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Oscar 2010: Best Picture Roundup

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Is the film worth your time?

All ten of the 2010 Oscar Best Picture nominees are worth seeing, but for some, I recommend watching them only for specific reasons or under certain conditions. Three rise above the lot as particularly excellent films —An Education, Precious, and The Hurt Locker. All three have profound insights, strong emotional connection, rich questions, and top notch filmcraft.
>> Go to the Oscar Roundup for 2011, for 2012.

Let me be clear here: My ranking is not based on which films I personally enjoyed the most, and I’m certainly not trying to guess the winner. Consider my ranking to be my take on the lasting worth of the films. My criteria are:

  • Strength of insight into the human condition. I respect films more highly when they are based on keen understanding of things that are good, true, and beautiful about this life. The film may show these things directly or may show them “in reverse” by showing us things that are bad, false, or ugly. Either way, a film is more worthy to the extent that we come away understanding more about living a beautiful life. A film need not be heavy or serious to have such insight; a light-hearted comedy might be filled with insight.
  • Richness of questions asked. We come away understanding more if we have to work through issues ourselves. Thus, I respect more highly films that are crafted so that their stories and situations spend more energy asking questions than providing simple answers. A film might ask questions in many ways: by evenhandedly presenting contrasting responses to a situation, by portraying non-contrived situations and dialog where characters speak a question, by portraying difficult or awkward situations to imply a question — or many other ways.
  • Depth of emotional engagement. I respect films whose insight and questions come through, or at least are heavily reinforced by, the emotional reactions evoked by its story, characters, and dialog. To become who we need to be, insight must find its way to our hearts, changing us from the inside out. A film’s emotional connections are its best path to our hearts. The old adage applies: “Show me, don’t tell me.” I might add, “Take me through it; let me live it.”
  • Overall effect of filmcraft. All other things being equal, films that have higher creative quality tend to strike us more strongly. But, the best made films are not necessarily the most striking; great filmcraft can’t save a poorly conceived film. Creativeness is not the goal, either: A film’s creative aspects have value to the extent that they serve the explorative intent of the film. On the other hand, profoundly poor filmcraft can kill a well-conceived film.

Based on these criteria, I offer my take on the 2010 Oscar best picture nominations.

The best of 2010’s nominations

The three films that I find to be the best of the lot are strong on all four criteria. They are very different films on very different topics, and thus difficult to compare one against another (beyond their strengths against the criteria). The Hurt Locker is the least traditional from a story perspective. An Education and Precious explore two very different sides of young girls’ lives. All three have important and universal insights.

An Education: The best thing about An Education is its framing of a false dichotomy of life choices. Many have discussed the film in one-sided way, as if Jenny merely got tired of school and went off to a wayward lifestyle. What this misses is that Jenny was largely pushed toward the wayward lifestyle by the stultifying forces of her father and her school. Seeing both sides raises the importance of the film’s exploration and casts a different light on the ending. The screenplay is witty yet with depth. The acting and filmcraft are strong all around, particularly the lead performances by Carey Mulligan and Peter Saarsgard.
Precious: Although Precious is the hardest of the 2010 nominations to watch, it must be so to enter the space it does with as much power as it does. In its depiction of one child’s almost incomprehensible ability to hold on to a thread of hope and life in the midst of severe abuse, Precious steers wholly clear of sentimentality as it connects us with a world of hurt that needs our attention and love. More importantly, we may see something of the difference between pity and love. The screenplay is deliberate and restrained, building on relationships rather than fabricated shock value. All of the performances are excellent, as is the filmcraft.
The Hurt Locker: In its juxtaposition of three different soldiers’ responses to the harrowing experiences of war, The Hurt Locker personalizes the emotional, psychological, mental, physical, and interpersonal challenges of war. By focusing on the soldiers’ lives rather than the reasons for or against the war, the film gives greater honor, respect, and compassion to the soldiers it brings under the spotlight. In its tight exploration of the characters, the screenplay maintains focus and power. The acting and filmcraft are strong all around.

The very good middle pack of 2010’s nominations

Five films are very good but are a step down from the best. Of the five, A Serious Man is the narrowest in terms of audience that will appreciate it, while Up is the broadest. Some will find The Blind Side to be too sentimental (it’s not), Up in the Air too relationally cheap in places (that’s part of its exploration), and District 9 to be too violent (it is violent indeed; so is racist suppression). All are strong in the questions they ask (though Up is least so).

The Blind Side: In a story that could have been played too sentimentally or else embellished to make it more suspenseful and exciting, The Blind Side instead played it as a story of normal people who did an extraordinary thing. It dared to tell a real story: sometimes plain, sometimes suspenseful, it shows many smaller good things done that add up to a life saved. The excellence of the film is also found in that, the way it was all put together, the payoff at the end was not the reason for the story — the story would have been complete without it. In a sense, the payoff is just what happened next; only so much icing on the cake. While some may pick at the filmcraft in places, I find that this one is better precisely because the filmcraft was downplayed. Most of the performances are strong; Sandra Bullock is just plain fun as she hits the heart.
District 9: Although violent and with more than just a little gore, District 9’s exploration of prejudice and suppression is nuanced and insightful. From the beginning of the film to the end, the slow transformation of Wikus Van De Merwe elucidates several sides of oppression that are not often investigated. Alongside this, we also see more blatant and well-known aspects of oppression. Sharlto Copley’s Wikus is fantastic. Some bits are too strongly stereotyped, but most of the filmcraft is strong. The violence in the film will make some want to think twice before watching.
Up in the Air: What makes Up in the Air worthy of its nomination is the intricacy of its exploration of transition, commitment, relationship, and permanence. The title is echoed in each of eight or more different relationships that intertwine, overlap, mirror each other, and intersect, not to mention the numerous laid-off workers that punctuate the story. At times, the insight represented in the film’s dialog is not so deep, but that’s okay if you engage with the relationships. Up in the Air shows us relational hollowness and fulfillment, shallowness and depth, loyalty and abandonment, suave distance and simple closeness, growth and stasis. The filmcraft is very good and the acting is mostly wonderful.
Up: Up earns its nomination, if nothing else, from the short film at the beginning that sets up the rest of the story. The rest is good, mind you, but it’s depth and impact owes very much to the beginning. As an animated feature that reaches out to children, it is not surprising that Up paints mostly with broad strokes — and wonderful strokes they are. That said, I do not believe that it is necessary for a children’s film to stick to broad strokes. The film was indeed fun, engaging, and insightful, yet I find that it could have explored with a bit more depth. I hasten to add that, all things considered, this is a minor quibble. Up’s charm and production quality will stand the test of time.
A Serious Man: This is an excellent film, but one that will be inscrutable to many mainstream moviegoers. Mostly, this is because A Serious Man is constructed to leave the audience with as many questions as the main character has. It’s upon reflection — serious reflection — that the film begins to take on meaning and power. The wry tone of the film is superbly fit to the film’s exploration of faith, certainty, trouble, and comfort. Michael Stuhlbarg’s lead performance captures this tone to a tee. As usual with the Coen brothers, the filmcraft is top notch throughout.

The bottom of the pack

Two films were flawed enough that I would not have had them as nominations. That said, both films have excellent qualities. Avatar is a phenomenal technical achievement — and, for film buffs, worth seeing for that alone — although only one thread through the film has strong insight, questions, or emotional connection. The filmcraft in Inglourious Basterds is wonderful, and the film has insight into the human condition, but the heart of the film is ill-conceived in that it suggests that the injured should stoop to the same levels as the perpetrators.

Inglourious Basterds: The basic premise of Inglourious Basterds — that Nazis should be stopped — is good. The grand possibility in the film — that certain deaths might bring a major world conflict to an end — is excellent, even though it is, of necessity, morbid. It’s the attitude of the film that is troubling: That it should be a pleasure to take revenge that is as brutal as a perpetrator’s offense. Still, the filmcraft in Inglourious Basterds is very good. Christoph Waltz’s performance is incredibly good, and Mélanie Laurent’s is very nice. It’s possible that some small elements in the film serve as a tongue-in-cheek push against its focus on the pleasure of revenge, but they are too small to counter the overall impact of the film.
Avatar: Were the rest of the film as outstanding as its technical accomplishments, Avatar would deserve its nomination. The animation and the 3D production creates luscious landscapes and puts us firmly into the land of the Na’vi. But alas, only one other major thread in the film is that good: Its portrayal of a people’s connection with the land. The film is worth seeing for these elements, but the plot is shallow and most of the main characters are stock stereotypes. The acting is average to good.

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