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Frank J. Avella’s
Film Column

2009 Oscar Hopefuls

Written by Frank J. Avella




February 15, 2010:

I am so bloody tired of being told by bloggers that choosing between Avatar and The Hurt Locker is comparable to choosing between money and quality. That is such bullshit and it’s really getting me angry and it should incense ALL true film lovers AND Academy members.

Both happen to be amazing films. Classic stuff. Subjectively, they also happen to be my two favorite films of 2009. And how rare is it that my two faves are actually vying for the Best Picture Oscar, let alone are the two front-runners. (Yes, even taking into account the preferential balloting in effect this year, they are still the front-runners so just SUCK IT haters.) Usually, I am stuck with the knowledge that my favorites don’t really have a shot. The last time my favorite film was nearing the winner’s circle, homophobia won the day and a manipulative piece of Oprah-love beat out a truly great cinematic achievement: Brokeback Mountain. I love the big O but she really needs to shut up sometimes…thanks to her, Peter O’Toole went home an 8- time loser in 2007! Okay, maybe it wasn’t all her fault but she didn’t help things!

It’s my blog and I’ll rant if I want to…which brings me back to David vs. Goliath.

The Hurt Locker is a visceral film experience with a genius performance by Jeremy Renner (who SHOULD win the Best Actor statue no matter how “due” Jeff Bridges is), smart and savvy direction by Kathryn Bigelow (who will justly win the Best Director award and make history doing so) and a taut and gripping script by Mark Boal (who should win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar but the Tarantino-ites will make that one difficult). The film’s balls-on exploration of the thrill seeker in all of us funneled through the story of a bomb diffuser is downright audacious. In addition, THL is not only the best film made about the Iraq conflict it’s one of the best “war” films of the last few decades. So it made no money at the box office ($13 mil), it’s a masterwork that will be remembered years from now as a classic while movies like Crash, A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator are seen as misguided missteps made by the Academy.

The Hurt Locker is competing with the behemoth, Avatar, now the biggest domestic grosser of all-time, which—on a completely different level—happens to be a remarkable film. Technological innovation aside, Avatar is a richly rewarding, visually stunning movie that actually has something to say about our military and the pomposity of the US. Yes, Cameron is making millions, via a a corporation, by telling a story about how we should be shunning the corporations but he’s still putting the statement out there. He’s an arrogant, difficult filmmaker who happens to also be a true visionary. And the dense and intricate script (which has been so maligned in blogland you wonder if these self-proclaimed cinephiles know anything about screenwriting) is to be commended with seemingly obvious dialogue that is actually smart enough to use clichés in the most ironic of ways. In addition, Avatar has some terrifically overlooked acting by Worthington, Saldana and, especially, Weaver.

Choosing between these two is like choosing between Mad Men and True Blood. Or Nurse Jackie and 30 Rock. I love both. They’re so very different. And I refuse to go the route so many of my fellow bloggers are going, trashing one in a foolish attempt to raise up the other.

It’s appalling how many journalists are actually changing their opinions about one in order to rally behind the other.

Voting for The Hurt Locker is not voting for the small, independent film or the underdog or a female director because it’s time or sticking it to Hollywood. And voting for Avatar is not a vote for the animation-takeover or Hollywood money or innovation or Cameron to make him happy.

A vote for either film is a vote for quality. Get that? Quality. When the history of the 2009 Oscars is written, let it be said the Academy had the balls to nominate two astonishing motion pictures that capture audience imaginations and give them an exhilarating ride they will not soon forget. Those films are Avatar and The Hurt Locker.

Which is better? It’s ALL subjective. And we are all allowed our opinions. And AMPAS’ collective opinion will be made known soon.

And if Inglourious Basterds or Up in the Air somehow triumph (highly unlikely but possible), that would be okay, too since they’re both among the year’s best as far as I’m concerned. Selecting any of the other six would reflect a vote for mediocrity, imho.


My personal choice is actually Avatar. It blew me away in a way I haven’t felt in a long while. That isn’t to say that if The Hurt Locker wins, I will be upset. That film affected me deeply. There is no David and Goliath here. It’s like choosing between The Departed and Letters from Iwo Jima. The Departed won (thank God Marty finally did), but it doesn’t take away from the brilliance of Eastwood’s pic.

Take note that when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (a huge box office champ) was up against the sublime Lost in Translation, no one made it about art vs. commerce. I don’t know if it’s just dislike for the snarky Cameron or a need to bash the moneymaker and audience pleaser And I have no problem doing that when the film is crap, but regardless of how much money it makes, Avatar stands as a truly great film. Right next to The Hurt Locker.

December 20, 2009:


I have decided to choose a top 13 for my favorite movies of 2009 as well as this past decade (even though the decade doesn’t technically end until NEXT year). It’s my lucky number and who decided 10 was the definitive quantity anyway!

My Favorite Films of 2009

Honorable Mentions to:
Broken Promises, Crazy Heart, District 9, Duplicity, An Education, (500) Days of Summer, Flame and Citron, The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant, It’s Complicated, Julia, Julie and Julia, The Last Station, The Messenger, Moon, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Outrage, Precious, A Prophet, Public Enemies, Star Trek, Up, The Young Victoria.

And a loud shout out to:

Italy’s Vincere which should have had a 2009 release and would have been in my Top 5, but will instead be released in 2010…

My 13 favorite films of 2009:

13. Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater. A delight from beginning to end, this gem has been rightly praised for Christian McKay’s genius embodiment of the genius wunderkind Welles, but the film itself has been unjustly overlooked. It terrifically captures an important moment in theatre history—and because of what Welles was to achieve—cinema history. Enthralling and perceptive yet old-fashioned, the movie avoids the cliche' trappings of standard period flicks and focuses on love and art and the passion both demand.

James Gandolfini in In The Loop

12. In The Loop, directed by Armando Iannucci. This biting, abrasive and profanely exhilarating film captures the true redundancy of political satire and cunningly sends up the maneuverings and machinations of two of the most powerful nations on the planet. The Strangelovian plot is simultaneously side-splittingly funny and jaw-droppingly cynical. And the acting is sensational with a cast of seasoned pros that complement one another. James Gandolfini is particularly hilarious as an off-kilter US General. But the film belongs to Peter Capaldi (so good in Torchwood). As spin-doctor extraordinaire, Malcolm Tucker, Capaldi gives a relentlessly furious performance so enjoyable it should be criminal! His nasty and searing line deliveries are some of the funniest movie moments I have seen in eons.

Charlotte Gainsborough and Willem Dafoe in Antichrist

11. Antichrist, directed by Lars von Trier. A horror film born out of the disturbed, genius mind of auteur provocateur von Trier, Antichrist is one of the most disturbing and deliberately enigmatic films of 2009. It took me two viewings to get my bearings on this challenging, enraging and mesmerizing movie. And even then, I wasn’t sure what I really felt. I do know that its grueling exploration of the dark side of human nature has stayed with me all these months.

A Serious Man

10. A Serious Man, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen. This bizarre and highly personal film is one of the Coen brothers’ best works. As someone who has a love/respectfully dislike relationship with their work this came as a refreshing surprise. Michael Stuhlbarg leads a relatively unknown cast in a movie that explores ethical and moral dilemmas on small and grand scales via a Jewish family growing up in the post-Cold War 60s. In keeping their film seemingly narrow in focus, it is disturbingly universal.

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single Man

9. A Single Man, directed by Tom Ford. Based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, this film is startling in it’s presentation of a day in the life of a gay man in 1962 haunted by the death of his significant other. Colin Firth is given the role of his career and there is great supporting work by Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult, whose pretty features shouldn’t take away from the fact that he’s a really good actor. A newcomer to directing, Ford fearlessly avoids the obvious and, instead, gives us a beautifully sublime and richly satisfying meditation on the devastating impact death can have on someone.

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus

8. Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood. Age cannot slow this auteur down and it continues to be a cause for rejoicing. Invictus is pretty straightforward in its storytelling and instead of an epic journey, Eastwood decided to focus on the smaller details of this amazingly true story. We become privy to Mandela’s loneliness as we watch him at home eating alone. We imagine the thoughts going through Pienaar’s head as he stands in the jail cell that held Mandela for 27 years. In zeroing in on the details, Eastwood allows for empathy, something rare in a film. And to the detractors, if a film about forgiveness feels old hat, then we’ve all become way too jaded.

Penelope Cruz in Nine

7. Nine, directed by Rob Marshall. And speaking of haters, so many US crix have decided this film is the one to destroy this year. And if you read many of the reviews, the reason is more because Rob Marshall did not direct the film they wanted made. Well so far SAG, the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Broadcast Film Critics have nominated it for major awards (including Best Picture). Nine is a dazzling, mesmerizing musical homage to Fellini and to all artists who have trouble living in the real world because his/her bubble world is where they truly feel alive. Daniel Day-Lewis’ remarkable performance (another intrepid immersion for him) anchors the work while the sensational Marion Cotillard leads the supporting cast of lovelies. Yes, the movie could have been more psychologically complex (perhaps if the market research-happy Harvey wasn’t the producer) and yes, it should have been longer and included more musical numbers (see Harvey again), but as it stands it’s a fascinating tale of a megalomaniacal, sex-obsessed man (can you say Tiger Woods?) who is searching for inspiration…and it’s a damn good one!

The White Ribbon

6. The White Ribbon, directed by Michael Haneke. This incredibly riveting and horrifying film warns viewers that what they are about to see may go a long way in explaining some of the atrocious behavior by the German people in the decades that will follow. The perfect ensemble and mosaic plot blend together to create a striking tale of just how impressionable children can be and how we should truly be careful what we ‘teach’ them—especially since, more often than not, they learn by example. The film also has an important warning about how dangerous extreme religious righteousness can truly be.

5. Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino. He’s everyone’s favorite appropriator and this time Quentin Tarantino’s love of movies and the World War II era have blended splendiferously and created a cheekily audacious and wonderfully cathartic motion picture. Tarantino has earned his right to allow his scenes to simmer and stew until they’re ready to explode. He doesn’t feel the necessity to fall back on pyrotechnic camera movements and cuts. He lets his actors take their time and deliver his crisp and (sometimes anachronistically) smart dialogue as it fits the scene. And the payoff in this masterblend of hilarious insanity, demented violence and stirring drama may be shocking and ridiculous but it is also bracing and brilliant!

Viggo Mortensen in The Road

4. The Road, directed by John Hillcoat. Had The Road been released in 2007 when mind-numbingly depressing and nihilistic films were AMPAS-and-critic-popular (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Atonement) perhaps it would have been heralded as the bold and gutsy work that it is. Hillcoat faithfully adapts the Cormac McCarthy novel and digs deep into the dark areas of human nature depicting just how far people are willing to go to survive. Critics of the film have said that it’s too damning of our race. Perhaps they should visit the Holocaust museum and remind themselves just how heinously humans can behave.

George Clooney in Up in the Air

3. Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman. Imagine a film that gets everything right, from it’s clever and crackling script to the pitch perfect performances to fantastic photography and production design that gives you the sensation of traveling to direction that never over-or-underwhelmes but guides and allows. Up in the Air boasts George Clooney’s most accomplished work to date. Watching the cinematic sparks fly when he is opposite Vera Farmiga is a delight. They are the celluloid couple of the year—unless you count Avatar's Jake and Neytiri! Explaining the film’s plot, however, does not make this film sound appealing. Simply go see it, unless you want to miss out on experiencing sheer joy at the movies.

The Hurt Locker

2. The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. If war is a drug can tripping on war lead to a soldier’s salvation or his damnation? Bigelow knows how to create suspense and the Iraq war is the backdrop for just how far guys are willing to go to get their thrill fix. The Hurt Locker is exhilarating filmmaking; a visceral cinematic thrill, but it’s also one of the most frightening and intelligent “war” films of our time.

1. Avatar, directed by James Cameron. So much has been written and so much said already about this extraordinary achievement that echoing all the superlatives and positives (and I do) seems redundant. I will only say that I cannot remember the last time I was transported--visually and aurally as well as intellectually and spiritually—by a motion picture that I craved seeing it again as badly as I did. And it not only holds up a second viewing but I want to see it again! Call him what you will but James Cameron is fearless and that’s a grand compliment in the entertainment industry. He has managed to combine so many genres while making important statements about current environmental, social and political situations…oh, look, there I go writing stuff that’s already been written. Suffice to say that like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Avatar is a film that will influence other films and filmmakers for decades to come—and not only for its groundbreaking technical aspects but for the audacity of it’s story.

A note:

I realize that in some of my musings it may appear that I have some ax to grind with other film writers. The truth is I feel so many have become so jaded, taking themselves way too seriously and seeing themselves as the friggin’ herald angels—but instead of singing, they whine and complain and HATE. They can’t wait to hate! Taking demonic glee in tearing a film to shreds (especially when they are the first to do so). I wish the ones who no longer enjoy films would just stop writing.

At a recent screening of It’s Complicated where half the audience was made up of press and the others were from the NYC mayor’s office (sitting in the back and left of the theatre), you knew right away where the critics were. All the laughter and cheers were coming from the back and left. The ‘serious journalists’ appeared to be daring the film to be funny and the few times they couldn’t help themselves and released a laugh or two, they pulled back in immediately. Now, I realize I seem to be indicting the entire group and that isn’t fair, but trust me I found the reactions (or deliberate lack thereof) to be fascinating. Now I would not call It’s Complicated a comic masterpiece but it very funny. So let yourself go a little. Laugh. Stop loving to hate. And stop taking yourself so seriously. No one critical voice is that important. It’s the films that matter.

Lead Actress:

Honorable Mentions to:
Robin Wright-Penn in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Gabourey Sidibe in Precious
Zoe Saldana in Avatar
Abbie Cornish in Bright Star
Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist

5. Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria
4. Carey Mulligan in An Education
3. Helen Mirren in The Last Station
2. Tilda Swinton in Julia
1. Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia and It’s Complicated

Lead Actor:

Honorable Mentions to:
Sam Worthington in Avatar
Tahar Rahim in A Prophet
Morgan Freeman in Invictus
Tom Hardy in Bronson
Viggo Mortensen in The Road

5. Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker
4. Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
3. Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine
2. Colin Firth in A Single Man
1. George Clooney in Up in the Air

Supporting Actress:

Honorable Mentions to:
Jessica Haines in Disgrace
Rosamund Pike in An Education
Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds
Julianne Moore in A Single Man
Penelope Cruz in Nine

5. Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air
4. Sigourney Weaver in Avatar
3. Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air
2. Mo’Nique in Precious
1. Marion Cotillard in Nine and Public Enemies

Supporting Actor:

Honorable Mentions to:
Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker
Brian Geraghty in The Hurt Locker
Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road
Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones and Julie and Julia
Christopher Plummer in The Last Station

5. Matt Damon in Invictus
4. Woody Harrelson in The Messenger
3. Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles
2. Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds
1. Peter Capaldi in In the Loop


With Honorable Mentions to:
Rob Marshall for Nine
Tom Ford for A Single Man
Clint Eastwood for Invictus
Michael Haneke for The White Ribbon
Lars Von Trier for Antichrist

5. Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds
4. Jason Reitman for Up in the Air
3. John Hillcoat for The Road
2. Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker
1. James Cameron for Avatar

Original Screenplay
5. Joel and Ethan Coen for A Serious Man
4. Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds
3. Michael Haneke for The White Ribbon
2. James Cameron for Avatar
1. Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker

Adapted Screenplay
5. Vincent Palmo. Jr. and Holly Gent Palmo for Me and Orson Welles
4. Joe Penhall for The Road
3. Tom Ford & David Scearce for A Single Man
2. Armando Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche for In the Loop
1. Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for Up in the Air


Choosing the best of the decade is ridiculously impossible ergo it’s grand fun--especially for cinephiles. But let’s clarify one thing. Technically the decade began on January 1, 2001 (tell THAT to all the new millennium-doomsayers out there who were crapping in their geekboots on December 31, 1999!) so that means the real decade isn’t over yet…but since sooo many others are feeding into the erroneous new decade frenzy, allow me to add my 2 cents. Actually, my 13 cents. Since I did it with my fave films of 2009, I may as well be consistent. Here with NO explanation and no reason other than the fact that these were the films that stayed with me the most and that I cherish the most. I would argue that a handful represent a significant step forward for cinema, otherwise they’re just my best!

Honorable Mentions to:

Bad Education, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Dancer in the Dark, The Departed, A History of Violence, The Hours, Little Children, Lost in Translation, Million Dollar Baby, Mulholland Drive, Munich, The Royal Tennanbaums, Y Tu Mama Tambien

My TOP 13 FILMS of the DECADE are as follows:

13. Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes
12. Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant
11. Avatar, directed by James Cameron
10. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, directed by Sidney Lumet
9. Traffic, directed by Steven Soderbergh
8. Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee
7. Best of Youth (La Meglio Goventu’), directed by Marco Tullio Giordana
6. Gosford Park, directed by Robert Altman
5. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson
4. Letters from Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood
3. There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
2. Requiem for a Dream, directed by Darren Aronofsky
1. Dogville, directed by Lars von Trier

Meryl Streep
Kate Winslet
Cate Blanchett
Marion Cotillard
Helen Mirren

Daniel Day-Lewis
Sean Penn
Heath Ledger
Leonardo DiCaprio
George Clooney

Lars von Trier
Clint Eastwood
David Fincher
Steven Soderbergh
Pedro Almodovar

The Master: Robert Altman






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