The rule with your best picture winner is that you can basically sit anyone in front of it and they get it if not love it. The film with the most likability wins. Avatar will likely top the box office and, it could be argued, will wind up being the best with audiences if you count pure numbers – but since when has any movie with pure numbers won Best Picture? It has never happened. Moreover, last year’s big blockbuster, The Dark Knight, was famous shut out of Best Picture. Beyond that, though, there are several factors related specifically to Academy history that will make a difference here. The first is that they gave many Oscars to Cameron already. They would repeat it if they thought he was a John Ford, Frances Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone or Clint Eastwood. Do they? I’m not sure they do.
It may turn out that Avatar becomes too big to ignore. It may topple Titanic and win the hearts of Academy voters. I’m not ruling it out. There are just a few big ifs involved. The first and most important is the money. The only reason people think The Hurt Locker can’t win is the money. Avatar, the giant money maker, vs. The Hurt Locker, which made no money in theatrical release but is clearly the film that has the heat nonetheless.
So why didn’t The Hurt Locker make any money? It was released at a time when people thought movies about Iraq were liberal-leaning lectures that were too tragic to deal with. It takes actually sitting down in front of The Hurt Locker to see it as not an “Iraq movie,” but a cinematic masterpiece – one that doesn’t take sides, and one that isn’t even about Iraq specifically. Once you get that about the film, you understand why it won the New York and Los Angeles and National Society Film Critics; you see why it is the only one of the three with a SAG ensemble nod. It is not just a critics movie — aloof and too obtuse for the average movie-goer; it is a tense and suspenseful thriller. Now that the DVD is coming out, more people will start to catch on, and more people will understand what the big deal is about.
An Oscar voter, who was in his ’80s when I spoke with him, gave me his reasons for voting for Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan, “it was the best picture,” he said. It’s really as simple as that. Figuring out the Oscar race has always had to do with figuring out Oscar voters. One can impose one’s own hopes upon them, criticize their choices, try to pressure them into voting a certain way, but at the end of the day, as I’ve learned over the past ten years of covering this race, it comes down to something as simple as “what was the best picture that year.”
They don’t sit down in a room and hash out who “should” win.¬† They look at the list of films and they vote with their heart.¬† Do they vote with their heart because the film is sappy or lovey dovey? No. They vote with their heart because they want to be true to themselves: which film did I really like best? This is why it’s sometimes hard to predict the Oscars if you’re someone who really loved films and you get personally involved with which film should win. Being emotionally removed can sometimes be a blessing, if you hate the Academy’s choices.
Unfortunately for Up in the Air, and now Avatar, they both had too much hype coming into the race. That made expectations way too high. For Avatar the mere mention of it being the Best Picture winner right after it screened in LA pierced a hole in its potential to win. That made people wary of it off the bat. “Come on, it can’t be THAT good.” And the thing about Avatar is that it is that good, but it has glaring flaws. Those flaws would have been ignored had it only been talked about as a long shot to win. But they are emphasized when people start talking about it as the frontrunner.¬† The negative reaction to Avatar was startling. I did not expect to see so many people giving it such a hard time for its similarities to other classic legends — at some point I just stopped arguing with people about it. At the end of the day, either they like it or they don’t; and you can’t force people to agree with you. Oscar watching isn’t really about that anyway. Avatar, like The Dark Knight, will appreciated for years to come.
Up in the Air is a film that desperately needed a happy ending. While an uphappy ending satisfies critics — it isn’t what audiences need nor want right now. That makes it a tough sell for 2009. It is also only Jason Reitman’s third film. Unless your movie is The Godfather, young ones like Reitman have some dues to pay before they get the big win. I’m sure this isn’t always the case, but it is a factor in this race. But Up in the Air suffered most from bad timing. It probably should have been released back when it really had all of the buzz. Instead, the movie had to sit on that buzz for a couple of months, and when it finally opened, Avatar blew it out of the room. And where Avatar wasn’t obliterating it from the box office, The Hurt Locker was winning all of the critics awards. Had Up in the Air’s trajectory worked out perfectly it would have had the buzz and the heat; there would be anticipation and must-see-it energy; it would have won the critics awards so that by the time it was released, people were actually talking about it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
What Up in the Air has going for it, though, that neither Hurt Locker nor Avatar have is that it features a very well liked star in the lead. This is sort of true of Inglourious Basterds, which has Brad Pitt. Both Basterds and Up in the Air have the actors and the writers. Up in the Air is most likely the big winner for Adapted Screenplay and potentially Best Actor. Christoph Waltz will likely be the big win for Basterds.
But keep in mind that I’m talking specifically about the Oscar here, not about the precursors. Just because The Hurt Locker has Oscar heat that doesn’t mean the Critics Choice won’t vote for Avatar or Up in the Air. Or that the Globes won’t vote for either film.¬† I said previously that this is starting to remind me of The Departed year. The big difference between The Hurt Locker and The Departed is that the Scorsese movie was, essentially, a popcorn movie that could be enjoyed by crowds. It also had the advantage of people saying things like “my favorite film is The Departed but it won’t win.” That is the magic phrase. That is what people should have been saying about Avatar, but since the web chatter was confident out of the gate that the film was now the Best Pic winner, the dialogue has changed to “Avatar’s winning best picture? But the Hurt Locker is much better.” Or “Up in the Air is so much better.” Or “Inglourious Basterds is so much better.”
But just as we were flirting with the impossible idea of a Scorsese movie finally winning, at least screenplay and director, so are we flirting with the edges of making history.¬† I don’t think readers of this site, and people I have read on blogs and online journals have really settled into what it would mean for a film directed by a woman to win Best Picture. It is, in a sense, bigger than even Martin Scorsese finally winning an Oscar.
There will always be films that make a lot of money, films like Avatar. But an opportunity to award a film like The Hurt Locker, which is a perfect 10, AND a chance for the Academy to erase that needling irritation of a long history of ignoring films directed by women could wind up the magic formula. And, by the way, these are extras. The real reason the film will win, I suspect, is the same reason The Departed was going to win: in the end, it will be the one voters like best – writers, actors and directors.
Avatar cannot win on writing. It probably won’t win in directing because of the Bigelow block. And it certainly isn’t going to win in acting. That makes it a long shot off the bat to win Best Picture, as it would for any film entering the Oscar race. Even Crash had the screenplay going for it. Titanic and Dances with Wolves, the two films that beat LA Confidential and Goodfellas respectively, had directing at least, but also acting. Dances with Wolves won for screenplay.
If there is a desire to split up this race, they might do Hurt Locker for pic and Cameron for director, or Avatar for pic and Bigelow for director. When the race began, I thought it would be a split year — now I am not sure. If Avatar manages a WGA nom things might start to shift in its favor.
Funnily enough, Avatar and Inglourious Basterds will likely square off in a couple of categories, like art direction. But let’s go through the categories, shall we? And see where the heat is for the bit win.
Best Picture – covered it. Up in the Air was the defacto frontrunner; now, thanks to the bloggers, Avatar is – Up in the Air and Inglourious Basterds in play; The Hurt Locker has crackling heat.
Best Director – Kathryn Bigelow seems to have the heat at the moment.
Original Screenplay – Probably The Hurt Locker, but Basterds putting on the pressure, as well as Up (neither will have a WGA nod)
Adapted Screenplay – it’s Up in the Air’s to lose. An Education will give it some competition here.
Actor – Jeff Bridges probably, although both Jeremy Renner and George Clooney are threatening.
Actress – It’s down to Bullock vs. Streep vs. Mulligan. And in the end it might be Gabby Sidibe. It feels like a tight three-way race; Bullock’s general likability within the Academy and industry, her history-making year, her ability to win at the Box Office and her strong turn in the film could all add up to a win. Streep may be the most deserving, and I wouldn’t count out Mulligan.
Supporting Actor – Christoph Waltz all the way. If he has any competition here it’s Woody Harrelson for The Messenger, along with Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones.
Supporting Actress – Mo’Nique. No one can touch her, I don’t think. This might be the easiest category, next to Animated Feature, to call.
Editing – The Hurt Locker has it sewn up; although Up in the Air has great editing too, as does Avatar and Inglourious Basterds. As always, editing is a tight one. How the editors vote might be an early clue as to which film will win Best Pic – remember, editing is so close to the Best Pic winner that it is almost like its twin.
Cinematography – It probably won’t be The White Ribbon because the most deserving in this category rarely wins. I can’t really call this but my instincts tell me Avatar has the best shot here. Inglourious Basterds had beautiful cinematography; The Hurt Locker’s was great too – gritty but great.
Art Direction – Avatar vs. Inglourious Basterds
Score – Avatar vs. Up vs. The Informant! I don’t know how you don’t give this to Marvin Hamlisch, though.
Sound – Avatar’s to lose.¬† Competition comes from The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, probably.
Sound editing – Avatar vs. Hurt locker vs. Basterds
Costume Design – probably Basterds for the win, but there are many other potential winners here. Coco Avant Chanel, Julie & Julia, Where the Wild Things Are, etc.
Animated Feature – Up of course.
Documentary – it’s always a mystery. This is one category where “buzz” simply doesn’t enter into the picture.
Foreign Language – again, this is going to be a case where the film they actually like best will win, since voters have to see all five. We can’t call it until we know the five nominees.
Visual Effects – one of the easiest calls of the night – Avatar wins this in a walk.
Makeup – this is one where we have to see the nominees to make this call.