Monday, March 8, 2010

Oscar Reaction

So the Oscars were handed out last night.  While acknowledging a late upswing in support of The Hurt Locker, I had predicted that Avatar would win for Best Picture. And for once in my life, I am so glad to be wrong.  I am thrilled that The Hurt Locker won for Best Movie of the year. A happy convergence of Those Who Deserve and Those Who Get. By jove, they got it right! 

So of course, there will be those who will complain about how the Oscar voters are yet again completely out of touch with general public opinion. How the voters aways reward dark independent movies that nobody has heard of, let alone seen. How the voters are ivy-tower snoots who are only willing to grant riches to elitist, high-brow movies that Joe Public would never enjoy. And so forth. To all of those people, I have only one thing to say. Please just go watch The Hurt Locker. If the experience does not change your mind, by all means protest, but I seriously doubt you will after seeing the film. 

The Hurt Locker won not because it was a war movie. Or because it was tailor-made to engage the pretentious elite. Or because there was an active movement to snub the popular vote for Avatar. It won simply because it was truly the best of the ten movies nominated this year. 

And this was not a film that was made with the explicit intention to tow the intelligentsia vote. Brooks Barnes reports in the New York Times today that that "On (The Hurt Locker's) opening weekend in two theaters in New York, screenwriter, Mark Boal — now an Oscar winner — stood on street corners with his teenage nephew handing out free tickets to passersby with the idea that if they could stack the house, perhaps the theater owners would book it for another week." It struggled for its existence, and for distribution, from the start. And in less than a year, it won 'Best Picture'. If this isn't a Cinderella story I don't know what is. This was not a prestigious art-house film that came with a built-in viewer demographic. At a time when nobody wanted to spend their hard-earned ten dollars on watching a movie about the war, this film slowly built its reputation by word of mouth. Even as there has been no precedent for a commercially successful Iraq war movie in the past several years, The Hurt Locker got made because the film-makers were passionate about their story and needed to tell it. Here is a good blog entry on this topic: 

What I liked about this Oscars telecast: 
  • The expansion of the Best Movie nominees to ten films instead of five
  • The verbal recognition of Best Lead Actor (Male and Female) nominees by their own colleagues and in their own words. In a way, this was like giving a prize to every nominee, to  provide public acknowledgment of their work by their peers. Very classy. 
  • The extra time spent on all four of the acting categories which involved a return to showing film clips for each of the nominees.
  • Sandra Bullock's acceptance speech. Few things are more endearing than graciousness, and she was very gracious. Also the acceptance speech by Michael Giacchino, who won for Best Score (for 'Up'); when most other winners spent precious time on endless names of people they would like to thank (even when the Academy now allows winners to do so in a separate acceptance speech for the press after their win), Giacchino took time to ask kids who were being told that what they were doing was a waste of time "to get out there and do it; it is NOT a waste of time". A truly inspiring moment in a ceremony that was often uninspired.
  • Kathryn Bigelow's (what seemed like genuine) surprise at becoming the first woman to win a Best Director trophy. 

What I disliked about this Oscars telecast:
  • The art deco set for the stage, which seemed to limit the possibilities for what could be done on the stage instead of enhancing them.
  • That the hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were merely adequate. I had hoped for comedic genius from those two, and got something that was content with being just a tad better than mediocre. In their defense, I did laugh a lot at the 'damn Helen Mirren' joke. 
  • The tediously long dance montage set to the Best Musical Score nominations. Would it not have been better to spend the time instead on a short, crisp compilation of best nominated song performances?
  • That Quentin Tarantino had to be content with a single win (Best Supporting Actor) for this movie, and that he did not receive the Best Original Screenplay prize.
That is enough ink spent on the Oscars, I think! There are more important things in the world to be worried about. 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Those Who Deserve and Those Who Get

The Oscars will be handed out soon. And like most things in life there will be a deviation between those who deserve to win and those who actually do.

Speculators have expectedly used a lot of ink picking winners. The usual mud-slinging has occurred, though not as much as in previous years.  The apposite amount of grandstanding has transpired at talkshows and in trade magazines. Most individuals though, are a bit fatigued by what seems like an unusually long awards show season, culminating with the mother lode of them all, the Academy Awards on March 7th.

Only a fool would argue that the awards are handed out purely based on merit. All sorts of other things play into a win, but I am not here to wax on about the terrible injustice of it all. Every year, the New York Times publishes “Who Should Win” and “Who Will Win” picks for each of the top Oscar categories. I have always liked those, and decided to post my own version of the same.

Best Picture »
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
This is the biggest category, and also the trickiest to predict this year. Unlike some previous years, there has not been a consistent front-runner in this category in the months since the nominations. I am a fan of the newly expanded 10 slots in this category, simply because additional (or any) recognition never hurt a movie. At some point, ‘Up In The Air’, ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’ have all been considered certain wins in this category. But at this late stage, it is down to ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’. Do you award the big, loud, (most ever) commercially successful, overwhelmingly popular film, “Avatar” or the small, independent, but truly great movie, “The Hurt Locker”? Early on,"The Hurt Locker" had been the critics’ darling, and for the right reasons too. But then the visual splendor of ‘Avatar’ blew away ticket-buyers around the planet, and it became the juggernaut to beat, and for a while in the past month it appeared that nothing could unseat the sheer might of James Cameron’s space-age, green epic. But then, in the last stretch, the pendulum appears to have started swinging back in favor of "The Hurt Locker”, I suspect because the film industry voters are resisting being told what to do, and are probably going with their hearts. If this will come to pass, hurray!
Who Should Win: “The Hurt Locker”
Who Will Win: “Avatar” (although, I really hope I am wrong here).

Best Director »
James Cameron, Avatar
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up In The Air
This race was going to parallel that for the Best Picture. However there has been a consensus lately that Kathryn Bigelow will win this one. Perhaps for the wrong reasons. Bigelow is only the fourth woman to be nominated for Best Director, and if she gets the prize, she will be, shockingly the first woman to do so. Who can deny the drama inherent in seeing this happen. Plus there is the added juiciness with her being the ex-wife of James Cameron, and one cannot make up this sort of television-ready drama: the ex-wife reigns over the celebrated husband. But these are all irrelevant. Bigelow deserves to win not because of her gender or who she was married to. She does, because without question, her accomplishment as the director for "The Hurt Locker" far exceeds all others on the nominated list.
Who Should Win: Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker”, with a tip of the hat to Quentin Tarantino
Who Will Win: Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker”

Best Actor, Male, in a Leading Role »
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up In the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
            Disclaimer: I have not seen Colin Firth in “A Single Man”.
There is general agreement that Bridges will win this. I do not feel strongly about any of the nominees in this category, although I would grant that Jeff Bridges has gone uncelebrated for a long time now. He should have won for "The Big Lebowski" years ago, and to see him in "Crazy Heart" is to acknowledge the height of what a vanity-free performance should look like. Also his singing in the movie is truly remarkable, so I will be happy to see him grab that statuette. However, for my money, Jeremy Renner created the most memorable, nuanced and unforgettable male character in a movie last year.
Who Should Win: Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”
Who Will Win: Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”

Best Actor, Female, in a Leading Role »
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia
            Disclaimer: I have not seen Helen Mirren in “The Last Station”
If there were justice in the world, this trophy would be Carey Mulligan’s to keep. Her performance in the lovely “An Education” is a revelation. But who does not want to see Sandra Bullock being acknowledged for the second (even more successful) inning of her career, and to hear her speak from the Oscar podium. You might as well start practicing how you are going to gush about her acceptance speech at the water cooler at work the next day.
Who Should Win: Carey Mulligan, “An Education”
Who Will Win: Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side”

Best Actor, Male, in a Supporting Role »
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
            Disclaimer: I have not seen "The Last Station".
They could have mailed the Oscar to Christoph Waltz’s home last week, his win is so certain. And I would not be one to begrudge it; he came out of nowhere and his performance still towers over the others in this category. But for me, it is Woody Harrelson who has a slight edge, because of an unexpectedly subdued, hard-won and emotional performance in the grossly underrated “The Messenger”.
Who Should Win: Woody Harrelson, “The Messenger”, with a tip of the hat to Christoph Waltz
Who Will Win: Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”

Best Actor, Female in a Supporting Role »
Penélope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up In The Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick, Up In The Air
Mo’Nique, Precious
            Disclaimer: I have not seen Penelope Cruz in “Nine”
They could have mailed Mo’nique the Oscar statuette last week in the same dispatch as Christoph Waltz. There will be no bigger upset during the ceremony than if Mo’nique’s name is not called out as a winner. For me though, her performance was too showy, and her character never crossed the line from heinous to something approaching sympathy, or even comprehension. On the other hand, I just cannot think of another actor portraying Vera Farmiga's character in "Up In The Air".
Who Should Win: Vera Farmiga, “Up In The Air”
Who Will Win: Monique, “Precious”

Original Screenplay »
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The Messenger
A Serious Man
Who Should Win: Inglourious Basterds
Who Will Win: Inglourious Basterds

Adapted Screenplay »
District 9
An Education
In the Loop
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Up in the Air
            Disclaimer: I have not seen “In The Loop”
Who Should Win: An Education
Who Will Win: Up In The Air