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The Really Big Shew

It wasn't so much the Academy Awards as it was "Hurt Locker" Appreciation Night.

Methinks there ain’t much room left in that locker for hurtin’, Mrs. Bigelow, on account of all those shiny, shiny awards.

Fans of the film or no, readers, I believe we all can come to harmonious agreement that that was the unofficial sentiment of last night’s 82nd Academy Awards … and color me elated (which I do so hope is a peppier color than “stucco,” the current palor of M. Carter’s skin given the lack of sleep I got last night). Any movie that could play such strong defense and keep “Avatar” at bay — the film got the awards it deserved, says I — is OK with me, and in this case that movie happened to be Kathryn Bigelow’s flat-out fabulous and gritty “The Hurt Locker.” (That’ll teach me to doubt the Mighty Ebert and his Mighty Oscar Picks.)

The only thing that could have made me happier is if the War Flick That Went Boom didn’t have to trample “Inglourious Basterds” to go to the finish line. I’m not bitter, you understand, because “Hurt Locker” strong-armed its way to no. 2 on my Best 0f 2009 list, knocking “Up in the Air” down a peg. A really stellar film, the kind that sticks with you long after the credits roll.

It just didn’t have a scene with two men smoking really big pipes, or one where Hitler gets shredded like Parmesan by some machine-gun bullets, is all I’m saying. And as far as originality goes, aren’t those the kinds of scenes that deserve Best Original Screenplay, is all I’m asking.

(I’m not bitter, dammit.)

Alas, this isn’t a perfect world and I didn’t get all my hearts desires and Mr. QT didn’t get recognition for crazy-blazin’-mad-freakin’ genius and Ben Stiller came out in “Avatar” garb looking freakier than Chuckie in “Child’s Play” and we were subjected to an unholy union of “We Are the World 1,126” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” But for me, a few good things did happen, as I’ve highlighted below:

**************
Best Picture: “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker” (Girl power)
*Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart” (The Dude abides … and wins)
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side”
                            (Dear Academy: WTF? Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies)
*Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds” (Was there ever any doubt? If so, how can you read this because clearly you’ve spent the last decade living with wolves?)
                             Oh, and that überbingo comment? Just made me fall madly in love with you all over again. Let’s make  babies. Or dinner. I’d settle for dinner.
*Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique, “Precious” (That speech kicked ass and TOOK NAMES.)
Best Original Screenplay: Mark Boal, “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Adapted Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher, “Precious” (No love for “Up in the Air”? I suppose “Precious” is second most deserving.)
*Best Animated Feature: “Up” (Can you say “only viable choice”?)
Best Foreign Feature: “Secret in Their Eyes”
Best Documentary Feature: “The Cove”
*Best Cinematography: “Avatar” (Of course)
Best Editing: “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Art Direction: “Avatar” (Naturally)
Best Costume Design: “The Young Victoria”
*Best Make-Up: “Star Trek” (And you thought Eric Bana was scary in “Munich”)
Best Original Score: “Up”
*Best Original Song: “The Weary Kind,” “Crazy Heart” (One of the most haunting, achy ballads this Southern country music fan has heard in years — it’s real country y’all)
Best Sound Mixing: “The Hurt Locker”
Best Sound Effects Editing: “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Visual Effects: “Avatar” (Must I keep typing?)
Best Documentary Short: “Music by Prudence”
Best Animated Short: “Logorama”
Best Live Action Short: “The New Tenants”
**************

This year I accomplished a personal goal of having seen all but one Best Picture-nominated film, and you can bet I’m counting the days until “An Education” hits Netflix. This, I figure, will give me fodder for a whole ‘nother mess of rant-like anger. Like about how Carey Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe get passed over for Miss Congeniality.

Top 10 actors/actresses of 2009

How many blog comments, I wonder, have inspired whole posts?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but the ever-astute Encore Entertainment posed a difficult but interesting question: Who gave the best performances, the ones that would top my list of favorites for the year?

Now that’s a thinker … but one that only lasted about six minutes. Then in marched the answers, and I present them to you thusly:

The ladies

Mo'Nique's blistering turn in "Precious" deserves to be called the best of the year.

  1. Mo’Nique, “Precious”
  2. Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
  3. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
  4. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds” 
  5. Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
  6. Melanie Lynskey, “The Informant!” 
  7. Isabella Rossellini, “Two Lovers”
  8. Vinessa Shaw, “Two Lovers”
  9. Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart”
  10. Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

The fellows

Christoph Waltz creates the perfect villain in "Inglourious Basterds."

  1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
  2. Adam Sandler, “Funny People”
  3. George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
  4. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
  5. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
  6. Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”
  7. Paul Schneider, “Bright Star”
  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer”
  9. Mark Ruffalo, “The Brothers Bloom”
  10. Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”

Readers, which actors and actresses delivered the year’s best performances? Let’s hear your picks.

Gritty “Precious” offers uplift without melodrama

Newcomer Gabby Sidibe delivers a gritty, moving performance in "Precious."

Along the way, some well-meaning but patronizing soul probably told Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) that every day is a gift from God, but she has no reason to believe it. Raped by her father and abused and insulted by her vicious mother (Mo’Nique), the stoic Precious leads a life marked by unimaginable daily horrors. She has, at 16, learned to retreat far inside her own head because despair knows no bottom. 

So begins the unflinchingly realistic “Precious,” a film by new director Lee Daniels that contains not the slightest trace of sentimentality. There are no cloying motivational speeches ripped from Hallmark cards. No, “Precious” is a hard movie about hard people — some who choose to accept the misery of their circumstances and some who choose to struggle against them. Daniels means to show us that those who struggle have no guarantees, only hope. And hope can be misleading.

Yet for all the grit, “Precious” is an uplifting film, thanks in large part to a nuanced performance by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe. Sidibe, with her remote eyes, won’t let us shrink from Precious’ pain, though Precious herself has become a master of detachment. As a child she acquired a skill for leaving her body, floating above the beatings and the sexual abuse to a hazy fantasy world. Life, though, has a cruel way of yanking her back down into the dirty apartment she shares with her hateful mother Mary (Mo’Nique), who sees Precious as a live-in slave and bait to hook more welfare checks. Precious weathers the abuse silently, and she might continue to swallow more sadness than humanly possible if not for a suspension — related to her second pregnancy — that leads her to an alternative school. Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) pushes Precious to tell her story through her class journal and connects her with a plainspoken but sympathetic social worker (Mariah Carey). Slowly, with help from both women and from her Each One classmates, Precious begins to find the power in her own voice.

Not one word of all this summary, however, really captures the mix of grim reality and hopefulness that makes “Precious” such a strong film. Based on Sapphire’s novel “Push,” the movie is unrelenting in its examination of what life looks like at its bleakest. Screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher does not soften his script to protect us from seeing the worst parts of Precious’ existence. Neither does Daniels shy away; instead, he uses documentary-style footage to force us inside Precious’ hellish Harlem apartment. In this way, the director eliminates the protective barrier that separates us from the characters. We are stripped of our defenses just as Precious is stripped of hers; her world becomes our world. This technique is effective because it strips away Hollywood gloss, leaving nothing but an unpretty story. Funny, isn’t it, how the most compelling stories tend to be the ones that lack gimmicks?

This, in fact, is where Daniels succeeds the most: telling a compelling story without relying on cliches or melodrama. He lets the actors take the lead, which suggests a level of intuition rarely seen in new directors. Because of this, almost none of the film’s scenes feel contrived, particularly those that take place inside the Each One Teach One classroom. Precious’ classmates chatter and bicker in ways that feel completely natural, and Patton lets Ms. Rain seem just as overwhelmed but eager and open as her students. Carey, remarkably unglammed and subtle, plays a social worker who isn’t delusional enough to believe she can swoop in and rescue Precious. She offers no false hopes, and so her conversations with Precious seem grounded in reality.

Devastatingly real, too, are Mo’Nique and Sidibe, who convey how the same hardship shapes two people differently. Who could have expected this kind of raw, raging performance from Mo’Nique, who’s spent her career languishing in movies like “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins”? It’s the kind of left-field move that suggests she’s wildly underestimated her own talent. Sidibe matches her, though, not with explosiveness but with intensity. She deeply understands Precious’ pain, understands how she must suppress it until there’s time and space to express it. When those tears come, they feel like a hard-earned breakthrough. Simply put, Sidibe’s performance is a revelation. So is “Precious.”

Grade: A