Maybe it’s because the Oscars got it so very right last year—so far as I was concerned—but I find it hard to work up any great enthusiasm for this year’s awards. More entertaining than the announcement of the nominees was the bizarre response by Ms. Talking Head on CNN, who claimed that the real shocker was that there were ten movies nominated for Best Picture this year. Either she is remarkably ill-informed or she has just gotten used to trying to make the uninteresting sound interesting and newsworthy that she knows no better. I mean, this ten nominees idea has been pretty well known for some considerable time.
Anyway, this year we do have ten (count ‘em, 10) Best Picture nominees—five of which apparently directed themselves, since we do not have ten Best Director nominees. Those Oscar folks—what a bunch of cut-ups. I’m not in the least surprised that my choices for Best Picture are ill-represented. In fact, that offers me a degree of comfort. When I start thinking like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I’ll know I’ve been doing this too long. If anything I’m a little surprised that three of my ten best picks are among then nominees. That those titles came in at the bottom of my list, on the other hand, doesn’t surprise me.
So what we end up with are Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglouorious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up and Up in the Air. Of those, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man and Up seem to have arrived at greatness without benefit of a filmmaker. Of the overall ten, only two are actually embarassing choices. There is something to be said for that.
Taking the nominated films alphabetically, we get the embarassments out of the way pretty quickly—starting with Avatar. Yes, it’s made a ton of money and it’s been sitting at the top of the box office for weeks now (not that the challengers have been all that challenging), but that hardly makes it Best Picture material. Strip the film of its technical accomplishments—which, frankly, strike me as overrated—and what do you really have? The story is a hackneyed collection of cliches held together by bad dialogue and rampant predictability. Divorced from the technical aspects of motion-capture and 3D, what exactly is remarkable about James Cameron’s direction? It’s workmanlike and he manages to construct fairly coherent action scenes (the latter is admittedly increasingly rare these days), but remakable? Oscar-worthy?
And then there’s John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side. What is there to say about this as an Oscar nominee? It’s nothing more than a standard issue uplifting sports movie that happens—as so many of these things are—to be based on a true story. It has an audience, sure, but so did Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I won’t hold it against the film—taken on its own merits—that it’s shamelessly manipulative or that, for all intents and purposes, it emasculates its main character. These things virtually go with the territory. But what about this movie marks it as a Best Picture contender? I suppose it’s Sandra Bullock’s performance that has propelled it to this level, but I don’t see it. (And, frankly, I think Bullock gave better performances in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood  and Infamous .) It’s certainly not the direction. In fact, this may be a case where I could buy the idea that the movie directed itself.
Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 is one of the more surprising films on the list, one of the more interesting ones—and probably the least likely to win. While I wouldn’t have included it myself, I’m not in the least sorry to see it get some measure of recognition. It’s a film that didn’t entirely stick with me—certainly not as much as I expected it to on the one viewing I had—but the fact that an adventurous, allegory-heavy science fiction film with no star power and an unknown director landed a slot on the list is encouraging. That it’s also at least 20 times the film that Avatar is makes its inclusion all the sweeter. That Blomkamp himself was overlooked for a director nod is another matter.
Lone Scherfig’s An Education is another pleasant surprise—complete with director snub—and another very long shot. It’s a good movie that at least flirts with greatness, if only by virtue of its spot-on depiction of pre-Beatles, pre-Swinging England London. The movie gives us an unusual look at the malaise of that period—of the hunger for something to break the dreariness of English middle-class and lower-middle-class life. (If you ever need to understand the line about prefering to stay onboard and defy the law if your option is going to Peckham in Pirate Radio, this film will help.) At the time of the events in An Education, no one can even think of England in terms of excitement. Its main character, Jenny (Oscar nominated Carey Mulligan), enthuses early on, “I’m going to Paris, and I’m going to smoke and wear black and listen to Jacques Brel,” and that neatly sums up the mindset—a mindset that helped to shape the explosion to come.
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was a given for a nomination, as was Bigelow herself. It’s a solid choice and I have nothing against it. I saw it. I admired its boldness. But I wasn’t personally drawn to it in that way that makes me want to see a film a second time. It’s also one of those movies where I can’t quite escape the sense that the importance of the subject matter is getting confused with the importance of the film. Nonetheless, it’s a notable work—and the first film to deal with the war in Iraq to make a dent at the box office—and a worthy addition to the list. I won’t be in its corner for the win, but neither will I be tempted to throw anything at the screen if it does nab the Oscar.
Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is my personal pick for winning, though I don’t think it will. It’s too personal, too quirky—and cinematically, it’s probably too daring. I don’t mean that it’s hard to follow, but it’s a film that moves at its own pace and that pace varies a good bit depending where you are in the film—and to some degree it depends on what movie or movies Tarantino is referencing. In that respect, the movie is one big movie-geek-a-thon that will mean more to you the geekier you are. (If you identify the clip from Hitchcock’s Sabotage , know who G.W. Pabst was, and recognize the difference between the styles of Sergio Leone and Fritz Lang, you’re pretty high on the geek-o-meter and some kind of Tarantino kindred spirit.) One thing the film is is a very full meal, which is to say you know you’ve really seen something and that what you’ve seen is genuine moviemaking when you exit the theater.
High on the list of inevitable titles was Lee Daniel’s Precious—another film I was supposed to like better than I did. It’s also a good film, but it’s not quite the end-all be-all I’ve seen it portrayed as being. I like the fact that Daniels’ direction is on the fearless side—especially as concerns the seamless insertion of fanatasy sequences, many of which are at once heartbreaking and pointedly satirical. The acting is first-rate and much of the dialogue is very fine. Better still, it’s a movie that refuses to go for easy solutions—or even solutions of any kind. It doesn’t pander to the viewer and it isn’t interested in making you feel good about yourself—nor is it interested in assaulting your tear ducts (yes, I’m looking at you, Blind Side). These things are its strengths, but they may also be the very things that will keep it from winning the Oscar.
One of the bleakest films of the year was the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man and its nomination feels like paying lip-service to the Coens, especially since they weren’t nominated for the film’s direction. That’s a patently ridiculous snub since so much of what makes A Serious Man work lies in the way the Coens made the film. Its success is so firmly tied to their filmmaking that this one film is the textbook example of why ten film nominations and five director ones is an absurdity. I don’t think modern day variation on the trials of Job stands a hope in hell of picking up Best Picture. It would be slightly ironic to find the Academy rewarding virtue for a movie about God not rewarding virtue.
The animated film Up from co-director-writers Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (who, of course, aren’t nominated for direction) is another fairly dark horse candidate. It wouldn’t have been my choice for an animated film for Best Picture. That would have been Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but I wouldn’t in the least mind seeing the award go to Up—a film that penetrated even my pretty strong resistance to Pixar. Also, maybe it’s finally time that an animated film did win. Although I didn’t agree with the inclusion of the tepid Princess and the Frog, the very fact that the top three films on Time magazine’s Ten Best list were animated—Princess, Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox—suggests that the perception of animation as being on equal footing with live action filmmaking has arrived. There’s really no reason it shouldn’t be.
For a while Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air was being touted as the most likely Best Picture winner—and George Clooney as the likely winner of a Best Actor award. Well, the film and Clooney—and director Reitman—are all in the running, but the idea that any of these wins is a lock seems to have gone by the wayside. I’m not sure why—except in the case of Clooney who faces strong competition from Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. One assumes that the people who were predicting its win early on had actually seen Up in the Air and were aware that although the film was being marketed as a comedy, it was actually pretty much of a downer. Oh, there are funny things in it, but I’d hardly call the film comic in overall tone. In fact, it’s perhaps the most deeply sad of the ten films up. It’s not as bleak as A Serious Man, but it lacks that film’s somewhat distancing period setting and its satirical tone. Up in the Air is very much a film of our time and its messages hit uncomfortably close to home. That may not help it with Academy voters.
So those are the ten to choose from. As I said, I’d like to see Inglourious Basterds win, but I don’t think it will. If I were prone to betting, I’d put my money on The Hurt Locker. Am I right? Who knows? Upsets are not unknown—and they might be a little more likely out of a field of ten. Time will tell. And if anyone wants to weigh in with views on the other categories, be my guest.