Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Oscar-Shot!!! 2010 (Part 1 of 3)

So this awards ceremony thing that I claim not to care about but actually derive an immense amount of pleasure from bitching about is coming up in just over three weeks. Maybe I still continue to care about the Oscars because, for movie geeks, it's the closest thing we have to the Super Bowl. Or maybe it's because Oscar is the only awards show that has managed to retain a modicum of respectability. Or maybe I just like complaining.

But regardless of the reason, I love the Oscars like a subtly disappointing uncle (they've let me down before, but I don't really give a shit). So I've decided to conduct a run-down of the ten (!) Best Picture nominees for the 82nd Academy Awards in a series I'm calling, "Oscar-Shot!!! 2010, Parts 1-3" (directness, in this case, won me over). The expansion from five to ten nominees is an attempt to ensure nominations for popular favorites (*ahem* The Dark Knight) that are typically "squeezed out" in the top category. Nominating movies that people have actually seen is also a ploy to increase ad revenue, since people are more likely to watch if the nominees include movies they've actually seen. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be working.

So I'll be discussing (is it a discussion if you're the only one talking? Maybe a crazy person discussion) each of the ten (again, !) nominees, providing my own "pithy" commentary, and using a thoroughly scientific system to guess at each nominee's chance of taking the top prize (a feature I'm calling the "ProgOSCARcator"). I'll start off this week with the two movies with "up" in the title (Up and Up in the Air).

And we're off!

Up, dir. Pete Docter

I almost feel bad about how much I enjoyed this movie. Bad because I liked it a whole lot more than Wall-E, the most critically-acclaimed of all of Pixar's films (quite a feat, incidentally). And bad because it's apparently so "conventional."

It's odd, to me, how certain movies can get away with being conventional. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more conventional film that Star Wars and yet that's critically (and popularly) adored. But Up seemed to draw wide criticism (I use the word "wide" liberally because the thing still has an 88 on Metacritic) for clinging too firmly to a sort of "Hero's Journey" story arc. Again, Star Wars did it, and nobody cared.

You could argue, on one hand, that the various elements of this specific "Hero's Journey" are so idiosyncratic that the film is automatically disqualified from being unoriginal: the hero is a stubby old man (Ed Asner), his sidekicks are a fat half-Asian boyscout (Jordan Nagai), a talking dog (Bob Peterson), and a giant bird named Kevin. His enemy is an equally old man (Christopher Plummer) backed by an army of more talking dogs. The Indiana Jones-with-old-dudes concept alone would get me there.

But I ended up thinking that Up used the well-wornness of its premise to its own benefit. Carl Fredericksen's (Asner) motivation for tying a ton of balloons to his house to fly the thing to South America is established early on. He's a widower living out the dream he and his wife, Ellie (director Pete Doctor's daughter, Elizabeth), spent their lives trying to fulfill. But because the travel fund kept getting used for more pressing needs, Ellie passed away before they could make their trip to Paradise Falls. The dream, then, remains trapped in their childhoods.

So when Carl actually manages to make the trip, it takes on the appearance of a storybook fantasy. Amazing creatures, fantastical locales, those tattered maps we remember from great adventure movies: this is the trip that Carl had imagined as a little boy (even if he doesn't realize it at first). Up, then, is as familiar as the stories we loved as children, but it's inhabited by an old man. It's one of those stories for kids of all ages. Kind of Pixar's M.O. in general, isn't it?

ProgOSCARcator says:

I'd love to see an animated film finally take the top prize, but I just can't see it happening with this one. As wonderful as this movie is, I feel like it got the nod mostly as penance for shafting Wall-E. Plus, it came out in May, which is like a bajillion years ago for the Oscars. Academy voters have notoriously short attention spans. I'll give it a 5% chance of winning.

Up in the Air, dir. Jason Reitman

I can't figure out exactly what keeps this movie a scoch short of greatness. The premise is wonderful (outsourced firing! how dastardly!), the performances are superb (Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are wonderful, and George Clooney somehow manages to play both within and against type), and the interviews with real-life fire-ee's make this the first resonant recession movie.

But I felt like I'd already seen it when I walked in the theater. The trailer, unfortunately, told me everything I needed to know: guy who's crafted a philosophy around being unburdened realizes he'd like to be tied down (snicker). Not only did nothing surprise me, but nothing really stuck with me. Yeah, some commitments are worth having. Duh.

I almost felt betrayed by the tidiness of the moral: the movie draws you in with Bingham's (Clooney) giddily noncommittal M.O.: there's something to the idea that we humans can be overburdened by the things we think we need to do. That he seems to have (spoiler alert, I guess?) dropped his philosophy by the end of the movie sort of disappointed me. The whole thing wrapped up too easily (melancholy ending and all).

But I didn't hate it.

ProgOSCARcator says:

The buzz seems to have died down (indeed, even the backlash has died down) on this one. Nobody's going to take prizes away from Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) or Mo'Nique (Precious: Based on something that sounds like a young adult novel), so the movie's unlikely to take either of the two acting trophies it's nominated for (Best Actor for Clooney and two Best Supporting Actresses for Kendrick and Farmiga). Nevertheless, the Academy loves tales of white-people ennui, so it could happen. I'll say 10%.

See you next week!