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Pushing the Oscar Envelope 

Seven Days' film critics speculate on the awards

Published March 3, 2010 at 7:55 a.m.

The Secret of Kells
  • The Secret of Kells

MARGOT HARRISON: Looks like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is taking a cue from Burlington and a few other towns. Not only has it doubled the field of Best Picture nominees — basically, to give more viewers a film they’ve actually seen to root for — but it will pick a winner using our much-debated system of instant runoff voting.

Which movie will be the Bob Kiss of the Oscars? Which will be the Kurt Wright? Will James Cameron recrown himself “king of the world” in his made-up Na’vi language? We’ll see.

RICK KISONAK: I’ve got to say I’ll be sorry to see awards season come to an end. For me it’s kind of like a Superbowl that lasts for almost two months. As a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, I get to take part in the kickoff by voting on the Critics’ Choice Awards. That was way back on January 15. Since then, we’ve had the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Directors Guild Awards and several others. The fun thing is that there’ve been very few consistent winners. It’s definitely an anything-could-happen kind of year for the Oscars.

The envelopes will be opened this Sunday. In the meantime, here are our picks . . .

Prediction time

Who will win? Who should win?

Best Film

RK: Avatar surprised a lot of people by snagging that Golden Globe, but I think The Hurt Locker is rightfully regaining momentum as we go into the home stretch. Kathryn Bigelow earned top honors from the Directors Guild of America on January 30, and the winner of that award has failed to go on to Oscar victory only six times since 1948. The winners’ films usually win Best Picture, too.

MH: While I prefer The Hurt Locker, I would still bet on Avatar. It’s huge. It’s blue. It jumps off the screen. More important, it’s the future of movies in theaters. When it comes to making actual profits, digital 3-D is the best thing since popcorn.

Best Actor

RK: Isn’t it interesting that George Clooney was considered a shoo-in at one point and is now as much of a long shot as, say, Colin Firth? What happened? A little miracle of a movie called Crazy Heart, which came that close to going straight to DVD. As hard-drinking country has-been Bad Blake, Jeff Bridges gives the performance of his career. And he’s given some corkers.

MH: Yeah, Bridges will win. But I prefer Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker, a fresh face in an electrifying performance.

Best Actress

RK: Carey Mulligan has been robbed all awards season long, if you ask me. Sure, Meryl Streep does a great impression of Julia Child, but in An Education, the newcomer gives a great, meticulously crafted performance. It was one of the most memorable things I saw on screen all year. Expect her to be robbed one final time Sunday night.

MH: Streep didn’t just do an impression; she created a character. She inspired me to bake. But I think the voters want to see another sassy acceptance speech from Sandra Bullock.

Best Supporting Actor

RK: In this race, Christoph Waltz is definitely the man to beat. And the man I’d like to see beat him is Stanley Tucci. Talk about range: In Julie & Julia, he played the sweetest guy you can imagine. In The Lovely Bones, he’s chilling as an unimaginably evil predator. He made that movie worth seeing. And that’s saying something.

MH: Waltz will waltz away with it, and I’m fine with that. Quentin Tarantino’s knack for casting talented unknowns is all that makes his movies still watchable.

Best Supporting Actress

RK: I’d truly love to see Maggie Gyllenhaal with an upset win here, but there’s simply no stopping the speeding train that is Mo’Nique. She’s won everything she’s been nominated for, and she’s going to win on Sunday. The Precious costar deserves it. That was some scary good acting.

MH: Scary good. Agreed.

Best Documentary

RK: Talk about a tight race. There’s never been anything quite like The Cove. It’s at once an astonishing feat of advocacy filmmaking and a white-knuckle eco-thriller. But Food Inc. is a superbly crafted, mind-blowing exposé as well, and it’s gaining on The Cove. I admire both pictures, but I think it’s going to be The Cove by a nose.

MH: Yes, The Cove. When it comes to documentaries about brutal slaughter, the cute dolphins will always get more votes than hogs and beef cattle.

What’s the evening’s most solid lock?

RK: I’d call it a tie between Jeff Bridges and Mo’Nique. I don’t see anyone stopping either of these two at this stage of the game. Oh, and I think it’s probably safe to put your children’s college fund on Avatar for Best Visual Effects. Just call me Nostradamus.

MH: Up for Best Animated Feature. No one’s better than Pixar at making adults cry.

The Glazed Ham Award

Which nominated thespian deserves this Oscar the least?

RK: It’s time to stop the madness already. Seriously: Sandra (All About Steve) Bullock — Academy Award-winning actress? She gave a capable performance in a perfectly nice Hallmark movie, but let’s not go overboard. This is what comes from setting the bar so low your whole career. You make one movie that doesn’t blow, and suddenly you look like Meryl Streep. With whom she’s actually nominated! How surreal is this? If she continues her award-season winning streak, she’ll be the first person to earn a Best Actress Oscar and a Razzie in the same year.

MH: You know, that would be kind of awesome. But I enjoyed watching Bullock more than I did Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom I’m starting to think just acts blissfully stoned in every film. At least in Away We Go that was funny.

Milestone Watch

Will a woman win Best Director in 2010 for the first time ever? If not, who will?

RK: My money’s on Kathryn Bigelow to make history Sunday night. If she doesn’t go home with the golden guy, James Cameron will. It’s like a total David-and-Goliath deal. If, you know, David and Goliath had at one time been married.

MH: I would love to see Bigelow get it. But will voters see her as a pioneering female action director? Her last high-profile film was the 1995 bomb Strange Days.

Redundancy Department

Which categories should the Academy ax?

RK: How many people out there in TV land know the difference between Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing? Hey, this is a long show. I say the time has come to ditch esoteric categories like these. And, speaking of length, I think we can all live without multiple Best Short Film awards. When was the last time you watched a short film? It’s not like they end up at Blockbuster on little DVDs the size of silver dollars. What good are they, and how do they merit an Oscar category? I want an Oscar for the home movie I made of my daughter’s school play.

MH: Short films are an art form, like short stories. And you can rent ’em and see them in fests. Me, I would ax Foreign Language Film. The ridiculous rules exclude too many good movies. With 10 Best Pic nominees, why not just let non-Anglophone films compete in that category? Most of Inglourious Basterds was subtitled, for God’s sake.

Everyone’s a Winner

Now that the Best Picture field has expanded (with 10 nominees instead of five), which titles look like filler? Which deserving flicks got left out?

RK: On the filler side, two jump out: The Blind Side and the Coens’ A Serious Man. I love the brothers, but I’ve watched this movie at least a dozen times now, and it’s not growing on me. From where I stand, it’s one of their lesser efforts. As for overlooked work, take your pick: Antichrist, Bronson, Coco Before Chanel, Goodbye Solo, Moon and The Road. None of them would have been out of place on that top-10 list.

MH: Call me crazy, but I prefer A Serious Man to No Country for Old Men. I’m actually happy with these nominees, except for (erm) The Blind Side. I like that there’s a mix of arty flicks, Oscar bait and crowd pleasers, including the unlikely District 9.

What’s the most surprising nominee?

RK: Um, know anyone who’s ever heard of The Secret of Kells, much less seen it? Yet there it is nominated for Best Animated Feature. Also surprising: most of the nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. I saw dozens of fabulous foreign films last year, but with the exception of The White Ribbon, none of them made the cut. Four out of five are very under the radar.

MH: If you’re curious, you can see The Secret of Kells at the upcoming Green Mountain Film Festival. I was most surprised by Matt Damon’s nomination for Invictus. Fake accent? Check. New physique? Check. But not much of a role or performance.

What’s the most shocking snub?

RK: No shortage of these: Michael Moore. The Academy evidently had no love for Capitalism. Or Ben Foster and his breakout performance in The Messenger. Ditto Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds and Julianne Moore in A Single Man. (She really should’ve had the slot filled by Penelope Cruz for her work in Nine. No one should be nominated for their work in Nine). The biggest in my book? That Crazy Heart was denied for Best Original Score. Oh, yeah, let’s dance; I’ve got the soundtrack from Sherlock Holmes.

MH: If Pitt had been nominated for his shameless mugging in Basterds, then I’d be shocked. I would have liked to see Sharlto Copley (District 9) and Peter Capaldi (In the Loop) nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting, but that wasn’t gonna happen. What’s really shocking is the omission of Marvin Hamlisch’s score for The Informant! Lighten up, Academy!

Which nominee would you like to see totally shut out?

RK: Sandra Bullock.

MH: It’s a toss-up between her and Cameron.

Which win would you like to see for the sake of a certain Vermonter?

RK: Christopher Plummer in The Last Station. For one thing, the man is 80 and has never been nominated until now. And he’s a master. For another, the movie’s adapted from a book by Jay Parini, who, besides being a genius, is one of the nicest human beings you’ll ever meet. A victory for Plummer would be good for the film’s box office, and that could lead to more big-screen versions of Parini’s work.

Pontification time

What do these Oscar noms say about the future of American civilization?

RK: Not to be a downer, but I think, if you read between the lines, you’ll see the Academy is going the way of so many of this country’s institutions — selling out and dumbing down.

Keep in mind, the Oscars broadcast isn’t about movies. It’s a TV show. It’s about television and ratings and ad revenue. And those are the considerations that led to the expansion of the Best Picture field from five to 10 nominees, as you pointed out.

And it’s the reason popcorn pictures like The Blind Side, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Star Trek and even Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are nominated for Academy Awards this year alongside a work of cinema like The Hurt Locker.

The Oscars should be about recognizing the finest in filmmaking, not about maximizing viewership and advertising rates. All I’m saying is, it’s a slippery slope. Where will it end? This year it’s Sandra Bullock. Next year it might be Megan Fox.

MH: I actually think it’s amazing (and heartening) that The Hurt Locker is a contender. Ben-Hur? My Fair Lady? The Sound of Music? Oliver!? Rocky? Dances With Wolves? Forrest Gump? Titanic? Gladiator? All Best Picture winners. All crowd pleasers of debatable artistic quality. So I’m not seeing dumbing down this year. What I am seeing is a dearth of high-toned, low-risk Oscar bait like Crash or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Most of these Best Picture contenders were labors of love that took leaps of faith to make — yes, even Avatar and my least favorite, The Blind Side. They’re the kind of movies that have equally passionate fans and detractors. And that’s what I like to see in the race.

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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.


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