The annual announcement of the Oscar nominations always offers up plenty of fodder for discussion. But before we get there, travel back in time with me to June 2009 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
(AMPAS for short) made a canny if questionable PR move: after 66 years of a 5-wide Best Picture
shortlist, the 2009 film year would bring us 10 (!) Best Picture nominees. That announcement reinvigorated Oscar buzz—so many people were talking about the Academy Awards last June it felt just like February. But it’s way too soon to tell if the decision has reinvigorated Oscar itself. That’s a more complicated prospect, and you need more than one go at an experiment to see if it works. You also may need better movies. No matter which lucky film is named the Best of the Best, none of them will be as good as Casablanca
, the last winner from a 10-wide Best Picture field way back in March of 1944.
Herewith, 10 talking points loosely inspired by the titles of this year’s Best Picture nominees.
Avatar or “The Vessel”
Remember when Halle Berry won the Oscar for Monster’s Ball and she proclaimed herself a “vessel”? She wasn’t just an actress winning a statue for a well-regarded performance. She had magically transformed into all women of color, finally getting some respect from Hollywood. Or at least that’s the way she saw it and how the media encouraged us to see it, too. When people cease to be themselves and becomes an avatar of something else, they often win. It’s hard not to celebrate historical moments like this, even if it tends to eventually downgrade the avatar in question. Kathryn Bigelow may well be this year’s vessel. She’s the fourth woman nominated for Oscar’s Best Director prize, and she’ll probably be the first to win.
The Blind Side or “The Snubs”
Academy voters always refuse to acknowledge the existence of certain movies or performances, sending fans into angry rages. Moon
, The Road
, and Where the Wild Things Are
all had their ardent fans. But they came up empty when Anne Hathaway
announced the nominations. Damn that Anne Hathaway! But the biggest mistake Oscar voters made this year is the absence of Tilda Swinton
in the Best Actress category. Her Julia
is one of the most accomplished and fascinating performances that anyone of any gender has given in any category for years
. Not that Oscar had any help remembering it. Every precursor group—even the critics!—ignored her too. Shame on them all.
District 9 or “Sci-Fi Relocates From The Ghetto”
Only three science fiction films in the history of the movies have made it to Oscar’s Best Picture competition: A Clockwork Orange
, Star Wars
, and E.T.
Until now, that is… Now, it’s five (Avatar
and District 9
joined the list). Two in one year? Sci-fi is no longer just for fanboys anymore.
An Education or “An Education”
Oscar has always loved movies about learning, whether they’re focused on the students or the teachers. Precious
, An Education
and The Blind Side
all feature struggling students; Best Actress hopeful Meryl Streep
goes to (cooking) school in Julie & Julia
; and Supporting Actress nominee Anna Kendrick
learns her trade from Best Actor nominee George Clooney
in Up in the Air
The Hurt Locker or “Feel the Pain”
Notice how grim the Supporting Actor category has been getting? This used to be a place for comic relief. It’s increasingly serious and sadistic. If Christoph Waltz
wins for “The Jew Hunter” in Inglourious Basterds
as everyone expects he will, he’ll be the third consecutive embodiment of evil to triumph in this category (following Javier Bardem
in No Country For Old Men
and Heath Ledger
in The Dark Knight
). It sort of makes one nostalgic for foul-mouthed drug addict grandfathers, doesn’t it? Maybe not. Will a nice guy ever win again? You have to go all the way back to Jim Broadbent
(2001) to find a sweet soul.
Speaking of feeling the pain: Why wasn’t Anthony Mackie
nominated for The Hurt Locker
? Did we really need another serial killer (Stanley Tucci
in The Lovely Bones
) in the mix?
Inglourious Basterds or “Spell Check Required”
The correct spellings of “inglorious” and “bastards” now look incorrect, and for this we must blame Basterds writer/director Quentin Tarantino
. This may well be the first purposefully misspelled movie ever nominated for Best Picture. It’s not like The Pursuit of Happyness
made the short list in its year. With Precious
and The Blind Side
both featuring illiterate principals and Basterds implying the same about Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt
), this is like an unofficial theme of 2009 cinema. I’m also willing to bet that Jake Sully
spells all the Na’Vi words wrong in Avatar
Precious or “The Beloved”Meryl Streep
is, famously, the most frequently nominated actor, male or female, of all time. She keeps beating her own record, too. Her nomination for Julie & Julia
is #16. That’s four more than Katharine Hepburn
and Jack Nicholson
ever managed. With people everywhere becoming so inexplicably obsessed with Sandra Bullock
in this particular Best Actress face/off, win #3 may have to wait. What on earth will it take for the Academy to finally honor Ms. Streep with a third statue? Ingrid Bergman
, Jack Nicholson
, Katharine Hepburn
, and Walter Brennan
all made it to #3, but it’s starting to seem like Meryl may never get there—some flavor of the moment always rises up to squash that particular happening.
Meryl isn’t the only regular in the mix. Jeff Bridges
, who will soon be named Best Actor for Crazy Heart
, and Morgan Freeman
, nominated against him for playing Nelson Mandela
, have just joined the 5-time nominee club, making them two of Oscar’s 25 favorite male stars of all time.
A Serious Man or “No Comedies, Please!”
Oscar may have embraced science fiction this year, but he’s still one serious fellow. The Hangover and (500) Days of Summer both enjoyed strong precursor runs, but when AMPAS finally had its say, their awards seasons ended abruptly with zero nominations between them.
Up or “The Box Office Factor”
Remember last year when pundits and critics and audiences were super angry that Oscar shunned both The Dark Knight
, two blockbusters that also happened to be critical smashes and guild favorites? It seems that they finally got the memo that it wasn’t nice to ignore success. If you average out the grosses of this year’s Best Picture crop, you end up with a $150 million blockbuster. And that’s just so far. Some of the nominees are still raking in the box office bucks. To give you some perspective, Oscar’s last 5 years of Best Picture lineups average out to about $65 million.
Up in the Air or “The Question Marks”
With so many of the major prizes decided long ago—few people are betting against Bridges
—shouldn’t we turn our attention to the categories that are really difficult to predict? Take Best Costume Design, for example. It looks like a showdown between Oscar’s two favorite designers: Sandy Powell
(favored by directors like Martin Scorsese
and and Todd Haynes
), nominated for The Young Victoria
, and Colleen Atwood
(favored by directors like Rob Marshall
and Tim Burton
), nominated for Nine
, have both won 2 Oscars out of 8 nominations. But maybe it’s not. Could The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
surprise us? Or might one of the two films wherein fashion plays an extra large role (Bright Star
and Coco before Chanel
) walk off with the win?
So who will run away with Oscar this time around? We’ll find out on March 7. Stay tuned!
Nathaniel Rogers blogs on The Film Experience. He is also a bit of an Oscar savant.
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