Being There

Ruminations on Music, Film and Culture

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Waiting for Oscar: Best Director & Best Picture

Of the ten directors who have won Best Director over the past ten years, eight also saw their nominated film win the award for Best Picture.  The last three winners – Martin Scorsese (The Departed), Joel & Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men) and Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) - all landed both Best Director and Best Picture wins. That tells you just how much investment a director has in the finished product.

The trend may continue this year. All eyes are on James Cameron and Avatar to sweep the two categories, but he faces some pretty tough competition, including ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow.

The nominees for Best Director:

Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker
James Cameron for Avatar
Lee Daniels for Precious: Based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire
Jason Reitman for
Up In The Air
Quentin Tarantino for
Inglourious Basterds

Interestingly enough, that is probably what the Best Picture category would have looked like if they had stuck with 5 nominees.  Instead, they decided to expand the category to 10 films for the first time since 1943.

The nominees for Best Picture are:

Let’s take a look at each film one-by-one, starting with those up for Best Picture and not Best Director.  Frankly, I’m not convinced that a film that wasn’t nominated in the Best Director category could possibly win Best Picture.

District 9 is a perfectly engaging sci-fi film, but one that seems like an extremely random choice to nominate for Best Picture considering some of the other possible contenders.  When they first announced that the Best Picture category would be expanded to include ten films, many speculated that this measure was so that more films in the acting categories could be represented, but where are A Single Man, Crazy Heart or The Last Station?  Surely one of these would have made for a better Best Picture candidate.

A Serious Man is hardly top-tier Coen Brothers.  They already won a few years ago for the greatly superior No Country For Old Men and many have debated as to whether or not this is a film that can appeal to non-Jews in the same way that it appeals to Jews.  I think it definitely deserves acclaim in the acting and writing categories, but Best Picture?  Probably not, even if it was one of my personal favourites of the year.

Up is a fantastic film and if there was ever a Pixar title that should be up for Oscar’s top prize, this is definitely it.  However, it seems a bit redundant to nominate it for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature.  It’s the likely winner for the latter, but an unlikely winner for the former.

The Blind Side is what I’ve been calling the Seabiscuit of this year’s Academy Awards.  Hollywood loves inspirational stories with a heavy dose of the The South and football (or basketball or baseball), especially when they’re actually based on true stories.  I enjoyed this film.  But Best Picture?  Really?  The only reason Sandra Bullock is nominated (and will probably win) is because this is the first role in which she’s really acted.  She already received a Razzie Award this weekend for Worst Actress in All About Steve. Maybe she’ll prove to be both Best and Worst in the same year.  As for the film?  A very unlikely winner.

An Education is clever, articulate and feel-good all at the same time.  Of the five films that did not score a nomination for Best Director, this is probably the one that could have ended up sneaking in there if it hadn’t been for the tough competition posed by the next five films on the list.  The film is also up for Best Actress (Carey Mulligan) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Nick Hornby) and will probably win one of those awards before it wins Best Picture.

Now onto the five films that actually stand a chance in this category; those that are also up for Best Director.

When Up In The Air first came out, people went nuts, quickly citing it as the best film of the year.  But as time has gone on, people have praised the film in a more realistic way.  It’s simply a good film about a man who fires people for a living.  Of all the nominations the film received, it’s unlikely that it has a shot at anything other than Best Adapted Screenplay.

Precious: Based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire already cleaned up this weekend at the Independent Spirit Awards.  The film relies on a mix of non-actors, comedians and musicians to tell a very harrowing, difficulty story.  Whether it wins or not, it proved that you don’t need to recruit Hollywood’s A-listers to make a great film that gets a lot of public attention.

Inglourious Basterds is a huge achievement for Quentin Tarantino.  It plays like a Tarantino film, full of music, gore, comedy and film pastiche, but it’s also the most mature and well-thought out movie the director has ever made.  People will continue to talk about Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but I truly believe that with Inglourious Basterds Tarantino has upped his game.  It still probably won’t stand a chance against our next two nominees, but it’s still my favourite film of 2009.

Avatar will probably win Best Picture and Best Director for the same reason that James Cameron swept the categories with Titanic more than a decade ago.  It’s big, shiny and pretty much epitomizes what moviegoing is all about.  It also signed Hollywood its biggest paycheque in years.

Another scenario finds the Academy putting critical acclaim ahead of commercial success and handing the top prizes to The Hurt Locker.  The film is the first high-profile picture to examine the current Iraq war and will probably be remembered for years to come.

Ultimately, I predict Kathryn Bigelow will win Best Director for The Hurt Locker and Avatar will win Best Picture.

Who will win: Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director; Avatar for Best Picture

Who should win: Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director; Inglourious Basterds for Best Picture

The upset: James Cameron for Best Director; The Hurt Locker for Best Picture

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Waiting for Oscar: Best Actress

Everyone from Mary Pickford and Katharine Hepburn to Hilary Swank and Kate Winslet have won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Meryl Streep has been nominated 13 times and won just once. Most recently, winners have included Kate Winslet for The Reader, Helen Mirren for The Queen and Reese Witherspoon for Walk The Line. Three of the last five winners have all been based on well-known factual characters.

This year’s nominees:

Sandra Bullock is the favourite to win after taking home the Golden Globe award and the SAG award. The Blind Side is truly a departure for her since it’s the first time she’s seemed like she’s actually acted in a film. It’s hard to believe the star of such modern-day tragedies as The Proposal and All About Steve is nominated for an Oscar, but it sounds like it actually could happen.

Next up is Helen Mirren, a talented actress who won a few years ago for The Queen and is up again for The Last Station and her role as Leo Tolstoy’s wife. It’s unlikely that she’ll win this year, even though her performance and the film have received widespread critical acclaim.

Then comes newcomer Carey Mulligan, a young actress who shined brightly in the leading role of An Education. She stands a better chance than Mirren, but faces some pretty tough competition if she’s going to make it to her first Oscar. Still, this is someone who everyone in Hollywood will be watching for their next move.

Gabourey Sidibe is another newcomer, but unlike Mulligan, she had never acted in so much as a TV commercial prior to Precious. While her performance was not quite as intense as Mo’Nique’s, hers was still a remarkable achievement and something to be proud of.

She may be batting 1 for 12, but Meryl Streep is one of the finest actresses in Hollywood and has remained just as vital (if not more vital) into her 60s as any other actress working today. In Julie & Julia she brings celebrity chef Julia Child back to life and pays tribute to her passion, spirit and humour. It’s easy to lampoon a character that is so impersonated and characaturized, as Frank Langella will tell you about Richard Nixon (who he did an equally good job of playing with integrity and honesty). I hope she wins.

To recap:

Who should win: Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia

Who will win: Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side

The upset: Gabourey Sidibe for Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

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Waiting for Oscar: Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Javier Bardem as cold-blooded killer Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. If the last two winners of Best Actor in a Supporting Role are any indication, the Academy loves its cold-blooded killers. And if they’re interested in continuing the pattern, there are certainly two very creepy individuals up for consideration.

This year’s nominees:

Matt Damon did a pretty good job with his South African accent for his role as soccer (football?) player Francois Pienaar in Invictus, but his performance in the film will likely be overshadowed by that of Morgan Freeman’s as Nelson Mandela.

Woody Harrelson has come a long way from his role as Woody Boyd on Cheers and celebrates his second Academy Award nomination for The Messenger. Unfortunately for him, the lack of awareness about this war film probably doesn’t help his chances at winning.

Christopher Plummer is a well-respected actor who receives his first Oscar nomination after 50+ years in the film industry for his portrayal of Leo Tolstoy. The Academy loves rewarding people who should’ve gotten the award years ago, so this may be Plummer’s moment. But probably not.

Which brings us to Creep #1. Stanley Tucci’s role is supposedly the only good thing about The Lovely Bones, a film that scored just 32% on Rotten Tomatoes’ essential Tomatometer. He certainly seems to transform himself into a disgraceful and perverted individual, but whether or not the Academy recognizes him for elevating an otherwise forgettable film remains to be seen.

The Oscar will most likely go to Creep #2, Col. Hans Landa himself, Christoph Waltz. In Inglourious Basterds, a film full of great performances by Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Eli Roth and Diane Kruger, it’s Christoph Waltz who really leaves us with a lasting impression. He’s a villain we find both terrifying and funny. In one of the film’s early scenes, he visits a farmer smoking on his modest corn pipe. Landa soon pulls out his ornate, almost comically-large pipe and smokes with the man. A few short moments later, he orders a massacre within the same walls.

To recap:

Who should win: Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds

Who will win: Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds

The upset: Christopher Plummer for The Last Station

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Waiting for Oscar: Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Although supporting actresses don’t get the same amount of screen time as their leading role counterparts, often their roles are strong enough to shape the film. Take last year’s winner in this category as a prime example. Penélope Cruz burst into Vicky Cristina Barcelona as Javier Bardem’s lunatic ex-wife María Elena. More than anyone else in the film, she delivered a memorable performance.

Other recent winners of the Best Actress in A Supporting Role category have included Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton, Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls and Cate Blanchett for The Aviator.

This year’s nominees:

Hollywood has started relying less and less on A-List celebrities for its best films and most of this year’s acting categories are indicative of that. In fact, the most famous person on this list and last year’s winner, Penélope Cruz, is probably the least likely to win this year. Nine is nominated in a number of categories, but lacked the critical acclaim and general reception of the other films acknowledged in this category.

After Cruz, Maggie Gyllenhaal is probably the most well-known actress nominated in this category. This is her first Academy Award nomination, and despite a subtle and strong role in Crazy Heart, her performance is likely overshadowed by Jeff Bridges’ brilliant leading role. Still, she may prove to be the upset in this year’s competition.

Two actresses, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, are first time nominees for their respective roles in Up In The Air. Both were great for their parts in the film, but neither really seemed to do much more than play a typical role. If I had to pick a preferred actress of the two, it’d have to be Farmiga for the one scene where Clooney arrives at her house unexpected and learns an important truth about her.

Mo’Nique is best known as a TV actress and comedienne, but Precious may change that. In the film, she plays an abusive mother to the film’s title character and does an incredible job. We hate Mary because of the way she treats her daughter, but feel pity for her because she simply can’t rationally accept the fact that it’s Precious’ father and not her poor daughter that’s the source of all of their problems. Mo’Nique has already won the Golden Globe and SAG awards for her performance, and she’s a favourite to win the Oscar as well.

Who will win: Mo’Nique for Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire

Who should win: Mo’Nique for Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire

The upset: Maggie Gyllenhaal for Crazy Heart

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Waiting for Oscar: Best Animated Feature

Even though animated features have been popular with filmgoers for more than 70 years, it’s only in the last decade that these films have been recognized at the Academy Awards. The “Best Animated Feature” category was first introduced in 2001, and prior to that the only animated film acknowledged in a major category was Beauty And The Beast, which was nominated for Best Picture in 1991.

One thing that has always seemed strange about the Best Animated Feature category is that the number of nominees seems to arbitrarily change. Evidently, they base the number of nominations in the category on the number of qualified films they could come up with. With the exception of 2002 and 2009, every year has featured just three nominees.

This year’s nominees:

2009 was a year dominated by great animated features. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a delight and both it and Coraline were great artistic achievements that parents could enjoy just as much as their children. Along with Up, these films were not only the best animated films of the year – they were also among the best films of the year period.

The other two nominees help round out the category. The Secret Life of Kells is the category’s definite underdog inasmuch as it doesn’t have the same level of name recognition as the other nominees. It’s refreshing to see The Princess and the Frog, a Disney feature in the classic vein, get acknowledged here as well.

Considering Pixar’s strong track record (they won last year for Wall-E and the year before for Ratatouille) and the fact that Up is nominated for Best Picture, this year should add to their winning streak (they’ve already won 4 of awards in this category over the last 8 years).

Who will win: Up

Who should win: Up

The upset: Fantastic Mr. Fox

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Waiting for Oscar: Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Up In The Air

On Tuesday we took a look at this year’s nominees for Best Writing (Original Screenplay). While it’s easy to credit those writers with paramount creativity. After all, they came up with their script out of nothing. Right? Well, there’s something quite challenging about adapting an existing work into a compelling screenplay. Sometimes it’s a matter of condensing a 600-page novel down to its core. Other times, as was the case with last year’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it was taking a short story and fleshing it out to include more details and events.

Recent winners of the Best Adapted Screenplay category have included Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), Joel & Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men) and William Monahan (The Departed). This year we find screenplays based on two fictional novels, an autobiographical memoir, a television series and a short film.

The nominees are:

District 9 – Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
An Education – Nick Hornby from the book by Lynn Barber
In the Loop – Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire – Geoffrey Fletcher
Up in the Air – Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

This category is definitely one of the wild cards this year. District 9 is based on the 2005 short film Alive in Joburg and goes the mostly mockumentary route to tell the story of alien refugees living in Johannesburg. An Education marks the screenwriting debut of accomplished British novelist Nick Hornby, who used British journalist Lynn Barber’s autobiography as his source material. In The Loop is based on British TV series The Thick Of It.

When it comes to strong contenders for this year’s prize, there are really only two. Precious: Based on the Novel “Push”" by Sapphire is so dedicated to its source material that it makes a point of including it in its official title whenever it can. That’s no reason to win, of course, but bringing the intensity of characters like Precious, Mary and Ms. Rain to life is.

Up In The Air seems to be the likelier winner, already having taken home the BAFTA, Critics Choice Award, Golden Globe award and Writers Guild of America award. In many ways, it deserves an accolade for its writing more than its acting, so I say give it to them. Reitman and Turner succeed in making the film somewhat conventional in its storytelling, without falling prey to predictable plot twists and resolutions.

Who will win: Up in the Air – Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

Who should win: Up in the Air – Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

The upset: Precious: Based on the Novel “Push”" by Sapphire – Geoffrey Fletcher

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Waiting for Oscar: Writing (Original Screenplay)

Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino

A few weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees for the 82nd Academy Awards. Anticipation always runs high when it comes to the Oscars, but this year’s news that the Best Picture category would include a whopping ten films instead of the usual five added a further layer of mystery. Sure, it was easy to predict a handful of contenders, especially with the Screen Actors Guild awards and Golden Globes happening first, but a lot of us were surprised when less-likely contenders like District 9 made it into the running.

Having seen most of the films and performances nominated, we thought we’d take a crack at predicting the winners. Leading up to Oscar Night, we’ll look at some of the key categories and take a look at who’s in the running. Come March 7 we’ll see how close we were.

Up first, Writing (Original Screenplay). Recent winners of this award have included Dustin Lance Black (Milk), Diablo Cody (Juno) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine). The Academy tends to give screenwriting awards to the movies that are just too quirky to win any of the other top awards (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Lost In Translation serving as a few more examples).

This year’s nominees:

The Hurt Locker – Mark Boal
Inglourious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino
The Messenger – Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman
A Serious Man – Joel & Ethan Coen
Up – Bob Peterson, Pete Docter (screenplay and story) and Tom McCarthy (story)

It’s a mixed bag this year, with four of the Best Picture contenders pitted against The Messenger, for which Woody Harrelson is also nominated in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category. All of these are solid contenders in their own way.

Mark Boal managed to write one of the first critically acclaimed war movies set in Iraq. His screenplay for The Hurt Locker is as reliant on action as it is dialogue, and only a handful of settings are necessary to keep the plot moving. This one has a pretty decent shot at winning, though it’s got some tough competition.

I haven’t seen The Messenger, but this film has received a number of awards at the Berlin Film Festival and National Board of Review. It’s probably a long shot, given the competition.

Joel & Ethan Coen won two years ago for No Country For Old Men in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. They also won several years earlier for Fargo. Both of these are much better films than A Serious Man, but this unique social commentary on 1960s Jewish identity may have a good chance if it can sneak past the frontrunners.

Up is a great film, perhaps Pixar’s best, but I really can’t see it winning here. The film was a success in many ways, but the story and dialogue were pretty simple in its execution.

Which leaves us with Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino took home the award in this category back in 1995, when he won for Pulp Fiction. In many ways, Inglourious Basterds is a much stronger story than anything the filmmaker has ever done. Even if we can’t credit Tarantino with the seamless transition between English, French and German dialogue, we can credit him for introducing us to a wide array of characters, settings and situations without confusing us as viewers. He also does a solid job – as always – of balancing the dark with the light. Our favorite to win the Oscar in this category.

So, to recap:

Who will win: Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds

Who we want to win: Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds

The upset: Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker

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Waiting for Oscar: Best Actor

The past few years have seen some unbelievable performances nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. In 2008, Sean Penn (Milk) beat out Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), while the 2007 awards found Daniel Day-Lewis taking home the statue for his incredible performance in There Will Be Blood.

This year’s mix is equally brilliant.

This year’s nominees:

This year’s Best Actor contenders pit Hollywood heavyweights like Freeman and Clooney against underdogs like Bridges, Firth and Renner.

Jeff Bridges is a favorite to win for his portrayal of country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. It would be Bridges’ first victory after four previous nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor over the last 35 years. For that reason, it’s hard to not feel excited for him. He was by far the best thing about Crazy Heart and did a fine job singing his heart out for the role.

George Clooney is a regular at the Academy Awards, having taken home a Best Supporting Actor trophy for Syriana in 2006, the same year that he was nominated for writing and directing Good Night, and Good Luck. Many are raving about George’s performance in Up In The Air, but to me it was all a bit too typical for him. I think part of what made Up In The Air so great was everything that was happening around Clooney, from the supporting performances to the visuals of the movie. He will win a Best Actor statue at some point, but I don’t think this will be George’s year.

Even though Jeff Bridges likely has this one in the bag, Colin Firth is the one we’d like to see win. His portrayal of a heartbroken college professor in A Single Man is understated, sympathetic and perfect. He manages to evoke a realistic depiction of someone who is constantly on the verge of suicide and who feels irreparable from the damage the world has done on him. Tom Ford has given him the perfect venue to realize his potential, and we sincerely hopes he takes on more roles like this in the future. This is Firth’s first nomination for an Academy Award.

Morgan Freeman is one of America’s finest actors, and as we’ve seen many times over the years, Oscar voters love biopics. Jamie Foxx won Best Actor in 2004 for Ray and Reese Witherspoon won two years later for her portrayal of June Carter in Walk The Line. Many have raved about Freeman’s portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Invictus, but in a year with so many other great performances it’s doubtful that he will take home the award. Freeman has been up for Best Actor twice before for Driving Miss Daisy and The Shawshank Redemption. He should have won for those.

Here comes the upset. The Hurt Locker came out of nowhere to become one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films, pitting director Kathryn Bigelow against her ex-husband James Cameron. But we’ll get to that category later. If there’s going to be a major upset at this year’s Academy Awards, Jeremy Renner may be it. Like Colin Firth, he’s a first time Academy Award nominee. Unlike Firth, nobody really knew who he was before this film. He may surprise everyone with a victory.

So, to recap:

Who will win: Jeff Bridges

Who we want to win: Colin Firth

The upset: Jeremy Renner

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Best of 2009: The Films

It’s a lot easier to procrastinate on a Best Films of 2009 list since a few of these didn’t come out until around Christmas anyway. Some of the ones on the list are movies I didn’t technically see until 2010, and I still haven’t seen Avatar and The Hurt Locker, but the longer I put off this list, the longer I wait to start posting actual new reviews of actual new movies. So here goes nothing!

10. A Single Man (dir. Tom Ford)

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single Man

A Single Man is an unlikely film by an unlikely screenwriter/director (fashion designer Tom Ford) and co-screenwriter (government lawyer David Scearce). The film, based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name, tells the simple tale of a man who’s convinced he is permanently heartbroken beyond repair after the death of his lover. George Falconer (Colin Firth) has friends who love him (namely Julianne Moore’s Charley) and students who respect and idolize him, but cannot shake this feeling of loneliness and isolation he feels.

Visually, A Single Man hearkens back to classic Hitchcock films of the 1940s and 1950s. Ford tips his hat to Hitchcock in one particular scene, which finds Falconer pulling up his car up to a giant billboard ad for Psycho. Firth delivers the performance of a lifetime and is a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

9. The Hangover (dir. Todd Phillips)

Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Mike Tyson and Bradley Cooper in The Hangover

Look, Mom, a mainstream comedy that’s actually funny! Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and Bradley Cooper play a three guys who travel to Las Vegas to celebrate the Bachelor Weekend of their soon-to-be-married friend Doug. After a wild night of God knows what (the viewer isn’t privvy to this information and the guys can’t remember a thing), Stu (Helms) wakes up with a missing tooth, Alan (Galifianakis) with a baby and Phil (Cooper) with a stolen police car. Also, no Doug.

Over the course of the film we learn more and more about what exactly happened, culminating in a fantastic slideshow that runs through the closing credits.

8. Up In The Air (dir. Jason Reitman)

Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in Up In The Air

Jason Reitman has had a good run so far with Thank You For Smoking and Juno. This year he directed George Clooney in Up In The Air. The film tells the story of a man paid to fly around the country and fire people. He’s happy with his on-the-go, no-baggage-added lifestyle, until he meets someone he actually sees settling down with. Of course, Jason Reitman as a screenwriter isn’t afraid to take risks, so the story isn’t as conventional as your typical romantic comedy in the slightest. Great supporting performances by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick to boot.

7. Julie & Julia (dir. Nora Ephron)

Stanley Tucci and Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia tells the true story of Julia Child and her early years as a budding French chef and juxtaposes it against the true story of a struggling writer who decides to blog about her attempts to cook her way through Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking in her tiny Queens apartment. Meryl Streep is fantastic as Julia Child, managing to be true to the real person without pushing her over the top. For my wife and I, the story of Julie Powell (Amy Adams) was just as engaging, since we also happen to blog about food and have a reputation among our friends and family for being overly ambitious when it comes to the kitchen.

6. Up (dir. Pete Docter & Bob Peterson)

Edward Asner in Up

When it comes to the visuals and technical accomplishments, Pixar continues to outdo themselves and their long list of great animated features. Up arrived in stunning 3D and literally took us on a trip across the globe with its elderly widower Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), a man who decides to attach thousands of balloons to his house and take it to South America. Like any Pixar movie, we meet a whole host of characters along the way (including, as always, one voiced by John Ratzenberger).

5. (500) Days Of Summer (dir. Marc Webb)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days Of Summer

(500) Days Of Summer takes the romantic comedy and turns it on its ear. Boy meets girl, they fall in love and live happier ever after. Right? Nope. Yes, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is immediately taken with Summer (Zooey Deschanel), and she does a good job of indulging these feelings and genuinely seems to enjoy hanging out with him. But as we see throughout she ultimately just doesn’t see him in the same way that he sees her.

Marc Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber shake things up by presenting the film in non-sequential order, showing us good times and bad and just how much the two sometimes overlap. Mentally, we’re forced to try to piece things in order in our attempts to understand whether or not Summer and Tom’s relationship ever made sense in the first place.

4. A Serious Man (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

Adam Arkin and Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man

After the celebrity-overloaded Burn After Reading, it was nice to see the Coen Brothers return with a film whose most famous actors include Richard Kind and Adam Arkin. Although far from autobiographical, A Serious Man is set in the 1960s Minnesota of the Coens’ childhood and seems to draw from some of their life experiences.

Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) has plenty of reasons to be happy. He’s on the road to tenureship in his post as physics professor and his son is about to be Bar Mitzvah’d. Trouble is, his wife is cozying up to family friend Sy Ableman and wants a divorce; one of his students it trying to bribe him for better grades; his daughter is stealing money from his wallet; and his son is becoming an incessant pot smoker. Even as things start to turn around for Gopnick, we see other aspects of his life dip into even further turmoil. Life, as it turns out, can never be perfect, no matter how hard we might try.

3. Where The Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)

James Gandolfini and Max Records in Where The Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book is brought to life by director/screenwriter Spike Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers, but be warned: like the book, Where The Wild Things Are proves to be more about kids than for kids. The large and aggressive creatures (lovingly voiced by everyone from James Gandolfini and Forest Whitaker to Catherine O’Hara and Lauren Ambrose) may prove too much for the faint at heart, younger viewer. But the film is beautifully shot and well-scored (by Carter Burwell and Karen O), and Max Records does a fantastic job in his first proper film role.

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson spent a long time crafting his first animated feature, and it’s clear from watching it how much attention was paid to even the smallest of details. Based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book, Fantastic Mr. Fox, the story is pretty simple: Mr. Fox (George Clooney) wants to steal various goods from three factory farmers (Boggis, Bunce and Bean), and the three farmers seek to exact revenge by eradicating the nearby animals altogether. The story is easy enough to follow for children, but it’s the music, the witty dialogue and the overall feel of the movie that makes it a thoroughly Wes Anderson experience that adult fans of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are sure to enjoy.

1. Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds

I didn’t think Tarantino could top Kill Bill, but he did it this past year with Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino takes a stab at historical fiction, exploring an alternate reality where a motley crew of Jewish-American soldiers take out Hitler and other top Nazis, thereby winning the war. Every single piece of this film works, but it’s the foreign actors American audiences had never really seen before that really shine. Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) is an extremely strong-willed character who plots revenge after watching the rest of her family get massacred. The Oscar for Best Supporting Actor should definitely go to Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa. The scene in which he faces Dreyfus as an adult in her secret life with a new name sealed the deal for me. It’s never clear as to whether or not Landa knows who he is facing, but we are on the edge of our seat all the same.

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Best of 2009: The Albums

Well, friends, this is one of those lists that I should have posted a month ago. But by now my procrastination is clear. New Year’s Resolution: Get these best of 2009 lists out of the way and start focusing on new stuff, like the latest Vampire Weekend album.

10. The List, Rosanne Cash

Johnny Cash interpreted everyone from Hank Williams to Trent Reznor in his six-decade music career, but a special place in his heart and mind was always reserved for the songs that mattered to him the most. When Johnny’s daughter, Rosanne Cash, was 18, he handed her a handwritten list of “100 Essential Country Songs” and said “This is your education.”

The List could easily have been entitled The List, Vol. 1 since it barely scratches the surface of Johnny’s list. Rosanne faithfully interprets songs by Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and The Carter Family, and one can only imagine how daunting it must have been knowing that her versions would be compared to those recorded by her father throughout his own career. Thankfully, she does a great job and has a few big names on hand to help her out: Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Tweedy.

Key cuts: “Sea of Heartbreak” (with Bruce Springsteen), “Long Black Veil” (featuring Jeff Tweedy), “She’s Got You”

9. Yours Truly, The Commuter, Jason Lytle

I hadn’t heard the name Jason Lytle before I went to see Neko Case at Massey Hall in 2009. Dazzling as Neko was, her opening act definitely left me with a good impression, and I immediately sought out his debut album Yours Truly, The Commuter. As it turned out, Lytle had been writing songs and playing music for more than a decade with Grandaddy. A solid debut with some fantastic songs.

Key cuts: “Ghost Of My Old Dog,” “Birds Encouraged Him,” “You’re Too Gone”

8. Friend of a Friend, Dave Rawlings Machine

Friend Of A Friend by Dave Rawlings Machine

For years, Dave Rawlings has served as Gillian Welch’s proverbial right-hand man. He’s co-written her songs, sung her backing vocals, and played some great guitar to go along with it. Dave Rawlings Machine shakes things up by placing Rawlings at the forefront and Welch at his side. On Friend of a Friend, Rawlings’ debut as a frontman, they’re joined by members of Old Crow Medicine Show, Bright Eyes, as well as Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Rawlings proves his worth throughout, as a singer, songwriter and performer.

Key cuts: “Ruby,” “Sweet Tooth,” “Bells of Harlem”

7. Live in London, Leonard Cohen

Live in London by Leonard Cohen

After a fifteen year absence from live performance, Leonard Cohen embarked on an extensive tour of Canada and Europe in 2008. Those of us lucky enough to attend one of these concerts were able to experience a 75-year-old Cohen who was at the top of his game. Cohen’s crack band of ace players and singers provided the perfect backing to a wonderful evening.

Those who were there on Cohen’s tour and those who were not will find equal pleasure from Live In London, which was recorded at the O2 Arena on July 17, 2008 and has a running time of more than two and a half hours. Not a single phase of Cohen’s career goes under-represented by the set, with songs like “Bird On A Wire” and “Suzanne” taking their place alongside “First We Take Manhattan” and “Take This Waltz.”

Key cuts: “Everybody Knows,” “Hallelujah,” “If It Be Your Will”

6. The Fall, Norah Jones

The Fall, Norah Jones

The Fall isn’t quite like anything Norah Jones has released before. Sure, her distinctive voice is there and as effective as usual, but what’s different is the sound and tone of a lot of the material. Producer Jacquire King, who engineered Tom Waits’ Mule Variations album, along with accomplished session musicians like Marc Ribot and Joey Waronker, help get Norah out of her comfort zone and the results are dazzling throughout.

Key cuts: “Chasing Pirates,” “It’s Gonna Be,” “Back To Manhattan”

5. The Atlantic Ocean, Richard Swift

The Atlantic Ocean, Richard Swift

Richard Swift’s early releases are a bit of a throwback to vaudeville and early jazz, while the more recent Dressed Up For The Let Down incorporated some more modern influences like The Beatles and Harry Nilsson. The Atlantic Ocean cosmically jettisons Richard Swift into the future. The songs seem to came from the same vintage as Swift’s earlier work, but the trumpets and saxophones of yore are replaced with a wide array of keyboards and synthesizers. Elsewhere, Swift channels vintage soul and does so with an uncanny ability that you’ll swear you’re listening to the real thing.

Key cuts: “The Atlantic Ocean,” “Bat Coma Motown,” “Lady Luck”

4. Monsters of Folk by Monsters of Folk

Monsters of Folk

Monsters of Folk are the indie rock equivalent of a supergroup, pitting Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and M. Ward in a studio together for an album’s worth of songs. The results are delightful and tend to keep things on the fun side (taking an obvious cue from another supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys). Although Oberst, James, and Ward each have their moments in the spotlight, the album’s best tracks, like “Say Please,” find each of the singer-songwriters trading verses. Not one of these talents dominates, which is part of what makes the album so strong.

Key cuts: “Say Please,” “The Right Place,” “Man Named Truth”

3. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Elvis Costello

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello appreciates so many different types of music, it’s hard to know what style he’ll surface with when he comes out with a new album or tour. Since 2000, he’s released two rock ‘n’ roll records, a jazz record, a classical record, a country-rock record and an R&B record. Last year, Costello released Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, an album deeper steeped in folk and country than anything he has ever done. Although reviews were polarized, I found this to be a fantastic collection of songs, extremely well-performed by Costello and a crack band that featured T-Bone Burnett, Jeff Taylor, Mike Compton, Dennis Crouch, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan and Jim Lauderdale. No drums anywhere to be found. Better luck next time, Pete Thomas!

Key cuts: “Down Among The Wines and Spirits,” “Sulphur To Sugarcane,” “The Crooked Line”

2. Wilco (The Album), Wilco

Wilco (The Album), Wilco

Being a Wilco fan is pretty easy. The band tours frequently, so you always know they’ll be in town before too long to deliver a great performance. More importantly, you come to expect that a new studio album will surface every few years and that it will be awesome. Wilco (The Album) is no exception. Even though the band is distancing themselves from a lot of the avant garde influences prominent on albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born and continuing to veer into pop territory, their songs remain strong and unique, despite being some of the most accessible of their career. Side-note, Wilco (The Album) enters the canon of Greatest Album Covers of All-Time with its “camel at a birthday party” theme.

Key cuts: “Wilco (The Song)”, “You Never Know,” “You and I”

1. Middle Cyclone, Neko Case

Middle Cyclone, Neko Case

Neko Case began her career steeped in Americana, but over the past few albums she has incorporated more and more musical influences to a point where it’s hard to classify her music. Songs like “People Got A Lotta Nerve” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Smiths record. One thing remains clear on Middle Cyclone, and that’s that Neko Case has some of the best pipes in the business. Her amazing voice, paired with some of the best songs I’ve heard all year, made Middle Cyclone my pick for Top Album of 2009.

Key cuts: “This Tornado Loves You,” “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” “Don’t Forget Me”

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