The Oscars are just hours away, and as much as I look forward to watching while I participate in Greencine's Oscar Night Live Blog likely arguing with several other smart film folks as to why my opinions are more right than theirs (because that's what it comes down to for us all, no?), I currently sit here enraged by the current Cablevision/ABC Disney dispute (fodder for another post), hoping that something gets resolved so I can watch and chat sitting on my comfy couch in front of my nice TV. I also find myself reflecting further upon my will win/should win picks (published on indieWIRE the other day). It seems like this could be one of the most predictable Academy Awards in recent memory, although, the one constant almost every year also seems to be that each year many of us say that only to discover that the vast majority of the time we're right save for the one or two wins that are true surprises.
Roger Ebert's Oscar predictions post from a few week's back begins with the same claim: "I can't remember a year when it seemed easier to predict the Oscars." And yet today, I've read several tweets (including from Ebert) stating a feeling that there could be some huge surprises tonight, especially in the Best Picture category. I very well may regret these words as the credits begin to roll sometime during the 11 p.m. hour (at least, we should all hope it finishes before midnight!), but with the exception of a few categories, I still anticipate extreme predictability. Momentum is always a funny thing in Oscar campaigns, but the entire nature of the nominations and award voting process this year has taken on so many bizarre storylines -- for my money having less to do with actual filmmaking quality than usual (and that's saying something) – that variations from the conventional wisdom seem more impossible than ever.
Anyone who thinks the Spirit Awards sweep by Precious last night bodes well for its Oscar hopes be ignoring the fact that the overlap between voting blocs is relatively minimal, and history has shown that with the exception of acting awards, the winners rarely overlap. The films that are the small fish in the Oscar ocean get to be the barracudas in Spirits pond.
This is the year of The Hurt Locker, plain and simple. Some months ago on Twitter, before seeing Avatar, I said I thought Up in the Air would likely stop Precious from having a real chance at the big prize, thinking that The Hurt Locker had not been seen by enough people, did not actually tap in to the current zeitgeist as well, had not earned enough at the box office and, in my opinion, frankly was not as good a film. I still hold that last opinion, but I didn't count on a couple things: I didn't count on the surge to the top of critics' lists that far outstripped the reception the film had received even at its Toronto premiere. I didn't give enough credit to the idea that awarding the Best Director prize to a woman for the first time, especially coupled with all the press and conversation about how Bigelow makes antic-Nancy Meyers/Nora Ephron movies, would be so powerful. But most of all, I didn't think about how compelling the Bigelow vs. Cameron storyline would be, with one participant being the supremely arrogant "king of the world" who, in his own words, revolutionized all cinema with the pioneering female director who made a war movie. Personally, watching the trajectory of The Hurt Locker during this awards season, I think nothing has helped the film's chances more.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to trash the film. It's a good film. I just don't actually believe it's a great film. When I look back at movies that described the Vietnam War experience, especially ones that at their heart seem to want to examine the psychology of the soldier, and we think about the greatest of those movies, does The Hurt Locker compare to any of them in filmmaking or storytelling technique? Not to me. Bigelow's film doesn't stand up to Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now. It doesn't hold up against Coming Home or even my choice for most underrated Vietnam film, Casualties of War. Is it the best non-documentary we've seen concerning Iraq? Arguably so, although frankly, I believe Oren Moverman's The Messenger is a much more interesting, complex and comprehensible examination of a soldier's mentality and, in a very different way, the hardships and trauma of war.
I think The Hurt Locker is filled with flaws, both in terms of storytelling, plot holes and inconsistencies in character. I frankly found the ending incredibly unsatisfying, and no, not because it's not a happy ending or it exposes some difficult truth about the mental state of some soldiers or what war does to them. I know I'm in the minority, and there's no way to test my theory, but I sincerely believe in my gut that had a name other than Kathryn Bigelow been plastered under the words "Directed by," especially had it been a male name, this film would not have received as high a degree of acclaim.
But I don't mean to preview the Oscars by focusing on The Hurt Locker. Rather, I wanted to explain my picks in a bit more detail, especially since indieWIRE misprinted one of them completely. So with that in mind:
Will win: The Hurt Locker
Should win: A Serious Man
The Coen Bros.' remarkable A Serious Man was my number two film of the year, so obviously out of the nominees (which did not include my top choice), it would get my vote. Of the likely contenders, I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for the Inglourious Basterds upset, and while the new voting system could change things, I actually don't believe they will as much as many people anticipate. Calling the voting a "weighted" system, as it so often has been described, is actually misleading, at least as I understand it. Weighted indicates that regardless of where you list the film, that vote counts, it just counts more the higher you list it. But that's not really true in the counting they're doing this year. If District 9 gets a vote for number one, but just one vote, that vote won't count towards District 9 at all because that ballot will be reallocated to the next highest ranked film. This could have good effects for some and negative for others, but ultimately, I don't think it's going to have much influence on the battle between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. and unless everyone who ranked The Hurt Locker number one also ranked Avatar number 10, and vice-versa, chances are, the award will still go to one of the two.
Some people seem to think Avatar will take Best Picture with Bigelow getting the director prize. If I had to choose those two awards going to those two films, I'd reverse those selections.
Will win: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker
Should win: Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds or James Cameron for Avatar
It is pretty shocking when the DGA winner doesn't also take the Oscar prize. It happens, but rarely, and I don't think the opportunity to anoint the first female Best Director will buck the larger trend this year.
That said, if there was ever a time to award direction without matching the prize to picture, it's when you have a filmmaking achievement like Avatar. Yes, Cameron's gargantuan picture is supremely flawed, especially in terms of it script. And I definitely belong to the school of thought believing storytelling to be a (if not the) primary job of the director. However, Cameron's storytelling of his ridiculously crappy script isn't, in itself, bad. Meanwhile, the rest of the filmmaking on view is among the most impressive creative visions ever.
All of that said, with no Coens (not to mention several others) in the mix, to me Tarantino's Basterds was a final coalescing of all his previous filmmaking attempts since Pulp Fiction into the most impressive work of his career. Tarantino has the writing chops Cameron lacks, and in a very different – less technical – way, his cinematic vision and execution is nearly as impressive as Cameron's.
Best Actor and Actress
Will win: Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart and Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side
Should win: Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker and Helen Mirren for The Last Station
I hesitate saying Bridges shouldn't win if only because he never has, and I've always enjoyed him as an actor. But I was wildly unimpressed with Crazy Heart. I found it to be a story I've seen so many times before with nothing new or interesting to it and not presented in a way that grabbed my attention. When Scott Cooper accepted his Best First Feature Spirit Award Friday night and thanked his cast and T-Bone Burnett for making him look good, truer words were never spoken. Bridges is very good in the role, but I didn't actually see it as a career-defining performance. Frankly, in a weird way, it just reminded me of an older, country version of his part in The Fabulous Baker Boys. I know he can do that part. Not that capability should count against him; but it didn't blow me away. And the film was so filled with cliché …
There are lots of actors who should have received notice in this category but didn't, especially Michael Stuhlbarg for A Serious Man. I found Colin Firth's performance in A Single Man much more interesting (and subtle), but out of the nominees, I would give it to Renner. For all the flaws I found in The Hurt Locker and his character, none of them had to do with his performance which is most definitely riveting.
I don't begrudge Sandra Bullock for winning with this Oscar-bait of a role. Yeah, that's what it is, even though she got to play pretty-southern and not ugly-dysfunction. Personally, I wasn't bowled over by any of the female nominees this year. Upon reflection, 2009 was a year with a lot of good lead female performances but not really any great ones. I think both Carey Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe are very good in their respective roles, but neither of them actually blew me away. In terms of Sidibe, I found what happens to her character more compelling than her performance of the character. Again, that's not a negative criticism of her; I just don't think she excelled to amazing heights.
Most think if Bullock doesn't get the award it will go to Meryl Streep. Frankly, I would have preferred Streep receive a nomination for It's Complicated than for Julie & Julia. Yes, Streep can do anything, and yes, she can mimic Julia Child's voice, and yes, she was entertaining in the role. But I also found the whole endeavor to border on, and often cross into, caricature. Her part in It's Complicated, for all the flaws of that cotton candy film, was much more nuanced and interesting while appearing to be less of a stretch and far more simple.
Regardless, if I had my choice out of these nominees, I would give another statue to the miraculous Mirren who took a role in an interesting but ultimately dry film and ran with it with a ferocity few actors can successfully and believably achieve.
Best Supporting Actor and Actress
Will win and : Should win: Mo'Nique for Precious and Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds
On my ballot on indieWIRE, it says that I think Mo'Nique will win but that Maggie Gyllenhaal should win. I wrote this last night, and I'll say it again: I love Gyllenhaal. I think her performance in Sherrybaby a few years ago was tremendous and awawrd-worthy, and she was fine in Crazy Heart. But again, I actually didn't think it was anything special. I frankly never believed the chemistry between her and Bridges, and at times, I found the whole thing a bit icky.
Meanwhile, nobody deserves their awards more this year than Mo'Nique and Waltz. Mo'Nique is by far the best thing about Precious and Waltz simply is riveting every time he's onscreen, taking what would seem like a very one-dimensional character of singular vision and making him anything but.
Will win: The Hurt Locker (original) and Up in the Air (adapted)
Should win: A Serious Man (original) and In the Loop (adapted)
The screenplay prizes once again, I believe, will prove to be the most depressing of the evening. So many great screenplays were not included this year, and my predicted winners are anything but great. I have a harder time judging adaptations when I haven't read or seen the source material. I understand Up in the Air is very different from the Walter Kirn novel upon which it's based, which certainly does not preclude it from being a great screenplay. And frankly, I think it's the second best of this group. I think it will win because I believe Oscar voters like to spread prizes around to the big nominees when possible. If I'm wrong here, I believe it will likely be to the benefit of Precious, which would be truly unfortunate. Either way, none of the other four nominees come close to the tremendous writing achievement produced by the quartet who wrote what will likely go down as one of the greatest political satires of our time, In the Loop.
I don't need to repeat myself in terms of my feelings regarding The Hurt Locker. I was surprised Boal received the WGA prize, but since he did, I believe he'll pick-up this statue too. Frankly, it is by far the weakest screenplay in this category. If I was going to rank the nominees for Best Original Screenplay, we'd have A Serious Man followed by Inglourious Basterds, Up, The Messenger and then The Hurt Locker if there was no way to put another title into that final slot.
That covers the major prizes. The rest of my picks, which I may or may not discuss in more detail later, are as follows (some appear on indieWIRE, some don't).
Best Animated Film
Will win: Up
Should win: Fantastic Mr. Fox (but I'm good with Up winning)
Best Documentary Feature
Will win: The Cover
Should win: Food, Inc. or Burma VJ
Will win: Avatar
Should win: Inglourious Basterds
Best Art Direction
Will win and Should win: Avatar
Best Costume Design
Will win: The Young Victoria
Should win: Coco Before Chanel
Best Film Editing
Will win: The Hurt Locker
Should win: Inglourious Basterds
Best Original Score
Will win: Michael Giacchino for Up
Should win: Alexandre Desplat for Fantastic Mr. Fox (but I won't be too upset with Up, again)
Best Original Song
Will win and Should win: The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” from Crazy Heart
Best Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects
Will win and Should win: All Avatar, all the time.
Will win and Should win: Star Trek
Best Foreign Film
Will win: The White Ribbon
Should win: I actually abstained on my indieWIRE ballot because I've only seen Haneke's film (which I love) and part of A Prophet (which I like what I've seen). I won't be unhappy if The White Ribbon wins, but I can't honestly say it definitely should.
Don't forget to join me and a great group of other film writers and bloggers tonight at the GreenCine's Oscar Night Live Blog starting at 7:30 p.m. EST.