Alright, we wrap up our week of movie talk with the two big awards, Best Director and Best Picture.
The Nominees: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, James Cameron for Avatar, Lee Daniels for Precious, Jason Reitman for Up in the Air, and Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds.
Should Win: I care much more about the filmmaking basics of shot placement, duration, and editing than I do about CGI and 3-D breakthroughs or marshaling mega-budget movies that double as marketing plans, so this is easy — Kathryn Bigelow. Tarantino would be my second choice, but as much as I like Inglourious Basterds, I think it's his least successful film since Reservoir Dogs.
Got Robbed: Joel and Ethan Coen have total mastery over all aspects of filmmaking in A Serious Man. And Spike Jonze deserves serious props for his risk-taking in Where the Wild Things Are, going against the grain in both the early family scenes and in the "fantasy" section.
GREG AKERS: Preach it. I endorse every iota of your Will Win platform. Kathryn Bigelow erases 4.5 billion years (or 6,000 years, if you prefer) of there being no Oscar-winning women directors. Plus, and this is not insignificant, Bigelow's work here is excellent. My quibbling problems with the script aside, The Hurt Locker is an extremely well-made film. Bigelow's Point Break is silly, it's well-made silly. Strange Days is very underrated sci-fi. (Near Dark is my current Netflix selection, but I haven't watched it yet.) The Academy is resistant to change, and if Bigelow doesn't finally break the glass ceiling this year, it's back to the parlor for the ladies til Mira Nair, Julie Taymor, Tamara Jenkins, Sofia Coppola, Courtney Hunt, Niki Caro, Jane Campion, Patty Jenkins, Catherine Hardwicke, Kasi Lemmons, Mimi Leder, Cherien Dabis, Karen Moncrieff, Shari Springer Berman, Mary Harron, Kimberly Peirce, Nora Ephron, Nicole Holofcener, Phyllida Lloyd, Jodie Foster, Penny Marshall, Sally Potter, Gillian Armstrong, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Amy Heckerling, or Agnès Varda shatters it. Here's hoping.
Should Win: Kathryn Bigelow. I'm in awe of the technical work James Cameron did on Avatar, and it's the first strong case to be made for the prospects of 3D as something more than a novelty. But, as you pointed out yesterday, The Hurt Locker did what it did with a limited budget. Lee Daniels had a limited budget, too, but I thought his direction was too showy by half and distracting at times. Jason Reitman found some nice ways to look at travel culture, but his work was more restrained than it was in Juno, and it mighta coulda used a little something extra to deserve gold here. (Plus, those real fired people scenes: We disagree on why they don't work, but we agree that they present a problem to the film.) Quentin Tarantino is maybe pound for pound the best filmmaker alive. Inglourious Basterds isn't his greatest work, but even mid-range is better than most. He's going to have to win one of these times, but probably shouldn't this year.
Got Robbed: Spike Jonze deserves a special place in the afterlife of his choosing for what he did with Where the Wild Things Are. Not only is it an achievement of adaptation, it's a landmark of technical filmmaking. The wild things are magnificently realized creatures that set a new standard for mixing costumes and computers. I love the wild aesthetic to the film, and I love whatever he did as an actor's director to get that exact, wonderful performance out of Max Records. Second place is Nora Ephron, who pulled off with Julie & Julia something I never thought possible: Made me care for a Nora Ephron movie. Beyond even that, Ephron made a dynamite entertainment that doesn't scrimp on emotional weight and dramatic mood. Heart shape.
HERRINGTON:You're on some kind of public journey of self-discovery re:The Hurt Locker. Weren't you saying at the beginning of the week that the script was the strength? And now you're saying its a director's movie? You're right this time. Also, I wouldn't hold my breath on Penny Marshall winning a Best Director statue. Then again, this is the Oscars, where Ron Howard is more respected than Spike Lee or David Cronenberg, so maybe she's the most likely of the litany of women you cite. Finally, I didn't get into it, but I agree with you about Lee Daniels direction. That movie thrives on its premise and performances. Daniels' direction is a little over-heated to me.
AKERS: Funny, my "public journey of self-discovery." I'll admit to a little multiple personality about The Hurt Locker. The bottom line, I guess, is I wanted to like it more than I did but still want Bigelow to win so much. Besides, Emerson advises "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Word.
And now, on to the biggie.
The Nominees: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air.
The Hurt Locker, leading the Best Picture race by a nose:
The following is the nerdiest sentence I've ever written: This year's Best Picture Oscar race is the most exciting of my life. It's true, though. The Academy's expansion from five to 10 nominees could have been a bust, and will likely prove to be so in future years. But this year, it's made for real drama. With the expansion to 10 coupled with the category's preferential ballot — a complicated process of counting the ballots where it's possible that a movie could win without the most first-place votes or even second-place votes — this year's much tighter than it probably prior to the changes. Any other year, I think Avatar wins like Gladiator or Titanic, with The Hurt Locker a strong second-place finisher, and Inglourious Basterds and Up in the Air distant also-rans. In light of the new format, Avatar is probably still the narrow favorite (it made a billion-plus, after all), but The Hurt Locker is clearly in play as a contender and Inglourious Basterds is naggingly hanging around just outside the party thinking about crashing it.
As of a week ago, my gut was trending toward The Hurt Locker (that's got to be a euphemism of some sort). It won the Producers and Directors Guild awards, after all, major indicator awards for Best Picture. Director Kathryn Bigelow was hot, and her little war drama seemed like a David primed to slingshot the hell out of James Cameron's CGI Goliath. Then the controversies started coming out: A Hurt Locker producer making a procedural boo boo, soldiers up in arms, and claims of uncredited inspiration.
Suddenly, movies that weren't The Hurt Locker were looking better, particularly Inglourious Basterds. Folks wonder if Harvey Weinstein is behind a wetworks campaign to scuttle The Hurt Locker. And the ballots weren't due until Tuesday of this week.
This is all prelude to this: I couldn't decide on this category until tonight, about 15 minutes before I went into a radio studio to broadcast my pick. And my pick is Will Win — The Hurt Locker. The Oscars are all about timing. If the ballots were due a month ago, I think Avatar would've won. The last couple weeks or so have been the sweet spot for The Hurt Locker. I think the ballots were due right at the tail end of it's peaking, and two weeks from now, Avatar or Basterds would win. But right now it's The Hurt Locker. And I'm sticking to it. (My convictions are 37 percent Hurt Locker, 33 percent Avatar, and 30 percent Basterds.)
Whew, that was taxing. Should Win: A Serious Man. Rather than re-analyze all the movies I've already weighed in on, here's the order I'd put the nominees in, with one thought about each:
1. A Serious Man: Coen Brothers coming of age
2. Inglourious Basterds: Cast is great and Tarantino is excellent but not great, and I can't hear the name of this movie as a Best Picture winner
3. An Education: Less ambitious than others, but nearly flawless and wonderfully acted
4. Avatar: The spectacle is so great it overcomes lousy dialogue and inconsistent acting
5. Up: Best 15 minutes of the year plus another hour and a half of movie
6. The Hurt Locker: I either like or don't like the script, like or don't like the direction, and like or don't like Jeremy Renner. I'm kind of pulling for it Oscar night.
7. Up in the Air: It's either a smooth adult tale that isn't worthy of the zeitgeist gravitas it invokes or it's the movie of the year that lost its way in Clooney's likability. Either way, it's the movie that coulda been.
8. Precious: A most depressing film filled with two of the best performances of the year.
9. District 9: A crackerjack high-minded sci-fi premise that dumbly ensnared itself in cliches like so many other terrestrial racial dramas.
10. The Blind Side: The story of an African-American North Memphian, through the eyes of an East Memphis white family, as told by their childhood friend from Louisiana.
Got Robbed: Where the Wild Things Are. Are you as tired of hearing that as I am of saying it?
Back to you sir.
On this we agree, A Serious Man is seriously good:
HERRINGTON: Will Win: Gah, I can't believe you're defending the expansion of nominees. Too much! And despite the expansion, there are really only four films here with a chance and even that's being generous. Up in the Air was supposed to be the frontrunner but the buzz tells us it's slipping and this time I believe the buzz, as the film doesn't seem to have been embraced as much as I thought it would. It's exactly the type of film the Oscars often reward — a high-toned but easily digestible adult entertainment in the mold of previous winner American Beauty — but not this time apparently. Then there's Inglourious Basterds, an emerging sleeper that could surprise as a compromise pick. It would be appropriate for Basterds to win a Best Picture after Tarantino's superior Pulp Fiction was infamously snubbed more than a decade ago. After all, these are the awards that denied Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas in favor of vastly inferior competitors (Rocky, Ordinary People, and Dances With Wolves, respectively) only to later give Martin Scorsese a Best Picture for The Departed, maybe his 15th best film.
But I suppose this will come down to Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Avatar, like Up in the Air, conforms to a recognizable Oscar type, in this case the Quality Blockbuster, similar to such past winners as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Gladiator, and James Camerons' own Titanic. The difference? Each of those films also garnered nominations in acting and/or screenwriting categories. Avatar did not. Has a film ever won Best Picture with zero acting or screenplay nominations? As for The Hurt Locker, well, there's no real precedent. A low-budget, modest box-office film with zero stars that rejects conventional narrative and doesn't pander to audiences? Find me the previous Best Picture winner that fits that description? I can't believe it will actually win, but yet I find myself with this prediction I have no confidence in: Will Win: The Hurt Locker.
Should Win: The Hurt Locker. And I'll borrow your tidy format to dispatch with the 10 nominees in descending order of preference
1. The Hurt Locker: I know I've come across as the world's biggest Hurt Locker booster here, but even though it was the best film I saw in 2009, I don't consider it a masterpiece in the vein of previous best-of-year faves such as Mulholland Dr. or Y Tu Mama, Tambien or Topsy-Turvy. And I'm a little surprised at the extent of critical consensus around it. Nevertheless, best of the current crop.
2. A Serious Man: As I said elsewhere in this chat, the first Coen film that's concerned with real life. Maybe their best, and certainly my biggest surprise of the year.
3. Up: Not discernibly better than some previous Pixar standard-bearers, but I'll give it the nod in a middle group that I consider closely bunched.
4. Up in the Air: This has grown for me a little since I first saw it, as the great scenes have become more central in my mind than the over-reaching.
5. Inglourious Basterds: I was lukewarm on this when I first saw it, convinced myself it was better than that, saw it again, and it felt a little flat again. I think it's better in conception that execution despite some great scenes and characters. Impressive, but the second-least-essential Tarantino film to me.
6. An Education: Performance of the year from Mulligan, but not directed with enough distinction to crack the top half of the list.
7. Precious: Several terrific performances but directed with, well, too much distinction to crack the top half of the list.
8. Avatar: An immersive visual and technical spectacle, but I stopped caring not long after leaving the theater and don't feel compelled to ever see it again.
9. District 9: Shabbily constructed and not as clever as it thinks it is. Shouldn't be here.
10. The Blind Side: The Academy Awards have a long history of honoring cinematic mediocrity, but not usually this kind of cinematic mediocrity, a film with the visual and narrative depth of a sitcom.
Got Robbed: All of my favorite non-nominated films (most notably Where the Wild Things Are, Goodbye Solo, and Coraline) are the kinds of film that were never going to get an Oscar nomination, even expanded to 10 candidates, so I'm not sure if any of them really "got robbed." They just exist on a different playing field. Maybe the best bet here is your fave, Julie & Julia, which is very much an "Oscar-type" film and certainly would have been a better nominee than District 9 or The Blind Side.
AKERS: And we didn't even get to Best Documentary Short. My money's on the one about GM trucks. We'll find out Sunday at 7 p.m. on ABC. Til next year.