Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The State of the Race - The Big Five




In looking at this year's oscar nominees, only a couple of things really stick out to me. One is how while I firmly believe that "The Hurt Locker" will win Best Picture, Director, Editing, and possibly even Original Screenplay, the Best Picture race is hardly the two horse race the media has boiled it down to being. First off, I don't think it's actually just "The Hurt Locker" vs. "Avatar". There are other films in the ten nominees with a good shot at winning. The nominees, as a reminder, are

Avatar
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious
A Serious Man
Up
Up in the Air.

Let's get a few things out of the way. The Blind Side, An Education, A Serious Man, and Up, while all fine films, have absolutely no chance in hell of winning. It just isn't there. District 9 has a crucial editing and Adapted Screenplay nod that make it a slight possibility for a true dark horse, but that's not happening either. Rather, we turn our attention to the five films that would have been nominated in a field of 5 anyways.

Avatar
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious
Up in the Air

The Hurt Locker is sitting pretty at the top right now. It puled a shocking surprise win at the Producers Guild, an expected but crucial Director's Guild win, a SAG nod, Critics awards all over the place, and is tied with Avatar for the most Oscar nominations, laying claim to nine in total.

Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor
Best Original Screenplay
Best Editing
Best Cinematography
Best Original Score
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

Theoretically, the film could sweep and win every one of these awards. The only one it is pretty much guaranteed not to win is Best Actor. Jeremy Renner, while giving one of the finest performances of the year, will not be able to beat Jeff Bridges. Bridges is decades overdue, and that kind of sentiment, coupled with the fact that Bridges gave a fantastic performance in Crazy Heart, will take him to the top. However, if there was ever one actor who could potentially upset Bridges, it would be Renner. Right now, the buzz for The Hurt Locker is extremely high and is showing no signs of coming down soon. In a voting system using preferential ballots, the good will and love for The Hurt Locker would carry it to a potential sweep, even in the tech awards like Cinematography, Score, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing, which are all expected to go for Avatar. Those categories are notorious for going with the film the voters loved the most (remember last year when Slumdog Millionaire swept the tech awards over The Dark Knight?). If that love and good will carries over, Renner has a slight chance of winning over Bridges. But right now, I still don't see that happening.



What the film will win, if no other award, is Director. The detractors of the film have argued that Kathryn Bigelow is only winning because she's a woman. I've had to point out to them, that yes, it will be a historic event to see a woman win Best Director for the first time, she's winning in spite of being a woman. That is to say, the academy is very white, and very male. They are notorious for going with white directors and male directors. The director branch of the academy is the worst of the bunch. But at this point, it's merit and buzz that is carrying Kathryn Bigelow to the top.

What she accomplished in the film is nothing to scoff at. As Jason Reitman, director of Up in the Air put it. "She's going to win and she deserves to win. When I saw the film, my hands were sweating from frame one until the credits rolled. The directorial control over the building of suspense, tension, and emotional complexity of the film is second to none!" For my money, the film is not just a kickass action thriller, but it's also the one film of 2009 I can honestly say is a legitimate masterpiece. Some films came close, but no film really hit me as hard as this film does. It's nothing short of sheer brilliance. For a lot of the film, her work with cameraman Barry Ackroyd is something of a marvel. Here the cinematographer is building upon, and actually surpassing, his previous work with Paul Greengrass in the Bourne films and United 93. The framing and composition of the shots is incredible. And for all the shaky cam it employs, there are plenty of still shots. The grittiness only adds to the tone. What these soldiers do is a dirty job. They dig around in sand and dust, it's messy and dangerous. And then Bigelow throws in her signature slow-capture, at several key moments. What separates her slow-capture shots from others is that there's a level of artistry in each one. The way each shot shows every particle of dirt, gravel, and detail is the mark of an artist on fire.

But even though Bigelow is a near lock at this point, a couple of other nominations stick out. For many, Best Original Screenplay seems like Tarantino's to lose. But I'd argue that Mark Boal's screenplay for The Hurt Locker is more of a lock. The writing is simple, yet complex, gritty, but rich. For as brilliant as Tarantino's script is, it lacks the emotional and psychological intensity and weight that Mark Boal's screenplay has. I'd also say that Editing and Cinematography are more shifting towards The Hurt Locker than Avatar lately. Not that Avatar wouldn't be deserving, the editing is almost more of a crowning achievement of the film than the groundbreaking visual effects, especially in the third act of the film, where Cameron so masterfully meshed the CGI with the live-action aspects. Editing can often go to action films like Avatar. The Matrix is another example of such an achievement, where the seamless transition from CGI world to live-action was the biggest technical marvel. However, Editing tends to go for the film the academy really loved a lot. Action films do well here, but The Hurt Locker, in the most basic of terms, is an action thriller as well. War films do well here too. Black Hawk Down, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Saving Private Ryan all won Editing. The Bourne Ultimatum comparison is furthered when one takes into account that Barry Ackroyd did the cinematography for both The Hurt Locker and The Bourne Ultimatum. The film could conceivably make an unexpected sweep in the techs, like The Bourne Ultimatum did two years ago. The score nomination was unexpected but thoroughly deserving. Marco Beltrami's score is haunting and nerve-wracking. What would make any sweep by The Hurt Locker so amazing is that unlike last year's big winner, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker really has been an underdog all season. It was released in very limited screens in the middle of the summer, and only made a tiny box office intake of around $12 million in it's theatrical run. Slumdog Millionaire, while touted by the media as "the underdog" or "the little indie film that could" became a box office hit and awards hog, taking in well over $100 million. The Hurt Locker has sustained buzz since it's release, but for a while, looked to start to be forgotten in the first few months of the fall. Then the critics awards started pouring in and The Hurt Locker won all the big ones, including the near-impossible hat trick of The New York Film Critics Association, L.A. Film Critics Association, and National Society of Film Critics. The last time a film did that was in 1997, when L.A. Confidential won all three. Guess which film beat it at the oscars for Best Picture? Titanic. The parallels between this year and 1997 are eerie. At the time, a smaller critically acclaimed film won the big three Critics Awards and most of the precursors. The James Cameron exploded on to the scene with his historical epic romance film in mid-December and steamrolled his way to Guild Awards and 11 Oscars. This year, a small, critically acclaimed film (The Hurt Locker) has won all the major critics awards and two Guild awards (PGA and DGA), and then James Cameron comes out with a big epic (Avatar) mid-December and wins the Golden Globes for Picture and Director. But right now, that seems to have been Avatar's peak.

But what of the other four films? There's Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air. Several months ago, at their festival premieres, Precious and Up in the Air were declared, if not a little prematurely, the frontrunners. Precious was on life support until the oscar nominations were announced, and Up in the Air, while still somewhat strong, has sort of fizzled out. What Precious has over Up in the Air is a crucial SAG Ensemble nod and an Editing nomination at the Oscars. Up in the Air's seemingly locked Editing nomination went to District 9 instead, which is shocking because the editing is one of the best aspects of Up in the Air. It also shows some softer support for the film than anticipated. Up in the Air does, however, have three acting nominations, the most of any film this year (Best Actor and two Supporting Actress). In total, Up in the Air has six nominations.

Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor
Best Supporting Actress
Best Supporting Actress
Best Adapted Screenplay

These are big nominations, but unfortunately, the best it can hope for at this point is Adapted Screenplay. Anna Kendrick could theoretically pull an upset over Mo'Nique in the Best Supporting Actress category, but that's highly unlikely. If the film has one thing other than technical omissions from certain categories that is working against it, its that the Academy rarely goes for comedies. While Up in the Air certainly is more of a drama-comedy hybrid, it's still a comedy at heart. It just happens to be very moving and works well from a dramatic standpoint. But one of the main criticisms of the film is that it doesn't quite have that tougher edge to it that could make it a fantastic as it could be. This was reflected in the nominations and dimming support of the film.

Precious, on the other hand, has had a bit of a boost here. Specifically because it got an Editing nomination. The film had tremendous buzz at it's early fall festival run, but it peaked way too soon and has fizzled out since then. Mo'Nique has Best Supporting Actress in the bag, and Gabourey Sibide could potentially pull an upset over Sandra Bullock for Best Actress (doubtful). It also landed six nominations.

Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actress
Best Supporting Actress
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Editing

The Editing nomination was not unexpected, but is still crucial to it's chances. It also has the support from the actors, who make up the largest branch of the Academy, with a crucial SAG nod. But for now, Supporting Actress is it's only lock.

Avatar is a very interesting case. In the weeks following it's world-premiere and theatrical release, the film was declared the new frontrunner for Best Picture. Many anticipated a Picture/Director split. The Gold Globe victories in both categories, however, was where the film peaked. It has a lot of Guild upport too. The surprising amount of Guild nominations (especially a WGA nomination for Original Screenplay) was sign of real strength. It doesn't hurt that the film is now the highest grossing film of all time both domestically and worldwide, and by considerable margins each. The film may have just recently finally dropped to number 2 at the box office last weekend, but only by a tiny amount. Domestically, it's expected to reach $700 million easily by the end of it's run, which won't be until Oscar night at the earliest, given the resurgence of audience interest after the nomination announcements. As I said before, it has 9 nominations, tied with The Hurt Locker for most nominations.

Best Picture
Best Director
Best Art Direction
Best Cinematography
Best Editing
Best Original Score
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Visual Effects

The film is expected to sweep the techs, though, as I also said earlier, The Hurt Locker could conceivably sweep the techs based on good will and voter preference. The thing that really hurts Avatar is the lack of any acting or screenplay nominations. I personally don't see the problems with the screenplay that everyone else sees. I also think Zoe Saldana (Neytiri) and Stephen Lang (Col. Quaritch) gave awesome performances. But it shows a lack of support not only from the writers, but more critically, the actors. I wouldn't call any of the performances in the film necessarily oscar-worthy, but the lack of any nominations from both the Oscars and the SAG is troubling. In fact, the SAG Ensemble snub and lack of acting nominations hurt the film a great deal. Last year, Slumdog Millionaire managed to win Best Picture without a single acting nomination (though it was nominated and won the SAG Ensemble award, as well as a somewhat dubious Supporting Actor SAG nod for Dev Patel). Titanic, however, was the last film to win Best Picture without a screenplay nomination, and the last film to win without any acting nominations or a screenplay nomination was Grand Hotel in 1932. That was a long time ago and things were very different back then. At this point, Avatar could still win, but it's looking more and more unlikely. Without any support from the actors, the largest branch of the academy, the film is going to have a very hard time winning. But it's still possible. In a preferential ballot system, voters vote for what they loved most. If they loved Avatar, they'll vote for it. Even if they didn't love certain aspects of it, if they loved it enough, it can win.

The only film I think has a real shot of taking Best Picture from The Hurt Locker is Inglourious Basterds. That film was the second most nominated film of the year, with 8 nominations.

Best Picture
Best Director
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Screenplay
Best Editing
Best Cinematography
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

A somewhat odd snub for Art Direction and Costumes aside, Inglourious Basterds has one big ace in the hole; a SAG Ensemble win. The actors clearly love the film. So do a lot of voters. The last time a film won the SAG and didn't win Best Picture was Little Miss Sunshine over The Departed 3 years ago. But more often than not, the SAG winner takes Best Picture. Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, Crash, The Return of the King, and Chicago all did it. The Hurt Locker has more overall support, but Inglourious Basterds is a film the actors really feel passionate about. In a lot of ways, I would say that it's more likely that we could see a Picture/Director split with Inglourious Basterds winning Picture and Kathryn Bigelow winning Director than an Avatar - Picture, Bigelow - Director scenario. Tarantino's film has been on the march all season, having come from being merely a Supporting Actor contender to being a major force in the season. The critics awards definitely favored The Hurt Locker, but Inglourious Basterds took hom a good handful of awards as well. It's also a film that people really like a lot. They see that Tarantino has outdone himself and made his most mature film yet, and for some, the best film of his career. There are a number of detractors, most taking issues with the subject matter of the film, but most love it. It's a piece of popular art-house entertainment, sophisticated enough to please the cinephiles and entertaining enough to please the general audiences. It's Tarantino's most successful film at the box office, and it was a pretty big hit too. I think it could really sneak up and surprise us all with a Best Picture win.

However, if there's one thing against Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air, it's passionate support. The number of nominations for each shows a good amount of support, but when you talk to people, there are just as many people who hate these four films as there are that love them. People talk about how Avatar is cliche, badly written, and flat. They speak of how Inglourious Basterds trivializes the events of the holocaust, and is a childish revenge fantasy. They call Precious very unrealistic and too extreme, too depressing. They talk of how Up in the Air is too soft, not edgy enough. But clearly, EVERYONE loves The Hurt Locker. It's what allowed it to win over Avatar at the PGA. I've not met anyone yet who didn't like The Hurt Locker. People see it, and they talk about how great it is. In a preferential ballot voting system, the film that people love the most wins the most. The Hurt Locker is just that film.

I've rambled on enough, but I think this was a productive first post. What do you think will win Best Picture? Does The Hurt Locker have it in the bag? Or is there a dark-horse waiting to to pounce and pull and upset? Please share your thoughts below.

2 comments:

jaxparr0w said...

Come Oscar day, I'm basing my ballot picks off of this and giving you a footnote :)

Kevin K. said...

Haha indeed. I follow the race pretty thoroughly every year. This year I was a little late to the party, but once late-November hit, I started to actually care.

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