Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sci-Fi at the Oscars

Most movies fall into only a handful of major genres. Drama, Comedy, Action/Adventure, Musical, Fantasy and of course… Science Fiction. You might think that since there are only a few basic categories that at one point or another a film from each major genre would have earned Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But not so. No Sci-Fi film has ever won the top prize, and in the entire history of the Oscars only a few have even been nominated for Best Picture.

Before this year, the only Sci-Fi films ever to be nominated for Best Picture were A Clockwork Orange (1971), Star Wars (1977), and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). That’s it. Three films since the annual ceremony began in 1927.

Then, in 2009, two Sci-Fi films were nominated among the expanded field of ten films, nearly matching the entire history of the Oscars in a single year. Those films were District 9 and Avatar.

District 9 was a relatively low budget film, set in South Africa, and it told the story of aliens being forced to live in a prison camp. It was a political film that echoed the real life struggle of the black population under apartheid in South Africa. Avatar was a massive three hour epic that pioneered a new type of motion-capture digital animation in 3D about a soldier who infiltrates an alien tribe using “avatar” technology. A human gets strapped into a machine and their consciousness is linked to a new body genetically engineered to look like those of the aliens. It went on to make more money than any other film in history, proving the box office viability of the Sci-Fi genre.

There were also other great Sci-Fi films in 2009. Star Trek, the re-booted story of the classic original characters, got the famous franchise that began in the ‘60s back into the mainstream. It got back to the roots of the original series, combining drama, humor, and adventure. There was also a very low budget film called Moon, starring Sam Rockwell who turned in perhaps the best performance of the entire year, about an astronaut on a three year solo mission on the surface of the moon. Science Fiction has a unique ability to make political points and comment on our culture by showing us other worlds, species, and time periods. Sometimes in order to learn about ourselves we need to put the story into a context that isn’t quite so familiar. Star Trek shows a future in which humanity has cured disease, stopped wars among countries, and united as a planetary race to explore the universe after it is discovered Earth isn’t the only home for life out there. District 9 exposes the ugliness of prejudice and racism by showing how fear leads people to subjugate those they don’t understand. Both Moon and Avatar make statements about corporate greed and the willingness to sacrifice lives and natural wonders for the sake of making money.

Science Fiction films have always played an important role in our popular culture, but have never quite gotten the respect they often deserve from the critics. They are never taken quite as seriously as they should, perhaps because of their subject matter. The very thing that allows them to be great can also make them appear silly on a surface level. But hopefully, 2009 was the beginning of a resurgence in the Science Fiction genre, and one day soon a Sci-Fi film will actually take home the Oscar for Best Picture.

Monday, March 8, 2010

TOP 10 FILMS OF 2009

10) A SINGLE MAN - No, NOT A Serious Man. That's a different movie altogether. A Single Man was maybe the most beautiful movie of the year. Each shot is meticulously composed by first time writer/director Tom Ford, previously best known for his work in the fashion industry. Colin Firth redefines himself as a leading man in this film, giving one of the best performances of the year. It's a film about realizing what's important in life and sorting out your priorities while you still have time.

9) THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS - This was Heath Ledger's last film. He died during production, but his final performance was fantastic, as were the performances of his friends (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell) who filled in to complete his work after he died. Terry Gilliam directed a film in Imaginarium that is almost impossible to describe and it has to be seen to be believed. It's a wild, artistc free-for-all.

8) UP IN THE AIR - This is a film that on the surface appears to be very ordinary, but it's filled with such subtle quality, and it's the perfect film to define the economic times we're in today. Of the 10 films nominated for Best Picture, this is the only one that I agree should have been among the 10 best of the year.

7) MOON - Compared to the 3 big Sci-Fi hits of 2009 (Avatar, Star Trek, District 9) very few people saw this low budget gem. But I highly enourage everyone to see it now that it's been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Sam Rockwell turned in the single best performance of the entire year, and it's a shame he didn't even get a nomination for his brilliant work as an astronaut on a 3 year solo mission at a mining colony on the surface of the moon. This is the 2001: A Space Odyssey of this generation, without the psychedelic ending. That being said, it's still a bit of a mind bender.

6) CORALINE - UP was good, but Coraline was better. Digital animation may be king right now, but this old-school stop-motion animated film is a wonder to behold. Not only is the animation beautiful, but the voice acting is top notch, especially by Teri Hatcher. It's a dark tale about a bored kid who goes on an adventure to entertain herself, and it leaves the audience spellbound as well.

5) WATCHMEN - This film, adapted from possibly the greatest comic book/graphic novel of all-time, was said to be impossible to film. One, because of the sheer size and scope of the complicated story, and two, because it would just be so hard to do justice to the source material in a normal feature length film. But Zack Snyder was able to do just that. It's a superhero movie unlike any you've ever seen before. It supposes that costumed heroes are just regular people and it analyzes what their impact would be on society and on the psyche of those who wear masks to fight crime. It's dark, bloody, and not your father's comic book movie.

4) THE ROAD - Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic world in which almost all life on Earth is dying, food is scarce, and your life depends on staying hidden from bands of cannibals. The novel is a masterpiece, but the film succeeds in being even darker, bleaker than the source material. Viggo Mortensen turns in another amazing performance as a father trying to keep himself and his son alive for as long as possible, and the cinematic vision of the film is so complete you really fear for the lives of the characters and feel that any moment could be their last.

3) (500) DAYS OF SUMMER - This was the big surprise of the year for me. Just a wonderfully perfect movie. The soundtrack is fantastic and the two leads, Zooey Deschamel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, turn in excellent performances as lovers who weren't meant to be. (That's not actually a spoiler because they tell you in the first minute of the movie). It's a fantastic twist on the "boy meets girl" formula and it's a movie that can be re-watched 100 times and never get old. It resonates on such a personal, emotional level while still being able to maintain a light tone.

2) HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE - I don't know how they do it, but the Harry Potter series just keeps getting better. Half-Blood is the best installment from the wildly popular series so far, and that's saying a lot. While it may have been disappointing to those looking to see more magic and fantasy, the story instead really develops all the characters into three dimensional people, perfectly setting up the final film. It's a slow burn, and by the time you get to the end your emotions are running sky high. It's about love, loyalty, life, and death. Look for an excellent performance from the young actor Tom Felton as Draco malfoy.

1) ADVENTURELAND - And Finally, the best film of the year, Adventureland. It was mis-marketed as a silly teen comedy, trying to capitalize on the success of Suberbad, but Adventureland is so much more than that. It's a deeply personal story about a kid about to go to an ivy league college, but his parents are suddenly in financial trouble and can't afford to send him to the school he's been accepted to. Instead of taking a trip to Eurpoe with his friend he's forced to take a a job at the local amusement park. It's a coming of age tale told in such a delicate and honest way. Honest is really the best word I can use to describe the film. There is never a moment that rings false, and the acting and pacing is perfect throughout. Unfortunately, this amazing film only made about $16 million at the box office, but if there's any justice in the universe it will become a hit as people look back at it over the years.

Close, but no cigar...

The Hurt Locker
Where the Wild Things Are
Star Trek
In The Loop
Drag Me To Hell
Whip It
The Hangover
Inglourious Basterds
Away We Go
Public Enemies
A Serious Man
District 9

(and no, Avatar wasn't even in the running. An amazing technical achievement to be sure, but the script is so poor that it just knocked it too far out of the contest.)