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The Oscars’ war of the worlds

Kathryn and James spar for Oscar custody in a David and Goliath duel


 

The new and improved, fluffed-up Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and surprise! . . . there were virtually no surprises. The Academy Awards are now so heavily upstaged by the glut of awards leading up to them that the Oscar campaign is like an election that just ratifies the results of the advance polls. The race comes down to a David and Goliath duel between Avatar and Hurt Locker, which have nine nominations apiece—and between their once married directors, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow. Aside from the Battle of the Exes, a showdown tailor-made for Entertainment Tonight, we have a battle between two very different war movies, and two opposite worlds of high-risk movie-making—a duel between indie nerve and blockbuster brawn. Cameron has made a ideologically tinted, eco-minded anti-war epic that champions Mother Nature’s feminine spirit.  Bigelow has made a gritty, no-nonsense, ultra-masculine Iraq thriller that’s remarkably free of any anti-war sentiment.  The traditional polarity of male-female sensibilities is reversed. So that’s shaping up to be quite a battle.

Oscar’s big makeover this year, of course, is the expansion of the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 nominees. So let’s see how that played out. We can separate the 10 nominees into two halves. Had there been just 5 nominees,  they would likely be, in roughly descending priority: Avatar, Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Precious and Inglourious Basterds. So the five “extra” nominees are An Education, District 9, A Serious Man, The Blind Side, and Up. The Academy expanded the category to make room for more boffo popcorn movies, in the hope of bumping up TV ratings for the show. That seems to have worked, up to a point. District 9, Up and The Blind Side all grossed over $200 million worldwide. But the other three films that squeaked in are all relatively small. And Star Wars Star Trek, the year’s best popcorn movie aside from Avatar, didn’t make the cut. It’s nice to see A Serious Man and An Education nominated. The Blind Side, one of the phoniest “true” stories ever filmed, has no business being there. And Up‘s nomination all but guarantees it will win in its native category, Best Animated Feature.

No matter how many movies are nominated for Best Picture, however, the number is beside the point. This is Hurt Locker vs. Avatar. Bigelow’s low-budget masterpiece has been winning the industry’s major awards. Yet Avatar is such a historic feat that Hollywood, a company town, may rally behind it. After winning the Directors Guild prize, however, count on Bigelow to take home the Oscar for Best Director, which would be a historic feat in its own right—she’d be the first woman to win that honour.

As for the acting nominations, no surprises there. Well, almost none. Why on earth is Christopher Plummer nominated as Best Supporting Actor for The Last Station? Starring as the guy who dies in the story of Leo Tolstoy’s death, he owns as much of the movie as Helen Mirren, who plays his long-suffering and very supportive wife, but she is nominated for Best Actress. Clearly the movie’s campaign was directed at the lesser category so Plummer might have a fighting chance. It’s all academic anyway. Christoph Waltz will win for his trilingual tour de force in Inglourious Basterds, and Mo’Nique has a lock on Best Supporting Actress for Precious. Good to see Penelope Cruz emerge from that stampede of movie queens in Nine to get a supporting nod, even though the movie was such a stinker it got shut out of the expanded Best Picture stable.

Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock have emerged as the favorites in the lead acting categories. Both play stubborn Southern mavericks. To me, that proves once again that the Academy votes for characters, not for actors. Bridges will likely win for his wonderfully gnarled, slow-burn performance as an alcoholic country singer, although Crazy Heart (which is weak) was shut out of Best Picture. Oscar adores actors who can actually sing, and are cast as salt-of-the-earth music legends who overcome tremendous odds—witness Ray and Walk the Line.

Bullock will have a more of a fight, up against Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia. But again, this is a duel of characters, between two indomitable real-life women. As a rich, pistol-packing Christian mom with too much makeup who adopts an African American gentle giant, Bullock plays a kind of Erin Brockovich crusader dame; as the hysterical Julia Child, Streep portrays an outrageous cooking diva.  It comes down to a red state/blue state battle between two populist styles of larger-than-life American womanhood.

As for the other categories, Best Documentary Feature is unusually lively. It sports a range of almost uniquely activist, if not agit-prop, movies. I would expect The Cove‘s masterful investigation into Japan’s dolphin slaughter to beat out other contenders, which include Burma VJ and Food, Inc.

The Foreign Language category, with its Byzantine voting process,  is always a bit of a mystery. I’ve seen just two of the five nominees: A Prophet and The White Ribbon. Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon has the momentum of other awards, including the Palme d’Or, behind it, along with a critical groundswell. And it deals with the roots of Nazism, a subject close to Oscar’s heart. So expect it to win.

One can always hope that between now and March 7, when the Awards are telecast, momentum might shift and opinions might change, and there could still be some surprises and some suspense. But don’t count on it. And prepare yourself for a powerhouse acceptance speech from Mo’Nique. It will come early in the evening and will likely be the show’s emotional highpoint. . . unless you’re waiting to hear James Cameron to proclaim he’s king of the world in Na’vi.


 

The Oscars’ war of the worlds

  1. "And Star Wars, the year's best popcorn movie aside from Avatar, didn't make the cut." I think you meant Star Trek.

  2. "And Star Wars, the year's best popcorn movie aside from Avatar, didn't make the cut. "

    I can't really process the above sentence. 1977 and 1997. Two release years for Star Wars. Are you talking about the video game trailer?

  3. Well, I was going to mention the STAR WARS/STAR TREK snafu, but I won't now… but I guess I just did. Seriously… does this writer not know the difference, at least in the sense that STAR WARS came out 33 years ago and STAR TREK was in 2009?

  4. Hey, I absolutely loved Star Trek and Avatar! I saw them over five times each in IMAX.

  5. Brian, how did The Hurt Locker get so much traction without, as you mention, an overtly anti-war theme?

    • Probably becaus it is an amazingly well-made movie that shows just how f*@#ed up things can get in war. How f*@#ed it can make the soldiers who are sent to fight that war. And how some can get so f*@#ed up that the only place they can function is in wartime.

      • Wouldn't that, by definition, make it an anti-war film, contrary to what the author writes here?

        • No, it would make it a good film, since any sane person realizes that smarmy, obvious, cheezy anti-war films with over-the-top characters and head-clubbing storylines aren't persuasive, but that nuanced, intelligent films that simply portray the realities of war are.

          • You're both slightly missing my point, but I understand and agree with you.

            My question to Brian (does he ever wade in here?) was how in a strong Democratic town a movie that didn't beat you over the head with an anti-war message made progress. Besides, you know, being an excellent film on its own merits.

            I'm certainly not advocating for either kind of war movie (The Green Berets vs. Lions for Lambs, for ex.)

  6. Thank you so much for explaining the Star Wars reference in the article. I read that sentence over about 20 times, trying to figure out what movie he was talking about (other than the 1977 one). I didn't even think of Star Trek. I think Macleans better get busy fixing that.

  7. Star Wars?
    It was Star Trek wasn't it?

  8. How Blasphemous!!! Star Wars is NOT the same as Star Trek!

  9. Star Trek and Avatar here. Love em both.

  10. HAHA, Way to get Star Wars mixed up with STAR TREK. GET IT RIGHT!

  11. the fact you mention star wars instead of star trek throws everything you wrote out the window….pathetic

  12. Just a typo, I'm sure. Sounds like Brian knows his movies. Otherwise it's a pretty sweet article. Somebody should be kicking the editor's ass though for missing it.

  13. LOL

    It just goes to show that one could probably accuse James Cameron of secretly being a Nazi, and it wouldn't send the interwebs into HALF the tizzy of mixing up Star Wars and Star Trek. It's the geek equivalent of confusing the Beatles and Elvis Presley.

    • I think this is one of the funniest threads I have read here at Macleans. The first couple of comments are fine – just trying to correct error – but I started to laugh when I got to tenth comment, hours apart, making the exact same point.

  14. Advance polls don't have results that are released before the election. They are counted the night of the general election.

    Perhaps Johnson means the public opinion polls in advance of the election.

  15. Small correction. Christoph Waltz made a quadrilingual tour de force in Inglorious Basterds.

  16. Change it quick! The nerds are furious!

  17. The Italian was the best part. It was like, "what he's gonna speak next, Malay?"

  18. Isn't Avatar the worst critically received title up there (besides The Blind Side)? What makes you put that first on your list of nominees? This isn't the Teen Choice Awards after all.

    • Avatar is probably the (second) "worst critically received" of the films nominated, but the importance of that fact depends a bit I think both on how one is defining criticism, and also on how one is weighting it. While Avatar is far from perfect, and there are things that we can be critical of when viewing it, an argument could be made that it's innovation (not to mention success) is more than enough to override the criticism make an Oscar nomination all but mandatory (if not a win). It's CERTAINLY been better received than The Blind Side (82% freshness at rotten tomatoes for Avatar, 70% for TBS) but I also don't think there's any way that the Academy could ignore the technical achievement and the $2 billion. It's this, and its previous awards season success, that makes Avatar the number one on the list in terms of obvious nominees because OF COURSE Avatar was getting nominated. Art is important (and certainly the technical achievement of Avatar falls in the realm of art in my opinion) but Hollywood is a business too, and there were 2,000,000,000 reasons why the Academy really had no choice but to nominate Avatar.

      Some people may not feel that Avatar is "deserving" of the nomination, but I think that Avatar NOT being nominated would have been a much bigger story than its nomination. It's pretty hard not to nominate a movie that arguably both changes how the world views 3D cinema and is also the highest grossing film in the history of movie making.

  19. I was the third to comment and mention the Star Wars/Star Trek snafu… but I think it goes beyond a typo. My girlfriend loved Star Trek and has not once "accidentally" called it Star Wars, despite barely knowing the difference between the two. To me, this snafu indicates that the author most likely did not see Star Trek, and is just regurgitating what other critics have said. If he had mentioned "District 12" or "The Pain Locker" I would think the same thing.

    • Apologies to all those miffed by my Star Trek/Star Wars dyslexia. But believe me, though I’m not a fanboy of either franchise, I DO know the difference. And Dave, not only did I see last summer’s Star Trek, I liked it enough that I debated about putting it on my 2009 top ten list. This, by the way, is not the first time I’ve mistyped the title. But hopefully it will be the last.

  20. Having spent yesterday at a funeral, I missed this major poop-storm about my Star Trek/Star Wars typo. I see the record has been corrected, albeit with the original error stroked out — I guess so Maclean's can't be accused of rewriting blog history and ruining the precious integrity of the comment thread. Apologies to all those who were mortally offended by my Star Trek/Star Wars dyslexia. But to the conspiracy theorists out there who think every typo is evidence of some dark negligence, believe me, though I'm not a fanboy of either franchise, I DO know the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. Not only did I see last summer's Star Trek, I liked it enough that I debated about putting it on my 2009 top ten list. This, by the way, is not the first time I've mixed up the two titles. But hopefully it will be the last.

  21. I think their is to many nominations this year it beats the whole purpose of singling out the top if you just going to add them all

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