Illustration by Joe Zeff Design
Two articles caught my eye this morning. ¬†One is Erik Childress’ final Oscar predictions. ¬†And the other is Joe Morgenstern’s piece for the Wall Street Journal about Avatar and The Hurt Locker. ¬†I think Morgenstern writes of these two films very well — high praise for both in their unique ways.
Both of these pieces have helped me come to a better understanding of this race, which I happily put to bed. ¬†No one likes having to choose between their two favorite, or three favorite, films of the year. ¬†For me, the Oscars have always been a political move. ¬†They determine the power shifts in Hollywood. ¬†They open doors or close them. ¬†It is probably not easy being an Academy member. ¬†One must always be torn between the political and the heartfelt. ¬†Summed up by Morgenstern:
To appreciate the artistic and fiscal power of this device, it helps to recall the one that made the crucial difference in “Titanic.” The sinking of the unsinkable ocean liner had always been an enthralling story, but not, until Mr. Cameron came along, a story that would bring teenage girls and boys back for helping after helping of romance. In a general sense, he raised the barnacled vessel from its historical grave by focusing on the girl and boy played by you-know-who and you-know-who. But the sine qua non of “Titanic”‘s success, the billion-dollar notion that invited kids in, was the framing device with Rose, as a venerable survivor, recalling the great love of her passionate youth.
In “Avatar” the device is simpler still. By making Jake a paraplegic, Mr. Cameron provided the gate through which young audiences enter the picture quickly, at a deep emotional level. In recent interviews the filmmaker has spoken of his hero as an embodiment of “broken humanity,” which he certainly is in an abstract way. More concretely, though, Jake uses the brilliant technology of the sci-fi tale to become a new person who finds love, along with a cause that makes life worth living. In other words, he fulfills every adolescent’s dream.
On vacation last week in the remote South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, I ran into a couple of resident Aussies who said they’d seen “Avatar” and couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about. In fact, they’d seen an illegal 2-D download on a notebook computer, so they hadn’t seen it at all. Never has a movie depended so fully on the third dimension of depth, or the fourth dimension of screen size. But the ensuing 3-D craze raises questions beyond the basic one of staying power. The process is desocializing. Those polarizing glasses are like visual headphones, separating us from other members of the audience while connecting us with the movie in an intense way. Is this good or bad for the medium’s future? Maybe it’s the best we can hope for, and a good best at that, since audiences these days are only loosely connected with one another as they sit in their seats, cellphones and texting thumbs at the ready in case the storyline sags.
And about The Hurt Locker:
The storyline never sags in “The Hurt Locker,” a stunning example of another classic genre, action suspense. In this film the connection to the audience depends, at least at first, on the primal question of whether bombs will or won’t explode.
But Kathryn Bigelow’s tour de force is far more than a genre piece. It’s a character study of remarkable complexity, a meditation on the nature of heroism, a consideration of the Iraq conflict that’s neither antiwar nor pro, but cool, mature and incisive. And it’s a showcase for elegant technique‚Äîrigorous direction, taut writing, flawless performances, masterful editing and cinematography. (Among so many vivid moments, I remember the shot of Jeremy Renner’s William James standing amidst a lethal octopus’s tentacles, seven pipe bombs linked by live wires.) That’s why so many critics and movie professionals have rallied to its cause, and why Academy members honored both productions with a happy symmetry of nominations‚Äînine for the little film that could, nine for the big film that did.
From the day the nominations were announced, the temptation was to cast “The Hurt Locker” as a modestly funded David to “Avatar”‘s extravagant, entertainment-conglomerated Goliath. That’s a fascinating spectacle in its own right, yet obvious differences between the two conceal essential similarities.
Despite its proudly independent roots, “The Hurt Locker” is a heartening throwback to the golden age of Hollywood, when studio films could aspire to such lean and disciplined excellence, and occasionally achieve it. Despite its astronomical budget and studio affiliations, “Avatar” is an indie film in the sense that the man who made it operates by his own rules. Aspiration is the common denominator of both productions. Mr. Cameron has been outspoken, as is his custom, in promising to transform the experience of watching movies in theaters, but damned if he didn’t do it; against all odds, “Avatar” has lived up to its ballyhoo. Ms. Bigelow was no less ambitious, though she kept her intentions to herself. She simply took off for the Middle East and shot an exemplary feature that went into distribution ballyhooless, then earned richly deserved adulation on its own. (Mr. Cameron’s championing of her cause as best director isn’t just a special form of collegiality but an expression of excellent taste.)
And then, the predictions:
So which of the two will be the winner come Sunday evening? Unfortunately‚Äîor fortunately, if you’re rooting for other nominees‚Äîit isn’t that simple. Like the hovering space ship in “District 9,” there’s that hovering question mark of preferential ballots (which wrist to slit first if “The Blind Side” wins?), not to mention lots of inside-baseball considerations that may have colored the Academy’s voting.
“The Hurt Locker” has come on so strongly, for so long, that some see it as vulnerable to an outsider move. (I see that kind of seeing as a symptom of the attention deficit disorder that afflicts pop culture as a whole, though the perception could be self-fulfilling.) Actors, whose guild constitutes an important voting bloc, may turn out for “Inglourious Basterds,” which celebrates the very notion of acting with a collection of fine performances. They may also turn against “Avatar,” which represents a real threat to actors’ livelihoods by blurring the line between live action and animation. What’s more, Academy voters have often resisted popular films, so the stupendously popular “Avatar” might be perceived as too big not to fail in the best-picture category.
Then which of my two favorites do I really favor? In the accompanying ballot, which makes no provision for waffling, my answer is clear: “The Hurt Locker” should win, though “Avatar” will. Outside the box (where the best thinking is done), I’m of two minds, with no inclination to resolve the internal conflict. In the best of all possible worlds, “The Hurt Locker” should win because it’s thrilling, engrossing and an impeccably crafted example of storytelling on the big screen. In that same world, “Avatar” should win because it’s the cavalry‚Äîon six-legged horses‚Äîcome to the rescue of the movie medium, which has desperately needed the excitement that Mr. Cameron’s majestic opus brings. But in the world we actually inhabit? Nobody knows anything, and hope springs eternal.
Morgenstern and his readers predict Avatar will win. ¬†Morgenstern thinks The Hurt Locker should win.
Meanwhile, over at Cinematical, Childress puts writes up his predictions, and in so doing exposes both the hard, cold facts as well as some of the ugliness of the season. ¬†But first, I thought some readers on this site would appreciate some Meryl Streep love:
In what will be the most closely watched acting race of the evening, we have in one corner the world class Meryl Streep with her record-setting 16th Oscar nomination and in the other the box office queen of 2009, Sandra Bullock, with her first. Comparing the quality of these two performances is a non-conversation. You may as well hand in your critic card if you think otherwise. Meryl Streep hit it out of the park while Bullock adopted a Southern accent and a large black man. Hell, Streep should win just for mastering Julia Child’s speech patterns compared to a few extra vowels on Bullock’s part. But we’re not necessarily voting quality now are we? How sad is that? If we’re awarding a career achievement like Jeff Bridges (Bullock’s kidnapper and murderer in the remake of The Vanishing), then how does Streep not win this? She hasn’t won since 1982’s Sophie’s Choice and has lost the Oscar 11 times since then. Many thought Streep was overdue last year and was primed for a victory for Doubt until Kate Winslet jumped into the lead category to get her own overdue award. Being overdue certainly didn’t help Peter O’Toole or Lauren Bacall, now did it? So then are we awarding a comeback because Bullock had the two biggest hits of her career last year? I understand she is well liked. Hell, I like her even if I can practically count on a hand the number of good movies she has starred in. Does she have the edge because Nora Ephron screwed up¬†Julie & Julia by devoting half the time away from Streep? Statistics are no help here. Bullock won the Screen Actors Guild award and they are 10-for-15 in Best Actress. The only SAG winner to also win the Broadcast Film Critics Association award and a Golden Globe and then lose the Oscar was Julie Christie in 2007. The Globes are no help in giving the Dramatic award to Bullock and the Comedy one to Streep. The BFCA hedged their Oscar prediction bets by offering up a tie for the second year in a row involving Streep (with Bullock in ’09 and Anne Hathaway in ’08.) You will hear no greater cheer than the one at my Oscar party if Streep wins this award. But this is one of those instances where my head is stomping on my heart.¬†WINNER: Sandra Bullock “The Blind Side”
His final category:
And so it comes down to this. As promised, we’re doing Best Picture last just to stick with tradition. Cause honestly, this would be much higher on the list if I were sticking with degrees of difficulty. You can tell that The Hurt Locker is the front runner because of all the negative stories that have been coming out in the last few weeks. We have watched as a number of Oscar “journalists” have taken the bait and run with stories to knock Bigelow’s film off the pedestal created by sweeping the major Guild awards. Has there ever been a more disgusting bit of Oscar pandering than to hear both Harvey Weinstein and James Cameron go on record to say “give Bigelow Best Director, but give US Best Picture?” Yeah that’s right guys. Condescend to the woman and give her that little also-ran award. Throw her a bone so you can take the meat. Disgusting.
Let’s bring back the stats, shall we?
– The Producers Guild Award winner has won 13 of 20 times.
– Kathryn Bigelow is going to win Best Director. 15 of the last 20 directors to win the Oscar also watched their film win Best Picture (including 5 of the last 6.)
– Only eight films have swept the Producer’s, Director’s and Writer’s Guild awards and just one (Brokeback Mountain) did not win Best Picture. The other seven were¬†Dances with Wolves (1990),¬†The Silence of the Lambs (1991),¬†Schindler’s List (1993),¬†Forrest Gump(1994),¬†American Beauty (1999),¬†No Country for Old Men (2007) and¬†Slumdog Millionaire(2008).
– There have been only four films that have swept those three Guilds and added a trophy from the American Cinema Editors. They are¬†Dances with Wolves,¬†Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump and¬†Slumdog Millionaire.¬†The Hurt Locker is the fifth.
WINNER: “The Hurt Locker“
Come Sunday, everyone will be counting how many Oscars Avatar will be taking in as a sign that it is headed for a Best Picture victory. And it is certainly one to note. There have been a lot of ties for most victories over the years and several years where the eventual Best Picture winner was trailing the leader by one trophy (or tied) until its name was announced at the end of the evening. Only 15 times in their 81-year history has a film won more Oscars than the Best Picture victor and just four times in my lifetime. In 1976 when¬†All the President’s Men and¬†Network won 4 Oscars to Rocky’s 3. 1977 saw¬†Star Wars win 6 to¬†Annie Hall’s 4. 1981 it was¬†Raiders of the Lost Ark taking 5 to¬†Chariots of Fire‘s 4. And most recently in 2004, Scorsese’s¬†The Aviator had 5 trophies to the 4 collected by Eastwood’s¬†Million Dollar Baby. Avatar could walk away, I believe, with as many as five Oscars. Four could be a nice compromise. If my predictions hold true though,¬†The Hurt Locker will defeat¬†Avatar 4-3 – with the fourth Oscar being the one for Best Picture.
It’s true that looking over those films that share the rare company with The Hurt Locker for most guilds won. ¬†What is also telling to me isn’t that The Hurt Locker won all of those guilds but that Avatar did not. ¬†Why didn’t it win the Sound mixing award? ¬†Why didn’t it win the Eddie? ¬†You can say that it lost the PGA because of the preferential ballot before the Chartier scandal took hold, and that may be a good argument. ¬†The fact of the matter is, that despite the money and the game-changing quality of Avatar, so far the industry is taking a definite stand against that being the game they want to play.
It is a cliffhanger, indeed.