Oscar Talk 2010 wraps up in suitably epic fashion with a spirited discussion of the Best Picture and Best Director races, putting particular emphasis on the Avatar vs. Hurt Locker match-up.

Best Picture
Avatar
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglorious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

A Serious Man
Up
Up in the Air

Best Director
Kathryn Bigelow: The Hurt Locker

James Cameron: Avatar
Lee Daniels: Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Jason Reitman: Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino: Inglorious Basterds

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From: Ethan
To: Nick
There have always been two truisms I can count on when it comes to Oscar’s annual race to determine the year’s Best Picture.  The first of these is:

1) My personal favorite movie of the year will never be nominated for Best Picture.

Thanks to the Academy’s decision to expand the field from five to ten titles, however, I’m thrilled to report that this piece of conventional wisdom was actually proven false this time around, only the second time this decade where that’s happened.  (The last time my pick matched up with the Academy was when There Will Be Blood nabbed a surprise nod in 2008.)  Against the odds, Joel and Ethan Coen’s marvelous black comedy A Serious Man–my choice for the best film of 2009–won a seat at the Best Picture table.  Not only that, but my second favorite film of the year, Pixar’s Up, qualified as well.  In fact, let’s go even further: out of the ten nominated films, a whopping seven titles wound up somewhere in my Best of the Year round-up, whether in the Top Ten, the Top 20 or on my list of Honorable Mentions.  That’s pretty extraordinary when you consider that, last year, only one of the five films up for Best Picture (Milk) was in my Top Ten.  So all in all, I’ve got to consider the Academy’s decision to double the number of nominees a rousing success.  The diversity of films on display this year puts the last couple of Oscar outings to shame.  It also gives viewers more movies to root for; so what if you didn’t care for An Education, you’ve still got District 9!  Loathed The Blind Side?  Well, how about Precious?  It’s not like last year’s ceremony where if you weren’t a Slumdog Millionaire fan, you had to choose between snoozefests like Frost/Nixon or The Reader.

Of course, as thrilled as I am to see my top two films in the running, I’m not deluded enough to believe that the actually have a shot at winning.  Which brings me to the second truism:

2) No matter which films are nominated, the race will always come down to just two movies.

Cue the Talking Heads because, in this instance, 2010 is the same as it ever was.  Since late December, James Cameron’s Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker have been the Anointed Two and, barring some kind of mind-blowing upset, one of them will be crowned the year’s Best Picture.  Before I address which horse I favor in that race, I’d like to tip my hat to each the other eight nominees and briefly explain why they were never really in the running to win.

A Serious Man: Quite possibly the greatest Jewish comedy ever made, the Coen’s semi-autobiographical film lacks wide mainstream appeal.  More importantly, its sense of humor is more unsettling than laugh-out-loud funny.

Up: If any animated film could have won Best Picture, I truly believe this one would be it.  But the creation of the Best Animated Feature category essentially made that outcome impossible.

The Blind Side: One of the year’s biggest success stories, this crowd-pleaser (of which I am not a fan) only made the cut because of its significant box-office success and Sandra Bullock’s well-liked lead performance.  Consider this a bone thrown to red-state moviegoers…

District 9: While this is a bone tossed to the always-vocal fanboy crowd.  As a member of that audience, it’s a kick to see a movie like this nominated, but until the Academy sets up a booth at Comic-Con, a win is impossible.

An Education: Well-liked by a certain wing of the Academy (i.e. the Actor’s branch) but the movie never caught fire commercially and the only thing that people remember about it is Carey Mulligan.

Precious: At one point, I was convinced that this would be the movie to beat at the Oscars.  And I think that might have happened had it managed to become a crossover hit.  But its momentum peaked early and the dark subject matter discouraged people from watching it.

Up in the Air: Another movie that was an early frontrunner but fell by the wayside as the season progressed.  I’m only speculating here based on my personal experience, but maybe its because when that when the initial buzz wore off and people started thinking about the movie–or watched it a second time–they realized that there wasn’t a lot of there there.  The early scenes are still a lot of fun and George Clooney and Vera Farmiga have an undeniable chemistry, but the movie’s attempts to capture “real life as it is now” are strained and the last act is a big letdown.

Inglorious Basterds: Out of all the also-ran nominees, this was the one that came closest to potentially spoiling the Avatar/Hurt Locker duel.  And some people (most notably Harvey Weinstein) believe that it will ultimately emerge triumphant, pointing to its popularity with the Actor’s branch of the Academy as well as the new methods used to tabulate votes.  But don’t count on that happening–the momentum is clearly elsewhere.  Besides, and I’m once again allowing my own opinion of the film to color my reasoning here, is this really the Quentin Tarantino movie that deserves to win a Best Picture Oscar?  I saw it for a second time and I stand by my initial opinion: it’s a movie that consists of two great scenes (the opening sequence and the scene in the cellar pub), one memorable performance (Christoph Waltz), some terrific technical decisions on Tarantino’s part…and then a whole lot of filler in between.  As with much of the director’s recent work, there’s a level of deliberate artificiality to the movie that I find off-putting.  It’s like Tarantino is putting air quotes around the entire movie–most of the characters (particularly Brad Pitt) are broad caricatures and stylistic flourishes like the occasional inclusion of Sam Jackson as an offscreen narrator add nothing to the proceedings.  Once a director who made movies, Tarantino now seems more like a director who plays at making movies.

So what’s your take on the Best Picture nominees not named Avatar and The Hurt Locker.  And are we agreed that, no matter which of those movies wins Best Picture, there’s no way Bigelow is going home without a Best Director statue in her hand?

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From: Nick
To: Ethan

First, the quick and easy answer:  Yes, I feel pretty confident that Kathryn Bigelow will become the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director, and it will be a mostly well-deserved victory.

To address this mammoth field of Best Picture nominees, it’s hard to be brief, but I’ll do my best.

I too have to give the Academy credit for coming up with a diverse field of nominees.  I don’t agree with all of the choices, but it’s a very good representation of the year in film.  That said, I’m still not a fan of the expanded roster (I think there should be a minimum of five films and a max of seven or eight IF there are enough worthy films).  The nominees are not supposed to be a wide representation of the past year (there are other lists for that). It’s supposed to be the best movies of the year.  So while it’s nice to see something like District 9 slip in, that also means we’re going to get The Blind Side and neither is worthy of a Best Picture Oscar (District 9 is a terrific movie…but does it deserve an Oscar?).

However, I can’t complain too much about these nominees.  Four films from my personal top ten list are nominated, including my top two-Up and Inglourious Basterds.  But do they have any shot at winning?

The chances for Up, a practical lock for Best Animated Feature, are unfortunately, slim at best.  We probably just need to be satisfied that it was invited to the big dance at all (which is too bad because this is easily my pick for best movie of the year).  But I’m not willing to write it off completely just yet.  The convoluted new voting rules (in which films ranked as #2 or #3 by Academy members could weigh heavily on how the final votes are tallied) may very well give Up a big boost.  It’s a universally loved film with no detractors, unlike most of the other nominees.  So while it may not be listed as their top choice, many voters will rank it as their second or third pick.  Enough to move it past The Hurt Locker and Avatar?  Not likely, but possible.

As someone who is not overwhelmed with either of the two front-runners, it may just be wishful thinking, but I believe that Basterds also has a shot at an upset victory.  Would this Tarantino film deserve it?  Absolutely!

I’ve been down on Tarantino since Kill Bill Volume 2.  I think he’s been wasting his talent making slight variations of the same B movie over and over again.  I was leery going in to see Basterds.  I was expecting the same self-indulgence that we’d seen in his past three films.  I came out unsure of my own opinion, almost wanting to dislike it, despite the fact that I enjoyed it.  But it stuck with me.  Like the best movies do, it grew on me, and after my second viewing, I was an unabashed fan.  I found the deliberate artificiality (that Tarantino admittedly often over does) to have a point this time around.  He wasn’t just doing it to be hip and cool.  The whole film is fantasy/wish fulfillment told through the eyes of the cinema and I found that invigorating to watch.  The two scenes that you mention are the highlights, of course, and the cellar pub sequence is arguably the best single scene of any film over the past year (along with Up‘s wonderfully moving “married life” montage).  But in between he sets the table in preparation for an utterly fulfilling climax that takes place in the German movie theater.  It’s great fun, and even a bit deeper than it first appears (looking at how film can distort and rewrite history).  For me, this is Tarantino’s welcome return to form.

Most of the “back five” films (movies that most likely wouldn’t be here if not for the expanded field-The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man, and Up) have no shot at winning (Up being the unlikely exception).  Since I don’t have much to add to what you already wrote about them, I’ll save us some time and keep moving along.

Precious and Up in the Air are the other two films that are on my personal top ten list for the year so, not surprisingly, I’m happy to see both nominated, and disappointed that neither has a shot at winning.  Both are vastly superior to Avatar and Hurt Locker.

I agree with you that the subject matter in Precious was simply too dark for the masses, and for most of the Academy members as well.  On the bright side, it has several major nominations (including a well-deserved nod to director Lee Daniels), and is guaranteed at least one win thanks to Mo’Nique.  If that win and the other nominations help it find a larger audience on DVD, I’ll be happy.

I think the early buzz and critical acclaim that surrounded Up in the Air eventually hurt its frontrunner status for Best Picture.  I think people were expecting and looking for something deeper than what it really is.  I love the film, but I don’t think it’s trying to give us any insight into the “troubled times we live in.”  In essence, the film is a simple cautionary tale, warning us of the dangers of living an attachment-free life.  It’s a simple story, told with wit, charm and heart, and carried by one of the few real movies stars working today.  What’s wrong with that?  While it’s not perfect-I don’t completely buy the film’s big twist–I don’t find any letdown in the final act and actually love the final scene.  This is exactly the type of movie that Hollywood used to do so well, and now puts out so rarely.

Whew!  All of that and we haven’t begun to talk about the two favorites.  I’ll leave it to you to get us started….

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From: Ethan
To: Nick

First off, some quick responses to a few of the points you raised in your entry:

*Even when there are only five nominees for Best Picture, there are almost always movies that don’t belong.  Remember our mutual dislike for The Reader last year?  I also saw no reason to include Frost/Nixon aside from the Academy’s continued love affair with Ron Howard.  If both of those movies merited Oscar nominations, then District 9 certainly does as well.  Again, I think the variety offered by expanding the field to ten films trumps what I’ll call The Blind Side effect.  In fact, the nomination of a movie like The Blind Side bothers me less this time around because it’s up against nine other movies that I like a lot more.  Whereas having The Reader and Frost/Nixon in a group of five only gave me three other movies to choose from, only one of which I genuinely thought deserved to win.  I’m all for repeating this experiment again this year and beyond–if critics are able to go through the hundreds of films released every year and pick a top ten, the Academy can do it as well.

*I’d be more likely to accept your reading of Up in the Air as a “simple cautionary tale” if Jason Reitman hasn’t repeatedly been giving quotes like this one that he gave to Oprah back in December: “I thought I was making a movie about a single man, about a guy who was trying to figure out who and what he wanted in his life.  And over the course of writing it, the world changed.  We went from an economic boom to one of the worst recessions on record. So the film just began to reflect what was going on.”  In almost all his interviews he’s tried to position Up in the Air as timely social commentary.  That was also the impetus behind his inclusion of interviews with actual fired workers, a late-inning decision that he tacked on while still editing the movie.  I admire his intentions, but for me the simply fails as social commentary.  It’s clear that we simply part ways on the ending, but I have to add that I strongly dislike the Clooney’s self-pitying voiceover in the final scene.  To me it undermines whatever emotional power those closing moments have.

*I also wish that I had seen the version of Inglorious Basterds that you and virtually every other critic did.  It sounds fascinating and a real return to form for Tarantino.  But each time I’ve watched the film, my general reaction is that Tarantino’s technical mastery isn’t in service of any truly interesting thematic content or characters.  It plays as a very surface-level film to me, unlike say, Jackie Brown, where repeated viewings consistently yield new reactions to the performances and the structure.  To be honest, I found the movie to be a pretty tedious sit the second time around.  The scenes that worked still worked, but I saw nothing new in the sequences that I found shapeless the first time.

And now, onto the might clash of the titans between Avatar and The Hurt Locker.  Before getting into their respective merits at detriments, I’d like to start off by acknowledging their similarities, specifically the fact that both films are first and foremost rousing action movies that resonate with audiences on deeper levels.  Action films are often categorized as brainless rides and that’s certainly the case with stuff like the Transformers pictures, the Fast & the Furious franchise and anything starring Bruce Willis (aside from the original Die Hard, of course).  But a great action movie can reflect the fears, hopes and dreams of a moment and place in time more completely than a so-called “movie of the moment” like Up in the Air.  Oscar is often reluctant to reward action fare–only two such pictures have won Best Picture trophy this past decade, The Departed and Gladiator–so I’m tickled that this year’s two front-runners both hail from directors who both unapologetically love the genre and are inarguably among the top action filmmakers around.

I should also say that I don’t really have a dog in the fight over which film deserves the Oscar more.  My own personal choice for the year’s Best Picture would obviously be A Serious Man followed by Up, but I’ll be perfectly satisfied when either Avatar or, more likely, The Hurt Locker wins the prize.  I enjoy both films a great deal and feel that they each mostly achieve what they set out to accomplish.  In the case of Avatar, I still feel that James Cameron has crafted a broadly entertaining science-fiction adventure that’s squarely in the tradition of the pulp novels of the ’50s and ’60s.  Yes, the movie’s story is very, very familiar, but Cameron tells it with energy and a welcome lack of irony.  And I think that’s the reason the movie has gone over so well with audiences, apart from its visuals.  Viewers seem to believe in the world that Cameron creates onscreen and care about its survival.  In his admittedly clumsy way, Cameron taps into the worries we share about the future of our own planet–whether we’ve already harvested all the energy we can pull out of its core and how we’ve impacted our own lives by doing so.  The movie’s main flaw, and I’ll concede that it’s a pretty substantial one, is its lack of memorable characters, although I still think Zoe Saldana delivers one of the most fully-realized motion-capture performances I’ve seen since Andy Serkis’ Gollum.  If there had been even one character as instantly iconic as Han Solo from Star Wars or, heck, Sarah Conner from The Terminator, Avatar would be a sci-fi classic.  As it is, it’s an above-average blockbuster that shows what the next generation of filmmaking technology is capable of.

The Hurt Locker, meanwhile, continues to prove that the best movies about war tend to be combat films.  Removing homefront politics from the equation, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal give the audience the opportunity to experience life as a soldier on the ground in Iraq and, once the initial rush of being in the field wears off, the depressing reality of their situation sets in.  I can’t imagine anyone wanting to run off and enlist after seeing The Hurt Locker and even though the movie doesn’t explicitly condemn America’s presence in the Middle East, it does clearly show that we may be doing as much harm as good.  You mentioned that you think the cellar pub sequence in Inglorious Basterds is arguably the year’s best single scene.  I’d instead award that honor to the sniper duel in Hurt Locker, where the three soldiers are trapped in the open desert with a group of mercenaries, battling a sharpshooter several miles away.  It’s an expertly choreographed and executed sequence and puts Bigelow’s considerable directing prowess on full display.  That said, it’s also the point where the movie peaks–after that sequence, Boal and Bigelow lose their way a bit with some unnecessary subplots, most notably Jeremy Renner’s obsession with finding out whether or not a young Iraqi boy he befriends on the base is dead.  His nighttime excursion into the city streets dressed in civilian clothes rang completely false to me, the plot thread that most obviously stands out as a dramatic contrivance.  I also find myself troubled by the film’s brief coda, which shows Renner returning home alive to his wife and baby and then instantly signing back on for another tour of duty solely because he’s bored by everyday life.  It’s probably just the father in me talking, but his behavior struck me as entirely irresponsible and selfish.  Then again, one of the movie’s chief attributes is that it doesn’t heroicize these grunts, so maybe I’m feeling exactly what the filmmakers intended me to feel.

Okay, back to you–what are your opinions of Avatar and The Hurt Locker?  And, since we should spend some more time on the Director race, are there any filmmakers you think were overlooked?

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From: Nick
To: Ethan

Two quick responses to your responses…

You make a very strong argument for the expanded Best Picture category.  I agree that the experiment appears to be a success this year.  My concern is that in a weak year, we’re going to see even more films sneak in that don’t deserve to be there.  Why does it have to be ten films each year?  Why can’t it vary?  If there aren’t enough worthy animated films, they only nominate three.  When there are more, like this year, it expands to five.  I’d like to see that same logic applied to Best Picture.

I agree that Up in the Air fails as social commentary.  I think Reitman succeeded in his original intention to make a film about a guy trying to figure out what he wants out of life.  If he was honestly trying to make a deeper statement, he failed miserably.  I think it makes sense that he used real life people who had been recently fired, and that he tried to play that up a bit.  I think it’s quite effective and keeps the film grounded in the moment.  The film does reflect what’s on today, but that’s still just the background for what the story is actually about.  Reitman’s comments strike me as simple posturing to make himself sound better as he tries to market his movie and get it seen.  I obviously can’t tell you that I know what’s going on in his mind, but the film I saw was a cautionary tale, and that message was hammered home with the final voiceover.

On to the main event…

Let me be completely upfront and just get this out of the way:  I did not like Avatar.  I feel like I’m the only person on the planet that feels this way, but it simply left me cold.  On a visual and technical level, it’s amazing.  It’s beautiful to look at and Cameron should be commended for building the immersive, fully realized world that is Pandora.  My problem is that Pandora is the only fully realized character in the film, and I still didn’t care all that much about it.  I’m okay with a by-the-numbers story that we’ve seen before, IF I get some characters that I can latch onto.  If the characters are basic archetypes that we’ve seen in countless other sci-fi action films, then give me a new, fresh, exciting story.  Avatar gave me neither.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the visuals and overlook the flaws the first time you see the film, but it simply doesn’t hold up on repeat viewings.  You were bored your second time around with Basterds?  That’s how I felt with Avatar. Once the novelty of the visuals faded, there was nothing else to latch onto.  The final battle sequence is wonderfully staged and I enjoyed it the first time through.  But since I didn’t care about who was involved in the battle, I was much less interested when I saw it again.  And that leads me to my biggest problem with this film winning Best Picture.

I want a Best Picture winner to be something that we can look back at in ten, twenty, thirty years and still enjoy.  If it’s really good, it will get even better with time.  I think Avatar has an incredibly short shelf life. In fact, I don’t know why anyone would bother seeing it at home on DVD.  The whole point of the film is to be overwhelmed with the 3D and the larger than life visuals.  At home, on a 2D screen, it’s a snooze fest.  So years from now, when the visuals have become dated, there will be no reason to watch.  In the late ’90s, fans lined up to see Star Wars on the big screen again.  They didn’t go to see the now dated special effects.  They went to see the characters that they loved, to get caught up in a simple, but exciting adventure story, and they wanted to be part of that communal experience that you can only get in a theater.  Can you imagine anyone lining up to see Avatar 20 years from now?  I can’t even imagine anyone wanting to see this 2 years from now.

So it should be no surprise that I hope The Hurt Locker, flawed though it is, wins over Avatar.  I agree with pretty much all of your critiques and praises for Hurt Locker.  The sniper scene you mention is outstanding (though I still give the edge to the pub scene in Basterds), as are the opening and closing bomb sequences.  That’s where Bigelow earns her Best Director Oscar.  But the negatives you mention are what keep me from fully embracing the film.  It is essentially, an action movie about an adrenaline junkie. It’s unique because of the setting of the film and the type of work our protagonist junkie does.  The one thing I disagree with you about is that it resonates on a deeper level.  I suppose for many it must-it has won almost every critic’s award out there-but it feels like people are reading something into it that’s just not there.  The Hurt Locker is a really well made action film, with some incredibly staged, tense, set pieces.  But I don’t think it adds up to much more.  If it does, I simply don’t see it.

Unfortunately, that leaves me rooting against Avatar, rather than rooting for The Hurt Locker.  Really, it leaves me hoping for some sort of miracle that allows Basterds, Up, or Precious to pull off the upset.

As far as the director’s race, like so many of the other categories, I don’t have any issues with the nominees this year.  I think it’s a very strong field.  Though I’m not a fan of the movie, I think Cameron is completely deserving of a nod for Avatar and I’m especially pleased to see Lee Daniels nominated for Precious.  I thought Scott Cooper has been overlooked for his understated directorial debut on Crazy Heart, but I wouldn’t put him on the short list for best of the year either.

Who is missing that you’d like to see?  And why do I have the feeling that we’re not quite done with Avatar?

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From: Ethan
To: Nick

I think you’re letting your own negative reaction to Avatar color what kind of longevity it might have.  While no one can ever really know what we may be watching 20 years from now (I’m not sure even George Lucas imagined Star Wars would have that kind of staying power when it was first released), I think there’s a good chance that Avatar will continue to be watched and enjoyed for at least the next few years and its impact will likely last even longer than that as other filmmakers access the technology Cameron used here–provided the studios cut them a substantial check, of course.  Look, the movie hasn’t grossed $700 million in this country and almost $2 billion around the world based purely on novelty value.  A substantial number of moviegoers are paying to see it multiple times, which suggests that they are getting something out of it beyond its visuals.  Personally speaking, I enjoyed my second viewing more than the first; I was prepared for the clunky dialogue and was able to simply sit back and take in the sheer sweep of the movie.  In that way, Avatar evokes more than ’50s and ’60s pulp sci-fi–it’s a futuristic version of one of those lavish Cinemascope epics of the same era, movies like Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and, dare I say it, Lawrence of Arabia.  Granted, it isn’t anywhere near as rich and rewarding as Lawrence, but it’s hell of a lot more entertaining than Ben-Hur, which, if you haven’t seen it recently, suffers from some of the same flat characterizations and dramatic clumsiness that occasionally mars Avatar.  Regardless, we still revisit many of those latter-day epics–oftentimes at home on DVD!–even though the novelty of their once groundbreaking special effects has worn off, so I don’t think that Avatar will immediately be relegated to obscurity once it plays its last showing on an IMAX 3D screen.

Sounds like we’re mostly on the same page about Hurt Locker, except for whether or not it’s anything more than a very well-made action picture.  I think it is, although it resonates more for emotional reasons than thematic ones.  It all comes back once again to Bigelow and Boal’s ability to immerse us completely in the lives of these three soldiers on the ground.  Too many movies about the Iraq War have skipped over the actual war part, focusing instead on what happens after the fighting men and women come home.  That’s an equally valid story to tell of course, but it’s very easy to turn to that kind of film into something mawkish and sentimental.  The Hurt Locker doesn’t beg the audience to sympathize with its characters; instead it just allows us to observe them as they do their jobs.  It’s only when we get to the end of their tour that the cumulative weight of what they (and we) have witnessed sinks in.  The movie also offers an interesting take on the idea of what a soldier sacrifices by going off to war.  Usually this sacrifice is depicted as something physical–a missing arm or a lost limb.  But here, what Renner sacrifices is his own state of mind.  Because he’s gotten hooked on being in the thick of battle, he’s allowed himself to believe that he can’t live any other way.  That makes his decision to re-enlist so tragic–instead of trying to build a life with his fledgling family, he’s willingly marching back to a place where he’ll likely die because that’s the only kind of existence that makes sense to him.  The only thing I could think watching that scene was “What a waste.”

As far as the director’s race goes, I’m firmly in Bigelow’s camp.  Aside from the history-making aspect of her almost certain victory, I think she realizes her vision more completely than any of the other four nominees.  That said, I consider Cameron, Lee Daniels and, yes, even Quentin Tarantino entirely deserving of their nominations.  I may not be a big booster of Inglorious Basterds, but I can’t deny Tarantino’s considerable skills behind the camera.  In fact, because I found the story mostly a wash, I was able to pay closer attention to the film’s visuals during my second viewing and admired again his flair for composition, as well the clever gags he hides in his frames.  The odd man out for me is Jason Reitman, who is a very good director of actors, but entirely workmanlike when it comes to the other aspects of the filmmaking process.  I’d rather have seen that fifth slot go to Spike Jonze for his exceptional work on Where the Wild Things Are.  That movie has its flaws, but from a filmmaking standpoint, it’s genuinely unlike anything I’ve seen before.  All too often directors play it safe when adapting a beloved work of literature, but Jonze made a film that stands entirely apart from the book.  Other directors deserving of a nod in my book include the Coen Brothers for A Serious Man, Oliver Assayas for Summer Hours and Henry Selick for Coraline.

Any final Avatar thoughts you’d like to share?  And how about general hopes for this year’s ceremony?  Which award are you most looking forward to?  Will the dual host thing work?  And does John Hughes really deserve his own In Memoriam tribute?  I mean, I love Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as much as anybody, but if Robert Altman didn’t merit a separate segment, I can’t see why Hughes does.

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From: Nick
To: Ethan

Yes, just a few more comments on Avatar

Avatar will definitely have an enormous impact on the industry-one that’s already being felt.  But that is one of my other major concerns with the film.  While I’m sure some talented filmmakers will bring us some worthy 3D movies, the vast majority that we’re going to see will be unnecessary or unwatchable (I shudder to think of what Michael Bay is going to do with Transformers 3D).  Avatar made an ungodly amount of money, so the studios are releasing everything that they can in 3D, whether the film actually benefits from it or not.  As long as they can charge extra for “the 3D experience” (something that undoubtedly helped Avatar reach those record-breaking box-office numbers), they’re happy.  That’s good for the studio and bad for moviegoers (and yes, I realize that it’s unfair to hold this against Avatar).  The bottom line is that I’d feel better about all of this, and more hopeful for the future, if Cameron had managed to create something more substantial and not simply an f/x extravaganza.

I am clearly in the minority of people who did not like the film.  If you enjoyed it, that’s great.  I never want to take that away from someone.  Movies are personal and just because it doesn’t strike a chord with one person, it doesn’t mean that it can’t for someone else.  However, I haven’t heard many people come out of Avatar talking about anything other than the effects, or how amazing Pandora looked, or how hot Zoe Saldana is even as a blue alien. Unless there’s something else that people can hold on to, I don’t think a film can have real longevity.  I think people will watch Avatar years from now as film history and nothing more.  It’s a watershed film so it will be watched and studied, yes.  But watched for pleasure?  Looked back on as something other than history?  I just don’t see it.

I understand your comparison to Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, but those films do have stories that are much more engaging than Avatar (certainly in the case of Ten Commandments, I’m a bit more fuzzy on Ben-Hur).  The other enormous difference is that both of those films have a leading man that commands the screen.  No one in Avatar comes close to having the kind of screen presence that Charlton Heston did in those films.

I’m just going to pretend that you didn’t mention Lawrence of Arabia and Avatar in the same sentence.

As for The Hurt Locker…it doesn’t resonate for me in quite the same way because I don’t feel like we ever do get to really know these guys.  We get a sense of what it’s like for them in Iraq…what the daily grind is like and what the actual work is.  But I don’t really know who they are.  Are we just assuming that Renner’s character was a normal guy and that the war turned him into an adrenaline junkie?  Or did he sign up because he was already a junkie looking for his next rush?  Is that ever clear?  To me, the film functions as a documentary.  This is what it’s like for these guys on the ground performing this job.  It’s able to put us in their shoes and experience war through their eyes.  It’s fascinating (and thrilling and horrifying) to watch, but lacks an emotional resonance precisely because we never get to know who these guys are as anything other than soldiers.  I don’t say that as a critique of the film either.  It’s how they chose to tell the story, and that’s part of what keeps it from becoming mawkish and sentimental which, as you noted, so many other war films tend to do.

I agree that Jason Reitman is the weakest link among these directors, though I don’t have a problem with his nomination.  As much as I like to watch more stylized filmmakers (like Spike Jonze, who I think is an inspired choice for a Best Director nod), I think it’s important to recognize a director who knows that it’s sometimes best to let the story and actors take center stage and just gets out of their way (Clint Eastwood is a master at that, though he has a much stronger command of the cinematic language).

I have high hopes for the ceremony this year.  Steve Martin has always been one of my favorite hosts and giving him Alec Baldwin to play off of should provide solid entertainment.  The only thing that I’m not happy about is the decision to drop the Original Song performances from the show.  I was looking forward to Ryan Bingham’s moment in the spotlight on The Weary Kind (which should and probably will win).  I can’t say that John Hughes deserves a special tribute more than Robert Altman-no argument there-but I will look forward to seeing Hughes honored.  The Breakfast Club is a defining film of the ’80s and one that means a lot to many who grew up then…myself included. I’m looking forward to seeing the Animated Feature category.  It was a terrific year for animation (three of my top ten films were animated and all three are nominated here) and I’ll be happy to see Pete Docter accept the Oscar for Up.  I’m also really pulling for Michael Giacchino, who created a wonderfully moving score for Up (and did great work on Star Trek, not to mention his outstanding contribution to Lost every week).  I’m also hoping that Tarantino can pull off an upset over Mark Boal for Best Original Screenplay.

I think this year’s telecast has the potential to be one of the best we’ve seen in a while.  Here’s hoping…

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From: Ethan
To: Nick
To bring this long, but fun discussion to a quick close (ha!), I’m also looking forward to the team of Martin & Baldwin.  They seem to have the right comic temperaments to play off each other and both know how to work a room.  And, like you, I’m probably most looking forward to the Animated Feature category.  Up is almost certainly going to win, but I think all the nominees are terrific films (of course, like many folks, I haven’t seen the Irish curiousity The Secret of Kells yet–all the advanced reviews are very positive though).  My night would absolutely be made if the marvelous political satire In the Loop beat out Up in the Air for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.  There’s no way it’ll happen as this is the one category where Air actually has a shot at winning, but I can dream.  And while I’m dreaming, I’d also like to see Burma VJ or Food Inc. take out the overrated front-runner The Cove in the Best Documentary Feature category.  As always though, may main hope is for a fun telecast with a few surprises.  Speaking of surprises, so far I’ve been buying into conventional wisdom that The Hurt Locker has the Best Picture Oscar locked up, but in the closing moments of our debate and the final two days of the 2009 Oscar race, I’m going to call the race for Avatar.  Don’t ask me why, it’s just a gut feeling.  I’ll probably be proven wrong, but somehow I think Cameron’s Big Blue Smurf Movie will emerge victorious, which will give it something else in common with our mutually beloved Lawrence of Arabia

Until next year!

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The Verdict

Best Picture
Ethan
Will Win: Avatar
Should Win: A Serious Man

Nick
Will Win: Avatar
Should Win: Up

Best Director
Ethan
Will Win: Kathryn Bigelow
Should Win: Kathryn Bigelow

Nick
Will Win: Kathryn Bigelow
Should Win: Kathryn Bigelow