Tonight the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hand out a truckload of Oscar statuettes. It's one of the biggest days of the year for film buffs, and despite my misgivings about the cult of celebrity, I'll tune in once again.
For the second time in the 21st century, the Academy has nominated ten films for the prestigious Best Picture award. Overall, this year's field was about as strong as last year's, though the worst nominee this year is much better than last year's worst nominee, The Blind Side. Here's my ranking:
10) The Kids Are All Right
Unconventional family, conventional script. The performances are fine and it's nice to see a film that treats gay relationships as normal, but neither the writing nor the direction really lift this above standard dramedy fare. I enjoyed it, but I don't see it as a Best Picture nominee.
9) Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 is warm, funny, and a great final act for these lovable characters. However, as I get older and more crotchety, I'm finding that Pixar's brand of heartfelt sentimentality is wearing a little thin. I hope they don't ruin John Carter of Mars.
8) True Grit
I love the Cohen Brothers, but they can be a little hit and miss. There's nothing wrong with this "gritty" western, but it's not particularly challenging, either, especially compared to last year's Cohen nominee A Serious Man. Frankly, I prefer the 1969 version, with John Wayne.
7) The Fighter
This film is all about the acting. Fortunately, it's full of great performances, from recovering addict Christian Bale to Melissa Leo's sometimes overbearing but ultimately sympathetic Alpha Mom to the adorable Amy Adams' tough but underachieving barmaid. Funny, sincere and about as uplifting as a film about the sport of beating your opponent unconscious can be.
6) Black Swan
I expected to enjoy this more than I did. The makeup effects, editing and cinematography are top-notch, the performances fine, but I was looking for a little more ambiguity from the storyline. There's also an unfortunate subtext about the "dangers" of female sexuality that turned me off a little. Why are women so often punished in popular culture for having orgasms, or even seeking them out?
From this point on, the rankings become a lot more difficult for me. I loved all five of the following films for different reasons, and on a different day I might rank them in a completely different way. But for now, here's how I stand.
5) The King's Speech
This one's all about Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, and the two play off one another beautifully. Bonus points for recreating a fascinating era in British history. Plays a little fast and loose with history, but still worthwhile.
4) The Social Network
David Fincher's direction is as cool and austere as ever, which suits this film perfectly. The Social Network uses one man's fascinating story to capture the feel of this peculiar era of North American culture. Aaron Sorkin's script is wonderfully cynical, while at the same time showcasing human vulnerability.
3) Winter's Bone
Against a backdrop of grinding poverty and the omnipresent threat of sudden and brutal violence, Debra Granik's brave thriller presents no easy answers. But Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly gives us a wonderful feminist heroine, a tough but not invincible 17 year old who refuses to let almost insurmountable obstacles prevent her from protecting her younger siblings.
2) 127 Hours
Of all this year's nominees, I wanted to see this film least of all. I didn't see how even Danny Boyle could make a one-man-show about a rock-climbing accident interesting. But it's much more than interesting - it's absolutely compelling. James Franco is astounding as Aron Ralston, a somewhat self-absorbed young man who finds himself trapped in a narrow canyon, his arm pinned between a rock and a stone wall. This film sends a powerful message about the two conflicting but equally powerful forces that shape human culture: the power of individualism, and the importance of community. I was deeply moved by Boyle's masterful handling of these forces, and how he brings them together into a seamless, utterly vital whole.
It's the most original film in years. Chris Nolan has crafted a sublime film about the creative process, the importance of emotional catharsis and the subjective nature of reality. Far more than a simple caper film with a clever gimmick, Inception rewards careful analysis and repeated viewing. One of my favourite films in years.
Of course, Inception won't win tonight; that honour will go to The Social Network, or if the Academy is fickle, The King's Speech. All in all, not a bad set of nominees.