How to Choose Best Picture

This is my article from about this year’s Best Picture Oscar race…

Now that the 10 nominee thing has sunken in with the Academy voters, this year’s crop of Best Picture contenders round out 2010 well. You have the blockbusters (Inception, Toy Story 3), the surprise hits (The Social Network, The Fighter), the in-betweens (Black Swan, True Grit), the British contingency (The King’s Speech), the gritty indie (Winter’s Bone), the quirky indie (The Kids Are All Right) – and 127 Hours, which sort of doesn’t fall into any category.

Yet, even with all this variety, the race has really narrowed down to two films: The Social Network and The King’s Speech. The poignant, socially relative little movie about Facebook came out like gangbusters, gaining a steady, supportive word of mouth for its superb writing, excellent performances and clever directing. It then won almost every critic association accolade to be had, which gave it a home court advantage as the real meat of the award season began. It picked up the Golden Globe, but then King’s Speech started to gain its own momentum, winning the trifecta: the Actor, Producer and Director Guild awards. It seems now the British flick about King George VI– who overcame a debilitating stammer with the help of his loving wife, Elizabeth, and speech therapist Lionel Logue to lead England into WWII — is the clear frontrunner. It’s the one I’m choosing, that’s for sure.

But if you’ve been following the Picktainment podcasts, you’ll know that us Pick pundits believe this entire list is an impressive one and any one of these films are worthy of an Oscar. Let’s do a recap:

127 Hours: I’ve been partial to this film all along. I couldn’t take my eyes off the damn thing, even when James Franco has to cut his arm off in order to escape death. I mean, if you know the true story of mountaineer Aron Ralston, you know that part is coming, so you can just look away (or hide behind your notepad). It’s all the stuff leading up to this man’s battle against insurmountable odds, the way director Danny Boyle mixes reality with fantasy and Franco’s tour-de-force performance, that sets the film apart. Really, 127 Hours is a marvel.

Black Swan: An incredibly fascinating psycho-character study centering on a young ballerina’s descent into madness brought on by unrealistic pressures and her own crippling self-doubt. Natalie Portman has a perpetual look of pain on her face the entire movie, making us wince as she pulls her fingernails off but also keeping us wondering if she really IS being tortured by her perceived nemesis, Mila Kunis. Then there’s director Darren Aronofsky eclectic vision, turning something as beautiful as Swan Lake into Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Bravo.

Inception: Frankly, I didn’t understand all of it, but hell, I didn’t care. You have to suspend your disbelief in a fair amount of movies these days, but it’s particularly noteworthy when a writer/director like Christopher Nolan tries hard to make that disbelief seem pretty real. Dream within dream within dream, you’re right there, getting the film’s full effects. I’m not sure which part I liked the best, but I think it’s when that final “kick” brings all three levels of the dream together. It’s friggin’ intense. I’ll go see Nolan’s movies any day of the week.

The Fighter: It’s certainly a movie you’ve seen done a thousand times. A young up and coming fighter has to beat the odds to win the big title, but it’s just the odds that are different this time. Real-life Mickey Ward had to show some tough love with his manipulative family – particularly his crack-addicted brother, Dicky, and conniving mother, Alice – in order to become champion. And dramatized by Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, respectively, The Fighter just zings. Let’s not forget Amy Adams, as Mickey’s tough-as-nails girlfriend and director David O. Russell for his clear guidance.

The Kids Are All Right: It’s one of those unassuming indie films about life, love — and two teenagers looking for their biological father after being raised by two loving lesbian mothers only to see one of those women have an affair with said sperm donor. Kids is like the Little Miss Sunshine of this year’s Best Pictures, with such brilliant performances from just about everyone – Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson – along with a crackerjack script from writer/director Lisa Cholodenko.

Toy Story 3: Honestly, have you ever heard of movie franchise being THIS successful? Even Godfather failed the third time around. But not Toy Story. It’s like the folks over at Pixar have some kind of magical power over the endearing, hilarious, tear-jerking adventures of Andy’s toys, finding new and inventive ways to further the story. Oh, how No. 3 made me cry, and in being a mom with almost grown kids, I have vowed never to throw away another toy ever again. Because I have thrown them away and it’s now eating me up inside.

True Grit: I’ve never been the biggest Western fan, but somehow when the Coen brothers do it, I like it. Besides the unbelievably talented teen Hailee Steinfeld, who not only holds her own with likes of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin but basically whips their asses, the best part of this Grit is the language. I don’t think I remember a cowboy movie in which everyone is so extremely eloquent and formal to one another. Gotta love Joel and Ethan Coen.

Winter’s Bone: OK, although it’s the one movie I have regrettably not seen – yet – I now have a firm grasp on what the film represents (thanks to my Pick colleague Rebecca Rose). Newcomer Jennifer Lawrence turns in an outstanding performance as an unflinching young women living in the Ozark mountains, who must find her wayward drug-dealing father before she and her siblings lose their house. I guess she has to navigate through one seriously messed up extended family to finally discover the truth. It’s the real grit in gritty.

And there you have it. If you haven’t seen all of these movies, I definitely recommend that you do. Good luck to all the Oscar pool players!

How to Watch: “Unknown”

Step 1: Not Taken. While Unknown isn’t as compact an action thriller as Taken, it still manages to hold your attention.

Step  2: Think The Bourne Identity meets Frantic. The story focuses on Neeson’s Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist who is traveling to Berlin with his lovely wife, Liz (January Jones), to attend an important summit on biotechnology. Once they arrive, a quick succession of events leads to Martin being injured in a car accident. He wakes up four days later from a coma – with no identification on him.  He knows who he is, but he can’t seem to prove it to anyone else, including his wife, who she says she doesn’t know him and introduces another man (Aidan Quinn) as her husband, named — wait for it — Dr. Martin Harris. So, in essence, this other guy has taken Martin’s identity, job, wife. 1) WTF? and 2) Is our Martin really crazy? No, he’s not crazy, but something screwy is going on, especially when Martin is suddenly being chased by people intent on killing him. He elicits the help of a beautiful cab driver (Diane Kruger), who saved him in the car accident, and the two try to prove Martin says who he says he is.

Step 3: Find your specialty. Liam Neeson has found a small niche with the tightly packed action thriller. There’s no denying the guy’s a stellar actor, who can elevate any movie he’s in, be it really bad (Satisfaction, anyone?) or meaningful (Schindler’s List). And so in tackling the action genre, Neeson proves he can be pretty freakin’ badass while maintaining a level of integrity. Is it enough to sustain Unknown? I think so, even if things start to seem a little farfetched. Jones plays the same cool blonde she does in the hit show Mad Men, with not much else required of her. It’s really Kruger, of Inglourious Basterds and National Treasure fame, who gets the meatier role as the immigrant cab driver who is reluctantly drawn into Martin’s mess. Another standout is German actor Bruno Ganz, who plays an ex-East Berlin spy just itching to get into the game again when Martin comes to him for help.

Step 4: Yes to car chase, no to story. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) also seems to have a handle on the genre, crafting some pretty seat-clutching car chase scenes. I’m a sucker for a good car chase, so if it’s done well, I’m hooked all the way. The film’s problem lies in the script (there’s more than one writer, let’s just say). It’s a great premise that gets more than a little muddle towards the end. Still, the conclusion and reasoning behind the whole thing doesn’t necessarily bother me since the majority of the film is fairly entertaining and engaging. While it may come with baggage, following such a compelling action thriller like Taken, Unknown has its own merits.

How to Watch: “Just Go with It”

Step 1: If you’re an Adam Sandler fan, you’ll probably just go with this one. If not, you might just go with another movie.

Step 2: Repeat. Just Go With It is regurgitated Sandler rom-com schtick, light on story, heavy on babes in bikinis. Sandler plays Danny, a plastic surgeon who has been pretending to be married to pick up girls for most of his life. But then he finds who he thinks is THE one – a 23-year-old 6th grade school teacher named Palmer (Brooklyn Decker) – and suddenly he wants to settle down. Except Palmer freaks out when she finds the fake wedding ring, and Danny has to make up a fictitious and vicious wife from whom he is divorcing. Enter Danny’s loyal assistant Katherine (Jennifer Aniston), who somehow agrees to play said wife – and even lets her two kids become their fake kids. Long story short, they all end up on vacation together in Hawaii where the lies just keep building and building. Try to guess who Danny ends up with.

Step 3: Repeat, without the same energy. Even for Sandler’s standards, the funnyman really seems to be phoning this one in. He doesn’t even have one decent flip-out scene, in which he screams something like “Are you too good for your HOME?” Maybe the guy is mellowing in his older age – that or he’s just making the same movie over and over again to make his millions and move on. Still, I have faith in Sandler. I’ve seen Punch Drunk Love and I know what he is capable of. I’m just hoping at some point his stupid movies will stop making money, and he’ll be forced to re-evaluate his career. I’m pretty sure Aniston has reached that point right now. She is just box office poison these days despite being appealing on screen. I’m on her side, too, just like Sandler. Maybe these two, who do share a fair bit of chemistry in Just Go with It, could make a quirky indie drama or something.

Step 4: Repeat, with eye candy. Most of Sandler’s cronies join him in Just Go with It, including his go-to director Dennis Dugan. But there is one surprise guest: Nicole Kidman. The oh-so-serious actress takes a laughter break to play Katherine’s old college roomie, a superficial conniver who Katherine has always hated. It is fun to see Kidman loosen up and play someone over the top. Of course, there’s also Decker, the total eye candy of the film. Poor thing, she really doesn’t have much to do besides stand there and look gorgeous. And honestly, Aniston looks just as good.

Adam, babe, I think you’ve saturated the market with your pointless comedies. Time to move on

How to Watch: “Sanctum”

Step 1: Don’t cave dive. Sanctum pretty much dashes any dreams I may have had of becoming an underwater cave diver. There’s no way in hell I’m going to do THAT now that I know how dangerous it can be.

Step 2: Don’t cave dive during a tropical storm. I’m just kidding, but the film certainly details what treacherousness lies beneath the Earth’s surface – in 3D, no less. Based on real events, the story follows a team of underwater cave explorers who are mapping one of the largest, most beautiful and least accessible cave system ever found – the South Pacific’s Esa-ala Caves. When a tropical cyclone topside create flash floods in the caves, however, it suddenly becomes less about exploring and more about surviving. Lead by the intrepid master diver Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), the team – which includes the expedition’s financier and adrenaline junkie Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), his mountain climbing girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) and Frank’s resentful 17-year-old son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) – must find an alternative route to safety, going deeper into the underwater labyrinth and entering places never meant for human habitation.

Step 3: Don’t cave dive with novices. Who will make it out? That’s what keeps the film’s momentum going. Sanctum plays a little like a disaster film, in which you get a minor amount of back story to the characters before putting them in harm’s way. So, while the dialogue is pretty predictable and cheesy in parts, it’s also easy to overlook once you are caught up in the action and wondering how someone is going to die – or live – spectacularly. There’s also no major stars to get in the way, but there are a few familiar faces, including Roxburgh, an Australian character actor who has played baddies in Moulin Rouge and Mission: Impossible 2. Gruffudd played Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic, from the Fantastic Four movies, while Parkinson starred in X-Men: Wolverine. Only Wakefield is the newbie, a cute Aussie who carries much of the film’s emotional core. The last scene with his dad might bring a tear to the eye. I say might.

Step 4: DO cave dive if James Cameron is involved. The film’s draw is having executive producer James Cameron stamp of approval on it. While he doesn’t direct (that is handled by first timer Alister Grierson), the master visionary touches are still felt, especially in the 3D shots. In general, I’m still sort of mixed on the whole 3D phenomenon, sometimes impressed by the technology but mostly wondering why I have to wear those uncomfortable glasses for a film that could easily have been 2D. But not when it comes to Cameron’s 3D. I mean, Avatar is pretty incredible to watch, so knowing he is involved in Sanctum definitely piques the interest. You won’t be disappointed. There are moments in which you feel you are in those caves, watering splashing on you, stuck in cramped, small spaces. Oh yeah, if you are claustrophobic at all, you might want to avoid the film. In a nutshell, Sanctum isn’t going to set records but for an action thriller, it does its job fairly well.