Sure, the 83rd Academy Awards is a chance to see celebrities in formal wear, hear lame scripted banter between actors who don’t know each other very well and wonder how this year’s hosts will stand up to the gold standards of Billy Crystal or Bob Hope. But for film buffs, this is the night where high achievement in one of humankind’s most popular art forms is honored.
Sure, the 83rd Academy Awards is a chance to see celebrities in formal wear, hear lame scripted banter between actors who don’t know each other very well and wonder how this year’s hosts will stand up to the gold standards of Billy Crystal or Bob Hope.
But for film buffs, this is the night where high achievement in one of humankind’s most popular art forms is honored. There’s hardly a place on the planet where someone isn’t pointing a camera at actors in an effort to tell a relatable story people enjoy seeing unfold in a dark room.
Like last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has chosen to nominate 10 films for best picture. We’ll leave to others the debate over whether this waters down the Oscar or actually generates more interest in the awards, and get on with our annual look at the best picture nominees.
- “127 Hours”: In what’s almost a one-man show, James Franco plays Aron Ralston, the real-life guy who had to amputate his own right forearm when it got pinned — literally — between a rock and a hard place in a narrow canyon. Thanks to Aron’s memories and hallucinations, we get a story that’s more about how a lone wolf ended up as isolated as anyone’s ever been than about surviving against all odds. But, yes, I had to take my glasses off to get through the amputation scene.
- “Black Swan”: A fragile ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) slowly loses her mind when she lands the dual role of the White Swan and the Black Swan in “Swan Lake.” Portman’s great, and there are some bizarrely stunning scenes. But the story has every dance movie cliché (a dangerous rival, a creepy director looking for sexual favors, a wacko stage mom), and the jittery camera work made me nauseous.
- “The Fighter”: Boston boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) isn’t just battling his opponents in the ring — he has a drug-addict convict for a brother/trainer (a fantastic Christian Bale), a tough new girlfriend (a fantastic Amy Adams) and a large, overbearing family led by a matriarch (a fantastic Melissa Leo) who may be mismanaging Micky’s career. “The Fighter’s” individual performances are stronger than the overall film, but it’s a worthwhile best picture nominee.
- “Inception”: A visually stunning — and not as confusing as I’d been led to believe — story about a team (led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb) that uses dream-sharing to invade minds and extract (i.e., steal) information. The emotional center is Dom’s desire to return home even though police are interested in how his wife died, but let’s be honest: “Inception” is about watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt floating weightless in a hotel, or Ellen Page bending streetscapes in her mind.
- “The Kids are All Right”: The teen children of a lesbian couple track down the sperm donor their moms used to conceive them. In another film where the acting rose above the (too-talky) script, Mark Ruffalo (the donor) and Annette Bening (the more tightly wound of the moms) were fun to watch, and it’s clever how parents in an already unconventional family struggle to understand why their kids want to upset the apple cart. But neither the infidelity subplot with Julianne Moore’s character, nor the stab at forgiveness, seemed earned.
- “The King’s Speech”: Before World War II, England’s King George (Colin Firth, who should have his best actor acceptance speech memorized by now) struggles with stuttering until an unusual speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) offers a way to help. The idea seems so simple, but there’s a lot of drama in how a commoner became the trusted chum of royalty, and how much pressure there was on the king to rally his countrymen against Adolf Hitler.
- “The Social Network”: How did a film about the creation of a website, told mainly through boring court depositions involving a group of unlikable people, become a hit? It helps if you have a brisk script, a lead actor (Jesse Eisenberg) who makes a social misfit oddly sympathetic and the drama surrounding friendships that are destroyed over who gets to keep billions of dollars. And you thought Facebook brought people together.
- “Toy Story 3”: As a now-grown Andy prepares for college, Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang must escape from the daycare facility where they’ve been donated after a dictator-like stuffed bear essentially dooms the toys to certain destruction. Don’t let the animated film trappings fool you — this was an emotionally satisfying story about the pains of growing up and leaving childhood friends behind.
- “True Grit”: A young girl named Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) hires a drunken marshal (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s killer in dangerous territory. Was this remake of the 1969 John Wayne film necessary? For fans of the book, sure. For the rest of us, it was an entertaining ride, but not necessarily the best of 2010.
- “Winter’s Bone”: Jennifer Lawrence leads a cast of mostly unknown actors as an Ozarks teen named Ree trying to keep her family and home together while searching through a backwoods crime family for her meth-making father. Ree is just as determined as Steinfeld’s in “True Grit,” but she and many of the poor, hardscrabble characters surrounding her have a desperation that’s heartbreaking.
What should win:
My favorites were a film everyone saw (“Toy Story 3,” the top-grossing movie of 2010) and a film hardly anyone saw (“Winter’s Bone”). They had the most emotional resonance, took us believably into worlds most of us don’t live in, and the storytelling allowed the characters to complete their journeys.
What will win:
You could argue that no other storytelling medium besides film would have allowed “Inception” or “Black Swan” to exist, but the momentum has swung between two deserving nominees where the main characters have trouble communicating: “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network.” “The King’s Speech” is loaded with Oscar catnip — English actors, set in the distant past, overcoming a major challenge — and there are enough traditionalists in the Academy to crown “Speech” over “The Social Network.”
Contact Brien Murphy at 217-788-1515.
The 83rd Academy Awards
- 7 p.m. today
- Hosts: James Franco and Anne Hathaway