Stephanie Zacharek's Oscar Picks: Middlebrow Schmiddlebrow

Every year, usually around early March, I survey what I've seen since January and begin to worry that we're not headed into a particularly good movie year. But by year's end, when people ask me if it's been a good year for movies, I always say, "Yes, absolutely" -- and mean it. Because no matter how much movie critics like to grouse about the landscape around them (and sometimes it does look pretty dismal), the joyful reality is that there's always something worth looking at.

And to one degree or another, the Oscar nominations reflect that. Part of the fun of the Oscar run-up is drawing your own dividing lines between the things you want to win, the things you could live with, and the things that must, by all means, if life is to go on as we know it, be shut out. Following are my own particular favorites -- though I concede that even if Melissa Leo wins the Oscar for her repetitively excessive overacting in The Fighter, I'll probably live.


Black Swan is extremely entertaining, but it's also goofy as hell. It's successful only as failed camp. Winter's Bone is the little indie that could, and there always has to be one or two of those among the nominations, but I found its striving for authenticity (whatever that is, exactly) in depicting poverty-level rural life to be strained. Inception is a joke -- a box of tricks designed to make audiences feel smart, when it's really little more than a convoluted contraption banked around a few nice special effects.

On the plus side: Even if people are already sick of seeing The Social Network win so many awards, the movie is still a rarity in Hollywood today: A picture that moves at a sensational clip, even though almost every scene is really mostly just a bunch of guys in a room talking. The Social Network feels like a movie that could have been made in the '70s, and I mean that in the best possible way. The King's Speech is lovely. Some of my colleagues have, disparagingly, called it middlebrow, but I guess that depends on where your particular brow happens to be located.

In a world more perfect than the one we live in, my favorite movie of the year, Sofia Coppola's extraordinary, steel-rod-delicate Somewhere would be on this list. It's not a movie about a rich, spoiled, "Why should we care about him?" movie star; it's a story about a human being who's lost his way. Apparently, that's just not as interesting as watching Paris fold over on itself.

Should win: The Social Network or The King's Speech

Will win: The King's Speech


As I've already suggested, David Fincher (The Social Network) and Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) are both fine choices. The Coen Brothers (True Grit) did an admirable job of bringing Charles Portis' terrific, and wonderfully odd, novel to the screen. David O. Russell's The Fighter is too packed with "Look at me! I'm acting!" performances to resonate much with me -- it's an out-of-control showboat.

Should win: David Fincher or Tom Hooper

Will win: Tom Hooper


Aside from the aforementioned missing Ryan Gosling, and Mark Wahlberg -- who gave, hands down, the finest performance in The Fighter -- these are nearly all fine choices. Javier Bardem is great in the feel-superbad movie of the year, Biutiful -- and he's got one of the best profiles in the movies, like a bruised lion. In The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg gives one of those terrific performances you almost hate to like; he doesn't exactly warm your heart, but damned if he doesn't somehow get to it. Franco is good in 127 Hours, but I suspect he's got better performances in him. And then there's Colin Firth as a stuttering king: I know there are some naysayers out there kvetching that he gave a better performance last year in A Single Man (and he was astonishing), but even then, there's something to be said for an actor who can give performances this good, and each one distinctive, two years in a row.

Should win: Javier Bardem

Will win: Colin Firth


Annette Bening is terrific in The Kids Are All Right, but it seems odd to celebrate her and ignore Julianne Moore -- those performances dovetail so beautifully. Jennifer Lawrence's performance, and that of supporting actor John Hawkes (also nominated), were pretty much the only things that kept me going in Winter's Bone. I'm also pleased to see Michelle Williams, for her devastating and subtle performance in Blue Valentine, on this list. But why isn't her co-star, Ryan Gosling, included in the Best Actor category? His performance meshes perfectly with hers.

Should win: Michelle Williams

Will win: Annette Bening


Christian Bale in The Fighter: I don't care how well-researched they are, his tics and twitches don't impress me. On the other hand, it's great that Jeremy Renner, with that tough little pug face of his, has been recognized for The Town. Mark Ruffalo is marvelous in The Kids Are All Right, which is an equally marvelous picture -- if only the story had provided a more gracious and generous exit for Ruffalo's character.

Should win: Jeremy Renner

Will win: Christian Bale


As far as The Fighter nominees go, scrappy-smart Amy Adams is leagues better than overkill-diva Melissa Leo, whose performance screams, "Gimme an Oscah, already!" It's beyond me why Hailee Steinfeld's sturdy little performance in True Grit is considered "supporting" when she's in nearly every scene of the movie, but then, kids get no respect these days. Helena Bonham Carter -- in that assortment of great, saucer-shaped hats! -- is superbly understated, as a royal should be, in The King's Speech.

Should win: Helena Bonham Carter

Will win: Melissa Leo


David Seidler's The King's Speech and Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg's The Kids Are All Right are the best of this lot. Christopher Nolan's Inception isn't a screenplay; it's a floor plan.

Should win: The King's Speech

Will win: The Kids Are All Right


Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network is all talk and no action, and yet the thing moves. Can we have more like this, please?

Should win: The Social Network

Will win: The Social Network


The Illusionist is beautifully drawn, but too self-consciously droll for my taste. And while Toy Story 3 is wonderful, it would have been nice to see a little more originality in the other choices: How about Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud's Despicable Me or Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip -- the latter, in particular, proving that there's some great animation being drawn the margins.

Should win: Toy Story 3

Will win: Toy Story 3


I'd argue that Wally Pfister did better, if less-flashy work, in The Prestige (or, for that matter, in The Italian Job) than he did in Inception. Cinematographers are usually lauded -- by laypeople, at least -- for making already-great landscapes look great, so it's nice to see Jeff Cronenweth mentioned for The Social Network. He makes great use of Harvard and law-office interiors -- and hey, those are landscapes, too. As far as Roger Deakins goes: That evening-ride sequence in True Grit, with its nods to Night of the Hunter, is miraculous. Is Deakins even capable of making a crappy-looking movie? Why not just crown him God and get it over with?

Should win: True Grit

Will win: True Grit


  • JPMcC. says:

    How about Deakins' work on The Company Men? Pretty crappy, no matter how much the movie's look matches the depressed characters.

  • anonymous says:

    "The King’s Speech is lovely. Some of my colleagues have, disparagingly, called it middlebrow, but I guess that depends on where your particular brow happens to be located."
    Middlebrow is underrated and increasingly less common imho.

  • Alex says:

    Inception is a better film than Somewhere. End of discussion. You pretty much said it all, Paris folding over is infinitly more interesting then your generic, man loses his way crap.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    "King's Speech" makes not only aesthetes but rights-of-man folk nothing but self-indulgent, self-serving parasites. It makes the duty-to-country crowd just plain right, and those who aren't quite prepared to cow tow to what's ordained -- specifically, King George, in planning to marry out of love, and in cutting down ancient trees (being old doesn't make you grand, it just makes you old) just for a better view! -- the worse than Fredos of the family. You wanted "Avatar's" Grace to do more chain-smoking and "snarl"; I'd have preferred George -- the one, we remember, who turned down the to-Bertie acceptible idea of having a kept mistress in preference to being allowed the company of a wife he actually loves -- be given more a chance to extrapolate on the flaws of be-be-be-be-Bertie's positively medieval sense of women, commoners, loyalty, and subjugation. I'm not sure what kind of brows I've got, but be sure they're both frowning away.

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    Re: "In a world more perfect than the one we live in, my favorite movie of the year, Sofia Coppola’s extraordinary, steel-rod-delicate Somewhere would be on this list. It’s not a movie about a rich, spoiled, “Why should we care about him?” movie star; it’s a story about a human being who’s lost his way."
    My particular complaint about Social Network isn't that it would have us care about someone rich and "spoiled" -- I am very interested in knowing about and caring more for Zuckerberg; he most certainly IS worthy -- it's what it suggests for those not either just moved along by genteel lineage or blessed with a genius to seize the zeitgeist of the time: people like Harvard-insufficient Erica Albright, blessed it would have appeared with some innate goodness and keen intuition, but without anything that would surely keep her in the game, whom you have a sense is given some chance to say something real, wounding, and sticking, because its her last words before he finds himself a societal fixture and she is dispatched to irrevocable irrelevance. Seemed appropriate that Sorkin betray even this to a class of people he would clearly see dispatched entire, as he further stomped her out (at the Golden Globes, I believe) in establishing Zuckerberg a true benefactor, not the asshole she had prophesized he was doomed to become. Way to go Aaron! For your fielty, let us anoint thee also!