The experiment worked. There are 10 best picture nominees for the first time since 1943 (when “Casablanca” won), and what initially seemed a contrived attempt at gladhanding to date-nighters has instead spawned the most fascinating top-honor Oscar race since “Forrest Gump” fleeced “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” in 1994.
Which will always be stupid.
Fans of movie Web sites have probably bought the common wisdom floating about, that Sunday’s top honor is a two-horse race between “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker.” Hogwash!
“The Hurt Locker” is an action-packed war film, and one of those hasn’t won the top prize since “Platoon” in 1986 (not even 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan”).
This is not to discount either movie, but with such an eclectic lineup of 10 films, almost all of them great, the race should be wide open.
The Blind Side
For: It’s an unassuming, warmhearted movie about a rich white family who takes in a poor black kid. Many hugs and smiles ensue. “The Blind Side” can be enjoyed by practically any demographic — Sandra Bullock fans, football fans, children, young couples, old couples. It’s got a cute kid and football; we love cute kids and football.
Against: “The Blind Side” benefits from the new 10-movie format like no other film in the pool — it would absolutely not be nominated for best picture if there were only five slots. It’s soft and forgettable. Is “The Blind Side” better than “Remember the Titans” or “Invincible,” two of Disney’s other smashhit, sugarcoated true sports stories? Not really, so it’s certainly not a contender against the class in this category.
For: The actors and their characters are incredibly appealing, especially luminous Carey Mulligan as a teenager being wooed by a suave older rich man. (She would be my pick for best actress.) And Alfred Molina is classic as her goofy dad. Adapted for the screen by popular novelist Nick Hornby from a British journalist’s coming-of-age memoir, “An Education” is a great movie about an interesting woman, rare these days in mancentric Hollywood. The story is grounded in a recognizable reality and well-told. Until…
Against: The ending stinks. This month’s Esquire magazine awarded “An Education” its alternative Oscar for “Greatest achievement in ruinous ending of a great movie.” After an hour-and-a-half of honest entertainment, the story falls apart. The film also feels small compared to most other nominees.
For: Documentary-style storytelling makes it unique among the other nominees. A hard-core sci-fi parable for the complicated racial divides of South Africa should at least earn brief consideration from voters. (Kudos, by the way, for nominating “District 9” and not “Invictus.”) There are a lot of emotional scenes in “District 9,” as likable characters (both alien and human) meet their fates battling mighty corporate forces — with their families’ lives at stake. For all the bloodletting, it’s kind of a tearjerker.
Against: Director Neill Blomkamp not getting a nomination might indicate Oscar isn’t serious about “District 9.” The movie has an over-the-top gore-and-violence quotient, with bad guys being blown away by bizarre alien weaponry pulled straight from first-person-shooter video games, so it surely appeals more to 16-year-old boys than Oscar voters who loved “The English Patient.”
A Serious Man
For: The mind bender of the group, a post-modern hoot aimed at moviegoers who like dissecting and discussing what movies mean. Filled with weird characters and weird moments, it’s obviously good because it’s a quirky Coen brothers movie about the meaning of life. It also might be the prolific brothers’ most personal film, with nods toward their Jewish upbringing in 1960s suburbia. My favorite line in any of these 10 films might be the capper to a rabbi’s long story about a hidden Hebrew message carved on a man’s teeth: “The goy? Who cares?”
Against: It’s a dark comedy by the Coens, and some audience members simply won’t think it’s funny. Some voters might be frustrated by a movie with so many scenes where the point is that there is no point. The Coens have lots of Oscars and most recently won best picture two years ago for “No Country For Old Men.” It’s not like they’re due.
Up in the Air
For: It’s the economy, stupid, and “Up in the Air” tackles America’s present economic woes like no other film, giving it relevance the other competitors lack. It’s focused on how it feels for the working class to be suddenly jobless — when Ryan Bingham tells a laid-off auto worker “This is a rebirth,” it’s a message not just for the character but for the 10-plus percent of real-life Americans who aren’t pulling paychecks: You will be all right.
Against: No big budget. No spectacular sequences. “Up in the Air” is simply a well-acted, well-written, smart little entertainment. The nomination here is certainly warranted, and its sharp dialogue should earn a win in the adapted screenplay category, but movies with normal characters, set during modern day — “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Sideways” — don’t win best picture.
For: “Precious” is heavier with emotion than any other film in the bunch. It’s not based on true events, but the story of an obese, HIV-positive teenager — pregnant with her father’s child for the second time — feels real. And Precious may be the most sympathetic character in any film all year. For all its misery, the film is ultimately an uplifting experience. The acting is powerhouse, with lots of crying. Oscar likes crying.
Against: One reporter here summed up her negative reaction to “Precious” thus: “It’s just too much.” The comedian Mo’Nique is definitely front-running for supporting actress as Precious’s psychotic mother, but watching an innocent girl be viciously abused — emotionally, physically and sexually — gets grueling. And if Oscar voters are mostly pampered, rich white people, they may be turned off by a movie focused on black poverty.
For: If critical acclaim is important for best pictures, “Up” should be a serious contender. It was the best-reviewed nominee of the year. (Big thanks to the Web site Rottentomatoes.com, which compiles hundreds of online movie reviews for every release.) The computer animation studio Pixar is due for an Oscar other than for animated feature, after a decade of entertaining the masses with masterpieces like “WALL-E,” “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo.” None of those was nominated for best picture, even though they probably should have been.
Against: Quite simply: It’s a cartoon. A movie for children, no matter how much it’s enjoyed by adults, probably doesn’t stand a chance against Quentin Tarantino and heavy dramas and war films and the craziest special effects of all time.
The Hurt Locker
For: “The Hurt Locker” matters, because it’s the best film so far about Americans at war in the Middle East. If they’ve been hoping for a great Iraq-war movie to hand a statue, this is it. Director Katherine Bigelow is an action genius — the shootouts and bomb diffusions are brilliantly staged. The tension couldn’t be higher because the stakes feel real, like any tiny mistake could unleash a killer explosion. This movie is two things: a visceral action exercise and a psychologically complex depiction of what drives some soldiers to perform their dangerous jobs.
Against: A true action war film hasn’t won Best Picture since 1986’s “Platoon.” Even “Saving Private Ryan” got the shaft (and “The Hurt Locker” is no “Saving Private Ryan”). While the film respects its characters profoundly, this is not an especially patriotic picture — the protagonist is an adrenaline-junkie team commander who purposely makes bad decisions at crucial moments. His mixed motivations give the movie an awkward tone. While that’s probably intentional, it’s also a little unsettling.
For: Starting at a jaw-clenching, riveting opening, one agonizingly intense scene gives way to another until “Inglourious Basterds” hits a climax so insane it takes the revenge theme director Quentin Tarantino loves so much to an entirely new level. This is a World War II film about Jews getting righteous, bloody, explosive revenge on Hitler’s Nazis. The Tarantino staples are here: Rich characters with interesting things to say and sudden, startling moments of incredible violence. It’s also a lot of fun, with a terrific turn by superstar Brad Pitt as the leader of the Basterds, matched against a slithering Christoph Waltz giving what might be the year’s single best performance as the villainous Jew Hunter.
Against: If Tarantino wins the Oscar for best original screenplay (he should), and Waltz wins best supporting actor (he should) then voters might feel “Inglourious Basterds” has been sufficiently honored. Even if those two things don’t happen, the scalpings, suicide bombings and baseball-bat head bashings might be too much nastiness for some. If “Pulp Fiction” couldn’t win a best picture Oscar, “Inglourious Basterds” can be easily passed over.
For: Medium matters, and “Avatar” unleashes what’s visually possible on film like no other movie in decades. A tired cliche fits: It raised the bar. If this year’s Oscar night draws record TV ratings, it’ll be because of “Avatar,” the highest-grossing flick of all time. As a country, we loved it, and while its writing or acting may not hold up against the other nominees, as an experience it was unmatched. “Avatar” may be too big and too lucrative for movie-mogul voters to pass up. If voters are thinking about legacy, it’s tough to argue against “Avatar” being remembered as the seminal movie of 2009.
Against: Historic popularity also makes “Avatar” very polarizing. The plot turns off many; some say the love story is cliche’d and hokey; some say the pro-environmental, pro-indigenous politics come on too heavy. The budget is reportedly between $250 and $300 million, which doesn’t exactly give “Avatar” purist credibility. Big, spectacular special effects movies make a lot of money, but they don’t necessarily win the prestigious Oscars. And recall that “Star Wars” lost the best picture Oscar to “Annie Hall” in 1977, begging a question: Does this year have an “Annie Hall”?
That article originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. I couldn’t get rid of the underlining. It doesn’t show up on the dashboard.