Armchair Oscars – 2009

Best Picture

The Hurt Locker (Directed by Kathryn Bigelow)
The Nominees: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious: Based on a Novel Push by Sapphire, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air

Sita Sings the Blues (Directed by Nina Paley)
My Nominees: Avatar (James Cameron), Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper), The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow), Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino), Knowing (Alex Proyas), Up (Peter Doctor and Bob Peterson), Watchmen (Zack Snyder)


In June of 2009, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued a statement that the number of Best Picture nominees was being doubled from five to ten. There were probably a dozen reasons why, but the official word from academy president Sid Ganis was this: “Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going allow academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize.”

That was the official reason but, like most, I suspect that it was due to the ceremony’s slipping television ratings and the previous year’s fan-generated outrage when The Dark Knight did not receive a Best Picture nomination. The Academy was trying to save face, I believe, and expanding to ten nominees was a way to keep this from happening again. The deca of nominees were a mixed bag of critical acclaim, powerhouse epics and head-scratchers. While films like Avatar, A Serious Man and The Hurt Locker were expected – and deserving – others like District 9 and the godawful football torper The Blind Side had me asking “What were they thinking?”

Still, despite the expansion of the number of nominees, the last Best Picture race of the decade came down to a heated contest between two powerful epics: Avatar, a beautifully-made sci-fi adventure directed by James Cameron, and The Hurt Locker, a tense Iraq War drama directed by Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. Between these two films – and among the nominees in general – my vote would have gone to The Hurt Locker, a surprisingly thoughtful epic that focuses on the reckless tendencies of William James (Best Actor nominee Jeremy Renner), leader of The Army’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit who defuses bombs with the manner of a skilled surgeon. He is very good at his job, but he is so sure of himself that he often puts his team in danger.

Bigelow’s skill comes out in brilliantly mounted action scenes that aren’t pumped full of phony suspense, but are built on what we know of the characters and their relation to one another. The film won accolades from just about every organization that you can think of: BAFTA, The Boston Society of Film Critics, The British Independent Film Awards, The Chicago Film Critics Association, The L.A. Film Critics Association, The Nation Board of Review, and then the big one, the Best Picture Oscar.

2009 was a good year for movies. There are at least two dozen films that I had to choose from, both independent and in-studio productions, but I am going outside the box, to a film that wasn’t even given a theatrical distribution. My personal favorite film of 2009 is Nina Paley’s wonderful animated musical Sita Sings the Blues, a film that won just as many awards and accolades as The Hurt Locker but was ineligible to compete for the Academy Award due to a copyright issue. According to the academy’s rules, a film has to run for one week in a commercial theater within the county of Los Angelas in order to be eligible for a nomination. The problem is that Paley had used songs by the late 1920s jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw that were not public domain. The copyright on Hanshaw’s recordings expired but the copyright on the songs are still in effect. Therefore the film could not get a theatrical release.

The result was one of the biggest coups by any film artist in history. Paley displayed the film for free on her website (you can watch it there right now) at a low resolution and was released on the website as a free download in March 2009 at all resolutions. This allowed the film to generate a growing following (which was also helped by praise from Roger Ebert). All of this was in service of displaying a film that is, for me, pure magic. Paley created a glorious animated fantasy that is part love story, part musical, part Bollywood tribute, part comedy, part melodrama and all parts unapologetic fun.

Nina Paley spent four years making the film on her own computer, and is credited the film’s director, writer, producer, editor and animator. The result of her labor is a strange, confounding, colorful, daffy and sometimes hilarious imagining of the legendary Indian folk tale of “The Ramayana.” In it, Ramayana (referred in this film simply as “Rama”) is a blue-skinned Indian prince who dumps his wife when he suspects that she committed adultery while she was in the clutches of the creature who kidnapped her. The story is narrated by three wisecracking shadow puppets who discuss the story in an effort to orient themselves – and us – on the progress of a story that is probably far more complicated than it needs to be.

Meanwhile, in another parallel story, Paley tells her own autobiographical journey of how her husband dumped her and left her with a broken heart that ultimately resulted in her creating Sita Sings the Blues.

The main story, though, involves Rama being forced into exile by his father, at the request of his wicked stepmother who wastes no tears on her blue-skinned stepson. She tells him – with an Indian accent – “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.” Rama is married to the beautiful Sita, and asks her not to join him in his exile, but Sita is determined that a woman’s place is next to her husband.  She sings the rapturous joy of being with Rama through Hanshaw’s evocative jazzy tune “Here We Are” as the two lovers spent time playing hide and seek.  Her joy isn’t even deterred when Rama kills a group of blue demons who come out of the woods to do harm to the couple.

It is the songs that evoke the most magical moments of Sita Sings the Blues.  Sita (pronounced “See-tah”), who looks like a Middle Eastern version of Betty Boop, sings Hanshaw’s songs with a sexy, laid-back style and always punctuates the numbers with a happy “That’s all” (which was Hanshaw’s trademark).  All of the songs speak to the situation at hand, and every time Sita opens her mouth to sing, it brings a smile to our faces. Even when she’s sad, the film’s visuals still evoke a jolly tone. Paley allows the film’s visual palette to compliment what is happening to Sita during these musical interludes: When she sings “Am I Blue?” she literally turns blue. When she sings “Lover Come Back to Me”, it is accompanied by repeated scenes of her lover dropping her.

Sita maintains her loyalty to Rama, but trouble is afoot when an evil ten-headed king named Ravana is informed by his sister Surphanaka (sporting a nasty set of fangs) that Rama has killed his prized flock of blue demons, so he plots to get revenge by kidnapping Sita.  Spurring Ravana on to the idea of a kidnapping, Surphanaka describes Sita this way: “She is the most beautiful woman in the world. Her skin is fair like the lotus blossom.  Her eyes are like lotus pools. Her hands are like… from… lotuses. Her breasts like… BIG… ROUND… FIRM… JUICY… LOTUSES.” Ravana asks his underling to transform himself into a golden deer to distract Rama while he kidnaps Sita.  Blissfully unaware of the kidnapping plot, Sita is snatched right out of her house while in the midst of singing of her devotion to Rama with “What Wouldn’t I Do for that Man”, a song that eventually proves prophetic.

Anguished over the disappearance of his beloved Sita, Rama plots to rescue her with the help of the monkey warrior Hanuman who – if I understood correctly – was apparently created by the gods just for that purpose. Sita, meanwhile receives a threat from Ravana that if she doesn’t agree to marry him, that his blue demons will cut her to ribbons. Hanuman shows up to rescue Sita while she mournfully sings “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home.” It is during this number (which includes Sita’s own claranet solo) that Hanuman proves to be an adept warrior as one of the blue demons sets his tail on fire and he, in turn, uses it set fire to Ravana’s palace. He leaves Ravana’s island and returns to tell Rama the whole story. Why Hanuman didn’t just take Sita back with him is a question that the narrators debate.

Rama and Hanuman amass a giant army of monkey warriors to return to Ravana’s island and rescue Sita. The plan goes into effect as Sita happily sings “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” The blue demons are dispatched with ease and the ten-headed Ravana is decapitated over and over and over again. Sita is delighted to have her beloved come and rescue her, however he is thoughtless, suspicious and jealous. Rama tells her “You have lived in another man’s house so you are unfit to be my wife. He cannot have kept you in his house for so long without touching you”. Seeing Sita as damaged goods and cuts her loose. Sita is broken-hearted and sings of her sadness with the melancholy tune “Mean to Me”.

The conclusion I must leave for you to discover, suffice to say that what passes for a happy ending will depend on how badly you really want Rama and Sita to be together again. This is a film that asks questions about what a woman is willing to settle for from her man. Sita’s story is the story of a woman treated cruelly by her man when jealousy overtakes him and the price she is willing to pay for his mistrust.

This is a story that Nina Paley understood all too well. Her story is told in the film in a parallel subplot that is interspersed within the main story. In it, Paley plays herself, a woman living in San Francisco who is dumped by her boyfriend Dave when he gets a job in India and leaves her for another woman. As he treats her like dirt, eventually leaving her a hurtful note: “Don’t Call Back”, she sits in her roach-infested apartment and falls into despair before pulling herself together and discovering the book “The Ramayana”, and sitting down at her computer for four years to write her screenplay.

What came from Paley’s discovery is a work of pure imagination. She uses every animation trick at her disposal, and presents three different styles of animation to tell the three stories: First is the narration, which uses the shadow puppets and cut-out artwork to explain and orient us on the story of The Ramayana. As the three try and keep the story straight and help us keep up with the action. The second are the musical numbers, which use a bold vector graphic-type animation which offsets Hanshaw’s scratchy recordings. Everything within the frame is always in motion. Sita is always in the center, singing Hanshaw’s jazz tunes as the edges of the frame is packed with odd birds and strange creatures who keep in time with the music. Third is the modern story of David and Nina which is animated using rough sketches and crude character designs. These scenes compliment the story of Rama and Sita by suggesting that the reason that Nina eventually sits down to write the screenplay for this movie was that she, in her own way, lived part of Sita’s story.

Paley is generous with her visuals. She refuses confine herself within the traditional limits of animation and goes wild with her imagination. There are little moments throughout the film that are pure genius. Take for example, the opening scene which features the Hindu goddess Lashmi rising from the water and listening to a phonograph record – the needle of the machine is the beak of a large bird. When the record skips, the bird hardly seems to notice but Lashmi taps it and the whole screen explodes like The Big Bang.

I also liked a strange moment during the number “Here We Are” when Rama and Sita celebrate their love while Rama dispatches an army of blue demons and the song ends with the spurting blood from the carcasses creating a romantic arching fountain for the lovers. I love the film’s two-minute intermission – a sort-of Bollywood tribute – in which the characters cross the screen in front of a closed curtain and return with drinks and snacks from the concession stand (Ravana has ten drinks – one for each head). There is also a nice running joke in which every song ends with Hanshaw’s trademark phrase “That’s All” which, in the end, nicely compliments Sita’s final words.

The film contains at least two dozen moments like that. Sita Sings the Blues represents all the reasons that I love the movies. It is lively and fun, it tells a great story that is equal parts comedy, drama, romance, heartbreak, adventure, comeuppance, revenge, all mixed into a musical that is bouncy and fun. It tells a story that is universal in a way that we’ve never seen before, using various techniques and camera tricks to tickle us and treat us and allow us regard it with wonder. I like this movie a lot.

Best Actor

Jeff Bridges
(Crazy Heart)
The Nominees: George Clooney (Up in the Air), Colin Firth (A Single Man), Morgan Freeman (Invictus), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)

Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)
My Nominees: Nicholas Cage (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans), Nicholas Cage (Knowing), Patton Oswalt (Big Fan), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)


Jeff Bridges has been a movie star all my life – I mean literally all my life – he had his breakthrough in The Last Picture Show in 1971, the year that I was born. In 38 years, Bridges has become one of our most dependable actors, turning in a gallery of great performances, not one of which he could look back and be ashamed of.

Bridges has a natural ease on the screen, the kind of presence that Robert Mitchum and Tommy Lee Jones have, in which he never seems to be acting. It always feels like the camera just found him. That kind of presence is rare and it has gotten him a great deal of praise but very rarely any true accolades. He had nominated for the Oscar four times but had never won. Maybe that came from the fact that his performances are never showy. Most actors who receive awards stand out, but Bridges blends in, always seeming like an organic part of the film rather than a front-and-center component.

His laid-back style is at the center of Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart which is easily the best performance of Jeff Bridges’ distinguished career. He occupies a character that should be riddled with cliches, but isn’t – a drunken country singer. He plays Bad Blake, a once-great country star who’s best days are long gone. Once he filled stadiums to thousands of screaming fans and now he spends his Saturday nights occupying whatever stage will have him – as the movie opens he’s playing a gig at a bowling alley.

Blake’s life is a sad country song. At 57, he is a drunk, a veteran of four failed marriages and the father of a kid he hasn’t seen in 20 years. He still gets noticed by his older fans, and to those fans, he is gracious. He has lived a hard life that has left regret and a lot of broken hearts in its wake. He chooses to keep his first name anonymous. When a journalist asks for it he tells her “I’m Bad Blake. My tombstone will have my real name on it. Until then, I’m just . . . Bad”  Everyone calls him Bad. In a way, I think the name is penance, a constant reminder of the heartache that he has caused in his life.

Blake may be a drunk with a sagging career but he isn’t bitter. We expect a man in his condition to be angry old SOB, but he is actually a very nice guy; sweet, vulnerable and a little bit needy. His face tells us what we need to know. Here is a very sad man, a regretful soul with sad eyes that reveal a weary heart. His heavily-lined face shows the years of booze and hard living and his voice is a low growl rubbed raw by gallons of whiskey. We rarely see him without a bottle in his hand, he is an alcoholic and it is his addiction that has left him lonely and destitute – he doesn’t appear to have a home and lives in a string of unkempt motel rooms.

His lifestyle is also causing a strain on health. He not only drinks but has chain smoked himself into emphysema. Blake is not a bad guy, but he is a picture of self-destruction. An opening scene, in which he exits his 1978 Suburban with a milk jug filled with urine and empties it onto the ground (he travels a lot), is incredibly symbolic – this man is, literally, pissing his life away.

What comes out in his songs are a sort-of Greek chorus to the life he lives off-stage. He sings songs like “Somebody Else” which contains the lyrics “I saw you shed a single tear. Still I can’t peal away the years”. The movie wouldn’t work without songs like this, they tell us that his life comes through his music. It also wouldn’t work if Bridges couldn’t sing. He has a natural voice in which he doesn’t just sing the lyrics but actually believes what he is singing. Blake’s craggy voice, beaten raw by booze, gives those songs a kind of authentic feel.

The relief of Crazy Heart is that this is not a portrait of blind self-destruction, it is the story of a man weighed down by regret who wants to find some form of redemption. That redemption comes – as all stories like this must – from the heart of a good woman. She is Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist who interviews Blake for a local magazine. There is an unexpected charm about this poor soul and it captures her heart, especially when he breaks away from the monotony of the standard interview questions and tells her “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look.” This charm breaks Jean’s journalistic integrity and is made curious by the fact that she admits that she is a magnet for men who don’t treat her right (from her failed marriage has come a son named Buddy).  She’s young yet, she has been burned by men but still hasn’t acquired the thick skin that she needs to resist them.  Blake wouldn’t seem to be any different, his irresponsible life should indicate that she is setting herself up for another heartbreak (she eventually gets one) but Blake has an open heart and she falls for him anyway.

The rest of the story finds Blake attempting to reform his hard-living while trying to establish broken ties and reestablish his damaged career.  Blake’s pride is as much to blame for his self-destruction as anything else as when he gets an offer to write songs for Tommy Sweet (Colin Ferrell), a kid that Blake once mentored who is now a rising young country music star.  The look on Blake’s face when he is asked to be the kid’s opening act is one of damaged pride and the realization of how far he has fallen.

What amazes me most about Crazy Heart is how far the screenplay is willing to go to avoid cliche.  Stories like this have been written over and over since the beginning of the movies, but Cooper’s screenplay (from a novel by Thomas Cobb) manages to create real characters who are not manipulated by the plot.  We expect that Blake’s drinking will lead to the standard scenes in which he is stumbling on the stage but, aside from a moment when he must excuse himself to make use of the back alley garbage can, he remains a wonderful presence on the stage.  Blake’s fate is expected but his journey getting there is not.  When he makes a serious mistake involving Jean’s son Buddy there are consequences but not what we expect and it leads him into a kind of redemption that – in a lesser film – would have seemed tacked on.  When we get to the end, it is hard to believe that Blake is going to be able to sustain a clean life but we sense that he is smarter about the damage that he has caused to others and to himself.

Best Actress

Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side)
The Nominees:Helen Mirren (The Last Station), Carey Mulligan (An Education), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire), Meryl Streep (Julie and Julia)

Gabourey Sidibe (Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire)
My Nominees: Shohreh Aghdashloo (The Stoning of Soraya M), Sandra Bullock (The Proposal), Isla Fisher (Confessions of a Shopaholic), Sasha Grey (The Girlfriend Experience), Ellen Page (Whip It), Meryl Streep (Julie and Julia), Tilda Swinton (Julia)


When Sandra Bullock gives a good performance, she is very, very good. In her best movies like Speed, The Lake House, Crash, The Proposal, 28 Days and While You Were Sleeping, she is a joy to watch.  She has a natural ease on the screen and gives off the kind of friendly vibe that make you want to have coffee with her.

Unfortunately, her career has more misses than hits.  A good example is the film that got her an Oscar for Best Actress, John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side.  She plays Leigh Anne Tohey, a wealthy Memphis real estate agent who takes in a poor sad-eyed black kid (Quinton Aron) when she sees him walking home in the rain.  She sees that the kid has had a hard time in life and gives him a home, a family and a good education.  She also discovers the he has the chops to be a great defensive tackle.

The movie is based on a true story, but ironically, every single second feels manufactured – it runs the sports movie cliche book from A to Z and back again.  There isn’t a moment that feels real or natural.  Bullock’s performance does the movie no favors.  She plays a character who’s sole personality trait is that she always gets her way.  There is nothing individual about Leigh Ann Tohey because all of her speeches seem created to get her that Oscar. I don’t blame Bullock for that, she does what she can, but I question the academy voters for giving her an Oscar.

Meanwhile, Lee Daniels’ devastating drama Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire seems to do everything right that The Blind Side does wrong. The key is the casting and none is better than my choice for Best Actress of 2009, Gabourey Sidibe in her debut performance in the title role. Aided by a wonderfully written Oscar winning script by Geoffrey Fletcher, Sidibe finds the perfect note to play a character who sometimes seems damaged beyond repair. Her performance takes place between the lines, between the spoken words. It is all there in her sad eyes

Sidibe plays Clareece Precious Jones – known simply as Precious – a shy, overweight 16 year-old whose life a sad story of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. She has been in this chaos since she was an infant. Her mother, Mary (Supporting Actress winner Mo’Nique) is a mean, violent woman who has been beaten down by life and takes it out on her daughter. Mary made the choice long ago to simply stew in her anger. She sits on her couch, collects welfare checks and demands that her daughter do the same.

The household that Precious inhabits is a snake pit of abuse. We sense that there hasn’t been a happy moment in many years. Precious’ life with her mother is something akin to living with a pit bull. She wants so badly to make her way in the world get out of her mother’s line of sight. She barely says a word to her mother (she hardly gets a chance) and there are moments when the two circle on another like angry dogs. Precious’ function is simply to move to her place of safety to get away from her. The best example takes place early in the film when Mary tries to hit Precious with a frying pan and she ducks out of the way just in time to avoid being hit. Something about Precious’ quick reflex tells us that she has trained her reflexes over many years.

The tension between Mary and Precious comes from Mary’s insecurity. Precious is young and has a goal in life. She is a very smart girl who succeeds at school. Mary stews in jealousy and her response is to beat her daughter verbally, making her think that she is stupid and ugly. She blames Precious for getting pregnant by her man, despite the fact that she was raped by him. Mary knows that her ability to get another man is limited and blames Precious for trying to steal him away.

Underneath her sad, withdrawn exterior we sense that Precious wants something else out of life. Having been raped twice by her father, she has two children – one who has down syndrome and the other with whom she is currently pregnant. The child that she has a daughter with down syndrome. She lives with a relative and only comes to the house to make Mary seem more affectionate when the lady from the welfare office comes around.

Precious is determined to get her children out of this mess. She can see that getting the most out of her education is the best way to give them a future. She can see their future in the life she tries to build for herself. She wants to further her education to give them a chance so they won’t fall into the kind of hornet’s nest that Mary has provided for their mother.

Precious is buried in deep insecurity, she is overweight, illiterate and painfully shy. When she speaks, it often comes out in a low mumble. In her mind though, she dreams of being admired. We see her fantasies of being on stage, of being glamorous. She dreams of dating the cute guy up the street, and having him come by to pick her up on his motorcycle. She even dreams of being white. At one point, when she looks in the mirror, we see the reflection is a pretty white girl – a fantasy she has of herself.

School is an ordeal. It is for most people but for a shy, overweight girl who never speaks, it can be Hell. With these barriers set in place for Precious, it seems that life will be an uphill struggle. It is made worse when her second pregnancy gets her suspended from school. Her principal recommends and alternative school where she become the student of Ms. Rain, an inspiration to Precious who inspires her to learn to read. Ms. Rain’s class is full of other young girls who seems to be in a similar situation as Precious.

Another inspiration comes into Precious’ hemisphere, Ms. Weiss, a social worker that Precious occasionally meets with. It is through Ms. Weiss that Precious is able to finally break her silence about the things going on at home. What she gets from these two women is the confidence to believe that a better life awaits herself and her children. Pulling her son and daughter out of her mother’s world is the only way to break the legacy of destruction and abuse.

I am always excited when I see a new talent and Gabourey Sidibe, at 26, has many notes to play. Her performance is understated, even in the heavy dramatic scenes. There is a cold defensive shield to Precious that has been built on years of abuse and neglect. Yet, under that exterior, we can see a charming girl. Fantasies occasionally appear in Precious’ point of view as a means of escape and we can see in those scenes, in which Precious appears glamorous – Sidibe is really a very beautiful girl. There are seams that break once in a while, especially as Precious narrates her story, that tells us how she thinks. Sitting with Ms. Rain and her friend, Precious comments “They talk like TV channels I don’t watch”. Often she seems somewhat poetic: “Some folks have a lot of things around them that shines for other people. I think that maybe some of them was in tunnels. And in that tunnel, the only light they had, was inside of them. And then long after they escape that tunnel, they still be shining for everybody else.”

What we get from Precious is something more than the sum of her situation. No matter how much her mother tells her that she is nothing, Precious never really believes that. Something inside of her tells her that she was meant for something more. She was meant to have more in life than the small space that her mother tries to push her into. When she escapes her mother’s wrath, it becomes clear that a stronger person has emerged. She hasn’t completed her journey, but we sense that Precious is well on her way.

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