Friday, March 5, 2010


It's that time of year! Time for the Oscars! The ceremony is this Sunday (as if you didn't already know). The one bummer this year is that there isn't a lot of drama. Some of the categories are pretty much a lock - Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor for Inglorious Basterds, Mo'nique for Best Supporting Actress for Precious, Jeff Bridges for Best Actor for Crazy Heart. But the two big ones are a fascinating race, particularly since it involves an ex-husband and wife. Will Kathryn Bigelow be the first woman to win Best Director? Or will it be her husband, master craftsman James Cameron? Will they split the big prizes, with her winning Best Director and his movie winning Best Picture? That's my bet, because Avatar is one heck of a movie, and, even if the story is a tad cliched, the movie itself is an incredible visual spectacle, and Cameron does deserve recognition for that. I think he deserves recognition as a producer first, and director second, because I think he pulled off a small miracle producing this movie. I also think he did a very good job directing it, but I do take away a couple of points for the lack of imagination in the script.

The other sort-of controversy, which turned out to not be that much of a controversy, is the fact that there are 10 Best Picture nominees. There was quite the hullabaloo over this when it was announced, with strong opinions on both sides. Some thot it was a brilliant move, others thot it was the height of folly. I was in the middle. Yes, it could dilute the prestige, but it is not unprecedented - there were 10 nominees for several years at the beginning of the awarding of the Oscars, until 1943 - and it could be fun.

The answer turned out to be that it was a good move, largely because there are 10 movies worthy of the distinction of being a "Best Picture" nominee. Some people have issues with various nominations - a friend thinks The Blind Side stole a nomination from another, more worthy picture - but for the most part, each Best Picture nominee has received accolades as a very good movie.

Here's the list:
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglorious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

What's particularly impressive about this list is the diversity. There's something here for everyone, and for just about every demographic. There are two war movies, Inglorious Basterds and The Hurt Locker, but they couldn't be more different. One is a very gritty, realistic movie about Iraq, with a small cast, no stars, and not much plot. The other is a fantasy about WWII, starring Brad Pitt, with a very complicated story and lush cinematography. There are two science fiction movies - Avatar and District 9, but, again, they couldn't be more different. District 9 takes place in a filthy, disgusting ghetto/landfill near Johannesburg, while Avatar takes on the exquisitely beautiful planet of Pandora. There are two adult dramas set in contemporary America, The Blind Side and Up in the Air. One is a sentimental story about a white Christian woman in the South, her family, and her community. The other is a dark comedy about guy who has as few commitments and connections in his life as possible. An Education is about a cute British girl coming of age in the 1960's. A Serious Man is about a Jewish man coming undone in the 1960's. And then, of course, there's Precious, which is yet again different from all the others, and Up, one of the only animated movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture.

What a great crop of movies. Most of these aren't just different from each other - they are different from just about any other movie ever made. How many movies have been made about WWII that rewrote the ending? How many movie stars have made movies while at the peak of their stardom in which they played corporate hatchetmen who specialized in firing people? How many movies have been made about a guy who flies his house to another continent with balloons? And, of course, there's Avatar.

The Oscars this year also demonstrate all kinds of diversity in Hollywood, particularly geographic. There isn't much American about these Oscars. There are only three that take place completely in contemporary America - Precious, The Blind Side and Up in the Air. The Hurt Locker features Americans, but has all of about 5 scenes here, and was shot in Jordan. There are only three that feature American movie stars - Inglorious Basterds, Up in the Air, and The Blind Side. Of those, Brad Pitt was not in very much of Basterds, The Blind Side represents Sandra Bullock's first Oscar nom, and Up in the Air was that rare movie that scored two nominations for Best Supporting Actress. Meryl Streep, quintessential Hollywood royalty, scored a nomination for Best Actress for playing a famous American - Julia Child - who spends the entire movie in France. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon scored nominations for playing South Africans, in Freeman's case Nelson Mandela. Colin Firth, an Englishman, scored a nomination for playing a gay Englishman, in a movie directed by a gay man, Tom Ford, who made his name working for an Italian fashion house (Gucci). Christopher Plummer, born in Toronto, scored a nomination for playing a Russian, Tolstoy, while Helen Mirren, a Brit, scored a nom for playing his wife. Carey Mulligan, also English, scored a nomination for playing an Englishwoman. Penelope Cruz, who is Spanish, scored a nomination for a movie (Nine) that is sort of a remake of a movie by an Italian (8 1/2). The man who will probably win Best Supporting Actor, Christoph Waltz, is Austrian. Among Best Supporting Actor nominees, Stanley Tucci is American, but he stared in a movie directed by a Kiwi, Peter Jackson, who also produced one of the movies set in South Africa, District 9.

Looking down the list of nominated movies, in Art Direction, we find two 19th century English icons - Sherlock Holmes and Queen Victoria - another movie set in London, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and Avatar and Nine again. Among the Cinematography nominees, there is one movie with any scenes at all in America - and that's The Hurt Locker, with about 5 minutes in this country. The others are Avatar (another planet), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Britain), The Hurt Locker (shot in Jordan, takes place in Iraq), Basterds again, and The White Ribbon (Germany). Costume Design nominees include Bright Star, about John Keats (there's that 19th century England again), Coco Before Chanel (French), and Parnassus, Nine, and Young Victoria again.

Hollywood both is and is not quintessentially American. It is American because it is physically located here, but it is and is not American because it embodies the great American qualities of freedom, adventure, and embracing the new, without limiting who can experience those to just Americans.

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