Reasons to Celebrate
Best Picture Gets "Best"-er
With the expanded field of nominees, the Academy bucked its recent trend of snubbing deserving films that simply did not fit the description of a "typical" Oscar contender. Last year, it stung long and deep when Wall-e and The Dark Knight were ignored in favor of stale prestige packages Frost/Nixon and The Reader.
This time around, Oscar lends one of its sacred spots to Pixar's Up, the second animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture (after Beauty and the Beast in 1989), and another to District 9, an extremely well-crafted science fiction allegory that shouldn't have stood a chance.
On the same token, Oscar passed on several predictable "prestige" projects that more or less underwhelmed, including Clint Eastwood's Mandela biopic-of-sorts Invictus and the flashy, star-fraking screen-to-stage-to-screen musical adaptation and Weinstein-driven vehicle Nine.
The inclusion of five extra nominees also allowed smaller, independent, specialty films An Education and the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man to enter the fray.
Even looking at the presumed top five "locked-in" contenders, we've got a seriously indie war film released early in the year to underwhelming box office results (The Hurt Locker), a sci-fi technology-bending box-office smash starring giant blue-skinned cat people (Avatar), a gritty racial study wallop without a hint of sheen or glamor (Precious), an absurdist, irreverent bloodbath-revenge thriller bursting with artistic integrity (Inlgourious Basterds), and a sleek, resonant (albeit very Oscar-friendly) tongue-in-cheek character study set against the current economic downtrend (Up in the Air).
It's a stunning Best Picture slate that refreshingly defies usual Oscar logic.
Oscar Didn't Go Nuts
When AMPAS announced that there would be ten Best Picture nominees instead of the typical five, pundits across the globe had a collective conniption about what that would mean for the (arguably) highest filmmaker honor in existence.
Many feared that it would dilute the accomplishment, sully the achievement, and pander to populist sentiment over legitimate filmmaking feats-- a prospect even worse than Oscar's typical habit of chomping down on prestige bait of questionable value. The Hangover for Best Picture? Harry Potter? Sherlock Holmes? It's Complicated, maybe? I never bought that this would happen, but it still seemed like an all-too-real possibility. In the end, apart from one title (see below), none of this sort of nonsense materialized.
Egregious Snubs Aside
No The Dark Knights this year. No Christopher Nolans. No Sally Hawkinses. Even if the major categories were quite predictable, they were made up of strong, deserving contenders (give or take) and didn't pass on any obviously worthy names. Sure, there were snubs-- there will always be snubs-- but none of them made me loudly cry foul.
A Diverse Director Spread
A category almost exclusively dominated by old white men opens its arms to embrace a woman (the increasingly more stunning Kathryn Bigelow), an openly gay black man (a slam dunk minority mix by way of Precious' Lee Daniels), and a thirty-something rising filmmaker (the ever-eager Jason Reitman). The remaining two slots aren't wasted, either: one for the brazen story-spinner and auteur Quentin Tarantino, and the other for James Cameron, the man who has repeatedly revolutionized filmmaking with his endless imagination.
No Grotesquely Stupid Decisions in the Foreign Film Category
If there is an Oscar category known for screwing up royally, it's the Foreign Film one. Years upon years of ludicrous snubs-- most notably during the 2007 season-- and subsequent heat from critics and cinephiles forced the Academy to shape up their act. This year, a special advisory committee was allowed to make edits to the bake-off and final list of nominees. We don't and probably won't ever know if they actually had to add back in any titles, but considering that The White Ribbon and A Prophet managed to find their way onto the roster, along with three additional strong contenders, I'd say that the change was for the better (so far).
Reasons to Roll Your Eyes
Best Picture Still Wearing Blinders
No, I'm not talking about the inclusion of The Blind Side-- not just yet (though it's certainly a good enough reason to let the eyes roll a bit). Oscar still has a very narrow view of what "best" can consist of. Yes, it's much better this year, but there's still a long way to go.
This year, we got a few independent power dramas, an animated film, and two science-fiction entries. But why can't a documentary be considered one of the best? Or how about a foreign film? Why only one animated film if there were additional worthy contenders? And what about those truly independent films-- the ones that don't snag multi-million dollar deals with art-house divisions of major movie studios?
If Oscar wants to be the magical movie award that recognizes the absolute best in filmmaking, he still needs to widen his gaze.
"Awards Season is an Echo Chamber"
I first heard that phrase from Kris Tapley of In Contention fame, and boy oh boy is it ever true. The Tracker proved once again that the various and diverse groups of film critics and professional organizations don't have such varied and diverse tastes after all. Most contenders received mentions all throughout awards season, allowing undeserving picks to ride a wave of self-perpetuating momentum while snubbed achievements remained just that: snubbed.
The optimistic spin on this phenomenon might be that worthy accomplishments are considered worthy across-the-board. But how could that be the case when Sandra Bullock (God love her) sweeps the Globes, the Critics' Choice Awards, and the SAG Awards for a sturdy though typically cushy performance, while her competitors, all of whom turned in what is generally considered much stronger work, were completely shut out? (Not counting Meryl Streep, of course. But Meryl tends to be the exception to every rule.) Buzz and pre-cursor props are still the most influential forces when it comes to landing an Oscar nod, when most would agree that the Oscars should reward the best of the best and nothing less.
Leave the Regl'ar People out of It!
The Oscars have received a lot of criticism for representing an elitist perspective, for not recognizing more accessible material embraced by the general movie-going population. But Adam! The Blind Side got a Best Picture nomination! The effing Blind Side got an effing Best Picture nomination! Effing!
Yes, yes. I am fully aware that The Blind Side was able to coast on its populist approval and the strength of Sandy Bullock's charisma all the way into the Big 10. What's more, we've got nine nominations for Avatar, which is now the highest-grossing movie of all time in both the US and the world. And you can add to the equation the $300 million raked in by Inglourious Basterds and the cool $200 million worldwide gross of District 9, a film that would have surely been passed on by the Academy in any other year.
However, HOWEVER... the Oscars continue to allow a certain behavior that absolutely perplexes me. Why, oh why oh why oh why, do the Oscars continue to recognize achievements in films that have barely been released to the general population? If they want the public to be invested in their recognitions (they do), they should begin by letting the public actually see the films.
This wasn't as big of a problem this year as it was in years past, but it was still ever-present. Jeff Bridges has been snagging trophy after trophy this year for Crazy Heart, a film that wasn't in even 100 theaters until last weekend. Colin Firth and his vehicle A Single Man have been similarly elusive until mid-January. Woody Harrelson earned a Supporting Actor nod for The Messenger, but good luck finding The Messenger anywhere outside of a major metropolitan art-house theater. Heck, The Last Station, which lent acting nods to Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, and Animated Film nominee The Secret of Kells have yet to play anywhere outside of LA and New York.
Now don't get me wrong: I understand that smaller films with smaller budgets cannot afford to expand into theaters across the country to allow everyone a viewing opportunity. But we live in the Digital Age, my friends! The iPad looms upon us! The multiplex is not the only place you can show a movie to masses of people anymore.
Don't you think that plenty of folks would be willing to pay upwards to the price of a movie ticket to stream The Messenger on their computer? Or view it On Demand? The Academy should, I believe, provide this sort of opportunity for nominated films that could not make it to a wide theatrical release. I'm not saying we should be able to download Avatar from Oscar.com, nor should this service trump DVD release efforts several nominated films are staging in the next few weeks. But it simply does not make sense to me that a member of the general theater-going population should not be capable of seeing every film mentioned by Oscar.
The same goes for the Short categories, too. You want people to care about them? How about let us seem them?? You want to disprove the "elitist" accusation, Oscar? Put your money where your (tiny metal) mouth is! Oscar, show us the films!!
Now let's get a little more specific...
A Serious Man makes the Best Picture cut. So does Up. Both are very deserving picks, and both defy typical Oscar logic. District 9 gets a nod, too. Such a wonderfully diverse group of contenders. Huzzah!
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is recognized for its aesthetic crafts-- namely, Art Direction and Costume Design. (Curiously, it is left out of the Makeup category.)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is remembered for its gorgeous cinematography. It was without question one of the most breathtaking expositions in cinema this year.
Precious gets a nod for film editing-- one of its (many) strongest features. Oscar just as soon doesn't fall for the clunky, cut-and-paste hack job of Up in the Air.
"Take it All" from Nine gets a mention over "Cinema Italiano." Personally, I like "Cinema Italiano" and found its use in the film to be spunky and fun. But from a technical standpoint, it's very clear which song was better crafted and provided more emotional oomph to the narrative of Nine.
The Messenger lands an Original Screenplay nod. Such an obvious choice in retrospect, and the perfect place to recognize the heartbreaking, harrowing film.
And the most pleasant surprise...
In the Loop lands an Adapted Screenplay nod. It's probably the most deserving contender of the bunch-- not to mention one of the sharpest and most hilarious scripts in recent memory.
The Blind Side for Best Picture. Really, Oscar? Really??
Over (500) Days of Summer? Over Star Trek? Over The Messenger? Invictus? Nine? Fantastic Mr. Fox? Where the Wild Things Are? A Single Man? Julie & Julia? How about Bright Star? Or In the Loop? The Informant? Moon? Sugar? Heck, maybe even The Hangover??
Any one of those would have made more sense. Instead, let's go with the movie that no one really loved, with a performance at the center that's above-average at best, that-- despite its intentions-- offended more than inspired, and that means little to nothing to the overall course and evolution of filmmaking. Oscar tends to honor a populist pick or two or few, but was this really necessary with the highest grossing movie of all time (by light-years) in the mix? This is the epitome of ugh.
Penélope Cruz gets a nod for Nine. God knows we love Penny Cruz, but her performance in Nine was more a disappointment than deserving recognition. And how could voters have thought she was better than Marion Cotillard? Maybe category confusion did in Ms. Cotillard. Madness!
Maggie Gyllenhaal is recognized for Crazy Heart. It's not as puzzling a pick as Penélope, but there were many more-deserving ladies in contention here-- or at least more likely candidates. This was Ms. Gyllenhaal's second mention all season, after landing the shortlist with Dallas Fort-Worth critics (who, arguably, may have felt a soft spot for the southerly strokes of Crazy Heart).
The Secret of Kells for Best Animated Film. The what of what, now? I suppose I should reserve judgment until I actually see the film (until anyone has actually seen the film), but why are we recognizing a film that virtually hasn't been released yet?
Avatar scores one for Cinematography. It was an expected mention, but it still doesn't make any sense to me. How exactly can you judge the lighting and lensing of a film that is almost entirely made up of CGI? Or did they base their assessment on the blending and textures of the final renderings? Someone please explain??
The Hurt Locker for Original Score. Maybe I wasn't listening closely enough, but was there even a legitimate use of music in this film? If there was, it certainly didn't leave an impact large enough to be memorable for me. Some are saying hooray for this inclusion, but I'm still saying huh?
Who Got Robbed?
Anvil! The Story of Anvil. One of the best-reviewed and most-rewarded non-fiction films of the year was shut out of the Documentary race after the bake-off. Even the top prize from the International Documentary Association couldn't embolden its chances with Oscar.
Christian McKay, Me and Orson Welles. I have yet to see the film, so I cannot personally comment on the performance. However, the British newcomer earned raves across the board and even picked up a decent number of pre-cursor notices, including nods from BAFTA and BFCA and wins from San Francisco and Utah critics.
Marvin Hamlisch, Best Original Score for The Informant!. Hamlisch's work may have been my favorite part of The Informant!, brilliantly orchestrated to strengthen and react to the events onscreen. BFCA and the Globes took notice, but Oscar turned up his nose, reluctant once again to acknowledge anything made of humor.
Marion Cotillard, Nine. She was the glue that held together the often messy, misguided experience of Nine and certainly the only part of the project that lived up to expectations. That Penny Cruz was mentioned and she wasn't only makes the snub sting more.
Bright Star. Jane Campion's gentle, passionate portrait of romance, beauty, and poetry earned accolades starting back in May at the Cannes Film Festival. Many thought the film would put Ms. Campion back on Oscar's radar after fifteen years, but all he saw were the pretty costumes.
Somehow, voters looked past the remaining bits, including the dazzling cinematography and art direction, the patient, lovely pacing and directing by Jane Camption herself, a rhythmic and delicate screenplay, and brilliant performances by Paul Schneider, Ben Whishaw, and, particularly, Abbie Cornish. The project seemed Oscar-friendly, but maybe the artistic perspective and emotional resonance were too refined for the likes of the shiny naked gold man in the sky (unlike, say, the sky-plummeting anvil-esque impact of The Blind Side's intellect).
The ladies of Inglourious Basterds. Christoph Waltz hogged all the awards traction for this film (not that it wasn't undeserved). Unfortunately, that left little room for Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger to be recognized for strong and worthy turns-- ones that would have likely been considered by the Academy if not for the blinding brilliance of their male co-star.
The crafts of District 9, A Serious Man, A Single Man, and The Lovely Bones.
Oscar was very friendly to District 9, lending nods in the Best Picture, Editing, Visual Effects, and Adapted Screenplay categories. But how could the Academy ignore its feats in sound design and, even moreso, in makeup-- the film's strongest aspects bar-none?
Meanwhile, the Coen Brothers' palpably bleak exploration of nihilism A Serious Man was honored for Best Picture and Screenplay. But what about the stunningly crisp lensing by master cinematographer Roger Deakins? Or the delectably vibrant costumes, makeup, and production design?
And how could Tom Ford's A Single Man not offer enough beauty to be recognized? And even if The Lovely Bones didn't deliver on a storytelling front, was there not enough aesthetic value for redemption in the technical categories?
The cast of An Education and In the Loop. Carey Mulligan earned an expected Best Actress mention for her glistening debut in An Education, but the film's burly and worthy supporting slate-- especially Alfred Molina-- was left out of contention. That In the Loop managed a screenplay nod was a wonderful surprise, but the printed words would have been overstuffed mouthfuls if not for a gifted ensemble cast. Peter Capaldi's loud, bad mouth picked up a quartet of acknowledgments, including a "runner-up" mention from Los Angeles film critics, but he couldn't make it onto the Oscar shortlist. Others in the cast deserved equal recognition, but the small and specialized film simply didn't have the gusto.
They Never Stood a Chance
Tilda Swinton, Best Actress for Julia. Yet another riveting turn by the vastly talented Tilda Swinton. This one somehow goes unnoticed by nearly every critics group and film organization. Props to the Online Film Critics Society for offering the sole recognition during awards season. Hopefully, Swinton's work will build a legacy larger than its initial reception.
Viggo Mortensen, Best Actor, and all parts of The Road. The completed film was put on hold for nearly a year while the Weinstein Co. tried to figure out how to distribute and market it. Meanwhile, John Hillcoat had created a darkly breathtaking mini-masterpiece-- and a consummate adaption of Cormac McCarthy's novel to boot. But Harv and Co. were worried that American filmgoers would shun the film's refusal to offer even a smidgen of hope. Even as Viggo Mortensen gave his most powerful performance to date, Oscar turned the other way. Nominations were due for the film in a slew of categories, but Viggo's snub here and at nearly every other venue is criminal.