Friday, March 5, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Let me begin this post by saying that it has absolutely nothing to do with Ghana, Africa, global health, international development, or anything else I have tended to write about. What it does have everything to do with, however, is movies. Those of you who know me best know that my love of movies (and very opinioned personality) would not allow me to have a blog and not share my views about the nominees (and those not nominated) come Oscar season. Allow me to opine, because I can guarantee I will make predictions you won’t find anywhere else!

A few issues before we get started:
First, for time’s sake, I will not discuss every single category, lest the music start playing me off the stage before I’m through. Second, in order to follow along, I would recommend opening another window/tab and going to ( This would allow me to not have to say who is nominated in every category, and we can all still be on the same page. Third, I will admit to not having seen every movie nominated. However, even being in Africa these last 3-4 months, I have been able to see a majority of those 10 nominated for best picture, so I still feel relatively ok offering up my semi-educated thoughts. Fourth, I will go in somewhat of an order of least important to most important (Sorry to all you make-up artists, but you’re not as important as the director). Fifth, for some of the awards, I name the movie instead of the person nominated. I do this for simplicity and clarity sake. Good? Great. Let’s begin:

Best Animated Feature Film
Who Should Win: Up
Who Will Win: Up
This is a foregone conclusion. I’m really sorry to all the other movies nominated, but if you really were hoping for an Oscar, maybe you should have talked with the people at Pixar first and realized that they were making perhaps the greatest animated movie of all time before releasing your movie in the same awards cycle. Maybe you could have held onto it until next year, like the Weinsteins tried (unsuccessfully) to do with The Road this year, or maybe you could have rushed it out last year to try to battle WALL-E and Kung Fu Panda, but no one will be victorious against Up.

Best Visual Effects
Who Should Win: Star Trek
Who Will Win: Avatar
I’m really just mad that Star Trek was not included in the expanded category of best picture nominees this year, so I plan to include it as my “Who Should Win” opinion for every award it is up for. In reality, I don’t see any movies beating Avatar for the visual effects-type awards.

Best Sound Editing/Sound Mixing
Who Should Win: Star Trek
Who Will Win: Avatar
For the record, these are two completely different categories that I have combined because the nominees are largely the same and the winners most likely will be as well. For explanation, please see above. While I have indicated Avatar as the likely winner here, another strong possibility is The Hurt Locker. All I remember during that movie is being on the edge of my seat the entire time, and I’m sure the sound had something to do with that. It has been a critical darling so far, so I would not count it out to snag some of these types of awards.

Best Original Song
I have not seen any of these movies or heard any of these songs, so I don’t feel educated enough to wager any guesses. I will note that perennial Oscar nominee Randy Newman continues to not go away, as he will try, like Meryl Streep, to improve his dismal wins-to-nominations ratio (currently 1-for-16). Best of luck, Randy.

Best Original Score
Who Should Win: Sherlock Holmes
Who Will Win: Up
While I’ve seen 4 of these 5 nominees, I can really only remember the light, playful score from Sherlock Holmes. I think it should also win, because it was an extremely well-acted and entertaining movie that only has this one nomination to show for it. That being said, I just have a feeling that Up will go away with this one.

Best Makeup
Who Should Win: Star Trek
Who Will Win: The Young Victoria
If you’ve been reading this post, then this additional nod to Star Trek is obvious. However, whether it’s Helen Mirren or Cate Blanchett, Queen Elizabeth or Queen Victoria, the Academy seems to have a love affair with these British monarchs, and I predict that affair to continue this year.

Best Costume Design
Again, I have not seen any of these movies, so this category is pretty dead to me, and I will not offer any predictions. I will note that it would be a pretty hilarious smack in the face if the Coco Chanel movie did not win. I would kind of like to see The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus win this one, as indirect homage to Heath Ledger. It was his last film (which he didn’t even get to finish).

Best Art Direction
Who Should Win: Avatar
Who Will Win: Nine
Avatar was simultaneously the most expensive movie ever made and the highest grossing movie ever made, and a great production designer has a lot to do with that (along with inflated 3-D ticket prices, of course). However, the Academy loves musicals for this category, having awarded it to Moulin Rouge, Chicago and Sweeney Todd in recent years, so look for Nine to take this one.

Best Editing
Who Should Win: The Hurt Locker
Who Will Win: The Hurt Locker
I spent this entire movie with my heart racing on the edge of my seat, thanks to the effectiveness of the quick, jarring cuts.

Best Cinematography
Who Should Win: Avatar
Who Will Win: Avatar
Did you see Avatar? That movie was awesome and larger-than-life in every sense of the word/phrase and that means cinematography. It will follow its older brother, Titanic, onto the podium.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Who Should Win: In the Loop
Who Will Win: Up in the Air
In the loop was one of the smartest, funniest movies I have seen in a long time. Anyone who likes dry, British humor; works in/with the government; hates acronyms, or has laughed out at seeing those t-shirts that say “Trust Me, I’m a Policy Analyst” should see In the Loop immediately. Like Star Trek, it’s another one that I am both surprised and mad for it being left off the Best Picture list. This is its only nomination, so I gotta go for it. That being said, with the Diablo Cody win for Juno in 2007, I feel that the Academy is turning a new leaf towards hip, modern screenplays. Juno’s director, Jason Reitman, who penned Up in the Air, certainly knows this, as he has his two of the main characters “sexting” on their blackberries. If it’s not Up in the Air, then it will probably be Precious, as the full title makes it blatantly obvious that is was adapted from a novel.

(As a quick side-note: my raspberry award for the worst adapted screenplay of the year (ie: the best books turned into the worst screenplays) would go to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with The Road close behind.)

Best Original Screenplay
Who Should Win: Any of them
Who Will Win: Quentin Tarantino, Inglorious Basterds
Honestly, I can see any of these writers going away with the prize, and they would all be deserving of it. (I have not seen The Messenger.) Obviously, you know how much I love Up, but animated films have always come up short in this category. I loved the Coen brothers retelling of the biblical story of Job behind A Simple Man, and could discuss the enigmatic ending at length, but it doesn’t seem like their year. The Hurt Locker has a good chance to go away with this, however much I disagree with the main message of the movie, but I really think that Tarantino will take home his second Oscar in this category for his multilingual, other film-loving, historically-revisionist script.

Best Director
Who Should Win: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Who Will Win: James Cameron, Avatar
As is usually the case, the best director category is an exciting race. This year’s nominees provide the possibility of the first female winner, the first black winner, the first director win for Tarantino, the first win for one of the best young filmmakers of this generation (Jason Reitman), or a reprisal of James Cameron’s “I’m the king of the world!” speech from 1997. Unfortunately, I think this latter event is the most likely. While I think Reitman, Tarantino and Daniels are in the just-happy-to-be-nominated category, the once-married pair of Bigelow and Cameron have the best shot here. As much as I would love for the director of Point Break to go on to win the Academy Award for directing later in life, I don’t think she has what it takes to stop the Avatar train.

Best Supporting Actress
Of these movies, I have only seen Up in the Air, so, once again, I don’t feel entirely comfortable making predictions. However, two of the five nominees do come from that movie, so I will say that Anna Kendrick was better than Vera Farminga. Part of it was her character’s ability to show much more range, but part of it was that she completely nailed the overly-ambitious recent college grad who ostensibly has it all together but is very fragile and naive under the surface. That being said, I have heard very good things about Monique’s performance and really like Maggie Gyllenhall, so if either of them win, it’ll be fine with me. I really just don’t want Penelope Cruz to win. She just won this same award last year for a movie that no one saw, and I have always thought she was overrated.

Best Supporting Actor
Who Should Win: Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds
Who Will Win: Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
I will preface this by saying that Waltz’s is the only performance I have seen in this category, but just based on that, he should win the award. I think Brad Pitt is a great actor, but in the hero vs. villain repartee of Inglorious Basterds, Waltz shows Pitt how it’s actually done. However, I think the academy will favor Plummer, the deserved (accent on the last syllable), venerable veteran, as a nod to his lifetime achievement more than just to this role. Stanley Tucci is a favorite character actor of mine, but I think he, Damon and Harrelson will also fall short.

Best Actress:
I have not seen any of these films, so I’m really just going off of the buzz I’ve heard and personal preference. I really hope that Meryl Streep doesn’t win solely for the fact that she is Meryl Streep. Possibly the best actress ever, I think she has been nominated and unsuccessful for better roles in better movies. I’ve heard really good things about the two newcomers, and Helen Mirren seems to be in the running more often than not recently, but all the buzz seems to be about Sandra Bullock. For the actress who won me over with The Net way back when, maybe this is her year.

Best Actor
Who Should Win: Not Sure
Who Will Win: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Again, I’ve only seen Clooney and Renner in this category, and neither really wowed me. I keep wanting George Clooney to show more range of emotion in his roles, but he continually disappoints in that regard. He’s already shown me range of character with great turns in movies like O Brother, Where Art Though; Syriana; Burn After Reading; and Michael Clayton, but not range of emotion. Basically, I want to see him cry…believably. There is a scene towards the end of Up in the Air where he almost sheds a tear, but then he becomes Cool Hand George again. Renner turns in a great performance as the lead in The Hurt Locker, but I came out of the movie more impressed with the direction and cinematography than with the acting. I think this one is really between Colin Firth and Jeff Bridges, the latter of whom seems to have a slight edge right now.

Best Picture
Who Else Should Have Been Nominated: Star Trek, In the Loop, 500 Days of Summer
Who Should Win (in my non-realistic, time-traveling utopia): The Dark Knight
Who Should Win (for real): Up
Who Will Win: Avatar
Like I said, these are predictions you will find nowhere else. Where do I begin? This year is the first year in decades where there have been more than five best picture nominees. Ostensibly, the Academy decided to double the number to increase ratings of the Oscar night production, to increase revenue for more movies during the Oscar push season, and to generally make the awards more enjoyable for the average Joe by including more movies Joe has actually seen (including maybe an outstanding comedy, sci-fi, or horror flick, etc.).

However, industry insiders are calling this doubling “The Dark Knight Rule,” because everyone knows that the Academy is trying to repair the damage it did by not including that movie in last year’s best picture nominations. In no small way is The Dark Knight responsible for movies like The Blind Side, District 9 and Inglorious Basterds being in the top category this year and earning them hundreds of millions of dollars more due to the cache that recognition brings. Now, obviously, The Dark Knight cannot win anything this year, as it came out last year, but in my humble opinion, all of those movies in the “we’re just happy to be here” camp should campaign for The Dark Knight to win instead of futile campaigns for their own movies.

Some common question I heard fellow audience members asking each other last year as they left the theatre after seeing The Dark Knight*:
1.) Was that movie simultaneously an amazing action-packed thriller and a mind-numbingly deep drama that asked intensely moral and ethical questions about true human nature, good vs. evil and vigilante justice?
2.) Did I just witness the best reinvention of an already iconic movie character in history (a thing so difficult to do that one of the best movie actors of our time, Johnny Depp, failed miserably to do the same with Willy Wonka); a reimagining that was so good as to make the previous incarnation (done by an academy award-winning actor himself) looking like child’s play?
3.) Did that movie have five different Academy Award winners/nominees in it?
4.) Did Christopher Nolan just flip over a semi truck in one take and make almost that entire movie sans CGI? (Kinda makes Toby Maguire flying around on the green screen also seem like child’s play)

If you were wondering, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding: Yes. Put simply, I’ll settle for Sid whatever his name is, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to admit how dumb they were last year when he makes his little speech this time around and mention The Dark Knight by name. OK, I’m done with my little rant. Now onto the real nominees, in order of least to most likely to win:

10.) The Blind Side: I have not seen this movie, and I have heard great things about it, but come on. I know it has the power to reduce grown men to tears (men who shall remain nameless), but I imagine it to be a lot like Remember the Titan: a great movie that addressed some of the same racial issues through football, but not really in the best picture discussion. All of the rich, old white guys in the Academy love movies where white people come in to save their minority neighbors (see: Precious), but they are certainly in the “just happy to be here” camp.
9.) District 9: Again, I have not seen this, but I’ve heard really good things. I’m sure it is great, and I know it also poses a lot of ethical questions about civil/human rights through the sci-fi lens of an alien refugee camp in South Africa, but if this was any other year in the last 50, we would not be having this conversation. See: The Dark Knight Rule
8.) Inglorious Basterds: I really enjoyed this movie; but again, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if the nominees were five. If you could give the award for the best single scene in a film, I don’t know if there’s a better one than the opening floor boards scene in this movie. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is down-hill from there and devolves into Tarantino’s typical gratuitous violence minced in with him showing everyone how much he knows about French and German film. The suspense in the pub scene was also great, but a movie needs more than two good scenes to be a best picture.
7.) Precious: Please see: The Blind Side. I’m sure this is an emotionally-gripping movie with great acting, but I can’t get past how Hollywood continually portrays white people saving their heathen minority neighbors. Do incest, child abuse and poverty not occur in white households? It’s interesting that African-Americans are at the helm of this movie, but choose to continue this trend. Try asking an educated black person what they thought of it. But again, this movie was never made for blacks; it’s for the old white guys in the Academy. That being said, it’s not gonna win. Sorry.
6.) A Serious Man: I really enjoyed this movie as well, but it’s just not going to win. If not for this nod and the writing one, you would think the Coen brothers took this year off. Their most Jewish movie to date, this film was made for that small niche population (Jews), and maybe I liked it for that exact reason (I know that why the Academy did). It is another movie that poses (but does not answer) many deep philosophical questions and intertwines them with religion in this modern day pseudo-retelling of the biblical story of Job. The acting was subtle but great (surprised Michael Stuhlbarg did not get the best actor nod), but again, this would probably not have made the top 5.
5.) An Education: Here’s where we start to crack the top 5 that probably would have made the cut sans The Dark Knight Rule. I have not seen this movie yet, but I’ve heard the acting is phenomenal, especially by the young leading lady, Carey Mulligan. It seems to have everything the Academy loves in its best picture nominees: great acting and smaller, art-housy type films whose characters learn meaningful life lessons through European culture and history (See: The Reader). Probably not going to win, but a typical, strong nominee.
4.) Up In The Air: This was a great movie with a quick, smart script and solid performances from everyone. (Quick note to Jason Reitman: please don’t stop casting JK Simmons in all of your movies, because he steals the show with every scene he’s in (See: Thank You For Smoking and Juno).) This time around, Geroge Clooney is the one doing both the mentoring and being the mentee. The characters are able to learn what’s most important in life through their co-workers, family and lovers. Reitman turns in another highly satisfying film, with a reasonable shot at the top prize.
3.) The Hurt Locker: From the opening scene, director Kathryn Bigelow proves that she is a master of gritty, intensely suspenseful, heart-pounding sequences. This movie comes up for air less than Blackhawk Down, and that’s saying something. Intertwined with the action, she is trying to get at the motives behind her main character’s seeming death wish: a conclusion that she almost wants to extrapolate for all IED bomb technicians in Iraq and one that I find overly simplistic and most probably false. I also just read an article about how unrealistic the entire plot is. That being said, it is one of the most engaging films in years and critics love it, so I’d say it’s got a solid chance.
2.) Up: What more can I say about Up except that I think its Pixar’s best film to date. If you ever doubted Pixar (e.g. no one will like a movie about a rat in a kitchen, no one will like a movie about a non-speaking robot where the first word of dialogue does not come in until the second half of the movie, no one will like a movie whose main characters are a fat kid and grouchy old man, etc.), please stop it. The opening sequence about the husband and wife and showing the passage of time with the tie tying montage…filmmaking doesn’t get better than that. And the scene where the old man chooses to throw out all of his furniture and stuff that is literally weighing him down in order to get the house afloat again is simply perfect. It is a timeless classic for every age group and it would be very fitting for Up to win the top prize in the first year of the expanded category.
1.) Avatar: What more is there to say about Avatar? It is an awesome, larger-than-life film that reminded people of the magical possibilities of the movie-going experience. It has everything Hollywood loves: an evil corporation, a great love story, god is nature Pan-theism (see: Every Disney movie ever), and lots of action all rolled into one. All you can say is that James Cameron knows what he’s doing. But it also has another layer, if at times too thinly-veiled, about extractive industries, colonialism, international development and terrorism that was also not lost on me (especially seeing it in Africa). These issues are as important today as they were when Cameron started writing Avatar in the 70’s. (He put it away, because the technology did not exist at the time for him to make the movie how he wanted to. After Lord of the Rings, Cameron decided that the technology was finally there and took it off the shelf.) It is a movie that expands the frontiers of movie-making, and it will win best picture for the same reasons Titanic did over a decade ago. (Did I mention that the female lead, Zoe Saldana, was probably cast in the role because of how kick-ass she was in Star Trek? Honestly, I’m not even a big Trekkie, but that movie was badass.)

*slight dramatization

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