The Oscar nominations are being announced tomorrow morning, and unlike most recent years, I’m not really jazzed about the frontrunners. I mean, I liked The Artist well enough, and I didn’t hate The Descendants, though that little brat of a teenage boy sure pulled me out of the story every five seconds. When a film has a character that is so obviously inserted into scenes just to let the filmmaker make a joke or a point, then I get annoyed. (For an excellent report on that movie’s limitations, check out Sarah Bunting’s write-up.)
Where was I? Oh, right. Frontrunners. I’ve also been up front about why The Help left me frustrated and Midnight in Paris made me wish Woody Allen hadn’t soured his sweet little films by indulging his desire to scorn Republicans.
There were, however, many films I enjoyed in 2011. To celebrate them, I’ve created a dream Oscar ballot for Best Picture and the acting categories. What’s on your fantasy list?
Standard warnings apply: I haven’t seen quite a few critically lauded films from 2011, but “A Separation” and “Margaret” will just have to wait.
What isn’t here?
The above-mentioned films, as well as War Horse. Because.. you guys? I can’t. I saw the play, I saw the movie, and I just can’t. I simply do not care about the magic horsey, and I think the boy who signs up for a war just to follow the horsey around has a mental disease. (It’s much more apparent in the play, by the way, that the kid goes traipsing off to the trenches to find his pony.) Slap on Spielberg’s sentimental hoo-hah about sons and fathers and I am out.
Dream nominees (in alphabetical order)
(1) Beginners — This is my favorite movie of 2011, for all these reasons and for the ongoing impact of Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer’s performances.
(2) Drive — Brutal and elegant and beautiful and scary, Drive was the best action movie I saw this year. Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan both do great work, and if Albert Brooks gets his expected Oscar nomination for playing a vicious gangster, he will absolutely deserve it. Between him and Plummer, this year’s Supporting Actor race should kick ass.
(3) Hanna — Oh my god, please see this movie. It’s a diseased fairy tale, a spy caper, and a blackly comic masterpiece. I’ve raved about it already, but let me reiterate: It makes the story of a child assassin feel archetypal, like a howl rising up from our shared cultural narrative.
(4) Higher Ground – Vera Farmiga directs and stars in this lovely, tough, and intelligent story about a woman wrestling with her conservative Christian church. It’s the rare movie that takes faith seriously—neither overselling nor mocking it—and by showing us both how deeply the characters want their religion and how desperately some of them need to escape it, it crawls right inside my heart.
(5) Hugo — Look! I loved a movie that will probably get a Best Picture nomination! And seriously, I did love this movie. Martin Scorsese directs with such obvious passion that I tumble into the story of a young French boy who secretly lives in a train station and ends up meeting one of the world’s great filmmakers. It’s an utter fantasy that’s grounded by a deep understanding not only of the magic of the movies, but also of the healing power of kindness. And there’s enough wry comedy to keep it from becoming mawkish.
(6) Martha Marcy May Marlene – Like the spiritual opposite of Higher Ground, this film drops us into the aftermath of a young woman’s escape from a cult. The slow revelation of what happened to her there, coupled with the sickening sensation that maybe she’s not out of the woods, pretzeled my stomach. I am still shuddering over the last scene.
(7) Moneyball – This is the other film on my list that stands a shot at a Best Picture nod, and I really hope it scores one. I enjoyed it even more, I think, because I don’t follow baseball, so I had no idea if Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was going to succeed with his crazy plan to change the rules of how players are scouted. That helped me get really wrapped up in the story, as did the spectacular script and acting. I’d put this alongside Bull Durham and The Natural on my list of favorite baseball films.
(8) The Tree of Life — It left me challenged, annoyed, unsure, and occasionally exhilarated. There were parts of this film that felt so painfully true I couldn’t watch them—the way the brothers respond to the “bb gun incident,” for instance—and others that just mystified me completely, like everything involving Sean Penn. But you know what? I’ve got to salute a film that dares to take me somewhere, even if I don’t always know where I’m going.
(9) Weekend — What a treat that there were two excellent, gay-themed films this year! (The other is Beginners, of course, and maybe Pariah is a third. I’m seeing it soon.) Weekend quietly, perfectly articulates the squirmy-nervous feeling of falling for someone, and it layers in some very real things about the gay male perspective on this experience. From the anxiety of making out in public (“will we get beaten up?”) to the carnal delight of that first bedroom encounter, it’s a refreshingly honest take on healthy love and sex between two men. For all the gay men you see on screen, you rarely see them behaving like adults with genitals and hearts that work just fine, so I’m doubly glad to discover these gents in an excellently made film.
(10) Young Adult — A surprising, defiant comedy that I’ve already praised at length. My respect for Charlize Theron’s performance and Diablo Cody’s script continues unabated.
Extremely honorable mention: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — Real talk: I think this movie is better than the Swedish original and Stieg Larsson’s novel. It jettisons the latter’s unnecessary subplots, and it replaces the chilly efficiency of the former with dark, erotic energy. Granted, I like the book and the first film, but this version is far and away my favorite.
Extremely honorable mention: Attack the Block — An alien movie with a sociological heart and a knack for thrills. SEEK IT OUT.
Who isn’t here?
Michael Fassbender. I just can’t.
Tom Cullen, Weekend
Ryan Gosling , Crazy, Stupid, Love –Even though he was great in Drive, Gosling’s really spectacular here, playing a womanizer who (whoops!) falls in love with Emma Stone. This entire movie rules, save for an unfortunate twist that implies it’s okay for teenage girls to give nude photos of themselves to 14 year-old boys. But whatever. The rest is great, and Gosling is the best part.
Ewan McGregor, Beginners
Brad Pitt, Moneyball –Don’t let pundits convince you that Pitt just showed up and acted like star in this film. There’s subtle, emotionally resonant work going on.
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter — I may have had issues with the movie, but not with Shannon’s performance, which moved and scared me in equal measure. His freak out at the pot luck dinner is enough to merit a nomination.
Who isn’t here?
Glenn Close. As Roommate Joe will tell you, nothing about Albert Nobbs is very impressive. Also, I can’t support Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn: All I saw was posturing and posing—a technically proficient performance with no heart.
Viola Davis, The Help – Being great in a mediocre film doesn’t make her any less great.
Saoirse Ronan, Hanna
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady — I am not immune, people. This move is a mess, but Meryl Streep creates yet another sterling, unforgettable character. She may very well win for this performance, which would be weird, since the movie’s not very good, but hey… I’ll consider it overdue compensation for Julie and Julia and The Devil Wears Prada.
Charlize Theron, Young Adult
Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids — Yes, ma’am. For me, the movie was a little flabby and weirdly paced, but Wiig killed it, turning her characters in a neurotic mess that I nevertheless rooted for.
Best Supporting Actor
Who’s not here? Jonah Hill in Moneyball and Kenneth Branagh in My Week With Marilyn. I quite liked both of their performances, but not quite enough to put them in my top 5.
Albert Brooks, Drive
Ben Kingsley, Hugo —The man brims with pain and love in his role as a forgotten cinema giant.
Chris New, Weekend
Christopher Plummer, Beginners — He’s an odds-on fave to win the Oscar. I’d vote for him.
Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes — I don’t think nominating a motion-captured performance would signal the end of humans performing on screen, particularly because its Serkis’ nuanced work—his work as a human actor—that makes his character so memorable. Caesar may be a monkey, but thanks to the man behind the electronic gadgets, he’s also an inspiring, sympathetic protagonist.
Best Supporting Actress
Who’s not here?
Octavia Spencer in The Help. To me, this performance is hammy in a way that makes Minnie just the kind of stereotype she wasn’t intended to be.
Jessica Barden, Hanna – As Hanna’s saucy Australian gal pal, Barden is a hilarious, breakout star.
Berenice Bejo, The Artist – Again, I liked this movie well enough, but I found Bejo’s turn as a rising starlet totally enchanting.
Cate Blanchett, Hanna – As I wrote for the New York Times magazine, I think Blanchett creates an iconic villain in this role.
Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter – As many have noted, homegirl was great in many films this year. I saw three of her six performances—in Take Shelter, The Help, and The Tree of Life—and this was my favorite. Her cautious support of her husband’s (possible) insanity is captivating.
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids — Months of endless praise have not diminished how funny she is in this movie.
… and a few more dream winners while we’re at it:
Director: Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Original Screenplay: Diablo Cody, Young Adult
Adapted Screenplay: Steven Zaillian, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo