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Oscar 2011: 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?

Oscar 2011 has a superb set of ten Best Picture nominees. Aside from certain content awareness advisories for most of the films, I can, without reservation, say that all ten are are worth seeing. This means that there are really none of them that are at the “bottom of the list” — that moniker is inappropriately pejorative. At the other end of the continuum — and while keeping in mind that I’m not not trying to predict the winner — there is one that, to my sensibilities, rises above the lot: Winter’s Bone. Below, you’ll find my take on all ten films.
>> Go to the Oscar Roundup for 2010, for 2012.

Let me be clear here: My take is not based on which films I personally enjoyed the most and, like I said, I’m certainly not trying to guess the winner. Consider my ranking to be my take on the lasting worth of the films as artifacts exploring the human condition and prodding us to be who we need to be. All ten nominees have lasting value, but those toward the top have deeper and more compelling exploration combined with strong filmcraft. My criteria are:

  • Strength of insight into the human condition. I value films more highly when they are based on keen understanding of things that are good, true, and beautiful about this life. The film may explore these things directly or may do so “in reverse” by showing us things that are bad, false, or ugly. Either way, a film is more worth the time to the extent that we come away understanding more about how we might live 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 value films more highly when they 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 showing something in a one-sided way and begging a question about the truth of it, 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 value films whose insight and questions come through, or at least are heavily reinforced by, our emotional reactions as evoked by its story, characters, dialog, and filmcraft. 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,” to which I 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 hardly bring a poorly conceived film to strong influence on our hearts and lives. 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 2011 Oscar best picture nominations.

The standout from 2011’s nominations

In reflecting over the nominees, I was surprised to find that I kept placing a single film at the top of the list: Winter’s Bone. Usually for me, the differing merits of different films create clusters of best films, each one best from a different perspective. Although 127 Hours came close to placement with Bone, this one simply gets it all right from dialog to acting to tone to pacing to cinematography to directing — and most importantly, it’s ability to draw us in and spur us on.

Winter’s Bone: Though somber and at times hard to watch, Winter’s Bone is a compelling exploration of grit and courage and loyalty. Director Debra Granik’s deliberate and relentless pacing for the film allows time for its characters and questions to take root. Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated performance makes her character’s difficulties and emotional fortitude palpable. How much less than she do most of us face in life, yet how easily do we blame and shirk rather than steel ourselves to act? Winter’s Bone’s Oscar-worthy strength is in its willingness to play cold, hard truths coldly and hardly. It could easily have been sentimentalized and played as a victory of the human spirit or as a hero’s quest to save the innocent. Instead, it faces head-on the reality that some victories have no glory in them, but only survival and a somber sense that, even though life ought not to have such valleys to walk through, even then the beautiful path is to give and to walk with our deepest love.

The excellent top tier of 2011’s nominations

My top tier has four films, each of which is engaging in its exploration around specific character flaws and the beauty of human relationships. 127 Hours deals with individualism and being overly self-confident. Delving into the subconscious, Inception looks at the effects of suppressing memories and the worlds we construct to protect ourselves. The Fighter exposes relational manipulation and explores the nature of loyalty. The Coen brothers’ True Grit puts a formal and at times dryly humorous face on its examination of vengeance, justice, and their costs. In all four, excellent filmcraft — particularly plot structure — reinforces the strength of each film’s ability to influence us toward becoming better people.

127 Hours: In what is nearly a one-man, one-set show, Danny Boyle directs a very personal journey through an emotional, intense, unintended period of introspection. James Franco’s ability to carry the bulk of the film while immobile, acting in close quarters, is more than worthy of his Best Actor nomination. Even if you know the climactic moment of the film (which you’ll quite easily learn from most anyone talking about the film, but not from me), and think therefore that you don’t want to see the film, I’d recommend that you see it, anyway. We may not be outdoors people the way that the lead character is, but with a little bit of engagement with the film, we can carry away a deeper love for and relationship with those around us.
Inception: Christopher Nolan is quite reliable in writing and directing films that are intricately engaging, emotionally insightful, and intriguingly crafted. Inception is no exception (couldn’t resist ;-). If we could plumb the depths of our own psyches, what would we uncover? What repressed regrets and horrors, unknowingly to us, come back time and again to infect and derail our daily lives? Such questions are deeply intertwined throughout Inception’s multiple levels, creating a rich set of interrelations and intrafilm references between dialog and plot, character and situation, film and viewer, and character and viewer. Mixing all of this into the film’s engaging action and excellent filmcraft, Nolan adds another lasting, important, and personally influential film to his repertoire.
The Fighter: The best thing about The Fighter is that it ain’t your standard boxing film — even though it seems to flaunt its title as if it wants you to think so. Though Micky (Mark Wahlberg) has boxing challenges to face, these really are but the context for the relational challenges in his life. Around him, we engage with multiple other characters in their good and bad moments. From these various vantage points, the interplay of loyalty and betrayal, manipulation and true giving, and failure and redemption, spurred on by excellent acting (particularly Christian Bale’s Oscar-nominated performance) and generally strong filmcraft, makes fertile ground for taking important things away from the film.
True Grit: The formal language in True Grit (which is consistent with the book) lends the film a bit of the Shakespearean air in the middle of a tough western. But then, that tends to universalize it beyond being just a western. Adding to the film’s epic aura, the mix of the three main characters — a tough-as-nails (mostly) teen girl, a mean and drunk U.S. marshal, and a straight-up Texas Ranger — provide a context for a wide and varied exploration of vengeance, justice, courage, naïveté, experience, and responsibility (or not). And leave it to the Coens to toss in a bit of odd-angled humor (but it works). It is among the Coens’ most broadly accessible films, and it can leave its mark on our souls.

The very good second tier of 2011’s nominations

The remaining five films are all very good, and all worth seeing (although with Black Swan you want to be particularly aware of content), yet each is somehow one notch down from the others in terms of richness of questions asked or in depth of its insight or engagement. The King’s Speech has the most likable story, The Social Network the most intriguing one. Toy Story 3 is engaging and fun and, while very accessible to children, it is lighter in its exploration of relationships. Relationships are deeply explored in The Kids Are All Right, yet its title, while true for the film, isn’t really a question that anyone in the film is asking, so it seems to be pushing a social agenda. Black Swan dives deep into a dancer’s psyche, asking important questions about perfection, in the process finding darkness that gives rise to the content concerns noted above.

The King’s Speech: If the Academy had an award for people’s choice, The King’s Speech would likely win. Colin Firth’s Oscar-nominated performance as the king is perhaps the strongest single thing about it — but there are plenty of other strong things, including the performances of Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. Among the film’s explorations, the most significant is the idea that, at least for some speech disorders, the root cause may not be physical. The next most significant exploration surrounds the credence we give to authority and credentials. Most to the credit of the filmcraft is that what could come off as a simple story of overcoming the odds is made much richer in the crafting of the plot, the dialog, and the relationships developed, and this takes the film deeper into our hearts than the simple story would have.
Black Swan: The film’s title indicates the place that Natalie Portman’s lead character must go where she has not gone before. The dance company’s artistic director, in a twist on the classic ballet, Swan Lake, has one dancer perform both the virginal white swan and the seductive black swan. Beyond the sensual dichotomy, the film explores the nature of perfection, particularly in artistic expression that aims to represent humanity’s darker side. Into the mix, director Darren Aronofsky tosses our fears and self-deception. The result is an excellent but narrowly accessible film, with certain content and lack of clarity that make it hard to broadly recommend. Nevertheless, those that do enter into the film’s manner of exploration can come away moved to better insight into their own struggles to get better.
The Kids Are All Right: The relational joys, struggles, and pains in The Kids Are All Right are engaging and real. Most of the acting is good, some of it excellent (such as Annette Bening’s Oscar-nominated lead). The film even plays the lead lesbian couple’s relationship in an even-handed way (meaning it shows true struggles in the relationship) and it doesn’t shy away from some of the awkwardness of a family with two moms. So, it’s a bit inconsistent that it used the title to push the agenda of gays having kids. But, be that as it may, there are plenty of universal issues that the film addresses that can engage our hearts and souls. And, whatever one’s position about gays and gays with kids, all of the characters in the film — like all of us — are worthy of love simply because of who made us. That may be the best thing that many people walk away with from The Kids Are All Right.
The Social Network: Although The Social Network does have notable exploration of character issues to engage with, it comes off as being more about the story — which director David Fincher tells very, very well. Rapid-fire dialog positions Mark Zuckerberg’s character and his technical prowess. Interlaced time sequences develop the story simultaneously on three or more fronts. Tilt-shift photography reduces grand social scenes to storybook scales. Acting, pacing, music, and more add up to an excellent film. The Social Network is not without heart-level influence: Seeing the story’s betrayals and manipulations, we can reflect on our own Faustian tendencies in our pursuit of grand success — or even minor success.
Toy Story 3: The Toy Story franchise continued strongly with the third in the series. Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the whole gang are back for another chapter in Andy’s life. The story is strong and creative, the animation is Pixar-excellent, and overall the filmcraft is great. In exploring character issues, the film applies a light touch, painting in broad strokes with very little nuance. This is a typical approach for a children’s film, and only the truly best ones can play at both a children’s level and a deeper and nuanced adult level. Nonetheless, Toy Story 3 does come around to important adult themes about maintaining our ability to play, not taking ourselves too seriously, and not getting caught up in our techie toys. It has its impact to make, and if we enter in, we can let ourselves be influenced even with and by the film’s lightness and fun.

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