Oscarologists are supposed to remain impartial when it comes to Oscar films so as to evaluate simply on merits, buzz, and hype, not personal opinion. That said, sometimes we forget what it's like to actually talk about what movies we absolutely loved the past year, what performances had us floored, and what we would vote for if we had ballots.
A "top" list is a little tired, in my opinion. Instead, I'll just discuss what would have been my top entries in each category (there's only six, don't stress), followed by a winner.
If you haven't seen any of the films mentioned here, do yourself a favor and go. They're all extraordinary and actually the best films of the year, which is a shock, because they're all Oscar favorites. That doesn't happen that often.
This one comes down to a five-way race in my mind. To me, there were no better movies this year than The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, Up in the Air, and An Education, and all five were movies that I really, truly loved. Last year, I had to struggle to come up with five movies that I generally liked, and only one was nominated for Best Picture (Slumdog Millionaire; the other three were Doubt, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, WALL-E, and Rachel Getting Married. While Locker and Basterds are both triumphs, their directors, marvelous as they are, each have at least one scene that seems completely unnecessary and overindulgent (the bar scene in Basterds is especially egregious; that could have advanced the plot in about four minutes, but Quentin Tarantino decided to make it a half-hour doldrum in an otherwise fast-moving film). Plus, their overall strong ensembles are brought down by one weak performance each from characters that don't even matter to the main plot. Precious is an incredible film, and the central performances from Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique are monstrously good, but it lacks a strong ending, rather petering out, so it doesn't seem like a plausible winner. That leaves it up to Up in the Air and An Education, both modern movies in their own right with performances from female ingenues that drive the movies. While I did love Air, despite any depressing aspects to its story, there was something special about Education that I loved, though I can't seem to find anyone else that did as well. There's something magical about Carey Mulligan's performance, and the movie relies on acting and writing, not some ridiculous other element (blue monkeys, anyone?). For what it's worth, to me, An Education was the year's Best Picture.
I have to admire someone like Lee Daniels who can use innovative casting and pull incredible performances out of his actors. It's something really special that is often overlooked in races like these. Quentin Tarantino really made an odd-duck movie like Inglourious Basterds work, a feat in and of itself, and he made it work brilliantly. Take it from someone who is not a Tarantino fan: he did good on this one. But truly, the best director of the year is unquestionably Kathryn Bigelow, who crafted one of the most interesting, intriguing, challenging war movies of all time, and removed politics from the equation to create something great. The fact that she's a woman only makes that better.
I didn't like many lead male performances this year. Most of them just felt a little too effortless to me, none moreso than George Clooney in Up in the Air. I think the Best Actor branch probably has the most performances that really don't deserve their nominations. I like to see actors work for their reward, as Brad Pitt did in Inglourious Basterds. I always forget that the megastar is actually a great comic actor, as proven by his instantly iconic Lieutenant Aldo Raine. Dramatic performances? Ehh... But comedically, Pitt's a stronger force than you (or I) realize. However, the truly incredible performance this year came from 32-year old Jeremy Renner, whose tour-de-force performance in The Hurt Locker truly elevated the work, and the work was pretty damn good to begin with. A movie like this doesn't really work unless the acting is naturalistic and effortless. Renner was.
This is truly the toughest category of them all. Gabourey Sidibe was a total knockout in Precious, creating such an intricate character with so few words. Performances like these wherein the actor has never had any experience but just goes for it are really fantastic. Still, the Ingenue of the Year award goes to Carey Mulligan, who made the precocious schoolgirl of An Education a deep and highly entertaining character. However, neither of the ingenues can beat the legend, as Meryl Streep had (once again) an incredible year filled with box office success, awards buzz, and love from almost every major media outlet. Her performance as Julia Child in Julie & Julia is a treat the likes of the pastries Julia creates, as she imbues the chef with a goose-honk laugh and a love for life that cannot be quashed. The movie may have faltered at points, but this performance was top-shelf.
Best Supporting Actor
Not big on this category this year, either. There was some good supporting acting done, but the Academy is likely to nominate the wrong performances. To wit: I hate when a great actor gets nominated for the wrong performance, as so happened with Leonardo DiCaprio two years ago for Blood Diamond over The Departed, and as will happen this year for Stanley Tucci, as he gets nominated for The Lovely Bones over Julie & Julia. That error can be chalked up to the Academy's tendency to love over-the-top performances more than their subtle counterparts, but as Julia Child's ever-devoted husband, Tucci was truly sublime. Alfred Molina had a lot of awards buzz early for his priceless role as An Education's fussy father, full of comic relief and dramatic exposition, but the buzz simply didn't pan out. Thank goodness, then, that Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds' evil genius Colonel Hans Landa, is locked to win this year's Oscar, because his performance was indelible and incredible. He was the one, along with Tarantino, who made the crazy concept and execution work.
Best Supporting Actress
Unlike the male counterpart category, the Oscars are actually going to get this category right. Anna Kendrick is brilliant as corporate chipmunk Natalie Keener in Up in the Air. Her breakdown scene is sure to be an instant classic, and she is as quotable ("I type with purpose;" "I don't want to sound anti-feminist; I mean, I really respect everything your generation did for me") as any soundbite-spewing star of a fratboy comedy. (Side note: anyone heard from Seth Rogen lately? Jonah Hill? No? Oh, I guess everyone's okay with Zach Galifinakis for now. For now.) Emily Blunt won't be recognized for her strong work in the quirky Sunshine Cleaning, but it is a little off-brand for them: she's not abusing her child or breaking down in tears randomly, after all. Still, the performance of the year, in ANY category, belongs to the absolutely incredible Mo'Nique. Never again should anyone consider this comedienne a lightweight: her performance in Precious is dynamic, intriguing, challenging, difficult to watch, but incredibly rewarding. I'm trying to remember a performance I liked more in the past decade, and I'm pretty sure there isn't one.
So those were my choices. What were yours? Think I'm a little too high on Mo'Nique? Anyone I should have acknowledged in the sparse Best Actor category? Leave your comments below!