Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Film commentary: Academy goes populist route with Oscar hopefuls

Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington in Avatar.

By Hap Erstein

The first results of the Academy Awards’ grand experiment to cheapen -- uh, I mean widen -- the Best Picture nominations were announced this morning, and predictably, there were a couple of films that made the cut that would not have come close in past years.

Let’s just call it the Blind Side Effect, named for the sentimental white-family-aids-the-illiterate-black-athlete movie that Academy members inexplicably consider one of the 10 best films of 2009.

The category inflation is not really about Oscar being more populist, but about a desperate attempt to boost the awards show’s broadcast ratings. The theory is that if some mainstream commercial pictures that did a lot of business get into the race, moviegoers are more likely to tune in and care about the outcome.

And you can sense the Academy has already drafted the press release claiming that their experiment worked. It is not hard to predict that this year’s Oscarcast’s ratings are going to soar, not because of the ten Best Picture nominees, but because of the existence of a little picture called Avatar. Say what you will about this Smurfs-in-outer-space movie, it just passed Titanic -- James Cameron’s previous feature film colossus -- for the highest-grossing movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation).

Avatar was going to get a Best Picture nomination even if the field remained at five, and its presence at the Oscars were bound to generate the highest ratings since, yep, Titanic even without the 10-nominee gimmick. Chances are the real victor in the rules change is a trade paper such as Variety, which will now reap the benefit of 10 movies taking out vanity ads crowing about their nomination.

For the record, the ten Best Picture nominees are: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up and Up in the Air.

It’s strictly a guess, but I would say that District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds and Up were among the likely also-rans that only made the cut in the enlarged category. Up is only the second animated film to be nominated for Best Picture and while it has no chance of winning, the added visibility and credibility of the nomination gives it a lock on the Best Animated Film Oscar.

With ten Best Picture nominations, it is harder for worthy films to get snubbed, but the Oscars still managed. The Academy loves whatever Clint Eastwood directs, so Invictus could easily be in this pack. But it isn’t. The same goes for Crazy Heart, this year’s rewrite of Tender Mercies, which did cop noms for its stars Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal. And while I know I am in the minority on this one, I will still insist that Nine, the much-maligned movie musical based on the stage show based on Federico Fellini’s deserves to be among the year’s best.

When the 10-nominees ploy was first announced, the picture that was most often mentioned as being boosted into the inner circle was Star Trek, but cooler heads prevailed. Nor was the Academy willing to go so populist as to include The Hangover, which became the highest-grossing -- uh, in the sense of money earned -- comedy of all time.

It is usually interesting to see which director sneak in and got a nomination without his or her picture getting a Best Picture nod. With 10 nominations, that will be harder to do now. Sure enough, James Cameron (Avatar), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Lee Daniels (Precious) and Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) will be vying for the statuette. Left out, though their pictures are in the top award sweepstakes, are John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), Neill Blomkamp (District 9), Lone Scherfig (An Education), Joel and Ethan Coen (A Serious Man) and Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (Up).

Kathryn Bigelow on the set of The Hurt Locker.

With the exception of Lee Daniels, the Academy seemed to go with the more established directors, leaving out those without much track record -- except for the Coen brothers. In any event, the Directors Guild has an amazing history of predicting the Oscar-winning director and it anointed Bigelow with its award, making it likely that the director Oscar could go to a woman for the first time ever.

The Best Actor nominations were pretty predictable, going to Bridges (Crazy Heart), George Clooney (Up in the Air), Colin Firth (A Single Man) Morgan Freeman (Invictus) and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker). Bridges is well-liked by the film community, gives a solid performance, has been racking up wins (Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild) and has to be considered the front runner. I would argue that Michael Sturbarg (A Serious Man) and Daniel Day-Lewis (yeah, Nine) deserve to be in this field.

A lot harder to fathom than Bridges’ wins are the similar victories in the preliminary awards for Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) for Best Actress. But think of her like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. If ever Bullock was going to win an Oscar, this is what she would win for, and sentiment for her is running high. So what if all four of her competitors are more worthy -- Helen Mirren (The Last Station), Carey Mulligan (An Education), Gabourney Sidibe (Precious) and Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia).

My personal favorite film of 2009 is Up in the Air, so I am delighted that both Vera Fermiga and Anna Kendrick got Supporting Actress nominations today. Unfortunately, they will probably cancel each other out.. Penelope Cruz got a nomination for her fleshy phone sex song in Nine, the only performer from that movie -- Did I mention that I liked the film? -- to do so. But look for Mo’Nique to pick up another statuette for her performance as an abusive mother in Precious.

Of course, the campaigning and arm-twisting has just begun and it is a long time between now and March 7, when the awards are handed out. But get your office pool ballots ready and, if you need a good tie-breaker question, guess how many people on the stage of the Kodak Theatre will appear in blue makeup in tribute to -- or parody of -- Avatar.

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