It has been said that the only really exciting Oscar races are those with a wide open Best Picture race. For two years in a row, we had fairly open and shut Best Picture contenders. This year, there are several vying for the top spot. While Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker are the two strongest heading into the guild awards phase, there are others threatening to upset, namely, Inglourious Basterds, Precious and Avatar, none of which are “Oscar movies.”
You often hear people say “that is a good movie but it isn’t an Oscars movie.” And that probably used to be true, even though the tastes of the Academy have been evolving. Generally speaking, there are genres that are still considered off limits. Broad comedy is one, sci-fi is another, and fantasy. Perhaps we can cross fantasy off the list since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings kicked it down. Still, not just any fantasy movie can be considered — it has to reach the same ambitious heights and achieve as much success as the Jackson trilogy; that is no easy feat. Having grand ambition to that degree has become scarce. It costs too much. There is too much risk involved.¬†¬† Why bother making big movies when smaller movies can make just as money and do just as well in the Oscars race.
But boy, have times changed. At the end of the Making of Gone With the Wind they showed the Oscar ceremony for 1939. It was short and sweet and each Oscar completely deserved. But Gone with the Wind was a mess – a big, lumbering, costly, risky, ambitious mess. Somehow, after all was said and done, perhaps due to some arrogant but intelligent producer David O. Selznick, it became a great success. It might not be considered, by critics, to be the best film of all time but there is no denying its ambition and its subsequent success. It feels like we don’t see that kind of risk anymore. But this year we did. Three of the frontrunners in this race are audacious, risky endeavors — Inglourious Basterds, Avatar and Precious. They are wildly different but each is its own unique vision, completely off the charts but still very good films. But we’re talking about what it takes to win Best Picture, not what it takes to get nominated, not what it takes to make a lasting impact on the future of cinema, which all of three of those films do.
An “Oscars movie” is generally a period drama featuring a strong leading male performance, and/or a love story (“and a bit with a dog”). But when it isn’t that, it is a film that celebrates the height of a director’s achievement, a career pinnacle that celebrates the winning film and all of the films unrecognized that came before it, because it’s finally time: Schindler’s List, The Departed, No Country for Old Men. Actors-turned-directors who make great leaps forward are often winners of the year’s Best Picture: Ordinary People, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, A Beautiful Mind. And then every so often, it’s just the movie, stupid. And it wins with no explanation necessary, because there are no other movies that can beat it: Gladiator, Shakespeare in Love, The Silence of the Lambs, Slumdog Millionaire, Chicago. And there are those movies that win either because two bigger films split up the vote or because the film that was supposed to win just didn’t sit well with the group: Chariots of Fire, Crash. Many of the success of Oscar’s Best Picture had to do with the public’s love for the film. That part of it has kind of changed, as the critics’ angle strengthened.
And so we come to 2009. It’s become clear that if there were only five slots for Best Picture you’d be looking at: The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air in the two prime spots. The Hurt Locker because it’s a great film and it’s the right time to finally recognize this director, and Up in the Air because it’s the movie, stupid. Giving them some heat is Inglourious Basterds, which has been doing a lot better than anyone expected and is also the work of a director who has yet to be rewarded with Best Picture, and is also one that could be considered a career pinnacle, and maybe even the movie, stupid, Precious and Avatar. So your Best Picture five right now would be: The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Inglourious Basterds, Precious and Avatar. Open it up to five more slots and you have Invictus, Nine, Up, An Education, and perhaps a wild card slot for a movie no one is expecting to pop up – something like A Serious Man, District 9, The Messenger, It’s Complicated, The Blind Side. That tenth slot is probably going to be a surprise. Or we hope so anyway. Also, the strongest five could suddenly shift if another movie suddenly becomes favored – like An Education, for instance. It showed up in the SAG ensemble, though the supporting players were not represented in the other categories.
So what makes an “Oscars movie”? It used to be that the movie had to make money to be considered a Best Picture winner. That has changed over the last few years rendering that rule mostly null. On the other hand, with the economy being what it is, and the Oscars spiraling down in terms of relevancy and ratings, it has seemed logical that money would somehow play a part in Oscars 2009. Now that we are here in the last act, money seems to be once again out of the equation.
The Hurt Locker
LA Film Critics – Winner
New York Film Critics – Winner
Austin Film Critics – Winner
Boston Film Critics – Winner
Gotham Awards – Winner
DC Film Critics – Winner
Houston Film Critics – Winner
Las Vegas Film Critics – Winner
San Francisco Film Critics – Winner
Alliance of Women Film Journalists – Winner
Chicago Film Critics – Nominee
Critics Choice – Nominee
Golden Globes – Nominee
SAG Ensemble – Nominee
Strengths: right film at the right time, Kathryn Bigelow’s crowning achievement, the chance to finally reward a female director. It is a movie about men, led by a strong male performance in Jeremy Renner. It is a good movie, one that stays with you long after the first viewing. It is also one that has that thing about that makes you want to watch it again. It is fascinating from beginning to end. Without judgment, The Hurt Locker does not necessarily sell us on the idea that the Iraq war was wrong, but rather that war is hell. One part of the story of the soldiers who have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is not talked about much – that they often kill themselves upon returning home or that it is almost impossible to live in our world after that kind of daily trauma. The Hurt Locker shows us some of what it must be like to go out, day after day, and feel like death is waiting around the corner. The Hurt Locker is a flawless film, and there aren’t many out this year you can say that about.
Weaknesses: The money. Despite the critical acclaim and solid reviews and advocacy, the movie only made $12 million. I’ve heard it’s opening again theaters – maybe now people will go see it. Funnily enough, Jeff Wells at Hollywood-Elsewhere.com blames the lack of turn out on young “Eloi women” who would rather file their nails than see this movie. But come on, since when did women drive box office receipts?
Up in the Air
National Board of Review – Winner
Southeastern Film Critics – Winner
Utah Film Critics – Winner
Dallas Fort Worth – Winner
Indiana Film Critics – Winner
Golden Globes – Nominee
Critics Choice – Nominee
Strengths: it’s the movie, stupid. George Clooney is the Jack Nicholson of this era and his work in this film is said to be his best. The writing, directing and acting are tight. Its box office strategy is going for slow and steady wins the race but there is no doubt Up in the Air should edge towards $100 mil before all is said and done.¬† It is a film beloved by both men and women. It isn’t divisive in any way, not political particularly, and has been named by prominent journalists as films that reveal the wounds the American people are feeling since the economy went into the toilet. Reitman, funnily enough, is one of the few who has delivered interesting female characters in the Oscar race so far.
Weaknesses: That SAG ensemble loss hurt. It seemed an easy get for them, even though the movies chosen are certainly more ensemble pieces, and even though there was a snafu with the screeners being sent out, and even though they gave the film three nominations. It’s just a plain fact that it’s only happened once in SAG’s history that the Best Picture winner (Braveheart) hadn’t been nominated for the SAG ensemble.
Either way, though, neither Up in the Air nor Avatar were nominated for it, that means that anyone predicting either to win are doing so without that crucial SAG ensemble nomination. It’s possible, for sure, it just made Up in the Air slightly less of a sure thing than it was previously, when the awards race was being determined by films that hadn’t been released to the public. In fact, it was being determined by a handful of people who had seen the film at festivals. That buzz is vital to keeping a movie like that afloat but it is also a risky play. I would have preferred to see Up in the Air open in the summer, gain momentum with its stellar box office, lodge itself firmly in the hearts of audiences before it started the awards race. There is an aspect to human nature that wants to take down anything that is doing well. Easy to heap love on The Hurt Locker when it has always felt like the underdog heading into the race.
Up in the Air will hit every other major marker, no doubt, including the PGA, the DGA, and the WGA (where it will win). If it starts winning any of the major awards, like the Globe or the Critics Choice it will come into the race much stronger. It is still the movie most people like best. And that is not nothing. By that, I mean it follows the Oscar rule: you can sit anyone down in front of it and they will get it if not love it. Anyone, grandma, the kids, the weird uncle, the checkout clerk…anyone.
Those are your two frontrunners. Now let’s look at the possible sneak attacks. Inglourious Basterds is one to fear, though I’m shocked to hear myself saying it, or feel myself typing it. At one point I felt like it was in the “lucky to be nominated” group. Why? Because it never felt like an Oscars movie. But, as we’ve just discovered, an Oscars movie can mean lots of different things and with Inglourious Basterds you have Quentin Tarantino, one of the few American auteurs who has made a really entertaining movie. That’s the funny thing about Basterds is how watchable it is. What will drive Inglourious Basterds, one suspects, are the actors.¬†¬† They liked it enough to give Diane Kruger a nomination. So if Inglourious wins ensemble it suddenly becomes an even bigger threat. It’s hard to imagine the Academy going for Basterds but that would make it more imaginable.
Incidentally, while watching the Making of Gone with the Wind the other night, apparently the first time they screened the film to an audience they did it at an old theater out here in California. The crowd thought they were seeing a different movie but when they sat down an announcement came on that they were about to see a movie no one had seen, etc. They said if you want to leave, leave now. And then they locked the doors and the patrons saw Gone with the Wind. This reminded me so much of Basterds in a way and it made me appreciate Tarantino all over again for his extensive knowledge of film history. Hard to imagine anyone locking the doors of a movie theater in this day and age.
Also throwing down some serious heat is Precious, Lee Daniels’ moving and disturbing, but ultimately uplifting saga of an abused woman righting her life.¬†¬† Unfortunately for all involved, the chatter has turned away from the subject of the film to the things that don’t matter about the film, namely the involvement of Oprah (because she’s so successful already, no one wants to see her get any more success), and the behavior of Mo’Nique.
At what cost ass kissing?¬† How many actors have won one and it’s changed their career? Maybe a few. On the other hand, it does extend your life, so even if everyone hates you and you can’t get arrested you can always glance over and look at that statue and think, I accomplished enough ass kissing to win that gold statue.
So what exactly does ass kissing mean in the awards race? It means showing up, smiling, working the line, acting grateful for the accolades. No one, and I mean no one, is above that. The slightest whiff of entitlement or arrogance and it’s over. One must go belly-up before the leaders of the pack. And probably now more than ever since there are so many shows leading up to the Oscars. And we already know that just because one is winning something the whole way down doesn’t necessarily mean they will win the Oscar. Even Sean Penn had to put on a suit and walk the line. He didn’t like it but Clint Eastwood made him do it for Mystic River and what do you know, he won. Last year, he was so good at it he didn’t have very far to go to win that second Oscar.
Very few, if any, actors have ever won on the work alone.
I’ve seen screenwriters do it. I’ve seen the odd nominee here or there – maybe the songwriters of Once. Tilda Swinton didn’t have to do much, it appears, to get her Oscar for Michael Clayton – they just liked the movie and wanted to reward it.
The black women who have won Oscars lately have been of the non angry variety. Halle Berry is half-white and as Hollywood as they come. Jennifer Hudson was walking the line in a big way — I do remember the few times she stepped out of line she was reprimanded for it and there was some fear that she might say something to ruin her chances. Horrifying to look back and remember it that way, and yet, that’s the way it was.
Even white actors can’t really get away with a whole lot of back talk so you can imagine that intensified with black women. So here we have Mo’Nique in the Oscar race. Loud mouth, plain spoken, honest to her audience, tellin’ it like it is Mo’Nique.¬† There is no argument that her performance is the best in the category. No one who is in the process of complaining about Precious has ever had the cajones to do that. The praise for her work has been unanimous. Therefore the only thing they have to complain about is that she’s not keeping her trap shut. She’s tellin’ it like it is.
So of course the conversation turned away from “wow, Mo’Nique was amazing in that part” to “wow, Mo’Nique, what an uppity bitch. All she cares about is money.” But it’s too late, isn’t it? You can’t put that genie back in the bottle because god forbid a non-Hollywood actor type doesn’t play the game as dictated by the five white guys in a room who decide this stuff. God forbid the rules of the game be exposed. God forbid anyone ever ask “what’s in it for me?”
The Oscar game isn’t pretty. It’s extremely competitive and there is always someone ready to take your spot if you step out of it. There is always someone ready to work the line, ready to stand up on stage and give their heartfelt, tearful speech that makes all of the voters kvell with pride that they picked the right one for their award.
I’m not saying Mo’Nique deserves to win for Precious. But I am saying, if she deserves to win because she gave the best performance but people aren’t going to vote for her for any other reason? Shame on them.
And finally, Avatar. Because we’ve already spilled much ink on Avatar, I will just try to keep the discussion on its Oscar chances. Avatar will clean up the technical awards. Just which of the techs will embrace it is yet to be seen – will the art directors? Will the cinematographers? There is still a lot of prejudice around motion-capture, and 3-D. People think that Avatar will leave a lot of Academy members shaking their head because all they really want is “love and a bit with a dog.” Since actors and writers are a big part of the voting Academy, it’s hard to imagine that they will go for Avatar. The reviews, the success, the ambition all amount to an Oscar for a movie that was about anything other than motion-captured animation. Also, they might feel that Jim Cameron has already had his big success so why reward him further? They might also feel that Avatar is a technical achievement and nothing more, thus it will win where it’s appropriate like all good sci-fi movies have done for the past few decades.
However, it’s worth noting that for once, Nancy Allen once shrieked in Carrie, “This isn’t over! This isn’t over by a LONG shot!” These will be a very interesting next few weeks.