No one knew anything at the end of the decade, quite unlike previous award seasons.
In past Decembers a critical consensus had already formed around prestige features, with movies such as No Country for Old Men, Million Dollar Baby and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King practically crowned before the champagne corks popped on New Year's Eve.
Sure, people enjoy Up in the Air for its zeitgeist-goosing timeliness and George Clooney playing up to his public persona, but is it really Best Picture? Seems unlikely. How about Invictus? With already Oscar-anointed leading man Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela it seems a safe bet, but a too-stately drama with a rugby game at its climax? Probably not Best Picture. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire comes on the wings of Oprah, a tale of survival and redemption in Harlem, it practically drips with the seriousness Oscar loves. Or, as some call it, misery porn.
But then, no one knows anything at the beginning of the decade. History shows plenty of unlikely winners that found momentum late in the running. Remember Crash? And who can forget Slumdog Millionaire, which originally struggled to find distribution before spawning a cultural phenomenon.
Further complicating matters this year are the 10 nominations for Best Picture. In spring 2009, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, presumably concerned over the broadcast's declining viewership, doubled the number of Best Picture nods. A baldly desperate move to attract a more populist list of nominees---box office hits---some accused the Academy of diluting their brand for the sake of ratings. But the glut of awards shows, combined with the ubiquitous trashiness of tabloid media, has done more to dull the glamour of the Oscars from the outside than any internal adjustments.
So, they wanted populist? They got it. Beloved Pixar offering Up gets both a nod for Best Animated Picture and Best Picture. Nominated is the unexpected hit The Blind Side, at press time rocking 70 percent---a solid C---on Rotten Tomatoes, its lead Sandra Bullock now a frontrunner in the Best Actress race. Go figure.
Most surprising is the inclusion of District 9, from South Africa-via-Vancouver writer-director Neill Blomkamp. A Johannesburg-set mockumentary/science-fiction action movie heavy on the allegory, it's probably the biggest beneficiary of this doubling of nominees. (It features aliens that look like giant shrimp, unusual for a Best Picture contender.)
Rounding out the Best Picture nominees are Precious and Up in the Air, as predicted. Also in consideration are the stylish coming-of-age picture An Education (it gets re-released here this week), the much-admired bomb disposal thriller The Hurt Locker, the Coen brothers' semi-autobiographical A Serious Man and Quentin Tarantino's World War II movie Inglourious Basterds, all worthy contenders. Ignored were costume dramas: The Young Victoria, from Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallée, and Jane Campion's wonderful Bright Star, though they nabbed nominations for costume design, art direction and makeup.
Riding big wins at the Golden Globes, Ontario-born James Cameron's international box office juggernaut Avatar has to be a favourite. There's no denying the fact the filmmaker has ignited in cinema-goers around the world an enthusiasm not seen since his last massive success, Titanic. In their effort to attract attention from a broader audience, Avatar is the Oscars' big, blue, computer-generated ace in the hole.
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