Traditional Oscar bait takes a back seat at 2010 Academy Award nominations

Or at least that’s how I read the nominations that were announced this morning at the unholy hour of 5:38 by Anne Hathaway and some guy you never heard of — actually Academy president Tom Sherak. The short version of what happened was that there no huge surprises. “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” both got nine nominations, with “Inglourious Basterds” netting eight, and “Precious” and “Up in the Air” getting six apiece. You can see a complete list of the nominations courtesy of Indiewire/Eugene Hernandez, but Nikki Finke was kind enough to perform a handy count-up of the nominations.

“Avatar” 9, “The Hurt Locker” 9, “Inglourious Basterds” 8, “Precious” 6, “Up in the Air” 6, “Up” 5, “District 9” 4, “Nine” 4, “Star Trek” 4, “Crazy Heart” 3, “An Education” 3, “The Princess and the Frog” 3, “The Young Victoria” 3, “The Blind Side” 2, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” 2, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” 2, “Invictus” 2, “The Last Station” 2, “The Messenger” 2, “A Serious Man” 2, “Sherlock Holmes” 2, “The White Ribbon” 2.

Without going into a lengthy dissertation on what makes for high quality Oscar bait, let’s just say that in many prior Oscar races the fact that “Avatar” is an effects driven space opera and “The Hurt Locker” a rather grim, eye-level, and uncompromising look at men doing an unpleasant job, would have all but eliminated both films. Admittedly, both films, however, benefit from certain features which have helped numerous other films: a certain degree of social consciousness never hurts with Oscar. Of course, really strong political statements are more problematic, but “The Hurt Locker” is simply honest about the psychological effects of war and hard to argue with from any political position, I hope — it could have been made about any war and been equally valid. “Avatar” is considerably more pointed and arguably even partisan, as our conservative friends love to point out, but the protective coloration of science fiction makes it all go down a bit easier.

OscarsOnRedCarpet

As for “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino‘s entire body of work is a poke in the eye to the earnest, highly digestible “socially positive” values and traditionalist presentation preferred by Oscar. The fact that he even gets nominated as much as he does is testament to his unquestionable talent and appeal. “Up in the Air,” which beat “Basterds” in the screenplay category at the Golden Globes, seems like much more like the kind of film that Oscar traditionally favors. It’s non-polarizing nature might also help it with this year’s odd voting system for Best Picture. (Voters rate the films by preference, rather than simply voting for one film.) Still, with ten nominations breaking up the usual demographic voting blocks — with younger voters and older voters sometimes having very different views of the award-worthy nature of genre films, for example — I really think that about half of the films in this category have a pretty serious shot at winning the award.

Now, let’s take a look at the this year’s expanded list of ten Best Picture nominees as provided by Indiewire, doubled to ten this year from the usual five:

“Avatar”, James Cameron and Jon Landau, Producers
“The Blind Side”, Nominees to be determined
“District 9”, Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham, Producers
“An Education”, Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, Producers
“The Hurt Locker”, Nominees to be determined
“Inglourious Basterds”, Lawrence Bender, Producer
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”, Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, Producers
“A Serious Man”, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Producers
“Up”, Jonas Rivera, Producer
“Up in the Air”, Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman, Producers

Among the dark horses — the films I would be truly surprised to see win best picture — we have the very non-Oscar-baity “A Serious Man” which apparently beat out Tom Ford’s highly acclaimed “A Single Man” in the divisive sub-sub-sub category of minority-group driven movies whose title is “A (S-word) Man.” The Coen Brothers film is a scabrous comedy and also grim in a not obviously socially redeeming way. Disney/Pixar’s “Up”  and Neil Blomkamp’s science-fiction “District 9” are similar to “Avatar” in that they would be more Oscar friendly for certain of their elements (poignant comedy/smart political parable) if they were in non-animated and/or non-sci-fi but, unlike “Avatar,” they haven’t been sweeping up awards anyway.

Oddly enough, the two most traditionally Oscar-friendly films on the list, “The Blind Side” and “An Education,” are both fairly large dark horses in most categories simply because they haven’t won that many awards up to now, the exception being best actress where Sandra Bullock seems to be running neck and neck for Best Actress with Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia.” “An Education” and “A Serious Man” have the further downside in what I see as fairly ridiculous charges of antisemitism against both films (covered really nicely in this piece from The Jewish Journal). As a person of Jewish ethnicity myself, I think people who feel this way are really missing the point. Still, some of them may be Academy voters.

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Mid-holiday week movie news report (updated)

Somewhat to my surprise, given how slow Monday and Tuesday was, we have some movie news to report. Sadly, the first item is a bummer.

* Our very sincere condolences to the friends, family, and avid readers of writer and horror/gore maven Chas Balun, who died of cancer on December 18th. Probably mostly because of my phobia of the kind of movies he championed, Balun’s name wasn’t immediately familiar to me before this, but clearly the author and longtime contributor to Fangoria and Gorezone was a writer whose work meant a great deal to genre fans as well as a very sincere film geek/cinephile, and for that he has my respect. The Fangoria blog has a very good obituary.

* Sony has not been including a screener DVD for Duncan Jones’ highly regarded science fiction film, “Moon,” in its pre-Oscar promotional package. The result: “Twitter storm“!

Moon

* It’s now Sir Peter Jackson to you.  Considering the positive impact his LOTR tour de force must have had on the New Zealand economy, they might have considered making him king. Okay, New Zealand doesn’t have one. Also, I gather it’s more of a British Commonwealthy kind of a thing.

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The strange weekend of five

This is one interesting movie August we’re in. In fact, if you go to a mutliplex this weekend and can’t find anything that interests you, then you probably don’t belong anywhere near a contemporary movie theater. At this point in film history, things just don’t get that much more diverse, and more interesting, than the new films on offer this weekend.

* Anyone with a geek bone in their body has heard and/or seen a fair amount about the movie box office prognosticators expect to end the reign of “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” By most accounts a thoughtful yet violent/bloody R-rated science fiction actioner from first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp, “District 9” benefits from a lot of really good buzz, truly outstanding reviews, and a very high-profile variant of a viral campaign; the “humans only” signs have been up at bus-stops in Los Angeles for what seems like years and the film’s association with executive producer Peter Jackson won’t hurt. (Just like the filmgoers who probably still believe that Quentin Tarantino directed “Hostel” and have no clue who Eli Roth is, many casual movie fans will give Jackson the credit/blame on this.)

On the possible downside: there are no stars or recognizable faces and the film’s setting of South Africa might put off some people. We Americans, I fear, can be an obnoxiously xenophobic bunch at times. However, this is a new age we’re in (I think) and certainly this film, about space aliens being oppressed by us literally xenophobic humans, has a much easier to grasp premise than “Serenity,” the last star-free but excitement-heavy, well-reviewed science fiction film to rely on viral marketing, and the virus is far more virulent this time. So, the projections of a take of somewhere in the $20 millions or more for Sony offered both by Variety‘s Pamela McClintock and The Hollywood Reporter‘s ever-jolly Carl DiOrio, who guesses it at at least $25 million, make some sense.

Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams
* Unless they’re seeing someone very special and very insistent, the young males who will be flocking to “District 9” likely won’t be seeing this week’s promising box office hopeful, even though it’s also science fiction, though obviously of a very different sort. Warner’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is unusual for the movies I write about here in that I’ve actually seen this one before its release date, and you can read all about my opinion of the film over at the link. Suffice it to say that fantastical romantic melodrama is not generating a whole bunch of critical excitement, though that underwhelming 37% RT rating is not so much a collective groan as a chorus of “meh.”

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