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Ranking the Best Picture Nominees

March 5, 2010

I’ve heard a lot of negative reaction to the expansion of the Best Picture field to 10 nominees this year, but I couldn’t disagree more. The two arguments I hear are one, that the expansion to 10 nominees dilutes the field and two, that the expansion is a cynical attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

On the second point, there is no question that the Academy expanded the field for purely commercial reasons. So what? The Oscars ceremony has always been a big revenue-generator for Hollywood, raking in advertising dollars for the Academy and the hosting network, and publicity for Hollywood’s fanciest productions. Getting upset at Hollywood for trying to make more money is like getting upset at a lion for eating more zebras.

As for the notion of dilution, I don’t buy it. Go back and look at the list of the five best picture nominees in any year over the last 20, or 30, or 40. Does any year accurately reflect the contemporary critical consensus of the five best films of the year? The popular consensus? The historical consensus?

The Oscar nominees have always shown a bias towards prestige pictures, biopics and literary adaptations and the like, while shortchanging genre pictures. But the films that last in the popular and critical imagination are more often genre pics. Meanwhile, biopics and historical epics—two longtime Academy faves—often exhibit surprisingly short half-lives. The expansion to 10 nominees allows films like District 9, a sci-fi film, Up, an animated pic, and yes, The Blind Side, a sports movie, a chance at the big prize. (Not as if any of those three has a shot at winning.) Every critic with a pulse makes a 10 best list at the end of the year. Why can’t the Academy?

This is all a long-winded way of getting to my ranking of the 10 nominees for Best Picture. I welcome your feedback. First is the list, with no commentary. Next is the list, with commentary and occasional SPOILERS.

  1. Inglourious Basterds
  2. A Serious Man (SPOILER ALERT)
  3. District 9
  4. Up
  5. Up in the Air (SPOILER ALERT)
  6. Precious
  7. The Hurt Locker
  8. The Blind Side
  9. Avatar
  10. An Education

1) Inglourious Basterds

An enormously entertaining send-up and tribute to the World War II film that pulls off the sly trick of making us sympathize with (some of the) Nazis and also offers a subtle critique of cinema’s morally dubious powers of seduction. Quentin Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction, which is meant as a compliment to Pulp Fiction but an insult to everything Tarantino has done since. Also features the most entertaining performance of the year, Christopher Waltz as Col. Hans Landa.

2) A Serious Man (SPOILER ALERT)

This is a profound meditation on the question of whether there is a moral force in the universe. Mystified? Let me try to explain.

At first glance, the advice from each of the three rabbis Larry Gopnik meets with may sound like amusing but incoherent gibberish. But each little speech embodies a particular Jewish perspective on how to deal with suffering. In the grossest, simplest terms, the first rabbi preaches the value of looking at the world with awe and wonder; the second suggests that with time, the pain of suffering will past; the third suggests that love is the only antidote to suffering. To Larry’s frustration, none of them answer why he is suffering such misfortune. But Judaism is rarely interested in why. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book wasn’t Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, but When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

As for the ending. Everyone seems to understand that the film is an allegory for the Book of Job. In the Book of Job, Job’s children are killed in a whirlwind. Taking the literary analogy to its logical conclusion, the tornado approaching the school at the end of A Serious Man will kill his son—meaning that, as bad as things have been for Larry so far, they’re soon going to get a hell of a lot worse.

It is also appropriate that the tornado and the call from his doctor suggesting he has cancer only come after Larry chooses to change Clive Park’s grade. Despite Larry’s crisis of faith, this is the first time in the film that he deliberately violates his own sense of integrity. In essence, it’s his first moral compromise. Are the Coens suggesting that there is a moral force in the universe who punishes sinful behavior? Or is it a metaphysical MacGuffin, intended to mislead us into thinking there is a moral force, thereby offering a subtle critique of the human need to assign reason to chaos? Whatever the case, the Coens have done some serious deep thinking in their construction of A Serious Man.

3) District 9

Works as entertainment. Works as allegory. Works for me.

4) Up

It’s not a masterpiece on the level of WALL*E or The Incredibles. But it’s a great entertainment all the same. The opening sequence narrating Carl Fredericksen’s marriage is the most moving four minutes of animation I’ve ever seen.

5) Up in the Air (SPOILER ALERT)

As admirable as it is flawed. The premise is terrific, and Clooney could not be more in his element. But the twist with Alex (Vera Farmiga) late in the film renders all of her previous actions incoherent at worst, sociopathic at best. What kind of person with a family and kids would ditch them without a thought for a weekend with a man who she views only as an on-the-road fling? And what exactly is the thought process behind the idea that Ryan is the one person in the family who can talk Jim out of getting married? This film all too often sacrifices coherence for dramatic effect. But I did love the ending.

6) Precious

I go back and forth on this one. The performances are uniformly excellent, and the film gives a glimpse of world that few white—or black, for that matter—audiences have ever seen, but I seriously worry that this film is doing more social harm than good. It’s very easy to walk away from this film thinking that Precious’s life is typical of teenagers in poor black neighborhoods. That kind of hopelessness can easily feed racist attitudes, and racist social policy.

7) The Hurt Locker

Or, Lethal Weapon in Iraq. Team one adrenaline-addicted white guy with one cautious black guy, stick them in a violent city with unknown enemies, and watch the fireworks explode! Of course, The Hurt Locker is neither as funny nor as entertaining as Lethal Weapon. But it’s just as realistic.

Sure, Jeremy Renner is excellent, and Kathryn Bigelow can direct a good action scene (although let’s not go overboard), and the ending is beautifully ironic, but I just don’t get where all the praise is coming from.

If you want to see a truly harrowing and authentic dramatization of the U.S. military in Iraq, rent Generation: Kill, HBO’s 2008 miniseries.

8) The Blind Side

There’s something to be said for a movie that can make anyone understand why a left tackle is one of the most important positions in football. There’s less to be said for a movie that doesn’t trust its audience enough to treat its central black character as anything less than a saint. Better than I thought it would be, I suppose, but still far from great.

9) Avatar

As amazing as the spectacle is, the screenplay is that much worse. The dialogue is at times outright laughable, the kind of clichéd dross that would have earned me a failing grade in my college screenwriting course. Much like Titanic, this is not going to age well.

10) An Education

Carey Mulligan is perfect. The rest of the film? The less said, the better.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    March 6, 2010 3:07 pm

    A couple of comments-

    District 9- Everyone talks about Avatar’s plot similiaties to Dances With Wolves, Pocohantas, The Last Samurai etc, but nobody seems to mention that District 9’s plot is virtually identical also. And yet District nails it completely, I empathized much more with the prawns than I ever did the Pandorans

    Up- That montage might just be the single most moving four minute piece of cinema, animated or otherwise. The rest of the film could never equal that level of greatness (how could it?) but I could watch an hour and a half of just the talking dogs

    A Serious Man- It’s amazing that the two of us can have diametrically opposed viewpoints on what the Coens were trying to say regarding Judiasm and religion in general, while we still both love the movie

    Up in the Air- To this point, my favorite film of the year (with the reservation that Inglorious Basterds and Hurt Locker are still somewhat inexcusably sitting in my Netflix queue). For reasons that might or might not be obvious to you, I strongly identified with the Clooney character, so much so that I got a bit emotional at the ending. And I think your criticism of Alex’s actions are completely unwarranted. That’s an awfully moralistic interpretation that any act of marital infidelity is somehow incompatible with maintaining a family at the same time. Her time with Clooney is essentially a vacation from adulthood, not the actions of a sociopath

  2. March 7, 2010 3:16 pm

    District 9 — There’s a difference between District 9 and those other films. In those other films, the hero embraces “going native.” In District 9, the hero resists it through the entire picture. Moreover, his motivations are entirely selfish; any interest in saving the aliens is ancillary to his interest in saving himself. The political implications, therefore, are a bit different.

    Up in the Air — So you’re the second person who has balked at my “moralistic” interpretation of Alex’s actions. The point isn’t that cheating on your partner is sociopathic, it’s that her actions and behavior before and after the revelation of her marriage aren’t consistent. We are never given the slightest hint that she suffers from any psychological distress or complications because of this affair, which is possible I guess but perhaps a little unlikely. But more importantly, her decision on a moment’s notice to join Ryan on a weekend trip to a wedding is implausible given her devotion to her family (which she makes rather clear in her phone call with Ryan later in the film). Then, at the wedding, everything in her behavior–her actions, her looks to Ryan–is reflective of someone who is falling deeply for Ryan, and likes the idea of showing commitment to him by joining him for a family wedding.

    But that behavior is completely belied by her words later, when she says that Ryan’s and her relationship is compartmentalized and is a vacation from real life. Something is screwy in this woman’s brain if were to interpret everything that happens around the wedding to not have any emotional associations or implications of commitment. Hence, the notion of the “sociopath” (which admittedly, might be a bit strong choice of wording).

    It strikes me that the only reason that the filmmakers don’t show us any hesitation or hint of distress on Alex’s part is not because they feel it makes character sense, but because they want to deliver a more dramatic jolt when it’s revealed that Alex is married. They’re using Alex’s character to serve a narrative point, and discarding plausibility or coherence in the process–or, are suggesting that Alex is quite a twisted puppy. That may be one of their points, but I doubt it.

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