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I’m counting down all the movies released in 2012.  The ones I’ve seen, at any rate.  In what is unquestionably a timely manner.

20.  The Avengers

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Maybe you’ve heard of this movie?  I think I’m a little lower on it than most people, but I clearly still enjoyed it.  The reason the film isn’t higher, for me, is because the action felt a little generic.  Joss Whedon is so strong writing and directing heroic characters, but the fights themselves would be the one area in which I think he could stand some improvement.  He lucked out a little in that most of the main characters already had origin stories, but I think Iron Man is the only other Marvel movie that belongs in the same conversation.

19.  Django Unchained

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Wrote about this one plenty in my Oscar roundups.  At the risk of repeating myself, I think Tarantino needs someone to reel him in.  Tarantino is a brilliant filmmaker with so many clever ideas.  But I think at some point he starts harming the quality of his films by trying to cram everything in.  That said, there’s obviously a ton to love about this movie.  Few people have mastered the interplay of action, drama, and comedy the way Tarantino has.  The Klan bit was one of the funniest scenes in movies this year, just as the climactic shootout one of the best with gunplay.  Tarantino always rounds up stellar casts, and this was no exception.

18.  Skyfall

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As a really huge Bond fan, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for me to rate this film in the same manner as everything else on this list.  Because I have very specific expectations from a Bond movie.  I’ll save you the rant, but I haven’t agreed with the direction the franchise has taken since Daniel Craig took over.  I respect that they’ve been adding highly-regarded writers and directors, but they are screenwriters I largely dislike and directors I’m not sure I love.  Mostly, while I’m completely on board with rebooting Bond after Die Another Day, it seemed that the producers had trouble committing finding a new direction for Bond.  The Craig movies have felt to me like attempts to emulate the success of a franchise like Bourne, where I’m of the opinion Bond should be the trendsetter in spy action films.  At any rate, my brother was kind enough to accompany me to a midnight showing way out at Udvar-Hazy.  I was super excited after the opening sequence, which was almost exactly what I was looking for.  And then I was disappointed by almost everything else.  Except for a couple of points near the end, which set up the series to a point where I hoped it would be at the beginning of Casino Royale.  Also in the film’s favor: it got the franchise into the Academy’s good graces, for the first time in pretty much ever.

17.  The First Time 

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I realize I’m alone on this one, and I’m OK with that.  I also realize this is going to sound crazy, because the films really are nothing alike, but for me, much the praise directed toward Amour should have gone toward this one.  This movie was sweetly romantic and funny, a coming of age story about love in high school.  Very roughly in the framework of a romantic comedy, it is less screwball and more dramedy.  Awkward and goofy, sly and poignant, the film is squarely in the sweet spot of my cinematic taste.  Leads Britt Roberton and Dylan O’Brien were quite solid, but I wanted to give shoutouts to pairing Christine Taylor and Joshua Malina as a married couple, and appearances by Tinker from FNL, and Molly Quinn from Castle.  Here’s hoping writer/director Jon Kasdan has more like this up his sleeve.

16.  Cousinhood

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Saw this at Filmfest DC with John, and I’ll direct you to his recap of the film, since it is pretty spot on.  It is a funny and touching story of some bros going back home to reconnect with their past and figure out who they are now.  Like John says, the film isn’t perfect, and with some polish could have been something special.  But the movie is still definitely worth a watch.

15.  The Expendables 2

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This movie is exactly what you think it will be.

14.  The Intouchables

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This movie made a crazy amount of money in Europe.  Here in the U.S. it did OK, suffering from a terrible title and perhaps a weak advertising strategy.  The film is amount a paralyzed millionaire and his aide who grew up on the streets.  The formula is time-tested: it is a feel-good movie about a mismatched pair with wildly different backgrounds.  The movie isn’t particularly deep, which isn’t necessarily a problem or anything.   Omar Sy is a fun actor, he’s got roles in some high-profile English-language films over the next few years, here’s hoping those work out.

13.  Lincoln

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Already talked plenty about this one.  So I’ll recommend everyone read Team of Rivalson which the film was ostensibly based.  For me, though, the fascinating part of the book was how Lincoln corralled a cabinet full of people who didn’t like him and used them to great success.  Not a knock on the film, which already had too many characters, but there’s a lot more to the story.

12.  End of Watch

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Despite some good reviews, I was a little skeptical of this one, probably owing to my (likely misguided) distrust of shaky cam.  And because how many cop TV shows and movies does the world really need?  One more, apparently, because this film was pretty fantastic.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are so great together, they have an easy chemistry as partners that really makes the film sing.  The movie needs more Anna Kendrick because, as a general rule, every movie needs more Anna Kendrick, but I dare anyone to not fall in love with her after her singalong with Gyllenhaal to Cam’ron’s “Hey Ma”.  The film, impressively, manages to be funny and sad, made me want to spend more time with the characters, established a pretty clear world, and has a continuing subplot.

11.  Ted

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Sure, story has never been Seth MacFarlane’s particular forte, which is why the film falls just shy of my top 10.  But a never-ending barrage of jokes is Seth MacFarlane’s particular forte, and this film was one of the funniest of the year.  I was cracking up in the theater starting from Patrick Stewart’s narration at the beginning (“…there’s nothing more powerful than a young boy’s wish.  Except an Apache helicopter.”) and virtually throughout the rest of the ridiculous film.  Mark Wahlberg is sneakily game to act against a teddy bear and (an admittedly underutilized) Mila Kunis.

Hey, maybe I’ll be able to get these all in before nominations are announced.

VIRTUAL LOCK

  • Ben Affleck, Argo
  • Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
  • Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty

Yup, that’d be Ben Affleck adding a directing nomination to his resume.  Which reminds me, you should really read Boston Magazine’s oral history of Good Will Hunting.  Sure, Spielberg missed a BAFTA nom, but there’s no way he’s missing an Oscar nomination.  Apparently the government redacted screenings of Zero Dark Thirty, because it isn’t playing here yet.  Part of me hopes this movie tells the story of the part in Point Break where Keanu Reeves says he spent like a year tracking Patrick Swayze down.

GOOD BET

  • Ang Lee, Life of Pi

Turns out that Life of Pi is a movie people just plain like, and since it isn’t the script or the acting, it probably had a lot to do with Mr. Lee.

LIKELY IN

ON THE BUBBLE

  • Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
  • David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
  • Tom Hooper, Les Miserables
  • Michael Haneke, Amour

This last spot caused me no end of grief when putting together my predictions.  It’ll be fascinating to see where the Academy comes down here, especially how it relates to other nominations for these films.  Tarantino gets credit for executing a unique vision and his endless homages.  But will his take down of slavery play as well as killing Nazis?  I’m decidedly not a David O. Russell fan and found his direction distracting.  Plenty of people disagree with me.  We’ve been over Tom Hooper and his atrocious choices in Les Miserables, and I say that as a fan of both The King’s Speech and The Damned United.  Reaction has been sharply divided, but many respect his bold decisions.  Haneke has a devoted fanbase among the Oscar crowd, maybe they’ll lead to enough #1s to push him through.

DARK HORSES

  • Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
  • Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom
  • Robert Zemeckis, Flight
  • Sam Mendes, Skyfall
  • Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

PTA also has his crew, but when everyone is talking about the dying buzz for your film, you have a problem.  Wes Anderson is another director who brings his specific vision to the screen, but he hasn’t hit the precursors.  Zemeckis hasn’t hit precursors either, but with a name familiar to Oscar in a triumphant return to live action, and that killer crash sequence, you could seem him sneaking in.  I’m personally not predicting a massive haul for Skyfall, but if it resonated wildly for voters, then maybe they are crediting Mendes.  Zeitlin seems like too much of an indie vote for Oscar, especially with the Andersons around to divert votes, but maybe the film’s earlier release date can work in its favor.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN CONSIDERED

  • Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises

Oscar nominations are out on the 10th!  I’m taking a look at the state of the race in the eight major categories.  This time: Original Screenplay.

VIRTUAL LOCK

GOOD BET

  • Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
  • Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty

Many are hailing Moonrise Kingdom as Wes Anderson’s finest work, that combined with a pretty decent box office seems to suggest he could get in here, a category in which Oscar has seen fit to recognize quirkier fare.  Zero Dark Thirty isn’t out here yet, so I can’t speak to it, but by most accounts it will be a deserving nominee.

LIKELY IN

  • Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master

Buzz has been waning, but the field here doesn’t have many scripts dominating the conversation.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it sounds like a film where the screenplay is memorable.

ON THE BUBBLE

  • John Gatins, Flight
  • Michael Haneke, Amour
  • Rian Johnson, Looper
  • Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

The WGA nod signals that there’s support for Flight, the question may be how many people remember to credit the script for the mesmerizing crash scene and Denzel’s performance.  Amour isn’t out here yet, but from afar seems like the stereotypical arthouse movie: foreign, not widely screened, boring as all get out.  Here’s hoping that last part isn’t true.  Now isn’t the place to discuss, but a Looper nomination wouldn’t make me very happy.  Still, it got the WGA nom, and Rian Johnson does have a distinctive voice.  It is pretty difficult to predict with any accuracy how many nominations Django Unchained will get, but if the Academy is feeling the love, Tarantino could get in here for a script that’s certainly distinctive.

DARK HORSES

  • Reid Carolin, Magic Mike
  • Ava DuVernay, Middle of Nowhere
  • Martin McDonagh, Seven Psychopaths

Carolin’s script feels pedestrian to me, but he’s got 100 million good reasons to call me an idiot.  If the voters are feeling indie, they could go with DuVernay, whose film many people say deserves a wider exposure.  I heart McDonagh, and his script was unique, but this one missed more than it should have.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN CONSIDERED

  • Max Landis, Chronicle
  • Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild, Ted
  • David Wain and Ken Marion, Wanderlust

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.

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.

Today we’re taking on the Best Director race and declaring who we think should win.

The nominees:

  • Avatar: James Cameron
  • The Hurt Locker: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino
  • Precious: Lee Daniels
  • Up in the Air: Jason Reitman

John says:

    This is another terrific lineup of nominees and again I feel like I’m nitpicking some to narrow it down to my favorite. Any of these five would make a great winner. So what am I looking for in Best Director besides who made the best movie? I’d say overall vision, style, tone, pacing, and coherence. Does that sound about right? Of course, these are all things I look for in a movie anyway.

    Tarantino strikes me as all flash with minimal substance. He made Basterds a thrilling ride, but I don’t think I really shared his vision. No doubt a fascinating and stylish film, however. The weighty material in Precious requires a deft hand to prevent it from slipping into absurd melodrama or emotional manipulation. Daniels cast the right actors and extracted pitch-perfect performances out of them. His visions for Precious’s dream sequences hit the right tone to balance the more intense scenes.

    I give Bigelow lots of credit for finely honing the tension in The Hurt Locker, making it one of the best war thrillers I’ve seen. And Reitman does a great job with the tone and atmosphere in Up in the Air. The film sort of settled in my gut and that feeling was the largest takeaway for me, even more than any scene or performance.

    But James Cameron is my choice. The man had a big vision for Avatar and he completely delivers. We may quibble about the writing, but he shepherds the story through the long running time without ever letting it drag and always keeps it entirely coherent. In lesser hands, Avatar could be a mess of visual effects and thematic missteps; Cameron makes his technological breakthroughs enhance and complement all the other components of the film without taking away from any. I just love the world he creates and the way he uses all the tools at his disposal to realize it.

    Snubs: I don’t mean to overdo my love for The Informant!, but it’s absolutely a triumph in tone, editing, and style and for that Steven Soderbergh should have received some love.

Jared replies:

    Like John mentioned, I’m not sure anyone has a good idea how to judge a director (i.e. where the direction starts and the writing/acting/editing/cinematography, etc. starts), and so I’m a little less comfortable here than with the other categories.

    I didn’t really like Inglourious Basterds, and I think part of the reason for that was that no segment of the film really felt complete. Tarantino’s mishmashing style may have worked elsewhere, but I found it pointless here.

    Maybe Jason Reitman’s direction just seemed effortless. And it isn’t like I could point to a single thing non-script thing I’d do differently with the film. But I also can’t really think of a memorable thing about the film I’d attribute to Reitman.

    Hopefully this time will be the last I have to say that the key to Precious was Mo’Nique, Sidibe, and the basic story construct, almost everything else is besides the point. I fall somewhere between John and Brian on the dream sequences, but I’ll give credit to Daniels for how he handled the stairwell shots.

    Like many people, it seems, I had a hard time making the final decision here. My problems with Avatar stem almost exclusively from the script. Cameron obviously has a nearly unparalleled ability to do big, splashy sequences while working them into something bigger. But ultimately, I guess I’ll shift a little bit of the blame for the slow parts onto his direction.

    Enough, at least, to anoint the ex-Mrs. Cameron the winner. We’ll get to it, but I think Kathryn Bigelow was working from a relatively weak script. The film was tremendously tense. And sure, it helps when a bomb is involved. But really, not that much happens in the film. So I’m going to assign a good chunk of the credit to Ms. Bigelow for creating a really taut film with neat action scenes.

Brian adds:

    Fantastic. Let the Avatar bashing begin! But first, the two near-contenders for my pick for the Oscar. I know Adam will follow up with a full-throated defense of Inglourious Basterds, but Tarantino is my runner-up choice. Everything that made the movie great, the episodic chapters, the white-knuckled tense scenes at the prologue and in the bar, the fantastic conclusion — can be ascribed to Tarantino’s direction. It was truly a great marriage of material with cinematography, and the way that he brought together a melange of actors and stories is definitely to his credit. For a guy who dislikes “message” movies, I’m surprised by how much Jared disliked Basterds.

    Up in the Air was also a great display of directing — which I tend to think of an award for “how well does everything come together.” Reitman got great performances out of Kendrick and Clooney — and I thought the bumpers he used between cities, the plane’s eye view, was a nice touch. But this year — not enough to compete with the big guns.

    Going by the definition above, I blame Cameron’s ego for disqualifying him for an Avatar win. He let Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang chew the scenery to pieces and failed to recognize the shallowness of his own script. The final third took forever to come, even though the final battle was inevitable. His vision of a technical masterpiece came true, but I just can’t give a director award to a half-good film.

    And I definitely can’t fathom giving it to Precious, which as Jared has said, is only being considered for anything because of Mo’Nique and Sidibe. The fantasy sequences that John and Jared refer to are pointless, distracting, and overdone. Daniels’ penchant for shakycam when in the social worker scenes with Mariah Carey infuriated me — I was so engrossed by the performances only to be drawn out by an unnecessary zoom.

    But, Bigelow. There’s your winner. Many of the setpieces from the film will stay in my memory, including the UN car bomb scene and the final shot back in Iraq. From start to finish, Hurt Locker keeps you on your toes, never truly sure what’s going to happen. A less competent director (*cough* Paul Haggis) would have found a way to insert their own ideologies and politics into what may end up being one of the best Iraq war movies ever, but Bigelow is smart enough to let her work speak for itself.

Adam proclaims:

    Will Win: Kathryn Bigelow

    While I may have had more love this year for other movies, the reason this movie wasn’t in my top 5 had nothing to do with the directing. Given a better script, this movie had the potential to be near the very top of my list of movies this year. I have to agree with both Jared and John that the tension she was able to create, as well as the very well done action scenes, make for a very strong nominee. I have no problem with her winning this category (especially if it is over Cameron).

    I Want to Win: Quentin Tarantino

    I am a huge Tarantino fan, so maybe my opinion is somewhat biased, but I don’t think that really matters. I’m biased because I believe Tarantino is one of the (if not THE) best writer/director/producers out there, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception – despite Jared’s felonious assertions. I’d LOVE to see this movie sweep all categories…but I’m not naïve enough to believe it will happen.

    Dark Horse: Lee Daniels (and no, I’m not being racist. He’s the longest shot)

    He’s last in the rankings (both mine and others’ predictions) and there is a reason…he didn’t do that great of a job. I hate to admit it, but I agree with John – Soderbergh is a MUCH stronger candidate for the slot.

    Ranking:

    1. Quentin Tarantino
    2. Kathryn Bigelow
    3. Jason Reitman
    4. James Cameron
    5. Lee Daniels

    Grouches Critiques:

    I find it almost unfathomable that Brian of all people is the only one to really give adequate credit to Inglourious Basterds – shame on you Jared and John. I will have plenty of time to bash John’s love of Avatar and James Cameron in the next couple of days. All I can say now is…really? Really, John? Nothing else really jumps out at me about the rest, though. We were pretty close with our critiques on these movies with 3 of 4 picking Bigelow. Precious wasn’t great and the direction was one of the weakest parts, and the strongest part of Up in the Air was not the directing.

    Random Notes:

    As much as I think Avatar is over-hyped, the direction wasn’t horrible (second best thing about the film next to the visuals – which has something to do with the direction). That said, I actually like more of the picks here than in Adapted Screenplay. And, like Adapted Screenplay, my top two are close enough that I’m not going to be pissed at the Academy if they go with Bigelow. She did a terrific job with the little she was given.

    God I hope James Cameron doesn’t win.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam: The Academy Should Be Full Of Basterds

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

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

Sometimes I leave a theater and think, “What was the point of that?” It tends mostly to happen with films that dwell in negativity without any obvious message, like There Will Be Blood. That’s a film I still can’t wrap my mind around as far as what it was trying to say.

But I’m not sure wondering about a film’s point is entirely fair. There are plenty of recent movies I’ve loved whose points – or lack thereof – never gave me pause. I can’t say I bothered with wondering about the points of The Bank Job or Zombieland. For these films a good, well-told story is a point unto itself. Heck, straight entertainment is a pretty good point. Maybe expectations are higher for prestige pics and I demand more, but even for these pictures I try to extend the principle that sometimes a story well-told is good enough. Some movies just eschew messages and themes for story, character, style, and atmosphere.

And that takes me to Inglourious Basterds, a film that really seems to eschew message. And if I can pat myself on the back I think I did a good job enjoying it despite it having no point. It’s a good, very enjoyable film with lots of fun, stylistic flourishes. I think what keeps it from being a great film is that it also doesn’t really have a story. There’s an overarching idea of Jewish American soldiers killing Nazis and a French Jew’s revenge plot to take out important Nazis. But instead of telling the whole tale, the film is divided into several vignettes, like Tarantino decided to just skip to the good parts. It seems to me his only real point is to be awesome, which certainly makes for an entertaining film but I think I need a bit more ambition to really love a movie.

The Weinsteins are gearing up for a Best Picture nomination campaign for it. I can’t say I really could get behind the nomination on its merits, but it would be an interesting, outside-the-box type nomination and those are always welcome. With ten nominations it’s hard to imagine a Basterds nod will squeeze out a personal favorite. I’ve also never been a huge Tarantino fan – I like him fine but his films are never a must-watch for me – but he’s undeniably an important and influential modern director with a dearth of Oscar recognition beyond Pulp Fiction (for which he won the Original Screenplay award). I can imagine forty years from now later generations of Oscar watchers wondering how the Academy managed to ignore him so often.

Beyond Best Picture and Tarantino as writer and director, Christoph Waltz seems to be a lock for a Supporting Actor nod for his role as an evil SS commander. That will certainly be well-deserved as Waltz is the primary image that remains in my mind from this film. He’s so deliciously evil, scheming, ad creepy. I’m not sure what else the Weinsteins are aiming for. Melanie Laurent for sure, though who knows whether in Supporting or Lead. Maybe Diane Kruger too? Or Brad Pitt? None would be a bad choice. And along with the film’s intense kick-assery could come some technical recognition (Editing? Score? Art Direction? Costume?).

Anyway, Inglourious Basterds is certainly one of the most distinctive films of the year and an enjoyable and entertaining one at that. I think it’s a testament to Tarantino’s cultural importance (and the Weinsteins’ PR prowess) that it’s even in the discussion for top prizes. But, even if I don’t think it’s in that top echelon of films, it’s hard to argue when something a bit different sneaks into the Academy’s exclusive club.

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