It’s Oscar time again, which means that I’ve been moreorless keeping up this blog for a whole year. Well done to me.

It also means that I intend to duplicate my 2010 efforts and see all ten (why ten!?) Best Picture nominees before the ceremony on 27 February (and I’m away next week). In fact, I never did get around to seeing the very dreary-looking Sandra Bullock, Friday Night Lights-inspired The Blind Side (it’s still on my hard drive, courtesy of iTunes). However, it’s not so bad. I’ve already seen four out of ten in the ordinary course of things, so I’ll put my capsule reviews of those four up here, and a quick rundown of what I consider to be the favourites in the various categories.

First of all, here are the Best Picture nominees I’ve seen.

The King’s Speech
Big favourite this year, not just for Best Picture, but Best Actor and Best Director too. The King’s Speech is the most-nominated film this year, which generally bodes well and it’s easy to see why – it has Oscar glory stamped all over it. Apart possibly from Toy Story 3, it’s the most purely entertaining film on the list, has done well at the box office (although all the naughty swearing means an R rating which has hurt it a little in the States) and manages the ideal Oscar trick of being genuinely about something (duty, family, friendship, articulacy, communication, status) whilst at the same time, absolutely not daring to challenge its audience’s preconceptions in any way. Cosy enough to turn nobody away, yet meaty enough not to feel insubstantial, and blessed with two exceptional performances from Firth and Rush, this may not go down in history as a cast-iron classic, but it’s certainly in the right place at the right time (stealing momentum away from The Social Network).

Another film which tries to have its cake and eat it too, Inception, is a remarkable achievement from a remarkable director, and was a hugely fun night out when I went to see it on a nice big screen, but it doesn’t have a prayer in the Best Picture stakes. Whereas The King’s Speech is an entertaining drama which asks its audience to ponder weighty themes without asking any really awkward questions, Inception is a cerebral thriller, playing with levels of reality with huge daring and imagination, but with a popcorn heart. This is Nolan’s achievement – designing an intellectual framework within which he can pull off heart-stopping action sequences and eye-bending images, and then creating an emotional McGuffin to tie it all together. I loved it, despite Leonardo di Caprio’s characteristically bland central performance, despite Ellen Page’s dual role as naïf and sage, and despite the occasional plot hole. But its dry intellectual heft is no match for The King’s Speech double-whammy of historical weight and emotional drama. Worthy beats fun every time for Oscar, and so Chris Nolan will go home empty-handed, apart possibly from some technical awards.

The Social Network
Another film I thoroughly enjoyed, right up until the last ten minutes which attempted to tie a too-neat bow around what had been a compelling narrative thus far. Aaron Sorkin’s masterful and archly witty screenplay gracefully solves the problem of why we should care about what the geeks who invented Facebook ate for lunch between coding by the elegant device of the double-litigation flashback structure. As well as the wholly-unrealistic (but hugely satisfying)– whipcrack dialogue, the film showcases a pair of outstanding performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Spiderman-to-be Andrew Garfield and an invisible special effect – as they generally should be – to turn one actor into a pair of identical twins. What will hurt its chances at the Oscars are that it peaked too late, that David Fincher’s chilly direction will have put some people off what’s potentially a dry-seeming screenplay in the first place – and that Fincher himself was extravagantly praised for the lumpen Benjamin Button at the 2009 Oscars.

Toy Story 3
Will clearly win the Best Animated Feature award, but hasn’t a chance in hell of winning Best Picture, despite the fact that it apparently has a lot of the same things going for it as The King’s Speech – excellent box office, high quality entertainment, important themes which give it weight without dragging it down, technical standards dazzlingly high – but let’s be clear, no animated sequel ever has or ever will win Best Picture. Which is a shame, as it’s an exceptional piece of work even by Pixar’s high standards. Up was lovely, but the structure was a little clunky (and it was criticised in some quarters for double mumbo-jumbo), WALL-E was magnificent until they got on board the ship, after which I found the satire a little heavy-handed, Ratatouille had marvellous moments but lost energy in the middle third. Toy Story 3 reminds us where it all started for Pixar and also how far we’ve come. Resisting the urge to snazz-up Woody and Buzz, they’re just the same simple, yet appealing figures they were in 1995, the filmmakers flex their muscles with much more convincing humans and stunning simulation work of various kinds. The supporting cast is trimmed down where necessary (no Bo Peep, RC, Wheezy, Etch for example) and expanded on brilliantly (Michael Keaton as Ken, Timothy Dalton as Mr Pricklepants and Ned Beatty as Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear are wonderful additions). The tension is almost unbearable during the incinerator scene, which is brilliantly resolved, and when Andy – still voiced by John Morris – plays with Woody and Buzz one last time, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

So four down, six to go. And they are Black Swan (The Red Shoes meets Shutter Island), The Fighter (Rocky with Mark Wahlberg), The Kids are All Right (lesbians are mainstream now, cool), 127 Hours (I have to watch while you do what!?), True Grit (we’re not remaking the John Wayne film, we’re just adapting the same novel) and Winter’s Bone (which completely passed me by until it suddenly started popping up on American critics best of 2010 lists).

I’ll put reviews up here as I see the films, and I’ll attempt a little bit of crowd-sourcing to predict the results in the major categories. In the meantime, here are some gut reactions to the high profile nominations.

Best Picture – The King’s Speech pretty much has this sewn up I think, which means good news for Tom Hooper, since it’s rare for the director of the Best Picture to be overlooked.

Best Actor – will likely go to Colin Firth, who following his nomination last year for A Single Man, has demonstrated his Oscar-friendliness. But this is a strong category and it’s hard to right-off Javier Bardem, or – Oscar host! – James Franco.

Best Actress – is even harder to call, with all five women having a reasonable claim. My guess is that Natalie Portman has been made to suffer enough and hasn’t been smiled on yet by the Academy. The others are either too indie-obscure or too familiar with Oscar already, but any of them could do it, really.

Best Supporting Actor – is probably between Christian Bale, overlooked for The Dark Knight last year, and Geoffrey Rush, who may be swept along with The King’s Speech’s overall good fortune.

Best Supporting Actress – I have a strong hunch will go to Hailee Steinfeld who played the 14-year-old Mattie Ross in True Grit, at the remarkable age of, wow, 14. Best Supporting slots are good ways to reward newcomers, and otherwise overlooked films. Since I don’t believe True Grit will do well (a violent remake, which outweighs any nostalgia for westerns), this will be a place to recognise it. Steinfled could well follow in the footsteps of ten-year-old Tatum O’Neil and 11-year-old Anna Paquin.

The writing categories throw up a couple of oddities. The script for Toy Story 3, in which every twist and turn of the story is an original invention, is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, since some of the characters were created for a prior movie. On the other hand, the script for The King’s Speech, which documents actual historical events, is nominated for Best Original Screenplay, since it does not acknowledge any particular prior work. This aside, The King’s Speech will probably take this category too, while in the Adapted camp, it’s a straight fight between 127 Hours and The Social Network, both of which turned uncinematic true events into gripping narrative. Winter’s Bone is probably in with a slim chance too.

That will do for now. In short, The King’s Speech will do well, True Grit won’t do as well as its ten nominations suggest. The Social Network, Black Swan and Winter’s Bone all have possibilities. Inception will be almost entirely overlooked.

Given my track-record with this kind of prediction, that should be enough for you to put an enormous bet down on Inception right now, but we’ll see in a few weeks’ time.

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