Up and away: Disney-Pixar's animated 3D coming-of-old-age story rose to the top in 2009.

As Oscars Approach, Winners Still Up in the Air

Dennis Harvey February 16, 2010

Last month’s Oscar nominations announcement was anticipated with unusual interest—largely because of exiting AMPAS Sid Ganis’ surprise announcement some months ago that the Academy would henceforth revert to ten Best Picture nominees, a practice abandoned in 1943. Back then, mainstream Hollywood product was pretty much all there was, and coming up with ten admirable titles wasn’t too hard a stretch. Today, with so much major Hollywood product devoted to sequels, remakes and popcorn franchises, any viable Top Ten would have to draw on indie, animated, possibly foreign and documentary features.

Or would it? The worst fear was that this new policy would result in a list that made more room for rewarding sheer commerciality (i.e. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), or would-be “prestige” films (i.e. Nine) neither critics or audiences liked.

But that didn’t happen—at least not this first year. Maybe the biggest surprise to 2009’s nominations, in all categories, is that there were very few true surprises, and no real embarrassments.

Even if there hadn’t been an expanded Best Picture field, it’s likely the major battle lines would be drawn this year between Massive Studio Behemoth and Pure Gritty Indie. In other words, between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Admittedly, the latter is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who’s directed plenty of big-budget projects and called in plenty of favors (including cameos by Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce) to make this comparatively ($11 mil) low-budget, independently financed slice of fictive war verite. For that matter, I’m sure her ex-husband James Cameron thinks of himself as a maverick and Avatar as a studio project by fiscal necessity rather than choice.

Locker has ridden a tidal wave of awards to date that wouldn’t necessarily have been foreseen several months ago. But Avatar, like Titanic before it, is now the highest-grossing film of all time. (It’s important to note that if you measured actual tickets sold, and adjusted for ticket-price inflation, both movies would be way down the list—71-year-old Gone With the Wind would easily remain the most popular movie ever made.)

It’s still a tough call, but I’d guess Oscar will go where the money is. Sitting pretty but unlikely to be called to the podium are such fellow nominees as Inglourious Basterds, Precious, An Education, A Serious Man, and my faves Up and Up in the Air. The surprise noms in this category were popular but tepidly reviewed inspirational true-story The Blind Side and, especially, the excellent South African sci-fi District 9. More surprising was the lack of a single popcorn franchise title in the bunch—in fact I’m a little bummed the year’s best such entries, the latest Harry Potter and rebooted Star Trek, didn’t make the expanded-field cut. On the other hand, it was nice to see award-baiting mediocrities like Nine and Clint Eastwood’s Invictus get the boot.

Partly because it might end up her consolation prize, Bigelow seems the front-runner for Best Director—though don’t count out the possibly of an Avatar sweep. Unless they split the voting, Lee Daniels (Precious), Jason Reitman (Air) and Quentin Tarantino (Basterds) will be distant runners-up.

Best Actor looks like a different sort of indie-vs.-box office smackdown, between Jeff Bridges (whose Crazy Heart wasn’t even slotted for theatrical release until its makers realized they had a golden Oscar underdog in hand) and George Clooney (for Up in the Air). Bridges is a beloved veteran of four decades and many memorable performances, albeit most of them in smaller and/or commercially ignored films that ultimately escaped any Academy notice; he’s never won, and hasn’t been nominated enough. So an Oscar for Crazy Heart would constitute a sort of “Sorry this took so long” acknowledgement of his whole career. Clooney is at the top of his game as skillful (if comparatively limited) actor, magnetic star and popular icon in Air, though that much-admired film hasn’t built the awards momentum some expected. Bridges may well have the edge here, for once. Colin Firth (A Single Man), Morgan Freeman (Invictus) and Jeremy Renner (Hurt Locker) are honorable long-shots.

There’s a little more room for an upset in the Best Actress category, though getting nominated is likely to be seen as reward enough for newcomers Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) and Carey Mulligan (An Education). Helen Mirren is much-respected, her current vehicle The Last Station less so.

That leaves Meryl Streep—yet again—as Julia Child in Julie and Julia, a wonderful performance albeit one restricted to just half of the film. Plus Sandra Bullock, who got to stretch a bit as the well-off white Texas suburbanite who adopts a hulking poor black teen in The Blind Side. Bullock rarely appears in the kinds of movies that attract awards. Yet she’s made a ton of money for Hollywood, and in 2009 she beat out the guys to land the top box-office star slot. As with Julia Roberts and Erin Brockovich, she’s provided Oscar with an opportunity to express industry gratitude without looking too shameless about it. Most likely this will be her year.

In the supporting categories, Mo’Nique’s monstrous mother in Precious seems the forerunner. The men’s competition is less clear—Christoph Waltz could nab it for his dazzling Nazi villain in Basterds, but then Stanley Tucci’s own wellspring of evil in The Lovely Bones, Woody Harrelson’s soldier in the vastly undervalued Messenger, and Christopher Plummer’s Tolstoy in The Last Station are also possibles. Unlikely: Matt Damon in Invictus.

An incredibly strong year for animation meant several fine films went un-nominated; Best Feature looks neck-and-neck between Coraline and Up. Best Foreign Language Film is always hard to call, since usually few of the titles have actually been released to theaters. This year, two have (though they didn’t play the Bay Area till 2010): French crime epic A Prophet and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, which latter seems a strong candidate.

On the other hand, all five Documentary Feature nominees have gotten some significant public exposure. With subjects spanning from old U.S. politics (The Most Dangerous Man in America) and what you shouldn’t be putting in your mouth (Food, Inc.) to neck-risking overseas protest (Burma VJ), the plight of migrant children (Which Way Home) and secretive seafood harvesting (The Cove), this race could end any which way. But knowing how Academy members often let their emotions lead them, it’s a fair bet that The Cove’s shocking final reel of dolphin slaughter might cinch it.

Best Original Screenplay could well go to Tarantino for the verbal pyrotechnics of Basterds; I’m glad Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman’s script for The Messenger got included here, though it doesn’t stand much chance against four far more widely-seen titles. The surprises in Adapted Screenplay were District 9 and In the Loop, both highly worthy, though Up in the Air, Precious or even An Education seem likely to take a statue home.

The Editing and Cinematography nods are harder to guess—*Avatar* could simply sweep all the design/tech awards, for better or worse. Or The Hurt Locker might well do the same. District 9 was again an unexpected editorial inclusion, while the B&W White Ribbon and lushly colored Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince diversified the lensing category.

Now that the nom’s are in, and there hasn’t been too much eye-rolling in response, it’s clear that Ganis’s decision was in fact a wise one. Oscar’s all-important broadcast ratings have been slipping in recent years—a direct consequence of the fact that fewer popular hits and more medium-scaled, variably “indie” successes have dominated the ceremonies. So broadening the top-dog category to include commercial big ‘uns like The Blind Side and Up (Avatar would have gotten nominated regardless) ensures a higher viewership.

Which is fine. Oscar Night ought to be like Superbowl Sunday—the whole nation gathered with beer and pretzels, yelling at the screen. It’s a sport, it’s entertainment. Is it about art? Well kinda. Even if the vast majority of my personal 2009 favorites landed (like almost every year) completely off the Oscar radar. Come March 7, nobody at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences fete will be celebrating (or even thinking about) the likes of Anvil!, Seraphine, Thirst, A Town Called Panic, The Maid, Bronson, Sita Sings the Blues, Still Walking, Everything Strange and New, Stingray Sam, 35 Shots of Rum, Not Quite Hollywood or…well, name your own grievous omissions.

Oscar’s spectacle and suspense is always fun, if sometimes exasperating. (Please…do not…mention…the word…“CRASH”…ever…again….) But in a just world, everybody would follow that Sunday evening’s glitz with a cleansing night or three of Netflix picks culled from the lengthy annual list of exceptional movies that Oscar wouldn’t know about if they bit him in his golden ass.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.