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

10. Please Give

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

9. My Name is Khan

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

8. Lovely, Still

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

7. How to Train Your Dragon

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

6. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

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

5. Hot Tub Time Machine

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

4. She’s Out of My League

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

3. The King’s Speech

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

2. Inception

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

1. The Social Network

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

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John’s post made me remember I promised to write up a few more categories.  He’s kind to suggest that our “social lives” prevented us from going more in depth.  I don’t like to lie, but I don’t believe a lie of omission is necessarily a lie, so here’s Cinematography and Costume Design, which I believe wraps us up?

Cinematography

Nominees: Black Swan, Inception, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, True Grit

These nominees match up perfectly with the American Society of Cinematographers, who gave their award to Wally Pfister’s work in Inception.  I’m not going to pretend to really know anything about this art form, so sure, I’ll go with the people who actually know what Cinematographers do.  That said, Roger Deakins (nominated for True Grit) is on his 9th nomination and has yet to win, so it would be nice to see him take one down.

Costume Design

Nominees: Alice in Wonderland, I Am Love, The King’s Speech, The Tempest, True Grit

If you’ve seen me in person ever, you probably know I am one of the least qualified people in the world to discuss this category.  So yeah, I didn’t catch the Julie Taymor film, but all the others had pretty clothes, I guess.  But, uh, let’s make me feel good about myself for having seen I Am Love

We’re taking a look at Oscar categories in advance of tonight’s show. Now we’re on Supporting Actress. The nominees:

  • Javier Bardem, Biutiful
  • Jeff Bridges, True Grit
  • Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
  • Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
  • James Franco, 127 Hours

John

Give me my award. Today, junior. Did I stutter? Oh, right.

This is a good crew, but Best Actor usually is. It’s Colin Firth in a walk for me, but that doesn’t reflect poorly on any of the others. What chance do they have against the charm, the grace, and yes the stutter of Firth? He’s so good all the time so I’m glad he’s getting his due, even though it does take a showy disability to get him the prize. Didn’t Tropic Thunder say something about going partial retard is Oscar gold…?

Franco is perfect for his role, both as a slightly off outdoorsy guy and the type of presence that can carry a movie when he’s the only one on screen. I didn’t give enough credit to Eisenberg when I first saw The Social Network. He gets some crap for playing the same character repeatedly, but I happened to see Network again soon after watching Zombieland and the differences were clear. This is also a performance that succeeds on a lot more than just line reading. I really like the way he carries himself.

I do think Bridges gets a boost just by being Jeff Bridges. It’s a memorable character that allows for some showy acting, but the type of role that I think needs a name to propel it to awards season. He’s still great, of course, but I do see a clear gap between him and those listed above. And Bardem is an interesting nod, displaying the kind of acting that I have not seen from him before. I just wish it had been in a better movie where his performance could have affected me more.

Snubs: As good as this list is, I would have had Robert Duvall for Get Low and Sean Penn for Fair Game. Maybe also Ryan Gosling for Blue Valentine.

Jared

Yeah, geez, how do you pick a winner here?  It is a little odd that precursors have been so unanimous just because everyone here absolutely deserves consideration for the win.  The Grouches closed out Oscars this year with a screening of Biutiful, which was was too long and didn’t give the view a chance to get emotionally invested in the characters enough.  My expectations of Javier Bardem were maybe too high, because I’d that people just absolutely went gaga over his performance.  He does a fine job, of course, but I think he’s hampered by the script here.

If an actor can get a nomination for a role that won John Wayne an Oscar, well, he must be doing something right.  Even if Jeff Bridges took a note from the Marlon Brando school of acting and stuffed a handful of pebbles in his mouth before talking.  If he didn’t get his career achievement Oscar last year, I have the feeling that we’d be hearing a lot more about him.  It is still weird to me, as a devotee of Freaks and Geeks (OK, who am I kidding, as a devotee of Whatever It Takes), that James Franco is a highly-regarded thespian.  But he’s unquestionably deserving.  And in 127 Hours it takes some kind of screen presence to be the sole focus of nearly every shot of every scene.

John makes a good point above, Jesse Eisenberg definitely does not play the same character in every film.  Are they similar?  Sure.  There’s the ever present joke about how he and Michael Cera fight over the same roles.  But really, I can’t imagine  Eisenberg as Scott Pilgrim nor I could see Cera as Zuckerberg.  Sorkin’s Zuckerberg is  a difficult nut to crack, but I think Eisenberg handles it quite deftly.

Like Mr. Darcy needed anything else to be a chick magnet.

But, of course, like everyone else in the world, I’m jumping on the Colin Firth bandwagon.  And while he’s had an impressive career, this victory is certainly not just for his body of work.  Doing the stutter is the obvious part of his performance.  And he does do it in a way that (apparently) very close to reality, but also works on screen.  That said, there’s so much more to his role.  How he, as a prince and king, husband and father, handles his relationship with each one of the other characters.  Part of that is Seidler’s script, naturally.  But a lot of it is Firth working his magic.

We’re taking a look at Oscar categories in advance of tonight’s show. Now we’re on Supporting Actress. The nominees:

  • Amy Adams, The Fighter
  • Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
  • Melissa Leo, The Fighter
  • Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
  • Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Jared

I don't see the big deal, this FYC ad seems kinda classy...

The supporting categories are always tough for me because it is hard to figure out how, exactly, to weight screen time.  Should I favor being fantastic in five minutes over a solid performance in forty-five minutes?  Perhaps appropriately, I just flipped on the radio and The Zombies’s “She’s Not There” started playing.  I’m a big Amy Adams fan and loved that she got to play a little against type in The Fighter.  But she didn’t have enough to work with to make an impression on me.  She had a few memorable scenes, sure.  But I’m still not entirely certain how she nabbed a nomination over, say, Mila Kunis.

When the actress receiving a nomination is genuinely confused about it, you know Hollywood silly groupthink has reared its head again.  Like a movie?  Then vote for every single aspect of it!  Helena Bonham Carter does a perfectly fine job, but one of the five best performances of the year?  It is really odd how Hollywood can’t distinguish between different aspects of a movie they loved.

So, I fell asleep during Animal Kingdom.  Apparently I was out cold.  But don’t worry, after waking up I went back and caught what I missed.  The whole time (at least when I was awake) I was wondering how on earth Weaver managed a nomination here.  For me, it isn’t even the role being confused for the performance, but the idea of the role.  The thing is, I can totally see a film where she’d be worthy of a nomination.  One that wasn’t the most boring crime film of all time.  And one where her role gets fleshed out a little more. I really hope, though, some casting director has taken notice and casts her as the villain in some better production, because I really do think she can pull it off admirably.

I’m a little lower on Hailee Steinfeld than others.  Maybe part of it is because there’s absolutely no way to defend calling her performance supporting.  None at all.  Whoever first pitched the idea of doing so has balls the size of golden globes.  John has mentioned how much he liked Dakota Fanning in The Runaways.  Obviously the roles aren’t really comparable, but I’d tend to agree that I’m not entirely comfortable seeing Steinfeld recognized but not Fanning.  I think Steinfeld has a very bright future and hope that she soon gets new roles to be her calling card.

I don’t think this category is as strong as other this year, which perhaps is one of the reasons prognosticators are finding it a little difficult to predict.  Hilariously, Melissa Leo, probably the front-runner, shot herself in the foot by running For Your Consideration ads on her own dime.  Doesn’t she know how to play the game?  You aren’t allowed to actually say you want to win!  In any case, she’s my pick here, overcoming an awful script to create a memorable presence.  And really doing everything you’d want from a supporting actress, I think.  She always looms large, but never takes over the movie.

John

This is a tough category to pick. Whereas so many of the other categories are embarrassments of riches, I find this one to be slim pickings.

Let’s start with the women from The Fighter. Adams simply failed to make an impression on me. So many others were impressed with her work that I concede I may need another viewing. To me, she’s being swept up in an acting nomination wave for the film. I enjoyed Leo much more, but she also has a more colorful role and I can’t deny that she does seem to be Acting Very Hard.

Everyone loved Steinfeld but she actually drove me a little nuts. I don’t think it’s her fault. For one, the lack of contractions in the dialogue sounded bizarre to me from all characters. And the inflectionless way she often delivers her lines was probably directed out of her. So I think these are stylistic choices that happened to not work for me and therefore reflect poorly on Steinfeld.

Carter is a totally blah nomination. She’s good in The King’s Speech, of course, but she doesn’t get to display much of her considerable skills. It’s just such a straight-forward role. And that leaves Weaver, who you might think therefore wins by default. She plays a ruthless matriarch of a crime family in Animal Kingdom. What makes her so successfully chilling is how sweet she is while doing awful things. I think the tendency would be for the actress to really sell the fact that the sweetness is a charade, but Weaver plays it pretty straight. So she’s just acting sweet. It’s a great choice for the film, but does that make a great performance? The same performance with different words and she’s just a normal doting mother. Or am I missing some nuance?

Oh, honey.

Therefore I have concerns over them all. I’m going to choose Melissa Leo with Jacki Weaver not too far behind. I also just want Leo to win, partly because I like her and partly because I’d feel bad for her if she won all these precursors and lost. People would be blaming it on that photo spread and it would be awful.

Snubs: I’d nominate and give the Oscar to Lesley Manville for Another Year. My off-the-wall choice is Marisa Tomei in Cyrus. (Note: I may be in the bag for Marisa Tomei.)

We’re taking a look at Oscar categories in advance of tomorrow’s show. Today we’re on Original Screenplay. The nominees:

  • Another Year
  • The Fighter
  • Inception
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • The King’s Speech

John

This is a really tough category for me. There are three potential winners, each with its own pros and cons. Of course, that makes it easy to discard two. The Kids Are All Right has an interesting premise that it takes in a plot direction that I found not terribly interesting or powerful. I can see why other people reacted strongly to it, but to me it is a mild diversion with promise for much more. And to me The Fighter is painfully straight-forward and much more of an actors’ movie. I don’t know for sure, but the three screenplay and three story by credits screams screenplay by committee and the film sort of feels like it.

This is how you script Inception

But what to do with the other three? There’s Inception, my favorite film of the year. But its success is so much more on the directorial and editing sides, to me. It didn’t get nominated in either of those categories so this could be its shot to be rewarded. I give it high points for having such a great concept and for the imagination required to create the different, interacting dream levels. But it really succeeds in how Nolan visualizes them as a director.

Another Year is a film I liked a great deal more than my colleagues. This is a picture that is very devoted to its theme of the ravages of the passage of time, which it supports beautifully. It does sacrifice plot for its theme, though to my mind that’s not a detriment. A scene that’s slow or subtle can have an impact. But there are several scenes that are both fairly uninteresting from a plot and character perspective AND not particularly good servants to the theme. The late scene featuring the characters of Mary and Ronnie in the greenhouse is an example. Furthermore, it should have been shorter.

I wonder if the way that Mike Leigh composes his movies has something to do with it. He famously relies on actors’ workshops to flesh out characters and plots. And the result is well-developed characters but some meandering scenes. It could use some tightening. The scenes could come together better or more explicitly explore the theme and the less effective ones could have been more direct.

And then there’s The King Speech, a film without a misstep. Every element is solid and it results in an amusing and rousing film. It also doesn’t have anything particularly outstanding. I feel like both Another Year and King’s Speech would have been successful as the same script in a different director’s hands. The same might not be said for Inception. Is that a fair way to judge a screenplay as a separate element? I don’t know.

So what is it? The one I loved for non-script reasons? The one with some really terrific parts and some notable downfalls? Or the one that’s totally solid but didn’t do anything that blew me away? That’s a tough choice. Today I’ll pick Inception, and I’ll be rooting for it on Sunday as it will be the only major category it has a chance in. But my mind may change.

Jared

Original Screenplay is often the category where the Academy will give a token nomination to a smaller, arty movie that is one of my favorite films of the year.  It still makes me smile to think that Lars and the Real Girl received a nomination here.  Of course, the Academy being the Academy, they also often use this category to recognize a smaller, arty movie that I really dislike.  The Messenger last year, for example (over (500) Days of Summer!).  Sadly, this year the academy has chosen the latter option and recognized Mike Leigh’s script for Another Year.  Which was just not good.  Now, I’ll give him credit for creating Lesley Manville’s character (though he obviously must share that with the actress).  But in a sense, she’s quite similar to Sally Hawkins’s character in his prior film, Happy-Go-Lucky.  Both are characters defined by their one-noteness.  They are unique characters, to be sure, but hardly developed.  And the rest of the movie, well, maybe someone out there thrills at the mundane details of a happily married older couple.  I just call my parents.

If you hate sports movies and get a pretty big kick out of insulting working class folk, then I guess I see how you could appreciate The Fighter.  Otherwise, I mean, the script is absolute dreck.  If handed to me, I think I would have demanded every scene rewritten.  The movie flits through time seemingly randomly, stopping to show unnecessary scenes and leaving out interesting or useful ones.  There’s little to no understanding of the relationships of the characters, other than in the broadest strokes possible.  The “humor” is even broader and extremely repetitive.  And the boxing scenes were scripted by someone who might have played Punch-Out once.  To me, the script failed at every conceivable level.

Maybe I’m the weird one, but I tend to prefer comedies to make me laugh, or at least smile a little.  Of course, The Kids Are All Right isn’t terribly dramatic, so I guess you couldn’t call it a drama.  I’m being a little harsh here, the film does at least bring up a number of interesting ideas.  And it does a pretty good job establishing interesting characters.  But the film never rose to the occasion.  The dialogue is serviceable, but never stands out.  The story is fine, but I think it is only a little interesting because of how few movies center on a lesbian couple.  And the script is content with leaving things there.

I think the script to The King’s Speech is being underrated by a lot of non-Academy types.  I’ll be the first to grant that the story arc and themes aren’t exactly novel to the realm of cinema.  But so what?  I don’t think a film has to be unique to be successful, it just has to entertain.  And this script absolutely is entertaining.  It keeps a good pace, has a consistently funny sense of humor, and hits plenty of emotional notes.  If every film were like this one, sure, movies would start getting boring.  But they aren’t, and the vast majority of movies could only dream of having a script of a quality as high as this one.

One thing that’s important to keep in mind is that a script is so much more than dialogue.  All that action, for example, has to be first written down before the director and guys behind all the tech stuff get the chance to work their magic.  Which is something you need to keep in mind when thinking about Christopher Nolan’s script for Inception.  It is big and bold.  It isn’t perfect, but it is wonderful.  Cold and unfeeling, with poor character development, sure.  But fun as all get out.  Without question one of those movies that makes you go, “Wow.”  And isn’t that, really, what movies should be about?

The Oscars are less than a week away and we’re taking a look at all the categories we care to. Today it’s Supporting Actor.

  • Christian Bale, The Fighter
  • John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
  • Jeremy Renner, The Town
  • Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
  • Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

John:

He probably could have knocked down Sugar Ray.

This is a good group, but Christian Bale is an easy winner for me. He shines when he’s onscreen. It’s the line delivery, the manner of speaking, the body language, the way he walks: it’s so fully-formed. Not that it should be surprising; Bale is terrific in pretty much everything. And I think the dude seeks out movies that allow his body weight to swing wildly.

Hawkes is my second choice, and perhaps the nomination announcement that made me happiest. He may be the most memorable part of Winter’s Bone. It helps that his character is so important and interesting, but Hawkes is still great alternating between menacing and protective. Ruffalo is also a good choice. It’s not easy being both a douchebag but likeable.

And Rush and Renner are unmemorable picks in my mind. Why was Rush the front runner for so long?

Snubs: Two of my favorite supporting performances of the year, after Bale, had shots here but came up short: Andrew Garfield in The Social Network and Bill Murray in Get Low. At least I was able to vote for Murray in the Independent Spirits.

Jared:

I’d probably argue that, pound for pound, this category is the strongest of this year’s crop.  I don’t have anything bad to say about any of the nominees.  And honestly, the five nominees hew pretty darn close to my ideal ballot.

If one of the five has to be weakest, then I guess it would be Jeremy Renner.  Hampered by a relatively weak script, he plays a very familiar character, the screw-up best friend, but does so very well.  Obviously there are significant differences, but I was reminded a lot of Ed Norton’s Worm from Rounders.  I think Renner would have had a stronger case had his character been given a little more room to shine.

Geoffrey Rush has shown incredible range in his career, further extended by his role his as a speech therapist to a king.  Even held to a stricter standard, because (in my opinion) he really is a lead actor in the film, it is hard to find anything to criticize about his performance.

I was pleased as punch when John Hawkes’s name was read on nomination morning.  Regardless of what I think about Winter’s Bone, it is really neat to see a role like this one recognized.  Teardrop is an extremely interesting character, but he isn’t a hero, villain, or foil.  Kudos to the Academy for recognizing a very fine performance in a different sort of role

Christian Bale is a guy you want in your movie.  He always give a consistently superb performance, regardless of the genre of the film in which he’s appearing.  But he also seems to allow his co-stars to shine.  It is a rare talent indeed who can range from perhaps the ultimate straight man (Batman) to a showy, scenery-chomping character like this one.  Especially with this script, Dicky could have been obnoxiously, unbearably over the top.  But Bale reels the character in to something much more appealing.

So talented, he's also nominated for Animated Short.

Only since all these guys can’t be winners, I’m going with Mark Ruffalo as my favorite.  Though in all likelihood this order would have been different had I written this entry on a different day.  I’m repeating myself, but no actor makes playing a character look as effortless as Mark Ruffalo.  If you look over his career, maybe he tends to play a certain general type of character, but it is clearly wrong to suggest he’s just playing himself.  I usually hate to fall back on the cliche, but Paul just felt real.  As in, not a character, but an interesting person.  We’ll shortly get to what I think of the script, but suffice it to say that I’m laying just about all of that on Ruffalo.

Adam:

Says that this category is probably this year’s strongest and can’t decide between Bale and Rush.  I assume he also would have insulted at least one of us.

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

Best Original Song

Your nominees:

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

John bemoans the state of the category:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jared sees things similarly

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

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

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

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

Best Original Score

The nominees:

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

John takes this one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound

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

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

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

Jared talks Editing:

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

John talks Mixing:

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

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

The nominees:

  • Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
  • Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
  • David Fincher, The Social Network
  • Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
  • David O. Russell, The Fighter

Adam

Film Director: a person who directs the actors and crew in the making of a film. They control a film’s artistic and dramatic aspects, while guiding the technical crew and actors. They often develop the vision for a film and carry the vision out, deciding how the film should look.

This is the definition of what a film director’s job is from the source of all knowledge – Wikipedia. I see a director as the story teller. Screen writers write the story, but they are brought to life by the director’s vision. The better the story, the easier it is for the story teller to make the story real/interesting/good. Ultimately, it is the director’s decision how the shots are setup, how the actors act (through endless takes if necessary), and how the final version of the movie works.

I have come to the conclusion, after years of experience, that less than 5% of the Academy has any idea of what a director does or what a good one looks like. One has only to look at the movies nominated this year to see the truth in this. The Academy also has a strong case of envy when it comes to Christopher Nolan. Regardless of how original you think the script is, Inception was easily the best directed movie of the year. Of course, that makes no difference to the Academy as it doesn’t even make the top 5 in their eyes. Let’s take a look at who they thought did better.

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

Let me first say that I really liked The Wrestler. I thought Aronofsky did a terrific job of creating a compelling character study of a washed up pro wrestler. Black Swan was less impressive. Part of this was due to a weak script, but it wasn’t that bad. The acting is really what saved this movie from failure. Natalie Portman did an amazing job and absolutely deserves an Oscar. Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel (as usual) both put on very strong performances – I actually like Mila more than many of the Supporting Actress nominees. That being said, this isn’t a very good movie and most of it is due to Aronofsky’s directing. Portman’s decent into madness seems almost sloppy. There were definitely compelling scenes (e.g. the finger/toe nail and dressing room scenes), however in an effort to raise audience tension/ anxiety, Aronofsky resorts to directing and camera techniques that lead more to motion sickness than to tension.

David O. Russel, The Fighter

This is possibly the worst directed film of the year. There are really only two options when considering how this film was nominated: a.) Academy members thought they were voting for the Razzies, b.) the Academy is populated by a bunch of morons. The script for this film was atrocious, but that only excuses you so far. The fight scenes in this movie (barring the final one) are utter garbage. It’s like Russel has never seen a well done fight scene…ever. I can only assume this was nominate to piss off Christopher Nolan that much more.

Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech was one of my favorite movies of the year. An extremely entertaining movie that succeeded despite the fact that the premise is overcoming a speech impediment (not exactly gripping material). However, as much as I liked the film, its real strengths are in the script and the acting. I am thrilled it was nominated, but one of the most impressive things about the direction of this film is that Hooper managed to not ruin the movie. That may be a disservice to Hooper, though. He did a tremendous job of pulling this movie together and making it the entertaining production that it turned out to be.

David Fincher, The Social Network

What can I say about David Fincher? In the 1990’s, he made three movies I really enjoyed (Seven, The Game, and Fight Club). In the 2000’s, he made two movies I was not impressed at all with (Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and one I didn’t see (Panic Room). After going back and thinking about these movies as a whole, I came to one conclusion: David Fincher is completely dependent upon the script he has been chosen to bring to life. Now, some may argue that that is the fate of any director. My rebuttal is that Fincher doesn’t seem to bring much else to the table, and, in fact, may even negatively impact any production he is associated with. After watching his movies, I would pay good money to see what a more talented director could do with Seven and Fight Club. The Social Network falls into that same category. I really liked this movie despite hating Facebook and rarely being impressed with Fincher. This is due solely to Aaron Sorkin’s script. We’ll talk more about that in a later post, but it is important to note that any success that The Social Network has is entirely the result of a fantastic script. This year, Fincher is once again saved by (and lauded for) being associated with an award winning script. Great job, David, not completely ruining this movie. (That’s about the biggest complement I can give him as the directing in this movie was uninspiring to say the least, and, in my opinion, negatively impacted the movie.)

Joel & Ethan Coen, True Grit

I appreciate the Coen brothers. I may not always LOVE their movies, but I can almost always appreciate what they were trying to accomplish. The way in which they approach and execute their movies is very impressive. True Grit is no exception. It is rare that a remake is better than the original, but the Coen brothers were able to accomplish this feat handily. Their re-envisioning of the beloved John Wayne movie is impressive – I enjoyed their version a lot better than the original. Joel and Ethan excel at giving their movies scope and depth using the locations and sets of their movies. Shots are meticulously planned and executed to get the most of both the action and the backdrop. This movie was no exception. The biggest flaw was the ending. The last 5-10 minutes of the movie were horrible. This is the only aspect of the movie that was far inferior to the original.

Who Should Win: Christopher Nolan

However, since he can’t win: Toss-up between the Coens and Hooper, but I probably give it to the Coens. Either would be fine with me, though.

Jared

The Fighter is one of the worst-directed films of the year, and I’m stunned so few people seem to be on the same page as me here.  Sure, David O. Russell was working with a crappy script.  But take any boxing scene from the film, other than the final fight.  Take it and burn it because it is nothing less than an insult.  At best, they are cut scenes from a low-grade boxing video game.  They alone should have prevented Russell from getting a nomination.  While it is hard to blame Russell too much for the rest of the movie’s failures, I do think he heavily contributed to the repeated references, to the point of being really obnoxious, that the family was lower class.

I’m clearly just not on the same page as the Coen brothers.  If one of the major roles of a director is establishing a compelling tone, then the Coens have missed the mark on that front.  With True Grit, as perhaps other of their films of late, I never really felt drawn into the story.  And while a lot of that is on the script, I think some of it has to be thrown at the feet of the brothers’ directing efforts.  Similarly, Aronofsky’s directing in Black Swan was fine, but not awards-worthy.  He had a difficult task, at there was a lot of incomplete thoughts going on, to be sure.  But I think the film would have had a significantly stronger impact if, for example, it had been directed by someone with more of a feel for horror films.

So we’re down to the big question, Hooper or Fincher? The two films are pretty different and demanded quite different styles.  Sure, The King’s Speech is a lot less showy than The Social Network.  But I think it is a testament to Hooper that he didn’t get in the way of the story.  Starting with that cast is a big leg up.  Hooper’s straightforward style runs with that advantage, creating a crisp, efficient feel that is quite effective for the film.

But I’ll join in with the chorus who say that it was Fincher‘s directing that made Sorkin’s script something truly special.  I wasn’t in Fincher’s camp at first, when I mainly though of the regatta scene, and how odd it was.  Instead, take the scene in the bar with Justin Timberlake.  Other directors may have turned that into artsy, clubby nonsense.  Instead, Fincher rather effectively creates an atmosphere that furthers the story.  Really, the shifts in tone from location to location are pretty remarkable, and I think a good chunk of the credit there goes to Fincher for effortlessly weaving together the different parts of the story while maintaining a consistent overall tone.

John

I’ll leave the vitriol and verbosity to my colleagues. I quite liked all the nominees. When talking directing, there’s no better indicator of greatness than simply making a great movie, but I also look for things like vision, style, tone, and pacing.

A few of these nominees stand out from the others. The Coens create what I would call a well-crafted movie. It’s one of those films where all the technical elements come together so well: camerawork, acting, sets, costumes, music. I wish it added up to a bit more. Aronofsky produces the flashiest work of the group. Black Swan is intense and frenetic and his capable hands. I’ve loved all of his films I’ve seen so I’m glad to see him finally get some Oscar love.

My winner, fairly handily, is Fincher. Adam is too uncharitable here. The script simply establishes the dialogue and structures the story. The shot composition that follows a complex narrative and rapid fire dialogue, the film’s cool aesthetic, the varying but always spot-on tone, the breathless pacing: these have Fincher’s fingerprints all over them. There are an unlimited number of directions the exact same Sorkin script could have gone in someone else’s hands. It’s great with Fincher at the helm.

Snub: The best directed film of the year is Inception. What creativity! What vision! What style! What does Christopher Nolan have to do to get a directing Oscar nomination??

The Oscar ceremony is just a few days away. With dozens of films under our belts it’s time for us to weigh in on this year’s nominees. We’ll be doing our usual in depth analysis for the major categories, but we’ll give some of the ol’ Grouch treatment to the smaller and technical categories as well.

Today, I (John), tackle Visual Effects and Film Editing. Feel free to make your preferences known in the comments, especially if you happen to know more about these subjects!

Visual Effects

The nominees:

  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 1
  • Hereafter
  • Inception
  • Iron Man 2

By seeing Hereafter on a whim months ago and Tron: Legacy getting a surprise snub here, I happen to have seen all the nominees. Hereafter is the one that strikes me as behind the others. It’s nominated based on an opening sequence where a character is caught in the Boxer Day tsunami. It’s a terrifying sequence and very effective from a film making standpoint. You really feel in the middle of the swell and experience its power. I know the sequence is well-respected in the field and I know water is particularly hard to work with in effects, but I must admit it set off my realism sensors. It’s hard to explain, but little things let me know it wasn’t real, like little errors in physics or the interaction between the animated water and filmed background. Also, it’s a support sequence up against four films reliant on visual effects.

I don’t have much to say about Iron Man 2, Alice in Wonderland, or Harry Potter except that they have good and frequent visual effects in films that are bad, very bad, and mediocre, respectively.

I choose Inception as my winner. It uses its effects mostly cleverly (though as a very clever film one would hope the visuals would also be clever). I also like that it’s a mix of computer generated and more traditional special effects. There’s a city that folds onto itself, but they also built an actual spinning hallway and blew up a model winter fortress.

Film Editing

The nominees:

  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • The King’s Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • The Social Network

I won’t pretend to be an expert in editing. It’s one of those things you don’t usually notice unless it bothers you or if it’s flashy. The Oscars often reward Best Picture contenders or films that have the most editing, like the Bourne Ultimatum debacle.

The editing in 127 Hours provides some necessary pizazz. The guy’s stuck under a rock. You gotta get some energy from somewhere. Black Swan ratchets up the intensity. But I’ll go with The Social Network for maintaining clarity during fast-moving scenes with rat-a-tat dialogue and nailing all its dramatic and comedic beats.

Snubs: Forget a nomination snub, the winner here should be Lee Smith for Inception. The film is an editing marvel, weaving together multiple dream narratives moving at different speeds and keeping it all coherent, especially at the end.

Huh.  Looks like we don’t have a proper post on The King’s Speech.  Guess I should rectify that before we start up our pre-Oscarpalooza.

The reason we never got one up, perhaps, is that the film gives you exactly what you see.  There’s nothing (I’d argue) deep or extraordinary or even special, really, about it.  The story is fairly simple: a prince turned king with a stutter learns, after peaks and valleys, to overcome his weakness, thanks to a supportive wife and determined therapist.  There’s no sex, no violence, and no catchphrases. And yet it is going to end up one of the Grouches favorite films of the year.

The best picture nominees this year were, generally speaking, very successful at the box office.  Inception, True Grit, and Toy Story 3 all sailed past $100 million domestic. Black Swan will do so tomorrow, The King’s Speech will by next weekend, The Fighter could sneak past and The Social Network seems like it will fall just short.  So suggesting that The King’s Speech has broad appeal doesn’t exactly make unique among the best picture nominees. That said, where specific audiences may have difficulty getting into any of the other contenders, it is very hard to dislike The King’s Speech.  Its feel-good story is accessible, smartly paced and never sappy.  If the lines aren’t especially memorable, they almost never fall flat.  And, of course, the actors absolutely sell the film.

I won’t waste anyone’s time rehashing the merits of Geoffrey Rush or Colin Firth.  But I think it is fairly easy to imagine how much of a prick the therapist could have been in lesser hands.  Or how unwatchable the king’s stutter could have been, with a different approach. I think everyone knows Helena Bonham Carter is riding on the coattails of the film this awards season, I’m just confused why everyone continues to play along.  No fault of her own, of course, just isn’t a meaty role.  And hey, I’ve seen the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice twice, I like me some Jennifer Ehle, but she’s hardly in the film.  I did, though, kinda like Guy Pearce.  Who hasn’t had nearly the career he should have.  Even if he’s somehow been in three Oscar-nominated films over the past two years.

In the past few weeks the film has emerged as a front-runnner for a whole heap of awards, including Best Picture, thanks to the guilds’ unanimity in rewarding the movie.  Which has led to some rather unseemly sniping by the supporters of The Social Network, the erstwhile presumptive favorite after its near sweep of the critic’s awards.  Now, if you want to argue that The King’s Speech was not the best film of the year, fine, I can’t argue with that.  But we aren’t talking about a Crash situation here.  Hooper, Seidler, et al have created a damn fine movie.  Does it break boundaries?  No, probably not.  Will it inspire any new trends in cinema?  Doubtful.  But I’m not sure why either would be a prerequisite to being a great movie.

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