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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.

Best films of 2009: Redux

Well, that’ll learn me not to make a yearly best list without seeing all the films out there. And thank you, Kathryn Bigelow, for that most useful little lesson.

Redoing these lists isn’t something I normally do (whether out of obstinance or laziness I don’t know), but Bigelow’s tense and amazing “The Hurt Locker” blasted its way into my heart and left behind an uneasiness that lingered for hours after viewing. In short, it demanded its rightful spot in my list … and with a film this outstanding, I’m more than happy to oblige.

(Oh, and “Hangover” — I’m sorry we had to break up, but … I found someone better.)

1. “Inglourious Basterds”

Never underestimate a Jew hunter (Christoph Waltz) who speaks softly and carries a HUGE pipe.

With most directors, it’s hard to know if they know when they’ve created a masterpiece. Not so with Quentin Tarantino, who concludes “Inglourious Basterds,” a gloriously loud, darkly comic and explosively complicated epic, with what seems like a statement of his genius. Really, though, can we blame him? “Inglourious Basterds” works as a brilliant piece of revisionist history, a kickin’ action flick, a layered character study (the most intriguing character being, of course, Christoph Waltz’s fabulously wily Col. Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa) and a technicolor work of art. Bravo, Mr. T. Bravo.

 

2. “The Hurt Locker”

Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie show the spoils (and horrors) of war in "The Hurt Locker."

Roger Ebert, in his review of “Up in the Air,” insisted it was “a movie for this time.” It’s an apt and accurate observation, indeed, and it also applies beautifully to Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping “The Hurt Locker,” which throws us right in the uncomfortable, bloody, unsentimental middle of the War on Terror. Relative nobody Jeremy Renner gives the performance of the year as SSG William James, a reckless adrenaline junkie willing to sacrifice everything — including the safety of his fellow soldiers — to get his next fix. That performance and Bigelow’s confident direction make “The Hurt Locker” not just a great war movie, but one of THE great war movies.

 

3. “Up in the Air”

Airports are home to George Clooney, who makes for a most touching aimless drifter in "Up in the Air."

To watch “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman’s gutsy and achingly beautiful third film, is to witness a director coming into his own — though “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” hardly felt like the work of a novice — at the precisely correct moment. With “Up in the Air,” Reitman shines an unwelcome light onto the harsh yet strangely hopeful world of corporate downsizing, unemployment and the speedily tanking economy. The never-better George Clooney becomes the face and voice of this world, a drifter who eventually learns what we all know: Any man who insists he’s got life all figured out is twice as clueless as the people he’s lecturing.

 

4. “Precious”

Gabourey Sidibe (left) and Mo'Nique deliver powerhouse performances in the gritty "Precious."

Films don’t get much rougher or rawly acted than Lee Daniels’ “Precious,” adapted from Sapphire’s best-selling novel “Push.” At times difficult to watch, “Precious” nonetheless introduces us to newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who is a revelation as the Bronx-born Precious. The teen, rendered practically mute by the horrors of her life, endures unspeakable emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her vicious mother (Mo’Nique, who most assuredly deserves a Best Supporting Actress nod). Sidibe — and Daniels — manage the impossible here: to find hope in a life where none, rightly, should exist.

 

5. “Up”

Dreams deferred, then recovered, come to vivid life in Disney-Pixar's touching "Up."

There’s something about youthful dreams that never, ever get old. Disney-Pixar’s “Up” takes this never-aging concept and runs with it in “Up,” a sweet, very funny and often heartbreaking look at an elderly man’s (voiced by Ed Asner) stubborn refusal to let go of his late wife’s dream to travel the wilds of South Africa. How he goes about achieving that decades-old goal boggles the mind in terms of bright, gorgeous animation. But visuals aside, what “Up” does so wonderfully well is tap into our secret hope that it’s never too late to try again for the heart’s strongest desire.

 

6. “(500) Days of Summer”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt memorably discovers that not every love is eternal in "(500) Days of Summer."

Try as we might, humans can’t force love — or, at the very least, our memories of it once it’s vanished — to follow a neat-and-tidy timeline. Neither will it conform to the molds we attempt to force it into. “(500) Days of Summer,” a painstakingly constructed yet fragmented tale of love lost, drives home these points through Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a 20something convinced a coworker (Zooey Deschanel) must be The One. He’s wrong, very wrong, we learn in the opening credits, and thus “(500) Days” becomes a different kind of love story — the painful kind, but the one most likely to stick with us once the credits roll.

 

7. “Star Trek”

Eric Bana adds "villainy" to his already-full resume in "Star Trek."

Summer blockbusters often get snubbed come Oscar time (remember what happened with “The Dark Knight”?) on the basis they lack any substance beyond the visual pyrotechnics and the glitter. Count “Star Trek” out of that lot, for this is the other kind of summer blockbuster — the one that has it all, from the visuals to the special effects to great acting (found everywhere, but especially in the performances of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Leonard Nimoy) and first-rate writing. “Star Trek” is a treat for the senses, all of them, and a much-needed shot of epi to the dying “Star Trek” franchise.

 

8. “Two Lovers”

Joaquin Phoenix plays a beautifully damaged shell in the superbly acted "Two Lovers."

James Gray, with “Two Lovers,” does something most extraordinary: make a movie about a romantic triangle that eschews melodrama and focuses instead on affecting character growth. At the center of this character study is Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), a shifty soul reeling from his fiancee’s departure who falls for two women: the beautiful but equally unstable Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the kind daughter-of-a-family-friend who senses Leonard’s troubled nature and wants to help him. The strong performances lead to a resolution that’s poetic, somehow unspeakably sad and not the least bit maudlin.

  

9. “The Informant!”

James Bond ain't got nothin' on whistleblower Mark Whitacre, a spy of his own creation, in "The Informant!"

A story about one of the world’s biggest (and strangest) tattletales, Mark Whitacre (wonderfully portrayed by Matt Damon), sounds intriguing enough. Then in marches Stephen Soderbergh to direct, and, well, it’s all over from that moment on. Soderbergh, with his trademark verve and style, transforms the story of Whitacre, who blew the whistle on ADM’s price fixing racket, from a corporate thriller to a jaunty but deeply sad venture into the mind of Whitacre, who concocted such an elaborate, crazy scheme even he couldn’t wrap his fragile little mind around it. Credit Damon, at his best, for taking a buffoon and turning him into an oddly sympathetic Everyman.

 

10. “Brothers”

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal anchor the subtle "Brothers" with strong performances.

“Brothers,” much like “The Departed,” offers solid proof that remakes should not be discounted out of hand. Based on a Danish film, Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” stands as a fine creation on its own, a penetrating look at the effect war — particularly in the realm of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — has on families. Tobey Maguire is sheer dynamite as Capt. Sam Cahill, who escapes an Afghani prison camp but comes home to his wife (Natalie Portman) and worried brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) a broken, dangerous man. “Brothers,” with its wrenching but never showy performances, makes us feel the knife edge of his desperation and the way it slices clean through his family harmony.

Honorable mentions: “The Brothers Bloom” for its first-rate cast (Ruffalo, Weisz, Brody); “Jennifer’s Body” for its clever dialogue, genius reversal of the teen-girl-as-hapless-victim sentiment informing most horror films and a career-making performance by Amanda Seyfried; and “Zombieland,” which glides in on sheer gross, witty fun.

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