It's been a long time since every one of the Best Picture nominees has been a thumbs-down picture, but even with nine choices, this year's unappetizing menu is just such a least-of-evils dilemma.
If I had a ballot, I'd mark it for the halfway decent "Moneyball," or perhaps (as a protest vote) the trifling "Midnight in Paris."
Four of the nine made my worst-ten list, and that doesn't include the cloying "The Artist," the saccharine "War Horse," or the flat "The Descendants," whose contribution to a list of great movie moments would be - what? George Clooney spending five minutes looking at a wall of pictures of people we don't know to the sounds of Don Ho music? This list is an embarrassment.
Many of the acting nominees also leave you unsure whether to laugh or to cry. Demian Bichir's performance in the sententious and sanctimonious "A Better Life" was one of the year's worst, earnest and straining with effort and pockmarked with stilted line readings.
Gary Oldman didn't do a damn thing in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" - what is the nomination for? The way he sat? Jean Dujardin is a halfway decent choice for "The Artist," but I'd pick Brad Pitt's effortless transition toward middle age in "Moneyball."
In a year of terrific performances by actresses, it's dispiriting to see the Academy's backward-looking list of retreads. I know "Albert Nobbs" meant a great deal to Glenn Close, but the movie and her performance are both laughers. Viola Davis is a perfectly fine actress, but I refuse to believe that the highest and best use of her talents is as a mammy in the retrograde subtlety-free zone that is "The Help." We've come too far.
Rooney Mara has no human emotions to convey in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"; she's an animal, an automaton. Meryl Streep's performance in the instantly disposable "The Iron Lady" is pablum-puking Oscar bait. And Michelle Williams' reasonable impersonation of Marilyn Monroe could never hope for more than a generous nomination on a better list; here, it's a real contender.
Supporting Actor had the biggest WTF moment - not the surprisingly good choice of Jonah Hill in "Moneyball," with his lovelily easy camaraderie with Pitt, but the washed-out Nick Nolte in - huh? - "Warrior." (Who knew the Academy were such MMA fans?) Christopher Plummer both should and will win for "Beginners." In Supporting Actress, it's a delight to see Melissa McCarthy nominated for "Bridesmaids." She's my choice and the clear standout in another mediocre list.
Other pleasant surprises: I'm glad the Academy didn't turn its nose up at the muckraking, in-the-trenches "Anonymous," giving Lisy Christl a well-deserved nomination for costume design. Wild horses couldn't drag me to the Wim Wenders performance-art documentary "Pina," but I was happy to see Marshall Curry nominated for his well-reported "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front," about the lifelong consequences of some poorly thought-out youthful choices. And J.C. Chandor's smart and topical script for "Margin Call" joined "Bridesmaids" in the original screenplay category.