Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Film Faves: 1998

Welcome to yet another monthly edition of Film Faves!

Just to remind folks, Film Faves counts down my favorites in any movie topic.  It is not intended as a "Best of" list, rather simply an account of one's enjoyment and celebration of film.  Unlike those other lists you might find on other sites, Film Faves avoids the Honorable Mentions by listing a dozen favorites - and stops there.  Currently, Film Faves is going back in time, counting down my favorites of each year.

Let's get on with it.

If I were to pick a word that describes the year 1998, it would be: decent.  There are a lot of decent films from 1998: American History X, Armageddon, The Big Lebowski, Can't Hardly Wait, Ever After, The Faculty, The Opposite of Sex, Primary Colors, Rush Hour, and You've Got Mail come to mind.  None of them are great films, but none are crap either.  In fact, Armageddon was the highest-grossing film of the year.

That isn't to say there weren't any really good films.  The year saw the release of Blade, A Bug's Life, Elizabeth, Gods and Monsters, Mulan, The Negotiator, The Parent Trap remake (introducing the world to Lindsay Lohan), A Perfect Murder, Run Lola Run, and The Thin Red Line, many of which were nominated for Academy Awards.

However, there were many more bad films than good ones that year: The Avengers, BASEketball, Blues Brothers 2000, Half Baked, Home Fries, Hope Floats, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Jack Frost, Lost in Space, Mercury Rising, A Night at the Roxbury, The Odd Couple II, Practical Magic, Snake Eyes, Species II, Sphere, Star Trek: Insurrection, Urban Legend, and Very Bad Things represent just a fraction of the worst 1998 had to offer.

The year was a big year for deaths in show business.  Legends like Frank Sinatra, Roy Rogers, and Akira Kurosawa, who is considered one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, all passed on that year.  Also, Phil Hartman rocked a generation of The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live fans with his sudden and tragic death.  Other deaths included Sonny Bono and Lloyd Bridges, father of Jeff Bridges.

But here are my favorite films of...


12. City of Angels

This may be the most lukewarm edition of Film Faves in quite some time as it starts with a few movies that I most-enjoyed, but am hardly an ardent fan of. We start off with City of Angels, which is anything but perfect: the angels-on-billboards visual effects now look fake, the characters don’t always react believably, and the logic isn’t always sound if you think about it much. It is considered to be far inferior to The Wings of Desire, the 1987 Wim Wenders film on which it is based (admittedly, a blind-spot of mine). But the photography by John Seale (Gorillas in the Mist) is often quite beautiful – both the close-up and landscape shots – and the acting prevents the film from being saccharine garbage. Cage is great, with a serene sort of intensity and a believability and hilarity we haven’t seen since… well, this movie. Dennis Franz is enthusiastic and a joy, which makes me miss seeing him on-screen. And the soundtrack and Gabriel Yared’s score are wonderful. All of these come together for a decent film. City of Angels was ludicrously rated ‘R’ for a love scene that can only be described as graphic only in its depiction of extreme passion, a beautiful thing for those teens who are just beginning to experience romantic love to witness.

11. Lethal Weapon 4

There are enough flaws to make this the worst film of the Lethal Weapon series – but it’s still an enjoyable entry. It’s partially about a couple of ‘80s action heroes living in a politically-correct world and dealing with being “too old for this shit,” which I find interesting. The references to the first and third entries and some bad-ass fighting by Jet Li help keep the fun coming. Newcomer Chris Rock has a couple good moments, as does the rest of the cast, but it is Mel Gibson – even after the personal scandals of recent years – who really entertains here.

10. Out of Sight

I wasn’t a big fan of this film when I first saw it many years ago. Seeing it now, I like it much more. George Clooney plays a cool-as-a-cucumber thief who is captivated by a federal marshal (Jennifer Lopez) that he kidnapped during a prison break. This is easily J. Lo’s best performance, simply because she somehow conjures up with Clooney some of the most electrifying chemistry I’ve seen on-screen in a long time; their dialogue together is crackling! The supporting cast is amazing: Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Michael Keaton, Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, and Steve Zahn. Not only that, but Out of Sight was directed by Steven Soderbergh of the Oceans films and Erin Brockovich, among others. I don’t love it, but it is a pretty fun film.

9. Playing By Heart

Once the object of Remember That Movie’s attention last year, this lesser-known interrelated-character romance isn’t first-rate, but does feature some great performances, especially by Angelina Jolie. I caught the film on cable a few years after its release and have been unable to forget it since. It aims to present the challenges of maintaining and rekindling loving relationships and the importance of occasionally letting your heart be your guide. The film falls short of knocking it out of the park, but still can provide a nice night in with a loved one.

8. Shakespeare in Love

This film won the Best Picture Oscar for the year. It probably shouldn’t have (see #4 for the deserving nominee). But it did deserve a nomination, as it was certainly one of the best films of 1998. Shakespeare in Love is incredibly well-acted, written, and visually detailed for what is essentially a rom-com about a struggling playwright who falls for one of the actors in his play. That playwright just so happens to be one William Shakespeare. Fans and scholars of The Bard’s work will enjoy the many references sprinkled throughout to other plays and Shakespeare history.

7. The Mask of Zorro

Now we’re getting to my absolute favorites! This summer blockbuster starring Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, directed by one of the top action directors, Martin Campbell (GoldenEye), is the year’s best action film. It’s exciting, briskly-paced, funny, and features great chemistry by leads Banderas and Hopkins. What’s even better: The Mask of Zorro still holds up. No cheesy dialogue or over-the-top villainy here. It’s a solid good time.

6. The Truman Show

Having not thought much of it initially, I haven’t seen The Truman Show in years. Now, I love it. This is a film where we learn to distrust the camera; whereas we can usually trust the camera to tell the hero’s story (either objectively or from his perspective), here the camera must be eluded by our hero; it is the central conflict. The Truman Show is also one of two films in 1998 about characters whose lives are fabrications (see #2 for the other) and tackles such themes as what makes us who we are, whether or not one is better off sheltered from the realities of the world, and the ever-growing pervasiveness of the media and technology. Aside from lacking any dated special effects and featuring an excellent cast who give great performances, The Truman Show really stands out for pre-dating the reality TV culture and somewhat predicting the pervasive extent media has reached in our lives. Director Peter Weir rarely stumbles and The Truman Show is one of his best.

5. Life is Beautiful

How could I forget the must-see foreign film of 1998? Well, I almost did. This is an ingenious fable that is one-half enchanting romance, one-half Holocaust survival tale, and 100% moving. If you aren’t moved by this film than cynicism has turned your heart to stone. It is the year’s most beautiful film.

4. Saving Private Ryan

This may be my favorite war film. Tom Hanks leads an army of great actors in this story based on the premise that the last living son of any American family will be retrieved from battle and returned home by the United States military. It doesn’t romanticize or sensationalize. It simply aims to be truthful about the soldier’s experience. As I left the theater when I saw this film nearly 13 years ago, I saw, near the back of the theater, a group of veterans still seated during the credits, crying together. This film is powerful. To see why, one needs only to look at scenes like the opening 20 minutes or the scene where Matt Damon recounts to Hanks a memory he has of his brothers. Saving Private Ryan is without a doubt the best film of 1998.

3. There’s Something About Mary

My favorite comedy of 1998 is one of the best by all involved. What’s great about Mary is not its outrageous sex jokes, it’s how the film handles its characters with sympathy while these outrageous things happen to or around them. For example, the prom night sequence is great because it takes a potentially magical night, and then turns it into a bad situation, made as humiliating as possible, without once being cheap about it. We laugh and squirm out of empathy, not apathy. Also, the film speaks well to both how we can put the unattainable nice girl on a pedestal and fail to realize she’s as imperfect as we are and how when our one shot with that person is blown, it stays with us forever. There’s much more than hair gel jokes here and I love it for that.

2. Dark City

Dark City is 1998’s best sci-fi film. It’s also the year’s best mystery film. A man wakes up in a bathtub with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing there. His quest to find answers is the driving force of the film. As it goes on and we’re introduced to more characters, we run across more pieces to one of the most satisfying and mesmerizing puzzles ever put to film. As a sci-fi film, Dark City tackles from every angle the question of what makes us who we are. Is it our names? Jobs? Memories? Impulses? Fingerprints? Not only that, but the chase scenes are well-paced and the visuals still look very good. Dark City is a film clearly influenced by film noir and such sci-fi classics as Blade Runner; it is good enough to be considered their equal.

1. Pleasantville

The set-up may not be solid, but the rest makes the year’s most underappreciated film one of the best. Not only is Pleasantville a technological marvel with its seamless blend of black & whites with colors (which is still a pleasant sight), but it features some breathtaking cinematography by John Lindley (Field of Dreams). More importantly, it has a great cast (unfortunately the final film featuring character actor J.T. Walsh, who died that year) and a story that will touch and move you, with support from a beautiful score by Randy Newman (the Toy Story trilogy). It remains my favorite film of 1998.

That's it for the year 1998.  As you can see, there were a lot of good love stories that year.  What are some of your favorites?  Vote on the poll to the right or leave a comment below or on Facebook.  You can always email your thoughts at 
Next time on Film Faves, an international man of mystery makes contact with a wedding singer's titanic private parts while chasing Amy Mononoke through L.A.'s confidential boogie nights.  Yeah, baby!  It's 1997!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Remember That Movie: Dances with Wolves

Nearly twenty-one years ago, Kevin Costner, then star of such films as The Untouchables and Field of Dreams, delivered his directorial debut, a sprawling epic western called Dances with Wolves. It was the movie event of 1990, garnering rave reviews, awards, and seemingly legitimizing Costner as both one of the great actors of the day and the most exciting new filmmakers.

How well has the film aged over the years?

In case you don’t remember, Dances with Wolves is the fictional story of Lt. John Dunbar (Costner), a Civil War Yankee soldier who, after a melodramatic incident of personal endangerment, is exiled to a post in the western frontier. The threat of attack by the natives, who are rumored to be brutal savages, looms over Dunbar and his solitude. He eventually meets members of the Sioux tribe and learns all the hullabaloo was for nothing; the Sioux are actually a peaceful, family-loving sort. The bridge between the two cultures is found in Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was found and raised from a young age by the Sioux tribe. She begins to open up and fall for the affable white soldier. A friendship is soon formed between the tribe and the lieutenant and Dunbar finds himself torn between loyalties.

Costner worked on this film – based on a novel that originated as a spec script that no one would buy – for five years, with principal photography taking up only four months of that time. To this day, Dances with Wolves remains an incredible achievement by an unproven director.

For example, there is a hunting sequence featuring hundreds of real live buffalo that was handled so masterfully it was enough to earn my respect for the film. Not a single buffalo was added later by computer – only a handful were animatronic or otherwise artificial. These days, rather than dealing with the challenge of directing hundreds of live animals, a director would just add them all in digitally. Costner spent three weeks filming that scene. As a result, this film not only captures the end of an era, a period of history when the American frontier was at the tipping point of change, but it was created near the end of a period in film history when the role of a director required much skill and command and less reliance on the click of a mouse.

Dances with Wolves is amazingly directed with great performances by Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, and Costner himself – all of whom were nominated for Academy Awards (more on them soon). But it does start out dangerously close to having a sense of self-importance as we see Costner reach for something very early on that’s not yet earned and proceeds to linger during the following twenty minutes on details that aren’t as necessary as those of the rest of the film.

Also, while Costner successfully avoids maudlin self-importance on the whole, he does lay the Evil White Man thing a bit thick during the last third of the film, which soils his message of good and evil existing among all races.

Once you get past the first half hour, though, this film really takes hold.

Dances with Wolves is mostly remembered as a sincere western epic – and it is that, for sure – but nobody remembers how incredibly funny it can be. I wouldn’t ever label this film a comedy, but there is a lot of levity, keeping the audience from feeling weighed down for three hours. Most of this humor comes from the language barrier between Dunbar and the Sioux tribesmen.

Graham Greene, who plays a curious holy man, offers quite a bit of levity through his physical reactions to Costner, as when Greene stumbles wide-eyed through a fence and runs from Costner who suddenly approaches him in the buff (it plays less like homophobia and more like intimidation). Greene is great here, balancing humor, curiosity, wisdom, and imperfection. He was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but lost to Joe Pesci’s performance in Goodfellas. Greene would later lampoon his character Kicking Bird in Maverick with Mel Gibson.

Mary McDonnell, who we’ve seen too infrequently since, was 38 when she portrayed Stands with a Fist. She gives a powerful performance as a woman who’s lived with the natives too long to remember how to speak English well. McDonnell’s manner of speaking English, sometimes in forced phonetics, is consistent and adds to the film’s credibility. She earned a Best Supporting Actress nod, but lost out that year to Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost.

Costner reminds us that he was once a good actor with Dances with Wolves, however it is his direction that is where he truly impresses. That said, while he would win for Best Director, Costner oddly lost the acting trophy to Jeremy Irons for a largely-forgotten film called Reversal of Fortune.

Kevin Costner went on to direct Waterworld, The Postman, and Open Range. None were as successful, either critically or commercially, as Dances with Wolves. It was the fourth top-grossing film of 1990 (behind Ghost, Home Alone, and Pretty Woman), raking in $424 million – more than $400 million above its budget. It also won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Score (composed by John Barry of the 007 theme, who died a couple weeks ago). In 1998, the American Film Institute also named it the 75th Greatest American Film. Dances with Wolves is reputed to be the film that revived the western film genre, allowing for movies like Unforgiven and Tombstone to follow.

Kevin Costner’s directorial debut may not be flawless, but it is an incredibly impressive triumph that is not only technically awe-inspiring and brought out great performances by its cast, but is a magnificent story of tolerance (reach out and trust others, especially those we don’t understand) and historical change. I encourage movie fans to not be put off by the film’s length and make the time to revisit this modern classic.


Should you see it? Rent

Dances with Wolves is available on 20th Anniversary Edition DVD and Blu-ray.

Monsters: Big Ambition, Little Reward

Imagine beings from space crash landed on Earth a few years ago and instead of immediately trying to blow them away, we decided to quarantine them to a certain portion of the country they happened to land on – any strays would be shot on site. Imagine if those beings were as big as skyscrapers and destroyed everything in their path. Now, imagine that country was Mexico and you had to make your way through the “infected” region in order to get back home.

This is the basic premise of Monsters, an indie sci-fi film by Gareth Edwards that is now on DVD. We are quickly introduced to Samantha (Whitney Able) and Andrew (Scoot McNairy). Andrew is a photojournalist who works for Sam’s father. He was sent on an errand to check on Sam. He soon finds himself having to escort Sam through the infected region, which is a real bummer because there’s just so much post-creature chaos in southern Mexico that he wishes he could photograph. He resents the position he’s put in, which makes him kind of a dick. Sam mostly resists him because he is a dick.

A film like Monsters, which ambitiously attempts to show a big-budget monster movie can be done with only a few hundred thousand dollars, requires two things: 1) really impressive special effects and 2) really great characters whose survival we care about.

Edwards, who directed and collaborated with the stars to hammer out most of the script while shooting on location, gets the first one right, considering his financial limitations. Monsters is impressively shot with stunning moments where the camera pans around the destruction of huge buildings, trains, houses, etc. None of it looks nearly as fake as you’d expect it to – especially the creatures themselves, who we get to see every once in a long while throughout the film. These giant octopus-like beings look more realistic than those of some more expensive films. I wish I saw more scenes with them.

Alas, Monsters is not really about the creatures. It’s about the lead characters and their journey through the heart of the international situation. The problem is we need to care about the characters in order to care whether or not they survive their journey – or even fall for each other, for that matter. We don’t. Andrew is a jerk (I did wish a giant tentacle came down on him quite early on in the film); and Sam is an empty vessel, a character without character, yet somehow remains more likeable than her companion. It wouldn’t spoil anything to say they fall for each other, because you suspect that’s where the film is heading pretty early on. But you don’t understand why; it just isn’t convincing.

It doesn’t help that the acting and dialogue isn’t too great either. Andrew’s attempt at charming persuasion comes off in McNairy’s hands as an awkward creepiness, which is weird considering the actors were already in a real-life relationship while shooting the film (they later married). The occurrence of poor dialogue is too frequent, yet too forgettable to recount.

That’s the thing about Monsters: you won’t really find a single scene between the characters that was memorable. But you will remember the long-shots of devastation and the two most significant creature scenes. Those two scenes, no longer than five minutes each, are infinitely more interesting than the entirety of the two leads’ screen time.  This is a shame, because Monsters does want to say something as an allegory to the U.S. immigration issue.  But too little works for us to care.

I felt Monsters was less a feature film for public consumption than a calling card for the director to use when trying to land his next gig. As an example of what Gareth Edwards can do with very little, Monsters really shines. Next time, however, he should hire someone else to do the writing.


Should you see it? Skip

Monsters is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Catfish: A Whale of a Facebook Tale

This month there has been a lot of talk about a certain film that details the creation of Facebook. There is another ‘Facebook film’, one that intends to inspire discussion about Facebook's users. I don’t feel many people outside film and critics circles are aware of this film, so I thought I’d take the opportunity of having recently seen it on DVD to spread the awareness to you.

Catfish, the documentary about a man’s online relationship with a family via Facebook, is difficult to talk about with anyone who hasn’t seen it. The film requires you to experience its events the first time along with the main character in order to enjoy it as fully as possible. If you go in fresh then Catfish will reward you with its roller-coaster experience. The only way that can happen is if you know next to nothing specific about the film.

This review will be purposely as vague as possible so as to avoid even hinting at anything that will rob you of the experience.

The basic story follows Ariel, a filmmaker-for-hire who seems to mostly shoot dance performances and the goings-on of those around him. He begins documenting the evolution of an online friendship his brother Nev (pronounced Neev) is forming. Nev is a professional photographer, also of dancers, who is contacted via Facebook by a little girl named Abby who seems to be a talented painter. Nev exchanges emails and art work with Abby; he sends her a photo he took, she paints that photo and sometimes sends it to Nev. After a couple months, Abby’s family and friends begin ‘friending’ Nev on Facebook, including Abby’s half-sister Megan, a gorgeous young woman who seems to be talented in all the arts Abby isn’t – she sings, plays guitar, and dances. Nev begins to get more intimate with Megan via phone conversations, text messages, and emails.

And then things get, well… fishy.

It would be a huge disservice to say any more about what happens. I managed to spare myself any details of this film before I saw it and I’m glad I did, because doing so made it possible for me to not know what to expect, only that things weren’t what they seemed. I was also able to connect more with Nev’s experience, as a result – the emotional highs, left turns, uncomfortable moments, and the crashing realities.

If Nev isn’t going to find what he expects as he begins to dig deeper into the situation he’s found himself in, what will he find?

The answer to that question is so crucial to what the film is about thematically and literally, it is best to be ignorant of it until it is revealed to Nev and his fellow filmmakers – and, in turn, revealed to you. Your jaw will drop to the floor as things are revealed to you clear to the very end. Catfish is the most shocking film of 2010 – but not for reasons you might expect.

Catfish drew some attention after its debut a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival when many journalists and critics questioned the authenticity of the film’s events. Is it real? Did this really happen or was it part of some shrewd orchestration by a filmmaker looking to make a big impression in the film world? I believe without a doubt it is real. But it doesn’t really matter either way - Catfish is a compelling story that brings up several questions to ponder regarding the internet.

Is Catfish a great film? No. There are some questions the film fails to address. And the subject matter is one that I suspect will date the film in a decade or so. But it is a story so compellingly told that it can’t not be seen while it is still relevant. It takes a certain kind of person to go through an experience like Nev’s and for everyone involved to come out of it the way they do. That journey and the way these people respond to what they uncover is a fascinating watch. Furthermore, Catfish encourages a discussion that will be relevant long after Facebook signs out of our lives.


Should you see it? Rent

Catfish is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Oscar Picks 2011

It’s nearly that time again. The Academy Awards are upon us, which means it’s time for me to post my picks for some of the awards that were announced last week. I’ve seen nearly all of this year’s nominees for Best Picture – The Fighter being the only exception (an improvement on last year’s four missed films).

Before I continue, I thought I’d point out that those who follow me on Facebook know that I made predictions for the Oscars way back in October. Those predictions can still be found in my Notes tab. While I certainly learned not to make predictions so early, I have to say I wasn’t too far off. I only got two of the ten Best Picture nominees wrong (I made a last-second decision to swap out The King’s Speech for Fair Game). For Best Actor, I couldn’t foresee Javier Bardem getting nominated even two weeks ago and Mark Ruffalo was nominated in a supporting role instead of lead, which makes sense in hindsight. Basically, I expected too much from Fair Game and The Town and was way off on the animated and foreign film categories. Check it out and compare by clicking on the Facebook badge on the right.

Here are my first (and sometimes 2nd) choices for who will take home this year’s Oscars:

Original Score:

o How to Train Your Dragon
o The King’s Speech
o 127 Hours
The Social Network

I usually don’t pay this award much attention, but this year’s nominees are an impressive bunch, with the exception of the score to The King’s Speech, which I have to admit I didn’t find to be all that memorable or strong. A. R. Rahman knocked out another solid score that perfectly compliments Danny Boyle’s direction in 127 Hours and How to Train Your Dragon is one of the most solid scores I’ve heard in a long time. But I’m betting none of those will match the iconic thundering brass of Inception or the minimalist techno of Trent Reznor’s score to The Social Network, which won the Golden Globe for this category.

Best Animated Film:

o How to Train Your Dragon
o The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

I have not seen The Illusionist, but I do know it is by the makers of 2004’s superb Triplets of Belleville, so I have no doubt The Illusionist is very deserving of its nomination – probably more so than Despicable Me or Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. That said, while How to Train Your Dragon is a wonderful spectacle with a very touching relationship at its core, it is no match for Toy Story 3, a film so exceptionally realized that I’ve heard several different interpretations of what could be going on under the surface. Since Pixar, with good reason, has won this award for most of its history, Toy Story 3 is a safe bet.

Best Original Screenplay:

o Another Year by Mike Leigh
o The Fighter by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson
Inception by Christopher Nolan
o The Kids Are All Right by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
o The King’s Speech by David Seidler

I’ve only seen three of the five nominees (Another Year and The Fighter were missed). Of those three, I have to say the script wasn’t the most exceptional aspect of The Kids Are All Right and The King’s Speech has a strong, if conventional, screenplay. But Nolan’s ability to write a complex story without letting it get too incoherent or condescending for the audience is the biggest achievement here.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

o 127 Hours by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
X The Social Network by Aaron Sorkin
o Toy Story 3 by Michael Arndt
o True Grit by the Coen Bros.
o Winter’s Bone by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini

I have not read the source material for any of these films, but I have no idea how Toy Story 3 qualifies here. Regardless, all nominees feature excellent writing, but none more so than Sorkin’s 162-page script, which was performed in two hours, yet managed to be clever and crafty enough to be much more than a story about choosing ambition over friends.

Best Supporting Actress:

o Amy Adams (The Fighter)
o Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech)
o Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
X Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
o Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom)

I have yet to see The Fighter and the Animal Kingdom DVD is waiting near my TV for me to watch, so I’m not as informed here as in other categories. But Hailee Steinfeld was robbed of a Best Actress nod for the purpose of political maneuvering. She would deserve it, since her Mattie Ross is among the best characters of 2010. However, Melissa Leo won the Golden Globe in this category for her performance as the manipulative mother/manager in The Fighter. The Academy may also prefer her.

Best Supporting Actor:

o Christian Bale (The Fighter)
o John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)
o Jeremy Renner (The Town)
X Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech)
o Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right)

This is a rather solid line-up with scarcely a dark horse to be seen. John Hawkes received a heap of praise from critics for his turn as an intimidating, yet loyal, uncle. Jeremy Renner received notice upon The Town’s release (a film unfortunately squeezed out of most major awards). He may have to wait a while before he can add another golden man to his mantle. I loved Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right and find him to be underappreciated this awards season. I’d like him to be handed the award having given us an interestingly dichotomous character. But the most likely winner - unless Golden Globe winner Christian Bale takes it from him - is Geoffrey Rush. His performance exemplified the very definition of the term ‘supporting actor.’ The King’s Speech wouldn’t be as good as it is without Colin Firth, but it’d be nothing without Geoffrey Rush, who was also the first to commit to the film.

Best Actress:

o Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
o Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
o Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)
X Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
o Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

Having seen each performance except Nicole Kidman’s in Rabbit Hole, I can say again that this is another solid line-up by the Academy. My only nit-pick is Annette Bening was anything but the lead in The Kids Are All Right, a comedy-drama with an outstanding ensemble cast. She should have Hailee Steinfeld’s Supporting Actress nod – and vice versa – since Steinfeld was in every scene of True Grit. Now that I’ve got that aside, I will say that Jennifer Lawrence gave a star-making performance in Winter’s Bone, but the attention and open doors her career has received may be all the reward she’ll get. Michelle Williams continues to prove that something incredible can come from a primetime teen soap (in her case, Dawson’s Creek) with her remarkable performance in Blue Valentine. But will it be enough to beat out the more mainstream Portman, who was already awarded by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association? It’s a strong possibility, as is Bening’s win, but I doubt it.

Best Actor:

o Javier Bardem (Biutiful)
o Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
X Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
o Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)
o James Franco (127 Hours)

I’ve gotta point out two things about this category. First, after all the attention Mark Whalberg received for The Fighter, it was a bit of a surprise to me that Javier Bardem, whose performance in a mixed-reviewed film I’ve heard next to no buzz about, knocked him out of the ring for this honor. Regardless, I don’t think either would’ve won. Secondly, like Annette Bening, Jeff Bridges should’ve been nominated for a supporting award and is only placed here for political maneuvering. Most of the attention for the lead actor awards during this season has been on Colin Firth, who gave a great performance in The King’s Speech – and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he wins this year since he lost last year to Jeff Bridges. However, the actor who gave the best performance – even better than Firth – this year was Jesse Eisenberg. I can’t fault Firth’s performance; it just comes to a matter of which role demanded the most. Eisenberg bravely portrayed a version of a living figure – and that version was complex and very challenging. The result was a man whose character and intentions have been interpreted in different ways and debated by many people. Eisenberg, a man who previously taught us to limber up before encountering zombies, gave us the most surprising performance of the year and perhaps the most intriguing character, too.

Best Director:

o Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
o David O. Russell (The Fighter)
o Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech)
X David Fincher (The Social Network)
o Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit)

Here’s a list full of modern legends and distinct voices on the rise. Word has it that Russell has directed his best film yet, but his work probably won’t beat this year’s competition. Tom Hooper is an essential part of a film that has a huge Oscar campaign currently in full force. Aronofsky and the Coens are very distinct storytellers who almost always bring out incredible performances from their actors. The same can easily be said about Fincher, a man who is known for tasking his cast with dozens of takes for each scene. In this case, Fincher made the better film and deserves the continued accolade – which leads me to…

Best Picture:

o 127 Hours
o Black Swan
o The Fighter
o Inception
o The Kids Are All Right
o The King’s Speech
X The Social Network
o Toy Story 3
o True Grit
o Winter’s Bone

Unlike last year’s roster, which included such far-fetched nominees as The Blind Side and District 9, every film this year deserves and was expected to receive its nod. However, it still comes down to a shorter list of likely contenders. This year’s “mainstream crowd-pleaser vs. important film” battle seems to be between The King’s Speech and The Social Network. The King’s Speech has a strong campaign in support of its win and it recently won the Best Picture award from the Producers Guild, an honor that often serves as an indication of which film will win the Oscar. The King’s Speech is most certainly one of the year’s best films. But The Social Network is the year’s greatest film. I’ve already heaped my own praise on this film, even giving it my first and (so far) only 10/10 rating. Where The King’s Speech is an inspirational biopic, The Social Network is so much more. Its loss to the former would be comparable to the Crash / Brokeback Mountain upset of 2006, the differences being neither of this year’s films have to do with racism or homosexuality and The King’s Speech is actually a great film. It’s just not the better film.

Now here’s some interesting stats about this year’s nominees.

This year there are no less than ten (10) first-time nominees: Darren Aronofsky (shockingly), Christian Bale (also shocking), Jesse Eisenberg, James Franco, John Hawkes, Tom Hooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Mark Ruffalo, David O. Russell, Hailee Steinfeld, and Jacki Weaver.

There are nine (9) nominees who’ve been nominated before, but yet to win: Amy Adams, Annette Bening, Helena Bonham Carter, David Fincher, Colin Firth, Melissa Leo, Natalie Portman, Jeremy Renner, and Michelle Williams.

The Coen Brothers are the only nominees who’ve earned more than one Oscar in their career. How many? Four. They’ve also been nominated six additional times since 1996.

By my count The King's Speech will walk away with 1 out of 7 awards it's nominated for, True Grit will take 1 out of 5, Black Swan and Toy Story 3 will both walk away with 1 out of 3 awards, Inception may take 2 out of 3 awards, and The Social Network will take the cake with up to 5 out of 5 awards.  Bear in mind there are six other awards I did not cover that these films are nominated for.

My reviews of 127 Hours, Blue Valentine, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, The Town, Toy Story 3, True Grit, and Winter’s Bone are still available if you want more of my thoughts on those films.

The Academy Awards will be hosted by James Franco and Anne Hathaway on Sunday, February 27, 2011.