And the nominees are….

By now I’m sure you’re aware that Academy Award nominations were announced today.  If you’re as big a geek as I am, you’ll notice that the brain trust at the Academy decided to change the format this year.  In response to a sharp decline in viewers (a drop of nearly ten million viewers over the last decade), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to expand the field of nominations in the Best Picture category to ten.  Although the logic behind the move makes some sense, this move is ultimately silly.  For several years, the movies nominated in the best picture category were less than inspiring, if not inclusive (see Atonement, No Country for Old Men).  This led many to believe that viewership was down because very few had actually seen many of the movies that were nominated.  Expanding the category for Best Picture was a response to that issue.  My problem with the move is that it undercuts the spirit of the awards.  The Academy Awards are supposed to symbolize the pinnacle of achievement in motion picture.  As such, winning an Academy Award shouldn’t be something that is easily attained.  Logic would dictate that expanding the field of potential winners makes an Academy Award less exclusive.  Having said that, here are a few observations on some of the major categories:

Best Picture: Like last year’s nominees, there are some good but not great choices here.  I know I shouldn’t be, but I am a little surprised that The Blind Side was nominated here.  Setting that aside, I’m starting to get this sneaking feeling that Avatar will win best picture but who knows.  On a positive note, I’m glad to see the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man sneak in here along with District 9.  Interestingly, Bodog lists Up in the Air as laying the best odds.

Best Actress: Its probably time I gave the Blind Side a bit more due as it looks like Sandra Bullock is the odds-on favorite here.  I’m sure that the incomparable Meryl Streep will garner some consideration, but this appears to be Bullock’s to lose.

Best Actor: I think there are some great choices here.  I  really enjoyed Morgan Freeman’s performance in Invictus and I loved George Clooney in Up in the Air.  Still, Jeff Bridges (or the dude if you’re into the whole brevity thing) appears to be headed for his first Oscar.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Christoph Waltz for Inglorious Basterds; nuff said.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: I think this one could get interesting.  Mo’Nique comes in with some momentum stemming from her Golden Globes win for her role in Precious.  But I think Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) may give her a run for her money.  Personally, I thought Anna Kendrick was a shade better than Farmiga as the Yin to Clooney’s Yang.

Best Director: Again, I could see this going to James Cameron for Avatar.  For me its a tough call between Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), and Jason Reitman (Up in the Air).  I would love to see Bigelow become the first woman to ever win an Academy Award for best direction.  Reitman will have his day in the sun with his adapted screenplay nod.  Tarantino already has an Oscar for Pulp Fiction and is nominated this year for Best Original Screenplay.  Besides, Bigelow is a great director and she did an awesome job with The Hurt Locker.

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The Best Movies of the 2000s (5-13)

In the interest of brevity (and so I can move on to other topics!) I’m going to try to get through this a bit faster.  Here goes 5-13:

#13.  The Lives of Others [2006]: Winner of the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Lives of Others is a gripping drama about an agent of the East German secret police (Stasi) that is charged with monitoring the daily activities of a German playwright and his lover.  The film is set in 1984 at a time when East Germany was a socialist state occupied by the Soviets.  Considering the period in which the film is based, the undercurrent of communism and the fear that it brought, is quite prominent.  Yet the movie focuses more on the transformation of the agent, Captain Gerd Wiesler and how he becomes disillusioned with his role in the government.  As a lover of politics and history, I’m naturally a sucker for movies like this.  If you can appreciate how far that part of the world has come, then you’ll appreciate The Lives of Others.

#12.  Wedding Crashers [2005]: Of all the great comedies of the last decade, this is the one that holds up the best.  As its probably one of the most widely viewed movies of that same period, I’ll spare you on all the details.  If you haven’t seen this movie (first off shame on you), the film is about John (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) who play full-time mediators and seasonal wedding crashers.  Although it gets a bit long-winded towards the end (Will Ferrell cameo notwithstanding) it is one of the few movies that I will watch if its on t.v. regardless of how many times I’ve seen it.  Never before has crashing a party seemed like so much fun.  Vince Vaughn is at his absolute best – especially in the beginning of the movie as he goes on his diatribe about dating – and he and Wilson work brilliantly together.  Throw in a sprinkle of Christopher Walken and what you have is a surefire classic.

#11.  The Savages [2007]: This is probably the best movie you’ve never heard of.  In all honesty, I have a natural inclination to all movies staring Laura Linney so my grade may be a bit skewed but really, I don’t think so.  Linney and the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman play a brother and sister that are forced to set aside the awkwardness of their relationship in order to deal with their dying father.  The movie begins with the sister, Wendy (Linney) being given the news that their father has been tossed out of his retirement community digs.  As she is living under dubious circumstances herself she calls on the brother Jon (Hoffman) to help her with the father who is also suffering from dementia.  Both brother and sister have been estranged from their father.  As a result, what they’re being asked to do places a strain on both of their lives.  The reality of these familial relationships is powerful.  As their father basically ran out on them, both Wendy and Jon are saddled with the responsibility of financially and emotionally supporting a father that did neither for them.  This is a funny, quirky, awkward and sometimes difficult movie to watch but its very enjoyable, check it out.

#10.  Sideways [2004]: Alexander Payne’s quirky and sometimes painful “dramedy” was my favorite movie of 2004.  In addition to directing the movie, Payne won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay along with Jim Taylor.  The film stars Paul Giamatti (Miles) and Thomas Haden Church (Jack) as two old friends that decide to head up to the wine country of Santa Barbara for a bachelor party.  Although Miles and Jack appear to be close friends, their lives are clearly headed in opposite directions.  While Jack is a semi-successful actor soon to be married, Miles is a teacher and failed writer that has just went through a divorce.  Despite the fact that their get-together is supposed to be a bachelor party, Miles can’t seem to shake the fact that his life is in shambles.  Giamatti, no doubt a great actor, plays the role almost too well.  In fact,  there are a few scenes where his eternally dour disposition is unbearable to watch.  Fortunately, Church is there to be the yin to Giamatti’s yang., as Church pretty much owns every scene he’s in.

Aside from great performances by Church and Giamatti, Sideways is further aided by Virginia Madsen who plays Miles’ love interest in the movie.  Aside from an Oscar win for screenplay, Church and Madsen were nominated for supporting actor/actresses awards.

#9.  There Will Be Blood [2007]: I continue my top ten with Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliantly crafted drama about a duplicitous oil prospector.  Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil,” There Will Be Blood stars Daniel Day-Lewis in yet another powerful performance as the lead character Daniel.  Driven by the endless pursuit of building wealth, Daniel goes to great lengths to build his empire.  In his pursuit, he is forced to deal with Eli, an unscrupulous preacher who’s family sits atop a piece of valuable land.

Lewis is maniacal in his performance.  Naturally, he secures a second Academy Award for his performance here.  Anderson is in full command here, as the film is shot quite skillfully.  The tragedy of Anderson’s masterpiece is that it was somewhat overshadowed by the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, which was released in the same year.

#8.  The Departed [2006]: Amazing performances shape this great crime drama.  The film is a crime drama that centers around an Irish crime boss played by Jack Nicholson, his protege played by Matt Damon, and Leonardo DiCaprio who’s character sets out to infiltrate the crime family.  Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film is a remake of the 1992 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs.  Despite an accomplished career as a filmmaker, The Departed earned Scorsese his first Oscar award.  Its an expertly crafted tale of crime and suspense, and the acting is first-rate.  Aside from the three most prominent characters, the film is aided by strong performances from Marin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Vera Farmiga.

#7.  High Fidelity [2000]: For those of you that know me well, I’m sure you’ve heard me say once or twice that High Fidelity is one of my all-time favorite movies.  If you haven’t then there it is.  Which begs the question of why its not #1 on my list.  I guess my answer to that would be that I think a list of favorite movies is different from a list of great movies.  If they were, my all time favorites list would include movies like Real Genius and The Blues Brothers.  Having said all of that, High Fidelity is a great movie.  The story centers on John Cusack who plays Rob Gordon, a record store owner who falls on hard times when his main squeeze moves out.  Its your classic boy-loses girl-wants-girl-back John Cusack movie, except this time the story holds up much better and the complimentary parts are much stronger.  Most notably Jack Black who plays one of Cusack’s record store employees.  Black makes the movie and owns every scene in which he appears.  The soundtrack is great, its dynamic and the classic Stevie Wonder song “I Believe (When I Fall in Love it will Be Forever) plays over the closing credits, signifying the musical credibility of the film.  Throw in your random Lisa Bonet cameo and you have one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made.

#6.  4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days [2007]: Remember how I said that The Savages was the best movie you’ve never heard of?  Scratch that, this one is.  4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a film that is set during the late eighties during a period of communist rule in Romania.  The story follows  a female college student who becomes pregnant then decides to have an abortion.  As abortion was illegal in Romania at that time, she seeks help from her roommate in arranging an abortion through what turn out to be rather dubious means.  Needless to say, an unregulated, illegal market for abortions can no doubt lead to complications and these women face many.   The film is a foreign language film, so if you don’t mind the subtitles, I implore you to watch this powerful film.

#5.  Pan’s Labyrinth [2006]: Fresh off the success of Hellboy, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro returned with this haunting fairytale.  In some ways a modern day Alice in the Wonderland, the story centers on Ofelia, a young girl who meets a faun in a nearby labyrinth.  The faun (“Pan in Spanish) tells Ofelia that she must complete a series of tasks in order to bring peace to the soul of a fallen princess.  At first blush, the movie seems like a simple fairy tale but its much more complex than that.  There is a political subtext to the movie as its set in the wake of the Spanish civil war and the repressive regime that ruled.  Aside from an intriguing story, the movie is visually stunning, filled with vivid imagery, and at times its just downright scary (wait till you see the guy with no eyes).  If you’re willing to let your mind wander a bit, check out Pan’s Labyrinth.