This is when the Oscars are fun, before the boring and nauseatingly self-indulgent awards show disappoints millions of film fans who talk themselves into watching it. Debating movies is one of our most popular pastimes, and the Oscars at least get us talking about good movies, reminds us they’re still out there.
What follows is an argument for and against each nominee, listed in descending order of my own personal preference. I’m expecting my least favorite to dominate on Sunday night.
THE KING’S SPEECH
For: It’s got British accents and a World War II backdrop, with spot-on period-piece details like clothing and architecture. The Academy Awards just love that stuff. It’s an easily digestible story: Colin Firth’s stammering Prince Albert can’t speak in public, so he searches his soul with the help of kooky supporting characters, and, by the end of the flick, he’s King George IV, his subjects spellbound by his clean oratorical delivery, uplifted in the face of coming war. It’s inoffensive and audiences can walk out feeling like they’ve learned something historical. “The King’s Speech,” was made specifically to win Oscars, and, unlike “The Social Network,” it needs this award to validate how good it is. No one will be surprised when it wins, and predictability is Oscar’s forte.
Against: It’s so obvious. In this new Oscar era of 10 nominated films, why select a movie that so completely fits the old-Oscar mold? They shouldn’t start nominating movies like “District 9” (last year) and “Inception” (this year) if there’s no switch in the overall ethos. If “The King’s Speech” wins this award, it’ll be the latest “English Patient,” which no one watches anymore. There is some precedent for hoity-toity British-accent fare to lose to a more entertaining movie — “Slumdog Millionaire” beating “The Reader,” “No Country For Old Men” beating “Atonement,” “The Departed” over “The Queen.”
For: A sports movie can win best picture if it’s about boxing. See: “Rocky,” “Million Dollar Baby.” There’s honest respect for the working-class locale of Lowell, Mass., and for real-life boxer Micky “Irish” Ward’s family, including his crack-addicted brother Dicky, portrayed by Christian Bale in one of the year’s best, most interesting performances. He draws humor from a place of deep, sad regret. Star Mark Wahlberg spent 10 years trying to get “The Fighter” made; it’s a labor of love, and it shows.
Against: There’s nothing truly extraordinary or surprising about “The Fighter.” A working-class boxer earns his shot at the title? That story was more compellingly told by Ron Howard and Russell Crowe in 2005’s “Cinderella Man.” In the oft-reported history of “The Fighter” (Sports Illustrated even did a cover story), galactic Hollywood hot shots Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Martin Scorsese and Darren Aronofsky all passed on the chance to take part. It’s hard to picture them doing that if this really were worthy of winning Best Picture.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
For: It mines complexity from the dynamics between family members at pivotal moments in their lives — lesbian parents bored in the suburbs, children growing up and leaving home, a late-30s sperm-donating organic farmer hipster who decides he needs more purpose in life. Those tweaks to the standard concept of nuclear-family turmoil give the film its edge, and the actors all buy in completely. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are fantastic together, and Mark Ruffalo’s Paul might be an idiot, or a jerk, or just a well-meaning guy who’s confused about what he wants. We don’t know, and that’s the point. There’s a simple concept to the filmmaking here — great actors working off a good script. It deserves credit for that.
Against: The hard-core sex scenes look like fun, but they’re sure to alienate at least a few stuffy Oscar voters, as might the progressive notion that a pair of middle-aged lesbians could be parents in a fairly normal suburban nuclear family. “The Kids Are All Right” is an entertaining little movie about regular(ish) people with problems, set in modern times. That kind of movie — “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno,” “Sideways” — never wins Best Picture.
For: Of all the films nominated, “127 Hours” may be the most life-affirming. A cocky young outdoor adventurer re-evaluates what’s truly important in the face of slow death. What he remembers is quiet moments with family, or brief snapshots from his past that anyone can relate to, like a dumb fight with his girlfriend. In the hands of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, a master of color and movement, the story feels simultaneously tiny (one guy trapped in a crevasse) and enormous (meaning of life). That’s art. Canyonlands makes for a sensational set piece, and perhaps voters will be swayed by the guilt most Americans feel for not getting out to these areas more. James Franco is the flick’s star, and he’s co-hosting Sunday night’s awards show. He once smoked marijuana on stage at an MTV awards show, so maybe they should keep him happy.
Against: The highlight is a long, intensely graphic scene in which the main character amputates his arm with a dull knife. People were passing out at screenings, reportedly. Boyle, not nominated for best director, just won multiple Oscars two years ago for “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “127 Hours” isn’t quite on the same level. It’s heartfelt and entertaining, but it probably wouldn’t have been nominated if there were only five slots; it doesn’t tip the scales against the psycho ballerina freak-out or the stuttering king or the boy geniuses who changed culture forever.
For: It’s the best American western since “Unforgiven,” packed with the quirky staples of other great works from directing brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, the closest thing we have to Hitchcock these days. Its dialogue is intricate (“You go for a man hard enough and fast enough, he don’t have time to think about how many’s with him; he thinks about himself, and how he might get clear of that wrath that’s about to set down on him.”), handled deftly by a superb cast including past Oscar winners Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. The film is funny and violent and rich with themes of vengeance and honor. It’s also gorgeous, shot mostly outside. Blackie the horse is 2010’s best movie animal.
Against: Great film, but everyone involved has done better work (excepting Hailee Steinfeld, who’d get my vote for Best Supporting Actress; I’ve even got a bet on her). “True Grit” made more money and earned more Oscar nominations than any of the Coen brother’s other movies, but I’d rank it as, at best, their fourth-best flick, behind “Fargo,” “No Country For Old Men” and “The Big Lebowski.” It may not even be better than “Blood Simple” or “Miller’s Crossing” or “Raising Arizona” or “O Brother Where Art Thou,” either. Jesus, the Coen brothers make good movies. “True Grit” could also have used better bad guys. Frank Rich reported in the New York Times that Dick Cheney liked the film, which won’t help.
For: The meth-ravaged Ozark backdrop makes “Winter’s Bone” uniquely American. Jennifer Lawrence’s character Ree is tough-minded and supremely sympathetic as she struggles against corrupt law enforcement and a fiercely secretive drug culture to save from homelessness her blankminded mother and the two small siblings she’s essentially raising herself. The plight of the impoverished gets its due here. Nominations for Lawrence and, especially, John Hawkes, as Ree’s intense uncle Teardrop, demonstrate voters liked what they saw here. It also has a bunch of cute dogs, who wag their tails in response to actors’ movements. Who doesn’t love cute dogs?
Against: The linear story line and scarily insane characters give “Winter’s Bone” a pulpy, graphic-novel quality which, while totally entertaining, is not what we see in many — or any — Best Picture winners. There are nasty scenes of abuse and an unforgettably violent climax on a dark lake. Also, a squirrel gets gutted on screen. This is the one movie of the 10 that truly wins just for being nominated. It’s the biggest underdog in the field, first released all the way back in March (precedent tells us that’s too early) and carried by word-of-mouth into an Oscar contender. Again, no Oscar love for the director.
For: Shot in a grainy, free-flowing style, “Black Swan” has a small-budget indie sensibility that should appeal to voters. The story occupies a nightmarish gray area between hallucination and reality, and rising-star director Darren Aranofsky boldly mixes thriller and horror elements into an unforgettably intense two-hour experience. And it’s about ballet! What’s more high-culture than ballerinas at the pinnacle of their craft, dueling for the lead in “Swan Lake”? The physically demanding performances are as rich and powerful as in any other movie on the slate, and Natalie Portman is absolutely the front-runner for Best Actress.
Against: It’s flat-out bonkers — a Gothic, sexual, bloody cinematic concoction featuring tawdry scenes of drug use, masturbation and unbridled lesbianism (totally unlike the homely lesbianism in “The Kids Are All Right”). “Black Swan” is constantly cringe-inducing, with nasty moments of self-mutilation (Winona Ryder sticking a nail file deep into her face isn’t even the worst of it). It won’t help the movie’s cause, I’d bet, that by the end it’s tough to tell exactly what has happened to sad, disturbed Nina Sayers.
TOY STORY 3
For: The best reviewed and highest grossing film of 2010. The animation studio Pixar is due, after cranking out masterpieces for a decade. “Toy Story 3” is the final chapter in Pixar’s flagship franchise, and it’s a deeply moving tale of unrequited love that countless schmoes can relate to. Andy doesn’t want to dump his hopelessly devoted toys, but he’s just grown past them. The regretful resignation in their plastic eyes as they come within seconds of dying might say more about mortality than any scene in any other nominated film. And Time magazine, in naming “Toy Story 3” the best film of 2010, called it “a powerful fable about needy wage slaves wedded to their servitude because it creates a sense of community more liberating than freedom.” Pretty heady for a kids’ movie.
Against: It’ll get its golden statue for Best Animated Feature, and that’ll have to be enough because cartoons do not win Best Picture. Ever. While “Toy Story 3” is rich on a lot of levels, it’s also really goofy — Ken’s clothes fetish, Buzz stuck on Spanish-speaker mode. That’ll make it easy to disregard. If Oscar was serious about “Toy Story 3,” director Lee Unkrich would probably have gotten a nomination.
For: In this big-money, mass-market era of unwanted sequels and soulless remakes and movies based on Disney theme park rides and every comic book character getting his own franchise (“Thor” and “Captain America”? Really? You guys think we’ll watch anything, don’t you?), how about rewarding a massive summer action yarn that thrilled with originality? An entire city folds over on top of itself! One of the characters beats up a bad guy using the never-ending Penrose staircase! Handing this award to “Inception” would send a powerful message to the industry that pukes Fruit Loops in our face every summer and asks us to pay for it: If you make a blockbuster with big ideas and go-for-broke cleverness behind the action scenes, you can win best picture.
Against: “Inception” has the wow factor on its side, but that didn’t help “Avatar” against “The Hurt Locker” last year. Many in media (including “South Park,” which hilariously lampooned “Inception”) have noted that the script is constantly explaining and re-explaining the rules of dream invasion, to the point that it gets to be a little much. It is also a bit baffling that director Christopher Nolan didn’t get a nomination, given the film’s visuals and choreography. I get the sense Oscar just isn’t that into “Inception.”
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
For: This film is an athlete — sprinting from start to finish, jumping time at sudden moments. Its brilliant characters ninja-star each other in a screenplay that will be rightly revered for as long as there are movies. (“I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try — but there’s no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. … Did I adequately answer your condescending question?”) No other nominee is so cutting-edge, from the grayly deep-focused cinematography to the propulsive musical score to the searing characterizations of 21st-century info-tech entrepreneurs. It all clicked together into the finest film of 2010. Movie history will remember “The Social Network” as a classic.
Against: It’s too cool. The real message of this flick will be lost on an older audience that doesn’t understand how much social networking is changing personal interactions, changing the meaning of “friend.” “The Social Network” is more an essay, a commentary, than a drama. It doesn’t get the facts quite right, but it doesn’t want to. Of course, these guys didn’t talk to one another like that; of course, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had friends he cared about. This is allegory, and I don’t think Oscar digs allegory. “There Will Be Blood” was the same way, its main character a dark personification of an important shift in culture, and it lost the Best Picture Oscar it deserved. Oscar tends to miss the boat in these moments. Congratulations, “The King’s Speech.”