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Usually this blog is devoted to all things dance. However, growing up in a home where the Academy Awards is a revered and highly anticipated event, my family traditionally exchanges thoughts and reflections on the nominated films. While I support the Academy’s decision to expand the field to ten nominees for Best Picture, I simply didn’t get to see them all. As follows, a ranking and justification for those that I did see and a shout-out to two special films that deserve a bit more recognition…

6. Avatar – I don’t mind that the story didn’t have an original bone in its body. The tale of colonialism in which the white man threatens the existence of an indigenous culture, only to realize its beauty and power and unique relationship to nature is a tale oft repeated throughout history and to this day. Just because Fern Gully did it first, doesn’t mean it’s not worth a gloriously realized retelling in the extraordinary world recreated here. But that’s no excuse for a script that lacks any nuance whatsoever, characters as flat as the employment recovery rate, and an ending as predictable as the coming mid-term elections.

5. Up – Charming, poignant, delightful. Pixar scores again and reminds us that sometimes cartoons can feel more human than humans. The wordless opening montage doesn’t surpass the brilliant first 45-min of Wall-E, but still manages to capture the same sense of wonder. Though entertaining to the last drop, I couldn’t help being conscious throughout that I’m watching a Pixar film with a Pixar formula. Even films this fresh can start to feel stale in the context of the animated lineage they’re apart of. (See Honorable Mentions)

4. Up in the Air – A clever film with a smart script and fantastic performances across the board. I wanted to love it. But I ended up just really liking it a lot instead. Yes, it’s a film that speaks volumes about our current transitory culture: the ever-shifting corporate and personal realities, the inexplicable drive for a goal that ultimately feels empty when one considers what has been sacrificed along the way, the roles people play to escape the lives they have created for themselves. It’s all very well-told and reflective and relevant and insightful. Perhaps I need to watch it again, but I came away really appreciating this mid-life crisis story and wishing I had been a little more surprised by it.

3. Precious, Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire – I resisted seeing this film, despite the huge pre-release buzz and the post-release accolades. I knew what it was going to be about and how it would make me feel and thus it was hard to find an afternoon when I would allow myself to sit and be depressed for two hours. Except when I walked away from the theater, I had a strange feeling of contentment and not a small bit of inspiration. Precious’ situation is devastating indeed and the world depicted of the cyclical struggles of inner-city life leave little room for hope, but Gabourey Sidibe’s centered presence and quiet strength propel the film past the pity fest it could have been and into a humble call for determination. And Mo’nique’s performance is deserving of every award bestowed upon it.

2. A Serious Man – Of course I’m biased. I’m an American Jew who had a Bar Mitzvah. This is my world, and my father’s world, and my father’s father’s world. But my respect for this film goes far beyond mere self-identification. The Coen brother’s visit a time and place that is part-parody, part period throwback, and part prophecy. It’s a saga of Biblical proportions told on an intimate scale. Sandwiching the story between a haunting yet humorous 19th century shetl prologue and that brilliantly chilling final image gives this sometimes silly domestic tale a vast and varied scope. Once again, the Coen Brother’s expertly turn a deceptively simple story into an epic cautionary tale.

1. Inglorious Basterds – Perhaps the most frightening fairy tale in recent memory, Tarantino’s visual feast walked the blurred line between fantasy and horror. Each scene drips with atomic tension and uber-stylish attention to detail. Fueled by the terrifying performance of Christoph Waltz, an instant classic and new cinematic standard of evil, the film is at once a gracious nod to thriller noir of the past, a quintessential Tarantino romp, and an audacious revenge flick that defies categorization in its beauty. But the real power of the film is that the outrageous premise of rewriting history also felt, even if just for a moment, strangely possible. It forces us to consider what might have been and in doing so, transcends the typical Hollywood history lesson, going beyond mere re-enactment to a much darker place of reflection where we are forced to reckon with our actions and in-actions and to look around us today and consider the same.

Honorable Mentions:

A Single Man – Some may call it a two-hour fashion ad, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. Tom Ford’s impressive debut turns style into substance by making sensuality the main character of the film. The cinematic tricks of the moments of heightened awareness could have felt gimmicky but instead allow us to taste, smell, touch, and feel the everyday in a new light. And even if you can’t allow Ford the visual brilliance of the film, you cannot ignore the stunningly nuanced and sensitive performances of Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, the latter of whom was robbed of the recognition deserved this simultaneously outrageous and heart-breaking performance.

Coraline – Pixar can do no wrong. Year after year, the company pops out a fantastically original, fully realized film that is always fun and cuddly yet intelligently layered. But one thing Pixar doesn’t do is dark. Welcome Coraline, a feisty heroine and fearless adventurer who stumbles into a parallel universe that quickly turns from paradise to hell. Referencing the underworlds of Tim Burton, Coraline achieves an eerie surrealism while still clearly appropriate for its youthful target audience. That doesn’t mean its mere kiddie fare. With illustrations that take a surprisingly minimalistic turn in the exciting finale and with characters that are deliciously strange throughout, Coraline makes a strong statement that there is animated satisfaction if you dare to look down, instead of Up.

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