Some people profess to find them boring, but anyone who's paying attention knows that the Oscars keep snapping into new patterns like a crazy kaleidoscope.
Two years ago, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got radical and nominated a slate of first-rate films for 2007 top honors. On the evidence of ratings for the Oscar telecast a month later, the general public could scarcely have cared less. Critics may have been thrilled by, and the film industry could take pride in, the artistically impressive likes of No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood, but such films don't get splashed across a thousand multiplex screens; in a lot of communities they didn't even get shown. Hence, they were "movies nobody ever heard of," and "nobody" responded accordingly.
For its part, Hollywood responded bizarrely. After the 2007 class acts did disappointing business even with Oscar validation, industryites seemed to wonder: Maybe too much respectability was dangerous? Maybe, in a newly populist age, launching a movie on a surge of film festival accolades looked elitist? Whether by design or accident, the following year's slate—Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, Milk, et al.—represented a sharp drop in artistic interest. The list of nominees included not a single title this particular elitist film critic had considered for his 2008 Ten Best list. As for the Oscarcast ratings, they recovered a little. But only a little.
And so this awards season the Academy is trying something new. (Actually, old: see sidebar.) For the first time in going-on-seven decades, the field boasts 10 candidates for best motion picture rather than five. The hope—half stated, half inferred—is that casting a wider net for Oscar contenders will attract more viewers. Having more nominees means more chance that the potential TV viewer will have seen a couple-three of the movies in contention and be more curious about what wins. And if the extra five slots were to get filled with some mega-grossing hits that wouldn't have made the cut on the old ballot—high-profile moneymakers "everybody has heard of"—well, that couldn't hurt.
Whether the grand experiment will succeed is anybody's guess. However, this year's nominees shape up as a distinct improvement over last year's. Oh, there are regrettable omissions, people or pictures or technical achievements that deserve to have been cited—but surprisingly few nominations that seem flagrantly unwarranted. (Most grievously overlooked, by my lights, is Bright Star, New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion's piercingly intelligent and very moving film about the love between John Keats and Fanny Brawne during the last year of the poet's life. Its sole Oscar nom: costume design.)
From this early vantage I get the feeling that, apart from its uniquely fraught finale, the evening may be short on suspense. Each of the four acting awards looks like a lock, and there's nothing notably charged about the tech categories. And despite the increase in best-picture slots, the real showdown should involve about the same number of serious contenders as always.
PICTURE AND DIRECTOR: Both these prizes nearly always go to the same film, and the nominees for best director pretty much confirm where this year's real best-picture race is. The same five people nominated for the recent Directors Guild of America Award are up for the directorial Oscar: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (a film with nine nominations in all); James Cameron, Avatar (also nine); Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds; Lee Daniels, Precious; and Jason Reitman, Up in the Air.
And two of them used to be married to each other. That would be Bigelow and Cameron, reportedly still friends and admiring of each other's movie. (Bigelow even directed a film, 1995's Strange Days, co-written and co-produced by her ex three years after their divorce.) The self-styled King of the World is eager to see his newest effort—a 3D science-fiction fantasy that just eclipsed his own 1997 Oscar-sweeper Titanic as top-grossing film of all time—taken as "the future of filmmaking." The DGA unofficially declared the CGI-heavy future on hold by granting victory to Bigelow for her white-knuckled, entirely real-world study of men in war. Oscar's verdict has diverged from the DGA's only six times in 60 years. Besides, can Hollywood sidestep the historical-cultural imperative to name a woman best director of the year for the first time ever?
The only "besides" that should matter is: she clearly deserves it. Kathryn Bigelow for best director; The Hurt Locker, best picture.
ACTOR: He's never won the title, but no one would dispute that Jeff Bridges has been one of the best actors in American film for nearly 40 years. It's just that, as one wag put it, he's specialized in making "great movies not enough people go to see" (Fat City, Bad Company, Winter Kills, Cutter and Bone, The Big Lebowski, et al.). Crazy Heart isn't a great movie, but it's one Bridges inhabits from the inside out and makes larger and more memorable than it had any right to be. Hand him that statue, long overdue ... though for this particular year, for their particular work, I'd go with George Clooney, Up in the Air, or Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker.
ACTRESS: See the preview to The Blind Side and you've seen what Sandra Bullock does throughout the movie: an honest but distinctly limited job of work that will gladden the family audience heart. She could lose to Meryl Streep (16th nom!) for her channeling of Julia Child, or we could see one of those first-role blowouts by Gabourey Sidibe in Precious. But my gut tells me the popular and likably level-headed Bullock's going the distance. (My idea of best actress is unnominated: Abbie Cornish in Bright Star.)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: There is no conceivable reason why Christoph Waltz, whose performance as Landa the Jew Hunter in Inglourious Basterds started winning awards at Cannes last May, should break his streak now. Matt Damon, nominated here for Invictus, better deserved (but didn't get) a best-actor nom for The Informant! Woody Harrelson is terrific in Oren Moverman's The Messenger, and it's kinda mindblowing that neither Christopher Plummer (Tolstoy in The Last Station) nor Stanley Tucci (the sex-murderer in The Lovely Bones) has ever been nominated heretofore. (Nor has my candidate, the still-unnominated Paul Schneider of Bright Star.)
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Penélope Cruz, who aced this category last year for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is the best, but not good enough, reason to see Rob Marshall's execrable Nine (wait for the DVD—then break it). My own choice would be either Vera Farmiga or Anna Kendrick, both from Up in the Air. But Maggie Gyllenhaal is almost as magical in her Crazy Heart supporting role as Jeff Bridges is in the lead, and her nomination is Oscar 2009's happiest surprise. Still, nothing will derail the Mo'Nique express; her portrayal of the mother in Precious is a letter from hell, postage paid in full.
SCREENPLAY X 2: No complaints here, least of all with the omission of Avatar (somebody wrote that?!). My personal choice for best adapted screenplay would be In the Loop, the gloriously garrulous satire of diplomatic spinmeistering in Whitehall and D.C. that opened the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival. However, screenplay often serves as a consolation prize for best-pic nominees that aren't going to win the big one, so shut your eyes and pin the tail on any of the other four: District 9, An Education, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, or Up in the Air. My druthers among those would be Up in the Air, so boldface that.
In best original screenplay, all power to the brothers Coen for their amazing, mysterious, hilarious, and just maybe alien A Serious Man (also my pick as best film of the year, which it's nominated for but hasn't a prayer of winning). If The Hurt Locker rolls everything up, Iraq War embed Mark Boal could take this one home, but for sheer out-of-this-worldness and the dozen mesmerizing set-pieces that dominate Inglourious Basterds, maybe Quentin the T should clear space on his mantel for a second screenplay Oscar beside the '94 one for Pulp Fiction. Also up: er, Up and The Messenger. (Most glaring oversight: the sweet, witty, intricately structured (500) Days of Summer.)
Cinematography: Here's hoping that Academy members realize only a small percentage of Avatar was actually photographed, and avoid voting it this award. Likewise the latest Harry Potter movie. In the absence of nominations for Dante Spinotti (Public Enemies) and Roger Deakins (A Serious Man), the deserving recipient on the basis of sheer artistry would be Christian Berger for the disquietingly subtle black and white of The White Ribbon. No quarrel with honoring either Barry Ackroyd for the hot, dry The Hurt Locker or the oft-Oscared Robert Richardson for Inglourious Basterds.
That's a wrap.
Copyright © 2010 by Richard T. Jameson