The Oscar Nominations for the Best Achievements in Cinema for 2009 are a real mixed bag. Consider the many differences between just two of the films with multiple nominations; James Cameron’s technically spectacular film Avatar tells the story of a strange, hostile world possessing large quantities of a rare natural element that is so desperately wanted by big business interests that they send in government troops to subjugate the indigenous population only to have them fight back.
That’s completely different from Kathryn Bigelow’s film The Hurt Locker which also takes place in a strange, hostile world possessing large quantities of a rare natural element that is so desperately wanted by big business interests that they send in government troops to subjugate the indigenous population only to have them fight back. But in the fictional Avatar, the soldiers are the villains and in the realistic The Hurt Locker, they are the heroes. I hope that’s clear. So, in honor of that dichotomy, for the first time, I‘m going to include my own Oscar choice and what I think the Academy will choose. (You can check out the complete list of nominees here.)
While I have a soft spot for the cheese loving Wallace and his sensible mutt Gromit, A Matter Of Loaf And Death was only OK. French Roast nearly swayed me because any film with grubby homeless men and narcoleptic nuns is automatically great in my book. Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty was a six-minute gem that showed the sweetest little old Irish Granny you ever laid eyes on to be completely full of uncontrollable rage and bitterness against a world that has cast her aside because she’s aged and has lost her muscle tone and is always sleepy! Logorama is hard to describe except to say it is a mini-Tarantino film told in corporate logos, but La dama y la muerte won me over because it pits the scythe wielding, black-hooded figure of Death in a violent battle against a handsome ER Doctor armed with a defibrillator over the body of a helpless old woman who keeps dying and then keeps getting zapped back to life. Since the newspapers are filled with conflicting stories about health care every day, this short seems timelier than ever.
My Pick: La dama y la muerte
Academy Pick: Logorama
Best Short Film: Live Action:
Since The Door was filmed in the abandoned town of Pripyat, just two kilometers away from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, most people would think I automatically give this film the edge. Well, The Door was good, but no prize from me. The New Tenants and Instead Of Abracadabra were both funny and Kavi combined drama with awareness about third world children forced into hard labor to pay off petty debts, which will probably appeal to the Academy, but for me the Australian entry Miracle Fish was truly astounding. We follow a ten year old boy who is picked on by bullies at school and wishes everyone would just go away. Awaking from a nap in the school nurses office, he discovers that everyone is, in fact, gone, but not for the reasons you think. Miracle Fish is a 17 minute film that has real surprises and made me jot down the names of the filmmakers. I think we’ll be hearing from them in the future.
My Pick: Miracle Fish
Academy Pick: Kavi
I think this category will be a competition between two films. One of the films is a well made, thoughtful documentary about a serious health issue in the US and the filmmakers look at the problem with intelligence and humor, yet manage to avoid baiting your emotions with sensationalistic visuals and they ultimately offer realistic solutions to the problem that almost anyone can adopt. That film is Food, Inc.. The other film is an overwrought polemic that uses illegally obtained film footage and outright falsehoods to make overly emotional points about bottlenose dolphins being used for food purposes in Japan. It seems that the makers of The Cove are stupefied by the fact that different cultures actually eat different things. So, while The Cove is technically well made, it vitiates any of its potential power by ignoring what is really known about Tursiops truncatus in order to wallow in wifty New Age beliefs about “dolphin spirituality” and unproven claims about cetacean intelligence. I would have liked The Cove more had the filmmakers treated the dolphins with more respect as befits these beautiful wild animals, instead of as a means toward their own self-aggrandizement.
My Pick: Food, Inc.
Academy Pick: The Cove
This might be unfair, but PIXAR has made so many great films they are now in a class by themselves. You don’t judge one of their newer films by ordinary standards, you judge them against such great previous PIXAR films as WALL-E, The Incredibles and Toy Story. By that measurement, Up is only second string. Don’t get me wrong, Up was a solid entertainment but the snarky level of humor was low and the “cutesy” quotient much higher than normal for PIXAR. On the other hand, I was very happy to see the decidedly lower tech stop-motion animation make a come back in a couple of films, which is why I think Fantastic Mr. Fox deserves the Oscar. From the tactile fur on the animals, to the inventive and funny sets and props, Fantastic Mr. Fox was a visual delight from beginning to end. And, it had a lot of snarky humor. And, it was low on the “cute” quotient.
My Pick: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Academy Pick: Up
Just because Avatar spent huge wads of money and employed the largest number of special effects technicians does not automatically make them the best. I think District 9 had more inventive special effects because those technicians had to create extraterrestrial creatures that could interact realistically with humans, look like they existed in our world and not look completely ridiculous. Once the initial shock of seeing what the cat food loving “Prawns” looked like had worn off, I completely forgot they were just digital creations, which is something that never left my mind while watching Avatar. Besides, what’s so special about elongated, blue colored humanoids afflicted with ocular hypertelorism?
My Pick: District 9
Academy Pick: Avatar
If Barry Ackroyd’s Hurt Locker camerawork seemed hyper-realistic, it’s because he’s had a lot of experience shooting films for directors as diverse as documentarian Nick Broomfield and dramatic minimalist Ken Loach. This may just be my own ignorance, but I could not tell where the cinematography left off in Avatar and the CGI began, yet it never seemed integrated. That may actually be the effect Cameron wanted, but I found it distracting. I had the same problem with the annoyingly digital Harry Potter; how could an entire film be photographed by the great Bruno Delbonnel (Across The Universe, Amelie) and not contain one single interesting shot? The stark Black and White imagery in The White Ribbon may look like Christian Berger didn’t do anything, but trust me, achieving a look of such gorgeous simplicity is not easy. However, the candy colored, richly hued Europe of Tarantino’s fantastically inventive WWII fable Inglourious Basterds was a treat whether the scene was happening in a forest clearing, a basement beer hall, or a movie theater engulfed in flames. Once again, the New England born Robert Richardson proves why he deserves his third Oscar.
My Pick: Robert Richardson – Inglourious Basterds
Academy Pick: Mauro Fiore – Avatar
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score:
Well, as I write this I am actually listening to The Hurt Locker score, so I guess that tells you where my sympathies lay. I really liked this score because it’s exciting when it has to be, quiet and tense when needed and atmospheric at all times. Not an easy combination to accomplish. That said, I also liked the whimsical music to Fantastic Mr. Fox (an excellent and fun CD) which restored my belief in Alexandre Desplat after the three strikes of New Moon, Julie & Julia and Cheri. Giacchino’s Up score was serviceable, but nothing extraordinary and the usually reliable Hans Zimmer was off with his meandering and tuneless Sherlock Holmes score. But a real disappointment for me was James Horner’s lackluster score for Avatar. Normally, I love James Horner (yes, even Titanic!), but I can’t remember a single bit of the music from Avatar and people who know me know that is very rare.
My Pick: Marco Beltrami, Mark Sanders – The Hurt Locker
Academy Pick: James Horner – Avatar
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen:
It is axiomatic in screenwriting that story structure is paramount so it is intriguing that only one of the five nominees actually adheres to a conventional story structure. But while I enjoyed Up, I’m not giving it my vote. The other four nominees, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man and The Messenger were all episodic stories with an emphasis on characterization which I hope will put an end to the people who claim there are only 15 or 23 or 35 plots in the world (the number is always changing) and that every story is merely a variation of one of those basic plotlines. My question, which none of these people can answer is; if plotlines are finite, what was the last one? While I liked all of the films here, but I am giving the edge to Inglourious Basterds because not only did Quentin Tarantino create a host of dynamite characters, he also gave them great dialog and something else; he created a WWII film wherein you did not know how it was going to end.
My Pick: Inglourious Basterds
Academy Pick: The Hurt Locker
Science Fiction doesn’t usually fare well with the Academy, so even though District 9 had original characters and a unique narrative, I don’t think it stands a chance. I like Nick Hornby and have read most of his novels but I found An Education dull, ditto for Up In The Air. Precious was harrowing, dramatic and funny, but for sheer laugh out loud moments combined with a story containing lots of serious political subtext (that I only picked up on when I saw the film a second time) and delightfully cynical characters, then In The Loop gets my vote. You won’t hear more jaw-droppingly vicious, yet eloquent insults in any other film and you will only wish you could be as articulate and nasty as these characters.
My Pick: In The Loop
Academy Pick: Up In The Air
Best Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role:
I’m very conflicted in this category. Vera Farmiga has been doing solid supporting work in movies and on TV for years now and I was very glad to see her get some Academy recognition. But then I saw Precious and I was so completely blown away by Mo’Nique’s performance as the worst mother in the world who, when you don’t expect it, makes you see all the fear and pain she has experienced which has driven her to become the horrid person she is. It’s an astounding portrayal, you don’t want to forgive her, but you completely understand her.
My Pick: Mo’Nique – Precious: Based On The Novel Push by Sapphire
Academy Pick: Vera Farmiga – Up In The Air
If there was ever a category that demonstrated why I don’t like “career” Oscars, it is this one. The category is called Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role, not Here’s An Oscar Because We Should Have Given You One Years Ago. All the actors nominated here are Oscar-worthy, but I can’t think of anyone else who could have played Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds as well as Christoph Waltz. Completely cool, possessing a wicked sense of humor, yet totally ruthless; he’s a Nazi villain who clearly loves his job, is good at it and prides himself on using his brain more than his brawn. Although Christoph Waltz seemed to pop out of nowhere, I read on the IMDB that he’s been acting professionally since 1977 and has appeared in everything from the long running German TV series Tatort to the James Bond film Goldeneye. Waltz took Tarantino’s complex dialog and managed to make it sing in German, French, English and Italian. I will remember Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa forever, he has created a villain for the ages and he should get the Oscar.
My Pick: Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds
Academy Pick: Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds
Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role:
So we have three veterans up against two newcomers. Previous nominees Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep should just be happy with their nominations, each of them will probably get another Oscar in their careers, but not this year. If I voted according to known Academy politics, then the award would go to Sandra Bullock. Bullock has been doing solid work for years and she is one of the few female performers whose name on the marquee means a good opening weekend and don’t think that isn’t important. But the Best Actress category has a history of upsets, so it is entirely possible that either Carey Mulligan could win for An Education or Gabourey Sidibe could win for Precious and I’m voting for Sidibe. She played a lying, thieving, delusional, pregnant, HIV infected, illiterate character who is only sixteen, yet she managed to turn her into a pillar of female strength and hope by the end of the film. That was a development completely unexpected by me and I was thoroughly impressed.
My Pick: Gabourey Sidibe – Precious: Based On The Novel Push by Sapphire
Academy Pick: Sandra Bullock – The Blind Side
Best Performance By An Actor In A Leading Role:
I have long complained that Jeff Bridges should get an Oscar, but if he couldn’t get one for The Big Lebowski or Fearless, why should he get one for this retread of Tender Mercies? I’m against “career” Oscars so, sorry Jeff, I love you, but not this year. I am a genuine admirer of Nelson Mandela and a big fan of Morgan Freeman, but Invictus left me cold and I remain alone in my feeling that George Clooney was miscast for Up In The Air. As the relatively unknown man among more famous actors, Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker could be an upset winner. Its happened before; remember 2003 when Adrien Brody came out of nowhere to snatch the Best Actor award for The Pianist away from his better known, co-nominees Michael Caine, Daniel Day Lewis, Nicholas Cage and Jack Nicholson? This leaves me with the one performance, which if I am honest, still has the power to raise the hair on the back of my neck when I think about it, Colin Firth in A Single Man. Stiff and proper, he’s an Englishman in Los Angeles whose entire life has been built on facades that hide his true nature and character. But we see him in his unguarded moments and Colin Firth gives one of the most emotional and painful performances I have seen in years. Topping it off, I still don’t know how he managed to play a scene of attempted suicide for laugh out loud comedy without ever losing the seriousness of what he was doing. That scene alone is worth the Oscar.
My Pick: Colin Firth – A Single Man
Academy Pick: Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart
Best Achievement In Directing:
If 2009 enters the Oscar history books, it will happen in this category. It won’t be because a bland Canadian like Jason Reitman was nominated; previous bland Canadian nominees include both Mark Robson and Norman Jewison. Nor will it be because a bombastic Canadian like James Cameron was nominated, he’s been nominated before, just like his fellow countrymen Paul Haggis and Atom Egoyan (although Egoyan is neither bombastic nor bland). Lee Daniels is a triple threat being black, gay and a Philadelphian, but John Singleton beat Daniels as the first black man nominated Best Director almost twenty years ago with Boyz In The Hood and the Philadelphia born Sidney Lumet and Richard Brooks both have multiple nominations. If you think gay directors have been missed, think again, George Cukor, Pedro Almodovar and Gus Van Sant have all been nominated previously and John Schlesinger and Rob Marshall have actually won directing Oscars. It would be impossible to list the number of loud mouth Americans like Quentin Tarantino who have been nominated before, much easier to name the three previous female nominees, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion and Lina Wertmuller. So, if Oscar history is made this year, it will be made by the winner and I think it will be Kathryn Bigelow winning the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker. Bigelow has been doing good solid work for years, she’s had hits like Point Break and Blue Steel and flops like Strange Days and K-19: The Widowmaker, but she has always bounced back. I believe that a woman will finally take home the little golden man and it’s about time if I do say so myself!
My Pick: Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
Academy Pick: Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
While there are ten nominees this year, I think the race really boils down to only five. But, given the complexities surrounding the way the votes will be counted (please don’t ask me to explain it, because I can’t), this category has the best chance for a complete, head-scratching, from out of left field surprise winner than any of the other categories. Once again, Avatar will face off with The Hurt Locker, Precious has a good chance for an upset as does Up In The Air, but my own personal pick is Inglourious Basterds. I thoroughly enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist WWII film and it is one of the films that I would see again in a heartbeat.
My Pick: Inglourious Basterds
Academy Pick: Avatar