July 9, 2009

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The early contenders
Who is the best of 2009? It’s a small field so far.
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com

There is a small but very real chance that a movie you’ve already seen may in fact get nominated for an Oscar this year.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to widen the field of nominees this year from five to 10. While I don’t expect a deluge of comedies and action movies in the finalist pool, perhaps Up or even Star Trek?can sneak into the field. And though it’s been a rather soggy summer outside and inside the theater (both the Transformers and Terminator movies kind of run together into one big blob for me), there have been movies in the first half of 2009 worth cheering about. Here are some of the best so far:

• Best action movie: Star Trek J.J. Abrams masterfully rebooted the series, taking care of differences between all previous iterations of Trek and all future ones and giving Kirk, Spock et al. new life. The movie is probably the only really successful big event action movie so far this summer and a standout of the genre in its own right. (In theaters.)

• Best animated movie: Up Though perhaps a hair less charming than WALL-E, Up is sweet, funny, emotionally rich, beautiful, all-ages pleasing — generally all those things we’ve come to expect from Pixar. Almost assured a spot in the “best animated feature” category at the Academy Awards, Up’s likely to end up in at least the 20 or so films vying for a spot in the “best picture” category. Also, if you haven’t taken the kids to see it yet, Up really is a good way to spend one of these rainy summer afternoons. (In theaters.)

• Best animated movie not made by Pixar: Coraline Dark and lovely and maybe a bit scary for younger viewers, Coraline (from a book by Neil Gaiman) tells a story of loneliness and being careful what you wish for that rivals the best fairy tales. The stop-motion animation (which has hints of Tim Burton-ness) makes the movie artistically interesting even as it tells a solid story. (On DVD July 21.)

• Best documentary: Every Little Step Here you get three stories — the story of A Chorus Line, the story of the creation of the musical A Chorus Line, the story of the casting of the revival of A Chorus Line. We also meet the dancers whose life stories inspired the play along with the dancers who had the original production change their lives and the ones who hope the revival will do the same.  (In theaters in limited release.)

• Best horror movie: Drag Me To Hell If you, like me, had started to wonder if horror movies could even be scary or fun or entertaining, then let Sam Raimi reintroduce you to blood, gore, creepouts and general spookiness with occasional laughs. Alison Lohman is a great horror heroine — freaked out but not willing to be dragged into hell without a fight. (In theaters.)

• Best little-movie-that-could: Sunshine Cleaning Though the dramady itself (the story of two sisters who are floundering in their lives) is merely good and not the great it usually takes for a smaller film to get big award recognition, Sunshine Cleaning does feature standout performances from Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. Both actresses give nuance and layers to their characters, making them seem like rounded people, not just comedy straight men or jokesters. (On DVD Aug. 25.)

• Best place to go for actor nominees: The Soloist Not every year features five movies with the kind of explosive performances you’re looking for in the “best actor” or “best supporting actor” categories. In the event of that emergency, break the glass in front of The Soloist and you’ll find two solid performances — Robert Downey Jr. as a Los Angeles Times columnist and Jamie Foxx as the homeless schizophrenic who had been a talented cellist at Julliard. They give what could have been a sentimentalized story depth and interest and end up offering an argument for their respective arts — good old-fashioned newspapering and music. (On DVD Aug. 4.)

• Best romantic comedy featuring grown-ups: Duplicity We can fight later over whether this caper about two spies working together or possibly against each other is actually a romantic comedy or whether the funny and the lovey-dovey-ness are incidental to the story of a con. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are grown-up people, grown-up flirting and fighting. They have good chemistry and offer the kind of bouncy escapism rom-coms promise but seldom deliver. (On DVD Aug. 25.)

• Best romantic comedy featuring “the kids”: Adventureland Jesse Eisenberg might be a The Graduate-aged kid in the 1980s but I’m sure many a recent college grad sees himself in this previously European vacation-and-grad-school-bound youngster who, due to parental hard financial times, ends up living back at home and working at a low-rent amusement park. Pot and romance with Kristen Stewart (who, Twilight aside, is a not-bad actress) help see him in to the next phase of his life. (On DVD Aug. 25.)