Friday, March 5, 2010

Oscar Mania from The Daily Gamecock

Property The Daily Gamecock

82nd Oscars to set historical precedents

Regardless of which performers, technicians and films ultimately walk away with the statues at this Sunday’s 82nd Annual Academy Awards, there will be an unconventional, unexpected or unprecedented winner among the bunch. Ever since the Academy announced they would be expanding its Best Picture lineup to include 10 nominees for the first time since 1943, this season has been one of constant speculation."

And while 10 films may have the honor of being a nominee, the precursor award season and media reporting have focused the race into an epic duel between David and Goliath. “The Hurt Locker,” made for $11 million and grossing only $12.6 million on its modest theatrical release, goes head-to-head with “Avatar,” made for an estimated $237 million and already grossing more than $700 million domestically, making it the all-time box office leader. Both tied for the most nominations this year with nine apiece, but for either to win would be a historic moment for the Academy. Were “The Hurt Locker” to win, it would be the first film ever directed by a woman to do so, and it would also be among the lowest-grossing winners of all time, adjusted for inflation.

If “Avatar” wins, not only would it be the first science fiction film to ever do so (and only seven years after “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was the first fantasy film to cap the big win in 2003), it would be the first film to win Best Picture without having either a writing or acting nomination since 1932.

Despite these statistics, “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” have been at the heart of the contentious battle for statues. Making matters more interesting, their directors, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, respectively, are ex-spouses. In the year he finally delivers his long-awaited sci-fi opus, she may be the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director (she is only the fourth to be nominated; the last was Sofia Coppola in 2003 for “Lost in Translation”).

While Cameron won the honor at the Golden Globes, where his film also won Best Picture, Bigelow has won Best Director from the all-important Directors Guild of America, the British Academy and the Critics Choice Awards, among others.

But if neither of these films ends up winning, who could stage a coup? Many are pointing at “Inglourious Basterds” as a possible spoiler; while it certainly would be one of the most audacious films to win the prize in the Academy’s history, it also follows closely behind the two frontrunners with eight nominations, including writing and directing nods for Quentin Tarantino, a supporting actor nod for Christoph Waltz and multiple tech noms. The film additionally won top honors at the Screen Actors Guild awards.

Other Hot Races
And if the Best Picture race is a fight to the finish, several other key categories are similarly hotly contested. As far as acting goes, Jeff Bridges looks to have sewn up his first Academy Award for his embodiment of an alcoholic singer in “Crazy Heart,” while Christoph Waltz and “Precious’s” Mo’Nique have won nearly all Supporting Actor and Actress competitions this year.

That leaves Best Actress, a race many predict will go to Sandra Bullock for sleeper hit “The Blind Side.” While Bullock did win the Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild, those wins are deceptive — at the Critics’ Choice she tied with fellow nominee Meryl Streep (for “Julie & Julia”), and at the Golden Globes she won Best Actress in a Drama while Streep won Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical.

With her only outright win being the SAG award and Streep breathing down her neck at every turn, expect either of these actresses to take home the statue or, if Oscar is in the mood for an upset, BAFTA-winner Carey Mulligan could claim the honor for “An Education,” also a Best Picture nominee.

Best Original Screenplay is the other major category that has several question marks floating around it. Mark Boal, writer of “The Hurt Locker,” won the Writers Guild and BAFTA award for his script, but he faces stiff competition with Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino, importantly, was disqualified for the Writers Guild award, as he is not a member of their guild. With both “Basterds” and “Hurt Locker” being such high-profile films, it’s hard to see which will reap the win.

Aside from all this competition in the main categories, a fair many of the tech awards have formed their own battlegrounds as revolutionary spectacle “Avatar” contends against more traditional work in “The Hurt Locker” and “Inglourious Basterds,” among other great looking and sounding films.

There may be little that feels absolutely sure about this year’s Academy Awards, but one thing that is sure — someone is going to make history.

If The Mix had a vote...

Picture: “Inglourious Basterds”
The major Oscar contenders offer multifaceted ways to look at war. Whether in the color-drenched spectacle of “Avatar,” which bluntly recasts colonialism into a space epic, or the hyperrealism of “The Hurt Locker,” perhaps the most realized vision of the Iraq war to date, war has once again populated our screens.

“Inglourious Basterds” blows them out of the water, though. In Quentin Tarantino’s best film since “Pulp Fiction,” he has more than scalped Nazis and intricate dialogue on his mind. Through its wild audacity, “Basterds” is not just a jaw-dropping revenge fantasy, but a whole new way to think about how World War II gets represented on film.

Award-worthy scene: The climactic showdown in the movie theatre and the subsequent historic revisions

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Bigelow’s win would be a historic moment for the Academy and a deserved one. Her direction of “The Hurt Locker” is nothing but brave, a sharp and taut construction of life on the ground. The intensity and suspense stems from very traditional, very smart filmmaking that takes full advantage of camera work, editing and sound.

Award-worthy scene: The IED team disarms a trunk full of bombs in what feels like agonizing real time.

Lead Actors: Jeremy Renner & Carey Mulligan
While Jeff Bridges will deservedly win for his work in “Crazy Heart,” we at the Mix still can’t get over how raw and immersive Jeremy Renner was in “The Hurt Locker.” His bomb tech was such a fully realized man of self-destructive flaws; Renner tumbles headfirst into the psychology of an adrenaline junkie.

Award-worthy scene: Confessing his love of war to his infant son
Likewise, Carey Mulligan’s breakthrough turn in “An Education” is a very subtle piece of glamour. Though not a particularly showy performance, she manages to infuse every look and motion with the dazzle of naivete. She perfectly encapsulates the effortless grace of her entire film.

Award-worthy scene: Standing up to her teacher when questioned about her older boyfriend

Supporting Actors: Christoph Waltz & Anna Kendrick
Waltz has won nearly every Best Supporting Actor award during the entire season, and it’s not hard to see why. From his opening scene in “Inglourious Basterds,” he is absolutely devilish. By turns playful, menacing and always eloquent, he plays Col. Landa with a sense of almost tragic self-interest.

Award worthy scene: Bargaining for a deal to end the war

Anna Kendrick has been overshadowed all season by Mo’Nique’s towering turn in “Precious,” but the young actress emerges as a dynamic, endearing presence by the end of “Up in the Air.” She so deftly exposes her character’s false confidence and underlying anxieties, sometimes running a full spectrum in a matter of seconds. It’s hard not to be in awe.

Award-worthy scene: Firing an employee over a webcam and realizing her business philosophy doesn’t work

Oscar choices have lasting significance

Every so often, the Academy Awards get a chance to really say something about a historical moment in film. Whether it was in 1969, when a win for “Midnight Cowboy” helped usher in dozens of daring movies over the next decade that redefined what American films were about, or in 2005, when the shocking upset of “Crash” over heavy favorite “Brokeback Mountain” was construed by many as the Academy resisting one form of social drama in favor of another.

Not since 2003 has an outright blockbuster won the Academy Award. In the five ceremonies since “Lord of the Rings” had a clean sweep of the evening, the Academy has ventured into mid-level, modestly grossing fare. Movies like “Million Dollar Baby” and “Slumdog Millionaire” triumphed over larger studio projects like “The Aviator” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

Three of the last five winners have been independent films, and the other two — “Baby” and “The Departed” — were $100 million successes, but not quite huge hits.

The Academy has a history of disregarding “larger” films in favor of smaller, more conventional and accessible works when it comes to their big awards. The classic upset of independent period romance “Shakespeare in Love” over studio heavyweight “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998 is among the best proof in recent years.

The trend extends back to 1977, when “Annie Hall” topped “Star Wars” in Picture and Director, despite “Wars” winning six Oscars and “Hall” winning only four overall.

This year, the show’s producers — Bill Mechanic and Adam Shankman — are doing everything they can to try and pull the ceremony’s broadcast out of its television ratings pitfall. They want America to fall back in love with the Oscars — but what symbolic gestures will the Academy itself make, and will they embrace what the public wants?

This is one of the few years where the “people,” the “critics” and those who hover somewhere in between all have things at stake, especially considering the Oscars are usually read as a symbolic gesture of what the industry was “all about” each respective year.

Were “Avatar” to win in the major categories or rack up more than four wins, it would be a dramatic break from their tendency of late to embrace smaller movies that generated more discussion than they did business. It would also be a representative embrace of James Cameron’s vision for what cinema can be.

In the long run, that kind of embrace may be detrimental to something like “Up in the Air” and “A Serious Man,” movies that thrive on the kind of word-of-mouth that awards can generate and whose production continues in part because of how responsive the Academy has been to mid-level independent and quasi-studio work over the last decade.

The Oscars have always had, and will continue to have, that special ring of legitimacy for the film industry. Its unofficial tagline of “film’s highest honor” is an endowment but also a responsibility for those who vote.

While in many ways this year is a contentious David and Goliath, with the public largely on one side and the critics largely on the other, this philosophy extends far beyond the Best Picture and Best Director battles between “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar.”

Nearly every category has a split of “big, popular” films going against “smaller” works.

Whichever half ends up with the larger overall trophy take may have a lot to say about future Academy broadcasts and potentially the industry as a whole. Remember, the Academy Awards are never about what’s “best.” They’re about what can be framed the best.

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