Taking Ten for a Test Drive

Going into the 2010 Oscar nominations, the big question was how the Academy would handle the Best Picture category after having doubled the nominees from five to ten. Now we have the answer, which is: not bad. Oscar voters did not select the overrated Star Trek, or scrape the bottom of the barrel for a mindless blockbuster as some feared. There are a couple of films that didn’t belong, but I can live with eight smart picks out of ten. Especially when six of those eight were among my own top ten for 2009 (two more were on my “Honorable Mention list).

Of course the other major categories remained at five nominees. As with the Best Picture picks, the Academy made mostly good, solid choices, with a few pleasant surprises. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have some complaints, but overall the nominee list is a strong representation of the best that 2009 had to offer. Let’s look at this year’s crop and hand out some grades:

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Grade: B. Who would have thought that Invictus, with its pedigree, would not make a ten movie Best Picture list? The truth is, there were simply better films. The expansion to ten did mean a richly deserved nomination for Up, only the second animated film to receive this honor. Not only that, but we actually have two sci-fi films. Avatar’s nomination was expected, but District 9's wasn’t. In its own way, through its characters, story and use of documentary-style camerawork, District 9 was just as inventive as Avatar. And it’s just as worthy a nominee.

The same cannot be said for The Blind Side or A Serious Man. The Blind Side, while competently made and acted, spent too much time on the Tuohy family, particularly Leigh Ann Tuohy (Sandra Bullock). It did not focus enough on Michael Oher, the black youth, who with the Tuohy family’s help, steered himself away from a dismal future and became a model student/athlete. A Serious Man had some funny moments and did raise some interesting questions, but it was a disjointed mess with a horrible ending. The Informant!, (500) Days of Summer and Big Fan were far superior films and much more deserving of nominations.

Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
James Cameron – Avatar
Lee Daniels – Precious
Jason Reitman – Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino – Inglorious Basterds

Grade: A. All of these directors tuned in masterful work. One side benefit of the ten Best Picture nominations is that they all but eliminate any chance of a disconnect with the Best Director nominees. Much has been written about Cameron and Bigelow being ex-husband and wife. Less has been made of how both Cameron and Reitman snagged their second consecutive nominations. Of course, while Reitman made Juno recently, Cameron (Titanic) had a 12 year gap between films and nominations. Speaking of gaps, welcome back to the group for Tarantino, who received his first Best Director nomination since Pulp Fiction 15 years ago.

Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart
George Clooney – Up in the Air
Colin Firth – A Single Man
Morgan Freeman – Invictus
Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker

Grade: A. Again, all of these nominees were deserving. It’s a shame that other stellar performances such as Patton Oswalt in Big Fan, Matt Damon in The Informant!, Ben Foster in The Messenger, Sharlto Copley in District 9 and Viggo Mortensen in The Road could not be recognized. Any chance the Academy could increase this category to ten nominees too?

Sandra Bullock – The Blind Side
Helen Mirren – The Last Station
Carey Mulligan – An Education
Gabourey Sidibe – Precious
Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia

Grade: B+. Admittedly this is an incomplete grade, since I haven’t seen The Last Station. In my defense, the film did not open in the DC area until last Friday (and the recent snow made it hard to go to the theater this past weekend). But given Mirren’s track record, I’m giving her nomination the benefit of the doubt. The group is a nice mixture of old pros, Mirren and Streep, with young newcomers Sidibe and Mulligan. Bullock is the one that doesn’t belong. Yes, she carried off a dramatic role unlike her usual fare, but it was hardly exceptional. Remember the old saying that you can measure the strength of a performance by whether or not you could imagine anyone else in the role. Well, I could easily see Julia Roberts (who was originally offered the part), Laura Dern, Laura Linney, Julianne Moore and many others playing Leigh Ann Tuohy. Compare Bullock’s work to Maya Rudolph in Away We Go, Tilda Swinton in Julia or Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria and you’ll agree that the Academy made the wrong choice here.

Matt Damon – Invictus
Woody Harrelson – The Messenger
Christopher Plummer – The Last Station
Stanley Tucci – The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds

Grade: A-. I must use the same qualifier with Plummer that I did with Mirren. However, it is gratifying to see the 80 year-old Plummer land his first nomination after a long and distinguished career in theater, TV and film. Tucci is another fine veteran actor finally receiving this overdue honor, but here I have mixed feelings. Not only was The Lovely Bones not the best performance of Tucci’s career, it wasn’t his best of 2009. His nuanced, tender portrayal of Paul Child in Julie & Julia outshone his solid, but by-the-numbers turn as a serial killer in The Lovely Bones. Also, I wish the Academy could have recognized Christian McKay for his outstanding work as Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles. Welles is one of those larger than life figures that it’s hard to fully capture. Many have tried and fallen short, but not McKay. He nailed Welles’s voice, charm, temper, stature and mannerisms. More importantly, he embodied Welles’s flair and spirit, how Welles had so much creativity and so much ego. Me and Orson Welles as a film is hit-and-miss, but McKay alone makes it worth seeing.

Penélope Cruz – Nine
Vera Farmiga – Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal – Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air
Mo’Nique – Precious

Grade: A-. Gyllenhaal was another pleasant surprise, as she was not included in most of the pre-Oscar awards. It would be easily to overlook her next to Jeff Bridges, who delivered some of his finest work in Crazy Heart as washed-up country singer Bad Blake. But Gyllenhaal provided balance to the film as her character is much more grounded in the real world. Gyllenhaal, as reporter Jean Craddock, was the audience surrogate, both drawn to and wary of Blake. She also showed how Jean, in her own way, hurt as much as Blake. Gyllenhaal has never been afraid to take chances. After her daring, brave performances in films such as Secretary and SherryBaby, it’s about time she was rewarded. Cruz has the same problem as Tucci. She was nominated for the wrong film, having done much more interesting work in Broken Embraces than she did in Nine.

Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci & Tony Roche – In the Loop
Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell – District 9
Geoffrey Fletcher – Precious
Nick Hornby – An Education
Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner – Up in the Air

Grade: A. I forgot to include In the Loop when writing my “Best of 2009" column. Luckily the Academy voters did not make the same mistake and remembered this whip-smart hilarious political spoof. The Informant! had a brilliant script and would also be a worthy nominee, but I can’t complain about any of the five selected.

Mark Boal – The Hurt Locker
Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman – The Messenger
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen – A Serious Man
Pete Docter, Bob Peterson & Tom McCarthy – Up
Quentin Tarantino – Inglourious Basterds

Grade: B. Kudos to the Academy for including The Messenger, which had one of the more unique and moving takes on the impact of war. As I wrote with Best Picture, A Serious Man was not one of the Coen brothers’ better efforts. The story and characters were all over the place. A more worthy choice would have been Big Fan, by Robert D. Siegel. As he did in his last script, The Wrestler, Siegel created a compelling character, a man on the fringes of society. Siegel makes you feel for this man, pity him, but also understand him. His script also skillfully examined what it really means to be a fan. Siegel started off writing for “The Onion” and Big Fan was only his third screenplay. Here’s hoping that he has a long career ahead of him, at that the Academy does not overlook his future work.

In some of my other Oscar nomination columns I asked whether the Academy was showing diversity in its selections. Last year there were two black acting nominees; this year there are three. Much more promising is that Lee Daniels was recognized for Precious, although it’s sad that he’s only the second black director to be so honored. Kathryn Bigelow is only the fourth woman ever to be nominated for Best Director. So I suppose that having both Daniels and Bigelow is a sign of progress.

Of course diversity has different forms besides race and gender. Take Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique from Precious. Yes, they are two of the three black acting nominees, but they are also overweight. They did not gain weight for their roles; that’s who they are. I’m not writing that to point a finger (especially since I’m not exactly svelte). It’s noteworthy because Hollywood barely acknowledges, let alone honors, women that are not thin. Weight counts for too much in Hollywood, especially where women are concerned. Think about how many overweight women have ever been nominated for an acting award. Kathy Bates may be the one recent exception. Sidibe and Mo’Nique’s nominations will not change that prejudice, but they do show that talent comes in all sizes. Robert Frost famously wrote that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Sidibe’s and Mo’Nique’s nominations are at the very least, small steps toward a Hollywood that looks a little more like the rest of America.

Adam Spector
February 9, 2010

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