Thursday, July 03, 2014

OVP: Picture (2009)

OVP: Best Picture (2009)

The Nominees Were...

James Cameron and Jon Landau, Avatar
Gil Netter, Andrew A. Kosove, and Broderick Johnson, The Blind Side
Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham, District 9
Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, An Education
Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier, and Greg Shapiro, The Hurt Locker
Lawrence Bender, Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness, and Gary Magness, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Jonas Rivera, Up
Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman, and Jason Reitman, Up in the Air

My Thoughts: All right-after months of off-and-on writeups chronicling the 2009 Oscars, it's time that we get to the big enchilada, the big kahuna, the top prize.  Best Picture.  If you're new to the blog, there are links at the bottom of this article to all nineteen of the past contests in 2009, as well as as the past three OVP Best Picture races.  If you've been waiting patiently for this write-up and want to see where I rank this list, then let's start right now.

2009 was the first year in the revived expanded Best Picture field, and so there are quite a few films in this race that you wouldn't normally see, perhaps most glaring being A Serious Man.  Though the Coen Brothers are frequently nominated for Oscars (they would get a bevy of Oscar nominations the following year for True Grit and at the time were coming off of a major win in Best Picture two years prior).  However, A Serious Man is one of the oddest films I've ever seen nominated for Best Picture-the tale of one man's life falling apart, causing him to question his faith isn't what you'd call a bad movie, though I do feel that the Coen Brothers meander far too frequently and occasionally decide to just be quirky for the sake of it.  This film lacks the near perfect structuring of a previous movie like No Country for Old Men, and though it has the biblical allegory thing down pat (we get it, he's Job), I just couldn't help but feel that this was more a technical achievement than an overall great film.  The Coen Brothers seem to be showing how brilliant they can be behind the camera, which is considerable, but the film lacks the cohesion and narrative to drive their brilliance home, and this is Best Picture, not Best Director.

I feel like if there's a forgotten film in this lineup, it's probably An Education.  When I was listing out the ten films nominated, I remembered A Serious Man even though it was clearly in tenth place, but An Education feels like that film that was probably on a lot of ballots, but rarely in the top five.  I'm a bigger defender of this film than most, though, and I love the central performance so much from Carey Mulligan.  Lone Scherfig's film always finds Mulligan's Jenny at the center, but I like the way that the world keeps moving around her-the Rosamund Pike character in particular stands out to me as one of those touches that makes the rest of the film seem more meaningful than it could have been.  Her Helen is Jenny after a few years, persistently trying to find meaning in a life that doesn't seem like it can possibly result in any.  That's the magic of An Education-it keeps holding Jenny's life up to other character's lives as a mirror.  It wouldn't work if Mulligan weren't superb as the central woman-you need someone who can both define her character and make sure she's open enough for the audience to project onto, but performances are a component of this race.  Personally, of these ten films, I would have been one of the ballots finding room for An Education in my Top 5.

Since we're already discussing a Best Actress nominee, it seems fair to head on over to one of the others, and I'll go with Precious.  Here, again, you need a main character who is a little bit of an audience proxy onscreen, but Precious has more solidly-embedded characters, particularly Gabby Sidibe in the title role and Mo'Nique as Mary Jones.  The film itself is above average, but it never quite has the standing that the lead roles can achieve-this is a monstrous acting duet, but the film and plot can't quite get to the point where they're equalling the acting.  Think of the way that the story meanders with Precious's daydreams and her "too good to be true" relationship with her teacher.  This isn't particularly compelling cinema, but it's brought that direction by the two lead actors.  Like some of Lee Daniels' other films, there are flights of fancy that just don't work, but he's so great at casting perfect actors to play interesting characters that you can feel yourself forgiving him.

District 9 is kind of an in an opposite camp in this regard.  Sharlto Copley is also a fairly blank protagonist, more so than even Jenny or Precious, and the film itself is entirely driven by its concept, rather than dialogue or acting.  This isn't to insult the film (it's a good movie), but it is to say that the film is really more an idea.  It's fascinating to look at District 9 now and see how much of a shadow that it has cast, with the rise in popularity of dystopian worlds in the years since (anyone see the connections between The Hunger Games and District 9?), and the actual on-paper plot is great.  The film has some pacing problems (it takes too long to get to its eventual conclusion, particularly since we know the conclusion near the beginning of the film), but the movie understands humanity, and this was a worthy and unexpected film that certainly wouldn't have been honored in the Top 10 had it not been for the expanded field.

Up also would have been on the sidelines in a five-wide field (I'm not 100% convinced that Toy Story 3 the following year couldn't have pulled off the nomination, though).  I have soured a little bit on this film the more I write about it, mostly because there's such a large imbalance between the first ten minutes of the film and the rest of the movie in terms of quality.  Every critic points this out, but the first ten minutes of the movie are sublime, looking at the way that we quickly live our lives and in particular how meaningful small moments become as we get older and realize all of the dreams we let pass us by.

The remainder of the film can never compare, though.  It's like it's two different films, and while the rest of the film is nowhere near a bad movie, you cannot help but judge it in comparison and find it lacking. In particular, I hated the need for a common enemy in the final third in the Christopher Plummer character-why couldn't they have just made it to the Falls and realized that life has to move on, rather than having them be attacked by some random old man chasing a bird?  It cheapens the rest of the film's complicated questions, and I don't care if it's a movie for children-when Pixar was at its peak (and from 2007-2010 it was), Up could have been on-par with WALL-E, and not just Monsters Inc. (which, to quote Marge Simpson in surprisingly apt context, "is still pretty good!")

Avatar is another film that occasionally falters in the face of its own promise.  The movie, like a lot of James Cameron films, never quite has the dialogue that it should, and the plot can be seen from a mile away (Stephen Lang's Miles Quaritch also falls into the unnecessarily evil villain camp, though at least his character is necessary to the rest of the movie).  However, I cannot help but be enamored with this movie in a way I couldn't possibly be with Up.  The film is epic in its scope, and truly marvelous in creating a new world.  There's so much ambition here, and most of it ends up being realized.  The script aside (which, admittedly, is a larger than usual aside for me), there's really no flaws-the film's art direction and visual effects are absolutely spellbinding, and not for nothing, but it's rare that a director has the guts to create an entirely original world onscreen in the same mold that George Lucas did with Star Wars.  I suspect, with three more films coming in this series and the mountain of money this film made, that James Cameron's ingenuity will payoff at a similar rate to Lucas's (financially, though hopefully less so creatively).

Cameron's main competition on Oscar night was The Hurt Locker, though at the time of the Oscars it had become less a coronation than a competition, and like any film that's on a warpath to Best Picture, it got nominated enough that I've discussed it to death at this point, though I have to admit that unlike The King's Speech, The Artist, and Argo, my opinion of this particular Best Picture winner has improved throughout all of these write-ups, which should hopefully bode well for 12 Years a Slave as we start up 2013 this weekend.  The greatness of Kathryn Bigelow lies in the way that she builds tension onscreen-the way that she manages to get truly inside her main character, watching hin falter and succeed in small doses.  She's at her best when the vision is directly on her main character of William James-the rest of the cast, while admirable and occasionally good, never lend themselves as well as James to the overall conflicted nature he has toward war.  The film is crisp, and though I didn't feel it in the way that I did Avatar it's hard to argue its technical merits, and it has a stronger central force than something like the Coen Brothers' technical achievement does that year.

Up in the Air is a film that is probably forever more a product of its specific time than it will be in years later when it is revisited (think The Graduate or Midnight Cowboy).  Made at the height of the Great Recession, the film showed how damaging to your psychology being laid off can be, and how detached from life George Clooney's Ryan Bingham became by constantly pulling the dreams out from under people.  The film does a lot of things right, not least of which is finding that sweet spot between Clooney's charm and the lost nature of his public persona.  Clooney makes this movie what it is, and I still think it's his best big screen work to date.  That said, the movie also has a bit of a balance problem (we're quibbling here, but this is for a Best Picture Oscar so the small matters), as it never gets the emotional balance in Clooney's relationship with Vera Farmiga right (it seems so tacked on and gimmicky the way it plays out), and it cannot possibly match the cold harshness of watching people lose their jobs.  Being fired is a bit like being told you have cancer (psychological studies back me up there), and the movie has trouble finding emotional resonance that can match those moments where Bingham ruins people's lives and dreams.  Still, there's so much truth and such strong work from Clooney here the film can be forgiven for never quite realizing the emotional zeniths it reaches in certain scenes as it does in the scenes it wants to prioritize for the sake of the main character.

Inglourious Basterds is a film that should have more balance problems than it does, but alas this is that rare Tarantino film where every little interspersing scene is glued-to-the-screen incredible.  I love the way that he just moves with such confidence onscreen in all of his films, certain that this next scene will be just as engrossing and mesmerizing to the audience as the last.  This confidence is not without risk (see the pacing problems of Django Unchained for an example), but here it's wonderful.  The movie does have high points (the opening, the card game, and the "Cat People" sequence), but those don't steal away from basically every scene being crisp, necessary, and lively (there's a reason I gave this the Editing OVP trophy).  I still think that the penultimate and ending scenes seem a little bit much, even for Tarantino, but overall this is the perfect crystallization of what Tarantino's later films have become: bawdy, stylistic, and jaw-dropping.

I usually write this Best Picture lineup and whichever film lends itself best to the next paragraph gets their moment in the sun, so I'm not sure if I am saving the worst for last with The Blind Side, but it definitely stands out in the sense that it is nothing like the other films on this list.  I would go so far as to say, however, that The Blind Side was probably the closest of any film here to disrupting the "real five" nominees.  It's a massive hit, a feel-good one at that, and has its lead headed toward an Oscar stampede-those are the sorts of things that get you a surprise nomination in Best Picture.

The film itself is not good, and there's no sugar-coating that fact.  It's not Doctor Doolittle level of bad for a Best Picture nomination, and as I've mentioned before, Sandra Bullock has enough movie star charisma and personality to make the film watchable, but the rest of the cast is making an ABC Family movie, and that's really what this feels like-the racial angle of the film seems too simplified for a film that claims to have something to say, and while I think there should be a place for conservative cinema (I really do), I don't think that you can gloss over key points you're trying to make with an "and that's the way it is" sort of attitude, which is what the film does with its script and its larger point about race and economics.  Still, Bullock is insanely watchable and so while I cannot condone this nomination, I get it.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Globes of course split their nominations between Musical/Comedy and Drama, so while the usual five (The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, Up in the Air, and the victorious Avatar) competed in Best Drama, you had five new names to the list in Best Comedy: (500) Days of Summer, It's Complicated, Julie and Julia, Nine, and in a surprise win, The Hangover.  The BAFTA Awards went with most of the usual five, cutting Inglourious in favor of the far more British An Education, and giving their top prize to The Hurt Locker.  Finally, there's the Producers Guild Awards, which also had a lineup of ten, but cut A Serious Man and The Blind Side in favor of Invictus and Star Trek.  One of these two films surely were competing for eleventh place, and my gut says that though Star Trek would have a bigger presence with Oscar that year, Invictus and the afterglow of Clint Eastwood probably put that film in the "just miss" category.
Directors I Would Have Nominated: Surely in a field that is ten large the Academy could have found room for at least one great foreign language film.  The Foreign Film Oscar race made room for A Prophet and The Secret in Their Eyes, and both are considerably better than a lot of these films, but The White Ribbon is the movie that, with its eery command over the audience, most deserved to pick-up this nomination, and quite frankly, may have even deserved the trophy.
Oscar’s Choice: Though it was probably a bit closer than Best Director, there was just no stopping The Hurt Locker stampede once Bigelow's Oscar train started rolling.
My Choice: We'll anticlimactically start with me giving the trophy to Avatar, with Inglourious Basterds coming in behind it.  The rest of the lineup is tough, though, but I think it should look something like: An Education, The Hurt Locker, Precious, Up in the Air, Up!, District 9, A Serious Man, and The Blind Side.

Those are my thoughts-what are yours?  Do you favor AMPAS's selection of The Hurt Locker, my choice of Avatar, or one of the other eight?  Who do you think was in sixth and eleventh place?  And what film was the best movie of 2009?  Share in the comments!

Past Best Picture Contests: 201020112012

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