Reality is something different to everyone. For most of us, it means the drudgery of every day life. For three male characters reality is something you escape from. A fantasy life is far preferable because you are someone else in it. You are a man who has a lame job but who has so many business miles and executive status you start to think you really are someone special. You are a superman who can disassemble IEDs without fear of dying. You might be there for a good cause, or you might just like feeling the rush of being a hero by facing impossible situations and death. Or you are a Marine with legs that don’t work transformed into a gigantic Na’vi as you slip into the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen and fall in love. Sooner or later, though, real life is going to call you back. And when it does, it threatens the balance of the alternate, preferable, realities.
The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, and Avatar have that theme in common – a lost man who finds his way by escaping reality. In Up in the Air, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is so deluded he begins to believe the marketing ploys aimed at him – that he really has elite status, that he is somehow fulfilling his purpose by buying into it. He sells a backpack-free lifestyle but the false reality he exists on is the biggest trap of all. And yet, that is all he has, right? He has bought into the ultimate business man’s dream of being fake-powerful. I do not agree with Roger Ebert’s description of Up in the Air as Jason Reitman’s Death of a Salesman starring Cary Grant. That, I think, greatly misses the mark. Up in the Air is not Death of a Salesman – this isn’t a movie, necessarily, about the people losing their jobs so much as it is a movie about a self-deluded man. He isn’t selected out, like poor Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross. Yes, the people he fires are. But this story is about our leading man. He has built a life on a marketing ploy – and that, scarily enough, is the REAL American dream. It has become fulfilling what the advertisers tell us we should be. One only need watch an episode or two of Mad Men to understand fully what advertising in America is all about: tell us what’s wrong and how your product will “fix” us. Bingham has bought the line sold to him by the airlines that if he reach that stupid goal of his that his life will have been complete. Alas, the other shoe drops. When he decides it’s time to unplug from the fantasy and try reality it doesn’t play out as planned. He is such a successful planner, he figures. He’s someone who has A to Z all worked out so that there can be no room for mistakes.¬† Will he stay on the ground or will he have no choice but to go back up in the air?
Will (Jeremy Renner) knows he’s going to die and part of him doesn’t care. While his two fellow soldiers sweat out the risks – Sandborn (the brilliant Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) Will has long since abandoned his fear of being blown to bits and now dives right in. He puts on his thick suit and figures he can outsmart any Iraqi bomb builder. This isn’t a tour of duty for him anymore; this is who he is. Reality is a cold supermarket with neatly packaged cereal on the shelves, and it’s the America he is protecting. Reality is a pretty wife and son who want him to be in their world. It is no use, though. Will can’t remove himself because he has transformed himself into that guy in the bomb suit and the only thing that will stop him is when he is finally blown to bits. We don’t see this but, by the end, we know it is true. Will’s only connection with an Iraqi boy sends him on a mission to avenge the life of a boy he thought had been used as a tool in the war. But that too was an illusion. By the end of The Hurt Locker, from Will’s eyes, we don’t know what’s real anymore either. But we don’t blame him for going back in to fight; we know, like Ryan Bingham, he has no other option.
And then there is Jake Sully in Avatar. His escapism is literal. He has a choice, though, to go or not to go and yet — what does he have holding him to reality as a paralyzed Marine? He can’t do what he was trained to do until he is given an opportunity to transform. Like Ryan Bingham and Will James, Jake Sully gets to put on the suit and become Superman. In his case, his “suit” is as a 12 foot tall Na’vi warrior who is sent to learn the culture in order to help save it. But he’s also a Marine so his deployment must be to further the military contractor’s agenda. But Jake’s own desire to disappear from his own life is the driving force behind Avatar. The very idea of an avatar (not the Hindu definition, which is, essentially, God taking the shape of a human) is that it is a representation of the soul of the person in a different form or body. In recent years if you’ve been online you’ve mostly been communicating using your Avatar, or your self as represented online (a literal avatar, little picture – or, as in Second Life, a kind of person-like thing).¬† For our purposes, though, Jake Sully’s desire to vacate his own reality fits here. Unlike Ryan Bingham and Will James, though, Jake is not lost at the end — he is found.
In Precious, Gabby Sidibe as Precious also retreats into a fantasy world to escape her own, but in the end, she find salvation not through fantasy but through reality. In Invictus, Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela has no alternate world to retreat to because he must face the future of South Africa. In An Education, Carey Mulligan’s character desires to live in a fake world invented to lure girls like her. We are relieved when she decides, instead, to live in the real world. Of course, by then she has no choice but to face up to it. In Up, the old man decides to vacate his life and chase down an imagined dream. It turns out, though, that those kinds of dreams don’t have to be real to be useful.¬† And, of course, in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds we are caught up in an illusion of Tarantino’s making. Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) must hide her true identity and live out an illusion. The entire film is an alternate reality, an homage to Nazi cinema and a revenge fantasy.
And so we have concluded the submissions for Best Picture of 2009. As we know, the Academy voters are the ones who decide what fits as their best film. It is not up to us and it is not up to the critics. People keep saying to me Nine is bombing with the critics – no one likes it so if it drops off the Best Pic lineup what is there to take its place? But see, I’ve never looked at the Best Pic lineup as defined solely by critics. Does it matter that it has a shitty Rotten Tomatoes score when it also has a SAG ensemble nod and a Globe nod? Nope. It must still be considered. Why? The actors liked it. I am not ready to write off Nine – I may at some point but I won’t do it based on the reviews alone. I need to see total Guild shut-out. However, if I did have to dump Nine the film I would think would take its place would be The Blind Side. That movie is making serious cash. People love it. The critics didn’t but they don’t get to decide how the Oscar race goes. They never have, they never will. They play a part in the ultimate decision but only a small part.
With five nominees, Nine would be out. With ten? Hard to say. We’ll have to wait and see how it does with the other guilds. I agree that its prospects look grim. But so did The Reader’s, so did Chocolat’s. Going by Steve Pond’s Oscar math, we probably already know the top three off the bat – Up in the Air, the Hurt Locker, Avatar. So we shouldn’t necessarily be looking at what film will be on their number one, or even number two. We should be looking at number three and four. In order to find out which film will be dumped we should probably also look at what film is most likely to be their number ten choice.
But Best Picture is about to be decided, at least partially, by the DGA and the PGA, announcing in a couple of weeks. Even still, that will give us from five to seven possibilities for the ten, but it won’t give us the full ten. With regard to The Blind Side, I’m going to guess that a lot of people will secretly love that movie. There is no way anyone on the web with a blog is going to have the nerve to champion that movie. But it might show up on Oscar ballots. Oscar voters are more like normal people than they are hipper-than-thou film bloggers. They aren’t critics and they aren’t fanboys. If they liked the movie, there is a chance they will secretly put it down on their ballots and no one can say a damned thing about it until it is revealed as one of the top ten choice by the Academy.
But, in the pre-DGA and PGA universe, here is what is most likely your top ten (starting with most likely):
Up in the Air
The Hurt Locker
Then two of the following possibilities:
A Serious Man
The Blind Side
Summer Hours N0t eligible
Julie & Julia
If they really wanted to use the Best Pic ten to include both popular entertainment and critically acclaimed films, they would include both The Blind Side and Summer Hours as the last two. I think that the actors will drive Nine into the Big Ten. I think its $100 mil take and its strong female following could propel Julie & Julia into the Big Ten.
Here’s the thing. If The Hurt Locker, An Education and Julie & Julia (or It’s Complicated) get in that will be an unprecedented showing of women-directed films in the Best Picture race. I don’t know if they will be thinking along those lines; I think The Hurt Locker would get in anyway because it is arguably the best film of the year. It’s hard to choose, though, isn’t it? I am glad to not have to pick a top ten because I don’t know if I could choose. For me it would be between The Hurt Locker and Avatar but I think Inglourious Basterds and Up in the Air are just as strong.
Anyway, we will know better after the DGA and the PGA are announced if we’re even on the right track, or if other movies we’re not even thinking of will be represented. I get the feeling that choosing ten from a predictions standpoint is going to be a lot harder than any of us realize.