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That a genuine chunk of rogue cinema, such as Darren Aronfsky’s take on ballet as one of the bleeding arts, gets into the Academy’s inner circle of 10 Best Picture nominees, is cause for celebration. A win would be too much for the fogeyish Academy, except for awarding star Natalie Portman. But Aronofsky walks the high wire as he leads us into a dancer’s tormented mind. The swirling hand-held camerawork of Matthew Libatique, coupled with a Clint Mansell score that channels Tchaikovsky’s ecstatic dread, adds to the whirlwind.
The underdog boxers of Rocky and Million Dollar Baby went on to win Best Picture Oscar titles. The Fighter, about “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a street rat from Lowell, Mass. who bumped along nearly anonymously in the 1980s before taking a welterweight title, has all the elements. Micky also fought killer battles outside the ring, with his manager mom, Alice (Melissa Leo), and his older boxer half brother, Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale), a junkie ex-con. Director David O. Russell gives the movie heart and muscle. But will it be enough to KO a stammering King?
In a better Oscar world, Christopher Nolan’s hallucinatory dream epic would be a serious contender. But Nolan’s lack of a nomination for Best Director (Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!) shows Academy voters out of tune with the blue-flame intensity of a movie that features Leonardo DiCaprio as a professional invader of the subconscious. Inception dreams big. The middlebrow Academy definitely does not.
The Kids Are All Right
Among the 10 nominees for Best Picture, Kids is the best film about about family and its power to hurt and heal. As directed and co-written by Lisa Cholodenko, gay marriage is the subject here, but not the issue. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are thrown when their two kids ask to meet the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) who fathered them. It’s a sitcom premise, but Cholodenko and the actors keep it raw and touchingly humane.
The 10 Best Movies of 2010
The King’s Speech
Oscar loves bowing down to royalty and British accents. And there’s no reason the golden boy won’t do it again in the face of this true story of stammering King George VI (Colin Firth) and the eccentric Aussie therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who unties has consonants. Under the astute direction of Tom Hooper, two men alone create an epic landscape of feeling.
If audiences (and Oscar voters) weren’t such cowards about watching a guy cut off his arm, this amazing adventure could have been more of a contender. Director Danny Boyle expands the possibilities of movies by focusing on the true story one hiker, Aron Ralston, who is pinned down by a boulder in an isolated Utah canyon until he manages, horrifically, to free himself after six days. As Ralston, Best Actor nominee and Oscar co-host James Franco brings an incendiary daring to the role.
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The Social Network
Here’s the American landmark that seemed to be winning every award until its streak broke and The King’s Speech took over. Too bad. If any film stakes a true claim to the Oscar time capsule it’s this tale of the founding of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and its impact on the way we live now. Director David Fincher puts his visual mastery to work on the verbal pyrotechnics in the dynamite script by Aaron Sorkin. The Social Network gets you drunk on movies again. Look for Oscar to stay sober.
Toy Story 3
The first animated movie to win an Oscar nomination for Best Picture since Beauty and the Beast is a standard bearer for the miracles animation can accomplish. Decked out in nifty, non-showy 3D, Toy Story 3 hits every button from laughter to tears. And the way the Pixar wizards re-create a sense of childhood wonder is damn near genius.
The biggest commercial hit ever for the Coen brothers is a new classic in westerns that goes back to the Charles Portis novel for inspiration rather than the 1969 film with John Wayne. This is all to the good. The richness of the Portis language runs through the film like a vein of comic gold. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld earns her Oscar nomination as Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old dynamo from Arkansas who hires the drunken, one-eyed U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (a superb Jeff Bridges) to bring in the varmint who gunned down her daddy. They both get more than they bargained for.
Here’s the Best Picture nominee with the tiniest budget and smallest audience. But Academy voters deserve credit for including this indie gem among their chosen few. Director Debra Granik has adapted the 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell into a brutally honest movie about secrets that fester among families in the Missouri backwoods. And Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence, 20, plays the family caregiver with astonishing power and feeling. Something special, indeed.
Favorite: The King’s Speech. In every way, it’s the safest bet.
Spoiler: The Social Network. I know that actually being the best movie of the year doesn’t count much with the Academy. But I can dream, can’t I?
Switcheroo: Since Toy Story 3 will win for Best Animated Film, no one will vote for it in this category anyway. Damn shame. I believe animation should not be ghettoized. Do away with the Best Animation prize and let animation compete with the big guns. In terms of quality, it’s more than their equal. But since Toy Story 3 has no chance, I’d give the nod to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which came out early in the year and was promptly forgotten.
Final Challenge: Let’s pretend the two main candidates for Best Picture —The King’s Speech and The Social Network — never existed. What movie would you choose for the top prize among the remaining eight nominees? I’d go with Inception, but I want to hear where your passion lies. Go for it.