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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“Inglourious Basterds” tops SAG Awards (updated)

The win for “Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture” for Quentin Tarantino‘s high-spirited war picture was the closest thing to a surprise for the Screen Actors Guild awards last night. Considering the genuinely outstanding performances “Inglourious Basterds” contains from such non-multiple award winners or nominees as Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, Daniel Brühl, and Brad Pitt among others, this gives me a happy.

inglourious-basterds_pic2_m1

Otherwise, however, these awards getting almost as repetitious as our May and June weather forecasts in Southern California. (Say it with me, L.A. residents: “Late night and early morning low clouds followed by hazy sunshine in the afternoon.”)

So, guess what…The Best Supporting Actor trophy went to basterd par excellance Christoph Waltz, who at this point pretty much owns the category with his uber-first class bad-guy performance as the “Jew hunter” Colonel Hans Landa. Similarly Mo’Nique from “Precious” once again took the Best Supporting Actress for her work as the abusive mother of the title character in the lauded but controversial drama. The only thing likely to be more dramatic than her Oscar acceptance award would be the howls of disappointment if she somehow doesn’t win.

Jeff Bridges, too, is looking like a lock for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a down at heel country musician in “Crazy Heart,” as he picked up another trophy tonight. Apparently, everyone just decided this was Jeff Bridges’ year. It’s about time.

One award SAG has that the Oscars don’t, and probably should, is for stunt ensembles and that went to “Star Trek.” Well, that’s a refreshing change of pace.

A complete list of the SAG awards, which also covers television (three cheers for “Mad Men” and the great Betty White!), is viewable courtesy of the New York Times.

UPDATE: Oh by gosh by golly! I forgot to mention the one acting award where there will be some suspense at this year’s Oscars, and that’s Best Actress, which is shaping up to be a real battle between Meryl Streep’s interpretation of Julia Child in “Julie and Julia” and Sandra Bullock‘s red state Samaritan in “The Blind Side.”  Chalk the SAG awards as one up for Team Sandra.

  

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BAFTA nominations

The British equivalent of the Oscars has announced its choices. Since the BAFTAs include American films, it’s often somewhat similar to the Oscars though with a bit of an edge, not surprisingly, for UK fare. You can see the complete list at the BAFTA site.

This year’s Best Film list looks very much like the lists we’ve been seeing all along, with one major difference. The spot usually reserved for “Inglourious Basterds” has been taken up by the highly regarded coming-of-age/relationship dramedy, “An Education,” which makes it the token British nominee in a field that includes usual suspects “The Hurt Locker,” “Precious,” “Up in the Air,” and “Avatar.” As if to make sure no Hollywood feelings were hurt too hard, Quentin Tarantino was nominated for Best Director while Lee Daniels — whose direction has, in fact, taken its share of criticism from some critics and film bloggers — went un-nominated for his work on “Precious.”

“An Education” is also nominated in the “Outstanding British Film” category against “In the Loop,” “Moon,” the currently in limited U.S. release “Fish Tank,” and the upcoming John Lennon biopic, “Nowhere Boy.”

an_education_trailer_gawker.flv

In other tidbits of interest, the terrific Andy Serkis of LOTR fame was nominated for Best Actor for his work in the musical biopic, “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” which hasn’t been released here yet. There’s hope for a possible upset win for Serkis to defeat the seemingly unstoppable Jeff Bridges here, if the BAFTAs go by the usual acting award tendencies.Not only does Serkis transform himself into a fairly well-known entertainment figure as oddball rocker Ian Dury (that nailed Oscars for Martin Landau in “Ed Wood” and Jamie Foxx in “Ray“) but Dury was partially disabled by polio, so there’s that whole actors-playing disabled-characters-win-awards thing to deal with.

Some of you will also note that Sandra Bullock was not nominated for Best Actress. “The Blind Side” has not been released in the U.K. yet and therefore won’t be eligible until next year’s awards. Release patterns may also explain why the artful vampire tale, “Let the Right One In,” one of 2008’s biggest arthouse films in the U.S., was nominated for in the foreign language category this year.

  

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All About Steve

Sandra Bullock may be experiencing her best year ever with box office hits like “The Proposal” and “The Blind Side” (not to mention rumors of an Oscar nomination), but that doesn’t excuse her for starring in junk like “All About Steve.” As Mary Horowitz, a blabbermouth crossword puzzler who begins stalking a TV news cameraman (the titular Steve, played by Bradley Cooper) after she’s convinced they belong together, Bullock attempts to play the character as a quirky social reject but comes off looking mildly retarded instead. There are certain things that someone of her supposed intelligence simply wouldn’t do, and though the film tries to exploit her eccentricities for comedy, there’s nothing particularly funny about it. Cooper and Thomas Hayden Church (as Steve’s news reporter-in-crime) fare a little better in their scenes without the actress, but you still can’t help but feel bad for them. “All About Steve” might have been a pretty decent dark comedy with the right script, but director Phil Traill relies so heavily on his goofy protagonist to propel the story that he shoots down any chance of that happening the minute Bullock walks on screen.

Click to buy “All About Steve”

  

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“Avatar” off to a slightly snowbound $73 million start

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, embellished, in Thursday night, I tried to imply that only the apocalypse itself could prevent “Avatar” from winning the weekend. And, while 2012 is still a few years away, Nikki Finke reports that a big East coast snow storm is being blamed for the film earning a below-expectations estimate of $73 million for Fox — $12 million less than the the $85 million figure that was being bandied about previously. Regardless, $73 million ain’t chicken feed, though with a ginormous budget ($300 million??) comes ginormous responsibility to rake in the megabucks.

If I were James Cameron, I wouldn’t worry too much, however. Finke is trumpeting the numbers for the more expensive 3-D and 3-D Imax screens and the worldwide take was a record setter, if you leave out all “franchise” films. In other word $159.2 million worldwide is the worldwide record for a film with no previously known characters and not a sequel to some prior hit.

More important, as I suggested on Thursday, the science-fiction spectacular’s strong reviews will likely be reflected in word of mouth among cinema civilians. Finke says that the audience approval surveys from Cinemascore gave the film an “A” across every “quadrant” — i.e., people of all age and gender groups seems to like it. With the Christmas vacation period just getting started and a few Oscar nominations almost certain, I think it’s safe to say that “Avatar” is in better than good shape, especially if a movie like “2012,” which lots of people saw but which I gather very few loved, could still be profitable with a production budget of $200 million. I’d like to think that, sometimes, movies that people actually like do better than movies they merely tolerate. Humor me.

As for the rest of the weekend box office, there wasn’t a whole lot of excitement. Taking a look at the ever-handy Box Office Mojo chart once again, the #2 and the #3 spot went to Disney’s hand-drawn “The Princess and the Frog,” which earned an estimated $12,224,000, and this year’s unrivaled sleeper hit from Warner Brothers, “The Blind Side.” The feel-good sports drama made an estimate $10,030,000 this weekend for a rough total so far of $164,734,000. Considering it’s $29 million budget and the possibility of a box office life-extending Best Actress nomination for Sandra Bullock, I’m guessing this has to wind up as one the year’s most profitable films, perhaps rivaled only by the sub-micro budgeted phenomenon, “Paranormal Activity,” and assorted mega-hits I don’t feel like mentioning/researching.

While Oscar-hopeful “Nine” was the week’s winner in terms of per screen average with $61,750 in four theaters (“Avatar” average of $21,147 was the second placer in per-screen), the week’s other major new release performed in predictably uninspiring fashion. Sony’s critically drubbed star-driven attempt at romantic comedy, “Did You Hear About the Morgans?,” dipped below its extremely modest expectations to earn an estimated $7 million, about  $1 million less than predicted — the snow again, I’m sure. Nevertheless, it appears that if people did hear the Morgans, they mostly decided to ignore them.

Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker in

  

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