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Reaction to the Best Picture Oscar Nominations…

Well, it’s been a week since the nominations were announced. I think I’m as adjusted as I’ll ever be to this year’s crop of Oscar contenders. Am I happy? Relatively. Am I delighted? No. Am I as filled with disappointment and rage as I was last year? Not nearly. Does this mean we can judge the ten horse race a success? I’m not so sure. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the worse of this year’s nominations, snubs and just inexplicable nods. I’ll be taking a look at the acting nominations later in the week, because this post just ballooned. Rather fitting given the expansion of the category, no?

Let the speculating and analysis and moaning begin...

I’m divided on the ten picture field. On one hand, due to the statistical evidence favouring films nominated for Best Director, the Best Picture race will pretty much remain a five-horse race, making anything but the five films which secured directing nods an ‘also ran’ at best. On the other hand, the Best Picture category is far more diverse than I had imagined it to be. Given that the Academy nominated The Reader last year ahead of… well, numerous better films, I assumed that the temptation would be populate the field with those sort of pretentious awards fare which generally received nods before. I was imagining a field populated with Invictus and The Road. I feared the Academy would be too snobbish to nominate Up, even though it was superb. Thankfully I was wrong.

The ‘bottom five’ – as it is probably fair to call them – represents an interesting collection, combining quirky foreign films (An Education) with smaller indie films (A Serious Man) and blockbuster fare with appeal to geeks (District 9), families (Up) and middle America (The Blind Side). I am particularly delighted with the nomination for District 9, which fell just short of my top ten list for the year. Even though there are arguably better genre choices – Moon and Star Trek were stronger films, in my humble opinion – it’s still a move by the Academy to recognise quality film making outside what one would consider its comfort zone. And I can see the argument that District 9, with its amazing special effects on a tiny budget, deserves more recognition than either.

I’m also, as with everyone, delighted to see Up secure a nomination. I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in holding a little hint of bitterness that Wall-E was denied a nomination last year, but that’s not to imply that Pixar’s latest masterpiece hasn’t earned a place on this new, albeit slightly longer, short-list. It’s a stunning concession from the Academy that animation can be a legitimate medium for storytelling, particularly after they went to such great pains to marginalise it when Beauty & The Beast secured a Best Picture nomination.

These films don’t necessarily line-up perfectly with my favourite films of the past year, but I think that anyone expecting the Best Picture race to match up with their own top ten may be completely unreasonable. Or a member of the Academy. So, there’s a certain amount of leeway that must be given in discussions of the category. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that pundits can’t offer their own critiques of particularly interesting or crazy nominations.

As mentioned above, I’m a bit ticked that only recognition for these films comes in the ‘they’re never going to win’ half of the category, but you have to start somewhere, right? Another factor which gives me pause is the recognition of the Sandra Bullock vehicle The Blind Side. Don’t get me wrong, the buzz is that she earned her nomination fair and square, but reaction to the movie has been somewhat less… enthusiastic. I won’t go so far as to declare it to be this year’s equivalent of The Reader, but it’s certainly a surprise to most.

While I certainly wouldn’t be against a nomination for Star Trek or The Hangover or Moon, I do think that the film which really deserved a nomination in the Best Picture category was (500) Days of Summer, for revitalising a tired old genre. The romantic comedy never seemed so fresh. At the very least the film deserved a screenplay nomination. Speaking of screenplay nods, did you notice that Avatar didn’t get a Best Original Screenplay nod? I’ll spare you my theory that the screenplay categories typically recognise the real best films of the year and simply remark that at least the Academy realises it isn’t a story for the ages.

I hope it doesn’t seem a little like a cheap shot to praise the Academy for diversifying in one direction while criticising them for expanding in another, but The Blind Side nomination feels like pandering. A pandering on the part of a Hollywood which seems increasingly disconnected with what might be deemed ‘traditional American values’. It’s fun to mock liberal celebrities and their random ridiculously uninformed statements, and it’s easy to understand how these can alienate the farm belt. Anti-intellectualism has been a trend in the Western world since… well, a while. Last year, the marketing of G.I. Joe around the critics and the insiders in the industry and directly to middle America paid off. It paid off big time. The ‘silent majority’ – to quote Richard Nixon – was now buying movie tickets and making blockbusters of hokum like Fireproof. Does The Blind Side represent an olive branch to this aspect of American culture?

There’s an argument to be made that a nomination for The Blind Side actually isn’t too far outside the character of Academy voters. The early frontrunner in the category – and still arguably a contender – Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, assumed the lead in the first quarter of last year. Unfortunately it hasn’t had as smooth a run as presumptive winner Slumdog Millionaire had the year before, and the backlash was already kicking in as Oscar season officially launched late last year. The Guardian has added its two cents to debate of the movie in a very thoughtful article, suggesting that Precious is an opportunity for middle- and upper-class voters to feel good about themselves:

For Precious, redemption of a kind is nonetheless on the way, but the sorry world from which she hails will play no part in it. Middle-class Lady Bountifuls must be called in. Even so, the apotheosis to which their beneficence is able to lead her proves sadly limited. She gets her mum off her back and learns to write a few words. Yet, as her solicitous teacher points out, if she really wants to escape, she’ll have to put her kids up for adoption. No dice, of course: we’re dealing with a teenage welfare mom. So Precious is left to face an uncertain fate. It’s hard to see this involving anything other than reabsorption into the Harlem that the film presents as a hellhole.

Normality has been reasserted. The seething rabble beyond 110th Street may continue to abuse each other, but at least they know their place. Their betters can pity them, but they’re required to do little else. Routes out of disadvantage have been made available. Unfortunately, most of those who need them won’t be taking them. Still, that’s really the fault of their own incorrigibility. What a shame.

There are similar uncomfortable undercurrents to The Blind Side, as Big Hollywood points out:

There are some black people who feel a little uneasy about the notion of the wealthy white family comes in to help the poor black kid…

In the interest of fairness, it’s worth stating that this sort of criticism isn’t unique to Precious. The current frontrunner (one of two) Avatar arguably deserves the same sort of critical evaluation, playing out what might be deemed a racial fantasy of a white man liberating an oppressed minority clearly unable to fight back on their own. District 9 was no stranger to cries of racism either.

To be entirely fair, this is hardly a new phenomenon when it comes to Oscar nominees. Last year Slumdog Millionaire came under fire as ‘poverty porn’ and for the treatment and supposed exploitation of its child actors. Neither avenue of attack halted its advance on the award itself. The Reader was also accused of having a whiff of Holocaust revisionism about it, not helped by the fact publicity materials alluded to the fact Hannah Schmidt had a secret more shameful than burning a bunch of Jews to death in a church: she was illiterate. That understandably upset some people.

I’m not sure if I give credence to any of these criticisms. I haven’t seen Precious or The Blind Side yet, so I don’t think it’s fair to comment. It’s still an interesting criticism of that iconic Hollywood institution.

As for the race for the trophy itself, it’s a five-horse race. Although not necessarily. The two to beat are Avatar and The Hurt Locker. My brother has €10 on the former. I have €10 on the latter. He thinks the digital revolution is far too big to be ignored, particularly with James Cameron behind the camera. I think it may just be too populist and too science-fiction-y to win ahead of a relevant and exciting independent film. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if the Best Director and Best Picture films were split, probably with Avatar winning Best Picture and Bigalow taking home Best Director (the first woman to do so).

There is, as ever, a third option. The two big tentpoles of this Oscar race may divide voters and allow a third, slightly dark, horse to take the prize. Typically the sort of film that no one hates, but no one truly loves. I’m thinking Up in the Air, as Precious is very niche and Inglourious Basterds is like marmite. I wouldn’t be surprised either way.

To be honest, this is a test year. We’re still finding our feet with the new Oscar system. There’s really no way to know – no matter how informed we are – exactly how the voting method changes will play out. I still think the winner will be Avatar or The Hurt Locker, but – for the first time in quite a while – I’m not entirely sure. Maybe these changes have shaken up the race. Or maybe it’s just changed the rules and we’ll be back to where were last year in a few years, once we’ve figured out the kinks and quirks of the new system.

2 Responses

  1. I know it started out with 10 nominations way back when, but I’m not too keen on this new development. Takes away from the novelty of being nominated in the first place when you just have placeholders for the extra five slots like The Blind Side and A Serious Man and Up (which is in my top 5 incidentally). All the same, breaks my heart that Avatar is probably gonna win this, really hope it doesn’t. Freakin’ Academy, man. Too much politics.

    Great site btw. Keep on keepin’ on, man.

    • Thanks, I’m a big fan of your site as well. And I agree entirely with what you just said. Crossing my fingers for The Hurt Locker.

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