"You're the first king we haven't eaten." My quote of the year, from "Where the Wild Things Are".
In the interest of staying positive, I will praise some of the movies nominated for Best Picture (along with some which were not so nominated).
Best Among the Best
First, I think the expansion of Best Picture to 10 nominees, from five, was a good move. It will affect only marginally the actual selection of the Best Picture, I think--the race will always probably narrow down rapidly to somewhere between one and four real candidates to win. Instead, the expansion gives the producers of the Oscars TV program a chance to discuss, promote and praise more films, which I think is smart.
Next, I would praise three films nominated for Best Picture, ones which I think would be worth their nominations in any year.
1) The Hurt Locker is a pure thriller, the story of a bomb-disposal team in Iraq, and of one incredibly brave individual on the team. The message of the movie would seem to be "War IS Hell, but some folks thrive in it"; it's one that might be a bit too positive for how most of us see the Iraq war, but could still be valid. It's the storytelling that makes the movie unforgettable, and for that we must praise, above all, director Kathryn Bigelow, who apparently has a real shot at becoming the first woman ever to win the Best Director award.
I've already reviewed the movie. The plot has holes in it you could drive a space-going battleship through, so I would object to any consideration of the screenplay for awards (it wasn't nominated), and it is a cinch to win--appropriately--several technical awards. It is a titanic-sized box office blockbuster, and its nomination justly recognizes the movie's net success. It doesn't deserve to win, though--given the nominees, I'd go with:
3) Up In the Air
This is the movie which best caught the mood of our society in 2009, and it is one that features several strong performances, outstanding dialogue, and true moral tension. It's good for those who love George Clooney and for those who despise him, for it shows him both riding high and getting his comeuppance.
There is a strong correlation between the winner of Best Director and Best Film. All three of these movies' directors were nominated (the other two are Lee Daniels for "Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire" and Quentin Tarantino for "Inglourious Basterds". I think it is unlikely, and would be shameful, if "I.B." won either: the award that film is destined to win is Christoph Waltz for best Supporting Actor, with which I can easily live.)
Next, a few nominees that were worth inclusion in a field of 10:
1) A Serious Man--the Coen Brothers' new one (poorly distributed late last fall, just out in DVD) is "a serious movie", at least in the sense that it deals with some serious themes (in a frequently comical fashion). After a survey tour of American provincial themes in the Upper Midwest, Chicago, the South, and the Southwest, they brought it maybe a little closer to home with this study of Jewish life among the Gentiles in the Sixties. I'd rate it above "No Country for Old Men", about even with "The Big Lebowski", but below "The Man Who Wasn't There" or most of their earlier films ("Fargo", "Miller's Crossing", "O Brother Where Art Thou", or "Raising Arizona"). In other words, quite good.
2) District 9--I think the recognition of this bizarre sci-fi/satire set in South Africa was a good sign for the Academy. It's a natural cult classic, but with a large enough following to rate with the big flicks.
3) Up--It has several things going for it: creativity to the point of fancifulness, a couple of well-developed characters, and the best opening sequence I can recall in the history of animation. I guess that's enough.
4) The Blind Side--I don't begrudge the nomination, as some have done. It's a really good, true story, with a dream role for Sandra Bullock, and an ideal design for popularity with both men and women viewers. Actually winning the award would be a little too much indulgence of our desire for good feelings and happy endings, though.
Two of the ten nominees I haven't seen--"An Education" and "Precious". I think they were considered worthy by all, though they didn't rate quite high enough on the entertainment consideration for me to see.
Not Getting Their Seats on the Bus
Finally, to be a little critical, there are the movies I think should qualify for a ten-movie nomination field, but the Academy didn't. I would point out that the nominations for Best Film are done by vote of all members of the Academy. The expansion of the nomination field from five to ten films created a new dynamic, with results that were not so predictable. Should an Academy member vote for a clear leader, or, if they want to go artsy or intellectual, which one to choose?
The three I would name as notable misses:
1) The Fantastic Mr. Fox--the funniest movie of the year, and the one that most efficiently used its mode of expression. It did get nominated for best animated film (and musical score), but I think "Up" will have the edge. Mr. Fox is not getting its due.
2) Where the Wild Things Are--even more unjustly overlooked, as it got zero nominations. It didn't quite fit as either a kids' movie or an adult movie; that's because it's a much-too-serious look at how children see the adult world--something very rarely attempted. My greatest salute of the season goes to Spike Jonze for daring to try.
3) Bright Star--Another film that was released too early to get optimal consideration (as with "Where the Wild Things Are"); this biographical film of a key phase in the life of Romantic poet John Keats should have gotten nominations for the lead actress Abbie Cornish (as Keats' love, Fanny Brawne), while Jane Campion deserved consideration for both direction and screenplay. As it stands, it was nominated only for costume design.
"Fourth of the three" would be "The Cove", a powerful documentary about a hideous practice in one Japanese locality of isolating dolphins, selling off a bunch for the watershow circuit, and killing the rest of them for (heavily mercury-laden) meat. It should at least win for Best Documentary, though, which makes it not totally overlooked, and a nomination for Best Picture for a documentary would probably have been unprecedented (if not prohibited).
And, to close, three movies had multiple nominations for acting but were not nominated for Best Picture, which makes you wonder. I haven't seen any of them, but that doesn't mean I don't want to: "Invictus" (Best Actor nominee Morgan Freeman looks perfect as Nelson Mandela but doesn't sound it, while Matt Damon tries harder as a white Afrikaner rugby captain), "The Last Station" (Christopher Plummer as Leo Tostoy and Helen Mirren as his wife), and "Crazy Heart" (Jeff Bridges for lead actor and Maggie Gyllenhaal as supporting actress).*
Add it all up, and my conclusion is that the field of quality is exceptionally broad this year.
I've already made my picks for the Oscars; these are only slightly affected by the actual nominations (noted above, for Best Picture, I'll recognize reality and switch to "Up in the Air", and also back it for adapted screenplay). I'll make a wild guess on original screenplay--most of the ones you'd think were original were actually adapted--for "The Messenger" (though I think "Up" might also have a shot), and for Supporting Actor, I'll go against the grain and pick Stanley Tucci for "The Lovely Bones" over another villain, Waltz in "I.B."
*The other two movies with the distinction of having two or more actors nominated are "Precious" and "Up in the Air" (the latter, with one for Best Actor and two for Best Supporting Actress).