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Solid Academy Nominees:

ADVENTURE AND LOVE: James Franco (“127 Hours”) and Michelle Williams (“Blue Valentine”) are up for Best Actor and Actress nominees from the Academy. Courtesy photos.

It’s February. it’s time to review my annual “marathon of nominated films.” It’s an interesting and often daunting cinematic endurance test. Some years I find myself invigorated by the process. Others, I end up with a serious case of film fatigue. 2010 has been one of those years that has tested my patience.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the nominees. A lot of good movies are in the mix, but not one that I would call “great.” Maybe that’s the way it should be. In an ideal world, 10 films would be nominated for Best Picture, all of them with a valid claim for the Oscar. Yet, as I review the nominees, I’m left with a lot of good movies that seem to fall apart in the third act (“Inception”), novel concepts that never meet their full potential and a lot of solid movies that never achieve greatness (“True Grit”).

If it was up to me (and it isn’t), I’d hand every award to “Black Swan.” I can understand the argument being made for “The King’s Speech,” especially as it picks up momentum  after winning awards from the Screen Actors and Directors guilds. There’s also a valid case to be made for “The Social Network,” which is still the best executed film of all the nominees. However, “Black Swan” is a crazy, weird, disturbing romp that has more passion than all the other nominees combined.

Two more films up for awards this year are “127 Hours” and “Blue Valentine.” Each embodies the aforementioned values of passion and endurance. Both are small, intimate pieces, at times incredibly difficult to watch, and both follow the trend of being interesting misfires. “Blue Valentine” has been receiving attention for the strong performances from Ryan Gosling (“The Notebook”) and Michelle Williams. The movie itself is something of a mess, but the acting is top notch. Williams has proven herself an extraordinary onscreen presence. She also possesses a maturity in the roles she picks. We don’t see her in screwball comedies or big-budget summer blockbusters. She steals scenes in movies like “Shutter Island” and “Brokeback  Mountain,” or pops up as a glowing ingénue in “I’m Not There.” There are few actresses in the business with her kind of integrity.

“Blue Valentine” does nothing to change that. She’s marvelous in it—simultaneously fragile, stunning and a little heartbreaking as Cindy, a wide-eyed beauty who loses a little luster over the course of her relationship with Dean (Gosling). Their relationship charts an uneasy but familiar course. Two star-struck kids meet and fall for one another. The film cuts back and forth between the courtship period and the more stifling maturation of their marriage. We see the moments that made them and the moments that break them. “Blue Valentine” is an emotional sucker punch—difficult to watch at times, even making me shift uncomfortably. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. But the stark reality of the film, the unflinching depiction of sex, and the kind of slow dissolve that their relationship turns into drained me in the end. I liked “Blue Valentine,” but I never need to see it again.

“127 Hours” is another film that delves into “stark reality.” Based on the novel “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” by Aaron Ralston, the movie depicts the horrific events of Aron Ralston (James Franco) and a rock-climbing adventure that nearly killed him. Directed by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and simplistically staged, the movie is made or broken by one’s like or dislike of actor James Franco. Me? I love the guy. How many actors are nominated for a Best Actor Oscar the same year they appear on “General Hospital”?

Aron’s a thrill chaser. The kind of rock-climbing, mountain-biking adrenaline junkie for which Red Bull was created. On his most recent journey to Canyonlands National Park, he ends up in an accident that leaves his arm pinned under a boulder. He will spend the next five days trapped there, slowly descending into madness as he tries to save himself from the inevitable. Much like “Blue Valentine,” this is not an easy watch. And much like “Blue Valentine,” I doubt I’ll be watching it a second time. These are “experience” films. Viewers take a journey with the characters, learn about their lives, and see the key moments that led them to this point. Both films dabble with flashbacks and a non-linear story structure; although, “127 Hours” takes more creative liberties by delving into the surreal as Aron begins to lose touch with reality.

I’m a big fan of Danny Boyle, despite my loathe for “Slumdog Millionaire”—and with every fiber of my being. “Trainspotting” and “28 Days Later” remain two of my favorite films.  “127 Hours” is a very loud film inside a quiet frame. He manages to work a lot of style into a film that spends roughly an hour pinned into a crevice with one character. A lot of “127 Hours” reminded me of “Into the Wild,” another film that followed tragic events of a young mind eager to explore the open road.

Like most of the other Best Picture nominees, I found a lot to like in “127 Hours” but little to love. James Franco is deserving of the praise. He carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders and does so with a level of nuance I didn’t think him capable of. I always liked the guy on screen, but his performance here is a revelation. Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine” is less revelatory but no less impressive. In a year where the Best Picture feels a little flat, the Best Actor and Actress categories are brimming with career-defining moments and performances well worth watching.

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