Oscar Death Race: The Saga Continues

I’m ashamed to say I got a bit sidetracked in my Death Race screenings (what else is new?), but I’m planning to knock off a bunch more before Sunday night. Yes, this means I’m not going to watch Wolfman or Salt. I’ve only got five days left, and I won’t waste it on crap. Happily, this is a year where at least the major nominees are all quality films. Were there other, potentially better films made? Sure. But it’s nice to see a bunch of movies nominated that as a whole are all worth watching.

Here’s what I’ve knocked off in between Grey’s Anatomy marathons (I…have no excuse, really):

127 Hours: I put off watching this one for obvious reasons (spoilers in that link if you live under a rock (…heh.)), but as an avid fan of both Danny Boyle and The James Franco Experience, I’m glad I finally checked it out. I’m of two minds about the story-telling devices used: on the one hand, Ralston really experienced the visions and epiphanies that Franco has in the film, but it’s a case of something that is both genuine and–at least when portrayed cinematically–cheesy. That said, I thought that Boyle’s visual style worked really well in conveying the reality of being trapped under that rock, from the ethereal beauty of sunlight creeping in, to the disgusting crawl of urine traveling through a CamelBak straw. Like Renton diving into the Worst Toilet in Scotland or sinking six feet deep into a carpet, he manages to convey the un-conveyable. And as this somewhat mixed review from the SF Chronicle points out, his use of sound is absolutely visceral.

Animal Kingdom: After reading so much press about Jacki Weaver’s performance, I think I was expecting something more along the lines of Mo’Nique in Precious, but her character’s brand of evil is much more subtle. She’s wide-eyed and sweet, and you can almost ignore those motherly kisses that last just a beat too long as she cares for her misfit family. And then in the last third of the film you realize how ruthless she really is. Lady Macbeth with a brood to protect. I went in not sure what to expect from this movie, but its power lies in the way the story and characters are so quietly disturbing. These people are horrifying, but in such a way that feels terribly true to life.

Dogtooth: I was so pissed that I missed this when it was in theaters, but fair warning: it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, particularly if you need a film with any logical infrastructure. There is no explanation for why these parents have kept their grown children completely cut off from the outside world, but I think looking for a solid back story is a fool’s errand. Whether Dogtooth is about the perils of helicopter parenting or the political climate in the film’s native Greece, it doesn’t really matter, because the performances draw you in so handily. Aside from Haneke’s Seventh Continent, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film so subtly disturbing. But unlike Haneke’s work, it’s also surprisingly funny. You may feel like you shouldn’t laugh, but without those absurdist moments, Dogtooth would be unrelenting, instead of fascinatingly perverse.

The Fighter: On a pure entertainment level, this might have been my favorite of the Best Picture nominees–at least that was my gut reaction when I walked out of the theater. It’s a fairly predictable film, but everyone in it just elevates the material (this is essentially how I felt about The King’s Speech, which I think may end up being the safe-choice Best Picture winner). I’ve always known Bale was an incredibly dedicated, chameleon-like actor, but he just grabs you by the throat from the first seconds of the film and doesn’t let go. He’s charming and heartbreaking and infuriating throughout, and it’s amazing that the rest of the cast is so strong that they still make an impression next to his performance. I will say that as much as I loved them, the harpy chorus of sisters are a little too cartoonish, but otherwise I just had so much fun watching all these actors at work.

I Am Love: Tilda Swinton is so wierd that sometimes I forget how beautiful and talented she is. The woman learned Italian with a Russian accent to star in this film, but it hardly matters, because the character is so fully formed. As inconceivable as her story might be, I believed it thanks to Swinton’s skill as an actress. Within the first ten minutes you see the complex family dynamics at work, and you get why her character might want to escape. The last act of the film is a bit of a let-down–it relies on a capricious tragedy to move the plot forward rather than trusting the strength of the characters to lead to a satisfying conclusion. And for a film about food and sex, I can’t say I wanted to eat any of the meals prepared–the significance of which I’m still mulling over.

The Illusionist: Jaques Tati is wonderful and so is Sylvain Chomet‘s animation, but I was let down by this one. The relationship between the characters is absolutely baffling until the final shot of the movie, and even then it’s subtle enough that a lot of people would miss it. Looking into the backstory helps, but as a viewing experience, it’s somehow melancholy without being deeply affecting. I’d say the animation makes it worth watching, but you can get all that and more from The Triplets of Belleville.

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