot point or performance goes wrong. If there’s any recent film that I can say, “we need more films like this!” it’s In the Loop. It won’t get the recognition it deserves without me breaking into PricewaterhouseCoopers and messing with the ballots. Which is too bad because more people should check it out.

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.

Oscar nominations will be announced on February 2. We’re counting down to the big day by offering some hard-hitting analysis and incisive opinions on the toughest questions surrounding the nominees. While no one know for sure what will happen on Tuesday, some nominees are a foregone conclusion. Which lock for a nomination is undeserved?

John: Voters Blind Sided by Bullock

This has been a good year in that I don’t see any real egregious locks. The silly nominations I see coming, like those for Invictus, I wouldn’t really call locks. So let me highlight a few performances that have been on the track to nominations since their films were released. Neither are bad performances and perhaps both are even deserving of nominations. I have trouble understanding how so many people saw these films and immediately thought, “This is so good she’s absolutely sure to get a nomination!”

The first is Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. I think this is a combination of a name actress who hasn’t received much awards attention in her career, a Southern accent, a big character, and a late-year release date. If any of these components change, does this performance become a lock? It’s a good performance helped by a script that give her lots to work with, but the assumed inevitability of a nomination is puzzling.

The other is Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air. This is a performance I have mixed feelings about. All of her physical acting is terrific: the way she carries herself, her facial expressions, her stiff seriousness. But the way she sort of spits out her lines drives me nuts and that was hard to get past, at least on the first viewing. I just don’t think people talk like that, even the uptight, self-serious ones. I left the theater thinking, “that’s what everyone’s been so ecstatic about?”

To be fair, she’s sharing the screen with two terrific performances from George Clooney and Vera Farmiga and maybe I was just wowed by their excellence!

Both Bullock and Kendrick will get nominated; Bullock may win and Kendrick is probably the only one who can knock off Mo’Nique. And the nominations won’t be wrong, necessarily. I just have a hard time seeing the hype.

Adam: Shouldn’t a Best Picture Actually Be, You Know, Good?

One word – Avatar. Don’t get me wrong, I think this was an enjoyable movie. But Best Picture good? I think not. Let’s look at it’s pros: visually beautiful, moves along pretty well (even for a 3 hour movie) … not much else. Cons: no attempt to re-engineer/better a stolen script/story, no character development (in a 3 hour movie), very weak dialogue, ridiculous scenes (not involving explosions). How can a movie that fails in a majority of the areas that make up a FILM let alone a GREAT film be the front-runner for Best Picture?

For all of those out there that use the advancing technology/3D/movie-going experience argument I have two words for you – Jurassic Park. Back in 1993, Spielberg and company revolutionized the CGI industry and how audiences view movies. Not only that, he did it with a pretty entertaining movie. One reason for this was good material (Michael Crichton’s novel), but also the ability to adapt it reasonably well to the silver screen. After all of that, Jurassic Park won 3 Oscars, but wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. And I think that that was the right call. It didn’t deserve a nomination – and neither does Avatar.

For those of you who want to use the dollars argument, I submit Dark Knight. Last year, Dark Knight made more money in a single day then any other movie in history and went on to make more money than most of the films ever made. Not only that, it was a phenomenal movie and easily the best one last year. Fantastic writing, beautiful scenes, decent dialogue and one of the best villain portrayals ever. With all of that, it didn’t even get a nomination for Best Picture.

So, I submit to you, how is it that a film like Avatar gets a nomination for Best Picture?

Jared: Full of Hot Air

Hm.  Adam took Avatar, I already addressed Invictus, and if I say anything bad about Inglourious Basterds, I think Adam will probably hurt me (though it really isn’t a good movie).  Not sure any other locks make me too angry.  But I will admit to not quite understanding why Up in the Air is receiving plaudits for its acting.  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some George Clooney.  But isn’t his Ryan Bingham just the same thing he always does?  A charming, in-charge guy who needs to be humbled a little bit (but not too much, because he gets his way in the end), and who draws easy comparisons to Clooney himself?  I’m OK with Bingham as a character, but I think that’s due to the writing, and I could see a bunch of people doing justice to that role.  And maybe I’m wrong, but sure seems that one (if not both) of Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are locks as well.  Which I don’t get at all, both roles didn’t appear to be particularly challenging and serve more as mirrors for Bingham than anything else.  Just seems to me that the sheen of the movie is unduly rubbing off on these ladies.

Brian: Avatar Doesn’t Score

Since John is incapable of originality and is once again piggybacking on Jared, I will decline writing about Vera Farmiga’s bewildering lock status. Avatar is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to the Best Picture category, so it jibes that Adam would have gone there; I always look forward to his brutal take-downs. After struggling a bit to find another true lock that I found baffling, I came back around to Avatar, but for musical score.

If I’m coming out of an epic, big, bombastic picture like Avatar, I need to be humming the score as I leave the theater for it to be impactful enough for an Oscar nom. The score is such an integral part of these films that if you name me a commercially and critically successful epic — I can most likely hum the main theme — and thats how it should be. I find James Horner’s work to be uneven — I loved his scores to Enemy at the Gates, A Beautiful Mind, and Apollo 13 — and his work for Avatar was sub-par. Inspiring motifs here or there, but overall bland and forgettable. Perhaps I am being unfair to Horner, since the key to a great score is if it matches the tone of the film — and since I found Avatar to be superficial and derivative — it makes sense that I thought the same about the score. Should Horner be recognized and Marvin Hamlisch be left in the cold for his flighty composition for The Informant, I will be upset.

I considered writing about Lee Daniels’ heavy-handed and distracting direction of Precious, but I think there’s a enough of a chance that he gets pushed out for another director that I didn’t deem him enough of a lock. If he gets the nomination, however, you’ll hear plenty from me on my frustration with him.

Oscar nominations will be announced on February 2.  We’re counting down to the big day by offering some hard-hitting analysis and incisive opinions on the toughest questions surrounding the nominees.  All of us have our favorite films and performances currently on the bubble.  And we all have spent long periods of time spewing invective at the films and performances that will keep our favorites out.  What inclusion or exclusion on Tuesday will disappoint you?

John: Out With The Old, In With The Old?

On Tuesday, Invictus is likely to end up with nominations for Best Picture, Actor, and Supporting Actor. It’s not a bad movie and in fact has an irresistible spirit that partially overcomes some of its flaws. And Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon turn in fine performances, though they do not reach the level required for nominations in my humble opinion.

But what disappoints me is how unimaginative these nominations will be. Invictus is an epitome of Oscar bait: schlocky, a plot that superficially tackles difficult social issues, and directed by Clint Eastwood. With an expanded slate of ten Best Picture nominations, if we’re going to have mediocre nominees let’s at least make them interesting and not just the same old stuff. The sort of narrow vision that rewards films like this year after year is tiresome.

Plus the Freeman/Damon nomination combo will likely put the kibosh on Damon’s chances to be nominated for a much better performance in The Informant!, the performance of the year in fact. Freeman will slip into the fourth or fifth spot for Actor, denying Damon, while Damon’s own popularity in Supporting Actor for Invictus will erode his support for Lead. These perennial safety nominations are usually worth an eye-roll but now they’re actively undermining my own preferences! Gah!

Brian: Give Him The Idol, Or He’ll Throw You The Whip

Like John, and its pretty scary to write those words, I saw a lot to enjoy in An Education, and a few things to nitpick on (too long, etc..), but my adoration of the film begins with Alfred Molina as Carey Mulligan’s father. His bombast was great comic relief and his scene later trying to comfort Mulligan is one of the best in the movie. Viewed in the modern context, his views on the roles of a wife/daughter were abhorrent enough that you couldn’t even see why his wife would have married him, but it is to Molina’s credit that they were played of as buffonery instead of malicious disrespect. While I hope (and deep down think) that he will get recognized for the role, I’m going for the reverse jinx here and saying that he will be ignored. And if the Academy had any cojones, they would take a page from the American Latino Media Awards and nominate him for his role in Pink Panther 2 as well.

One other predicted disappointment I’ll make note of: Both Star Trek and District 9 fail to get nominated, clearing the way for Avatar to lock up the nerd/blockbuster-loving/visual-effects vote and coasting to a Best Picture nod, which would disappoint everyone this side of John (which is everyone). With those two in the mix, the outlook for a Hurt Locker or even an Up in the Air win becomes much more likely (albeit less than I’d like.)

Jared: Would Like To Make It Perfectly Clear That He Has Nothing Against Mr. Eastwood And Means No Disrespect.  About Anything.  Ever.

I’ve got a few gripes here, so I figure I’ll lay them all out and maybe I’ll get lucky and one will hit, like last year (with The Reader).  In the Best Picture race, the one film that really is going to cheese me off is Invictus, exactly the opposite of the type of film the expansion is supposed to help, I think.  Did anyone love this movie?  If you want to like it, that’s fine, whatever.  But just like Frost/Nixon, this film will be largely forgotten a year from now.  Heck, I’d wager the movie is largely forgotten right now.  It is just stunning to me that anyone who has seen at least a dozen movies this year could count the film as one of the year’s best.  If a film like The Messenger gets in, I’ll be sad, but at least I can understand how it inspires reverence.  With Invictus, I think people are confusing an inspiring story with a well-told one.

For Best Actor, I’m increasingly realizing I’m alone here, but I think Daniel Day-Lewis is getting lost in shuffle, thanks to the mediocrity that is Nine.  Well, and we also probably take him for granted at this point, since he keeps turning in larger than life performances over and over again.  Putting the movie aside, Day-Lewis is mesmerizing as director Guido Contini as he balances all the women in his life with putting together a new movie.  Any success the film has may well be directly attributed to him.  (Well, OK, Judi Dench is pretty cool, and Penelope Cruz’s dance didn’t hurt.)  The transformation Day-Lewis undergoes from role to role is just staggering.

Finally, if you want to have a debate over how much “acting” goes into mimicking someone famous, that’s fine.  But if you want Morgan Freeman and Meryl Streep to get nods, you have to want Christian McKay to get one as well, for playing the titular character in Me and Orson Welles (that would be Orson, not Me).  It really is as simple as that, for me.  His Welles is a whirlwind of a character, dominating his screen time, as any Welles should.  And he left an impression every much as vivid as Freeman or Streep, if not moreso.

Adam: The Academy Should Be Full Of Basterds

This is actually a pretty easy category for me. My favorite film of the year was Inglourious Basterds and it will also easily cause the biggest disappointment for me. While last year’s snub of Dark Knight for Best Picture and the little love for In Bruges caused me anguish, this year I believe my front-runner will get the nominations it deserves. Unfortunately, this triumph will be bittersweet and tempered by the fact that it will not win for Picture, Director, or Writing (I hope, at this point, that Waltz is a lock for Supporting Actor – not sure if I will be able to continue to watch the Oscars if he doesn’t). While my love for all things Tarantino biases my opinion, I don’t think it can be denied that he writes one hell’va script. To the point that even Jason Reitman gave him props at the Golden Globes saying he was still waiting for Tarantino’s name to be called instead of his own. Since I won’t be able to be unbiased, I’ll leave my ranting there and forgo the reasons Picture and Director should go to him as well.

Needless to say, the lack of a win in these categories will definitely be the biggest disappointment for me this year.

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