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Is an Inglourious Oscar on the Way? Or Just a Basterdly Disappointment?

As anyone who visits the site will know, Inglourious Basterds was my film of last year. I just dug it – the post-modern aspects of it, the juxtaposition of Tarantino’s style with the historic backdrop, the ending. And I’m more than delighted to think that Christophe Waltz will earn an Oscar statuette for his work, making it three years on the trot of amazing Supporting Actor turns. But will the film itself score one of the big nominations? Of that, I’m not quite so sure.

That's one way of convincing Academy members...

I’ll begin with an apology. Because of personal reasons, I haven’t been able to cover this year’s Oscar race in nearly as much depth as I would have hoped, though I’ve managed to keep at least one eye on the comings and goings. I’ve watched Up in The Air fall back from an early lead, heard the quiet whispers surrounding An Education, covered my ears as Avatar crashes the party and pondered the potential backlash against Precious.

In the past month, a consensus seems to have slowly emerged that Quentin Tarantino was all but assured a place in the final ten films. To many it came out of no where, particularly when one considers the decidedly mixed reviews which Inglourious Basterds opened to at Cannes – a festival which loved Pulp Fiction. However, when the movie was released over the summer, some pundits immediately saw an Oscar nominee:

The year in movies is always split into two different seasons. First, there’s the endless malaise of the Winter, Spring and Summer where we suffer with movies intent on doing nothing more than making money. The second season is much more fruitful, it’s when movies care about making money and winning awards.

Sometimes, however, awards season comes in with a bang as we’re treated to a movie released much earlier in the year loaded with several potential nominees. It takes a special film to make the movie year suddenly turn a corner, this feat isn’t performed by a singular standout performance or an impressive effects extravaganza, an early Awards Season requires the rare film so loaded with Oscar potential that those awards are all anybody can think about from that point forward.

This year, we have that rare film. Inglourious Basterds.

August isn’t traditionally the season to launch awards fare – at least not these days. I’ve lamented the passing of the common touch within the Best Picture nominations elsewhere, but it’s worth remembering that – back in the day – blockbusters like Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark could secure Oscar nominations.

Maybe some of this is down to the sheer volume of movies that make their way through our cinemas from week-to-week. It’s little wonder we get the awards fare crammed into eight weeks at the end of the year – we can’t expect voters to have a long-term memory when it comes to movies. So, surely it was a stupid movie to open the film in August, during the matinee season? (Do people use the word matinee anymore? I feel so old sometimes.)

Perhaps not. The Weinstein Company has had some well-publicised cashflow problems that might spell trouble for their historically recognised tendency to wreck havoc upon the Best Picture race – these are the guys who won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love and secured a nomination for The Reader. They are professionals. Some analysts suggested that they weren’t timing the cinematic release for an overcrowded awards season, but instead aimed to release the DVD at that time of year:

By releasing Inglourious Basterds in theaters now, Harvey can give the flick a second wave of ballyhoo when the DVD comes out late this year. Because the DVD will be a mass release, it won’t need to be watermarked with numerals identifying each disc with the name of an academy member or other award voter. That’s one of the sneaky ways Crash beat front-runner Brokeback Mountain for best picture of 2005 — Lionsgate blitzed Hollywood with more than 120,000 cheap DVDs.

To manufacture and ship a watermarked DVD costs about $20. The cost for a non-watermarked equivalent: $5.

It seems like that strategy might be paying off, as Inglourious Basterds seems to have crept into most critics’ lists as the expected frontrunners – Amelia, The Lovely Bones – seem to be falling by the wayside, and those that aren’t – such as Invictus and The Road – are relegated to ‘just okay’ status. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some astute pundits who had foreseen this advance, as Tom O’Neill seems to take no small pleasure in pointing out as he watches the critical consensus concede that Basterds is a solid contender.

That isn’t to say that fans of the film should feel too comfortable with the movie’s place in the numerous pre-Oscar Awards. As The Insider observes, the nomination of Inglourious Basterds at the Globes may only indicate that it plays better to the Globes voters than it does to the Academy:

Basterds isn’t expected to roll to as many Oscar nominations, but it was particularly suited to the Globes. It premiered at Cannes and takes place in Europe, making it more appealing to the Hollywood Foreign Press (which last year bestowed several awards on In Bruges, another grisly, darkly comic film set in Europe).

This suggestion might be borne out by the fact that Inglourious Basterds was the most successful foreign film at the BAFTA’s with 14 nominations (the most successful film overall was An Education, another Oscar contender, with 17 nods).

There have also been several noticeable freeze-outs by other awards in the run-up to the Oscars. Most notable are those from organisations which would share a significant overlap with the Academy. There were a fair amount of conspiracy theories circulating when the movie didn’t make the Writers’ Guild shortlist, with a few other awards contenders eschewed for fare like The Hangover and District 9. However, there is a far more logical reason for the exclusion of Inglourious Basterds from contention, relating to the somewhat outdated rules of the establishment:

Since ‘Inglourious’ Quentin Tarantino isn’t a member of the WGA and his film wasn’t made under the guild’s minimum basic agreement, his film isn’t eligible.

That requirement would more typically exclude non-American writers, and I’m surprised they haven’t updated the by-laws, particularly since at least half the people following the awards would seem to be interested in their capacity to predict Oscar contenders. Or maybe we’re all too cynical and should just take each bunch of awards on their own merits. But that wouldn’t be half as much fun.

Slightly more worrying (as it can’t be rationally explained away) is the fact that Inglourious Basterds didn’t make the cut at this year’s ACE awards:

While more certain Oscar contenders like Avatar, The Hurt Locker and Up In The Air all found a place among the nominations as well, ACE most notably snubbed Inglourious Basterds, Precious and Invictus in the drama category, and Nine in the comedy/musical category.

Still, ignoring the attempts to read the tea leaves that are the awards leading up to the Oscars, perhaps there are more basic reasons that we can hope for the movie to receive some recognition.

Entertainment Weekly calls the race as a tight one between Avatar and Up in the Air as a fight to determine which movie Hollywood thinks captures the spirit of our time. They pitch it as some sort of zeitgeist civil war, and – interestingly enough – point to the last time they think that such a similar competition has taken place:

To me, the last Academy Awards year that really had that full-on, King Kong vs. Godzilla culture-war vibe was 1994, when the competition boiled down to Forrest Gump vs. Pulp Fiction. The fact that Quentin Tarantino’s jubilantly violent and head-twisty independent-cinema landmark had zoomed to the front ranks of the Academy Awards derby was enough to electrify the evening all by itself. Clearly, this was an acknowledgement, by the Hollywood establishment, that the indie movement was no longer just a bunch of eager rude upstarts but that it had truly arrived, and was a force to be reckoned with. But, of course, the Hollywood establishment doesn’t tend to like eager rude upstarts who rewrite the rules of their business. And so it was poetically perfect that the movie Pulp Fiction was competing against was Forrest Gump, a sentimental patriotic afflicted-hero fairy tale that seemed, in many ways, to be a kind of crowd-pleasing candy box of “mainstream” values.

I’d argue that – if this is a restaging of the battle between conventional mainstream taste and the more ‘out there’ cinema, Inglourious Basterds is probably a better example of the later than Up in the Air. Yes, it deals with the recession – which is a touchy subject – but Forrest Gump dealt with the Vietnam War in its own roundabout way. The fact that both director Ivan Reitman and star George Clooney have been nominated before means that they are hardly a breath of fresh air. Inglourious Basterds is directed by a director who fell out of favour with the Academy despite a strong debut an populated with cult actors, foreign dialogue, hyperviolence and historical revisionism. It’s box office success, and recognisable director in Tarantino and nominal lead in Pitt make it a comfortable fit, but it’s still ‘out there’ as far as mainstream releases go.

Maybe the Academy will feel comfortable with it because of that. Or maybe not.

It’s interesting to note the effect that the changes to the race might have. I stand by my earlier assertion that you won’t see a change in the Academy’s tastes until you start changing your admission policy, regardless of how many nominees you have. And, even then, it takes a while. So I think anyone who expects Inglourious Basterds to be nominated as a popularist choice (as a kind of penance for the snubbing of The Dark Knight) is probably hoping for too much.

However, there is the case to be made that Inglourious Basterds simply isn’t as populist a choice as it might seem. As much as film geeks love it, it would seem the general reaction is more mixed – Irish Times critic Donald Clarke gave the film his ‘Marmite’ award: you love it or you hate it. On the upside, some have pointed out that this might be good news for an institution which treats popular like a dirty word:

After last year’s Dark Knight fracas, there appears to be some industry pressure on the Academy to go more populist — part of the reason many are picking Avatar for the win. If, however, some find James Cameron’s film too crude or too genre-oriented, Inglourious Basterds offers a compromise of sorts: a certifiable hit ($120 million) that nonetheless boasts eccentric auteurist flavor and Cannes-endorsed arthouse cred. It’s the snob’s blockbuster in the race.

As you surely know, this will be the first year the Academy uses preferential voting in the Best Picture race, determining the winner based on rankings rather than single votes. This ostensibly favors the most broadly liked (or least resented) film in contention. It could be that an Up in the Air benefits more from the system than a polarizing oddity like Basterds, but visible support across the branches can only help.

Indeed, I think that the changed voting system might be a much bigger help – assuming of course it can secure a nomination. Still, it can’t hurt to imagine what might happen if it gets that nomination. I have post explaining the new voting method here, but the key is that it’s better to be like by all than loved by some. And, as Tom O’Neill notes, Inglourious Basterds might just have that in its favour:

I admit that Basterds probably won’t get the most first-place votes, but a weighted ballot is being used this year. Academy members are ranking all 10 contenders. While chatting with many voters, I hear widely divergent opinions of Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Precious and Up in the Air, but support for Basterds is strong and consistent. That’s why it is the most formidable contender of all.

I am still a little burned after last year when the nominees didn’t turn out the way I liked (and then the race itself was a non-starter). Being honest, I don’t feel comfortable enough to bet that the voters won’t screw over us expectant film nerds yet again – I can understand why it’s a risky choice, but that’s also why it’s a good one. I would be happy with a nomination, so it’s reassuring to hear the pundits discussing the possibility of a win. But I guess we’ll see.

Every Basterd should have his day…

After last year’s “Dark Knight” fracas, there appears to be some industry pressure on the Academy to go more populist — part of the reason many are picking “Avatar” for the win. If, however, some find James Cameron’s film too crude or too genre-oriented, “Inglourious Basterds” offers a compromise of sorts: a certifiable hit ($120 million) that nonetheless boasts eccentric auteurist flavor and Cannes-endorsed arthouse cred. It’s the snob’s blockbuster in the race.

4 Responses

  1. I hope Basterds doesn’t win althouh it probably will get nominated. Still I prefer it to Up in the Air.

  2. “Inglourious Basterds” also topped my Best of 2009 list, so I’ll have my fingers crossed for it. But I have this nagging fear that it will suffer the same fate as “The Dark Knight.” If it only wins one award, though, I want that award to go to Christoph Waltz. He gave the best male performance of last year in “Inglourious Basterds,” and I will sing that song until my dying day. And depending where I go in my afterlife, I might sing it there too.

    • Yep, he is freakin awesome. I think Tarantino is just autuer enough to get past the Academy’s elitism, but I guess we’ll see…

  3. IB is great.
    Darren, weve nominated you for an award, go to our site to see the details

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