This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences attempted to up the excitement factor by giving us not just five nominees for Best Picture, but ten – divided neatly into five which are in with a shot (with two clear favourites) and five also-rans. Yay Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences!

I’ve (almost) succeeded in my mission to watch all ten before the ceremony, and here are my thumbnail reviews. For my predictions as to the Oscar winners, see my earlier post here.

AVATAR (wd. James Cameron; starring Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana)
Synopsis: Paraplegic marine Jake Sully is dropped on alien world Pandora and given an “avatar” to control so he can better mingle with the 10 foot tall, bright blue natives. If you know the story of Pocahontas, you pretty much know what comes next.
Review: James Cameron creates a jaw-droppingly, eye-poppingly convincing world, populated with not just the slender yet muscular Na’vi, but a whole da-glo managerie of hexapod creatures, sentient trees and much else besides. The story is pretty much by-the-numbers, with a somewhat static middle third, but everything does pay off and there are even some grace notes in the script, and some bright performances – hello Giovanni Ribisi!
Fun facts: James Cameron’s first film since 1997’s Titanic, but he’s been talking about it pretty much since then.
Oscars: Nominated for nine and could win them all. Big favourite for Best Picture.

THE BLIND SIDE (w. Michael Lewis, John Lee Hancock; d. Hancock; starring Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Kathy Bates)
Synopsis: To follow
Review: To follow
Fun facts: To follow
Oscars: Also-ran, except for Sandra Bullock

DISTRICT 9 (w. Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell; d. Blomkamp; starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James)
Synopsis: In Jo’burg, a civil servant responsible for rounding up alien “prawns” eventually starts to see things from their point of view when he becomes accidentally infected.
Review: Probably my favourite film of the year – witty, fast-moving, exciting, satirical and intelligent. It gleefully steals from the very best to make something which feels entirely fresh, and the special effects are so good you forget they’re there.
Fun facts: First-time actor Copley improvised virtually all of his dialogue.
Oscars: Nominated for three more besides Best Picture, which it won’t win in a thousand years. In with a shot for Adapted Screenplay. Would have won for Effects in any field which didn’t include Avatar.

AN EDUCATION (w. Nick Hornby, book Lynn Barber; d. Lone Scherfig; starring Carey Mulligan, Emma Thompson, Peter Sarsgaard)
Synopsis: In 1961, 16 year old schoolgirl Jenny discovers that working hard to get into Oxford seems rather less glamorous next to her exciting new older boyfriend who whisks her off to Paris and pinches artworks from old ladies.
Review: Perfectly amusing, with a winning turn from Carey Mulligan, but entirely inessential and unextraordinary. A Channel 4 film which has been inexplicably nominated for an Oscar. Bizarre.
Fun facts: Screenplay by novellist Nick Hornby, based on Lynn Barner’s memoire.
Oscars: Also-ran. The kind of dull-but-worthy British film that won for Goldcrest in the 80s, but those days are over.

THE HURT LOCKER (w. Mark Boal; d. Kathryn Bigelow; starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty)
Synopsis: Under the command of a new and apparently reckless team leader, a three man bomb disposal squad goes about its work in Iraq.
Review: For the first three quarters, Bigelow and Boal trust that their characters and the episodes of their working lives will be strong enough, and they’re right. When a more melodramatic plot arrives, late in the day, it seems irrelevant and upsets the tone so masterfully maintained up till then.
Fun facts: Bigelow is James Cameron’s ex-wife, so it’s not just that Bigelow is only the fourth woman ever nominated for Best Director – this time it’s personal.
Oscars: Nine nominations, same as Avatar, and competing head-to-head in every category.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (wd. Quentin Tarantino; starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender)
Synopsis: Demented fairytale, set in something which looks an awful lot like World War II, but not quite enough like it to be mistaken for it.
Review: Far more about cinema than about warfare, Tarantino’s latest is also his most juvenile, but at the same time probably his most fun, mixing agonising suspense with bravura imagery and a shockingly devil-may-care attitude to history. Provided you aren’t looking for maturity, you are unlikely to leave the cinema disappointed, but let’s face it – Up has a better chance of winning Best Picture.
Fun facts: The soundtrack is compiled from other war movies, for which Jonathan Ross castigated Tarantino on his chat-show. Tarantino was forced to admit that because he doesn’t compose music himself he prefers to choose music from stock because otherwise he feels he’s handing over too much control to another artist.
Oscars: Will win exactly one, for Christoph Waltz.

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE (w. Geoffrey Fletch, novel Sapphire; d. Lee Daniels; starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey)
Synopsis: Barely-literate, abused, single teenage mother Clarice Precious Jones struggles to rebuild her life with the aid of a sympathetic teacher.
Review: Deeply moving drama which transcends its movie-of-the-week logline due not least in part to a series of bravura directoral flourishes.
Fun facts: Mariah Carey was a last-minute replacement for Helen Mirren.
Oscars: Up for a staggering six Oscars, but only likely to win for one of the lead actresses or just possibly its screenplay. A long-shot for Best Picture, but not an also-ran.

A SERIOUS MAN (wd. Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Wagner Lennick)
Synopsis: In 1967, physics professor Larry Gopnik becomes a latter-day Job weeks before the his son’s barmitzvah as he faces the collapse of his marriage, questions over his professional ethics and the bewildering advice of a variety of Rabbis, old and young.
Review: The Coen Brothers on doggedly quirky form, for much of its running time this is original, funny and moving stuff, but the what-the-hell ending is a huge disappointment, even if it is somewhat in keeping with the overall message.
Fun facts: Lead actor’s first film after a substantial stage career.
Oscars: The slimmest of chances for Best Picture.

UP (w. Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Thomas McCarthy; d. Docter, Peterson; voices: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer)
Synopsis: Elderly Carl Fredricksen floats away from a grim retirement home in search of the adventures he and his late wife dreamed about.
Review: Beautiful stuff, as ever from Pixar, with humour, visual appeal, story and drama expertly balanced. The 3D is not instrusive and the characters beautifully rendered. Possibly not their very best – the narrative splits into three chunks fairly gracelessly (on the ground, travelling, fighting) – but the wordless opening sequence might be one of the best pieces of animation ever.
Fun facts: John Ratzenberger, Pixar’s lucky mascot, can be heard as a construction worker.
Oscars: Will scoop Best Animated, but that’s yer lot. An also-ran in the Best Picture stakes.

UP IN THE AIR (w. Sheldon Turner, Jason Reitman, book Walter Kirn; d. Reitman; starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick)
Synopsis: Ryan Bingham is happiest when flying across the United States and very good at his job – firing people who work for other companies. His life is upset by the presence of two women, one who admires his lifestyle and one who threatens to destroy it.
Review: A very near miss, full of smart touches and another breezy-yet-angsty performance from Clooney. It loses energy towards the end and the plot doesn’t quite serve the characters as strongly as it could.
Fun facts: Most of the firees were genuinely made redundant and asked to re-enact the moment on camera.
Oscars: Has a chance of picking up an acting or screenwriting award. Hardly an also-ran for Best Picture, but certainly not a favourite.

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