published Sunday, February 27th, 2011

The Oscars: Reviews of the 10 Best Picture Nominees

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    The Oscars statue at the Academy Awards, held at the Kodak Theatre.

If you believe the oddsmakers, "The King's Speech" is a heavy favorite to win the Best Picture category at tonight's Academy Awards, with "The Social Network" a possible spoiler.

But Academy voters are notoriously fickle.

To prepare you for tonight's awards show, the Times Free Press newsroom staff has prepared capsule reviews on each of the 10 Best Picture nominees, noting each film's strengths and weaknesses. In each case, the writer has actually seen the film and formed a strong impression.

Capsules are in no particular order. For more Oscar news and previews, see Page E6-7.

1. "Black Swan"

• Why it might win: Natalie Portman's unsettling performance as a skeletal, win-at-any-cost ballerina snagged Golden Globe and SAG awards for Best Actress. The writers and director turned a predictable plot into a seat-riveting thriller where gritty reality and obsessive fantasy are almost indistinguishable: Portman makes skin-peeling and feather-sprouting equally believable. Supporting cast Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder ratchet up the tension. Then there's the nonstop industry buzz (five Oscar nominations, another 22 wins and 70 nominations, according to the Internet Movie Database). All things considered, the film could ride to glory on the hem of Portman's tutu.

• Why it might not: Explicit psychosexual scenes are a 10-plus on the old squirm-o-meter. That could turn off some stuffy Academy members. And besides, a horror film hasn't danced away with the Best Picture Oscar since "Silence of the Lambs" won in 1991.

—Lin C. Parker

2. "The Fighter"

• Why it might win: The Academy has never been all that keen on sports movies -- how "Hoosiers" didn't at least get a nomination over "A Room With a View" or "The Mission" in 1986 is among the great mysteries of motion pictures. That said, Oscar has a soft spot for the sweet science that is boxing. "Rocky" was the first sports Best Picture winner, and "Million Dollar Baby" won, too.

• Why it might not: This project has been in various forms of production for roughly a decade, which hardly bodes well. Still, that it's among the nominees refutes that knock in part. The biggest drawback is "The Fighter" fails to produce that "goosebump" moment that helps make sports magical and should be the hallmark of all great sports movies.

—Jay Greeson

3. "Inception"

• Why it might win: Like last year's critical darling, "Avatar," director Christopher Nolan's mind-bending take on the heist film archetype drips with style and features a monstrous cast of past Oscar and Golden Globe nominees, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page and Ken Watanabe. The film received well-deserved recognition for Nolan's rabbit-hole-like screenplay and numerous nods to its wildly imaginative visuals and cinematography, which feature third-eye-crossing moments like Paris folding in on itself.

• Why it might not: As stylish as "Inception" is, it lacks the total package (or critical recognition from other awards shows) typical of Best Picture winners. Were it not for the wider net cast for Best Picture, "Inception" would certainly not have made it into this category. In that respect, you can consider it as this year's "District 9." A Best Picture win may be unlikely, but a win in the visual categories is not because "Inception" is absolutely stunning.

—Casey Phillips

4. "The Kids Are All Right"

• Why it might win: This look at an untraditionally traditional family is charming, emotional and features strong performances by Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo, both nominated in acting categories, and Julianne Moore. History tells us that bigger isn't always better, with recent years bringing wins for little engines that could such as "The Hurt Locker" and "Slumdog Millionaire." And sometimes, there are surprises. Remember "Crash?"

• Why it might not: With the expansion to 10 Best Picture nominations, quirky "Kids" is likely to get lost in the crowd. And despite some emotional turmoil, it doesn't have that tormented quality that Oscar voters seem to gravitate toward.

—Holly Leber

5. "The King's Speech"

• Why it might win: Other than being a warm, smart and touching story, "The King's Speech" is flush with a primary strength: leading men Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Wisely, these two chaps are in almost every scene. Wiser still is the choice to let them share the spotlight with each other. Their chemistry, as much as the script, the story and the charm of this film, give "TKS" a chance against any movie this side of "Gone With the Wind."

• Why it might not: Amazingly, the biggest knock could be that the acting performances are too good; opening a potential argument that the movie itself is not as good as its parts. Think Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood," in 2007 or Sean Penn in "Milk" in 2008. And Firth's performance as the stuttering King George VI was every bit that strong. Plus, the last biopic to win was "A Beautiful Mind" almost a decade ago.

—Jay Greeson

6. "127 Hours"

• Why it might win: It's tough to keep audiences captivated with a movie that spends the majority of its time literally in a hole with one character, but director Danny Boyle and actor James Franco manage to pull it off. "127 Hours" is a movie about perseverance and the triumph of the human spirit. The Academy also has an affection for real-people stories, and Aron Ralston, the hiker who amputated his own arm after being trapped for five days in a Utah canyon, has acquired hero status.

• Why it might not: It's been 10 years since a Best Director award went to the person who did not receive highest honors from the Directors Guild of America (that nod went to "The King's Speech"), and there's a strong tendency for Best Picture and Best Director to accord on Oscar night. Also, "127 Hours" is a movie about perseverance and the triumph of the human spirit, but it's also a movie about a guy who cuts off his arm. Reports had test audiences fainting at the amputation scene.

—Holly Leber

7. "The Social Network"

• Why it might win: Maybe because it's the only film in history with 500 million online "friends"? Acclaimed as perhaps the best screenplay of 2010, "The Social Network" crackles with smart people saying smart things. Superb acting by Jesse Eisenberg, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Justin Timberlake's manic characterization of Napster founder Sean Parker carry the film.

• Why it might not: Zuckerberg comes off as a hollowed-out genius in the film, which ultimately yields a storyline deprived of a sympathetic main character. Plus, some of the winter outdoor scenes shot at Harvard are said to contain fake breath clouds. You can look it up: No nonanimated film with fake breath clouds has ever won an Oscar.

—Mark Kennedy

8. "Toy Story 3"

• Why it might win: It is one of the few franchises in which the third installment is as good as the first two. Perhaps because who can forget their favorite toys, and who didn't have their version of Woody, Buzz, Rex or Hamm growing up? And perhaps because Andy leaving his toys and going off to college is as emotion-ringing a scene as in any nonanimated movie you'd see. And Best Picture is just one of five Academy Award nominations for the film.

• Why it might not: It's the third nominated animated film for Best Picture, but none has ever won. It's also nominated for Best Animated Feature, which voters may see as an easy consolation prize. Unwashed voters also may feel any animated movie, and especially one with "toy" in the title, is strictly kids' stuff, completely missing the mainstream appeal of the film.

—Clint Cooper

9. "True Grit"

• Why it might win: Hollywood doesn't saddle up for Westerns very often, but Joel and Ethan Coen's tale of a U.S. marshal and the plucky teen who hires him to avenge the death of her father has roped in 10 Oscar nominations, second only to "The King's Speech." It's also a favorite with moviegoers, becoming the second highest-grossing Western (behind 1990 Best Picture winner "Dances With Wolves"), with a take of $164.6 million and still climbing.

• Why it might not: Only three traditional Westerns have lassoed the Academy's top prize, even during the genre's glory years in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Though the film has received scores of nominations this awards season, it has picked up relatively few trophies and was completely ignored by the Golden Globes. It's a long shot in Oscar's crosshairs.

—Lisa Denton

10. "Winter's Bone"

• Why it might win: Oscar voters love an underdog indie darling once in a while (remember "Slumdog Millionaire"?). Plus, the film has been praised for its authenticity and features first-rate, raw performances by Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes, who both earned nods for their acting. Lawrence makes you root for her character, a young woman trying to do the right thing in a hardscrabble community defined by rural poverty.

• Why it might not: The gritty Ozarks meth drama with little-known actors may be outshone by big-name, big-dollar films such as "The King's Speech," "True Grit" or "Toy Story 3." And the bleak theme of the movie might scare off some Oscar voters.

—Alison Gerber

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