Dinner and a movie

Sometimes, after a long week of work, nothing sounds better on a Saturday night than a nice dinner (that you don’t have to cook) and a good movie.

And since this is Oscar weekend, it seemed appropriate to see an Oscar-nominated film.

But first, the dinner.

We went to one of my favorite restaurants in Ames: Café Shi. The restaurant, located at 823 Wheeler (on the north side of Ames, just off of Grand), describes its food as “international cuisine” – it’s a wonderful mix of Asian, American, and much more.

The challenge for me is to order something new, because I have my favorites and I always want to order them. To start with, Café Shi’s appetizers are about the best I’ve ever tasted, so it’s tempting to just get a couple of apps, a glass of wine or pint of beer, one of their amazing desserts, and call it dinner. That’s what I usually do. If you are like-minded, go for the truffle parmesan fries with aioli dipping sauces and the guacamole with freshly-fried tortilla chips. Finish it off with a piece of coconut pie. You will not be disappointed.

For those who prefer actual entrees for their meal, you can choose from Asian-inspired spicy rice, Vietnamese curry, banh mi, or shrimp pad Thai. Or go for the Southwestern chicken pasta, jambalaya, lemon chicken primavera, or many other steak, chicken, seafood, and pasta dishes. Café Shi also features excellent soups and salads, and the menu changes frequently.

In addition to the best coconut pie on the planet, Café Shi serves a wide array of other desserts, from the simple but wonderful crème brulee to a rustic olive oil cake with strawberries and vanilla custard to a red velvet cupcake with vanilla ice cream. I can’t say I’ve eaten them all, but what I’ve tasted has been splendid.

The restaurant, which is elegant but very comfortable, has an outstanding bar area, a lengthy wine menu, good beer selections, and a variety of martinis and cocktails. It is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and for Sunday brunch but does not serve lunch. It is closed on Mondays.

After dinner, we rented one of the films nominated for best picture, as well as for a couple of the acting awards: “Winter’s Bone.” It’s one of those movies I intended to see in the theater…but it didn’t hang around long enough. Set in the Ozark Mountains, it’s a gritty, realistic film about a teenager forced to assume the parental role in her family. Her father, a meth dealer, is in and out of prison, and her mother is mentally ill. Ree takes care of her two younger siblings, her mother, and the family’s home. As the film begins, Ree learns that her father has put the family’s property up for bail, and unless he turns up for his trial, they will lose it all. Ree risks her own life trying to discover where her father is – and to save her family.

The film is depressing and a few of the scenes were hard for me to watch, but I give the creators credit for showing a part of American life that few of us have ever experience.

And so…that brings us to tonight: Oscar night! At our house, this has always been a big deal. Even on the years when I haven’t managed to see even a fraction of the nominated films, I always like to guess the winners, watch the film clips, and see what everyone is wearing. If that makes me shallow, so be it.

I am generally not very good at guessing the winners, even though I always think I’m going to be right. The only year I really swept the categories was in 1991 when I correctly predicted that “Silence of the Lambs” would win for best picture, best director (Jonathan Demme), best actor (Anthony Hopkins), and best actress (Jodie Foster). I still remember watching the awards show that night all by myself and just yelling my head off.

This year, it seems all but locked up for “The King’s Speech,” a fine film but not the best film of the year in my opinion. Before I comment on the other nominees, can I just say that I think it was a huge mistake for the Academy of Motion Pictures to increase the best picture pool from 5 to 10 last year? To me, it dilutes the quality of the films chosen to compete for best picture. The fact that “Inception” is one of this year’s best picture nominees clearly states my case. This film was nothing but a huge special effect with, oh yeah, Leonardo DiCaprio thrown in for good measure.

You can disagree if you want. The other nominees range from the lovely and touching “The Kids are All Right” to the rollicking “Toy Story 3” to the harrowing “127 hours” and “The Fighter” (neither of which I saw, because I’m not into harrowing). But speaking of harrowing, “The Black Swan” started out to be a really intense portrait of a young ballerina but somehow turned into a creepy horror movie. About halfway through the film, I turned to my daughter in the theater and said, “What kind of a f—ed up movie is this???” It was way too weird for me to recommend it.

Personally, I enjoyed “The Social Network” and “True Grit” more than “The King’s Speech.” Most people who know me would be surprised that I would even go see a western, let alone love it, but “True Grit” is an exceptional film, and Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld (both nominated in their respective acting categories) were wonderful in it. I can remember watching the original, John Wayne-version “True Grit” with my father when I was young. I liked that version, too, but it pales in comparison to the Coen brothers’ remake.

That said, I would choose “The Social Network” as this year’s best film because it exemplifies the times in which we live so much more than any other film, and because it was just so much fun to watch.

Do the other categories matter much? Probably not, but here goes: Colin Firth for best actor, Natalie Portman for best actress, and David Fincher for directing “The Social Network.”

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