by Linda Holmes
As of yesterday evening at the end of the Best Picture Showcase, I realized I had watched fifteen movies in the last eight days, which may not be unusual for critics who hang out at festivals, but it was unusual for me. And tonight, beginning at 7:30, we'll be liveblogging the Oscars right here.
But in the meantime, here are a few thoughts about each of the ten (!) Best Picture nominees, a decent number of which I've seen twice, and one of which (Up) I've seen more than that.
Avatar. Avatar makes a fine demonstration of advanced 3D technology, so if your goal is to see everything in advanced 3D, it represents a step forward. Of course, if you find 3D unnecessary and distracting, then you're left with the story. And the story is exactly as sophisticated, as many have noted, as Disney's Pocahontas.
Stiffly written and ultimately lacking in confidence in its theme -- it draws the Na'vi as the most aggressively righteous, harmless, singing, swaying species to ever live, as if we might not believe it's wrong to slaughter them if they weren't -- Avatar is a well-meant fantasy about finding a community that's in every way superior to your own, where you can somehow still become everybody's hero.
District 9. It wasn't until I saw District 9 that I fully hashed out my disappointment in the (very) similarly themed Avatar. Because District 9 advances the thesis -- graphically and imaginatively, if with comparatively cheap-looking visuals -- that violent mistreatment of entire populations is per se immoral. And it advances this idea without suggesting that the targeted population should prove itself first -- prove that it is a superior society, better in tune with nature, less violent, prettier.
Unlike the Na'vi, the District 9 "prawns" aren't any kinder or more enlightened or free of vice than humans are; their merit relative to humans is not the measuring stick for their right to exist. And that's been done intentionally, it seems to me, in order to transform the argument into one that specifically holds that you do not decide whether or not to devastate a society of people/creatures based on your evaluation of that society's merit. Avatar only argues that the attack on the highly idealized Na'vi is wrong; District 9 represents a more fundamental indictment of the tendency of groups to treat each other violently, irrespective of their relative goodness. Agree with that indictment or not, I think it's a more interesting concept than the slam-dunk "it's mean to slaughter defenseless magic tree-dwellers including your girlfriend" idea of Avatar.
An Education. Carey Mulligan's performance at the center of this movie is so good -- so fresh and intoxicating and assured -- that it's enough to make you believe we might be able to have real movie stars again someday. There are a hundred ways a story about an affair between a sixteen-year-old girl and a thirty-odd man could go spectacularly wrong, but Nick Hornby's script, Lone Scherfig's direction, and especially the marvelous performances from Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson (and others, too) keep it right where it needs to be.
Jenny is not a victim, or a dupe, or a brat: she's just young and frustrated, and the movie keeps her credibly young while also suggesting who she will be as an adult. An Education is less anxious to be about things larger than itself than anything else on the Best Picture ballot, but as a personal story, it may be the most successful.
The rest of the movies, after the jump.
Up In The Air. I'm of two minds about Up In The Air. The first part, which is actually a road picture featuring George Clooney and Anna Kendrick, has great wit, and the meticulous attention to travel details -- particularly that opening sequence where Clooney boards his flight -- speaks with wonderful specificity to the mismatch between what appears to be his easygoing charm and his compulsive dependence on routine. (He wants to be alone, you know, but needs ticket agents to give him that personal greeting.)
But in the last section, where it evolves into just another story of a mope who suddenly decides it's time to learn how to truly love, I grew bored and felt that the story had lost its nerve. The Wisconsin trip drags, and Vera Farmiga never seems as credible a challenge to Clooney's way of life as Kendrick does. I bought the idea that Ryan Bingham was a quirky road warrior who genuinely wants only to roam forever: if that's true, then only Kendrick is a credible obstacle, and that's why I think their story is so much more interesting than the Farmiga plot -- good as I think Farmiga herself actually is.
Precious. The more you look at Precious as sociology, the more flaws are revealed, I think, and the fewer things about it seem new. It does contain stereotypical elements, it can tempt viewers to click their tongues, and it does come troublingly close to the line between grit and spectacle that invites gawking. But seen as the singular story of a singular girl, where her desire to be loved is simply a deeply human desire to be loved and not a very sophisticated lesson in social policy, it's fantastic. Gabby Sidibe has such a naturalistic style to her acting that it can seem like she's not doing much, but once you realize what a graceful, funny, confident woman she is in real life, you realize that she gave you all those moments in which you feel Precious Jones' intense sense of aloneness with her performance.
A Serious Man. I'm not sure this movie really holds together as a piece -- in fact, I'm almost certain it doesn't. The people around me at the close of the film were putting their heads together trying to figure out what actually "happened" -- how the apparent curse on Larry Gopnik "works" and how that's revealed in the ending. I think that's probably folly; I think the film is mostly a strung-together set of short stories about a man under siege, carried off in a way so stylish and muscular that there seems to be more of a through-line than there actually is. Michael Stuhlbarg is just wonderful, and so is everyone else in the movie. If you think of it as a novel, I don't think it works, quite, but if you think of it as an anthology of American suburban pain, it's rather brilliantly done.
The Blind Side. This is another one I'm very conflicted about. I adore the Michael Lewis book on which it's based, and I do love this performance by Sandra Bullock, largely just because I love the real Leigh Anne Tuohy so much based on all that I've seen, and I think the performance captures some of what makes her so much fun.
But at the same time, there are some major limitations to the movie, which I think spring partly from the simple logistics of the fact that the real Michael Oher doesn't like to talk about himself, so it's hard to make it his story as much as it should be. Moreover, some specific differences between the book and the movie, including the excising of the semi-sketchy correspondence courses that were used to qualify Michael for college, mystify me. The Tuohys were unapologetic about taking shortcuts on Michael's behalf, because Michael had gotten hosed seven ways to Sunday by the time they met him, and that is part of what gives the story in the book more depth and complexity than the story in the movie.
Up. Nothing has changed my original assessment of Up, which is that it's wonderful and special and beautifully made, and that it demonstrates that animated films are perfectly capable of also being stirring character stories that are not always about children or talking animals. I was glad to get a chance to see it on a big screen not in 3D, because just as Roger Ebert predicted when he reviewed it, the addition of the 3D experience is not worth the degradation of the color palette. I think it's as good a job as Pixar has ever done of combining relatable human beings with other magical things -- giant birds, talking dogs, flying houses -- to make a complete film, and every time I watch it, I wonder whether this is the time I won't cry at the opening sequence, but then ... I always do.
Inglourious Basterds. This was my happy surprise of the year. Quentin Tarantino, as a personality, I find utterly tiresome, and knowing that a movie involves a lot of blood is never a selling point for me. I don't tend to like things that have been fussed over too much, and everything in my experience of Tarantino movies has a way of seeming fussed over.
Nevertheless, I was riveted by this study of different sorts of cinematic tension -- the sequences are all alike, but all critically different. In the opening sequence, you sense that something horrible will happen, but cannot tell when or what or to whom. In a sequence that takes place in a crowded restaurant where you wonder whether one character will recognize another, you essentially know that nothing dramatic and loud will happen right now, but you still lean forward with anticipation. In a scene that takes place in an underground tavern, you gain more and more and more information about what's likely to occur, and you are cranked up slowly.
It's beautifully and vividly assembled, the acting has just the right amount of stylized caricature (Brad Pitt can do what he's doing only because nobody else in the movie is doing it; Christoph Waltz's villain makes Pitt's hero possible), and even though it's two and a half hours long, I found it perfectly paced and never felt it dragging.
The Hurt Locker. As wonderful as Jeremy Renner is in this film as James -- and he's wonderful -- I'm not sure the secret ingredient isn't Anthony Mackie as Sanborn. Mackie resists so many pitfalls: Sanborn doesn't come to respect James, particularly, or like him, or understand him, or want to be his friend. He never looks at James with sympathy or a flash of sudden brotherhood. He looks at James the same way for the entire movie: as a guy who potentially stands between him and going home.
Without Sanborn, the movie would lack a point of view about James, and it could be another war movie about a self-destructive rogue. Sanborn's fear for his own life ties the behavior of a self-destructive rogue to the real consequences of that behavior. If Sanborn ever becomes the "You're all right, buddy!" guy -- even in the eyes, even for a second -- then James' alienation is broken. I think it's Mackie who makes the story work as a harrowing tale in which you're suspended in the intense and erratically paced unease where these guys live. It's not an accident that the film accelerates and decelerates unpredictably, because their days do, too.