Guerre des Noms

Oscar statuette next to Academy Awards title

So the ballyhooed face-off between Avatar and The Hurt Locker — two very different movies about soldiers dealing with crucial, only-man-for-the-job missions — finally came to a head last night at The 82nd Annual Academy Awards.

I’d been wondering if the Best Picture and Best Director prizes might be split between them, especially given the expanded roster of nominees. But the Academy members ranking their choices for Picture instead of choosing just one, and the way those picks were tallied, probably cut into that inclination. And beyond the fact that Hurt Locker was a gripping, well-acted, well-told story with immediacy and real-world resonance, I suspect the analysts who pointed out that the Oscars’ voting pool is overwhelmingly made up of actors were on the nose.

The show was all right, hardly a standout. While I laughed when I saw Neil Patrick Harris, his musical number was underwhelming — and I was surprised that there was no explicit joke along the lines of him assuming he’d be the host. Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin had fine, if mostly goofy, material (“damn Helen Mirren”); I remember Martin’s last time being funnier, however, and Why could Alec Baldwin not stop his hands from fidgeting at his sides? My favorite presenting duo was Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr., drawing increasingly testy comparisons between writers and performers. My least favorite pair was Miley Cyrus, whose slumping shoulders and poor articulation come across as lazy, immature, and disrespectful of her good fortune, with co-presenter Amanda Seyfried unfortunately sinking to Cyrus’ level.

The awards themselves were distributed largely as expected. One school of thought
goes that when there’s little suspense fewer people watch, although I’d think that if folks are interested in and agree with the presumed winners then they’d want to see the acceptance speeches. Then again, I also don’t understand how the slate of Best Picture nominees or even the choice of host seriously drives viewers towards or away. When I was growing up, the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys were occasions for my sister and I to settle into our mom’s bed — or, later, sleeping bags in the living room — and enjoy the tacky, communal spectacle of it all as a family ritual. Either you go for awards shows or you don’t. Not watching because you’re sure Mo’Nique has it in the bag or you’re still upset over Crash’s win over Brokeback Mountain is much stranger to me than having a thing for montages.

I had a love/hate reaction to Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds
— and not in the sense that I loved the performance, hated that he was a Nazi — but it’s hard to deny that it was a tour de force. Stanley Tucci was apparently brilliant as usual in The Lovely Bones, which I didn’t see; I wanted to, actually, despite the mixed reviews, because the cast was impressive, it was filmed here in the Philadelphia area, and director Peter Jackson earned my admiration with the personal drama Heavenly Creatures before Lord of the Rings. Hopefully Tucci’s past work, from Murder One to Big Night to Julie and Julia, leads to mass public as well as industry recognition one day soon.

With the other Actor nominees, I have no quibbles, although my gut was telling me
to expect a possible upset in favor of Gabourey Sidibe over Sandra Bullock. It’s possible that Bullock deserved the statue for The Blind Side over Sidibe for Precious on the merits and not just because she’s a lovely, genuine trouper who had a great year at the box office. But while it may be too much to ask of Academy members to ignore context completely, I find nothing wrong with rewarding unknowns with Oscars for outstanding first-time (or thereabouts) performances, from Sidibe or An Education’s Carey Mulligan this year to Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider to an overlooked, pre-Juno Ellen Page in Hard Candy — which had the misfortune to come out the same year as Helen Mirren’s The Queen, so Page never would have won, but the fact that she wasn’t even nominated was criminal.

Good on T-Bone Burnett, who’s resembling more and more a towering, blond Roy Orbison, for taking the Oscar for Crazy Heart’s entry with co-writer Ryan Bingham. Neither of the songs from The Princess and the Frog nominated for Best Song were the best songs in the movie, curiously. I’m also happy for the supremely talented Michael Giacchino, winner of Best Score for Up, yet the best film score I’ve heard in years was Bruno Coulais’ mesmerizing work on Coraline, inexplicably shut out of the category. Likewise, as touching and enjoyable as Best Animated Feature Up was — and strong as the category was across the board — I was disappointed that Fantastic Mr. Fox, perhaps my favorite film of last year, didn’t take the gold; I’d easily have given it a Best Picture nod.

While it was nice to see the deserving District 9 in there, I suspect that the expansion
of the Best Picture slate to ten only partly served its purpose. Entertainment Weekly’s Oscars guru Dave Karger pointed out early and often that it was pretty obvious which of the ten would’ve made the traditional list of five, and the aforementioned numbered ballot helped reduce spoilage potential. I’d actually prefer to see the list settle around seven serious contenders, and wouldn’t mind the Actor and Screenplay categories expanding to six or seven slots when the nominating ballots warrant it numbers-wise instead of having a hard cutoff at five, just as the so-called technical categories often have fewer than five nominees based on how things cluster.

I was ready for either of the expected top contenders to be named Best Picture, although by the time presenter Tom Hanks walked out the vibe was pretty clearly in favor of Hurt Locker. Frankly, Inglourious Basterds could’ve pulled out an upset and I wouldn’t be disappointed, because I think Avatar dominated the epic/spectacle end of the conversational pool in a way that shuffled the literally ridiculously satisfying guignol of Basterds offstage. My grin was wide as Kathryn Bigelow’s name got announced for Best Director, however. I had mostly been rooting for her, and The Hurt Locker overall, because the film was a quality piece of work, and still when the moment came the glass-ceiling factor was undeniably satisfying.

The dearth of female Director nominees and lack of any wins among women before last night has likely been due more to discrimination at the financing and filmmaking stages than when the Oscar ballots come around, but it’s good to have the celluloid ribbon finally broken and great that it happened with such a deserving honoree.

Promo image © 2010 ABC & AMPAS.

Related: Kodak Moments Ebert, &c. Crystalized Invasion
of the Body Switchers
The Bloom Is Off the Gilded Lily


  1. The Tina Fey/Downey Jr. was my favorite as well. I thought Martin and Baldwin did fine, but at the same time, the jokes I laughed at the most I probably would have laughed at regardless of who was telling them. There didn't seem to be anything "signature" about their hosting turn.

    My least favorite pair was Miley Cyrus, whose slumping shoulders and poor articulation come across not as "genuine" but as lazy, immature, and disrespectful of her good fortune

    I kept shouting at the screen "stand up straight!".

    Either you go for awards shows or you don't; not watching because you're sure Mo'Nique has it in the bag or you're still upset over Crash beating Brokeback Mountain is much stranger to me than having a thing for montages.

    Agreed. The Oscars were a yearly ritual at my house growing up, regardless of what was or wasn't nominated or who may or may not win, and I've continued that tradition every year.

    The Oscars are the Oscars, and I watch as much (if not more) for the show than I do the films nominated.

    Also, I'm glad you found something stranger than having a thing for montages, because I totally have a thing for montages. Cram the ceremony full of them, I say!

    I'd be curious to hear more about your reaction to Waltz's performance. I simply adored it, though I felt the film, in general, while enjoyable and fun in its own way, wasn't as awesome as its near-universal acclaim suggests. For me, it was a film with great parts that never quite made a satisfying whole; it left me wanting more in a bad way.

  2. I love me a good montage. As far as Waltz goes, I'm fading again and I was going to point you to my IB review, but I see it's no longer posted, so, briefly: For one thing, I have a hard time with "showy" characters; I know that Hans Landa was written as melodramatic, studied, and highly verbal — even for a QT character — but like Mamet dialogue that wears thin for me, and it's a measure of Waltz's ability that it worked for me as much as it did. For another, though, I was distracted by how much he looked and sounded like Martin Scorsese, injected with a dash of Woody Allen, playing a Nazi. For yet another, the whole plot point of Landa's surrendering was, even in the context of a film reimagining the end of World War II, ludicrous, but that's less about his performance or even the dialogue than overall script absurdity, something for which I couldn't suspend my disbelief as was done for much of the rest of the film.

  3. Fair enough. I was very surprised by his surrendering as well, and I can't decide if that's just because it was genuinely surprising (I knew Hitler died before I saw the movie, so perhaps all my "did they just go there?" surprise was spent instead on Landa's surrend) or because it seemed so random and, as you say, ludicrous.