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Crazy, Precious, Glorious

It’s Academy Awards time again, and this year’s nominees are a terrific group

By John Brodeur, Laura Leon, Ann Morrow and Shawn Stone

 

Best Picture

This category is more fun than usual this year, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has expanded the number of nominees to 10. Call it “The Dark Knight maneuver” to get more popular films into the Oscar mix. This means there are the “real” top five films that would have been nominated under the old system, plus five more lucky duckies.

The “real” five are Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, and Up in the Air. The films that are generally acknowledged to be the lucky add-ons are The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man and Up.

The add-ons do add value to the category, from the lovely animated storytelling of Pixar (Up) to the clever sci-fi premise of South African import District 9. Conventional wisdom suggests, however, that the race will come down to a duel between James Cameron’s dazzling box-office behemoth Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow’s taut men-in-combat drama The Hurt Locker.

Maybe. Both would be worthy Best Pictures, as also would be the bloody World War II fantasy Inglourious Basterds. But since the voting method has been changed, we might be in for a surprise on Sunday evening.

The winner will be chosen by preferential voting. Explaining preferential voting is tricky for a math-challenged arts writer—there are some good explanations online if you really need to know all the details—but suffice to say that each Academy voter could have cast a ballot that included one choice for Best Picture, or 10 choices ranked preferentially from 1 through 10. So it’s good, as an example, for The Hurt Locker if it is ranked first on a ballot, but better if The Hurt Locker is ranked first and its presumed chief rival, Avatar, is ranked tenth on that same ballot. And thus the mysteries of weighted ballots add to the suspense.

Oddly enough, when a Hurt Locker producer suggested to some colleagues (by e-mail) that they vote in the statistically advantageous manner noted above, it got him banned from attending the Oscar ceremony. Moral: It’s OK to spread nasty rumors about a particular filmmaker or spend money like a crazed Weinstein brother on an over-the-top Oscar campaign, but God forbid that someone explains how the voting works.

Democracy in Hollywood is, apparently, the same as democracy in the rest of America.

—S.S.

Best Director

This year’s Oscar frontrunners have an interesting dichotomy. Both are about American soldiers donning elaborate suits to infiltrate enemy territory for a morally ambiguous goal. And, much more interesting to the media, the two films pit a formerly married couple against each other. Drama! More interesting, really, is that if these two directors had been nominated in 1991—that’s the year they got divorced, by the way—we’d be talking about the battle between Terminator 2 and Point Break. Or, not talking at all.

But that does raise an interesting point. While Kathryn Bigelow has revived her directing career with a layered, pensive thriller (The Hurt Locker), Cameron has made yet another flashy-but-dumb paean to technology. Stuffed fat with “game-changing” visual effects, but paper-thin on plot, Avatar is nothing more than a visual erector set—and too long by a quarter, per usual. But it is pretty. And it’s always nice to see an animated film get a Best Director nomination!

As for the other nominees: In any other year, this would be Quentin Tarantino’s award to lose. The scope and the vision of his long-gestating pet project, Inglourious Basterds, are outstanding. And it’s hard not to root for a film that culminates with Hitler being machine-gunned in the face. But all the points for scope and vision are going to instead end up with Cameron’s long-gestating pet project this year.

Jason Reitman’s direction on Up in the Air was slick. His decision to insert real, recently fired people into his picture was clever, but their placement—in action-breaking montage segments—was nothing more than a lite-fare Requiem for a Dream borrow. It’s a good film, but not because of the direction. Precious has a similar problem: The performances are mostly brilliant, but Lee Daniels’ direction is gimmicky and heavy-handed. Whether or not a great film could have been made from this material we may never know, because Daniels did not make one.

Which brings us back to The Hurt Locker. It’s the best film of the year, deserving of every one of its nine nominations. But it probably won’t win the big one: “Small” films took the last two Best Picture Oscars, so the Academy will give Cameron another based, if nothing else, on the number of zeroes in his film’s grosses. That leaves Bigelow with Best Director, making her the first woman to win the award—and that’s pretty interesting.

—J.B.

Best Actor

The Sunday New York Times featured a thoughtful piece on Jeff Bridges and his place in American cinema. Of particular interest was that fact that, in critic Manohla Dargis’ opinion, the quiet, retrospective Bridges dawned on the flick scene at a time when showy, loud performances (think Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro) were the bomb. Whatever role he’s played, Bridges inhabits it, owns it, so it’s impossible to see the “acting.” Generally, these are not the performances that get tapped by Oscar, but this may well be Bridges’ year. Playing a down-and-out country singer, he’s alternately charming, frustrating, lovable and pitiful. This could have been a chew-up-the-scenery performance, but it’s grounded and very real, and it’s easily the best performance by a male this year.

Bridges’ toughest competition would be Jeremy Renner, whose danger-seeking sarge (The Hurt Locker) consistently saves the day while driving his platoonmates crazy, and George Clooney, whose traveling businessman (Up in the Air) is yet another in a series of performances that humanize an otherwise unlikable stereotype. Colin Firth’s A Single Man is a stunning performance, too, but with Bridges in the house, it’s not going to be his year.

Rounding out the competition: Morgan Freeman’s inspiring turn as Nelson Mandela in Invictus made for poignant storytelling, but it’s too obvious a selection.

—L.L.

Best Actress

What an interesting field. Two newcomers garnered significant praise for their roles. In the case of Carey Mulligan (An Education), the kudos are richly deserved. In the case of the very appealing Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), not so much, if only because her role consisted primarily of glowering, pouting, and serving as a punching bag to her enraged mother, and basically making white liberals feel good about themselves. Meryl Streep has gotten herself nominated yet again, and this year she’s got the added benefit of proving that women of a certain age can be box-office magic. Her take on Julia Child in Julie & Julia was supremely delightful, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if she nabbed another richly deserved Oscar this week.

There. I’ve said it. Too often we nod knowingly at Streep’s many nominations, but then take her out of the running just because she’s won so many awards. Well, that’s silly, and I truly believe her title role performance is Oscarworthy. Another worthy competitor for this category is Helen Mirren, whose Sofya Tolstoy in The Last Station shows her at the top of her game, emotionally raw, incredibly supple, a true force of nature.

However, I fear that this will be the year in which Hollywood lets Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) know that she’s respected as an actress, not just liked for her onscreen quirky-misfit persona. It’s astonishing to me that either Bullock, whom I do like, and Sidibe are included in this field, whereas Tilda Swinton’s riveting and disturbing role as an alcoholic kidnapper in Julia didn’t make the cut. That performance has you simultaneously gaping open-mouthed and covering your eyes, a thespian train-wreck-in-progress that you can’t will yourself to turn away from.

—L.L.

Best Supporting Actor

Here we have a classic case of a lead performance nominated in the wrong category. In Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz’ vicious Nazi colonel is the opposite number to Brad Pitt’s brutal commando leader; the plot reaches its bloody climax only after they finally meet. But no unknown Austrian thespian, however brilliant, is getting a Best Actor nod—not when the biggest movie star in the world, Pitt, isn’t nominated—and in this category, Waltz will deservedly win. Arguably, however, there are three Oscarworthy supporting performances in the same film: Daniel Brühl’s conflicted war hero, August Diehl’s astute Nazi major, and Sylvester Groth’s petty, sentimental, monstrously evil Goebbels. You could even argue that one of the more effective strategies in Tarantino’s just-plain-nuts rewrite of World War II history is the care he took in crafting, and casting, the German characters.

(Only the devilish Tarantino would have a Nazi character riffing on the history of racism in America, for example.)

And speaking of the unjustly ignored, where is Christian McKay’s nom for his brilliant turn as the legendary theater and film director in Richard Linklater’s beguiling Me and Orson Welles?

Of the other, actual nominees, Woody Harrelson’s deeply troubled Gulf War I vet in The Messenger is superb. A win for him would be richly deserved. But I’m not so sure about Matt Damon’s rugby captain in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, or Stanley Tucci’s heavily made-up serial killer in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. Both are fine performances—just not as fine as the four aforementioned actors who were snubbed by the Academy.

—S.S.

Best Supporting Actress

I can’t for the life of me fathom Maggie Gyllenhaal’s nomination for her single-mother-turned-Bad Blake-groupie in Crazy Heart. In what is otherwise a tremendous movie, her local reporter with a habit of picking up the wrong guy just seemed lightweight. I had a hard time buying her character’s infatuation with Blake, let alone her willingness to put her son at risk of harm. This isn’t because I don’t accept that such a character might exist and act this way, but because Gyllenhaal just seemed to be trying out a new part, rather than imbuing it, like her costar. That she took away a slot in this category from, say, Diane Kruger’s German actress turned spy in Inglourious Basterds, or Vinessa Shaw’s troubled girlfriend in Two Lovers, is criminal.

Penelope Cruz doesn’t have much to do in Nine other than look sizzling, something she could probably do bedridden with H1N1; and anyway, Cruz had much more to work with in Broken Embraces. George Clooney’s two female costars have been nominated for Up in the Air, an incidence that usually means they’ll cancel each other out. I question whether Vera Farmiga should have been considered for Best Actress, but I don’t question her compelling performance; and Anna Kendrick’s 20-something corporate tiger is spot on, a breakthrough role for her.

There doesn’t seem to be any argument over who most likely will, and should, be bringing home Oscar gold in the Supporting Actress category. That would be Mo’Nique, whose fierce and frightening performance as an enraged, vulnerable and ignorant mother in Precious was the only thing that felt real and potent in what was otherwise an overobvious after-school special.

—L.L.

Best Cinematography

Avatar has blue-skinned humanoids, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has medieval Hogwarts School, and The Hurt Locker has ripped-from-the-newsreels sniper fire. This year’s nominees for Best Cinematography may be the most diverse ever, especially considering that The White Ribbon is in black-and-white. The category’s stretch, from futuristic CGI to 1940s classicism, makes it more of a catalog of the glories of the motion- picture camera than a competition, but based solely on the skill of their filmic photography (and all of its elements, such as composition and movement), some nominees are better than others. The least deserving is Inglourious Basterds. Though acclaimed director of photography Robert Richardson captures the allure of World War II-era France with lush precision, the film’s pastoral and architectural beauty would not be nearly as notable if the director had been someone other than bad-boy B-movie revivalist Quentin Tarantino . . . or if it didn’t exist mostly to contrast with the gory action (Tarantino sure can choreograph a scalping). This period-drama slot should’ve gone to Bright Star, a similarly lush but much more lyrical, and evocatively integrated, re-creation of the early 1800s English countryside inhabited by poet John Keats and his seamstress muse (its exclusion is only one of numerous Oscar snubs to director-screenwriter Jane Campion).

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince imaginatively exaggerates the atmosphere of an ancient English estate—and all the wizardly doings within—making it almost the year’s best, though set design and special effects contribute even more to its magical ambience. As far as the overlap between imagery and digitalization goes, it’s too close to tell how much of Avatar’s fantasy world is the result of computers or cameras. The film’s most enchanting sequences are totally CGI. What credit is due to talented DP Mauro Fiore is for his lighting: He suffused James Cameron’s artificial planet with an astonishingly natural, sunlit and moonbeamed radiance.

So it’s no surprise that Avatar swept most of the awards from the Visual Effects Society while the top honor from the American Society of Cinematographers went to The White Ribbon, an occult thriller of sorts shot in the style of pre World War I Germany. The trailers alone (it opens locally tomorrow) show how powerfully evocative black-and-white—and all the shades of gray in between—can be. And yet, the most impressive achievement in cinematography is The Hurt Locker. Filmed for $15 million (less than a tenth of the cost of Avatar or Harry Potter), this harrowing examination of a three-man “bomb- disposal unit” deployed four handheld cameras simultaneously to instill a you-are-there POV that intimately reveals the psychological perils, as well as the physical dangers, involved in patrolling the treacherous streets of Baghdad. As directed by Kathryn Bigelow with DP Barry Ackroyd, the extremities of the unit’s tour of duty, and the lenses that follow it, give The Hurt Locker an unsurpassed visual intensity.

—A.M.

Best Original Screenplay

This should be Quentin Tarantino’s consolation prize. The most audacious of this year’s big pictures, Inglourious Basterds is perhaps the most Tarantino-esque of all Tarantino films. It’s an unflinchingly violent World War II rewrite, long on dialogue and filled with some supremely colorful characters. Also, it’s batshit crazy. All of this goes back to an excellent screenplay, written and fully realized by Tarantino.

Plus, we all want to hear his acceptance speech.

If Tarantino doesn’t win, someone deserving will. Mark Boal’s screenplay for The Hurt Locker, much like everything within it, is a bomb waiting to explode. Boal developed his script from his time as an embedded journalist in Iraq, and it’s a tightly wound nail-biter featuring some real characters, rather than caricatures. The big question—why are we here?—is left aside, allowing us to get inside the heads of the soldiers. If The Hurt Locker is bound for a sweep, it begins here.

The Messenger is an Iraq War character study of a different stripe. Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman cowrote a moving film that deals with the soldiers’ personal lives, post-tour. But it’s got no chance here. Joel and Ethan Coen’s modern-day Book of Job tale A Serious Man is their third film in as many years, and easily one of their best—it’s a very dark horse, with odds hampered by the Coens’ big wins at the 2008 ceremony. (And the fact that nobody saw the film.)

And then there’s Up, which deserves a takeaway award just for the four-minute marriage montage that begins the picture. Because of the nature of animated film, this may actually be the best screenplay of the bunch—the movie you see is the movie that Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and Tom McCarthy wrote. And it’s not just the year’s coolest road movie, but also its best love story.

—J.B.

Best Adapted Screenplay

“Adapted” is a tricky term. (It could be argued that Tarantino adapted his Original Screenplay nominee Inglourious Basterds from every World War II movie he’d ever seen.) Here we have three nominees adapted from literary sources, and two that expand on previously produced materials.

The bitingly funny In the Loop is an offshoot of a BBC television show; its authors, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and director Armando Iannucci, combined brutal wit and political insight with laserlike precision. It’s the best work in this category. Neill Blomkamp teamed up with Terri Tatchell to expand his short film into the sci-fi actioner District 9. Though the implied allegory about racism gets muddled along the way, District 9 does, in its cheerfully obnoxious way, provide a counterpoint to the utopianism of fantasies like Star Trek.

Precious, written by Geoffrey Fletcher, is based on a stream-of-consciousness novel; Fletcher created a blueprint for a series of real-life horrors more awful than anything found in, say, the torture-porn genre. An Education is also about a teenage girl, but the circumstances couldn’t be more different, though emotional abuse is one of the forces at play here, too. Beloved pop novelist Nick Hornby fashioned the screenplay from a memoir, and he kept—good craftsman that he is—the protagonist’s voice front and center.

The winner, though, will be Up in the Air, based loosely on the novel by Walter Kirn. In typical Hollywood fashion, Sheldon Turner and director Jason Reitman share writing credit but didn’t work together. Reitman incorporated elements of Turner’s first draft into his own reworking of the source material, which probably contributed to the film’s wild shifts in tone. A cobbled-together script like this shouldn’t, by rights, be nominated, but providing high-quality actors like George Clooney and Vera Farmiga with sophisticated dialogue will be more than enough for Academy voters.

—S.S.

Best Song

The Academy clearly no longer gives a rat’s ass about this category, and the proof is in the production: The Oscar telecast will not feature performances of the Best Song nominees. On one hand, we don’t have to watch an outrageous production number from a film nobody cared about (Nine), though it would have been a treat to see Marion Cotillard sing “Take It All” live. On the other, this is where a little-seen foreign picture like the music-filled Paris 36 could have had its big moment. Nora Arnezeder’s performance of that film’s nominated song “Loin de Paname” would surely have been a highlight of cinema’s longest night.

The Best Song performances have also helped to give major boosts to little-known singer-songwriters over the years—who could forget Elliott Smith in 1998, singing “Miss Misery” in that rumpled white suit? Or Once stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova winning over the hearts of everyone with their spirited performance—and acceptance speech—two years ago? This year could have brought that kind of opportunity for another obscure singer-songwriter. Not Ryan Bingham, whose co-write with T-Bone Burnett, “The Weary Kind,” gives Crazy Heart’s Bad Blake a theme song, and who is the odds-on favorite to win the trophy.

No, I’m talking about Randy Newman.

Ha ha, right? But think about this: Newman has been nominated an astounding 19 times, including a pair this year for The Princess and the Frog (“Down in New Orleans” and “Almost There”), yet he’s taken home only one trophy. It’s kind of a running gag that Newman gets nominated, and loses, almost yearly. And, according to conventional wisdom, Newman’s two nominations here will cancel each other out. In that regard, perhaps he’s the Rodney Dangerfield of the Oscars—no respect for one of America’s greatest living songwriters.

Briefly, the Academy introduced a new rule this year installing a minimum score for Best Song (8.25, for whatever that’s worth) and limiting each picture to two nominees (avoiding the domination of films like Enchanted and Dreamgirls in previous years). And while a high standard such as this should be applauded, the omissions speak volumes. On the plus side, big-movie anthems like Avatar’s “I See You” and Adam Lambert’s 2012 ballad “Time For Miracles” (not half bad, actually) didn’t make the cut. But, I ask you, where is “Stu’s Song” from The Hangover? A tragic oversight.

—J.B.

My Avatar Agrees With Your Avatar

If Metroland critics are to be believed, few of the Oscar races are up in the air

 

Best Picture

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Avatar The Hurt Locker The Fantastic Mr. Fox District 9

Leon Avatar The Hurt Locker none Precious

Stone Avatar Inglourious Basterds In the Loop The Blind Side

 

Best DIRECTOR

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker Wes Anderson, The Fantastic Mr. Fox Lee Daniels, Precious

Leon James Cameron, Avatar Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, Up Lee Daniels, Precious

Stone Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds Armando Iannucci, In the Loop Jason Reitman, Up in the Air

 

Best actor

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker Sam Rockwell, Moon none

Leon Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart Matt Damon, The Informant! none

Stone Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart George Clooney, Up in the Air Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man none

 

Best ACTRESS

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia Maya Rudolph, Away We Go Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

Leon Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia Tilda Swinton, Julia Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

Stone Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side Carey Mulligan, An Education Marion Cotillard, Public Enemies Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

 

Best SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Mo’Nique, Precious Mo’Nique, Precious Mélanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air

Leon Mo’Nique, Precious Mo’Nique, Precious Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart

Stone Mo’Nique, Precious Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds none

 

Best supporting actOR

Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated

Brodeur Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker none

Leon Christopher Plummer, The Last Station Woody Harrelson, The Messenger Stanley Tucci, Julie and Julia Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones

Stone Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds August Diehl, Inglourious Basterds none


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