Like the current Academy Awards that decided to revamp its format this year and include 10 choices for Best Picture, our annual Shorts Ends and Leader acknowledgements – or the SEALS, for short – has undergone a bit of a make-over as well. No, we still don’t look at the actual Oscar nominees for guidance. We figure that once these movies have made it into mainstream recognition, they no longer need our support. So instead, we only choose movies and moviemakers who didn’t manage a ticket to the Kodak Theater on 7 March. We also maintain our own exclusive category – Best Guilty Pleasure – as well as look well beyond the last minute awards season snowballing to find many of our winners. Finally, we don’t grouse at success. You don’t have to be a box office nonentity to earn our attention around here. In fact, we kind of like your motion picture pot luck success.
But we have tried to be a bit more pragmatic this year. It’s hard not to be when a bunch of Hollywood backslappers steal most of your potential thunder. In any other year, we’d be touting the wonders of District 9 or A Serious Man. But since the Academy let these titles into the formerly exclusive Best Picture party, we have to step back and think outside the standard cinematic box. Still, many of you won’t agree with most of our choices, forgetting our “no nominee” mandate from a paragraph ago and acting annoyed when your favorite film – In the Loop, Avatar – isn’t mentioned. Perhaps the best way to look at The SEALS is as an alternative’s alternative, a last gasp wrap up of the year in film before the next massive marketing onslaught starts. In any case, here are the winners for 2010, beginning with:
Audacity is in short supply among today’s current cinema. Moviemaking, even on the highest of awards season levels, is all about playing it safe while occasionally taking some demographically determined risks. Look over the 10 films selected by the Academy for its first post-millennial plea for ratings. Are any of them as out of this world weird and anarchically ballsy as this Lars Von Trier thriller? With stellar performances from Willem Dafoe and an unfairly robbed Charlotte Gainsbourg (seriously, she deserves a nomination over at least half of the current Oscar crop), this visually stunning work remains one of 2009’s most brazen achievements. Chaos reigns indeed.
Best Director – Star Trek
It’s still amazing what he managed to accomplish here. Given his track record as a filmmaker (Mission: Impossible III???) and the overall expectations of the fan base, any level of success for a Star Trek reboot would seem like a victory. That the man who mentored Lost into one of TV’s consistently compelling entertainments found a way to revitalize both the feel good blockbuster and the sagging fortunes of Roddenberry’s baby is cause for massive celebration. Thirty years ago, fans were foaming over George Lucas and Star Wars. In the next decade, it will be Abrams and the latest Trek that gets geeks going.
Best Actor – The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Maybe it’s supposed to be a goof. Perhaps no one could team up with the half-crazed humanist Werner Herzog and deliver a performance of subtlety and nuance. Cage’s bad lieutenant take is over the top, in your face, and shameless in its desire to confront and confuse. It’s also leaps and bounds better than all the semi-serious seat-shifting caused by the current list of gold statue wannabes. In truth, you can take every performance this year and put it up against Cage’s condemnation of a couple of old ladies in a nursing home and not find a better, more stunning onscreen epiphany.
Best Actress – Away We Go
It’s hard to be the Earth mother center of a slightly new-aged look at pregnancy, especially with Hollywood’s longstanding bias toward making biology the cloying cure-all for most of society’s woes. But thanks to the man behind the camera – the unfairly marginalized Sam Mendes – and a sunny script from novelist Dave Eggers and his partner Vendela Vida, the former SNL star simply beams here. Rudolph is the ballast for this often clichéd and contrite attempt to put parenting into post-modern terms. She keeps everything in focus, bringing a sexuality and sensibility that few around her share, but all readily warm to.
Jackie Earle Haley
Best Supporting Actor – Watchmen
It was hard enough bringing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ iconic graphic novel to the big screen. Even more difficult was the numerous casting decisions that had to be made, considering how beloved (and mythic) many of the characters were. So Zack Snyder earns a billion brownie points for picking this former Bad News child star as Rorschach, the complicated narrative’s marauding amoral compass. In a performance filled with masterful moments, none are better than when, confronted with his true identity, our antihero explains the events that lead to the “death” of his real persona. The pain in Haley’s eyes is so powerful it nearly pierces your heart.
Best Supporting Actress – Avatar
Stop it, right now. We know that almost 100% of this turn is tricked out in a computer, but motion capture has to have something to base its bitmap actions and reactions on, and no one did a better job than this emerging star. Ms. Saldana makes us believe in the Na’Vi and her earnest warrior/guide Neytiri. Even better, she finds the right balance between big budget F/X spectacle and personal approach to guarantee that we never get lost in the dizzying 3D dynamic. Of all the work done to bring this story to life, Ms. Saldana is the most important element in keeping the fantasy “real”, so to speak.
Best Script – Adventureland
When you think about it, this movie shouldn’t have worked. Instead of focusing on raunchy high school antics and gross out gags, Mottola (most famous for helming Superbad) went for depth and emotion. Instead of casting hot Hollywood post-tween Twilighters, he went for Jesse Eisenberg and…well, a few other unusual choices. The result was one of the most heartfelt and flawlessly observant looks at what it was like to be a young adult in the mid ’80s ever. Not only is the humor warm and witty, but the rest of the narrative and timeline nods are equally pristine. Not just nostalgic, but knowing.
Anvil: The Story of Anvil
Apparently, Oscar doesn’t do “feel good” when it comes to documentaries. It also doesn’t “get” heavy metal music, or the men who make it. This masterful example of perseverance and the bonds of friendship didn’t even make the original Academy short list, let alone find a way toward a nomination – and that’s a crime. This remains 2009’s finest fact film, a rollercoaster of failures and unfulfilled wishes that continues to play out in real life (the group is currently touring the US to sold-out audiences). While the little gold statue will eventually go to some goody two-shoes, this doc earns its far finer rock and roll spoils.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Best Animated Feature
They can blame The Secret of Kells. While the Irish indie darling stole this film’s potential Academy thunder, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller can take pride in knowing that they created one of the funniest, freshest CG films of this or any other year. Right up there with Pixar’s best, this sunny, inventive effort does so many things right that it would take some backwards Oscar politicking fluke to find it on the outside looking in. While it’s hard to imagine it could dethrone the current House of Mouse cartoon kings, this remains one of the year’s biggest – and best – surprises.
Best Foreign Film
This was TOUGH. Truthfully, the sly and quite subversive White Ribbon is this year’s best foreign film. Period. But in staying with our “no nominees” format, we can’t champion it. Therefore, we have to look beyond the usual international suspects and pursue alternative subtitled fare. The answer? NAZI ZOMBIES, or course. The minute one learns that this film focuses on a group of stranded vacationers surrounded by reanimated members of the Third Reich, all manner of exploitative schlock possibilities are trigger – and for the most part, this Norwegian horror romp delivers. While Michael Haenke deserves Oscar gold, this crazy little creepfest deserves some surreal scary movie recognition of its own.
Best Guilty Pleasure
For those of us who grew up in the ’70s, the disaster film was our pre-Spielberg big ticket item. We couldn’t wait to see what Irwin Allen had for us next, be it an earthquake, a towering inferno, or a capsized cruise ship. Leave it to German genius Roland Emmerich to take all three conceits and inflate them with the latest cinematic air hose, CG, into something truly unhinged. The destruction (and sinking!!!) of Los Angeles is just one of dozens of definitive action/catastrophes that will blown away your peanut-sized mind. Sure, things slow down toward the end, but when you’ve wiped out most of humanity, there’s not much more that you can do.