Saturday, March 6, 2010

Movie Reviews: Oscar Nominees

As reported yesterday, I played some catch-up since the Oscar nominations were announced last month. Here are my mini reviews of six films that completed my goal to see all 10 best picture nominations, all 10 nominated screenplays and all 20 nominated performances before the big night.


The highest-grossing film of all-time also tied for the most Oscar nominations this year (nine; along with The Hurt Locker) -- including best picture. Nominated again for best director, James Cameron (Titanic) has brought the cinema to an entirely different level by transporting us to the beautifully-lush planet of Pandora in the year 2154. Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic war veteran who is brought to the planet inhabited by the Na'vi, a humanoid race with their own language and culture. The film's title refers to the genetically engineered Na'vi bodies used by Jake and several other humans to interact with the natives of Pandora.

Jake soon learns that a greedy businessman has joined forces with the military to use the avatar system to help drive the natives out of their homeland -- in order to mine a valuable mineral. But Jake falls in love with Neytiri -- a Na'vi (excellently played by Zoe Saldana) -- and her culture and homeland. What results is an epic battle to save the planet.

Visually, the film is a sci-fi masterpiece -- especially in 3D -- and earns all its technical Oscar nominations. And don't get hung up on all the thinking that there's not much of a story here -- or that the plot steals from others (including Pocahantas). There's more than enough originality in the story -- and plenty to keep you captivated from beginning to end. Also stars Giovanni Ribisi, Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez (TV's Lost). [Rated PG-13, in theaters now]

Grade: A-

The Blind Side

This family film tells the story of Big Mike, a homeless African-American teen from a broken home, taken in by a well-to-do Southern white family who help him fulfill his potential. At the same time, Big Mike's presence in the family's lives leads them to some insightful self-discoveries of their own. Based on the true story of the NFL's Michael Oher, some may find the film a bit too schmaltzy. But although the tear-jerking feels forced at times, there's nothing wrong with being a feel-good movie with a great message. Sandra Bullock (The Proposal) is terrific in her Oscar-nominated role as Big Mike's tough surrogate mother with a heart of gold. Also Oscar-nominated for best picture, the sports drama stars Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates, Quinton Aaron and Jae Head. Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Alamo). [Rated PG-13; in theaters now; on DVD March 23]

Grade: B+

An Education

Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan (Brothers) is a revelation as a teenager living outside London in the early 1960s. Although her parents' have set the path for her to work hard in her studies to get accepted to Oxford, everything changes when she is romanced by a mysterious older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Soon blinded by love, she gets mixed up in some shady business that may sidetrack her education plans -- for good. The drama, also Oscar-nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay, does an incredible job at capturing the times. And it reminds us that the best education is often not learned in the classroom -- but in actually living life itself. From Danish director Lone Scherfig, the film also stars Emma Thompson and Alfred Molina -- who was wrongly overlooked for a nomination of his own. [Rated PG-13; in theaters now; on DVD March 30]

Grade: A-

In the Loop

This British political satire was the surprise entry in the Oscar race for best adapted screenplay. The film picks up as the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom are looking to launch a war in the Middle East. The plot follows government officials and advisers from both sides of the Atlantic in their behind-the-scenes efforts either to promote the war or prevent it. Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci, the film is a spinoff from his BBC TV series The Thick of It. And there-in lies some of the problem -- it plays like some chatty and full-of-itself TV drama. Although the cast is sharp -- and the writing is intelligent and witty -- the plot meanders, the camera and story jump around too much, and I was left dizzy and uninterested very early. Stars Tom Hollander, Mimi Kennedy, James Gandolfini (Where the Wild Things Are), Chris Addison, Peter Capaldi, a grown-up Anna Chlumsky (My Girl), Steve Coogan and David Rasche. [Rated R; on DVD now]

Grade: C+

Inglourious Basterds

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), in his familiar style of several chapters that evenutally overlap, the film has been nominated for eight Oscars -- including best picture and original screenplay. The drama opens in Nazi-occupied France, where a young Jewish refugee witnesses the murder of her family by an evil colonel (Christoph Waltz). Narrowly escaping with her life, she plots her revenge several years later when a German war hero takes an interest in her and arranges a premiere of a propaganda film at the theater she now runs. With the promise of every major Nazi officer in attendance -- including Hitler -- the event catches the attention of the "Basterds," a group of Jewish-American guerrilla soldiers led by a ruthless redneck lieutenant (Brad Pitt). As the relentless executioners advance and the conspiring young girl's plans are set in motion, their paths cross for a fateful evening that could shake the very annals of history.

Waltz is a lock for the best supporting actor Oscar category -- as he achieves the impossible -- pulling off being both charming and vile at the same time. And kudos go to Tarantino for creating a fictional film that is so well-done, you'll surely get caught up in the "what if" it only were true and history was re-written. My only complaint? On DVD, it's a bit difficult to read the subtitles that accompany the German, French and Italian-speaking sections. Also stars Diane Kruger and Mélanie Laurent. [Rated R; on DVD now]

Grade: A-


This film reunites director Clint Eastwood with his Million Dollar Baby co-star Morgan Freeman -- who plays Nelson Mandela. The drama is a look at the life of Mandela after the fall of apartheid in South Africa -- and during his term as president. Mandela campaigns to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup event as an opportunity to unite his divided county. The title comes from the fact that Mandela had the "Invictus" poem written on a scrap of paper on his prison cell while he was incarcerated. In the movie, Mandela gives the inspirational short poem (written by the English poet William Ernest Henley) to national rugby team's captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) before the start of the tournament (in reality, Mandela provided Pienaar with an extract from Theodore Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" speech).

Freeman does a sensational job capturing Mandela -- and earned yet another Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, Damon's supporting nomination is not as worthy -- and maybe he should have been nominated for his lead role in The Informant! instead. Ultimately, the film is a good history lesson -- but just a mildly-entertaining sports drama. [Rated PG-13; in theaters now]

Grade: B

The Last Station

This drama explores the turbulent final year in the life of the Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy and his troubled marriage. Helen Mirren (The Queen) and Christopher Plummer (Up) are both exceptional in their Oscar-nominated roles as the battling Tolstoys. James McAvoy (Atonement) and Paul Giamatti (Cold Souls) are also excellent in supporting roles as Tolstoy followers. But although we learn about Tolstoy's struggle to balance fame and wealth with his commitment to a life devoid of material things, we're left wanting more clarity on the history of his marriage. Written and directed by Michael Hoffman (A Midsummer Night's Dream). [Rated R; in theaters now]

Grade: B

  • A complete list of the 82nd Academy Award nominations can be found here.
  • Reviews for the other best picture nominations, nominated screenplays and films carrying nominated performance can be found by clicking the Film Reviews icon in the upper left sidebar.
  • There's also still time to vote in the Oscar poll at left.
  • Check back tomorrow morning for my predictions in the major categories.

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