A joint post from Matt Thurston and Clay Whipkey.
Sunstoners are an arts & culture loving bunch. Throughout the years, whether in the pages of the Magazine, or from the podium at a Symposium, Sunstoners have repeatedly demonstrated that they only need the barest thread of a connection to Mormonism to launch into an animated paean about the virtues of this or that non-LDS movie, book, or song. As such, we’ve created Sunstone Symposium sessions with lofty-sounding titles like, “Great Movies that Have Expanded My Religious World View.” But who were we kidding? Let’s face it – we just wanted an opportunity to talk about movies we thought were really cool.
So let’s drop the pretense, okay? It’s Oscar Time, and we wanna talk movies. Why should we force an artificial Mormon angle, like, um, the subtle way Avatar’s Pandorans resembled righteous Lamanites. Gag.
Nope, we’re not going to apologize for our little off-topic jag; we’re not going to cloak our secular intentions – we’ve got plenty of time to get back to the “faith seeking understanding” thing. Right now, we’re going to riff on movies. Specifically, Matt and Clay are counting down the ten Academy Award Best Picture Nominees, from 10 to 1.[quote]
Who are Matt and Clay? A couple of non-qualified hacks, that’s who. Wannabe cinephiles who can quote lines of dialogue from High Fidelity like it was scripture, but would be hard-pressed to remember more than 4 of the 13 Articles of Faith.
Enough preamble, in the spirit of the movies, let’s get on with the show…
10.) A Serious Man
I’m not quite sure if the normally reliable Coen brothers meant to create a Job movie, but their Serious Man Larry Gopnik is definitely a magnet for misfortune. His wife appears to have little love or respect for him. He’s facing a crisis with a disgruntled student at the unfortunate moment he is being reviewed for tenure. His freeloading brother is in trouble with the law. Our protagonist seems to be a decent fellow, but unlike Job he isn’t seen as “a serious man” in his community or his own family. Questions of his righteousness aside, he’s spineless and annoying, but then almost everyone in this film is annoying. Not a single character is likeable. In fact, it seems as if one of the film’s purposes was to portray a complete spectrum of unkind Jewish caricatures. Ultimately, I just didn’t care what happened to any of them. When it ended abruptly, I was initially annoyed but eventually settled on… meh.
9.) Inglorious Basterds
Inglorious Basterds starts with some truly remarkable aspects (Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, and even Brad Pitt) and then buries it in violent revenge porn. The story creates an alternate reality in World War II. The titular “Basterds” are a special force of American soldiers assembled in Nazi-occupied France to terrorize the Reich by brutally killing them and collecting their scalps. The efforts of this group eventually coincide with the revenge plot of an escaped Jewish woman who runs a movie theater. While Nazis are indeed bad guys, the good guys in this film don’t exactly walk the high ground. Not only do they buy a little too enthusiastically into the myth of redemptive violence, they execute it with such savage brutality and lust as to render themselves completely unsympathetic. What you end up with is a world where the bad guys are evil and… the good guys are, too. Humanity is degraded and discarded in complete 360-degree coverage.
I understand that James Cameron has been working on Avatar for over 12 years and that he invented a whole new technology for filmmaking (similar to George Lucas inventing THX sound technology). The impact that Avatar will have on the film industry will probably be felt for decades. The special effect proof is in the proverbial pudding. Fantasy worlds have never looked so real, but more notable is how non-distracting it was for the primary characters to be computer-generated. Visually, the film was incredibly beautiful. For all these reasons, it certainly deserves to sweep all the technical awards, and it will probably win the big award, too. However, once the film is released to 32 inch home television screens, the visual wonder will wear off. The impact on industry will become standard and commonplace, just like THX. All that will be left is the story.
But what is the story? In all honesty, there isn’t a lot of difference between the story quality of Avatar and Transformers. It feels like watching a children’s comic book expensively produced on the screen. Imagine if you are not James Cameron, with no history of blockbusting megahits like Titanic, Terminator, or Alien on your resumé. Then imagine you are pitching this idea to a studio.
At some point in the future humans have discovered a distant planet that has a lush ecosystem of life called Pandora. Yes, Pandora, like the Greek myth of the first woman who opened a container which released all the evils of the world upon mankind. The hero of the story is a paraplegic war veteran who suddenly gets an opportunity to go to Pandora in place of his deceased twin brother – without any training – because he has closely matching DNA. Scientists have created a way to make these alien bodies and a human can “drive” them like playing a video game. On Pandora there are two important operations: scientific research into the indigenous lifeforms, and some ambiguous corporation’s highly profitable mining of… um… cough, cough… Un-obtain-ium. Smart scientists are smug and condescending to the dumb military people. The corporate bossman is greedy, slimy and without conscience. The military commander is aggressive, heartless and bloodthirsty. The corporation’s desire for the valuable commodity comes at direct odds with the nature-loving Pandoran sentient beings called the Na’vi (kind of like blue Navajos… wink, wink). The military is used as a brute squad for the corporation.
Would you seriously expect that to get a green light?
Avatar is at once a visually stunning allegory for the United States government’s imperialistic steamrolling over Native Americans, as well as a very simplistic and adolescent rant against modern corporate (and military) immorality. Yawn… but oh so pretty.
(Confession: I did not see it in 3-D. Maybe I didn’t give Cameron a fair opportunity to Jedi mind trick me.)
7.) The Blind Side
On one hand, if it were still only five nominees for Best Picture, The Blind Side would not be in this list. On the other, there is something calming about the presence of a super-positive (even the ghetto backstory is pretty tender-footed) hyper-inspiring “based on a true story” movie in a race that is typically dominated by darker (realistic) stories. The movie is based on the autobiography of NFL football player Michael Oher and how he was taken in and embraced by a wealthy white Christian family in Memphis.
Much ado is being made about the performance of Sandra Bullock. The buzz has her as an almost sure bet for Best Actress. She portrayed Leigh Anne Touhy, as these inspirational yarns often do, as saintly perfect and that is the biggest weakness in her performance. No one is that perfect. The film tends to glamorize most of the characters this way. You get the feeling that this isn’t really how it all happened, because the characters don’t actually feel like real people, but it feels nice enough to sojourn in this unrealistic world of perfect Christians in a Chicken Soup For The Soul kind of way.
6.) An Education
An Education follows a 15-turning-16-year-old brilliant ingénue in 1960’s London as she falls prey to an acute onset of adolescent grass-is-greener syndrome. Her father is constantly pressuring her to study and focus her energy on getting into Oxford. She is attracted to a daydreamed life of spontaneity and excitement like moth to flame. After meeting a charming older man she is soon faced with a very real dilemma of possibly throwing away the safe and conventional future she has been working towards for a life of luxury, leisure, and indulgence.
Carrie Mulligan was so absolutely mesmerizing in her Audrey Hepburn-esque portrayal of the lead character that I was temporarily distracted from the fact that I was watching a 30-something man seduce a 15-year-old girl. She made it hard to blame anyone for falling in love with her. Peter Sarsgaard did a terrible British accent, but was otherwise excellent as the incredibly dashing creep. This movie is an education in beautiful writing and acting.
Okay, so there’s no realistic chance of an animated movie winning here, but I like seeing the acknowledgment of the potential of this medium. Pixar has been putting on a clinic on the art of making animated films with great stories (even teaching Disney a few lessons) for fifteen years. They are clearly laying the foundation for future adult-oriented feature-length animated films. I admit that I could just be looking for validation for the fact that I probably loved this movie more than my kids.
The story runs the gamut from tender to funny to suspenseful to inspiring. The talking dogs are hilarious. The relationship between elderly Carl Fredricksen and young, incurably positive Wilderness Explorer (think Boy Scouts) Russell is deftly guided in its evolution. The gem of the film is a 20-ish minute montage that recaps the life and relationship of Carl to his lifelong sweetheart Ellie. By the end of the montage, you are touched, heart-broken, and you love this man like your own grandfather. You could cut that scene out and it could be nominated for animated short on its own.
4.) The Hurt Locker
One of The Hurt Locker‘s greatest credits is that it gives us civilians a heart-pounding look into the danger and fear that accompanies a soldier’s active duty without glamorizing it with gratuitous special effects. Except, it doesn’t. Not quite. I saw several user reviews of the movie before renting it and across the board the reviews from actual military personnel were very negative. Apparently the characters in the movie don’t behave in any way like trained military. The chain of command is a life and death priority, especially in the field, and the way it is abused in this movie is entirely unrealistic.
But even as it fails as a procedure movie, it shines brightly as a character movie. Does intense, life-threatening stress make you reckless? Or do jobs like that just attract the reckless? What does it take to create bonds of trust and love when your teammate is leading you to destruction? (There is a particularly poignant scene where the two primary characters are manning a sniper rifle that really broke the whole story down to raw human connection for me.) Can you justify murdering someone who will almost surely get you killed? These are questions that regular people don’t think about every day (and perhaps military people don’t either), but they are asked in The Hurt Locker with slow, painful, intense dissection.
3.) District 9
At one point, Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp were set to make a movie version of popular video game Halo (um… why?). When studio execs wised up (or pinched pennies), Jackson decided that they should go ahead and make a film with the props and crew that had been assembled. Blomkamp had made a short film earlier about an alien race which had come to Earth and become stranded and the following intolerance and mistreatment coming from the humans. They decided to expand this concept into a feature length film with a limited budget, unknown actors, and understated special effects and what resulted is probably one of the best sci-fi films in years.
A lot of attention is drawn to the fairly obvious allegory to Apartheid, especially since it is set in South Africa. Coincidentally, I just happened to travel to South Africa myself recently and learned that the movie also has another, more subtle, but more current, thread running through it. In a post-Apartheid South Africa, one of the biggest social problems they are facing is growing xenophobia. Because South Africa has democratized, it has become a migration destination for many other Continental Africans, which means competition for jobs and other resources. Note that in the movie there are Nigerian gangsters who live inside the alien township of District 9 and the leader of these gangsters is named Obesandjo, which is not dissimilar to current Nigerian President Obasanjo.
Aside from the political messages in the film, the most interesting aspect is likely the performance of unknown lead Sharlto Copley. He plays an ambitious and awkward government agent leading a relocation project to move the alien township further away from the city itself. Upon this activity, he comes into contact with an alien chemical and begins to experience alarming side affects. Through his experience we get a raw glimpse into how embedded prejudice and phobia can be, to the point of even self-loathing.
2.) Up In The Air
George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who works for a consulting firm hired by corporations to fire people en masse. His job requires that he travel over 320 days out of the year and he loves it. On the side, he gives “motivational” seminars on the theme of shedding attachments from your life, including people. Ryan’s life is potentially up-ended when a sharp young woman revolutionizes the company by introducing technology that allows the job to be done remotely. To Ryan, this means no more travel. Ryan thinks this system is a mistake and arranges for the protégé to accompany him on a trip so she can understand the real nature of his work. Ryan is also maintaining a casual relationship with a woman who is also a frequent traveler.
Through the conflict and mentoring between Ryan and his colleague, and Ryan’s blossoming feelings for his traveling lover, Ryan is forced to seriously examine whether his rolling stone life is as perfect as he had thought (the film lives and breathes in the dialogue between these three characters). Jason Reitman brilliantly balances humor, drama, and intimacy as this film dissects our traditional assumptions about relationships and what it takes to feel like you are home. A life of complete detachment is not truly lived, even when the risks of commitment come to bare with full brunt.
Of all the nominated films this year, none had a greater and deeper impact on me than Precious. Precious is the story of a 16-year-old obese African-American girl in Harlem who suffers exponential abuse and hardship but somehow is undaunted in her imagination and will to survive.
Precious has been sexually abused since she was 3 years old by her father, including being raped by him resulting in a Down Syndrome daughter and now a second pregnancy. Her mother pathologically abuses her in multiple ways. She is functionally illiterate and gets expelled from public school for the second pregnancy. As she faces terrible situations, her sanity defends itself by carrying her off into fantasies and daydreams about some other possible life of glamour and fame. Things begin to change when Precious starts attending a non-profit adult literacy class and is mentored by her teacher. Yet, even her success comes with incomprehensible costs.
The movie is incredibly draining; especially every crushing scene with Mo’nique (Best Supporting Actress by leaps and bounds), but the net effect is far more inspiring than depressing. It is amazing that Precious continues to push forward and holds onto hope through each brutal and unfathomable injustice.
Precious is my personal favorite of the 2009 Academy Awards Best Picture nominees.
10.) The Blind Side
When I was in high school I accidentally parked my beloved ’83 Toyota Celica under a pine tree in full sap. It took me two hours of careful, deliberate scrubbing to clean it all off. I thought of that experience while watching The Blind Side, a movie dripping with so much syrupy sweetness I wondered how many hours I’d have to scrub in the shower until I felt sap-free.
Of course, criticizing a movie based on the heart-warming, true story of Baltimore Ravens left tackle, Michael Oher, feels a little bit like criticizing my kids’ elementary school production of A Christmas Carol – in other words, it’s bad form to criticize something with such pure intentions. But it’s not like I’m some highbrow cynic, incapable of enjoying or emotionally connecting with a feel-good crowd-pleaser. Hey, I cried and goose-bumped during other such underdog-overcomes-great-odds, true-story movies like Rudy or Erin Brockovich. But The Blind Side slathers it on so thick I sometimes found it difficult to make eye contact with the screen out of sheer embarrassment.
Despite the sap factor, The Blind Side doesn’t suck – it’s a perfectly adequate Friday-night “rental” – but it doesn’t belong anywhere near a list of Best Picture nominees, even if you expanded the field to include the best 25 movies of 2009.
9.) A Serious Man
Top-notch acting, impeccable set design and period detail, and a half-dozen or more smartly-written scenes make the Coen Brothers latest film, A Serious Man, worth viewing. But do these fine constituent parts add up to a satisfying whole?
Not for me.
A Serious Man lacked a Marge Gunderson (Fargo) or Ed Crane (The Man Who Wasn’t There) – lead characters with whom I felt an emotional connection; or a H. I. McDunnough (Raising Arizona), the Dude (The Big Lebowski), or Everett McGill (O Brother Where Art Thou) – lead characters who split my sides with laughter. Larry Gopnik, the central character in A Serious Man, was too milquetoast to be sympathetic or funny, at least to me. So, while there was much to admire about A Serious Man, I felt an odd emotional remove throughout the film.
As for the film’s abrupt conclusion, I’m sure there is an artsy or clever explanation for the enigmatic “non-ending” ending, but by then I felt too ambivalent to spend the energy necessary to figure it out.
8.) District 9
During a summer that featured the usual spate of lame franchise sequels (Transformers 2, Night at the Museum 2, DaVinci Code 2, X-Men 4, Terminator 4, Harry Potter 6, etc.), Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 stood out like a genuine expression of regret in a Tiger Woods speech. Rare indeed.
District 9 is simultaneously one of the most familiar and original science fiction movies in years – familiar in the sense that we’ve seen these ingredients before, but original because we’ve never seen them mixed together quite this way. It’s a mash-up of genres – gritty indie, big-budget blockbuster, hard-hitting documentary, cinema-verite-style foreign film, Kafkaesque horror film, etc. – and for the most part, it’s entertaining as hell.
However, as much as I enjoyed District 9, I think it could have been even better. The problem? The last third of the film features a fairly conventional extended chase scene. But like your straight-A student who inexplicably gets a B in English 101, you want to say, “Come on, you’re better than that.” As for “how” it could have been better, I’m not sure… but an unconventional beginning and middle deserves an unconventional ending. Hopefully the inevitable sequel will recapture District 9’s unconventional equilibrium.
7.) Up in the Air
The list of great directors of Drama and great directors of Comedy are both long and distinguished. But “Dramedy” (part Drama, part Comedy) requires a kind of walk-and-chew-gum ability fewer directors have mastered. As such, the list of great directors of Dramedy is comparatively abbreviated. Woody Allen makes the list, at least on the strength of some of his films. Same with Robert Altman and Cameron Crowe. Hal Ashby, of course. More recently we have Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, and About Schmidt) and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). To that list we have to add Jason Reitman. Following on the heels of Thank You for Smoking and Juno, Reitman is now a solid three for three and heir apparent to the great Dramedy directors listed above.
Up in the Air works best when the film lets George Clooney verbally joust with either Vera Farmiga or Anna Kendrick. Here the dialogue sizzles and pops with a sexual playfulness and tension not seen since Clooney squared off against Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. Up in the Air is less successful when it tackles the depressing corporate downsizing theme or explores Clooney’s “What’s-in-your-Backpack?” commitment issues. But taken as a whole, Up in the Air is just the kind of smart, adult entertainment that makes dropping $25 on a pair of movie tickets feel like a good investment.
Amongst my friends, admitting I liked Avatar is like admitting you liked the “Twilight” books (you know, assuming such were possible). They make that face – you know the one: nostrils flare, eyes squint – not unlike the face someone makes when a foul, gaseous odor suddenly materializes in a crowded room. The “face” is a wordless accusation, but it speaks volumes whether you broke wind (“I know it was you!”), or liked Avatar (“You artistic lightweight!”)
What can I say? I saw the same things you saw – the derivative script; the clunky dialogue; the sometimes-cartoonish, one-dimensional characters – but none of it mattered to me. Instead, sitting next to my eight-year-old son, I was absolutely enchanted, transported away to James Cameron’s dazzling Pandora.
Manohla Dargis, film critic from the New York Times, best describes my feelings about Avatar:
“Few films return us to the lost world of our first cinematic experiences, to that magical moment when movies really were bigger than life (instead of iPhone size), if only because we were children. Movies rarely carry us away, few even try. They entertain and instruct and sometimes enlighten. Some attempt to overwhelm us, but their efforts are usually a matter of volume. What’s often missing is awe, something Mr. Cameron has, after an absence from Hollywood, returned to the screen with a vengeance. He hasn’t changed cinema, but with blue people and pink blooms he has confirmed its wonder.”
Precious is “Debbie Downer” Cinema. Like other DDC’s before it — Monster, Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, Breaking the Waves, etc. — you know going in you’re gonna get punched in the gut. But you prepare by doing the necessary mental sit ups to tighten your stomach muscles, so that when the punch comes, it’s oddly cathartic. You survived the horror and have come out the other end… a better person, perhaps? You’re infused with gratitude, charity, compassion, and love. Your worldview zooms out from micro to macro to global. That major crisis you have – you know, the extra five pounds you can’t seem to lose, the pain-in-the-butt neighbor who won’t mow his lawn – suddenly seem so trivial.
That’s Precious, a sort of cinematic Sermon-on-the-Mount by way of a title character who personifies the very least of these. Long after many of the films on this list have faded from memory, I have no doubt that the figure and soul of Precious will remain in my mind, standing tall and proud.
4.) Inglorious Basterds
I thought of the famous Howard Hawks quote — “A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes” – while watching Inglorious Basterds. Hawks, director of such stylishly iconic films as The Big Sleep and the original Scarface, would no doubt approve of Quentin Tarantino’s films. It’s easy to picture Tarantino in full creative fervor dreaming up ultra-cool, stand-alone vignettes – “Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in France?” – as opposed to tight, full-length plots. As such, Tarantino movies are episodic, a series of scenes linked together to form a somewhat loose narrative.
But oh what scenes! While Inglorious Basterds isn’t perfect (I wasn’t a big fan of Brad Pitt’s character or performance), when Basterds is “on” (i.e. the opening dairy-farm scene, or the incredibly tense basement-pub scene), it’s hard to refrain from standing up in the movie theater and clapping like a mad man.
“Red car… Blue car…”
If you’ve seen Up – and let’s face it, who hasn’t? – you know the previous quote comes at the end of the movie, when the lonely latchkey kid and the lonely senior citizen are sitting on a street curb licking ice cream cones and counting red cars and blue cars. It’s a precious scene, one that pierces the deepest, most vulnerable cavity of the heart, triggering “happy tears.” It’s also one of the most difficult types of scenes to pull off in cinema without being too “something” – too maudlin, too cliché, too corny, too obvious, too banal, etc. But Up is packed with such million-dollar scenes, the ultimate being the instant-classic early scene, now famously known simply as “the montage,” that wordlessly depicts the relationship of Carl and Ellie, from courtship and marriage to Ellie’s death.
But is it any surprise? Time and time again, whether the conduit to our inner human soul comes via toys, bugs, monsters, fish, cars, rats, or robots, Pixar cranks out such million-dollar scenes like Roger Federer cranks out tennis tournament wins, with seemingly effortless power, grace, and respect.
I’ve seen Up three times and it knocked me out flat each time.
2.) The Hurt Locker
World War 2 and the Viet Nam War are the Beatles and the Stones of the war film genre – iconic, prolific, both critical and commercial smashes. Even Bush Sr.’s Gulf War 1, brief as it was, possessed a kind of one-hit-wonder charm – think The La’s or My Bloody Valentine – resulting in an underrated, one-off album full of hits (i.e. Three Kings, Courage Under Fire, and Bob Roberts). But Gulf War 2? Nada. It’s the band (think Anvil!) that toils in obscurity, releasing one tired album after another, a joke to both critics and fans alike.
And then Mark Boal joined the band.
Mark Boal saw something in Gulf War 2 the rest of us overlooked. He penned the band’s umpteenth album, In The Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, an underrated gem that raised eyebrows amongst critics and Internet fanboys. Was Elah an anomalous blip on the radar, or a promise of things to come?
Promise or not, nobody could have expected what came next – Mark Boal wrote The Hurt Locker, a sort of out-of-nowhere, career-defining masterpiece, made all the more remarkable given Gulf War 2’s abysmal past catalogue.
How did Boal do it? The same way the “Beatles” (WW2) and “Stones” (Viet Nam) did it, by focusing on character and universal themes – the fear of death, the “drug” of war, the “value” of dying for one’s country, etc. – not slanted politics or didactic moralizing. The Hurt Locker is well deserving of its many accolades.
1.) An Education
Male coming-of-age movies are as ubiquitous at our local cineplexes as pigeons at the park – toss a crumb of bread in any direction and your bound to hit one. In contrast, the female coming-of-age movie more resembles a rare, exotic bird. Quick, name the last great female coming-of-age movie? It’s tough, despite the omnipresence of the Jane Austen/Charlotte Bronte narrative in our collective cultural consciousness. Whale Rider certainly qualifies as a fine, female coming-of-age film. Bend it Like Beckham had its charms. Thirteen, Blue Car, and Heavenly Creatures were all worthy, but to me probably better fit the “cautionary tale” sub-genre. You can spin your wheels surfing the Internet for a better candidate, but it won’t matter – An Education tops them all.
Picking a favorite anything – movie, book, song, painting – comes down to more than mere artistic execution or technical merit. An Education has that in spades, starting with a perfect script and ending with perfect performances. What really separates great art from equally great art is something ineffable, a spiritual or emotional connection to the artwork that stirs something primordial in one’s soul. An Education did that for me, and it left me feeling like a giddy schoolgirl who just discovered she had been accepted into Oxford.
An Education is my favorite film of the 2009 Academy Awards Best Picture nominees.
|Clay’s List||Matt’s List|
Well that’s it, now we want to hear from you: How would you rank the 2009 Best Picture Nominees? Which 2009 films should have made the cut but didn’t? Which film is going to win Best Picture?