It's that time of year, people. No matter how hard one tries, it's virtually impossible to avoid discussion of the Oscars - love 'em or hate 'em, they're the movies' equivalent of the Olympics, World Series, or Super Bowl, a cinematic decathlon. Some love them, some hate them, some are indifferent, but I think just about every movie lover goes through the five stages of Oscar, and it ends with acceptance - for better or worse (mostly worse), the inclusive, pretentious, self congratulatory circle jerk is what it is. Truthfully, depending on the host, I enjoy the show more often than not. I accepted long ago that it's not about art and it never will be, so I try to focus on the positive in that, if a good movie is at least nominated, then I'm a happy person.
And the Academy has implemented a major face lift this year that I think makes the awards more interesting than usual (not saying much): in something of an homage to the Oscar's past, they opened up the Best Picture nominees to ten films. Some have objected to this, saying that this and the new weighted voting process (where the films are ranked 1-10 and every movie gets something from every ballot) will open the door to film's not worthy, to which I can only reply: "So the eff what?" Undeserving films winning the biggest prize in Hollywood isn't exactly a new development. The major plus side of the 10 nominees is that it opens the door to more populist films being nominated, and to dark horse candidates winning; especially after the stiflingly self important garbage that was nominated last year, this is especially refreshing. If the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences is going to validate crap, they should at least validate popular taste as well.
Anyway, not to make too much of a production out of this post, I just want to share my thoughts on the 10 nominees, toss down some (probably way off) predictions, and call it a day.
James Cameron's long awaited and highly-touted Avatar has almost everything the Oscars could want: large-scale spectacle, melodramatic romance, and heavy handed social import (bonus points for anti-American social import), plus everyone out in Hollywood seems to like James Cameron and his wavy, silver hair. Reviewed here.
Though it occupies a Hallmark card universe, there is an earnestness and depth of feeling in The Blind Side that I find it a difficult film to dismiss. Sandra Bullock does just fine with her role, but almost anyone would be nominated for this performance, full of snappy one-liners and sassy attitude. Most remarkable, to my eyes, is the performance Quinton Aaron as first round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens (23rd overall) Michael Oher; he does not have too much to work with in the dialogue sense, and has to be expressive with his eyes and face. Because of this, he naturally was not nominated.
Still, it is not a bad film at all, certainly not a racist one as some have suggested. The Blind Side strikes me as more accentuating the class differences between Oher and the Tuohy family than the racial ones.
Though it feigns a socially driven subtext, District 9 is a big screen video game that doesn't have much to say about anything. Unlike The Hurt Locker, which used fast editing and hand held camera work to make a statement on the existential nature of the rush of combat, District 9 wants you to feel that rush instead of ponder it.
An Education mercifully avoids typical coming-of-age cliches for the most part, with the exception of a few speeches designed to sum up any point that you were supposed to take away from it. But Nick Hornsby's screenplay is well written and the leading performances by Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard are excellent, and Alfred Molina is memorable in a supporting role as Mulligan's father.
Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is a visceral, gripping war film - one that grabs a hold from the opening frames and doesn't let go for its entire 2 hour duration. Using handheld 16mm cameras, The Hurt Locker brings us directly into the action unfolding onscreen, without trying to approximate a documentary style (the film is above such gimmicks). Rather, the movie's quick cutting and hand-held camera work allows us to enter the subjective mind frame of the characters, who work as part of an E.O.D. (explosive ordinance disposal) squad and could easily be killed at any moment. However, this technique is never used gratuitously; The Hurt Locker is exciting without being exploitative and political without being partisan. While this is among the most exciting films to come out in 2009, it's also among the most contemplative, and this is because the film is more interested in portraying the way men relate to one another than it is in polemics. The result is among the first movies to approach the Iraqi Occupation in the manner it needs to be approached, which would be on the same level it's waged: with the men who fight it. The Hurt Locker shows that Kathryn Bigelow has unique insight and understanding into the kind of mentality that would travel half-way across the globe to fight in this conflict, which actually makes it more politically relevant than the cheap partisan movies on the subject.
Tarantino's gleeful, anarchic take on World War II and its cinematic representations has just enough pristine polish to be accepted by the Academy. I'm thrilled it was even nominated. Review here.
A grotesque freak show that masquerades itself as a valuable social commentary, Precious is an exercise in sheer cinematic torture. The critics throwing claims of racism are only doing themselves a major disservice; the film does not trivialize racial relations, but rather it misrepresents the plight of the lower class in the most cliched, obvious of ways, confusing dark subject matter and gritty filming from depth and meaning. Surely if Precious were about white people (which it could have been), no critic would claim that it was racist or supposed to be representative of all white people everywhere. It's a fairly typical white liberal trap to fall into: any artistic representation of a black person must represent an entire race. And what makes it especially dubious in the case of Precious is that there are many black characters from various backgrounds depicted.
Oh boy. This movie. This fucking movie. I remember the day that I saw A Serious Man at Manhattan's Sunshine quite vividly, though the film hangs over that day like a storm cloud. Not to say that I think it's a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but the worldview that it seems to be endorsing is not one that I empathize with, let alone understand. What bothers me most about A Serious Man is that the Coens not only suggest that existence is meaningless, but that they mock the very idea of the search for meaning (a Rabbi's condescending and patronizing speech about the beauty and wonder of a parking lot being the most offensive). I don't wish to take anything away from the Coens, film makers I have felt a strong personal connection with in the past, but A Serious Man helped kick start a season's long depression that I am only recently starting to pull myself out of.
Pixar, under the watchful eye of The Walt Disney Company, continues with the same old formula instead of expanding perceptions of our world. Reviewed here.
What I find most repulsive about Up in the Air is the way it capitalizes on the economic hardships our country currently faces yet doesn't say anything meaningful about them. It simply patronizes the people who are currently suffering and calls it a day. Did the film makers honestly think this would make anyone feel better?
And, as promised, my annual way off predictions:
Best Picture: Avatar (potential Hurt Locker upset, probably not)
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Waltz
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Best Adapted Screenplay: Nick Hornsby, An Education
Best Animated Feature: Up
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson, Inglourious Basterds
Best Documentary: Food, Inc.
Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Original Score: James Horner, Avatar
Best Visual Effects: Avatar
Best Sound Editing: Avatar
Best Sound Mixing: Avatar
Damn, writing Avatar over and over got really boring. It's just one of those years.
Oh, and some live blogging to follow during the ceremony from great writers will make the proceeds that much more enjoyable, be sure to check out Roger Ebert, Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running, and Ali Arikan at Cerebral Mastication. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.