Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The most satisfying Oscar nominations in recent history?

Sure, everyone and their brother is going to have opinions about this morning's Oscar nominations, but you clicked on this link, so you presumably care about my thoughts...

First off, the new Best Picture Category, with ten nominees, did exactly what it was supposed to do. The ten nominees represent a wide selection of genre, audience taste, and popular appeal vs. critical niche. While some may complain about popular entertainments like The Blind Side or District 9, both films were better received by critics than The Reader or Babel. I had been rooting for The Blind Side and predicting its inclusion since Thanksgiving weekend. First of all, it's a damn good movie and second of all, it's just the kind of old-school big-studio drama that we don't get nearly enough of. It's popular and critical success can only be a good thing for those who want an occasional break from big-budget franchise pictures.

District 9 is also a pleasant quasi-surprise, as it's just the kind of scrappy, low-budget genre picture that should be championed (I'm betting that Halo: The Movie would not have received much Oscar love). Its inclusion likely bumped Star Trek out of the running, which is ironic since Star Trek was the film most cited as the kind of film for which the ten-nominee expansion was created for. I'm not the biggest fan of Star Trek, so I'm not too torn up (I would have been okay with its inclusion regardless, as it holds up better on repeat viewings). I'm also pleased at the number of disappointing Oscar bait movies that were left off of the list. From the merely 'eh' (Invictus) to the truly terrible (Nine), this year was a nice slap in the face to the notion that you'll automatically get a Best Picture nomination just because you're prestigious and open around December.

Obviously I'm thrilled that Up got the nomination that it deserves (it's my favorite film of the year), it's just a shame that the Academy had to expand their net in order to finally give a worthy animated film a slot at the top. It's happened once before, in 1991, with Beauty and the Beast. It sure as hell should have happened any number of years between, be it for The Lion King, Toy Story or Toy Story 2, Shrek, The Incredibles, or Ratatouille, among whatever your favorites happen to be. The other wonderful effect is that only about half of the nominees are what you could consider 'Oscar Bait'. Heck, five of the films have grossed over $100 million. Five of the ten slots went to films that came out before September, implying that the Academy was actually paying attention to movies released before the official start of the awards season.

Equally pleasing is that there was a solid mix of critically-acclaimed, big-studio crowd-pleasers (Avatar, The Blind Side, Inglourious Basterds) and low-budget prestige pictures that had passionate followings (A Serious Man, Precious, An Education, Up in the Air). I might quibble with an individual choice here (I thought An Education was less honest than the somewhat similar Whip It) or there (The Hangover should have gotten in), but this is a surprisingly solid list of the year in film. Ironically, the best batch of contenders is the Best Animated Film category. While I have not seen The Secret of Kells, I can say that the other four nominees (Up, The Princess and the Frog, Coraline, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox) are all terrific films and among the year's best films period. The Secret of Kells notwithstanding, I do wish they had included the delightful Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, but I digress...

The directing and screenwriting categories were pretty much as expected. While I imagine Kathryn Bigelow will probably get about 90% of the votes for her direction of The Hurt Locker (including James Cameron's vote), I still contend that Avatar will still win the Best Picture award. The Hurt Locker's inclusion in the relevant major categories is a refreshing change of pace, as it's a case of a beloved but mainly unseen film pressing on through the awards season purely based on the strength of its quality. Summit certainly botched the theatrical release, a fact that will cost it a shot at the title (the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner in the last forty years, The Last Emperor, still nearly quadrupled The Hurt Locker's $12 million domestic haul). Overall, it's a refreshing change of pace to see so many 'Oscar bait' films fall to the wayside in favor of films that critics and/or audiences actually saw and enjoyed.

In the acting categories, no nomination made me happier than Maggie Gyllenhaal's Best Supporting Actress nomination for Crazy Heart. I'm not particularly fond of the movie (it's good, but awfully generic), but I'm always thrilled when the Academy nominates not just the showy star performance (a worthy Jeff Bridges), but also the harder, less showy work done by the main supporting actor. Like nominating Ethan Hawke for Training Day, Toni Collette for The Sixth Sense, and Chloe Sevigny for Boys Don't Cry, the nomination for Gyllenhaal shows that the Academy actually watched the movies in contention and didn't just ride the wave of media buzz. On that note, I wish that Quinton Aaron had snuck into the Best Actor category instead of the fine but un-noteworthy Morgan Freeman, as his low-key work is every bit as important to The Blind Side's success as Bullock's star turn. I'm disheartened that Matt Damon was nominated for his unremarkable supporting turn in Invictus and not his career-high work in The Informant. Although it was never going to happen, it would have been great to see Zoe Saldana break into the Best Actress circle with her truly wonderful star turn in Avatar. Woody Harrelson capped off a fantastic year with his second Oscar nomination for The Messenger. In a more just world, he also would have been noticed for his fantastic star turn in Zombieland.

I'm thrilled that Stanley Tucci is now an Oscar nominee, as I've been a fan of his since Murder One. He really was the best thing about Peter Jackson's very flawed The Lovely Bones. The front runners in the acting categories remain what they were yesterday (Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock, Christoph Waltz, and Mo'Nique). Having seen Precious a second time recently, I'm thrilled at its showings in the relevant categories, as it actually improves on a second viewing. As much as I love Bullock's work, I think I'll be rooting for Gabourey Sidibe (I'll be happy if either of them win).

The Documentary category is a mix of 'crowd pleasers' and somewhat unseen critical favorites. Food Inc was easily the best documentary of the year, although it and the popular favorite The Cove actually make a worthwhile double feature (watching them both back to back may just make you a vegetarian). Oddly enough, in a year with some pretty impressive special effects work, the category was again limited to three nominees. It may be one of the worst films of the year, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen absolutely deserved an Oscar nomination for its photo-real giant robots.

That's about all I have to say on the subject. Which of your favorites got left off? Which nomination or omission surprised you the most? Which nomination made you jump for joy or throw your mouse across the room? Do share below.

Scott Mendelson

1 comment:

R.L. Shaffer said...

I wouldn't call it the most satisfying Oscar nominations. Perhaps the most crowd-pleasing. I'm bummed Terminator Salvation saw no technical nods. Sound design on that feature was incredible. So were the costumes, and makeup. Alas, the film got no notice, and no buzz at all. I'm disappointed The Hangover and (500) Days of Summer were forgotten, too. (500) Days of Summer didn't even land a writing nod. I feel like the original screenplay category could have done without A Serious Man.


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