I will make some reference to conventional wisdom, here represented by moviefone's preview of nominees; their predicted (10) nominees for Best Picture will be noted with an asterisk (*) after the name of the flick. We also have strong indications of what we could expect from the Golden Globe awards from last weekend.
I would say that this year's entries are distinguished by their quantity rather than quality. Rather than a head-to-head battle of two or three movies across most categories, there are plenty of contenders from a large number of movies. This is not to say that there are not big favorites in some categories; clearly there are, but they are, again, spread from several movies. A common theme this year was the unsatisfactory ending--and I don't mean the absence of a happy ending, but one that suits the movie poorly--spoiling some good moments earlier on.
My approach will be to winnow down the pack with a few brief reviews, then focus a bit more on the best ones out there and what award categories they should feature. Once the nominees are actually out I'll post my picks by category of who I'd want to win, and who will win.
First, though, in the category of Longshot Late Entries, I note two movies that are just being released this weekend:
The Company Men--This movie was screened in last winter's Sundance festival, and so should be eligible for this round. It looks like "Up in the Air" in the sense of an attempt to capture the mood of the recession through some individuals (prominently Ben Affleck) who've lost their jobs and are suffering in their efforts to get back in the game. An orphan abandoned to January release by their Weinstein producers, I wish it well.
The Way BackThis movie by longtime fave Peter Weir is getting limited release--now, three weeks past year-end? There was probably some hidden theater somewhere that it was shown on December 31. I'm not sympathetic to the fact that it will probably have zero chance with that kind of crypto-release. The movie's supposed to be a defies-belief-true-story of escape from a gulag in Poland during WWII, all the way to central Asia; its facts are also supposed to be in dispute.
Briefly Noted and/or Demoted
Burlesque--old hat; may win for Best Song. Cristina Aguilera looks to be third place in Best Unacknowledged Pregnancy behind Natalie Portman and Jennifer Connelly.
Black Swan*--between bad ballet, creepy obsession, and S&M intimations, the movie you either didn't want to see or couldn't be allowed to see. Portman's the clear favorite for Best Actress.
Blue Valentine--Just like Black Swan, except a different color and poorer distribution, and its lead, Michelle Williams is a clear favorite to get a nomination and lose for Best Actress.
The Fighter* I've seen this movie just about every year. I didn't go, this time (nor for "The Wrestler", last year, or the last four episodes of "Rocky"). Christian Bale is a true talent and should win an Oscar sometime--it might be this year, for Supporting Actor.
Salt, The Tourist I'm afraid Angelina Jolie's family antics may be getting in the way of her career. "Salt" had some real excitement, but basically ruined it with an ending clearly designed to set up a sequel which, largely because of its lame ending, may never happen. "The Tourist" seemed more like a Bond-like improbable hijinks movie (no, I didn't go), but I noticed it had identified itself as "comedy" for the purpose of Golden Globe nominations (their musical/comedy class of awards is a notable, but bootless, effort to influence the Oscars into broadening beyond drama).
Knight and Day Apply above comments about Jolie and "Salt" to Tom Cruise and this one. Stupid ending ruined some good special effects.
Didn't See, Might've Liked
127 Hours I wish I'd gotten to this one last fall; it was released too early to do well with the Oscars without a big push; otherwise, this kind of incredible story (see "The Way Back" could've done very well indeed. James Franco will be nominated but won't win for Best Actor.
Winter's Bone* This movie's poor distribution seems a shame. Jennifer Lawrence will be nominated but won't win for Best Actress.
Get LowGreat cast, never came close to town. (Correction: It was listed at our local multiplex, but when I went to view it, it had been pulled--no explanation.) Robert Duvall is always a threat in any acting category.
Rabbit Hole It's hard to imagine that it would've been much as entertainment, but it did seem (from the previews) to be well-made. Hasn't made it here.
Never Let Me Go-- The book, by Anglophile Japanese Kazuo Ishiguro, was an amazing, difficult gut-wrencher; it's science fiction, about an alternative England which penalizes a few very heavily for the benefit of the many (don't want to spoil), and making the movie of it was a difficult ask because so much of the book is about the inner workings of the minds of people in a strange and difficult circumstance. Not having seen it, I don't know how well the movie works, but I would've liked to have had the chance to see it.
The Corral of O.K. Movies
Toy Story 3*--I couldn't believe the hype (or the box office) for this one: of the three T.S. movies, this one was clearly ranked #3 for me. The Holocaust imagery with toys in the incinerator was inappropriate and confusing.
Alice in Wonderland I don't think Johnny Depp's notoriety has destroyed his career yet, but his Mad Hatter show-stealing attempt probably didn't help it. Bad ending ruins good special effects and costumes.
HereafterAt this point, I'm willing to give serious consideration to any Clint Eastwood effort. This one was a bit too derivative of "The Sixth Sense" for me. Bad ending ruins great special effect (the tsunami in the first scene), and it did have some emotional heft before it became too obvious.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps As with Eastwood, I'll give a shot to most any Oliver Stone effort. Some of the early scenes, particularly the big facedown meetings where AIG and Lehman get eaten by their creditors, were very effective, essentially accurate fictionalized depictions of recent history. Michael Douglas and Josh Brolin were better than they were given credit, but I'll admit the ending was a mess. I don't agree with Frank Rich that TSN, and not this movie, is the true sequel to the '70's Wall Street.
The Ghost Writer--And like Eastwood and Stone, Polanski has earned a look from me for anything he does. This movie had some great aspects, in particular the Pierce Brosnan character who is a thinly-disguised version of Tony Blair (though the movie has him being assassinated) and "Blair's wife", who has an affair with our hero. The ending was chaotic, though, and there was an anti-US tone which was preachy and off-putting, even if I agreed with many of the sentiments underlying it.
The Second Circle
Inception* I had high hopes for this movie which were somewhat disappointed. Director Christopher Nolan somehow didn't get nominated for his work on "The Dark Knight"; he will get nominated for this one, instead, but he will be a big underdog to The Social Network's David Fincher. The award I would see it winning would be Art Direction--clearly, it had great storyboards.
The Social Network* I would accept that TSN had good production values, memorable (if obnoxious) characters, good acting by Jesse Eisenberg in the lead role (will be nominated but won't win). But what is the big deal, and how could it be the Best Picture of the year? At best, it leaves you flat; at worst, you feel cheated because there is no point.
The Kids are Alright* A pleasant, interesting movie about pleasant, interesting people. We root for everything to come out well for everyone, which of course is a little too much to be possible. Mark Rufalo probably deserves the nomination he'll get for Supporting Actor; Annette Bening probably less so for her lead Actress nom, and the film is marginal for a Best Picture nod. I resent the unacknowledged title theft--and slight spelling change--from the The Who documentary, reminding me of some un-memorable, overpraised, "inglourious" Quentin Tarantino WWII flick of a recent year.
The King's Speech* Watching the movie was painful, but I appreciated the ensemble acting, especially by the lead actors Colin Firth (heavy favorite for Best Actor), and probable nominee/losers Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush. Like TSN, though, my reaction is a little bit "what's the big deal?" In the scope of the drama of WWII, the English King's overcoming his stuttering to give a radio speech was hardly decisive.
The Inner Circle
The Town* I thought this intricately plotted action/heist movie was truly suspenseful at several levels. Probably the only real problems were the recycling of Boston blue-collar themes from "The Departed" and "Good Will Hunting" and the related overweening presence of Ben Affleck (writer, director, star). Actually, I'll be surprised if it does well at all in the nominations or on Oscar night.
True Grit* I'm not a fan of "grit", true or otherwise, and I remember hating the hamfest original version and the hoopla and Oscar given to John Wayne for it (though it did have Duvall and Dennis Hopper in bad-guy roles). I loved this movie, though, and movie audiences are apparently loving it, too. I rate it right at the top of the Coen Brothers' body of work, a notch below Miller's Crossing but above Raising Arizona or The Man Who Wasn't There (and, as better than TMWWNT, breaks into my Top 10 of the decade just ended), and a couple notches above their more-richly-awarded later works. Apparently the PG rating and popular subject has helped make it their most successful film yet from a commercial, first-run box office standpoint.
Still, I think it will be difficult for the film to win any actual Oscars (though it should get several nominations). Best Actor seems locked up for Firth, and Jeff Bridges won last year (for a lesser performance in "Crazy Heart"). The Coens themselves won prematurely (Director/Best Picture/Adapted Screenplay!) for "No Country for Old Men". One of the best features of "True Grit" was its dialogue, but that seems to have been largely taken verbatim from the Clinton Portis novel, and they've already won for Adapted Screenplay. Certainly worthy of award was the performance by young Hailie Steinfeld as Mattie; she was really in a lead role (along with Bridges), but I would rate her chances fairly low to win there, and it wouldn't be quite right to nominate her for Supporting Actress, where she'd have a good chance. Maybe Cinematography?
It's certainly defensible to criticize the Coens for taking the serious subjects of Western lawlessness, revenge, and murder too lightly--in this regard, the movie is probably less substantial than Eastwood's classic "Unforgiven", which covers similar ground (female seeking revenge through hired male and his guns). I don't think it's fair to criticize them for taking on the Western, as they have covered most other areas of typical American genre with a similar combination of homage and ironic detachment.
Fair Game This film got poor distribution, but it may have a longshot chance to be nominated for something. I would suggest Editing, Best Picture, and Best Actress as categories. This is the story of outed CIA covert agent Valerie Plame Wilson (Naomi Watts) and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), the beatdown they got from the Bush Administration for trying to spoil their little lies about Iraq's WMD (specifically, the allegation Iraq was trying to get uranium to build a nuclear weapon), and the exposure of the beatdown and the coverup around it. I've championed this cause for years, and this movie dramatizes, and brings to a very personal level, the story. My only complaint is a lack of closure in the cases of the Iraqi nuclear scientists Plame was (in the movie, at least) trying to get safely out of the country.
I think it's very fair to compare this movie to Best Picture favorite The Social Network, which is also dramatized history, covering a very similar range of recent history:
Five Reasons "Fair Game" (FG) is More of a Best Picture than "The Social Network" (TSN):
1. TSN is about self-entitled preppies who can't get laid; FG is about true patriots under huge psychological pressures.
2. FG has Naomi Watts as its lead actress; although set in a nominally coed university and Sillicon Valley, TSN does not have a female role worth mentioning.
3. As made up for the movie, Naomi Watts is a dead ringer for lovely Valerie Plame Wilson; Jesse Eisenberg is a pretty close imitation of nerdball Mark Zuckerberg.
4. FG is about the deceptions which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and several thousand Americans; TSN is about the (sarcasm follows) relatively much more important development of an Internet website used primarily to chat and flirt.
5. The viewer leaves TSN entertained but wondering "so what?", the viewer leaves FG sad for the victims, angry, and wondering "so what am I going to do?"
I'm still hoping that the success of the previous year's "Hurt Locker" will be an inspiration to Oscar voters. This is an independent film similarly worthy of praise.