The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least, that's how it seems with the Academy Awards. The 83rd annual airing of the awards show on Sunday night promises some "exciting" new twists, like actor co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco (the latter is also nominated in the Best Actor category, which could be more awkward than exciting). But no matter how the Academy rearranges all the glittery parts of the industry's biggest showcase, it always feels vaguely the same, anticlimactic and predictable. Is there any doubt this weekend will produce hardware for Natalie Portman and The King's Speech? The biggest suspense will be whether someone cries, and how they look—is that Oscar De La Renta or Armani?—when the waterworks commence.
To add a little flavor to the otherwise vanilla proceedings, we honor the year's films, directors and actors the Academy somehow overlooked.
Best generational commentary
There's not much to like about the lead character in writer/director Noah Baumbach's Greenberg. Played by a sullen Ben Stiller, the 40-year-old in crisis offers nothing more than a mess of nerves and enough social implosions to make viewers physically squirm. But as grating as Stiller's Greenberg can be, he still stumbles upon the occasional nugget of neurotic wisdom. It may be misguided or horribly timed, but his thoughts on Starbucks, raising kids and therapy still hit home.
During the film's best scene, he sits surrounded at a party by a bunch of college-aged know-it-alls, and launches into a drug-induced monologue about today's youth. "The thing about you kids is that you're all kind of insensitive," he starts. "I'm glad I grew up when I did 'cause your parents were too perfect at parenting—all that Baby Mozart and Dan Zanes songs; you're just so sincere and interested in things! There's a confidence in you guys that's horrifying. You're all ADD and carpal tunnel. You wouldn't know agoraphobia if it bit you in the ass, and it makes you mean."
He goes on before coming to this conclusion: "I'm freaked out by you kids. I hope I die before I end up meeting one of you in a job interview."
It's the best example of Generation X examining the Millenniums yet on the big screen.
Forget Portman's slow, manic and fantastical unraveling in Black Swan. For a much more human tantrum, watch the always impressive Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating. In his directorial debut, Hoffman plays a shy Rasta dude who religiously lives by the lyrics to "Rivers of Babylon." But after he spends weeks painstakingly practicing how to cook a romantic meal for his new love interest, only to have it ruined through no fault of his own, Hoffman explodes in a cathartic fit tethered to a much more effective reality.
Best supporting actor (under 3 years old)
Babies follows one year in the life of four infants being raised in four different corners of the world. Director Thomas Balmès' captivating and inevitably cute documentary intends to show the similarities and, more tellingly, differences of growing up in San Francisco, Tokyo, Nambia and Mongolia, and the camera rarely shows anyone other than the four kids. Even the parents are bit players here. But one extra manages to be a scene-stealer: the slightly older brother of Bayal, the newborn in Mongolia. Bayal's sibling doesn't take kindly to the family's new addition, and he repeatedly acts out in wonderfully understated, slightly jarring glimpses of envy. The best: When he nonchalantly wheels Bayal out of the family yurt and into a herd of cattle...and just leaves him there.
Best use of weather
Say what you want about Roman Polanski, but the man can make a good film. In The Ghost Writer he manages to take an average thriller and elevate it to Hitchcock heights by the simple use of pace and atmosphere. When a disinterested scribe gets assigned to help the former British prime minister polish his memoirs, and that cushy gig turns into a political quagmire, the writer's increasing paranoia is fueled by his eerie surroundings. By the film's end, the desolation of a rain-swept Martha's Vineyard becomes as ominous a character in the film as any trench coat-clad operative.
Best breakthrough performance nobody saw
What a year for young women: Jennifer Lawrence is a deserving Best Actress nominee for her role as the dogged teenager in Winter's Bone, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld earned a Best Supporting Actress nod for her work alongside Jeff Bridges in True Grit, and Emma Stone's Golden Globe-nominated performance in the high school comedy Easy A established her as a future leading lady.
Equally talented, yet mostly overlooked in 2010 (at least by American critics), was Katie Jarvis' role in the gut-wrenching British film Fish Tank. The 19-year-old came out of nowhere to land the part of Mia, an irrepressibly angry teenager who ends up with one of her hard-partying mother's boyfriends. Director Andrea Arnold rests the heavy film on Jarvis' shoulders—it's told entirely from her character's perspective—and the newcomer handles the responsibility with aplomb.