Friday, February 25, 2011

The 2011 Oscar Nominees for Best Picture

Last year, my husband and I realized we had not seen a single one of the Oscar Best Picture nominees when they were announced, so we challenged ourselves to watch all 10 in the space of five weeks and publish our rankings and reviews on Facebook. We did it again this year, and I thought I'd share it here too, just for fun. James' rankings and reviews can be found here.

Once again, this season James and I took on the task of seeing all 10 Oscar Nominated Best Picture films. We had seen only two of them when the nominations were announced, and watched the rest on video or in the theater over the last five weeks. It’s a little bit time consuming and requires some planning, but we have really enjoyed it both years that we have done it. We almost never go to the theater anymore, so making the time to get out there is both a challenge and a pleasure, in equal measure. We had some mixed experiences, from a terrible blurry picture in the King’s Speech, to a shaking theater for 127 Hours (like sitting through a two hour long earthquake.) The biggest surprise was the perfect digital picture and sound at the Hazard Center theater, which was nearly deserted.

Like last year, I felt that the movies could roughly be divided in half - there were six I felt were worthy of the best picture nomination and four I felt were not. Overall, I thought last year’s crop was a little bit better than this year’s, but the two I liked the best from this year are my favorite of all 20 by far. Here are my rankings, from the bottom up.

10. Toy Story 3 - Generally, I am a big fan of Pixar. In high school, I was a geeky teenager whose idea of a big night out was going to the Festival of Animation at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, when everyone else was going to parties, or whatever it was normal kids did back then. I remember the original Tin Toy and Knickknack, and I’ve always had a soft spot for these guys based on their early shorts. I did not like this movie though. It’s full of clichés, it’s a silly story, and just not compelling or interesting. It could be a contender for best animated movie, but it’s ludicrous to compare it head to head with movies like Black Swan and 127 Hours.

9. The Kids are All Right - I might actually be letting my personal prejudice get in the way with this one. I think the main reason I hated this movie so much was the fact that it let me down so severely. I had such high hopes for it. I love the actors in it, I liked the idea, I thought it looked great in the trailers. It’s not. It’s a silly, predictable family dramedy that squanders the phenomenal talent involved.

8. Inception – We watched this one twice, so I can confidently say I “get it” – that is to say, I understood the plot. What I don’t get is the appeal of this movie. It’s one of those movies that is so complicated and convoluted, you’re left feeling like it must have been really clever. It’s really not, it’s just confusing. It has some good special effects and the score is great (I do think it should win for that) but when you take it apart, it’s just not there.

7. Winter’s Bone – I can see why this one received such good reviews. It came out in the Spring, when there wasn’t much else going on in the theaters. It looks realistic, and Jennifer Lawrence is excellent. This is the first movie on this list that I would say I liked. I especially liked the fact that it features strong female characters.  Overall though, the story is a little thin and there isn’t much mystery to it, and it leans a little too heavily on hillbilly stereotypes for my taste.

6. The Social Network – A slick, pretty and very solid piece of machinery. It looks good thanks to David Fincher, it sounds good thanks to Trent Reznor, and it has great snappy dialogue thanks to the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Somehow though, it just didn’t feel like an important enough story to me to warrant a full length feature film. It felt like a well done HBO movie. The characters – Zuckerberg in particular – aren’t terribly likeable and it’s sort of hard to care a whole lot about the outcome of the lawsuit. The legal proceedings are gleaned from transcripts, so we know a lot of the foundational facts are true, but it seems that a lot of the other details including personality traits, etc. of the characters are exaggerated or downright fictionalized, which I found a little annoying. I guess they made those changes to make it more entertaining, but it still wasn’t entertaining enough.

5. 127 Hours – Hoo boy. If you have a weak stomach, you won’t want to see this. Though I have to say, I was not expecting to see some of the things I saw, and they didn’t bother me that much. Considering that everyone who sees this movie knows the outcome, and that much of the movie is spent in a two foot wide space with one actor, this movie – of all of them – definitely makes the most of what it has to work with. Danny Boyle’s acid style is in full effect and James Franco’s performance is riveting. He is definitely a contender for Best Actor in this role.

3/4. King’s Speech/The Fighter - For me this is a tie, because while I really liked both of these movies, I just can’t quite say I loved either one. The King’s Speech is undoubtedly a front runner for best picture - it has all of the hallmarks of an Oscar winning movie. It has a feel good topic, it tells a historically relevant true story, and it features marvelous performances by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. This IS a story that warrants a full length feature film. It’s just a little too safe somehow, a little too pat.

The Fighter is another worthwhile story with good performances, most memorably by Christian Bale and Melissa Leo as Mark Wahlberg’s brother and mother. It would not surprise me one bit of either (or both) of them won acting awards for this, but the movie itself just isn’t quite there.

2. Black Swan – When was the last time a horror movie was nominated for best picture? It’s not going to win, it’s far too dark and weird for that, but I thought this movie was fantastic. It’s tightly shot, tense and disturbing, the performances are electric, the costuming is phenomenal, and it continuously messes with your head without ever really telling you what’s going on. It’s a classic, campy thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. I loved it.

1. True Grit – Until we saw this the other day, I was really at a loss for a number one. Though I have not seen the original, I did watch some clips on You Tube, and while it’s clear this is very much a remake, it takes the original somewhat two-dimensional source material and turns it into a rollicking, classic, epic western. Having been a 14 year old girl myself at one point I do have a soft spot for plucky heroines, and Hailee Steinfeld is one of the best I’ve come across. Jeff Bridges could win best actor two years in a row for his Rooster Cogburn, and Josh Brolin and Berry Pepper turn in especially good bit performances too. The Coen Brothers’ unique brand of archness is in effect, and the music and cinematography are top notch. I know this probably won’t win the prize, and plenty of people don’t like it as much as I did, but in my opinion, of all the movies, it best embodies the qualities a best picture should have.

In case you're interested, my rankings from 2010 are here, and James' are here.  (My apologies if Facebook permissions get in the way!)  

The International Black Swan movie posters are available here.

Cheers and Happy Weekend!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Chez Panisse Blood Orange Upside Down Cake with Cardamom Whipped Cream

Blood Orange Upside Down Cake
Let me just say right off the bat, that it is incredibly difficult to take a good photo of an upside down cake. Which is why I'm giving you a photo of the one I had at Chez Panisse Cafe a year ago, rather than the one I made myself.  I promise you, they looked exactly the same.

I have actually been waiting with bated breath for blood orange season to come around again so that I could both make this again and share it with you. It's really pretty simple, a buttery cake batter poured over brown sugar, butter and blood orange slices in a cast iron skillet.  Still, there is something deceptively ingenious about the combination of cardamom with the blood oranges and brown sugar topping.  It's a strange harmony that keeps pulling you back in, bite after bite.

As soon as I returned home, I started looking for a recipe, and found one on David Lebovitz' website.  Since he used to work at Chez Panisse I figured it must be the real deal.  Indeed - when I made it at home, it was every bit as good as it had been at the restaurant.  He has since pulled the recipe from his site, but he has another one up that can be used for various types of fruit, etc. and does not include the cardamom.  Luckily I had saved it the first time around - so when blood orange season rolled around again, I was ready to go - and now you are too.  :)
Blood Orange Upside Down Cake
Chez Panisse Blood Orange and Cardamom Upside Down Cake with Cardamom Whipped Cream Adapted from David Lebovitz

David's recipe called for a lot of cardamom - in the topping, the cake and the whipped cream.  I definitely think it should be included in the cake, but I can live without it in the topping or the cream.   If you decide to add it to either or both, 1/2 teaspoon will do the trick.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3 medium-sized blood oranges, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
grated zest of 1 orange

Whipped Cream
1 cup heavy cream
1-2 Tbsp powdered sugar
1/2 tsp ground cardamom (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Center rack in oven.
2. In a 9 inch cast iron skillet, melt the butter and the brown sugar (along with 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom if using) until smooth. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
3. Lay the orange slices in concentric circles over the brown sugar mixture.
4. In a small bowl, stir together the flour, salt, baking powder, and ground cardamom. In a measuring cup, combine the milk, vanilla and orange zest.
5. Using the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and thoroughly incorporate into batter. Scrape down sides of bowl as needed.
6. Stir in half of the dry ingredients, then the milk mixture. Mix in the remaining dry ingredients until just combined.
7. Line the lower rack of the oven with aluminum foil to catch any drips.  Pour batter over the oranges and even out with a spatula or knife.
8. Bake for 40 minutes or until the top is firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. 
8. Allow the cake to cool for 15 minutes. Place serving platter over skillet and flip carefully while still hot.  

Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream.  This is definitely best eaten the day it's made. Leftovers will keep for a couple of days, but the cake will become progressively more soggy.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

La Super Rica - Santa Barbara

La Super Rica - Santa Barbara
Until a few weeks ago, I had never been to La Super Rica, despite many trips to Santa Barbara, and many, many years of Julia Child fandom.  James, on the other hand had been many times. It was his "neighborhood taco shop" when he lived in Santa Barbara (for part of the time anyway) and for whatever reason he didn't seem all that impressed with it.  He said it was overrated, not that special, just the place Julia "happened to go." 
La Super Rica  Santa Barbara
You all know I love my husband dearly, but on this count, he was wrong.  Just a look at the menu tells you this is no ordinary taco shop. We arrived at about 2 in the afternoon, so we weren't quite hungry enough for a full meal, but we wanted to give the place a legitimate try.  There are two things to keep in mind as you choose - one, they make their own fresh corn tortillas and they are FABULOUS.  And two, they use some kind of special white cheese that turns super creamy when it melts and is completely and totally amazing. Exhibit A... 
La Super Rica Special - Santa Barbara
This dish, the Super Rica Especial consisted of two fresh corn tortillas topped with chopped sauteed pasilla chiles, marinated pork and chorizo and a layer of that incredible cheese.  I had heard (or read) that the thing to order here is the "Rajas" - which turned out to be a melting concoction of cheese, onions and peppers on a tortilla. We also had a quesadilla -  which James said he ordered when he used to live nearby.  The quesadilla is two smallish tortillas with the cheese sandwiched between.  You can see the aforementioned meltiness - and the crisp edges....
Rajas and Quesadilla at La Super Rica - Santa Barbara
The Rajas are an almost indescribable dish. A perfect balance of sweet, savory, intense and rich.  I can only assume the peppers and onions must cook for hours - probably in some broth and a little lard - and are  mixed with melting cheese to form something like a thick fondue just before serving.  It's truly wonderful and absolutely, positively, worth a special trip. 
La Super Rica - Santa Barbara
I snuck a peek into the kitchen - where they were cooking up the food to order with fresh ingredients.  None of those frozen bags of taquitos or gristly carne asada meat here.  Nosireee.   
La Super Rica - Santa Barbara
To top it all off, the place had style.  I loved the chalkboard, the turquoise and white retro architecture, the font on the windows and the expansive white sailcloth covered dining area.  (Todd Selby - if you're listening, I think you could do some good work here!) 

I am told the lines can be insane - especially on the weekends.  All I can say about that is: 1) it's worth it, and 2) If you go on a weekday at 2 PM, you won't have to wait long.

Oh, and if some jaded Santa Barbaran tells you it's not that great, don't listen!

La Super Rica
622 N Milpas St
Santa Barbara, CA 93103
(805) 963-4940
Cash only - open 11 AM - 9 PM most days, 9:30 on weekends.
(James also says the Pozole is good.)