This is it. For the convenience of my devoted readership who may or may not have skipped my prior analysis, I'm including a summary of all of my predictions at the end of this post. Now let's get to the two most important awards of the night.
Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
James Cameron – Avatar
Lee Daniels – Precious
Jason Reitman – Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino – Inglourious Basterds
Battle of the Exes! Although as battles go, this duel between former spouses Bigelow and Cameron is about as one-sided as the swordfight in Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Wait, have I used that clip before? I don't care, it's still awesome.) Cameron may be King of the World, but Bigelow is Queen of the Academy's Castle, at least for this year. Not only is she poised to become the first woman ever to win Best Director, but she's doing it by making a movie as electrically tense as any action film of the year. Technically, I suppose it's possible that voters have tired of the spousal warfare, meaning Tarantino could be a sleeper here, but I think members will content themselves voting for his screenplay. For his part, Cameron will have to content himself with counting his $700 million. Kathryn Bigelow takes the prize.
Daniels' nomination is the only one with which I actively disagree – his attempts to jazz up the drudgery of Precious with bursts of fantasy rang wholly false to me. The remaining four filmmakers, however, all exert sure command over their respective pictures. Tarantino is best known for his irreverent verbiage, but he shows on occasion in Inglourious Basterds that he can arrest our attention with his camera as well as his pen; the movie's first scene is one of the most riveting cinematic moments of the year. In a similar vein, Reitman has established himself as an auteur of smart, mellifluous films, the most distinctive feature of which is their snappy dialogue, but he brings an assured alacrity to Up in the Air, perfectly capturing the rhythms and cadences of the frequent-flying world. And over The Hurt Locker's first hour, Bigelow stages one exhilarating set piece after another, ratcheting up the suspense with meticulous camera angles and crisp cutting.
But she doesn't show us something we've never before seen, and that's what James Cameron does with Avatar. People go to the movies for many reasons, but my favorite is to experience awe. In creating a wondrous new world of epic majesty, Cameron delivers that awe. With both technical exactitude and sprawling ambition, he transports viewers out of their seats and into his own fastidiously detailed imagination. What more can we ask?
MY IDEAL BALLOT
Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
James Cameron – Avatar
Tony Gilroy – Duplicity
Marc Webb – (500) Days of Summer
David Yates – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Comments: If Bigelow and Cameron reaffirmed their status as veteran masters, Gilroy solidified his entrance into the top echelon of contemporary filmmakers with an exquisitely precise second feature that's nearly as perfect as his first (the flawless Michael Clayton). As a debut director, Webb takes a number of daring, potentially ill-advised chances that smack of inexperience; the startling thing is that they all work. (Next up for him: A reboot of Spider-Man.) And Yates continues to apply his own distinct stamp of gnawing paranoia to the Harry Potter franchise, deepening the series' darkness and dread while also implementing some light comedic grace notes with a feathery touch.
Michael Mann – Public Enemies. As far as Michael Mann movies go, Public Enemies can't quite join his top tier, but it nevertheless features his usual virtuoso workmanship, most notably in the brilliantly orchestrated "Lady in Red" sequence just prior to its conclusion.
Sam Raimi – Drag Me to Hell. You'll never hear me criticize Raimi for joining the mainstream and helming my beloved Spider-Man movies, but there's also something undeniably pleasurable about seeing an old-school horror director return to his roots, especially when he's so clearly enjoying himself.
Jim Sheridan – Brothers. Sheridan is a filmmaker who understands the dynamic of the family, and in a superb scene at a dinner party, he emphasizes lingering silence and askance glances in a brilliant buildup of tension.
Tom Tykwer – The International. The script is a bit disastrous, but Tykwer knows how to stage a spectacular action sequence, especially when that sequence takes place in the Guggenheim.
The Blind Side
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
This was all set up to be marvelously easy. And then this happened.
Look, I don't pretend to be an Academy insider. I have no detailed knowledge about the torturous behind-the-scenes campaigning process. But I do know these three things:
1. The Academy takes itself – and therefore its rules – very, very seriously.
2. On February 19, Nicolas Chartier, a producer of The Hurt Locker, sent an email to Academy members that was in clear violation of campaigning rules. The email explicitly urged members to vote for The Hurt Locker and obliquely belittled Avatar. As a result of the email, the Academy barred Chartier from attending the ceremony.
3. According to the Los Angeles Times, over 600 Academy members (more than 10% of the membership) turned in their ballots on the final day of voting, well after Chartier sent his nefarious email.
So, not to turn into Hubie Brown or anything, but what does this mean?
Well, in all honesty, we don't know. Before EmailGate (ugh, I hate "gates"), The Hurt Locker was the consensus frontrunner, not least because of the fantastically complicated preferential voting system that I described in some detail here. The operating rationale was that, even if The Hurt Locker failed to rank at the very top of most ballots, it was likely to be in the top three, whereas a more polarizing picture such as Avatar might find itself on the lower half of a significant number of ballots and therefore out of luck.
But now what? Did Chartier's email – admittedly sent in blatant disregard of clear-cut campaigning rules – really affect the thinking of the fuddy-duddy Academy members? And if so, by how much? Did they shift The Hurt Locker down one or two slots, or did they shunt it all the way to the back of the pack? And perhaps most importantly, as Alec Baldwin astutely asked in The Departed: "Cui bono? Who benefits?" And while I'd love to imitate Matt Damon's response – "Cui gives a shit, it's got a freaking bow on it" – the Best Picture race sadly no longer has a freaking bow on it.
So who does benefit? True, Chartier's email does take the form of a snide, petty attack on Avatar, but I have a hard time imagining voters sliding Cameron's behemoth a few notches up their ballots simply because it suffered a bit of intra-industry criticism. More likely, the major benefactors will be films that were lurking on the outside, waiting patiently for an opening. Specifically, I'm speaking of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and – in a scenario that would surely induce apoplexy on the part of some Academy members – Pixar's Up. Both of those are generally well-liked films that, until now, lacked the springboard to leap into high-level contention. (Strangely, I don't think Up in the Air will receive an analogous benefit, simply because its buzz has all but evaporated.)
Of course, the key question isn't whether or not Chartier's email negatively impacted The Hurt Locker's chances, but by how much. Sadly, all I can do is speculate. The preferential voting system, EmailGate, the switch to 10 nominees – there are just too many damn variables. My process of prophesying the Oscars is thoroughly scientific: I examine historical trends, look at the precursor awards, analyze the industry buzz, and then make an informed prediction. But this year, those procedural tenets have been stripped away, and I'm left stumbling around like Eliza Dushku in "Dollhouse", wondering if I just fell asleep.
(Wait, I probably shouldn't be making "Dollhouse" analogies, given that nobody watched it even though it was the best show on TV besides "Mad Men". O.K. fine, I'm left sitting all alone on a park bench, my identity crumbled around me, like Pacino at the end of Godfather II. There.)
But so it goes. And in a weird way, it's refreshing to have a little zest back in the Best Picture race, which hasn't been this exciting since 2006, when The Departed righteously held off Little Miss Sunshine. As a result of the described shenanigans, I'll actually be leaning forward in my seat when the final envelope is opened tonight, and it's hard to be disappointed about that.
Right, as for my actual pick, it really comes down to this question: Do I honestly believe that EmailGate significantly impacted the minds of Academy members? Better question: "You see me doing thrill-seeking liquor store holdups with a 'Born to Lose' tattoo on my chest?" Answer: No I do not. I'll take The Hurt Locker.
Egads, 10 nominees! Looks like we'd better break this down via the old tiering system:
Tier 5: This movie is, in fact, not a good movie. Look, I didn't despise The Blind Side the way some people did. I even enjoyed parts of it. But I remain convinced that it is in no way a good film. It is cloying, predictable, and shamelessly manipulative. It is not an appropriate Oscar nominee; indeed, with the possible exceptions of Crash and Gosford Park, it is the worst Best Picture nominee of the decade. So, no, I do not think it should win.
Tier 4: Fun but flawed. If District 9 hadn't collapsed into rote action sequences in its final third, it might have made my top five of the year. Even so, it's a superlative example of immersive, iconoclastic filmmaking, with a sure sense of time and place. A Serious Man constitutes another fascinating effort from the Coen Brothers, but while it features inspired acting and impeccable craft, it occasionally veers into ego masturbation. Inglourious Basterds, more so than any other 2009 film, is one I feel the need to see again. On my first viewing, I grew restless with is turgid pacing and shameless self-indulgence, but it's lingered in my memory, and it clearly bears the autograph of a signature filmmaker.
Tier 3: Your movie is pretty good. Thanks for coming. Precious is at times a ruthlessly compelling drama about the brutality of poverty, but it's oddly inconsistent in tone, and that confusion muddles its lasting impact. An Education is a better film overall, nary striking a wrong note and featuring a breakout performance. It isn't overly memorable, but that's less an indicator of failure than a hallmark of its modesty.
Tier 2: Up. Up!
Tier 1: The cream of Oscar's crop. Back in 2007, I experienced a strange sensation of contentment heading into the Oscar telecast because I thoroughly liked all of the Best Picture nominees and would have been satisfied with a victory from any of them. Such comfort is unlikely to avail itself again in the future (especially if the Academy sticks with its 10 nominees), but as long as any of the trio of Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Up in the Air take home a trophy, I'll be happy. One a cinematic marvel, the second an intimately gritty war thriller, the third a searching exploration of modern American life, all are truly excellent movies.
But wait, you think I'm just going to leave it at that? Maybe I would if I were a communist, but in my country, it's all about winning – that's why it's called Best Picture. And for an illustration of my pick for Best Picture, let's turn to a conversation I had with my Dad last night. He told me he was receiving Precious shortly on Netflix, and we debated whether or not he should see it with my Mom, given its intense subject matter. (Verdict: no.) The conversation then turned to another movie he's acquiring via Netflix, namely Up in the Air, and whether my Mom would want to watch that one. His assessment:
"That she can definitely see. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't want to see it. It's just such an enjoyable movie."
Quite right, Professor. And that's why Up in the Air is my Best Picture of 2009.
MY IDEAL BALLOT
Though I know my readership is clamoring for my own Best Picture ballot, you'll have to wait for my upcoming post where I reveal my Top 10 of 2009. Don't fret, it's coming.
Some years ago, when the Manifesto appeared in annualized form rather than a series of blog posts, my friend Stacy kindly suggested to me that I might want to send out a condensed version, where I enumerated my picks for each category. My response at the time: "What would be the point? Then everyone would miss all the fun stuff."
Stacy, it turns out, had a point, as it's possible that some readers might, ahem, skim over some of my more descriptive prose and instead simply tune in for the bold strokes. So, in that spirit, below are my predictions for all 21 categories for this year's Academy Awards (remember, I'm excluding the three short subjects because even I don't care about those). I hope everyone's enjoyed the coverage this year, and enjoy tonight's telecast.
The Big Eight
Picture: The Hurt Locker
Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious
Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Adapted Screenplay: Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
The "Major" Technical Awards
Art Direction/Set Decoration: Avatar
Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Visual Effects: Avatar
Original Score: Up
Costume Design: The Young Victoria
Makeup: Star Trek
Original Song: Crazy Heart ("The Weary Kind" by Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett)
Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker
Sound Editing: Avatar
Documentary: The Cove
Foreign Language Film: A Prophet
Animated Feature: Up