For the first time, I've managed to watch all of the Oscar Best Picture nominees before the awards are handed out. Here's my ranking of all ten films, from worst to best. Please note: I doubt that my number one choice will actually win Best Picture. It's merely the film I would vote for if I were a member of the Academy.
10) The Blind Side - The only film that doesn't really deserve to be on this list. It's a by-the-numbers sports movie, with no innovation whatsoever, a schmaltzy script, and a terrible message. The only black people in this movie are either criminals, drug addicts, servants or dependent upon white people to "save" them. The film also reinforces the destructive myth that professional sports is the best escape from poverty for black people. Aside from a couple of token racists - and very mild racists, at that - all of the white people are saintly humanitarians. Unfortunate. Only Sandra Bullock's charm saves this from being completely unwatchable. I laughed when industry buzz speculated that Star Trek might have received a Best Picture nomination, but having seen this film, I would have far preferred a third science fiction film on this year's ballot.
9) An Education - Lead actress Carey Mulligan is engaging and likeable in this coming-of-age picture, but really, it's just another in a long line of well-crafted British period dramas. Deserves a viewing, but probably won't stay with you for long.
8) Precious: Based on the Novel Push, by Sapphire - I loved the editing and the sequences depicting Precious' escapist fantasy life, but her tribulations become so extreme that I found myself laughing at two key junctures, when I was clearly supposed to be crying. Melodrama in the Sirk mode.
7) Up - Up deserves to be on this list for its masterful, tearjerking opening sequence, but the latter two-thirds of the film don't sustain the emotional impact. Turns cutesy once the leads reach South America, and the talking dogs don't help.
6) The Hurt Locker - This film has an excellent shot of taking home the award tonight, but it doesn't make my top five. Good performances, tight direction and a topical subject, but not innovative enough to compete with my top five.
5) Avatar - Terrific action, groundbreaking special effects, a richly-developed alien world and fine performances from all concerned (especially Zoe Saldana) - but in the end, a little too pat, with the good guys and the bad guys showing few shades of grey (or blue). Would have ranked higher on my list had Cameron given us more motivation for the human pillaging of Pandora.
4) A Serious Man - Another bewildering Cohen brothers masterpiece that challenges its audience. I'm a sucker for ambiguous endings, but like No Country for Old Men before it, A Serious Man forces us to consider our place in a world where random chance and/or destiny and/or a vengeful, unknowable creator holds all the cards, leaving mere mortals helpless.
3) District 9 - This movie takes a lot of chances - it's part alternate history, part science fiction, part human drama, holding up a mirror to ourselves as only the best SF can do. Unlike Avatar, this film is rich in shades of grey, with humans and aliens capable of both self-sacrifice and terrible cruelty.
2) Up in the Air - From the inventive opening sequence to the hard-hitting conclusion, Up in the Air is relentlessly engaging. The leads are all fascinating and watchable, the story topical and important, and the direction and editing top-notch.
1) Inglourious Basterds - I did not expect Quentin Tarantino's latest to be my favourite film of the year, but here it is. It's daring, violent, inventive and original, and dares to create an alternate history without giving the audience any warning whatsoever. Tarantino continues to stretch his wings with interesting editing and cinetographical choices, and gets fine performances from all of his actors, from the leads to the supernumaries. Christoph Waltz is amazing as Nazi Jew hunter Hans Landa, and deserves an Oscar for his work as well.
There you have it. My top five will probably shift up and down quite a bit with the passage of time, but as of this moment, these are my favourites. We'll see how my choices fare later tonight.