Wonder what makes the 10 movies nominated for best picture by the Academy Awards special? Stars and Stripes staffers explain why this year’s crop of nominees is deserving.

“Black Swan”Yes, yes, Natalie Portman kisses (and more with) Mila Kunis. Now that we’re past that, here’s what Oscar nominee “Black Swan” is really all about: Crazy. Crazy on a grand, intense and spooky scale. Portman plays Nina, a ballet dancer who thinks the way to the top is perfection, honed through unrelenting practice and self-denial. Already struggling with anxiety that leads her to scratch herself raw, and the pain of ballet dancing, she lands the lead role in “Swan Lake.” The role is actually two parts — she must dance as both the sweet white swan and the seductress black swan. While the white swan comes easily, she fights to become the other. Meanwhile, she must cope with a desperate mother living only for her daughter (Barbara Hershey), a handsy company director (Vincent Cassel) and an understudy who would make the perfect black swan (Kunis). Or is Nina struggling only with herself? Maybe it’s all in her mind, finally consumed by her quest for perfection and to become the black swan. The movie is intense, passionate, lovingly shot, and the final performance will leave you breathless. Natalie Portman deserves the Oscar she will win.— Danielle L. Kiracofe, entertainment editor

“The Fighter”I really thought I was going to see another Rocky movie when I went to see “The Fighter.” I was wrong. It focused on the life of former boxing light welterweight champion Micky Ward and his blue-collar family from the streets of Lowell, Mass. More than just his profession, “The Fighter” defined the triangle of struggles with which Micky had to deal — his girlfriend, his family and his brother’s drug addiction. Many feel best supporting actor nominee Christian Bale is a shoo-in for excellently portraying Micky’s half-brother Dicky. Although I agree, there’s no way Amy Adams’ role as Micky’s fiery girlfriend, Charlene Fleming, should go unnoticed. She truly had fans among the movie audience who were pulling for her character. Not only did they want to see Micky win, but they also wanted the unfairly judged girlfriend to come out on top.— Douglas Gillam, graphic designer

“Inception”With its multi-layered storyline and great cast, “Inception” is a good candidate for best picture. The premise of the story is that a group of people, led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, can insert themselves into other people’s dreams, thus having an impact on decisions made in real life. On this assignment, they must descend into several dreams. But what’s real, and what is a dream? The story is laid out in such a way that you must pay attention to every detail to distinguish reality from dreams, but it’s not a chore to do so because the story is worth the effort. The cinematography was excellent, and I was amazed to see how each dream was portrayed. DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt give strong performances, and most of the supporting cast does as well.— Melissa Field, desk chief, Mideast and Europe

“The Kids Are All Right”“The Kids Are All Right” is the story of two women, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, sharing a life together and trying to raise two teenagers who share a sperm donor father. When Joni, the oldest child -- played by Mia Wasikowska -- turns 18, her brother, played by Josh Hutcherson, urges her to find their father. Enter Mark Ruffalo, a restaurateur who doesn’t really have much of a personal life. When he finds out he has two children, he tries to become part of the family. At first, he seems like a good man who wants to know his children. But in the end, his actions nearly tear the family apart. Ruffalo has been nominated for the Oscar for best actor in a supporting role. Bening’s character undergoes a transformation that has been deservedly recognized with a nomination in the best actress category. Unfortunately, Moore did not get similar recognition, which is a shame. Playing an unemployed woman who is not feeling loved by her partner, she turns to Ruffalo for attention. Her struggles to regain control of her life after having the affair and the guilt she feels for her family are one of the key elements of the movie. In a year when Best Picture nominees include a remake and a cartoon, “The Kids Are All Right” is one of my favorites for its fresh storyline and brilliant acting by all its main characters.— Sam Amrhein, deputy managing editor

“The King’s Speech”On the face of its characters, “The King’s Speech” seems like a hard sell in America: Colin Firth with a stammer, Geoffrey Rush as a Shakespeare-quoting speech therapist and Helena Bonham Carter acting normally — for once — isn’t going to create a line around a domestic megaplex. But where co-favorite “The Social Network” connects with audiences through shared modern experiences, “The King’s Speech” wins viewers over with its masterfully crafted story. Firth plays King George VI, who becomes ceremonial leader of England after a family crisis on the eve of World War II coming to England. The catch is, he’s been stuttering since he was 5, creating an awkward situation as his nation looks for spoken reassurance from its monarch at the dawn of the radio era. The end may be predictable, but the two-hour journey to get there is far better than reading about it in a history book.— Eric Brandner, assistant managing editor, Pacific

“127 Hours”Man goes hiking. Man gets trapped. Man spends five days — alone — alternately struggling to break free and preparing for his own death before ultimately chopping off his arm to set himself free. In lesser hands, “127 Hours” would be a gruesome bore, marked only by the scene where, yes, James Franco cuts his arm off. The accolades for this film are due in equal part to Danny Boyle’s storytelling and Jon Harris’ editing: the duo take a single horrifying moment — which isn’t as disturbing as you might have heard — and surround it with meditations on life and dreams and desire. Flashbacks and musical choices fill out the mood and the time, and the movie’s tight 94 minutes never feel like a drag. The last 10 minutes are so life-affirming that you leave the theater just wanting to go live your life and DO THINGS, an accomplishment worthy of an award in and of itself.— Erin McCann, desk chief

“The Social Network”“The Social Network” takes what could be a complicated story full of legalese and spins it into a sexy, fascinating romp through the hallowed grounds of Harvard (though filmed elsewhere) and beyond. Based on an unauthorized biography, the intriguing tale of how Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg conceived of – or quite possibly stole – and developed the idea for the uber-popular website takes place mostly through flashbacks from two court cases. Jesse Eisenberg received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his convincing portrayal of how Zuckerberg went from being a brilliant, though socially awkward, college student to a multibillionaire almost overnight. The Oscar-nominated script by Aaron Sorkin, the Oscar-nominated score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails, and the solid cast of Eisenberg and up-and-coming stars Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara and Armie Hammer (turned into twins through flawless special effects), as well as a critically lauded supporting role by Justin Timberlake, form a top-notch production. From the opening scene – a rapid-fire exchange between Eisenberg and Mara that required 99 takes to perfect – to the poor-little-rich-boy ending, “The Social Network” won’t fail to entertain, impress and possibly make you think twice about one of the world’s favorite ways to waste time.— Kate Maisel, features editor

“Toy Story 3”I’m a journalist, so I don’t suffer fools, but I’m also a father of three boys under age 6, so I suffer through a lot of bad kids’ movies. It was shocking – but ultimately refreshing – to watch a very grown-up, dark, scary, yet uplifting children’s movie in “Toy Story 3.” Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang hope for the best as they face the end of their days with Andy, who is leaving for college. But the toys are accidentally donated to a daycare center where they are confronted by a confusing new world, bullied by an unnecessarily Mafia-like gang of secondhand toys and, at the climax, find themselves sliding slowly into a roaring incinerator, facing their demise together, holding hands, the end drawing near. Pixar has made better movies: “The Incredibles,” for one. But that moment instantly reminded me of the earliest animated Disney movies, the ones parents think were better — if more violent — than modern kids’ fare. My kids were truly scared, and I didn’t like that. By the end, like most parents I know, I was the one crying as I held their hands, remembering the joy of my own favorite childhood toys and cherishing how I get to watch my own kids play with theirs now. I suspect plenty of Oscar voters cried, too.— Kevin Baron, Washington Bureau Reporter

“True Grit”While many saw the two film adaptations of the “True Grit” novel as a battle between The Duke and The Dude, for me it came down to Hailee vs. Kim (Darby, Mattie in the 1969 version). And Hailee Steinfeld is the clear winner here. She portrays Mattie Ross in this new, Oscar-nominated version exactly how you would expect a 14-year-old girl raised in the Old West and obsessed with avenging her father’s murder to be – completely stripped of any teenage mannerisms: no girlish giggles, no romantic crushes. Jeff Bridges does fine work as Rooster Cogburn, but he isn’t about to make anyone forget about John Wayne. However it was Mattie’s journey that captivated me to the end.— Debra Hoffman, features editor

“Winter’s Bone”“Winter’s Bone,” a film far less heralded than the other contenders, quietly willed its way into the best picture field. It did so with the same steely resolve displayed by its two nominated actors. Jennifer Lawrence turns in a performance mature beyond her years as Ree Dolly, the 17-year-old daughter of a Missouri Ozarks meth cook who fights to take care of a younger sister and brother as well as an incapacitated mother. She’s searching for her in-the-wind father, who put the house up for a bail bond. Her hunt threatens to turn tragic at every twist, as she must navigate her family’s criminal element and backwoods code of silence. Veteran character actor John Hawkes, whose previous roles tended toward meek and mild, walked a hard road into the best supporting actor field. His role isn’t showy like Christian Bale’s scenery-chewing turn in “The Fighter,” but Hawkes is every bit as invested in his drug-addicted tough guy, Rhee’s uncle Teardrop. His role is more complex, too; beneath Teardrop’s flinty exterior is a surprisingly tender heart — and a simmering rage that lends the film a slowly boiling tension.— Sean Moores, assistant managing editor, sports, features & graphics

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