Film Feature: Our 10 Favorite 2011 Oscar Nominations

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CHICAGO – Tuesday morning brought a great sigh of relief to movie lovers jaded by last year’s problematic Oscar nominees, which unforgivably included two major nods for the dreadful “The Blind Side.”

This year’s slate of nominated work is much stronger, refreshingly devoid of mediocre commercial fodder designed to lure in the ratings-conscious Academy. The 2011 Best Picture nominees that made money actually proved to be great films as well: “The Social Network,” “Inception,” “Black Swan,” “The Kings Speech” and “True Grit” were major hits with audiences as well as critics. Yet there were also a fair number of obscure and under-appreciated gems among the more popular titles, many of which hadn’t been singled out by other voting bodies. Here are the top ten nominees I’m most pleased to see on this year’s ballot…

10. Best Actor: Javier Bardem, “Biutiful”

Javier Bardem
Javier Bardem
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

I’ll never forget the interview back in 2001 when Julia Roberts was quoted saying that she “couldn’t imagine living in a world” where Denzel Washington didn’t have an Oscar for Best Actor when she had an Oscar for Best Actress. Denzel later went on to win the Oscar for “Training Day” over frontrunner Russell Crowe. What Julia wants, Julia gets. After seeing her “Eat Pray Love” co-star Bardem snubbed at award ceremonies for his acclaimed work in the barely released “Biutiful,” Roberts hosted screenings of the film for voters in order to increase its chances of snagging a nomination. History has now officially repeated itself, though Bardem’s brutally raw performance is far more deserving of Oscar love than Washington’s cackling overacting in “Day.” “Babel” director Alejandro González Iñárritu puts Bardem through the ringer—physically, emotionally and spiritually—in this brooding tale of a father battling cancer in the Barcelona slums. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, “Biutiful” may be a considerable chore for some viewers, but Bardem fans are advised to check the film out when it opens in Chicago on Friday.

9. Best Foreign Film: “Dogtooth”

Photo credit: Kino International

A wild and disturbing parody of oppressive parenting taken to mad extremes, this galvanizing curiosity from Greece is a refreshingly oddball addition to the Foreign Film category. Director Giorgos Lanthimos confines his characters within suffocatingly sterile interiors similar to the ones inhabited by Julianne Moore in “Safe.” The setting is a secluded estate where nameless parents (Christos Stergioglou and Michele Valley) hold their three grown children hostage by manipulating them with impenetrable webs of deceit. They teach them the wrong words for various objects (a salt shaker is referred to as a phone), while leading them to believe that the planes passing overhead are merely elusive toys. Yet when a visitor jump-starts the sexual awakening of the eldest daughter (Aggliki Papoulia), a rebellious discontent begins to brew. Though critics have hailed this film as some sort of comedy, it’s far from laugh-out-loud funny…that is, until the climactic dance sequence (complete with “Flashdance”-inspired moves), which deserves to ranked alongside the most gloriously peculiar cinematic moments of 2010.

8. Best Animated Film: “The Illusionist”

The Illusionist
The Illusionist
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Many of the nominees on this list don’t have a prayer of actually winning. That’s certainly the case with “The Illusionist,” Sylvain Chomet’s enchanting adaptation of a script originally intended for live action by the late master of cinema, Jacques Tati. I’m looking forward to the day a 2D, hand-drawn feature claims the prize for Best Animated Film, which nearly always is claimed by the geniuses at Pixar. “Toy Story 3” is admittedly deserving of the honor this year, but it’s still wonderful to see the nuanced artistry of Chomet acknowledged by the Academy, as opposed to the derivative crowd-pleasing mechanics of Disney’s “Tangled.” Whereas the French animator’s Oscar-nominated “Triplets of Belleville” was an exuberant and playful work of nimble slapstick, “Illusionist” is a far more melancholy morsel, following the budding friendship between an aging vaudevillian and a young woman. “Despicable Me” it is not. Yet for film lovers dazzled by the whimsical magic of Tati, it is an absolute must see.

7. Best Supporting Actor: John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”

Winter's Bone
Winter’s Bone
Photo credit: Lionsgate

One of the year’s most controversial categories is Best Supporting Actor, since it left out Andrew Garfield, whose revelatory work emerged as the heart of “Social Network.” Of course, he’s still young, and will have many more chances to walk the red carpet. John Hawkes, on the other hand, has rarely been invited to the party, despite the fact that he’s been delivering excellent performances for the last 25 years, most memorably in Miranda July’s exquisite 2005 comedy, “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” His portrayal of Teardrop, the spookily wide-eyed uncle of a strong-willed mountain girl, was every bit as much a key to the success of “Winter’s Bone” as the much-praised lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence. He uncovers the tenderness beneath his character’s hardened exterior with a subtlety that never once feels forced. Though his dialogue may occasionally require subtitles for viewers unschooled in accents of the Ozarks, his work never strikes a single false note.

6. Best Supporting Actress: Jacki Weaver, “Animal Kingdom”

Animal Kingdom
Animal Kingdom
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

The same could be said of the other dark horse candidate in this year’s supporting actor race. Weaver’s character in “Animal Kingdom” is remarkably chilling, mainly because she’s played with a wink and a smile. As Janine Cody, the matriarch of an Australian crime family, Weaver barely has to raise her voice in order to get under the viewer’s skin. Like Melissa Leo’s mama grizzly in “The Fighter,” Janine is the type of role that invites, if not requires, some form of scenery chewing. Yet it’s Weaver’s well-modulated restraint that makes her work so memorable, such as when she softly chuckles her signature line, “You’ve done some bad things, sweetie.” Weaver’s meatier moments come late in the film when Janine’s motherly devotion clashes with her cold-blooded ruthlessness. Hopefully her nomination will encourage moviegoers to seek out this marvelous feature filmmaking debut by David Michôd. It is a shame, however, that the Academy failed to nominate the equally magnificent work of Lesley Manville in Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” whose conspicuous absence from this category evokes memories of Sally Hawkins’ snubbed work in Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” (both heavily improvised films ironically received screenplay nominations).

Brandt's picture

One HUGE snub and my picks...

No surprises here really other than Christopher Nolan getting snubbed in the Best Director category. I thought The Social Network was severely overrated and got most of its attention due to the subject matter rather than the movie as a whole. I’m a big David Fincher fan and he’s never let me down. Good movie but it didn’t make my Top Ten. I thought Howl was by far the best movie of the year with its combination of animation, acting (James Franco as Allen Ginsberg), and cinematography.

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