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Oscar no golden boy

Published: February 5, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.


<i>ILLUSTRATION BY Leah Lefkowitz/The Hoot</i>For better or worse, the Academy Awards have been a huge part of the pop culture landscape since 1929 when the first ceremony—lasting only 15 minutes and with less than 250 people in attendance—was held in Hollywood. Taking a cue from Punxsutawney Phil, the golden man named Oscar poked his head out on Tuesday and announced this year’s nominations, honoring the films that are ostensibly the cream of 2009’s cinematic crop.

I’ve always been troubled, in a way, by awards ceremonies like the Oscars. After all, is there really any way to accurately judge and compare the merits of the hundreds of films that come out each year? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has tried to do just that for the last 82 years, but it never quite gets it right—the nominations always present a mixture of the genuine brilliant and films that are simply of-the-moment and have little staying power.

This year, the Oscars gave themselves a make-over of sorts by choosing to nominate ten movies instead of the standard five for Best Picture. This move was partially in response to last year’s snubbing of “The Dark Knight” and, more generally speaking, the trend towards specialty films in recent years. While these specialty films have done relatively well at the box office, they’ve failed to enter the American conscious in the way that previous winners like “Forrest Gump” and “Titanic” have done.

In terms of giving the nominees a more populist bent, the academy has succeeded. This year’s contenders for Best Picture include genuine blockbusters like “Avatar,” “The Blind Side,” and “Up.” However, one is left wondering whether the expansion was necessary for this to occur—even if the field was still restricted to five nominees, there’s little doubt that “Avatar” would have been nominated. And limiting the field to five nominees would have weeded out a film like “Blind Side”—which, in terms of narrative, seems more like a Hallmark weepie than anything else. The move was certainly a positive one for Pixar, though—“Up” is the first animated film since “Beauty and the Beast” to be up for the top prize.

While big budget fare might have been embraced, specialty films like “A Serious Man,” “An Education” and “The Hurt Locker” still made it into the category, with “The Hurt Locker” quite possibly on its way to winning the actual award. Its main contender is the aforementioned “Avatar.” In terms of gross, the films couldn’t be more different—“Hurt Locker” made a grand total of $12.6 million, while “Avatar” has notched up $60 million and growing.

Rounding out the nominees for Best Picture were “Inglourious Basterds,” “Up in the Air,” “Precious” and “District 9.” This year proved to be a great year for science fiction, with the Oscars embracing two sci-fi films in the top category.

As always, the nominations overall were Anglo-American centric, with most of the foreign mentions being restricted to the ghetto that is the Best Foreign Film category. Even as Americans gain greater and greater access to foreign films, the academy seems to nominate fewer of them. There were some exceptions, though, with “The White Ribbon,” “Il Divo,” “Coco Before Chanel” and “Paris 36,” gaining nominations in technical categories, showing that some branches are willing to read subtitles.

As always, the academy also focused on a small group of films. Out of hundreds of movies released in 2009, only 37 were deemed worthy of nominations. I can understand why the academy would ignore such cinematic notables as “Obsessed” and “He’s Just Not That Into You,” but many worthy films out there received absolutely no attention.

Of course, these are all longstanding problems I’ve had with the Oscars, and, despite my carping, I really do enjoy watching them. They serve as a kind of interesting time capsule, showing the films and actors that were held in high regard at any particular time.

Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) and James Cameron (“Avatar”) are the main contenders in the Best Director category, an interesting situation considering the two directors were briefly married in the 1980s. Bigelow is only the fourth woman to be nominated in the category and is on track to win the award. Meanwhile, Lee Daniels was nominated for “Precious,” making him only the second African American nominated in the category. Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”) and Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) round out the field.

The nominees for Best Actor proved unsurprising. Jeff Bridges (“Crazy Heart”) will likely win the category for his role as a washed-up country singer, with a win in the category also serving as a kind of career reward. Only George Clooney (“Up in the Air”) seems to be a possible threat to Bridges. Both Colin Firth (“A Single Man”) and Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) received their first nominations. Though Morgan Freeman (“Invictus”) generated little attention for his performance as Nelson Mandela, he did manage to procure a nomination.

The Best Actress category seems to be more fluid, with the winner still decidedly any woman’s prize. Meryl Streep (“Julie & Julia”) and Sandra Bullock (“The Blind Side”) have been winning the lion’s share of awards at other ceremonies this year, though Bullock has the advantage of starring in a film that is up for Best Picture. Streep, on the other hand, has not won since 1982, and perhaps Hollywood will be more interested in awarding one of its greats as opposed to Bullock, whose niche has primarily been in popcorn films. Gabourey Sibide (“Precious”) and Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) have both received praise for their performances as two teenage girls with very different backgrounds (one is illiterate and growing up with an abusive mother, while the other has a comfortable middle class existence worrying about boys and college), but neither seems primed for the win. Helen Mirren (“The Last Station”) rounds out the category.

The statue for Supporting Actress will undoubtedly go to a very deserving Mo’Nique for her portrayal of an abusive, mentally ill mother in “Precious.” Both Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga were nominated for their roles in “Up in the Air” as George Clooney’s protégé and lover, respectfully. Penelope Cruz, who won last year in this category for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” surprisingly got in for “Nine,” a film that was dismissed at the box office and received a lashing from the critics. Rounding out the nominees is the Maggie Gyllenhaal for “Crazy Heart,” who was ignored by all the precursor awards.

Like Supporting Actress, there really isn’t a contest in the Supporting Actor category, as Christoph Waltz has won award after award for his portrayal of the multilingual Jew Hunter in “Inglourious Basterds.” Others up for the award include Matt Damon for “Invictus,” Stanley Tucci for “The Lovely Bones,” Christopher Plummer for “The Last Station” and Woody Harrelson for “The Messenger.”

The candidates for Best Animated Feature Film were “Up,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “Coraline” and “The Secret of Kells.” The first four were all popular and commercial successes, but the nomination for “Kells”—a small Irish film—came as a surprise.

As for Best Foreign Film, the frontrunners are Germany’s “The White Ribbon” and France’s “A Prophet,” both of which took Cannes by storm. The category has been criticized in the past for excluding some of the most notable foreign films, but this year proved different. Israel’s “Ajami,” Peru’s “The Milk of Sorrow,” and Argentina’s “The Secret in Their Eyes” were also nominated.

Overall, “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar” lead with 9 nominations each, while “Inglourious Basterds” received 8. Both “Up in the Air” and “Precious” got 6 each. Though “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” seem to be the favorites for the win, though“Up in the Air” or “Inglourious Basterds” could still squeak one out. One never knows—a lot can change between nomination day and the actual day of the awards.