Attack of the Prequels

This is a cross-post of an article which appeared on a different site, a long, long time ago. But with the release of X-Men Apocalypse, I still think it’s relevant. Enjoy!
Let’s be honest. Most of the time, “prequel” is a dirty word. Or if not a dirty word, at least a signal that the reader should be wary about what comes next. For me, no phrase other than “upcoming prequel” evokes as much dread laced with illogical optimism. No phrase other than, perhaps, “directed by M. Night Shyamalan.” Nearly every summer since the release of The Phantom Menace has given us our fair share of prequels. X-Men: First Class. Revenge of the Return of the Planet of the Apes. Even the original Captain America, while not really a prequel in the general sense, relies on a few of the same storytelling tropes through its use of the character Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) father. And it’s not limited to movies — plenty of video game prequels have hit the shelves in recent years, expanding on the stories of popular franchises such as Halo and Kingdom Hearts.

What makes these types of stories attractive? That’s not a very difficult question to answer. For the audience, we get more of the world and characters we love. For the creators, you’ve got a built-in audience, and much of the time, a pre-written story. But as we know from looking at the Star Wars fiasco, these things don’t always work out so peachy.
The main problem is that creating a prequel — a story before the story we already know — forces the author to fight the audience’s imagination. Sequels do this too, but in a much less violent way. Sequels can fail to satisfy our hopes — look at the Matrix sequels for examples of this — but they rarely crush our dreams. Prequels are another matter. Ever since the first time I saw A New Hope, I dreamed about the Clone Wars. Was it some sort of Dark Side plan that cloned Jedi and turned them evil? Was it an uprising from the clones in the galaxy, used as slave labor, that eventually led to cloning technology being banned? I had notebooks full of this stuff, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And then came Attack of the Clones. The less said about the disappointing reality of the Clone Wars, the better.
So are all prequels doomed to this sort of failure? No, of course not. The aforementioned X-Men: First Class received mostly positive reviews. The Godfather: Part II, while not 100% prequel, is told through heavy use of flashbacks, and is generally considered one of the greatest movies ever made. Metal Gear Solid 3 was an unexpected prequel, and many count it as the best of the series. So there’s a way to do this right. In fact, I think there are a couple of guidelines that the most successful prequels follow:
If you’re making a prequel to “answer questions,” you’re doing it wrong
One of the major problems with the Star Wars prequel trilogy is that it was created to answer questions that never needed answering. No one really needed to know precisely how Anakin became Darth Vader — if that was a fundamentally important bit of information, it would have been answered in the original trilogy.
Now, to be sure, there will likely be questions answered. For instance, First Class, in the process of telling its story, shows us how Charles Xavier lost the use of his legs. This is fine, and it ends up adding an interesting twist on the character. But the reason why it works is because the story isn’t based around telling us this information. The writers didn’t start by saying “Okay, let’s make a prequel that tells the story of how Professor X lost his ability to walk.” They said “Let’s make a story that explores the history of the X-Men,” and the mysteries solved were incidental.
Don’t subvert the inevitability — embrace it
The common wisdom about why most prequels suck is that we already know what’s going to happen; why would we be interested? Why would we want to watch a movie about Anakin if we know he’s going to become Darth Vader?
Some prequels try to get around this by slyly changing what you thought you knew was going to happen. This rarely works, and often just creates a lack of cohesion between the two stories. A good example is Padme’s death at the end of Revenge of the Sith. In Return of the Jedi, Leia specifically says she remembers her mother, but this actually proves not to be the case. Instead of creating an interesting moment where our expectations are subverted, it instead just leads to confusion. And even those who accept the logic that Leia’s feelings were metaphorical, or that she was speaking about her adopted mother, are in the position of having to wrangle up convoluted explanations instead of enjoying natural story tie-ins.
Problem is, the whole “we can’t know what’s going to happen” excuse doesn’t cut it. Plenty of stories tell you exactly what’s going to happen, and still manage to be entertaining. We know Ahab’s sense of vengeance is going to lead to his downfall. In Oedipus Rex, like almost all of Greek tragedy, the audience is specifically told the ending of the play in the form of prophecy — and yet, this doesn’t rob the story of its power.
Generally, the stories that do it best are the ones that consciously play with the idea of destiny through the eyes of the reader/player. The best example of this concept that I can think of is Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. For those not familiar with the series, Crisis Core is a prequel starring a young soldier named Zack. Zack factors strongly into the story of Final Fantasy VII, but he’s actually dead by the time the main story starts. For most of the game, Crisis Core is not really a masterpiece. It’s very anime-ish, and the new characters the game introduces fail to inspire much interest. However, as the game moves toward its end, we, as players, start to feel a tad of dread. Zack is going to die; we know this, and we’ve known this from the start. But as we move closer to it, that inevitability starts to become more and more real, until we get to the final battle of the game, with enemies closing in all around. We know this is where Zack dies — the original game shows us as much. But we can’t help but try to fight against the inevitable. We can’t help but try to down each soldier, one by one, even as they lay into Zack beyond any hope of success. This desire of the audience to strive against what they know must happen (what has already happened, in some sense) is something that prequels excel at. It’s a feeling, actually, that I don’t think good old traditionally temporal stories can evoke. The best prequels make use of it.
A prequel needs to be a good story in its own right
This is a “rule” that obviously needs to be true of any story: standalone, sequel, prequel, whatever. And it shouldn’t need to be said. A story needs to be good and complete regardless of what comes before or after, right? Sadly, a lot of producers don’t seem to understand this.
I don’t mean to pick on the Star Wars prequels, but I think I’m going to have to call out Attack of the Clones again. It’s just such a monumental failure when it comes to the idea that each part of a saga needs to be an interesting story by itself. What, if anything, happens? Really, there seems to be some sort of mystery involving who commissioned the clone army, but really, it’s not a mystery at all. Shocker: it was the Jedi that turned evil and is now fighting against the Republic! I know, you never saw it coming! Aside from that, there’s nothing. There’s no story arc. There’s really no character arc; Anakin and Padme’s love story comes apropos of absolutely nothing and is given no time to develop. The one exception I’ll make is for the scene where Anakin returns to his childhood home, finds his mother and slays the Tuskens. It’s a good plot point, but even that is only good because of what it foreshadows for future installments. It does not make a complete story.
It’s easy to say “Well, that’s a middle entry, so of course it’s going to feel less complete.” And that’s a cop out. Look at The Empire Strikes Back. While it’s not a prequel, it is a middle entry, and it absolutely plays its role well. It expands on the world of the first film while giving us a open ending to make way for the third. However, The Empire Strikes Back is a complete story with a satisfying arc (multiple arcs, actually). The easiest one to focus on is Luke’s: he starts out as an accomplished pilot, gets instructed to seek out Jedi training, ultimately quits his training before he’s finished to go rescue his friends, despite the warnings of his teachers … and his overconfidence leads to his failure. It’s not a happy arc, and without Return of the Jedi as a bookend, it would be pretty depressing. But it’s still a story.
Creating a satisfying, standalone tale is what many prequels fail to accomplish. You can’t necessarily write a prequel story to cater to the tastes of people who have never experienced the original, but that’s not the point. The point is to maintain the interest of people who do know what’s coming next.
Or say screw it, and jettison continuity
The Indiana Jones series (well, before the fourth one) cares very little for continuity. Some characters appear from previous movies, but for the most part, each film is a self-contained vignette. What happens in Temple of Doom matters very little to the overall franchise. Nintendo games, especially Zelda and Metroid, take a similar view. Hardcore fans may obsess over discovering an exact timeline, but it’s not the main point of the experience.
I’d almost argue that these works fall out of the scope of “prequel.” Sure, sometimes they may technically take place earlier than the original work, but if they aren’t making use of that backward shift in time, then it hardly matters.
Now you know what to look for

Other films aren’t quite so adept, though. Next time you see an ad for that hot upcoming prequel — and I assure you, you’ll see that ad sooner than later — remind yourself of what the artists are trying to create. Yes, promotional material lies, but it’s still easier to categorize a movie or a game than you may think. Does the movie seem to downplay a perceived lack of control while answering silly questions like “Want to find out how Bob got his giant sword?!” Does a tagline for a book proclaim “The story behind the story … is not what you thought!” If that’s the case, shy away … or at least check your brain at the door and enjoy the explosions and gratuitous sex. That’s usually the best you can hope for.

The Best Films of 2012, Part II

Here we are again! Oscar 2013 is right around the corner, which means it’s time for me to release my predictions. I generally do a fairly good job (but of course, the award shows are generally fairly easy to predict), but this year, there are some categories that are definitely up in the air. If you missed my first post, detailing what I consider to be the best films of the year, check it out here. As always, any film marked in red is one I did not see, so take that into consideration. Away we go!

Best Original Screenplay

Amour (Michael Haneke)
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
Flight (John Gatins)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola)
Zero Dark Thirty (Mark Boal)
Moonrise Kingdom and ZDT have a decent chance at this category, but I think Django takes it. The academy recognizes that Tarantino is a better writer than he is a director (though he’s not a bad director by any means!), Best Screenplay is often the consolation category for films that are too out-there to win Best Picture or Best Director.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Argo (Chris Terrio)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin)
Life of Pi (David Magee)
Lincoln (Tony Kushner)
Silver Linings Playbook (David o. Russell)
Here’s where I discuss the dark horse of the night: Silver Linings Playbook. It has a real shot to win not only this category, but many of the categories it’s nominated for, including Best Picture. To be clear, I didn’t like the film. I thought it was sappy, patronizing schlock that was saved from pure awful only through the talents of Jennifer Lawrence. Russell admitted he created the film to show his mentally ill son that mentally ill people can live normal lives. A commendable sentiment, but not one I’m sure is well served by the implication that a mentally ill man can generally shirk or ignore his treatment, be sort of a dick to everyone, be overly obsessed with a woman or life he can never have and still expect that a beautiful woman (Lawrence) will walk up, fall head-over-heels in love with you for no discernible reason and refuse to be put off by your behavior.
All right, I’m done. Sorry about that. Anyway, I think Argo is the favorite here. It was a solid script that turned into a fantastic movie. Life of Pi has a chance, maybe, and Lincoln is a longshot. But in my opinion, it’s between Argo and (ugh) Silver Linings.

Best Visual Effects

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Marvel’s The Avengers
Prometheus 
Snow White and the Huntsman
The yearly “genre movie consolation prize.” The Hobbit is the pretty clear favorite here, in my opinion, simply because the Academy will likely want to recognize that, yes, another Middle Earth movie came out this year, and we didn’t forget about it. The Avengers has a shot, and Life of Pi definitely has a shot (beautiful movie), but I think Hobbit takes it in the end.

Best Sound Mixing

Argo
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Skyfall
They sometimes give this to the action movie (action movie consolation prize!), but I think the musical holds more sway. Give it to Les Mis.

Best Sound Editing

Argo
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Skyfall
Zero Dark Thirty
I don’t know man. I don’t think Skyfall will win, but other than that, the rest of the movies have an equal chance. I say Life of Pi, because Academy members will probably want to give that movie something.

Best Live-Action Short Film

Asad 
Buzkashi Boys
Curfew
Death of a Shadow
Henry
Curfew was my favorite of this list. It revolved around a suicidal former junkie meeting his niece and watching her for an afternoon, and while the subject matter has been done before, Fatima Ptacek does a fantastic job. Death of a Shadow is likely the favorite — it’s a creative, original, and visually arresting film about a man tasked with capturing deaths throughout history with his camera. Buzkashi Boys is also a contender, if only because it’s current — it was filmed in Afghanistan, with Afghani cast and crew in cooperation with an American team. It’s not the best short film, but its subject matter will likely propel it. Asad is a cute story made with Somali refugees, and while it’s clearly not the best acted film in history, it’s still enjoyable. Henry was emotionally manipulative and predictable, even if the acting was good.
Where was I? Oh, right. I’m going to pick Death of a Shadow, but Buzkashi Boys is a close second.

Best Animated Short Film

Adam and Dog
Fresh Guacamole
Head Over Heels
Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare”
Paperman
The Simpsons short was cute, but it was just a reinterpretation of the “Ayn Rand School for Tots” bit from an old episode, and that episode did it better. Paperman got a lot of shares around the old Facebook, but I thought it was a shallow story (guy wants to meet pretty girl, then does!), and I thought the animation was trying too hard to look hand-drawn, which it ultimately failed at. Head Over Heels was an intriguing idea and a nice execution (elderly man and woman have opposite gravity pulls — man lives on ceiling, woman on floor), but ultimately I didn’t think it went far enough thematically.
Fresh Guacamole was my favorite of the bunch. It was a 2-minute long claymation (or maybe faux-claymation) movie about someone making guacamole out of some unconventional ingredients. Nothing flashy, but in two minutes it managed to be funny, charming and incredibly attractive. I loved it.
Adam and Dog is probably the movie that will win. It plops down a lovable dog into the story of Adam and Eve, it’s pretty and it tugs at the heartstrings. It’s my pick for this category.

Production Design

Anna Karenina
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Lincoln
I think The Hobbit takes it here, too. There were definitely some issues with the film, but let it never be said that Peter Jackson can’t put together a fabulous production team. Oh, and the less said about Anna Karenina, the better. Ugh.

Best Original Song

Before My Time (Chasing Ice)
Everybody Needs a Best Friend (Ted)
Pi’s Lullaby (Life of Pi)
Skyfall (Skyfall)
Suddenly (Les Miserables)
The general trend is to give this category to the ‘invented song’ for the musical, to recognize the vocal talent on the rest of the soundtrack, which is not eligible for nomination since it is not ‘original.’ There’s a strong possibility of that happening here, but I’m going to go with Skyfall, simply because Adele is Adele, and Suddenly was not a great song, even as ‘invented for the Oscars’ songs go.

Best Original Score

Anna Karenina
Argo
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Skyfall
None of these scores really stood out in my mind. But Lincoln has John Williams, and John Williams is to Oscars what Adele is to Grammies. 

Best Makeup

Hitchcock
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables
Les Mis was nominated mostly for Anne Hathaway here, I’m pretty sure. And it was good. But I think the dwarves and goblins of The Hobbit get the gold here.

Best Foreign Language Film

Amour
Kon-Tiki
No
A Royal Affair
War Witch
So, as you can see, I’ve only seen one of these, but I’m still confident in predicting the win for it. If it doesn’t win, there’s not a lot of sense in the category. If, say, Kon-Tiki won Best Foreign Language Film, shouldn’t it have been nominated for Best (Overall) Film instead of Amour? Also, Amour is very well made. Slow-paced and personal, yes, but well made.

Best Film Editing

Argo
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
I was originally thinking I’d pick Argo here, for reasons you’ll see when we get to Best Picture. But I actually think it’s going to go to Zero Dark Thirty. ZDT had some great editing, especially in the raid scene, and giving it Best Editing means that it gets some recognition, even if it got snubbed for director.

(Note: I saw none of the documentaries this year, so I have no opinion on them)

Best Director

Amour (Michael Haneke)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
Weird fuckin’ category. The fact that Russell edged out both Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow is pretty much a travesty. With what’s left, Steven Spielberg is obviously the pick. That might have been obvious even with Affleck in there, but it’s definitely true now.

Best Costume Design

Anna Karenina
Les Misérables
Lincoln
Mirror Mirror
Snow White and the Huntsman
Let’s go ahead and throw Mirror Mirror and Snow White out of consideration. I trust no one will object. Anna Karenina was a meh movie, but it has the ‘period piece’ thing going for it, so it’s at least in contention. I’m going to go ahead and give this to Les Mis, though, because I loved the Thenardiers’ outfits.

Best Cinematography

Anna Karenina
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Skyfall
As I intimated in the previous post, the fact that The Master wasn’t nominated here was the biggest snub of the night, hands down. Not only should it be nominated, it should win the category. In light of that, I have no idea who the Academy will actually pick. Fuck, I’m surprised Silver Linings Playbook isn’t nominated here as well. I’m going to pick Life of Pi, though, because it was probably the runner-up after The Master.

Best Animated Film

Brave
Frankenweenie
Paranorman
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph has a shot here, but not a big one. You just can’t beat Pixar, and Brave was a lovely film.

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams
Sally Field
Anne Hathaway
Helen Hunt
Jacki Weaver
Yeah, it’s Anne Hathaway. No question here.

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Arkin
Robert De Niro
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Tommy Lee Jones
Christoph Waltz
I don’t think Arkin nor Waltz will win here; their performances were too comedic. Great, but comedic, and the Academy prefers drama. De Niro might well be the favorite here, especially if Silver Linings starts winning things like Best Screenplay, and Tommy Lee Jones is also a possibility, since he was (IMO), the best part of Lincoln (and I normally don’t like him). I think Hoffman is the objective winner, though. He was simply astounding as The Master, and I’ll consider it a pretty big misstep if he doesn’t win.

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain
Jennifer Lawrence
Emmanuelle Riva
Quvenzhané Wallis
Naomi Watts
Wallis did a great job, but they aren’t going to give the award to a kid. Won’t happen. Naomi Watts did fine as well, but she spent most of the movie in a hospital bed groaning and vomiting, so I can’t see that happening either. Amour is too obscure for Riva to win, so it’s really between Chastain and Lawrence, and either woman could easily win. I’m going to pick Chastain simply because I have to pick one, and she has a slightly better chance. But I would not be surprised at all to see Lawrence win, and I would not complain.

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper
Daniel Day-Lewis
Hugh Jackman
Joaquin Phoenix
Denzel Washington
DDL is clearly the favorite here, and it would be a huge surprise if he didn’t get the trophy. Jackman is a dark horse, but I’d say he only has a 10% chance to win, with DDL at 75% and everyone else at 5%. I’m not opposed to this. I thought Daniel Day-Lewis did a competent job. I wasn’t blown away like everyone else was — it’s not the performance of a lifetime. But it was good.

Best Picture

Amour
Argo
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Misérables
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
So let’s talk about what won’t win. Amour is too foreign. Beasts is too experimental. Django is too Tarantino. Life of Pi is too hamfisted with its moral. 
That leaves us with Argo, Les Mis, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and ZDT. Silver Linings is a possibility here, as I mentioned before — if the Academy starts giving it awards left and right, and De Niro, Lawrence and Cooper (ugh) end up sweeping, it could happen. Sad, but true.
The rest have about equal chances. Les Mis probably the least of them, but it’s an epic musical with inspiring performances, so I wouldn’t count it out. Zero Dark Thirty was sort of damaged by the controversy, so I imagine the Academy, as a fairly left-leaning group of folks, will likely not award it the Big One. Really, it’s between Lincoln and Argo, and if there’s any justice, Argo will win. Lincoln was simply not that great of a movie, for many reasons. It wasn’t really about Lincoln, for one thing, meaning that from the very title the film had trouble managing its tone (it should have been called The 13th Amendment or something). Argo, on the other hand, simply worked from beginning to end. Even though I knew the ending, it was the most tense film I’ve seen all year. Argo should win, if for no other reason than to give Affleck recompense for the Best Director snub.
So there you have it! My predictions for 2013. Let me know what you think in the comments, tweet me @MatthewBorgard, and be sure to check back after the ceremony and let me know how wrong I was.

The Best Films of 2012, Part I

Yay! It’s Oscar season again! AREN’T YOU EXCITED? Well, probably not — most people enjoy lambasting our OBSESSION WITH CELEBRITIES, so honest interest in the Academy Awards is often seen as antediluvian these days. That’s all right. There are certainly more important things, but then, I enjoy celebrating art, and the awards are an opportunity for me (and many others) to see films that we otherwise might not check out … films not about robots or superhumans punching each other.

With that out of the way, let’s start with the rundown of my favorite movies of the year. In no particular order!

1 – Cloud Atlas

All right, so I lied. There’s a partial order, here. Cloud Atlas is my favorite movie of the year, for multiple reasons. It was the most entertaining film. It was the film that most made me think, and it was the film that most made me excited for its home video release. 
Of course, Cloud Atlas was not nominated for Best Film. It was not nominated for much of anything, actually. And I understand why. The meaning and overarching themes of the disparate stories were a bit muddy (I would claim subtle, but others might say muddy, and that’s fair). Some of the actors (coughtomhankscough) hammed-it-up in some of the comedic moments. And that makeup — that godawful makeup that bordered on yellowface, really hampered any hope of garnering multiple Oscar nods.
But Cloud Atlas, for me, was the most affecting movie of the year. It’s given me a lot to think about for my own writing, and my own views on life as well. The book underlines a lot of that (and it’s fantastic — if I don’t get around to a full review, I highly recommend it), but I think the movie does a good enough job of highlighting the themes: oppression, enslavement, and the soul/reincarnation as a metaphor for inspiration. 
I also think some of the actors have been unfairly maligned, as they’re all pretty brilliant in different ways. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry were especially fantastic in the Sloosha’s Crossing (far far future) storyline. They handled the strange pidgin dialect with a natural understanding that could have easily come off as far too silly to take seriously.
I can’t wait to watch this one again, multiple times, devour all the commentary and sausage making. And I can’t say that about all too many films this year.

2 – Les Misérables

Well, I’m lying again. I can certainly say I’ll rewatch Les Miserables. I’m a massive sucker for musicals, which is why I own and enjoy Mamma Mia!, despite it being a pretty objectively poor movie. So I likely would have enjoyed Les Mis even if Tom Hooper hadn’t done such a good job of it. Thankfully, he did!
His best choice, of course, was hiring Anne Hathaway. She got some shit early on about being too young for the role, and when the trailer was released, for being too ‘teary’ while singing (because surely one should be more upbeat and operatic when singing about the complete dissolution of ones life). Well, those early critics should be eating a nice meal of either hat or crow, as Anne Hathaway’s performance was the single-most gut-wrenching, soul-devouring few minutes of cinema this year. She knocked it out of the park, no questions, and that alone would have been enough for an Oscar-worthy film.
The rest of the movie, however, is more than solid. Hugh Jackman was fantastic as Jean Valjean. Tom Hooper’s unconventional shot layout worked to give the movie a sense of uniqueness. And Russell Crowe … well, I need to see it again to decide how I feel about him. I didn’t love him (his singing was far too flat, though I believe that was a conscious choice), but I didn’t hate him either. That aside (and aside from the weak “bonus song” musical films always have to add to get the Original Song nomination), Les Mis was nearly a perfect musical film.

3 – Argo

I called Ben Affleck’s The Town one of my favorite movies of 2010, and got some snide comments because of it. Really? Ben Affleck? REALLY? Well, if his Oscar for screenwriting (yeah, everyone always forgets that, huh?) wasn’t enough, his role in directing and starring in this fantastic (and Golden Globe winning) film should put Gigli out of everyone’s head. 
Historical films always have the thread the needle, balancing veracity with entertainment value. Stick to close to truth, and you end up with a movie with absolutely no tension (Zero Dark Thirty had a little bit of this; the Bin Laden raid scene, while still entertaining, was not all that thrilling, because we knew exactly what was going to happen). Go the other way, and you open yourself up to a lot of criticism. 
Argo solves this problem by focusing on the characters — character emotions and conflict (something I thought ZDT could have used more of). That’s not to say that there’s no dramatization. Argo has been criticized for minimizing the roles of several Commonwealth countries in helping the CIA’s operation. But it gets it right where it counts.
Of course, as great as the tension is (especially in the final scene — WOW!) some of the best parts of the movie are the humorous ones. Alan Arkin surely deserves his Supporting Actor nomination, though it’s sort of surprising that John Goodman didn’t garner one as well.

4 – Django Unchained

I love Quentin Tarantino. There, I said it. There’s sort of a nouveaux-hipster mentality among some film fans and critics that Tarantino’s films are overrated, silly, overly violent or just plain bad. I’ve heard it said that he’s been unable to match the brilliance of Pulp Fiction, and is now just sort of flailing around, splattering blood everywhere.

Which is pretty much crap, in my opinion. While I can understand the divisiveness of Kill Bill (I love it, but it’s a very stylized movie created as an ode to a relatively obscure genre), his next film, Inglorious Basterds, is a straightforward tale (other than the alternate history) and has the honor of being one of my favorite movies ever (as well as my favorite Tarantino flick).

While Django didn’t quite knock Basterds out of the top spot, it still blew me away. As I said on Facebook some time ago, the movie automatically gets points for being one of the few movies about slavery that isn’t about either a) the quiet bravery that rests in the soul every black slave, or b) how awesome a certain group of white people were for ending it.

No, Django is about a freed slave’s vengeance, pure and simple. While it’s a bit more personal in scope, the issue of slavery plays a massive role, and any movie that can address old ideas in a new matter is worthwhile. Thankfully, Django is also brilliant. Jaime Foxx reminds us that, yes, he can act pretty damn well, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a wonderfully sadistic villain, and Christoph Waltz is astounding in his role as the somewhat-more-educated Yankee bounty hunter. To be sure, this movie’s views of slavery and race relations are not, shall-we-say, layered. There’s no, “well, slavery was a complex issue, the south wasn’t racist, per se…” Nope. The South’s a pretty ass-backwards place, and Southern slaveowners are straight up pieces of shit. I liked it. Some might not.

Oh, and there’s Kanye on the soundtrack. So there’s that.

5 – Cabin in the Woods

Every year, I like to include a dark horse of sorts. A film that was never expected to get nominated for much of anything, nor was it ever seriously in contention, but one I still think represents a filmmaking or storytelling achievement.

This year, that film is Cabin in the Woods. It’s hard to say too much about it without spoiling it — and if you haven’t seen it, you absolutely should. I promise you it’s not a run-of-the-mill slasher film. At all. In fact, the movie is all about critiquing your run-of-the-mill slasher films. It’s one of the most pointed criticisms of that genre I think I’ve seen, and the film is able to make those judgments while still providing an absurdly entertaining story that takes place, more or less, within the horror genre itself. And even further than simply criticizing the people who make the horror films, it’s criticizing the people who watch the films — which include a fair portion of Cabin’s audience, as well as its filmmakers. Brilliant.

Oh, and there’s REO Speedwagon on the soundtrack. So there’s that.

Honorable Mentions

Brave

Speaking of movies with rarely-addressed issues, we’ve got Brave, a movie whose entire plot revolves around a mother-daughter relationship. In my review of Tangled, I noted how the conflict centered on a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. The conflict here is similar, but the difference is that Merida and her mother have a significantly more loving relationship, and the conflict is about them figuring that out. 
Brave wasn’t quite as good as Tangled for me (part of that might be that it’s not a musical 😉 but it’s still fantastic. And the animation is gorgeous. Pixar continuously outdoes itself, and continuously outshines everyone else in the industry. Even Wreck-It Ralph, also created by Disney (but not Pixar), comes nowhere close. While Ralph was great, it’s still not quite as mature or emotional as Pixar’s entry this year, and I’m hopeful that Brave will take home the statue for Best Animated Feature, at the very least.

The Master

The artiest film on this list, The Master is not quite what I expected going in. I’d been hoping for a takedown of Scientology and its benefactor, L. Ron Hubbard. I was actually worried when I’d heard they’d changed the title character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman into a pastiche who was only inspired by Hubbard.

The Master is not about Scientology, and while there are criticisms, they aren’t as important to the film as I’d hoped. And yet, the film is still powerful. Like Django, it takes a broad issue and makes it extremely personal. Joaquin Phoenix portrays a broken man whose unidentified illness makes him somewhat immune to Hoffman’s brand of ‘healing,’ but whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, the film leaves as an open question. Amy Adams is similarly fantastic, and were it not for Anne Hathway, I’d say she was the favorite for Best Supporting Actress.

I will also say that the lack of nomination for Best Cinematography is absolutely the biggest snub on this year’s list — especially given the fact that it was beaten by Anna Karenina and Skyfall.

The Sessions

A sweet little film about a disabled man and a sex therapist. There’s not really much more to say about it than that. The films progresses exactly as you’d expect, and other than a wholly unecessary epilogue, there aren’t really any twists and turns.

The film’s success rests squarely on the shoulders of its two lead actors — John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. The fact that Hawkes failed to get a nomination, but Bradley Freaking Cooper in the dreadful Silver Linings Playbook was picked, is the second biggest snub of the night.

And the rest

You’ll notice some pretty big holes here — no Life of Pi, no Lincoln, no Silver Linings Playbook. And that’s intentional. I saw more Oscar nominees this year than any other, and it seems like I enjoyed  I’ll discuss some of those in the second part of this post, but just in general, I’ll say that I thought most of the Oscar nominated films this year were fairly mediocre. There are some years where I like nearly all of the five or ten nominees for Best Picture. This year is not one of them.

What do you think?

Any glaring omissions? Any unbelievable inclusions? Let me know! Post a comment, or hit me up on Twitter @MatthewBorgard. In the second part, I’ll tell you who I think should win, who I think is going to win, and give you some brief thoughts on the nominees that I didn’t address here.

The Best Films of 2011

Yes, I’m woefully late. In fact, if everything goes as plan, this will be posted mere hours before the Academy Awards. Oh well! That just means you won’t have to wait long to see how utterly crap my predictions are. Last year I did this as a two-parter, but since I’m already running late, we’re going to shove it into a single post. First up, the list of my favorite movies of 2011. Following that, my Oscar predictions. Without further ado, and in no particular order….

My Favorites

The Artist – Smart money’s on The Artist to win ALL OF THE THINGS! so let’s go ahead and start there. It’s great. It’s unique — a mostly-silent film about a silent film actor, the effortlessly charming George Valentin, who’s suddenly not as effortless when those new-fangled talkies start making waves in the film industry.

Jean Dujardin, a French actor who I’ve never seen in anything else, is friggin’ fantastic as Valentin. I don’t want to spoil anything for the prediction section … so I won’t. But Dujardin makes the film. The cinematography is similarly excellent — some really beautiful shots. The editing, directing — all top notch.

If I have one qualm, it’s that the story is somewhat simple. Not that there’s anything wrong with a simple story, but the film hints that it could have been somewhat more layered. Near the beginning of the film, Valentin has a dream that’s suddenly audible to us, the audience — and, to his terror, to him as well. I feel like director Michel Hazanavicius missed a chance to carry that metaphor through the rest of the film. But even so, The Artist is thoroughly enjoyable.

Midnight in Paris – I think I liked this movie more than I should — more than nonwriters would. Seeing Ernest Hemingway chatting with Gertrude Stein is almost as fantastically satisfying as seeing Thor smash a Frost Giant in the face with Mjollnir.

On the surface level, there’s not a huge amount of story here. Guy’s writing a book. Gets inspiration by imagining (or perhaps not?) writers of old giving him advice. Guy finishes book and learns a bit about life. But the sheer brilliance Woody Allen employs in the relationships between the various artists, and the intriguing (if not-too-subtle) grass-is-always-greener theme, make this a joy to watch, and Allen’s best film in years.

The Help – The Help got a lot of criticism for whitewashing (pun-intended) history, and that’s a fair point. But on some level, a good story is more important than getting every detail right. And The Help is a great story.

Yes, we get a little bit too close to “White angel” syndrome here, but I think the key difference between this and, say, The Blind Side, is that Emma Stone’s character in The Help is simply a mouthpiece — she just helps to make these women’s voices heard. And that’s generally the main thing privileged allies for underpriviliged people are expected to do.

The acting is the most important part, here. Viola Davis is fantastic, of course, but Octavia Spencer makes the movie for me. I think I laughed harder at her performance than at most of the comedies this year.

Super 8 – WHAT? Yes, like Tangled last year, Super 8 is my “dark horse.” While the wife wasn’t impressed, I found J.J. Abrams’s love song to Steven Spielberg entertaining as hell (and, ironically, infinitely more entertaining than Spielberg’s own War Horse, but then, what isn’t).

Super 8 has everything you could want — aliens, explosions, adorable children (who can actually act!). It’s E.T. on steroids — in fact, I have a suspicion that Elle Fanning is actually Drew Barrymore’s bastard child.

While Abrams still doesn’t seem to know how to handle giant monsters (Cloverfield wasn’t shown/explained enough, while Super 8’s creature is explained too much), it doesn’t hurt the movie enough for me to dislike it.

I’d like to again mention that War Horse was terrible.

I WISH

Moneyball – Rounding up my favorites is something rare for me — a sports movie. But it’s a sports movie where the sport is somewhat tangential. This isn’t about the kid with a heart of gold fighting adversity, though it is sort of an underdog story. Instead, it’s about statistics, and any story that can entertain while simultaneously showing that, guess what, math is real and has real power — well, that’s a good movie in my book.

Brad Pitt is fantastic as always, imbuing Billy Beane with a subtle humanity that’s interesting, but not overdone. Jonah Hill (excuse me, Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill) is great as the nerdy number cruncher, and I think he’s proved to everyone that he can do more than make dick jokes. Philip Seymour Hoffman did a great job as well, and I’m surprised he didn’t get more attention for this (in fact, he probably deserved the Supporting Actor role over Hill).

Honorable Mentions
The Descendants – Great acting all around — from Clooney, which is expected, but also from American Teenager Shailene Woodley. The fact that Woodley didn’t grab a Supporting Actress nomination is definitely on my snub list this year. That said, I thought the script was weak — the film spent way too much time on the tangential land grant plotline, and the resolution was both predictable and lacking in motivation.
Source Code – While not pure Science Fiction perfection like Moon, Duncan Jones’s followup is seriously underappreciated (I blame wonky marketing). It’s a classic Twilight Zone-esque time-travel story, but with a few interesting philosophical twists that elevate this movie above your normal Hollywood SciFi fodder. It’s not movie of the year, but it’s definitely worth checking out.
Contagion – The flaws with this movie are evident from the trailer: too much narrative distance, too many characters, Jude Law is super annoying. And yet, amidst the problems, Contagion manages to be entertaining, tense and occasionally thought-provoking.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – I’m including this because, in my opinion, it’s superior to the Swedish version in nearly every way. Now, of course, some of that is simply due to a higher budget. But Fincher’s eye and pacing also make it a far more interesting and frightening film.


Predictions
So after some thought, I’m going to switch this up. I’ll highlight what I think the Academy is going to choose — and if I disagree, I’ll note that in the text below. As before, any movie highlighted in red is one I haven’t seen.
Best Original Screenplay
The Artist
Bridesmaids
Margin Call
Midnight in Paris
A Separation

 I think Midnight in Paris clearly takes this, as it should. The writing, especially the dialogue, is exceptional. And while The Artist has several strengths, the screenplay isn’t really one of them, in my opinion.

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Descendants
Hugo

The Ides of March

Moneyball
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Given the buzz, I can’t see the Academy giving this to anything other than The Descendants. I disagree — personally, I thought Moneyball was far stronger.

Best Visual Effects
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
Hugo
Real Steel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
I’m pretty sure Apes will get it, just to give at least a slight nod to Andy Serkis’s performance (which absolutely deserved a Supporting Actor nomination). Also, Dark of the Moon’s nomination is a travesty. The Transformers movies are a great example of how not to do visual effects. You can get the same performance by shaking a bag of metal and filming it.
Best Sound Mixing

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hugo
Moneyball
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

There’s not a whole lot to say about this category — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made excellent use of audio. And Transformers is a cacophony of pain.
Best Sound Editing

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hugo
Drive
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

I still find it funny when a movie gets a Sound Mixing nod, but not an Editing nod. Like, was Moneyball’s sound mixing appreciably better than its editing? I guess so. In any case, I’m giving this to Dragon Tattoo as well.
Best Original Song

“Man or Muppet,” from The Muppets

“Real in Rio,” from RIO
Seriously? Two songs? Just cut the fucking category if you’re not even going to try. Obviously The Muppets wins this — I can say that without even seeing RIO, because Bret McKenzie is a god.
Best Original Score

The Adventures of Tintin

The Artist
Hugo
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
War Horse
After all the drama with The Artist’s score, I doubt the Academy will touch that. John Williams is great, but War Horse is terrible, so it’s very possible that Tintin wins the award. But I’m going to guess Hugo, ’cause Howard Shore’s pretty great also.
Best Makeup

Albert Nobbs

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
The Iron Lady

It’s possible they’ll throw a bone to Harry Potter to recognize the series, but I think Albert Nobbs did a better job, and I think it’ll win.

Best Film Editing

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hugo
Moneyball

The Descendants

The Artist

Another interesting one … both The Artist and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had great editing. But since they didn’t nominated Dragon Tattoo for Best Director (and since editing and directing are very closely connected), I’m going with The Artist.

Best Director

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Best Director goes hand-in-hand with Best Film. Spoiler! I think Hazanavicius deserves the win.
Best Cinematography

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hugo
The Tree of Life
The Artist
War Horse

Tough choice, man. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had some excellent shots. But in the end, I think The Artist went above and beyond.
Best Animated Film

Rango

Kung Fu Panda 2
A Cat in Paris
Puss in Boots
Chico & Rita

Sad. Kung Fu Panda 2? Really? Seriously, though, Rango was great. It will win.
 
Best Supporting Actress

Berenice Bejo, The Help

Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

Very competitive category this year. Bejo (who should be nominated in the Best Actress category, honestly), McTeer and Spencer all have very real chances to score here. My heart is with McTeer, as she blew her performance out of the water. But my gut’s going with Octavia Spencer, without whom The Help wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining.
Best Supporting Actor

Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn

Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
On the flip side, I feel like the Supporting Actor category is not particularly competitive. None of these roles really stood out to me. I think Nolte takes it, though Plummer has a strong chance to win as well.
Best Actress

Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Viola Davis, The Help

Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
Great performances, all, but Rooney Mara really should win. She was brilliant. I think, though, that they’ll give it to Viola Davis — who is nearly equally as deserving.
Best Actor

Demian Bichir, A Better Life

George Clooney, The Descendants
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Jean Dujardin, The Artist 
Dujardin’s the clear winner. It’s almost unthinkable to me that anyone else could win, as great as the performances were.
Best Picture

The Artist

Hugo
Moneyball
The Descendants
War Horse
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
The Artist takes it, as well it should. Good night, show’s over, tip your waitress. The Help was great, I enjoyed Midnight in Paris, The Descendants, Moneyball, Tree of Life was … interesting, War Horse was terrible (did I mention that?). But in the end, The Artist was something special. It wins the night.

The Best Films of 2010, Part II

It’s that time! I’ve officially watched all the Best Movie nominations, so I feel totally qualified to give my worthless opinion on this nigh-meaningless award show! Seriously, though, there were some pretty good movies this year. If you didn’t read my first entry, check it here. For the record, I saw The Social Network, The Fighter and Winter’s Bone since I wrote that. The Fighter and Winter’s Bone were both very enjoyable movies, though I think TSN edged them out overall (and it probably edged out The Town from my list).

This followup will just be a rundown of my picks for each category (other than a few in which I didn’t see all the entries, like Documentary, etc.). It will be a lot more sparse and less melodramatic than previous post.

Note that my picks are what I think should win, not what I think will win — though I may address that in certain categories. I’ll highlight the things I didn’t actually see in red. Maybe there’s some amazing indie movie out there that blows everything away, so I’m hedging my bets. On with the show!

Best Original Screenplay
Another Year
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech


All right, so The Fighter and The King’s Speech are going to be duking it out for a lot of these on who I think will win, but I think King’s Speech is the better movie in most regards. You can certainly see it in the writing. Though it’s hard to fully separate writing from directing from editing, The King’s Speech has a better pacing and overall arc. The Fighter has some really great bits — I particularly enjoyed the subplot about the documentary — but we also see a few events happen over and over again (i.e., a fight between family and his life), and these aren’t always presented in fresh ways. It gets to be a little redundant at times, and I think that’s more of the fault of the script than anything else. The King’s Speech, on the other hand, hits its mark well. The pacing is great, the characters are well written, and it never gets bogged down.

Best Adapted Screenplay

127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

All right, all right, yes — The Social Network is very clearly a Sorkin joint. The characters are very pithy and quick-witted. There aren’t really any strong women to speak of. But it succeeds anyway. It succeeds at making us both like and dislike this irritating, annoying character. It succeeds at making us care about the trials and tribulations of people who, let’s face it, at the end of the day, they’re all multimillionaires. So I have to give Sorkin props for that. It also helps that some of the other scripts were messes, even for good movies. Winter’s Bone was a pretty simple tale, but it really fell apart at the end. The whole thing revolved around people snitching and people finding out about meth labs, but the thing is, EVERY SINGLE PERSON in that town ran a meth lab, and every single person knew about it, so the issue seemed forced to generate conflict. True Grit was all right. Maddie was written well, but the rest was ho-hum. Toy Story 3 touched me to my core, but the central conflict wasn’t all that impressive. So Facebook Movie it is!

Visual Effects
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Hereafter
Inception
Iron Man 2

The rotating room was brilliant, that’s all I can say. I haven’t been that blown away since The Matrix. It wasn’t even all that original, really, but Inception executed it so well.

This was a category where I was actually really disappointed this year. Iron Man 2? Please. Aside from the fact that the movie sucked, I don’t remember being impressed by anything visual. Alice in Wonderland has to be disqualified for the ridiculous Red Queen with elephantiasis. Harry Potter? It had Dobby, I suppose, and the multiple Harries, but cloning characters on screen isn’t really that impressive anymore. We all saw The Parent Trap.

Sound Mixing
Inception 
The King’s Speech
Salt
The Social Network
True Grit

I almost didn’t pick a winner for this category because of the lack of Black Swan. Seriously, the fact that Salt got nominated, but Black Swan didn’t is kind of disgusting. Black Swan literally made me gasp at the awesome way it used sound. Inception is the only one who came close to using sound as creatively or masterfully. So I’ll pick that, but don’t be fooled, Black Swan should be the winner.

Sound Editing
Inception 
Toy Story 3
Tron: Legacy
True Grit
Unstoppable

Same story as above. I still remember the cracking of Nina’s feet in Black Swan. I can’t remember a single sound effect from True Grit.

Best Original Song
“Coming Home” – Country Strong
“I See the Light” – Tangled
“If I Rise” – 127 Hours
“We Belong Together” – Toy Story 3

Ye gods, kill me now, I listened to Gwyneth Paltrow’s country song. You’ll have to at the ceremony. Change the channel. It’s awful.

You know, it’s weird that songs have to be regular 3-minute long vocal songs to be considered in this category. Many songs from 127 Hours could have put up quite a fight, but “If I Rise” isn’t the strongest piece on the soundtrack. So yes, Tangled wins. “I See the Light” is probably the best song from the movie, outside of the simple, short “Let Your Power Shine” motif. It’s not the best Disney song ever, but it’s sweet, catchy, and I hate Randy Newman.

Best Original Score
How to Train Your Dragon – John Powell
Inception – Hans Zimmer
The King’s Speech – Alexandre Desplat
127 Hours – A.R. Rahman
The Social Network – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

I feel bad because I didn’t really notice the music in The Social Network. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. But it doesn’t really matter. Because Black Swan isn’t eligible for this category (it used too much of the music from Swan Lake to be considered “original”), 127 Hours takes it easily. Hell, it might have anyway. Listen to this, specifically the last half, and tell me that’s not fantastic.


Best Film Editing
Black Swan
The Fighter
The King’s Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network

This, along with director, was one of the hardest categories to decide. I feel like all of these films are edited extremely well. The King’s Speech was paced well, but I feel like that was mostly scripting, so I crossed off that one. 127 Hours did a great job making this confined subject interesting, but I can’t shake off the weird, over-the-top camera angles in the first half-hour or so. It was likely a directorial choice, but it’s an editing one as well. The main reason I gave it to The Social Network is how flawlessly it combined scenes taking place at different times to intensify certain themes. Once the movie shows you that this isn’t going to be a step-by-step, day-by-day type of movie, you never really question it. It’s clean and unambiguous, even though it’s untraditional

Best Cinematography
Black Swan
Inception
The King’s Speech
True Grit
The Social Network

Social Network and The King’s Speech both had some great shots (the school board room, and the physical therapy respectively), but I thought Black Swan just outclassed them. A lot of the scenes in that movie truly impressed me. Powerful, but subtle. Also, it’s kind of funny that 127 Hours didn’t get nominated for their crazy angles. I figured it would have just because it was unusual. I guess the Academy disliked them as much as I did.

Best Art Direction
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter
The King’s Speech
True Grit
Inception

This award always mystified me, because it seems like more of an administrative thing. I guess it’s an award for the overall Art Design, so in that sense, I think Inception should win (and Alice in Wonderland should lose horribly). But it’s not a category I have a lot of insight into.

Best Animated Film
How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

I refuse to pick a winner for this film out of protest, because Tangled wasn’t nominated. I’m not saying it should have won, but it should have absolutely been on there.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

I still think Steinfeld deserves to be nominated for Best Actress, but since she wasn’t, she certainly deserves to win the award here. Adams and Carter did exceptional work as well, but Steinfeld held the weight of the entire movie on her shoulders.

Best Actress
Annette Benning, The Kids are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Jennifer Lawrence nearly stole it. Seriously. I would not be surprised, or all that disappointed, if she won it. I was really blown away by her performance. But I was also blown away by Portman’s performance, as I outlined in Part I, and I think she edged out Lawrence just barely. Both actresses were by far the most interesting parts of their respective movies, but Portman gave more nuance. It may be because Lawrence had less to work with (I wasn’t really impressed with Winter’s Bone, other than by her performance).

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

Christian Bale, no question. This might be the most obvious pick of the night. He simply became that character. It was spot-on perfection. Geoffrey Rush was good in a charming sort of way, but Bale was better. I’m pissed off Andrew Garfield (Eduardo from The Social Network) didn’t get nominated, as I thought he did a fantastic job, much better than Ruffalo, even. He deserves recognition for that part.

Best Actor
Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

Again, this is sort of an obvious one. Franco was decent. Bridges brought it, as usual. Eisenberg did a great job, and this role is certainly going to catapult him to mainstream stardom instead of being a poor man’s Michael Cera. But Colin Firth was incredible. He showed frustration, sadness, vulnerability, without overdoing it. And of course, the voice was brilliant. Listen to recordings, and it’s pretty eerie how close he sounds to King George.


Best Director
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
David O. Russel, The Fighter
Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
The Coens, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network


Aaaagh. Best Director is really hard, because, as I’ve said, it’s really hard to separate it from editing and writing. I don’t think True Grit or The King’s Speech did enough for me to justify awarding those directors. The other three are tough. Really tough. I decided against Russell because of the aforementioned redundancy that pops up in a few places in The Fighter. Deciding between Fincher and Aronofsky is a toss-up, honestly. I gave it to Aronofsky because of one thing: a weird scene in The Social Network where we see the Winklevoss Twins come in second place in a race. It’s a very wink-wink, nudge-nudge type of moment, and it pulled me out of the movie. So Black Swan gets the trophy.

Best Film
Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

I think I said all I need to say on this topic previously. Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece on multiple levels. It touched me, and was memorable on a level that none of the rest of the movies on the list will achieve (all right, I’ll probably remember the amputation scene from 127 Hours). It won’t win, of course. If I had to bet, I’d bet on The King’s Speech. But I wish the Academy would not discount films just because they’re animated. Pixar has been released what should have been Best Film contenders pretty much every year now. This time, they should win.

The Best Films of 2010, Part I

Okay, so this is a writing blog. Technically, I shouldn’t even be mentioning films. Es ist verboten. VERBOTEN!

However, since I don’t really have a dedicated cadre of readers expecting any certain subject, I am allowed the freedom to do whatever the fuck I want (like speak in German). With that said, let me introduce part eins of a two part series concerning films. Specifically, films released in 2010 (a year that seems universally reviled, but which I didn’t really mind).

In the first part, I’m going to lay out my picks for the best movies of the year. Unlike the Academy, I’m going to keep it to five. Ten starts to border on ridiculous, and to be honest, I’m not sure there were 10 films that truly deserve the honor. Look at the Golden Globes. When you have to nominate god damned Burlesque and The motherfucking Tourist, you have too many slots. Note that I’m not a movie buff, per se — there’s still a few big name films from 2010 I haven’t seen yet (127 Hours, The Fighter, and probably most egregious, The Social Network, which I’ll discuss at the bottom). With that said, let’s begin, in no special order.


1 – Black Swan 

Girl on girl action lolz! Nina is not amused.
First off, can I say how fucking stupid and dismissive it is when every single talk show host has to introduce this movie with “Any movie that can get guys to see a movie about ballet has got to be good! Derp derp! Girl on girl!” Black Swan is not about ballet any more than Fargo is about a city. It is the story of an artist struggling with perfection. It is the story of a family plagued by mental issues. It is the story of a girl forced to be sexual with no guide, no preparation. Black Swan is about a lot of things. It’s not about ballet.

Now, I’m a sucker for weird movies, so Black Swan already has a leg up on the competition. My imagination tends to run wild with interpretation, and the director, Darren Aronofsky (who looks kind of like a chubby David Arquette), certainly invites that. If you’re the kind of person who likes a straightforward story (and there’s nothing wrong with that), you’ll hate this. There’s no two ways about it.

But beyond the surreal plot, there is much in the film to objectively enjoy. Black Swan is truly a movie where each aspect hits the mark and contributes to the overall effect. The score is spot-on. It blends Tchaikovsky’s compositions with modern discernment to create a sound setting that is simultaneously chilling and heartbreaking. Portman’s performance as coddled and confused Nina Sayers is magnificent. Not being nominated for Best Actress would be a travesty. I don’t want to say that she can’t top it, because I’m hoping she has a long and illustrious career in front of her, but I truly think she could retire tomorrow and still be counted among history’s great performers solely for her job in this film. It’s that brilliant. The symbolism is layered and complex. I find myself discovering new little motifs just replaying it in my mind, and I’ve only seen it once. For instance, did anyone notice the implication of Nina injuring herself with a mirror, of all things? Very interesting.

There are missteps — Aronofsky relies too heavily on cheesy thriller tropes and unnecessary cheap scares. The characters and plot provide enough tension on their own. And I think it’s fair to say that this is a love-it-or-hate-it film. I can absolutely understand some people not connecting. But in pure impact, Black Swan was without equal this year.


Long hair is looooooooooong

2 – Tangled 

Okay, if I’m a sucker for weird movies, I’m a god damned fool for musicals. Disney musicals? Forget about it. Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Lion King. Love ’em. The Princess and the Frog wasn’t up to the level of those golden-age classics, but it was a step in the right direction. So I was cautiously optimistic walking in to Tangled. I expected to like it. I didn’t expect to love it.

You know the basics. Rapunzel has really long hair. She’s kept in a high tower by a wicked witch. She’s rescued my a handsome prince. Roll credits. Of course, with John Lasseter in charge, we’re spared that formula. Tangled’s Rapunzel is a bright young girl whose kept in her tower not by any otherworldly power or feminine weakness. She’s kept there by a jealous mother. Mommy dearest preys on her daughter’s self-confidence to bolster her own. It’s probably the best and most relatable theme in any movie I’ve seen this year, and it comes from a fairy tale. Imagine that.

Tangled is simply the best non-Pixar Disney animated film I’ve seen in ages, probably since Mulan (that’s twelve years, if you’re counting). And it’s got probably the best female lead in their entire history. She’s smart (and not just in a inconsequential way like Belle), she’s capable, she’s cute and she shirks the Princess Complex from the beginning. It’s weird to say that, because in the end, Rapunzel is a princess. But unlike Ariel, unlike Jasmine, unlike Snow White, that fact doesn’t really inform her character. She doesn’t find out until the end of the movie, and truthfully, it doesn’t matter. It’s more important that she has a family that loves her and a partner who bolsters her confidence instead of stomping on it. Her royal lineage is beside the point.

Of course, Alan Menken’s songs don’t hurt. The man who composed The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Little Shop of Horros, among others, is used to great effect here. The recurring healing incantation (“Flower gleam and glow/Let your power shine”) is as memorable and head-sticking as any Disney tune, and I See The Light joins Can You Feel the Love Tonight and A Whole New World in the list of great musical love themes. I won’t say this is Menken’s best work (that probably belongs to Aladdin), and there are fewer songs than I’d like, but it’s enjoyable nontheless.

The actors work great. I’m not a huge Chuck fan, but Zachary Levi is charming as fuck, if you’ll excuse my French. And of course, Mandy Moore is as cute as cute can be. She’s one of those actresses who doesn’t draw a lot of attention, but generally gives a great performance in whatever she chooses to do. At the end of the movie, I asked myself “Who voiced Rapunzel? She was really good. Oh … oh wow! I didn’t even realize!” That’s just the kind of actress she is. But yeah, the two have chemistry. It just works.

Criticisms? A few. The movie felt short, was is probably a necessity for it to work as a family film, but it leads to the pace being a little too rushed. Specifically, the love story between the male and female lead kind of pops up out of nowhere, as if the writers realized “Crap, we need them to be in love now. Aaaaand BE IN LOVE!” And, as I said, I wished we got a bit more music (thought that’s a criticism I can levy at other Disney films as well — they seem to be afraid to go full musical). But all in all, this is one of those movies that makes me want to have a kid, just so I can show them that there are strong positive messages in this world.


3 – Toy Story 3

The darkest movie about small plastic
objects you’ll see this year

Seriously? Another animated movie?

First off, fuck you, guy. Who the fuck do you think you are? Did you not read the part of this being MY BLOG? The stuff about the German words?
Second off, it should go without saying that there are animated films, and then there are Pixar films. I shouldn’t even have to do a writeup for this. Just those two syllables — Picks Czar — tell you all you need to know. Yes, this movie is funny. Yes, it’s poignant. Yeah, you’re probably going to tear up. Yes, it’s got John Ratzenberger. At this point, I’m almost not even excited to go see a Pixar movie anymore, because I just know it’s going to be great. How fucked up is that? I’m actually disappointed because I know I’m not going to be surprised. It’s like they made Cars solely for me to maintain a modicum of doubt.
It has this man.

Okay, enough fanboy gushing. Why does another animated film deserve to be counted among the best of the year? Because it’s a masterful end (likely the end — it should be) to a wonderful series. Because it tears at your heart without using cheap shots like Toy Story 2 or even, it could be argued, Up. The melancholy in Toy Story 3 is directly relevant to the journey of the characters. Not just the journey in this movie, though it certainly stands on its own, but the journey from the beginning of the series. 

When Toy Story 1 was released in 1995, I was the target audience. I was 8 years old. That’s not to say it doesn’t stand up, or that adults can’t enjoy it just as much. Both of those are true. But Andy is and always has been the character whose life the events of the movie revolve around. Like Christopher Robin to Winnie-the-Pooh, Andy is the lens through which we view these persistent toys.
When Toy Story 3 was released in 2010, I was the target audience. What? This is still a kid’s movie, right? True. And you’re no longer a kid, you’re a 23. You’re a grown-ass man. True, too. But so is Andy. He’s moved on. His childhood, like mine, is gone. It’s never coming back. If the biggest misconception about Black Swan is that it’s about ballet, the misconception about Toy Story is that it’s about toys. It’s not. It’s about childhood. Always has been. Toy Story was about what it means to be a child. Toy Story 3 is about what it means to no longer be a child. That’s why we cry. Not because we’re afraid these toys are going to die, but because we fear the kid inside us already has.
And that, in a nutshell, is why Toy Story 3 deserves this honor. I could go in depth about the acting, the animation, Randy Newman’s classic quirky soundtrack, etc., etc. But that’s not why this movie is great. It’s great because Pixar understands how to make a film meaningful to every single person who watches it. My nieces and nephews aren’t going to understand these films the way I do, but they don’t enjoy them any less. My parents aren’t going to connect to them the same way I do. But they’re going to see it through Andy’s mother — they’ve sent a kid to college. They’ve been through the process of packing away those action figures that seemed oh-so-important just a few years ago. In some ways, this is my most hoped-for film of 2010. I think we can all be pretty sure that Tangled isn’t going to be nominated for Best Film. Even in a field of 10, the Academy isn’t a big fan of animation. We all know The Social Network and The Kids are All Right will be on the list. Regardless of their merit, they’re just the sort of films that appeal to critics. But Toy Story 3 transcends that. It truly deserves to be considered just as much as any live action film released this year.

Criticisms? Not really. The central conflict (toys shipped off to a kindergarten and have to escape) isn’t the most memorable or original, I guess. But who cares? 

!!Spoiler Alert!!
Before I leave the subject, a bit more on the death of the child inside us. That theme is one of the most gutwrenching ideas in any movie I’ve seen in a long time, because it hits close to home for all of us. But the filmmakers know that. And so they give us the perfect ending. Andy sits down and plays with his old toys with a new friend, a little girl named Bonnie. He plays in the same way that I play when my 3-year-old niece hands me a bowl full of plastic vegetables and tells me it’s my lunch. He plays in the same way I play when my 6-year-old nephew lays out a Nerf armory in front of me and tells me that I’m on his team. My inner child isn’t dead. He’s just finding new toys to play with.


4 – The Town

“And why do you think you deserve to
join The League of Handsome Men?”


Huh? No. Stop. Just stop. The Fucking Town? You’re nominating A Ben Affleck Joint? No Inception, no Blue Valentine, no King’s Speech, but you put a Bostonian heist film on here? That’s retahdid, you fuckin’ queeah.

Yeah, yeah, so it’s Ben Affleck. Yeah, he’s can be kind of silly. He was in Daredevil. He was in Gigli. GIGLI.

You know who else has been in some terrible movies and is kind of silly? Marky Mark Wahlberg. Oh, excuse me. ACADEMY AWARD WINNER Marky Mark Wahlberg.

So I try not to discount an actor solely because of some missteps, or some personal weirdness. If Robert Pattinson made a movie as entertaining as The Town, I’d get on my knees and receive his greasy glittering man-juice.

Obligatory. Say hi to your mother, plant.

Speaking of Marky Mark, I’d say The Town reminds me heavily of The Departed (a good thing!). The Boston setting and crime-focus is obviously a part of this, but they employ similar structures of unrelated characters and events winding into each other. The characters are forced into situations with no good options. It forces us to face what we would do these situations. But surely, you say, I’d never get involved with organized crime. But that’s the thing. Affleck’s character didn’t really choose this path either. These people are often times born into crime. That’s not to minimize personal responsibility — I feel like the movie does a decent job of keeping Affleck’s character real and imperfect — but the whole point of the film is to paint a picture of a world many of those of us born into privilege (and yes, I consider myself privileged just in the fact that I had a stable home, love and support) can never truly understand.
Of course, the acting is where The Town truly shines. Affleck is very good. Jeremy Renner is very good. John Hamm is great. Of course he is. He’s John Hamm. Brilliant casting. You want a flawed antagonist that the audience can’t help but find charming anyway? Cast John Hamm. Also, I hear he’s popular with the ladies.
The Town is not perfect. It treats its female characters as disposable. The lead character, Claire, is so forgettable that the writers literally forget about her in the second half of the movie. She’s used as motivation for Affleck’s character, and not much else. Blake Lively’s (bleh) character is pretty much a drugged up version of the same thing. The message regarding her seems to be “Don’t neglect your old lovers, or your rival will use them against you!” The females are pretty much just there for the males to use as leverage. It’s unfortunate. And yet, the rest of the film is good enough for me not to care. Not an easy thing to do. So yes, there always has to be a Dark Horse pick, and The Town is mine.

5 – True Grit

Aw, do we have to bring Matt Damon with us?

You’ll notice in the Black Swan entry that I didn’t quite say that Natalie Portman should win Best Actress. Why? 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld. She’s so talented that she shared this year with Annette Benning, Marion Cotillard, and the best performance Natalie Portman has ever given, and I’m not really sure who should win the oscar. My biggest achievement at 14 was deciphering Metal Gear Solid 2.

Yeah, let’s see Little Miss Thing fit THIS into canon!

Ms. Steinfeld’s acting, and the handling of her character, the headstrong ahead-of-her-time Mattie Ross, is the sole reason True Grit is on the list. It might be the reason it’s on everybody’s list. Seriously. I struggled. It barely made the cut. True Grit is a pretty good movie. It’s not out of this world amazing. Jeff Bridges is funny. Matt Damon is good. The pace is perfect. It’s a Coen movie. Like Pixar, that name brings with it a certain quality of expectation. But, it must be said, it sometimes carries a nagging “So What?” True Grit brought the “So What?” It brought it, it unwrapped it, and it took a picture with it wearing a fake smile for grandma. It simply wasn’t that memorable. A cool adolescent girl tags along with a loose cannon US Marshal and a by-the-book Texas Ranger. She’s looking for the man who killed her father. She finds him. Thirty or so years later, she’s still smart, she doesn’t need a man and she never really saw either of the two men again. Roll credits.

The problem I have with True Grit is the problem I have with a lot of Coen movies. I’m not asking for a “save the world” plot. But I frequently feel like there’s some greater point, some deeper mystery that I’m missing. As you can tell from my Black Swan review, I am not opposed to finding my own meaning. But many Coen movies seem like simple, surface stories with just enough subtlety to make you think something else is going on. But damned if you’re going to figure it out unless you have a Ph.D. in Film Studies. 
So if it’s that flawed, why put True Grit on here at all? Because, simply, the character of Mattie Ross is that awesome. And I will fully admit to sometimes using that word inappropriately, but Mattie is truly awesome. When she speaks, you can’t help but be transfixed. When the “responsible” men leave her behind, and she fords the river, emerging on the other side, sopping but dignified, you can’t take the unconscious grin off your face. Some of it is due, no doubt, to the character in the original book. I can’t comment too much on that; I haven’t read it. Some of the credit has to be laid on the Coens. They coaxed a powerful performance from their child actress. And, of course, we can’t forget young Hailee. She brings Mattie to life. I can’t remember when I rooted for a character as much as I rooted for Mattie. You want her to succeed, even though the stakes seem fairly trivial, as far as conflicts go. If True Grit succeeds in any way, I think it’s that. It is a simple story, but Mattie makes you care about it anyway.
I wouldn’t be surprised if True Grit wins Best Film. The Academy loves the Coens, and it’s generally deserved. I have grievances with some of their films, but it can’t be denied that, objectively, they are fantastic filmmakers. This isn’t their best film (Fargo), and it’s not their worst (Burn After Reading). It is, as great movies go, completely middle of the road. And yet, if someone forced me to pick only 5 movies from 2010 for them to watch, I couldn’t not choose it. Damn you Joel. Damn you Ethan. You frustrate me to no end, but I love you anyway.

Honorable Mentions

The King’s Speech

Seriously, aren’t there any other
actresses in that country?

The King’s Speech breaks the mold of a traditional period piece. Colin Firth is fantastic, and is probably a shoe-in for best actor. The chemistry between Firth and Geoffry Rush is among the best I’ve seen in a long while. I particularly enjoyed the subtle focus on how technology changed both the world at large, and the lives of a royal family straddling two distinct periods. The story, untraditional as it may be, is pure charm. It’s not quite lifechanging enough to make the top five but I’m certain it’ll make the Academy’s top ten, and rightff …. rightffffuuu …. deservedly so.

Inception

The finest spintop-based film since  Beyblade The Movie
What can I say? It’s Inception. The acting is great, the gimmick is fascinating, and that action is superb. The rotating room is the most inventive fight scene since The Matrix. There are some plot holes here and there, and the pace falters in the third act (a snow level, Nolan? Really?), but it’s destined to be a genre classic.
Others
I greatly enjoyed Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Easy A, Kick Ass, Harry Potter and the Adverb Macguffins: Part One, though none of those really deserve to be Best Film. They are just very entertaining. 
If there were a category for Best New Actress, it should go to Mia Wasikowska. She starred in Alice in wonderland and The Kids are All Right, the former of which I liked more than I had expected, and the latter of which I liked less than I had hoped.

Is she the third Wasikowska Brother?

All right. Moving on.


But wait, what about … 

…The Social Network. Yeah, I know. It’s the odds-on favorite to sweep the biggies. Best Film, Best Director, Best Writer. Maybe even Best Actor. Does it deserve it? I don’t know, maybe. I haven’t seen it. Shoot me.
I’ll be rectifying this tomorrow, but I wanted to get this out there before the nominations were announced. I’ll be considering Fincher’s film when I pick my favorites from the official nomination. I’ll let you know what I thought of it then. If you simply must know which of the above 5 I’d bump off to include The Social Network, assuming I love it, it’d probably be True Grit or The Town. Gun to my head, True Grit might fall to a very close #6.

I’ll be writing up Part II in the next few days, after the nods are announced. It’ll be the traditional rundown, selecting my favorites (note that word — it won’t be who I think will win, rather who I think should win). See you soon!