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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, here we are. I want to make sure to say thanks to Adam, Brian, and John for joining me on this ride. I’ve got no life, so it was relatively easy for me to catch these nineteen films (plus the other contenders we saw). But I know that you all made some sacrifices to make it happen. And thanks for all the discussions (both on- and off-blog). You guys rock.

Inglourious Basterds

Adam and I tend to have fairly similar taste in movies, so it was surprising to me that we disagree so much about Inglourious Basterds. He told me he didn’t think I would like it, leading me to believe that deep down he knows the film just doesn’t work. Sure, there are stretches of brilliance: the first few minutes of the opening scene, the whipped cream scene, most of the scene at the underground bar, everything about Christoph Waltz’s character. But Tarantino appears to be a guy who needs someone to keep him in check. Just about every scene goes on too long. And the story never comes together into a cohesive unit. I admire the film’s ambition and respect Tarantino’s vision. But the film left me unmoved.

Avatar

I’m not a particularly visual person, so while I personally can’t excuse Avatar‘s script, I guess I can understand how someone might get swept up by shiny things. But I don’t understand why this logic only applies to James Cameron. Criticisms of Michael Bay movies invariably levy charges of being bloated, overly-reliant on CGI with no character development and having things blowing up nonstop. Aren’t the exact same things being said about Avatar, more or less? Adam talked about not putting mindless action flicks up for Best Picture. That’s a stance I don’t understand to begin with, and I think the Avatar nomination discredits in practice. I’ve yet to hear any sort of logical argument about how the distinction between a “fun” movies and a “good” one isn’t arbitrary. As such, I’ll continue to only rank movies based on how much I enjoy them.

An Education

Possibly one of this year’s most fun collection of actors. It is just too bad they didn’t really have much to do. Think about the memorable scenes in the movie. Molina falling under Saarsgard’s charms. Thompson arguing with Mulligan. Williams arguing with Mulligan. Pike being a ditz. The birthday party with Mulligan’s former beau. Almost all of these things have the barest of setups or followthroughs. What is Emma Thompson doing in the film, anyway? As is, shouldn’t her character just been merged with that of Olivia Williams? The point is, I buy it is the right cast, the right screenwriter, and heck, the right director. But what if you didn’t bind Nick Hornby to a set of memoirs where apparently nothing happens, instead just describing the characters and themes? I think that could have been something really tremendous. And also probably would have had an ending.

A Serious Man

I’m still amazed this film received a Best Picture nomination. Not talking about its merits, just that the film had no discernible buzz, at least that I saw. The Coens and I clearly operate on different wavelengths. Not drastically different, just enough that I don’t quite get them. Plus, I don’t think they are as funny or clever as they think they are. Their work does have a timeless quality, though. I could have seen this movie being made ten years ago or twenty years ago. And (as with almost all of their films) their work is refreshing, an oddball little piece of cinema not quite fitting in anyway. Which I can definitely appreciate. And I don’t mean to completely badmouth the film, I did find that I generally enjoyed myself, even if I still haven’t quite figured it out. Assuming there is anything to figure out, I guess.

The Blind Side

I liked this film a little more than the other Grouches. Possibly because I have a heart. Personally, I think it delivers exactly what it sets out to do. It is a big, broad movie that tugs at the heartstrings (but not too much) and ultimately leaves you feeling a little better about things. Is there anything so wrong with that? Sure, it never really tries to reach for anything higher, and that’s maybe why I didn’t fall in love it, but it is a solid, solid film. I think some of the criticisms hurled at it are kinda weak. Yes, a rich white lady helps a poor black kid. No, that doesn’t automatically mean you can toss around the phrase “white guilt”. Partially because this stuff, you know, actually happened. And I found it to be a fairly faithful adaptation of the book (other than the book’s discussion of the history of left tackle, of course). Not sure I could imagine anything better, actually. Well, except for maybe removing some of Lewis’s bias. But that’s probably a good thing.

Precious

We’ve been over the faults of this film’s script numerous times. The auxiliary characters weren’t sketched out well and the plot isn’t that interesting. What the story did do, however, was provide ample opportunity for Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidibe to dominate all over the place. And sometimes, that’s enough. Like Avatar, oddly enough, when the film was allowed to play to its strengths, it was magical. In certain sense, the film captures drama better than anything else this year. The relationship between Sidibe and Mo’Nique is really unlike anything I’d seen on screen and while it was often hard to take, it was just so so powerful.

Up in the Air

Here’s another film I feel like I’ve unintentionally badmouthed a lot. There were lots of things I liked about Up in the Air, very few things I disliked. It was a very good film, and I’m happy it got nominated. My complaints were more about the acting nominations than anything else, I guess. And, well, not thinking that it was a great movie, because it didn’t quite get there. It was funny and dramatic and thought-provoking, just not very funny or very dramatic or very thought-provoking. Still, a smart film, Jason Reitman is crazy promising. What did I like, though? Hm. It was a fun ride throughout and rarely boring. Kept a solid pace. Made me laugh some. I don’t know, exactly. Just a well-made film.

The Hurt Locker

The dichotomy here is fascinating. $15 million grossing art house movie? Totally Oscar. Iraq war movie? Not Oscar. Cast filled with relative unknowns? Oscar. Action movie? Not Oscar. Finally rewarding a director who paid his dues? Oscar. Finally rewarding a director who paid her dues? Not Oscar. With a quality script, this film would have been something truly special. As is, it’s a fine piece of film making, and extraordinary example of how great a taut, exciting action film can be. Kinda interesting to compare to Slumdog Millionaire, in terms of a movie that didn’t make all that much money and about a topic not necessarily of general interest, and certainly wasn’t necessarily guaranteed to be here on Oscar night.

District 9

Speaking of great action films, I have no clue how District 9 ended up with an best picture nomination, but yay. Something went terribly right for that to happen, because honestly, does it seem like an Oscar movie in the least? I guess maybe if you squint. It is proof that action films can be totally riveting. Maybe next year can be comedy’s year? Nah, that’s crazy talk. Well, unless Peter Jackson produces a comedy. I guess that would be OK. Kinda rambling at this point, because the red carpet has started and Brian and Adam are arguing about something. Not sure what, but I’m sure it is ridiculous. But yes, everyone should see District 9. And be amazed at the effects, the action, and really the touching story. I know some other Oscar nominated movies about aliens the year seemed to imply that it wasn’t possible to have a great story with your alien action, but I assure you, that’s false.

Up

Yup, there’s little question that Up is the year’s best film. Pixar doesn’t make animated movies, they make movies. No need to gush about that opening sequence, because yeah, just out of this world. And I’ll be the only Grouch who likes agreeing with John. Up is consistently funny, definitely one of the funniest movies of the year. (And Adam, I’ll take the bait, yes, I laughed more at She’s Out of My League, but that’s an argument we are going to have in 2010 discussions.) But it was also one of the most exciting films, with one of the interesting stories. Just all around a fantastic movie. Never slow, never dull, always amazing. The Grouches don’t all agree on our favorite Pixar movies, but I think we all agree that at their best, no one tells stories like they do. And if you tell a story as close to perfectly as they do, well, you are going to get my vote for movie of the year.

And so it all comes down to this. This is a really terrific set of nominees. Even with the expanded category it has a better average film quality than most years. It has refreshing variety and even the selections I don’t really agree with are at least interesting. It remains to be seen how “The Ten” will affect the prestige of the Oscars in the long-term, but it was a wild success for 2009 by producing such an interesting and varied group of nominees.

Counting backwards, here is the ranked ballot I would have submitted had I been a voter.

10. The Blind Side. This is not a good movie. It’s cliched, simple, and emotionally manipulative, though it is centered with a forceful performance from Sandra Bullock. I think its biggest sin is the way Michael, the poor black football player adopted by Bullock’s character, is so poorly developed so that there’s nothing to him. But I do appreciate that people felt affected by the film and I think there’s room for mainstream drama like this in a field of ten.

9. Inglourious Basterds. Second from the bottom and we’re already at a movie I really enjoyed! This is a very good sign! Basterds is an interesting film and very entertaining. I remain committed to my assertion that I wish there was more substance to complement its style. Its scenes are tense and engrossing, but sometimes last a bit too long. A better theme or story to tie those scenes together would have made it much better so that there was more to it than just being awesome.

8. District 9. I enjoyed this film on first viewing. Its unique premise enthused me and its themes kept me thinking. I was dismayed at how much it turned into a standard action movie with unoriginal sequences by the end, however. On my second viewing I was much less bothered by the action and was impressed by all the little details built into the story and the world it creates. Very good stuff.

7. The Hurt Locker. This film clearly didn’t resonate with me the way it did so many others. I really liked it and found many of its scenes painfully suspenseful. I just didn’t find it to be the gut punch so many others did, or as so many other movies on this list did to me. I thought it didn’t come together as a whole as well as I hoped. It’s still very good, just not as good as the others.

6. A Serious Man. This is probably THE movie of 2009 that has me thinking the most. I found the story totally engrossing, even as I wasn’t understanding its point. I found myself drawn to the plot more than I expected upon second viewing. There’s something delightfully subversive about a film that revels in its sometimes-there-is-no-meaning meaning. Accept the mystery. I wouldn’t be surprised that if I revisit this list in a decade that this is the movie that moves up my list the most. I’m already looking forward to watching it again.

5. Precious. Powerful, effective, emotionally hefty. But it’s also very well-made. It really takes a talented hand to not make this film devolve into utter emotional manipulation. I enjoyed the way it’s visualized, though I know my fellow Grouches generally did not. I found the tone was balanced well enough to not make it relentlessly depressing. I’m never fond of a salvation-through-literacy plotline, but otherwise the story and characters (and acting) are uniformly terrific.

4. Up in the Air. This film really succeeds in tone and atmosphere. I have a couple problems with the plot, particularly actions by Vera Farmiga’s Alex, but they’re all overwhelmed by how deeply the film grabbed me and held me. It’s a film about what it’s like to be alive now, from the economic downturn to corporate indifference and the disconnected way we live our lives in this world. It has wonderful characters and terrific performances with some insightful writing and a story that, while not twisty, proceeds in unexpected directions.

3. Up. Here are two signs of how great this film is. In the lead-up to the Oscars there are lots of stories about the nominees. I have yet to see a clip of Up that doesn’t make me laugh. We talk a lot about the brilliant and heartbreaking Married Life montage, but the writing in this film is very strong throughout with lots of clever touches, insight, and hilarious jokes. Oh man, that Kevin just cracks me up. Second, I’ve been listening to some film scores recently and the one for Up always brings me right back to the film. And not just to the plot or the visuals, but to its heart.

2. An Education. The easiest way to explain my affection for film is to say: everything works. Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard are enchanting on screen. The script deftly develops Mulligan’s Jenny so that we understand her and therefore her desires and motivations for her actions. Then Mulligan nails every aspect of Jenny while Sarsgaard is the perfect mix of charm and creepiness. Their relationship never rings false.

1. Avatar. Yes I love the way the film looks. It’s absolutely stunning and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. But it really is more than that. So many films set out to create a universe and they almost always feel incomplete. Avatar succeeds. Everything makes sense in this universe. Rules are set and they are adhered to. The clever little details to the world come together to create a fascinating whole. And people get down on the story, but it’s a fine story. It takes an outline that has been used plenty of times before, but I think all the original details make it feel fresh. All the spiritual stuff is hogwash? Well, maybe on Earth but there are different rules on Pandora. And those elements interested me.

Avatar is an experience. A film-going milestone. I loved every second of it.

We’re finishing off our look at the smaller categories today with a look at the ones that we care to talk about.

Original Song

The nominees, with videos so that you may listen:

  • “Almost There” Princess and the Frog, Music and lyric by Randy Newman
  • “Down in New Orleans” Princess and the Frog, Music and lyric by Randy Newman
  • “Loin de Paname” Paris 36, Music by Reinhardt Wagner and lyric by Frank Thomas
  • “Take it All” Nine, Music and lyric by Maury Yeston
  • “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” Crazy Heart, Music and lyric by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett

Jared starts us off:

Randy Newman has written many smart, catchy songs for film and for his albums.  “Down in New Orleans” is an example of some of the dreck he’s also come up with.  Reminds me of that bit from Family Guy about Randy Newman singing what he sees (couldn’t find video, but here’s the audio).

“Loin de Paname” was a surprise nominee, but having heard the song, it totally makes sense.  Because it is basically “La Vie en Rose”.  Except they say “Paris” a lot.  New rule of thumb for picking Oscar song nominees: If it sounds like it could play over a Sabrina-like character finding herself in Paris montage, it is probably going to get a nomination.

“Almost There” sounds almost exactly like I’d expect a song from a Disney animated to sound.  Fits right in with the throwback feel the studio was going for with the movie.  Anika Noni Rose does a lovely job with the song, but to me, the tune is lacking soul.  It is a fine song, but doesn’t have that extra oomph to really make it memorable.

Since Oscar voters get to see the context in which the songs appear in their respective films, it is no wonder that “Take It All” received a nomination.  Heck, I’d probably consider some Nickelback if it got Marion Cotillard to strip.  But really, it is an average burlesque number, and Cotillard isn’t nearly bold enough a singer to cover for the song’s lack of originality.

So yeah, no surprise that “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” is the class of the bunch.  Haunting and at time soul-wrenching, it is a pretty little number that perhaps raised my expectations for the film a little too high.  There was absolutely space to use the song in a much more striking fashion, like in many other areas, the film fell short.  Still, a great song used to good effect in the film.  A worthy nominee and hopefully more.

But John sets him straight

I like this slate of original songs. Of course if I had made the nominees they would be substantially different, but it’s a good mix of seriously good songs, contenders, and a completely from left field entry. The song category is good for these outlier nominees and it keeps it interesting even if I don’t always agree.

That outlier is “Loin de Paname.” To me it’s a nondescript French tune, as if someone set out to write a song that was stereotypically French complete with accordion.

“Almost There” is too simplistic for my tastes. Too much of the lyrics simply repeat the title. I think the music is fine.

“This Is It” didn’t strike me as particularly noteworthy when first listening to the eligible songs. It starts alluring and ends dramatic, so I could sort of see the appeal. But I totally understand after watching Nine where this number is easily the best scene in the film. It works in a way that the rest of the movie does not so the song’s inclusion here makes a lot more sense. On its own I think it’s still only okay, but at least now I can picture the film while it’s playing.

The final two songs are terrific. Jared’s dismissal of “Down in New Orleans” is disappointing. I really dig this jazzy tune. It has some catchy lyrics and a more complex structure than “Almost There.” Part of the key is listening to the version sung by Dr. John that comes early in the film rather than the Anika Noni Rose version, which is split between a prologue and epilogue. I’m always tickled by the way Dr. John croons “They got music,  it’s always playin’/ start in the day time, go allllllll through the night.”

The winner of course is “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart. It’s heartfelt and beautiful and fits the tone of the film perfectly. I also appreciate the song’s role in the film itself. If anything it’s problem is that it’s so much better than everything else in the film! With this song playing over the trailer I expected some great music going into the film, just to be disappointed when every other Bad Blake song is bland mainstream country.

Snubs: I’ve had two songs stuck in my head the most this season along with “The Weary Kind.” One is “Help Yourself” from Up in the Air which was deemed ineligible. But I hear this song and I am transported right back to the film’s powerful atmosphere.

And the other – would it be weird to say? – was the Sinead O’Connor end credits track to The Young Victoria, Only You.” The combination of her breathy voice and a catchy hook and chorus combo completely draw me in.

And of course I was hoping for a Karen O entry from Where the Wild Things Are because she’s so great.

Original Score

The nominees:

  • James Horner, Avatar
  • Alexandre Desplat, Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, The Hurt Locker
  • Hans Zimmer, Sherlock Holmes
  • Michael Giacchino, Up

Brian lets us in on his musical brilliance:

So I write this as a guy who would consider buying satellite radio for the sole purposes of listening to Cinemagic — the movie score channel — all the time. Movie scores are grossly underappreciated, I think, and are the equivalent of the concertos and symphonies written by the musical masters of the 19th century. So I go into this category with pretty high expectations and a healthy dose of snobbery. A couple of caveats and qualifiers: I haven’t seen two of these films in theaters, so I’m judging based on what I can listen to online and my favorite composers (James Newton Howard, Michael Newman, and Philip Glass) aren’t up for awards this year — which is a good thing because I’m going through this with an open mind. Lastly, had Marvin Hamlisch been nominated for The Informant, he would have won my vote.

In order of least favorite to favorite, with only really one disappointing score among them:

James Horner — Avatar

In my Lock That Shouldnt Be post, i wrote about how I really wished that Horner would get ignored, but that was not meant to be. I’m generally disinclined to like any score that uses choirs as heavily as Horner does in Avatar. If I wanted to hear falsettos chanting unintelligbly, I’d go to the opera or buy a CD of Gregorian chants. Using the Carmina Burana has become so cliched that composers like Horner just try and mimic it with middling success. A moaning chorus is a hallmark of bad action movies. A great score sets the tone of what is happening on the screen and when standing on its own, should be evocative of the same emotions as the movie — but Horner bolds, underlines, italicizes his notes too much. I have the same problems with the score that I had with the movie — bombastic, bludgeoning and too in love with itself to uncover the subtle emotions within.

Marco Beltralmi – Hurt Locker

Here’s the first of four scores that I would definitely want to hear on Cinemagic. Taking a cue from Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores, the score underscores Jeremy Renner’s “go it alone” manner. The bomb detonation squad is almost like the classic Eastwood cowboy — they’re the ones who have to face danger head on in the hot desert while the rest of the town (army) waits until the coast is clear. Heck, there’s even a shootout in The Hurt Locker. Beltraimi infuses the heavy metal music preferred by Renner’s SGT James into the score in a much more effective use of that music than what was done in, say, The Messenger — where it was merely a cliched example of how Ben Foster’s character is coping with the war. It’s really great score and I think a textbook example of how a score can improve a movie.

Hans Zimmer — Sherlock Holmes and Alexandre Desplat — Fantastic Mr. Fox

Here are the two films I didn’t see — so I feel somewhat unqualified to give them a full appraisal, but I really love what I’ve heard so far. Zimmer is one of the most prolific composers out there — so he’s done his share of forgettable and memorable scores in the past. While this isn’t as good as his work for The Dark Knight, which may be one of my favorite scores of the past 10 years, it ranks up there with the Pirates of the Caribbean in terms of catchiness and ability to stand on its own as a musical composition. It’s so good, that it even makes me want to go see the movie whereas before I’d probably have been happy to let it slide.

As for Desplat’s Mr. Fox — it too is another score that makes me want to see the film from another veteran on a hot streak. His score for The Queen was a significant contributor to how much I liked that movie, and I can hear shades of it in the Mr. Fox themes. It’s light, playful — the staccato strings liven up a breezy mood — one that I hope is dominant in the film itself.

Michael Giacchino — Up

This may be my second favorite Pixar score — falling behind The Incredibles which, surprise surprise, was also composed by Giacchino. The versatile 8-note motif comes up over and over again, but in totally different styles and in different situations. You hear it during the heart-warming prologue, the momentous occasion when the house lifts into the air, during the climactic chase scene with the dogs. And its been stuck in my head for days at a time, and I couldn’t be happier for it. It’s such a joyful theme that is a great start to making my best scores list of the 2010s. It’s my pick for this year in what amounts to a very talented group. Do doo do dooo….do doo do dooo….

And John makes his points, albeit less artfully:

There are some neat pieces in The Hurt Locker score if you listen to them on their own. They are interesting and very good. The rest of the tracks are sort of generic tension-building soundtrack music. But I just watched the film again and I still barely noticed the music – and I was listening for it!

The music for Fantastic Mr. Fox is playful and not a bad listen. But it also doesn’t grab me and the most successful music in the film are the pop songs, not the score. I haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes but I dig the the score. I don’t know how you compose the score for Sherlock Holmes and say, “You know what this needs? Fiddles and banjos!” And it works.

There are two clear front runners for me. One I got a bit more pleasure out of while watching the film, the other I think is better on its own. It’s a tough choice between the two and maybe I’ll change my mind a few times before the show tonight.

The Avatar score made a huge impact on me during the film. Brian dislikes the choral use but I eat that stuff up. Two scenes that stand out to me as especially enhanced by music are Jake’s first flight on an ikran and when the Na’vi try to save Grace at Hometree. That music struck me as very powerful. And the bombastic score during the climax and as it fades to credits? Wonderful.

Was I humming the tune as I left the theater? No. But the music was absolutely part of my thoughts on my walk home, and I can’t say I’ve ever really learned a film’s music enough after one viewing to be able to hum it. So I listened to the soundtrack several times in subsequent days. It’s a good listen, but outside the context of the movie it’s not quite as noteworthy.

I’m giving the edge to Up because I think it holds up a bit better on its own and because, when I listen to it, I’m transported back to the film and how it made me feel. All of it is just so integral part of that wonderful film as it weaves its motifs into different scenes and tones. But while same themes appear again and again, they’re used differently enough to not feel repetitive. And, of course, the music is very lovely.

Animated Feature

The nominees:

  • Coraline
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • The Princess and the Frog
  • The Secret of Kells
  • Up

John chimes in on this one:

I’m really thrilled this category got expanded to five films this year. It was a good year for animation. Furthermore, I’m quite happy that middling efforts from big studios like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Monsters vs Aliens were left off in favor of some more interesting films. There is a clear winner here, but any Academy member that took the time to watch these films surely had a great time.

Except when they watched Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is too self-consciously quirky for its own good. Wes Anderson is too beholden to his style at this point that he fails to tell a coherent story that we care about. I did not find Anderson’s ruminations on modern ennui to work in a film about foxes. Even the stop-motion animation wore out its welcome by the end.

The Secret of Kells looks fantastic with the most distinct visual style of the nominees. It’s a hand-drawn film, full of bright colors and a playful use of perspective. The music is also wonderful. I found the story to be a chore to get through, however.

The Princess and the Frog is a nice return to form for Disney hand-drawn animation. It’s funny, sweet, musically catchy, and beautifully drawn. I think it tried to do too much with its story and themes; the thing has about a half dozen lessons. A really nice film.

Coraline is seriously creepy. It even creeped me out a bit and I’m twice as old as the target audience. I love the way it looks, particularly its use of contrast between darkness and bright colors. Again there are some story elements that left me a little cold.

And naturally my winner is Up. It just has the whole package from great writing to beautiful animation. It’s not just a great animated film but a great film.

Snubs: I was hoping that if Cloudy wasn’t going to make it in that Mary and Max or 9 would instead.

The Rest

None of us wrote about the sound categories because we are neither knowledgeable nor interested enough to do so. We also didn’t see enough films to comment on Art Direction, even though that’s one of my favorite technical categories. One quick observation on it though: Nine had to be nominated for its use of its stage set for its musical numbers, right? None of the real world sets are particularly interesting. But neither is the stage set- it’s just simple and used in mildly imaginative ways. A nomination for building scaffolding. Wonderful.

And Visual Effects is a cakewalk for Avatar, but I recently saw District 9 again and was reminded how terrific the special effects are in that film. The aliens, the weapons, and the main character’s metamorphosis from human to alien are all stunning.

We’ll each putting up our own thoughts on Best Picture. Except now, when I’m publishing Adam’s writeup. Guess he wanted to continue his streak of not posting.

So, for the grand finale, I’ve decided to forego my previous format and write what I thought about each movie. Unfortunately for you, dear reader, none of the other Grouches have written their posts yet so I am forced to confine my analysis to the movies and my critiques of the others (if they should appear) will be constrained to hearsay and personal experience. So, without further ado, I give you The Nominees:

Precious
Throughout the year, we watch a lot of movies in preparation for the Oscars and I find that my opinion of some of these movies varies greatly from my initial impression as time goes on. As I rank the movies I’ve seen throughout the year, I constantly compare previous views to more recent ones to come up with the best possible score for each – some fall, others rise, and some stay steady throughout. Precious was definitely one of the fallen movies. I thought it was a fine movie, but realized that my initial opinion of it was artificially raised due to all the hype and praise surrounding it. As I time went on, I realized that the script wasn’t all that strong. Decent dialogue was scarce and most of the scenes were pretty blasé (with the notable exceptions of the apartment/stairs scene and the final social worker scene). Mo’Nique’s performance was terrific, granted, but Sidibe’s was, honestly, forgettable. No one will remember her performance in a year or two – if that. The directing was also fairly weak. The dream sequences were unnecessary and heavy-handed, and the other scenes were set up less than ideally. It may seem like I hated the movie, but I didn’t. I gave it a 5.8 out of 10 (though it started at a whopping 7 if you can believe it) so I didn’t think it was horrible, I just want you all to realize that the hype surrounding it is just that – hype.

An Education
An Education actually suffered the opposite fate as Precious. It actually moved up in my ranking as time went on. At first, I couldn’t get over what I viewed as a ridiculous plot. I couldn’t understand how we, the audience, were supposed to buy into the fact that a random older gentleman randomly picked up a school-girl; started to date her immediately – well, as soon as he was able to convince the girl’s very conservative and old fashioned father he was on the “up and up” via a 2 minute conversation, in which he told a joke; and convince her to quit school just shy of graduating. As time went on though, I was able to separate the weak story and horrible scene transitions, and appreciate the strengths of the film. Carey Mulligan actually puts on a pretty great performance – especially given she had very little experience prior to this. She was able to take on a leading role and make it her own. This was one of the few well written lead female characters I saw this year and it is due, in no small part, to Mulligan’s performance. The other fantastic performance was Alfred Molina’s. My respect for him (due in no small part to his role in The Man Who Knew Too Little) dropped dramatically with his part in Spider-Man 2 (one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen). However, he has totally redeemed himself by being one of the brightest spots in this movie. I am very disappointed he wasn’t nominated for Supporting Actor over Damon.

The Blind Side
The Blind Side has a higher score (6.5 out of 10) than I anticipated going into the movie. And, while the script wasn’t anything to write home about, I found myself enjoying the movie, nonetheless. Bullock does a decent job as a Southern, Tennessee-hating, heart-of-gold mother of two (then three), and her nomination for Best Actress is deserved. She was definitely the most impressive part of the movie and I am actually quite happy that she is the front-runner for the win. I have, for the most part, quite enjoyed Ms. Bullock over the years and am glad she has a chance to take home the gold. Other than that, there isn’t much to say about this movie. It is like Precious in a lot of ways – teenager with a troubled past and parental issues is taken in by a strong female character who tries to better them. The biggest difference between the two movies is the tone. While The Blind Side is, on the whole, light and fun (and has an uplifting ending), Precious is a study in just how wrong things can go in a child’s life (and that not everything has a happy ending). For whatever reason, though, I found myself enjoying The Blind Side more than Precious and more than I originally thought I would.

Avatar
As you may have realized by now, I have ordered these movies in ascending order. Which means that the second highest grossing film in history, and the film sure to take home the most amount of Oscars is only 6th on my list of Best Picture nominees. While this may seem confusing to most (I’m looking at you John), anyone who actually watched the movie (and has any taste) can tell you that this movie is over-rated by far. First of all, let’s get this out of the way: The film was absolutely visually stunning. Seriously. They did a tremendous job with the CGI and 3D scenery and sequences. Unfortunately, they stopped there. It is a beautiful façade over a weak structure. The most important part of the movie is the script. This movie’s script was decent – when it was used in Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and Fern Gully. If you are going to steal another movie’s idea/script (which I don’t necessarily disagree with – I mean, look at my boy Tarantino), at least improve upon it. Or, at the very least, make an attempt to change it in some way. The only thing they seem to have done is make the dialogue worse and delve less into every single one of the characters. I am actually floored that a 3+ hour movie had absolutely no character development. And don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of a bunch of movies with little to no plot, no character development, and awful dialogue (I mean, I watch mindless action films by the truckload), but I don’t nominate them for Best Picture. I don’t care what John tries to tell you – don’t drink the Kool-Aid on this movie. See it because it is visually stunning, not because you are looking for an actual Best Picture movie.

A Serious Man
I don’t know how Jared and John write so much. I’m not even half way through this and I’m exhausted. Major props to them. So, now on to A Serious Man. First of all, I’d like to say that I was a huge fan of the opening scene of this movie – especially once the film was over and I realized that I couldn’t figure out how it fit into the rest of the movie. Second, this movie had one of the most interesting characters of the entire year. It was fascinating for me to watch the actions and reactions of this character as we delved deeper and deeper into his mundane, depressing, and all too real existence. I am a huge fan of character studies (if done well). While this isn’t in the same league as Michael Clayton, it is a serviceable replacement for the year. It also has one of my favorite side-stories of the entire year. The scenes with the Korean student are absolutely hilarious.

Up
I’ve talked about this movie a couple of times. I can’t get over how the rest of the Grouches basically have an orgasm whenever they think or talk about it. Yes it was decent, but it wasn’t THAT good. It definitely had its moments (which is why it made it into the top 5 of contenders), but it fell well short of Pixar classics like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. The talking dog was pretty fantastic, and the little scout had some pretty great lines, but that is pretty much it. A lot of the jokes seemed forced or were predictable. The plot was weak, and the villain, one of my favorite elements of most movies, was very weak. I just couldn’t get invested in any of the characters or laugh at many of the jokes (I’d actually like to hear whether Jared thought he laughed more during Up or She’s Out of My League). I will give it this, though, the opening scene was very well done. Squirrel!

District 9
District 9 definitely had one of the most interesting takes on a tried-and-true story. Having the an alien race living in slums, cohabitating to humans, and regulated to second-class status in all things was brilliant. Telling the story in the form of a documentary (The Office style) was pretty fantastic as well. The surprisingly humorous script was augmented by and equally surprising strong cast (surprising in that it is comprised of unknowns). The reason this movie isn’t higher on my list, though, has to do with the plot. While the background and premise of the movie was original and interesting, the actual story was less than stellar. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s more that it didn’t live up to the promise of the movie’s premise. It was decent, not spectacular. I also felt it didn’t flow as well as it could in a couple of different areas, but that’s really just nit-picking. Overall, a very enjoyable movie that I recommend, and I am very glad to see it make it into the Best Picture nominees.

The Hurt Locker
This is another movie that has increase its ranking as time has gone on. I put it slightly lower on my list originally due to the lack of thought put into the overall plot of the movie. What were all those highly entertaining scenes leading up to? Who is SSG William James and why should we care about his story? However, discounting that, this was a fantastic movie. Kathryn Bigelow does a phenomenal directing job here and I very much hope her Best Director hopes are realized – she deserves it. The tension she is able to create in almost every single scene is nothing short of amazing. The bomb scenes are some of the best I’ve ever seen – due in no small part to the great camerawork. Let’s not forget about Renner either. Even though I didn’t know why I should care about him or his story, I couldn’t help but be fully engrossed in whatever he was doing due to Renner’s extremely strong performance. I seriously wish the Academy wasn’t going to hand over the Best Actor award to Jeff Bridges solely as a “Lifetime Achievement Award” because Renner far-and-away out acted Bridges this year. There is a reason this is in my top 3 of nominees. This is a terrific movie, and, had it had a better script, could have been a serious contender for my favorite movie of the year.

Up in the Air
What can I say about this movie? My fellow Grouches have, on many occasions, ridiculed this movie – its script, acting, and directing – and I can’t understand it. Not because I liked it so much (though that is an extremely valid reason in-and-of-itself), but because they all profess to like it as much or more than me. The lowest score it got between us is an 8.4. It actually has the third highest average score of any film we’ve seen this year (beaten by Zombieland and Up). That’s saying quite a bit. I thought it was great. Since Michael Clayton, my respect for Clooney has skyrocketed and I think he does a great job here. Not only that, the two female characters in this movie are both widely different but equally well written and portrayed. Kendrick and Farmiga both shine as opposite sides of the same coin (the professional woman), and complement Clooney’s character as few roles do, now-a-days. I thought the script, while not out-of-this-world, was very well done – with humorous, contemplative/deep, and sad/depressing moments sprinkled in throughout the movie. I actually also really like the directing here as well. Reitman was a very close third to Tarantino and Bigelow this year. Each gave very strong efforts this year, which were rewarded with equally strong movies. I will admit that this movie struck a nerve with its portrayal of the constantly traveling businessman (as that was my life for 2 ½ years), but even discounting that, this was a pretty great movie.

Inglourious Basterds
The Big Kahuna (and no, not Big Kahuna Burger) – nine down, one to go. Since seeing this movie, it has topped my annual Top 5 with only one other movie even coming close to toppling it (Zombieland for those keeping track). Quentin Tarantino is one of my all-time favorites and he doesn’t disappoint with this dialogue-driven, Nazi-killin’, action flick. From the first scene, Tarantino is able to fully invest the audience into his world. How many other directors/films would have such a long, dialogue-heavy opening scene? And how many people actually noticed that the scene went on for so long after the first couple of minutes of interplay between Waltz’s SS Colonel and the out-matched farmer? Tarantino’s ability to take the seemingly most inane scene and turn it into a focal point of a movie based solely on the dialogue (and underlying story) never ceases to amaze me. And he does this more than once in the movie (don’t forget that amazing bar room scene). All this is without taking into account the overall story or the wonderfully violent action scenes. Tarantino gives us a movie that is entertaining on multiple levels and does so with style (plus, he killed Hitler…come on!). If it were up to me, Basterds would receive Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, and Film Editing along with the almost assured Best Supporting Actor for Waltz. Alas, it is not to be.

Grouching Week continues with our discussion of a category that we all feel is depressingly sub-par: Best Screenplay Written Originally for the Screen. First, your nominees:

  • The Hurt Locker” Screenplay by Mark Boal
  • Inglourious Basterds” Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino
  • The Messenger” Screenplay by Allesandro Camon and Oren Moverman
  • A Serious Man” Screenplay by Ethan and Joel Coen
  • Up” Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter and Thomas McCarthy

Jared kicks us off again, with some wishful thinking this time:

    As with the adapted screenplays, four of the five films nominated for Original Screenplay also garnered Best Picture nominations. I have the feeling the others Grouches are going to disagree with me here, [Ed. note — WRONG] but I think this category is extremely weak. Granted, it wasn’t a particularly strong year for Oscar-contending original screenplays, it is just unfortunate the Academy lacked imagination when deciding these nominees.

    As much as Adam might be upset about The Messenger getting a nomination, I wonder if he’d be more upset if I made him watch it for no reason at all. I honestly have no idea what other people see in this film. Military deaths are horrific things, and I cannot possibly imagine the toll it takes on their families or what it must be like to be the one who delivers the news. Everyone involved in this horrible scenario absolutely deserves to have their story told. But told well, which I don’t believe is happening here. I would have believed this film was a Lifetime channel original. The story has no cohesiveness, the dialogue doesn’t lead to any memorable scenes, and frankly, nothing really happens.

    I really think Quentin Tarantino needs a writing partner, as his self-indulgence reaches all sorts of new heights in Inglourious Basterds. I’m fairly certain every scene ran at least two minutes too long. And where the use of disparate storylines was an effective storytelling device in most of his prior work, here it serves no real purpose other than imprinting the film with his watermark, along with his homages and in-jokes and lots of other things which may add up to his distinctive style, but obscure the actual film.

    The support for A Serious Man is completely baffling to me. Mostly because I don’t really think it is exists at all. I clearly don’t connect with the Coens the way other people seem to do so. And while I didn’t find this film nearly as frustrating as some of their other works, I don’t really see the genius behind it. Sure, I’ll give them some credit for a relatively novel main character. But otherwise, seems like middling stuff with a few unnecessary arthouse tricks.

    As I mentioned before, I found The Hurt Locker’s screenplay to be relatively weak. I think Bigelow, her cast and her crew put forth a yeoman’s effort to rescue Mark Boal’s script. To be fair, I’m positive some of the action scenes were delicately and exquisitively scripted. But there’s probably a legit argument that while the interactions between the bomb squad (and between the squad and the bombs) were pretty strong, everything else could have used some sharpening.

    So almost by default, I’m going with Up, and not just due to residual bitterness over WALL-E‘s loss. Sure, the opening montage was better than just about anything else in movies this year. But the rest of the film was also consistently strong. It managed to run the gamut of comedy, drama, action, and adventure while never really seeming hokey, no small feat if you consider the specifics of the story. And if you think about it, the characters weren’t especially likable, at least not at first. The script may not have been hard-hitting, uber-dramatic, or even trendsetting. But to me, it was undeniably entertaining throughout, and ultimately, isn’t that what a film should be?

    If I were choosing, I’d have gotten rid of four of these nominees, so I imagine I feel there are many snubs. The most obvious one, of course, is (500) Days of Summer. A huge miss by the Academy, in my opinion.

John is surprisingly succinct in his dismissal of this category:

    I agree with Jared that this is a fairly weak slate. Which isn’t to say any of them are poor efforts, but they don’t really jump out at me as clearly outstanding.

    Three of them suffer from the same problem: they create several great scenes that don’t really add up to a terrific whole. Inglourious Basterds doesn’t even really try to add up to a whole as it’s a series of vignettes. I’d argue the film succeeds more on its performances and visual style anyway. Some of the scenes in The Messenger are absolutely gut-wrenching, but the narrative around those scenes sort of falters. And I’d say the same is true with The Hurt Locker though it works better.

    It’s a tough call for me on the last two. I’m still puzzled by A Serious Man, but it sure is fascinating to ponder. It’s thoughtful, interesting, funny, and clever. But my winner is Up. One thing I had sort of forgotten about it until I watched it again recently is how ridiculously funny it is- one of the funniest of the year in fact. It has all you could ask for in an animated film: intriguing premise, developed and interesting characters, clever and funny dialogue, and a compelling story full of intelligence and heart. Pixar certainly makes films that look great, but they really shine because the writing is always so terrific.

Here are Adam’s thoughts, and I’m just thankful I wrote mine after his:

    Will Win: ?. I’m actually not sure who will win this one (or I do, and I just don’t want to key the other Grouches in on it). This has to be the closest race in the top 8 categories. I think it definitely will come down to The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, though.

    I Want to Win: Inglourious Basterds. As stated above, Quentin Tarantino’s fantastic script is in the running for the award and I couldn’t be happier. In my mind, this was the best script of the year (followed by In the Loop). I can’t believe that people are unsure whether to pick this over The Hurt Locker.

    Dark Horse: The Messenger. And thank god it IS a long shot. In the case of this script, I fully agree with Jared’s assessment.

    Ranking:
    1. Inglourious Basterds
    2. The Hurt Locker
    3. Up
    4. A Serious Man
    5. The Messenger


    Grouches Critiques:
    As of the writing of this, I have only seen Jared and John’s write-ups. While I agree with them that this is a weak slate of movies as well as their comments on The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, and The Messenger (especially Jared’s), both of their takes on Inglourious Basterds are way off the mark. The only thing I can think of is they went into the wrong movie. Otherwise, I have to get used to the fact that John’s horrible taste in movies is starting to rub off on Jared. Also, Up is not as great as they both seem to think it is. I actually am a big fan of a lot of Pixar’s work, but it’s last two movies…while good…were not the darlings that everyone seems to think they are. Wall-E was funnier, and Up had a less annoying plot/message, but they were no Incredibles or Finding Nemo.

    Random Notes: Wow. What a weak slate of movies.

And here are the correct opinions, written by Brian:

    Even though I liked all five of these films more than you, Jared, I still think this is a weak group, but I don’t think that (500) Days of Summer would have saved it. This category was pretty much screwed from the beginning — unless of course they included Zombieland, though we all know that would never have happened.

    Having just watched The Messenger last night, I was at first a little befuddled by Jared’s comments. I thought Luc Besson’s directing was pretty good and Mila Jovovich was outstanding. But then I watched the correct movie, the one with Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, and I understood. But I don’t entirely agree — the first hour was riveting — each time they knocked on a door I tensed up — fearful of the next death announcement. But once the focus shifted from their duty to Foster’s personal life and attachment to Samantha Morton, it sort of went off the rails. There was a good movie in there — somewhere — maybe a great live-action short, but the script failed halfway through the film.

    I’m still trying to understand what the hell happened in A Serious Man, and while Slate published a pretty good analysis today, I still don’t think that bodes well for the screenplay. I appreciated a lot of what the Coen brothers did with the script — and the schlubby portrait of the titular character Larry Gopnik was quite good — but no script should be this obtuse and senseless. Maybe if they made a pop-up video version of the movie it could have been more successful.

    The Hurt Locker was a tremendous piece of filmmaking — but the script wasn’t a contributor to it. Jeremy Renner’s side-trip into the streets of Baghdad was unneccessary, and the mystery of the body-bomb kid was too transparent. The film will get deservedly recognized elsewhere — it doesn’t belong in this category.

    Gah, am I really going to agree AGAIN with Jared and John? Inglorious Basterds was brilliant in its own way. I was hoping that Adam would go into greater depth on why he loved it — but maybe he’s holding his fire for the Best Picture category. As for why I liked it, well, its Jews killing Nazis. What’s not to like? Beyond the strength of the plot, I thought that Tarantino’s willingness to throw historical accuracy out the window was refreshing — and his whimsical take on the sober subject of World War II captivated me.

    It’s a very very close race for me, but Up takes my vote. Its such an imaginative script, and the characters are incredibly developed considering how long we get to know them. And it has a TALKING DOG!

Admission time: I haven’t thought about the Oscars in more than a week. I haven’t read any movie news, I haven’t written a post, I haven’t even seen a movie. Why? The Winter Olympics, of course! And I know I’m not alone, judging by the amount of curling talk Jared and I have been doing.

But this blog has been silent, which got me to thinking about finding any damn thing to write about something to connect these two February passions.

So here we go: What if Oscar movies were Winter Olympic sports?

The Blind Side = Figure Skating: Liked by those who don’t like real sports/sports movies.

A Serious Man = Curling. Engrossing but tough to figure out.

Inglourious Basterds = Snowboarding: Flashy and entertaining

Avatar = Bobsled: Very technological and travels down a well-worn track.

Up = Ski Jumping: Short, sweet, and pretty.

Up in the Air = Short Track. Your life/race standing can be upended at any moment.

The Hurt Locker = Hockey. Burly men with lots of equipment bust some heads.

These are a big stretch you say? Yeah, well, shut up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up: 10

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

Fantastic Mr. Fox: 6

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

Ponyo: 8

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

9. 8

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

Mary and Max: 9

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

The Secret of Kells: 7

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

Coraline: 8

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

Monsters vs. Aliens: 6

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

The Princess and the Frog: 8

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


Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: 7

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

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

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

It sounds like the other guys don’t have anything new to add after December, but I just keep finding better movies. In fact, my list has already changed since I compiled the five below. But I’ll leave that change til next month.

1. Up. I need to watch this again because I wonder if it’s just getting my #1 spot out of routine now. But At the Movies did a segment on it in their Best of 2009 show and I still found it quite affecting so I’m not terribly concerned.

2. An Education. Welcome to the small film of 2009 I love and the rest of the Grouches hate.

3. Zombieland

4. The Informant!

5. Summer Hours. A very charming French picture. Three siblings sort out what to do with the country estate their mother leaves them after she dies. One wants to keep it in the family for another generation while the other two, who have moved far from France, prefer to sell. It has a lot to do with the decline in French culture, which isn’t really a topic that moves me, but it has a lot to say about modern family dynamics and globalism.

The estate contains a lot of artwork and antiques while the house itself served as a studio for a beloved uncle and successful artist. I found fascinating its look at how we ascribe value to items and how we interact with them even as we – our lives and our memories – are temporary.

Furthermore, the plot never slides into melodrama. The siblings very much love and respect each other but are not immune to passive aggressive tendencies. They interact realistically and give the film a wonderful emotional depth.

I don’t think there’s any way to describe a film about estate planning without making it sound dreadfully boring, but even the mundane actions are never boring in this very good film.

Finally, honorable mentions to films that will never appear on my top five list mainly due to how late I saw them. If I had months ago they surely would have deserved at least one mention on this list.

Precious. Hopefully more to say on this later.

Rudo y Cursi. A Mexican film written and directed by Carlos Cuarón, brother of Alfonso and writer of Y tu mamá, también, and also the first film produced by Cha Cha Cha, the company founded by the Big 3 in Mexico: Cuarón (Alfonso), Del Toro, and Iñárritu. Plus it reunites Y tu mamá stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna.

So it has a hell of a pedigree and it definitely lives up to it. Bernal and Luna are brothers who try to make it big in Mexican soccer. It transported me to an interesting new world of the shadiness and pressure of Mexican soccer and creates interesting, dynamic characters. The brothers have demons holding them back but the film doesn’t get bogged down in cliche and I loved the turns the plot takes. Just a very well-made and entirely entertaining film.

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