Kathryn Bigelow, the first female to win Best Director, directs a scene in The Hurt Locker (2009)

The 82nd Academy Awards for the film year of 2009.  The nomination were announced on 2 February 2010 and the awards were held on 7 March 2010.

Best Picture:  The Hurt Locker

  • Inglourious Basterds
  • A Serious Man
  • An Education
  • Up
  • Up in the Air
  • District 9
  • Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
  • Avatar
  • The Blind Side

Most Surprising Omission:  Invictus

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Broken Embraces

Best Eligible English Language Film Not Nominated:  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Rank  (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #24

The Race:  It seemed early on that the race would come down to two films.  One, a drama about the Iraq War, made on a low budget by a small independent had first debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September of 2008.  The other, an epic large-scale Hollywood production in 3-D, wouldn’t be out until the week before Christmas of 2009.  The first would finish its domestic run with a gross of $12.6 million, lower than any Best Picture winner since 1958.  The second would crush the domestic box office record and shatter the worldwide box office record, eventually taking in over two and a half billion dollars around the world.  The two films would be directed by a couple that had been married from 1989 to 1991: Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron.  Bigelow’s entire output combined had grossed $115 million, or less than each of Cameron’s last four films and while Bigelow’s films had never been nominated for an Oscar, Cameron had already won three Oscars and made a film that had tied for most Oscars (11) and nominations (14).  This was Hurt Locker vs. Avatar, and the set-up began in the summer of 2009.

Hurt Locker had played at Venice and Toronto, where it earned a domestic distribution deal.  When it opened in June, it was to almost unanimous glowing reviews and in spite of its smaller art-house run it began to generate significant Oscar talk.  The race had suddenly become wide-open at the same time.  Two days before Hurt Locker was released, the Academy announced that the Best Picture lineup would be expanded from 5 films to 10.  Suddenly, a whole different race had emerged from what was originally expected.  And the new kinds of films immediately started to reap the benefits.

There was Up, the newest film from Pixar.  Pixar had become a major force at the Oscars after the Best Animated Film category had begun and had never really factored in the Best Picture race, but with another slough of excellent reviews and the new expanded lineup, things were expected to change.  Then, in August, came District 9, from South African director Neil Blomkamp, and produced by Peter Jackson.  With good box office and very good reviews, it was exactly the kind of film that could factor into the new race.  And in the fall came the next group of art-house films that in the past would have had to settle for writing and acting nominations, but now suddenly had a chance to at least get a Best Picture nomination, films like An Education, the British film that was making a new star out of Carey Mulligan, or A Serious Man, the offbeat comedy from the Coen Brothers.

One film that people were less certain about was Inglourious Basterds, the extremely violent World War II revenge fantasy from Quentin Tarantino that had opened to very polarized reviews, but had made good money at the box office.  And there was Precious, the film based on the novel Push by Sapphire.  With an inexperienced director (Lee Daniels, who had produced the Oscar-winning Monster’s Ball), an unknown for a star and an extremely bleak subject matter, this didn’t look a lot like Oscar fare, but the new lineup had changed everything.  In fact, there was considerable speculation as to how the Academy could fill out the rest of the slate.  As the awards season began, there were still films to be seen: Avatar, the new huge sci-fi spectacle from James Cameron, Up in the Air, the George Clooney vehicle from Jason Reitman (who had been nominated two years before for Juno), Invictus, the film about the South Africa rugby team from Clint Eastwood with Morgan Freeman starring as Nelson Mandela, Nine, the new musical from Chicago director Rob Marshall, with an incredible cast (Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Marianne Cotilliard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench) and Lovely Bones, the new Peter Jackson film from the best-selling novel.  There was even some speculation about the new Star Trek reboot from J.J. Abrams that had been the best-grossing film of the series and had earned good reviews back in May.

The National Board of Review kicked things off by giving Best Picture to Up in the Air but Best Director to Eastwood (with Freeman and Clooney sharing Best Actor).  But just after that came the other critics, and they were all united with one force.  Their director was Kathryn Bigelow and her film was their choice.  By the time the awards groups (the Globes, the Broadcast Film Critics, the guilds) started chiming in it was clear that Hurt Locker was the very heavy critics favorite (it would eventually win Picture and Director in New York, LA, Boston and Chicago and from the National Society of Film Critics).

With the Golden Globe nominations came the realization that there were four films in very serious consideration: Hurt Locker, Up in the Air and Inglourious Basterds had all earned Picture, Director and Screenplay nominations while Avatar was nominated for Picture and Director.  This was very good news for Cameron; in 1997, L.A. Confidential had swept the critics awards, but the Picture and Director wins for Titanic at the Globes had turned the tide and it would eventually conquer at the Oscars.  Precious, with a Picture nomination and Invictus, with a Director nomination, were still very much in the running as well.  Whereas, while the Best Picture slate had been expanded, the Best Picture – Comedy / Musical category still wasn’t expected to matter.  The only one of the nominees that had ever been considered a potential Oscar nominee, Nine, had been sunk by the critics (in spite of its five Globe noms).  With Nine and Lovely Bones (also badly savaged by critics) out of the running, that was making this expanded lineup even less competitive.

Next up was the Broadcast Film Critics.  Since the BFCA had started nominating 10 Best Picture nominees in 1996, all but three of the Oscar nominees had come from their lists, and no film had made it to the Oscar BP lineup without a BFCA nom since 2001.  With 10 Oscar nominees it wasn’t expected to lineup perfectly, but it was still a big step.  This gave added boosts to the films nominated for Picture, Director and Screenplay (Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Inglourious Basterds, Precious) and to the films nominated for Picture and Director (Avatar, Invictus).  Even three of the lesser contenders, Up, A Serious Man and An Education, had been nominated for Picture and Screenplay.  Only Nine, with just a Picture nomination, seemed in weaker shape, especially as the negative reviews began to climb.

So, as the guilds began to vote, it seemed like the race might be fairly well set.  The Best Picture race was shaping up like this: Hurt Locker and Avatar would compete strongly for the win for Picture and Director, Up in the Air, Inglourious Basterds and Invictus would probably be the other Picture / Director nominees, while Precious, Up, A Serious Man and An Education would likely get Picture (and Screenplay) noms.  That left District 9 going up against any dark horses for the final slot.  But then Precious got a big boost with a DGA nomination over Invictus (the other nominees were the expected Bigelow, Cameron, Tarantino and Reitman).  The Producers Guild took the expected group, including District 9, but going with Star Trek over A Serious Man.  With An Education, Up and Inglourious Basterds ineligible for the Writers Guild, that left things up for some new competitors.  The expected nominees were in (Hurt Locker, Avatar, A Serious Man for Original, Up in the Air, Precious, District 9 for adapted), but none of the other nominees (The Hangover, (500) Days of Summer, Crazy Heart, Julie and Julia) seemed likely to get into the Oscar race.  The BAFTA nominations didn’t change the race much, with Hurt Locker, Avatar, An Education, Up in the Air and Precious nominated for Picture and Tarantino and Blomkamp making it into the director’s race.

With the nominations right around the corner, the only thing that had shaken up the race at all had happened at the Globe ceremony.  As many thought would happen, James Cameron had taken home the Best Director prize and Avatar had won Best Picture – Drama.  With Avatar staying incredibly strong at the box office, looking well on its way to various records, it looked like we might have a repeat of 1997.

The Results:  As expected, Hurt Locker, Avatar and Inglourious Basterds lead the nominations, with 9, 9 and 8 nominations each and Picture and Director nominations for all three.  Also in the Picture and Director races were Up in the Air and Precious.  Not only had Eastwood not earned a Best Director nomination, but his film was out of the race entirely.  Up, An Education and A Serious Man had earned their expected bids and had been joined by District 9, but a dark horse had emerged.  It was The Blind Side, the big box-office Disney film with Sandra Bullock headed towards an Oscar, and in spite of not earning nominations from any group outside of Best Actress, it had ousted Invictus from the Best Picture race and held off any dark horses like Star Trek.

The only news now was whether Hurt Locker or Avatar could take it all and whether Kathryn Bigelow would become the first female to win Best Director or whether she would lose to her ex-husband.  But the guilds started handing out their awards and suddenly it didn’t look like 1997 at all.  Hurt Locker won the WGA as expected, but Bigelow became the first female to win the DGA, and even more surprising, her small budget film had beaten the box office juggernaut at the Producers Guild.  She followed that up by sweeping the major awards at the BAFTAs.  And on Oscar night itself, when the two films were competing against each other in 7 categories, one award went to neither (Original Score – Up), one went to Avatar (Cinematography) and the rest – Sound Editing, Sound, Editing, and most importantly, Director and Picture – went to Bigelow and her film.

One of the amazingly tense scenes in The Hurt Locker (2009)

The Hurt Locker

  • Director:  Kathryn Bigelow
  • Writer:  Mark Boal
  • Producer:  Kathryn Bigelow  /  Mark Boal  /  Nicolas Chartier  /  Greg Shapiro
  • Stars:  Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce
  • Studio:  Summit Entertainment
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Renner), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  485
  • Length:  131 min
  • Genre:  War (Iraq War)
  • MPPA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  26 June 2009
  • Box Office Gross:  $17.01 mil  (#116  –  2009)
  • Metacritic Rating:  94
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #106  (nominees)  /  #32  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Renner), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  360

The Film:  Does this film have a happy ending?  And if it does, does it change anything about the film that we have just watched.

First, let’s agree that this film is a first-rate one, from start to finish.  It begins with an incredibly tense situation, with a very good actor, doing very good work, only to have him die and be off the screen before 10 minutes have elapsed.  Then we meet and follow the main character, partially through the eyes of the friends of the departed, struggling to work with this cowboy replacement who does things his own way, but is incredibly good at what he does.  It’s fantastically directed, fulfilling all the promise that its director had shown in earlier films, is sharply written, is very tightly edited, makes great use of sound and has first-rate cinematography.  And it takes an actor who had been struggling in small parts, almost completely unknown, and catapults him so thoroughly to the top, that three years after this film he would be the heir to two different action franchises while holding down a solid supporting role in a third.

Now let’s get to the core of the story.  Jeremy Renner plays a staff sergeant, one whose job it is to defuse IEDs in Iraq.  This is a job with a very short life-expectancy and he has defused 873 of them.  How do we know that precisely?  Because after witnessing how at work, a colonel asks him how many.  Renner tries to play humble, but the colonel repeats the question, knowing full well that the sergant knows exactly how many he has defused.  And so we get an exact number and we marvel in awe at how good this man is at his job when any of those 873 could have ended his life in a flash and a bang.

But the man himself works so well with the actor himself.  Renner is surrounded by names who are much more well-known (Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse), but he stays within his zone of mystery.  He wants to to be able to stay humble and say that he doesn’t know how many bombs, but we can see in his eyes and his movements, just like the colonel can, that he knows precisely how many he has defused.  And that air of uncertainty around him (he sheds his protective suit to deal with one series of bombs, noting that they won’t save him from death if these go off and if he’s going to die, he wants to be comfortable) continues when he gets home.  Because at the end of the film, he finally does finish his rotation and return to the wife and child that he has briefly mentioned earlier (that the other characters are as surprised as we are that he has a wife and a child shows how well the character works with how Renner is playing him).  But in the trips to the market, in playing with his son, we see and emptiness enter his eyes.  It’s not the same kind of blankness we see in his eyes in the desert, where there it is all about mystery.  Here, it is the world that is a mystery to him and he struggles to find it.

And so we get that moment at the end.  We know it, from the minute we hear him talking to his son, that he can’t stay, that’s he going back to the desert, to the bombs, to every minute where death is with him as a friend and a guide.  And there is that sly smile on his face as he disembarks, and as he walks down the street in his protective suit.  And if he can’t function in the world, is incapable of being father or husband, and if he finds happiness where he needs to be, out with death in the desert sands, then isn’t really the best place to end and can’t we call that a happy ending and at least have some measure of happiness for one person – that he is doing what he loves where he wants to be?

Spaghetti Western meets Tarantino meets WWII revenge fantasy meets screwy spelling.  Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Spaghetti Western meets Tarantino meets WWII revenge fantasy meets screwy spelling. Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Inglourious Basterds

  • Director:  Quentin Tarantino
  • Writer:  Quentin Tarantino
  • Producer:  Lawrence Bender
  • Stars:  Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger
  • Studio:  Weinstein Brothers
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Waltz), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  285
  • Length:  153 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War II)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  21 August 2009
  • Box Office Gross:  $120.54 mil  (#25  –  2009)
  • Metacritic Rating:  69
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #102  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Laurent), Supporting Actor (Waltz), Supporting Actress (Kruger), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  540

The Film:  That this film isn’t for everyone hardly needs to be said.  There is no Tarantino film that is for everyone.  And, in fact, I originally didn’t think it was going to be for me.  I had been a big Tarantino fan – I was a strong support of Jackie Brown when many others blew it off and I had loved both volumes of Kill Bill.  But I hadn’t liked Grindhouse at all and that was the only thing he had done since 2004.  Now came his new film, and good lord, there was Brad Pitt, again with a Southern accent, again in a starring role, just like Benjamin Button, which I had been so overwhelmingly disappointed with.  And this one just looked too cartoonish.  And so I skipped it in the theater, partially because I didn’t really want to see it too much and partially because 2009 was just a year where I didn’t get to the theater.

Then it came out on video and Veronica and I sat down and watched it.  And then came those first words “Once upon a time . . . in Nazi occupied France.”  If there’s a way to get back into my heart, it is through Spaghetti Westerns.  And watching those first scenes unfold, I was reminded so much of early scenes in both The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, two films I absolutely love.  They require patience, and a love of film, of great acting (Christoph Waltz, it would seem, was set for the Oscar within two minutes of his first appearance), a love of great Morricone music.  This wasn’t cartoonish.  This was perfect Tarantino stylistic excess and I couldn’t eat it up fast enough.

What is there to hate about the film?  Let’s be honest, there could easily be a lot to hate.  It takes a revenge fantasy look at World War II rather than any remotely serious look.  It has a lead character who talks, not in the manner of an actual person, but in the manner of a Tarantino character, and if you don’t have a lot for Tarantino’s style of dialogue then you might walk out right then and there.  It is extremely violent, from the first opening moments, where a family is slaughtered, to the brutal orgy of violence at the conclusion of the film, with a number of scalpings in between.  Nearly every character in the film is dead by the end, some of them quite grotesquely killed.  And there is the title itself, deliberately misspelled for no other reason than because Tarantino wanted to do it.

But what is there to love?  Well, if you have a serious love of films, there is quite a lot.  There are the moments of the film-lover in Tarantino, from the homages to Spaghetti westerns, to the presence (and death) of Emil Jannings, one of the first great screen actors (and the first winner of the Oscar for Best Actor), to individual moments (am I the only one who watched Landa put up his gun, lower it and let Shoshana live and think about the disturbing moment in Schindler’s List when Ralph Fiennes “forgives” the woman?).  There is that Tarantino ear for dialogue and great moments.  There is the first-rate cinematography and editing.  And most of all, there is the acting.  We get Christoph Waltz, who most of us (including me) had never heard of, who becomes an instant star with one of the great supporting performances of all-time.  We get Diane Kruger, who never showed an ounce of acting talent in Troy or National Treasure, giving one of the best performances of the year.  We have Melanie Laurent, smart and brave and sexy, and we see her hold up so desperately from the first second she hears the voice of the man that she will never forget and we see her confirm that everyone has left, and then shake with tears and anger and pain at what she has just gone through.  We even get a brilliantly goofy Brad Pitt performance that actually perfectly suits his part.  And in great smaller roles, we have people like Michael Fassbender (who says people still walk up to him on the street and hold up three fingers) and Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill.  We get funny scenes (like the stand-off between Pitt and the German soldier in the basement), tense scenes (the opening scene, which becomes even more tense the second time you watch it because you know at the start who is below the floorboards).  There are scenes that play like The Dirty Dozen (the basement scene) or like the Marx Brothers (Pitt’s outrageous attempts to pass for Italian).  What we get is the most polarizing film of the year and you can choose to love it or hate it and I won’t debate either one with you.  I love it, for all its violence, its great acting, its love of film history, its sheer outrageousness.  And even, yes, because a few Jewish kids get to kill Hitler.  That seems a better ending than reality gave us.

note:  An amusing little sidenote here.  Veronica was just as impressed with the film as I was.  The next day she kept telling people about how brilliant all the Spaghetti Western references were, from the story title to the structure, to the music.  What’s ironic is that she can’t stand Spaghetti Westerns.  She has never forgiven me for making her sit through all 177 minutes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in what, admittedly, is the most uncomfortable theater in Portland, Cinema 21, and she has steadfastly refused to ever watch Once Upon a Time in the West, even though we own it.

I'd like to think Heisenberg would approve.  Schrodinger too.  A Serious Man (2009).

I’d like to think Heisenberg would approve. Schrodinger too. A Serious Man (2009).

A Serious Man

  • Director:  Joel and Ethan Coen
  • Writer:  Ethan and Joel Coen
  • Producer:  Joel and Ethan Coen
  • Stars:  Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Fred Malamud, Richard Kind
  • Studio:  Focus Features
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay
  • Oscar Points:  90
  • Length:  106 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Black)
  • Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  2 October 2009
  • Box Office Gross:  $9.22 mil  (#145  –  2009)
  • Metacritic Rating:  79
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #112  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor, Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  240

The Film:  It’s an extension of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  In the Principle, which is expounded upon in the film by Larry Gopnik to his physics students, you can not know, with precision, a pair of physical properties, such as momentum and location.  The more, to precision, you know one, the less, to precision, can you know the other.  And that perhaps sums up the film, especially the final moments of the film, more succinctly that anything that a critic could write about it.

The plot itself you could say is borrowed from the Book of Job.  Poor Larry Gopnik is undergoing one hell of a time.  He is worried about tenure, his shiftless brother won’t leave his bathroom, his wife wants to leave him for the much older, much balder man, his neighbors seem to harbor deep hatred for him and his children can’t stand each other, with a son constantly high and a daughter swiping money for a nose job.  But then, the whole weight of Jewish history since the start of the Common Era seems to parallel the Book of Job, so there might perhaps be a bigger metaphor at work here.  And it is set, clearly in the Minneapolis suburbs of 1967, a point in which the two directors would have been 13 and 10 and in the academic life that they grew up in.

What could prepare you for this film and what could you take away from it?  It begins with a kind of Yiddish folk tale, about the banning of a dybbuk from an Eastern European household (they wanted to use an old Yiddish folk tale, but they said they didn’t know any so they made one up).  It concludes with a finale that doesn’t wrap up anything, doesn’t give you any answers to various questions and makes you wonder if the film is missing the final reel.  Yet, it all feels completely whole in a way that only the Coen Brothers could possibly have done it.  It is shot with complete precision by their long-time collaborator, Roger Deakins.  It stars a number of lesser known actors, all of whom, because they lack star power, seem to consist entirely of their performances here.  It is structured around one of the great rock and roll songs of all-time, which not only lends to it a sense of place and time, but also an over-arching theme.

What else can I say except that it is utterly funny, wrenching, horrifying and, ultimately, satisfying.  When the film ends, we know exactly where these characters are at the given moment, especially Larry and his son, Danny.  Do we know what their momentum is and where it will possibly take them?  No.  Because unlike a traditional story, this is a film that deals with the laws of physics, and of course, the more we know their location, the less we can know, with any precision, their momentum.

A reason to be glad the Oscars expanded their lineup: An Education (2009)

A reason to be glad the Oscars expanded their lineup: An Education (2009)

An Education

  • Director:  Lone Scherfig
  • Writer:  Nick Hornby  (from the memoir by Lynn Barber)
  • Producer:  Finola Dwyer  /  Amanda Posey
  • Stars:  Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Olivia Williams, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Emma Thompson
  • Studio:  Sony Pictures Classics
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Mulligan)
  • Oscar Points:  125
  • Length:  100 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  16 October 2009
  • Box Office Gross:  $12.57 mil  (#132  –  2009)
  • Metacritic Rating:  85
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #167  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Mulligan), Supporting Actor (Molina), Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  265

The Film:  By the time of the awards, one of the few remaining questions was whether or not Sandra Bullock would beat Meryl Streep in the race for Best Actress.  What is so sadly absurd about the whole thing is that neither actress was anywhere near as good as Carey Mulligan, the young British actress who, at 24, seemed much more convincing as 16 than any 16 year old would have.  She gives us a performance that would remind anyone of Audrey Hepburn, in its luminosity, its grace, its sad humor, except the role that everyone is thinking  of, Audrey in Roman Holiday for which she won the Oscar, isn’t as good of a role or as good of a performance as what we have in this wonderful film.

This is another reason to be glad that the Academy decided to expand the list from 5 to 10.  In previous years, it would have had to make do with the Actress and Adapted Screenplay nominations and fallen short of a category that would have included lesser films like Avatar.  Because An Education is a truly wonderful film, the kind of film that shows the British still have much to teach us about how to act, about dignity, about reserve, about quite grace and sad humor, about the nobility of education.  At the end of the film, when young Jenny, still only 17, is told that she must feel very old and wise, she replies “I feel old, but not very wise,” and in that line, the way she says it, so much of this film is summed into a brief moment.

Good god, it’s a wonderful film.  Not just Mulligan.  Because the film is filled with wonderful performances, from Mulligan, to Alfred Molina, and his wonderful scene at her door, to Peter Sarsgaard, so perfectly cast as the deceitful cad, to Cara Seymour as her mother and their wonderful scene in the kitchen after her first date, to all of the scenes with Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams.  There is the wonderful scene where Jenny first meets David, where he charms her by insisting that she shouldn’t trust a stranger “But I’m a music lover and I’m worried about your cello.”  Soon her cello is out of the pouring rain and into his car.  Soon she is as well.  And so begins a journey through the early sixties, a journey that couldn’t take place today.  It’s not just the relationship aspect.  Just look at the life, look at the way the parents interact with their children, look at how much smoke is in the air and no one cares, look at how casually the headmistress talks of how the Jews killed Christ.  It’s another universe.  A perfect portrait of that other universe.

The annual brilliant Pixar film: Up (2009)

The annual brilliant Pixar film: Up (2009)

Up

  • Director:  Pete Docter  /  Bob Peterson
  • Writer:  Pete Docter  /  Bob Peterson  /  Thomas McCarthy
  • Producer:  Jonas Rivera
  • Stars:  Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer (voices)
  • Studio:  Disney-Pixar
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Score, Sound Editing, Animated Film
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  96 min
  • Genre:   Kids (Animated)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  29 May 2009
  • Box Office Gross:  $293.00 mil  (#5  –  2009)
  • Metacritic Rating:  88
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #170  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Editing, Original Score, Sound, Animated Film
  • Nighthawk Points:  175

The Film:  By 2009, this is what Pixar had done as a studio: a film about toys, a film about bugs (with a marginal love story), a second film about toys, a film about monsters (with a couple, but hardly a love story), a film about fish, a film about super-heroes (with a family at the core, but the love story wasn’t focused on much), a film about cars (with a fairly typical Hollywood love story), a film about rats (with a marginal love story on the side) and a film about robots (in which they fall in love partially while watching Hello Dolly).  They had dealt with relationships very well in the course of these films, relationships between friends, relationships between enemies, relationships between parents and children, and within families.  But until their most recent film, romantic love hadn’t played much into it.  So who would have guessed, that in the course of the first 10 minutes of the company’s 10th film they would put on screen one of the most touching, beautiful love stories ever imagined on film, complete in and of itself, one that would bring audiences to tears.

We see, in the moving images of their life, the heartbreaks and love in the lives of Ellie and Carl Frederickson, how they fall in love as kids, how they grow together and overcome some of the hardest blows of all, and grow old together, always dreaming of that moment when they can take flight together.  And of course, they both never take flight, because life keeps intervening, and always take flight, because they have the love between them to keep them going, until finally Ellie is gone and Carl is left to miss her in the house they made their own and we are all in tears.

The rest of Up is never quite able to live up to the first 10 minutes.  But it is a measure of how good, how smart, how enjoyable, how funny, how entertaining it is, that it comes so close.  It is, all at once, a reminder of several things about animated films.  The first, is that filling the screen with beautiful visual images is wonderful, but it will succeed or fail on the strength of its story and characters.  Second, you don’t need to pay a ton of money to get really big names to star in the film – get solid actors who can fill the role properly and it will work out just fine (outside of the Toy Story films, the only Pixar films that rely on big names are the Cars films which are far and away the weakest links in the Pixar resume).  Third, even the important voice actors can become irrelevant if your director is the perfect voice for his creation.  The Madagascar films pay ridiculous amounts of money to their stars, when it’s the director, as the voice of the Skipper, is far and away the most interesting thing in every film; likewise, in Up, while the cast is excellent, by far the best voice is that of Bob Peterson, one of the two directors and writers, and the voice of Dug, the most lovable, perfect dog to ever come on film.

There have been a lot of great dogs on film, beginning with Asta in The Third Man films, Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth and Toto, down through 2011, which had the wonderful Jack in The Artist and the even more wonderful Arthur in Beginners.  But I think my favorite movie dog is Dug, and that’s not just because I have a plush Dug.  In fact, I have a plush Dug precisely because he is so wonderful.  From the first second he appears, when Russell realizes he is trained and tells him to speak and he replies “Hi there,” his voice is absolutely perfect.  And look at lines like “I have just met you and I love you,” or how he keeps pausing to yell “Squirrel!” or how he points, or, possibly my favorite, “I was hiding under your porch because I love you.”

But this is all part of the same story.  We love Dug, because he is so lovable.  But so is Russell in his pathetic need for a father figure, and so is Carl, with his gruffness.  The moment when the house is in the air and Russell asks to be let in, looking down in terror, and Carl says “No,” and shuts the door is pure gruff lovability.  It’s funny because it’s so ridiculous and it’s lovable because we know that he’s going to relent.  And the whole film works like this.  Through every minute, while we still get the visual wonders of Pixar (not just the balloons themselves, when they lift the house, but the array of colors that we see as the balloons interact with the light – it’s beautiful how so many people react to the colors before anything else) and we get their fantastic story-telling.  And we are reminded about the best things about the Pixar films, about any great animated film.  Our children love them because they are so much fun.  We adults love them because they are so good.

The bi-annual George Clooney Oscar nomination film: Up in the Air (2009)

The bi-annual George Clooney Oscar nomination film: Up in the Air (2009)

Up in the Air

  • Director:  Jason Reitman
  • Writer:  Jason Reitman / Sheldon Turner  (from the novel by Sheldon Kirn)
  • Producer:  Jason Reitman  /  Ivan Reitman  /  Jeffrey Clifford
  • Stars:  George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Clooney), Supporting Actress (Kendrick), Supporting Actress (Farmiga)
  • Oscar Points:  230
  • Length:  108
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  23 December 2009
  • Box Office Gross:  $83.82 mil  (#38  –  2009)
  • Metacritic Rating:  83
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7  (year)  /  #183  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Clooney), Supporting Actress (Kendrick), Supporting Actress (Farmiga)
  • Nighthawk Points:  135

The Film:  I spent the first several minutes of Up in the Air not liking Ryan Bingham, a surprising feeling, since George Clooney has long been one of my favorite actors.  But he (Ryan, not Clooney) embraces a life I find completely foreign.  He is at home on the road.  He has no desire for a family or children.  He gives motivational speeches (which I despise) on the idea of emptying out your metaphorical backpack so you are not weighed down by so much in life.  I, of course, am glad for everything that gives my life weight, the relationships, especially with my wife and child, and all the physical things I have around me, especially my books.  I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t like the film.  But then life happens to Ryan Bingham and I found myself laughing and smiling and appreciating everything about this film and what I learned about this character.

It’s always the mark of a good film when you think you can predict what’s going to happen and that’s not what happens.  At various points late in the film, both Veronica and I thought we knew what would happen.  But the film took us in a different direction, allowed us to see the characters and their growth.  There are moments that make you want to cry.  There are moments that make you want to scream.  There are moments that can turn you on (what an imaginative use for a tie).  There are moments when you break down in hysterical laughter (just the very thought in my brain of Clooney screaming “Bust a move” makes me start laughing now).  And there are moments that make you want to cringe as you watch characters step into positions you know is unwise.

It’s possible that like Juno, the enthusiasm for this film will fade.  Perhaps it began to fade quickly as it did not win the award for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars (the only script to ever win the WGA, the Golden Globe and the BAFTA to fail to win the Oscar).  It is topical at the moment, with Clooney still one of the biggest stars in the world and the notion of job loss still so potent.  But it will stay a great film because of its heart.  It is extremely well made, with much better technical production than on Reitman’s two previous films.  This time the editing is phenomenal and the cinematography is top-notch.  But Reitman’s gift is with actors and their dialogue and he gets the best out of them here.

The great sci-fi allegory of 2009: District 9

The great sci-fi allegory of 2009: District 9

District 9

  • Director:  Neill Blomkamp
  • Writer:  Neill Blomkamp  /  Terri Tatchell
  • Producer:  Peter Jackson  /  Carolynne Cunningham
  • Stars:  Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt
  • Studio:  Tri-Star Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Visual Effects
  • Oscar Points:  135
  • Length:  112 min
  • Genre:  Science-Fiction
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  14 August 2009
  • Box Office Gross:  $115.64 mil  (#27  –  2009)
  • Metacritic Rating:  81
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #10  (year)  /  #217  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  180

The Film:  Something interesting happened the second time I watched this film.  I found myself watching the late part of the film, when the military group has tracked Wikkus down to District 9 and they manage to capture him.  Then, they are attacked by the Nigerian groups who are also interested in the weapons potential that Wikkus offers them, now that he has become part man / part alien, and has the ability to use the alien weaponry.  The Nigerians cut off the route of escape and suddenly this military group, so powerful, so efficient, finds itself trapped and facing a slaughter.  And I was reminded of the events in Somalia, the massacre portrayed so brilliantly on-screen in Black Hawk Down.

That may all be a coincidence, of course.  Since this film was made in South Africa, they wouldn’t necessarily have the same history running through their minds when they were putting together this scene.  But, instead, there is so much more of this film than most of us, those of us who don’t come from South Africa, will easily understand.  Because on one level this is simply a brilliant science-fiction film, setting up its scenario well, and following through to its logical conclusion (with extra credit for not bothering to make it somehow come out with a happy ending).  But on the other hand, look at how brilliantly this story parallels what Neill Blomkamp had grown up with in South Africa.  We have the marginalized people, pushed into the outlying district, with crime and poverty running rampant because, as one of the sociologists in the film says, these things will run rampant whenever you have a forced slum like this.  And we have the brutalizing white force.  It can’t be a coincidence that Wikkus has a perfectly typical Dutch name.  It is so easy for him to step from a story about apartheid and into a science-fiction film that tells the same story.  And how better to make it even more of a social commentary than to have the black characters feel the same way about the aliens.  Nothing makes a marginalized part of society feel more accepted and part of the larger society than to have an even more marginalized part for them to discriminate against.

But enough about the social commentary.  Because, brilliant as it is, that’s not really why people came to this film.  People came to this film because it is a great science-fiction film.  It is a great sci-fi film, not only because it tells an interesting story, with great direction, strong writing and a very good lead performance from someone who had no intention of even becoming an actor, but also because sci-fi is about the development of science within fiction.  We see these amazing scientific developments, and we see how the characters put them to use.  More importantly, we see how the film-makers put them to use.  I give my Best Visual Effects award to Avatar because the effects are almost mind-blowing.  But in some ways the, effects here in District 9 are even more impressive.  Cameron was creating a CGI world and it had to seem believable.  But Blomkamp is creating CGI characters and effects and he’s putting them in the real world, and they have to seem real enough to merge properly into that world.  Going back to the film a second time, knowing that almost all the scenes with the aliens were CGI rather than makeup, I still couldn’t tell the difference as to when I was seeing one and when I was seeing another.  This might be the best example of ever merging pure CGI into the real world and having it look perfect up on the screen.

Then we come to the last third of the film.  Critics of the film often talk about how it’s one long shoot-out and that it doesn’t hold together.  But I found it extremely effective, never knowing quite where things were going to go.  If I had to bet early in the film, I would have bet that Wikkus was going to come out okay, that the film would buckle under and give us a happy ending.  But what exactly is happy about this ending?  The aliens are indeed carted off to the concentration camp (that’s a big moment when Wikkus admits that the new camp is basically that).  Wikkus’ wife is left alone, with a child on the way (look at the mirror behind her in her final scene).  And Wikkus, well, what are we to make of him?  I give credit to Blomkamp for following through with his characters.  Certain ones die that we want to die.  But we don’t necessarily get the happy ending that so many films would have given us.

Great, but god awful depressing: Precious (2009).

Great, but god awful depressing: Precious (2009).

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire

  • Director:  Lee Daniels
  • Writer:  Geoffrey Fletcher  (from the novel Push by Sapphire)
  • Producer:  Lee Daniels  /  Gary Magness  /  Sarah Siegel-Magness
  • Stars:  Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique,
  • Studio:  Lionsgate
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Sidibe), Supporting Actress (Mo’Nique), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  295
  • Length:  109 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Social)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  20 November 2009
  • Box Office Gross:  $47.56 mil  (#65  –  2009)
  • Metacritic Rating:  79
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #16  (year)  /  #242  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Sidibe), Supporting Actress (Mo’Nique)
  • Nighthawk Points:  135

The Film:  I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for before I ever started the film.  It was pretty much what I expected.  I knew beforehand how depressing it would be, how gut-wrenching, how difficult to watch.  The performances, on the other hand, in spite of the Oscar nominations, were far more than I expected.  Why there was such a fuss between Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock when Sidibe wiped them both off the screen in 2009 is beyond me.  And of course, Mo’Nique’s performance is one of those once in a lifetime roles, the kind of thing that rocks you to your core and you are glad you watched, but sure as hell never want to see again.  But nothing, not the clips of the film, not the review by Roger Ebert, could prepare me for the other two performances in the film, the ones that didn’t get the awards attention, Paula Patton and Mariah Carey.  That either of them could achieve these depths of acting was evident in nothing either had ever done before.  Perhaps, as Roger Ebert suggested in his review, noting that Lee Daniels produced Monster’s Ball, which also provided a performance of incredible depth from Halle Berry that she has never even come close to achieving again, Daniels has a magic touch.

So what about the film itself?  In some ways it is all but unwatchable.  The opening credits, presumably meant to be in Precious’ hand-writing are annoying, the hand-held cinematography borders on nausea and of course, there is the story itself.  It is the danger of making a film like this.  Films like this, like Leaving Las Vegas, like anything by Lars von Trier, are always difficult to watch.  Surely they are the kind of films made to express the idea of film as literature, film as art, film as social device.  Because they certainly don’t play into the ideas of film as entertainment.  Because what could possibly be entertaining here?  I hear people talk about how this film is actually hopeful, because Precious keeps hope alive in her heart and she is looking forward to life at the end of the film.  And it is good to watch her finally be able to take control of her life.  It is a measure of the acting of Gabourey Sidibe that I actually believed at this point that she was capable of taking control of her life.  But I am also reminded watching a film like this that sometimes life is too short to watch such films.  I don’t know.  Somehow, I always am able to digest such stories far easier in literature, where I can create my own images.  When they are put on the screen in front of me, they become too much to take.

the movie that proved people aren’t looking for a well-written film: Avatar (2009)

Avatar

  • Director:  James Cameron
  • Writer:  James Cameron
  • Producer:  James Cameron  /  Jon Landau
  • Stars:  Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
  • Studio:  20th-Century Fox
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  315
  • Length:  162 min
  • Genre:  Science-Fiction
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  18 December 2009
  • Box Office Gross:  $749.76 mil  (#1  –  2009;  #1  –  alltime)
  • Metacritic Rating:  83
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #41  (year)  /  #346  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  80

The Film:  I sat and watched the grosses grow and grow and watched all the talk on the web about how it was a game-changer, how it was new in a way like no film since Star Wars, how it was going to revolutionize the way we watch films, the way people will make films, how it is everything we could hope for and more.  Well, I didn’t buy into the hype then and I’m here now saying that it’s all a bunch of crap.  Pretty much every word of it.

I’ll start out with the good things to say.  Because I didn’t hate the film.  In a lot of ways, it’s like Titanic.  It’s a gigantic over-blown epic, designed to be seen, not to be thought about, the kind of film that James Cameron excels at making because he is a director with epic vision (but with no mind for dialogue and not much of one for story).  It is amazing to look at, with incredible visual effects and amazing sound.  It doesn’t have anything like Kate Winslet or Leo DiCaprio in its performers, but most of the acting is no worse than your average sci-fi movie and better than a lot of them.  It has a solid score and the world of Pandora is incredible to look at.

Now, let’s get back to those thoughts going around.  Is it new in a way like no film since Star Wars?  Well, no.  It does create an entire world, but it’s not like this has never been done.  Did no one see the Star Wars films?  What did they think that Lucas did?  And all those people who trashed on the Star Wars prequels, were they the same people championing this film?  Because this film is filled with a hokey story and pathetic dialogue and doesn’t have a single character as memorable as any that Lucas created.  Yes, this film did become the largest grossing film of all-time.  But did those books about it sell?  Will action figures sell?  Will kids care about it?  Did it really create a whole new universe that we would hope to explore?  Not a chance.

And will it revolutionize the way we watch films?  Well, perhaps.  But do people really want 3-D?  It works when a film is made for it, like Avatar, but look at the push-back on films that get converted later.  Will people really continue to pay a premium price for this gimmick?  It’s come and gone in the past.  And I wear glasses in a theater anyway, so wearing the 3-D glasses I find to just be a pain.  I can’t be the only one.

And revolutionize the way we make films?  People always say that about the new big thing.  But converting to 3-D later in the film process doesn’t seem to work.  Cameron has gotten lucky twice in spending an insane amount on his films and earning the money back.  But no one else has managed to repeat his formula and if they tried and failed it would sink an entire studio in one go.  And is that really what people want?  Mindless action with no intelligence or writing evident?  Well, judging from the grosses on Avatar and Transformers, yes, but I hold out hope for better films, for films that can be large and brilliant and still be intelligent.  The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films would be better epics to attempt to emulate.

And as for the complaints of those involved in the film like Sigourney Weaver who insist that it should have won?  It’s badly written, rather stupid, but amazing to look at.  In short, it’s Titanic, but without the lead actors.  Ms. Weaver, in 1997, The Ice Storm, which you starred in, failed to get nominated for a single Oscar while Titanic went on to win 11 of its 14 nominations.  Is this really what you want?  More films like Avatar and fewer like The Ice Storm?  More directors like James Cameron and fewer like Ang Lee.  This is an enjoyable film.  But it’s size, scope and box office grosses are what put it so firmly in the Best Picture race, not its quality.  It had no business being nominated.  It’s a big, fairly enjoyable sci-fi film that’s nice to look at on the big screen.  It is not Star Wars.

the sappy tear-jerker that was the weakest nominee in over a decade: The Blind Side (2009)

The Blind Side

  • Director:  John Lee Hancock
  • Writer:  John Lee Hancock  (from the book by Michael Lewis)
  • Producer:  Gil Netter  /  Andrew A. Kosove  /  Broderick Johnson
  • Stars:  Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quentin Aaron
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Bullock)
  • Oscar Points:  120
  • Length:  129 min
  • Genre:  Drama (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  20 November 2009
  • Box Office Gross:  $255.95 mil  (#8  –  2009)
  • Metacritic Rating:  53
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #77  (year)  /  #429  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  I was not prepared to begin watching this film.  No, it’s not the sappy story, the tearjerker about the rich white mom who took in a young black man and helped put him on a path that would eventually lead him to the NFL.  I’m talking about the opening scenes where we watch Joe Theismann break his leg.  Then we watch it again.  Then again, but from a different angle.  Then again, but, oh, this time we can actually see his leg bend backwards.  It is certainly one of the most famous as well as one of the most grizzly of all NFL injuries.  Yes, it does have a point, as it allows Sandra Bullock’s character to deliver her (somewhat inaccurate) monologue on the importance of the Right Tackle position in the game of football.  But did we really have to watch it so many times?

A lot of the film is like this.  The film is about as subtle as being hit over the head with a sledgehammer.  Repeatedly.  Yes, they are rich and have plenty of room and so they could easily bring in an impoverished young man to live with them and help steer him towards a better life.  And yes, it’s true, that most people in that situation don’t do this kind of thing, so the film definitely gets points for doing the right thing.  And yes, she is sassy and she makes sure she gets her way.  But of course, we also have to have a rather Hollywood story made out of it all (to point out that it is based on a true story is no help – they alter the story enough to make it more of a Hollywood story — of course, most films do that, but it does take away the excuse that this is a “true” story).  Then we have to have some kind of dramatic confrontation.  After all, where can the story be without some dramatic tension and we really haven’t had much.  So we have this ridiculous story about an investigation over whether he is being pushed to attend Ole Miss.

I’ll give the props to Sandra Bullock.  She more than delivers on her side of the bargain.  She gives a strong performance and while it doesn’t make my top 5 of the year, it is not the embarrassment that I was expecting from this film and is easily the best performance of her career.  But the rest of the film is just such a ridiculous Hollywood letdown.  It is badly directed and fairly badly written and not a single person outside of Bullock gives anything like a notable performance.  It is just another of those sappy true stories that Hollywood has always made, but with Bullock on the awards circuit, with a huge box office (the #8 film of the year) and the expanded Best Picture lineup, this is the kind of film we can look forward to sneaking in and taking that 10th spot.  Of course, it’s the weakest Best Picture nominee since 1995, but there might be more of that to come.