Tuesday, February 23, 2010
A nifty way to cut thru the Gordian knot of this year's Best Picture nominees
We're about a week or so away from Oscar Night and the stakes are getting high for the Big Ten lined up in the Best Picture category. It's been a long time since the cinematic playing field was this crowded,which makes placing a bet in your local Oscar pool a tad trickier than usual.
While I'm not in the big league Oscar gambling game,I have participated in amateur pools in the past and personally challenge myself to see just how many winners I can predict every year. With these lofty credentials,I thought it would be helpful to those of you out there picking the winners for fun(and perhaps a small profit)to narrow down at least five of the main contenders.
In order to make this relatively simple,I've focused on winning trends for Best Picture over the past forty years(like a pop culture version of Dr. Sam Beckett,I'm traveling through Oscar history within my own lifetime)and set up some specialized genre sieves to shift the current crop of nominees through. Granted,I'm not a film historian but there is a method to my movie madness,folks-bear with me:
MIDDLE CLASS MELODRAMA: The woes of well to do but not quite rich folk have always been appealing to Oscar voters,which explains why not only Up in the Air is listed amongst the Big Ten but also A Simple Man and An Education as well. One of the last major dramatic looks at the agony of suburban life was Ordinary People back in 1980.
Having Robert Redford as the director boosted the film's chances for victory,yet over the years it's hardly been a flick that many people look back on and feel great about it getting the top honor,especially over Raging Bull(a stronger film in every sense of the word). In many ways,Ordinary People was a safe choice instead of a memorable one:
The taste for sympathy towards suburbanites has changed,with preference for a darker flair and stinging social satire in the presentation of the subject. The best example of that was American Beauty in 1999. However,with the economic spiral the country's been going through lately,even dark sarcasm won't be enough to give Up in the Air a shot at the final gold of the night. It'll have to make do with a Best Screenplay award and be happy about that:
SOCIAL ISSUES IN THE SOCIAL CIRCLE: Stories that highlight social issues by using an ensemble cast are a time honored tradition in Hollywood,with films like The Best Years of Our Lives and From Here to Eternity that touched upon dark subjects but reached for positive conclusions just before the end credits started to roll.
By the 1970s,the light at the end of the tunnel approach was no longer in vogue and films like Midnight Cowboy and The Deer Hunter chose to not shy away from the harshness of the world as it laid the hammer down on it's leading men and women.
This gives a movie like The Hurt Locker a strong advantage in getting those much needed Academy member votes,since it evokes some of that old school seventies vibe towards it's subject and it's a war related movie to boot,with a cast of not yet well known actors like The Deer Hunter which still sets the bar high in this genre:
You could also add in Precious,but I think it's strengths lie in another area(more on that in a moment). The best thing that The Hurt Locker has going for it is the authentic nature of both the cast and the screenplay ,which is something that is often imitated but never truly duplicated. The movie Crash back in 2005 may have gotten Best Picture,yet time will tell just how deserving that win was. While it did have a couple of genuine moments,the majority of the film was as artificial as a saccharin coffee sweetener(and left just as bad of an aftertaste):
STRONG WOMAN SAGA: While this genre tends to award ladies with Best lead and Best Supporting Actress awards rather than film of the year,fierce female films do get a shot at the big show every now and then.
The best loved one of recent decades past was Terms of Endearment,which did boast a couple of feisty heroines in Debra Winger and Shirley McClaine even with all of the typical tear jerker plot points(overcoming a bad marriage,looking for love in old age and the topper,terminal illness) thrown in their path:
Precious is ,of course,far from being a sentimental family drama such as Terms of Endearment but the story of a woman facing off against the dark side of life has it's charms for Academy voters,too. Silence of the Lambs showed that by taking a new twist on the regularly ignored thriller flick in having a tough as nails yet tenderhearted when need be heroine hold her own with cold blooded psycho killers and those who would hunt them down:
HIGH TECH HUMAN EPICS:Films that combine both the latest in special effects and heartbreaking stories of flesh and blood beings searching for love are the ultimate catnip for Oscar nomination selections. It also helps if the movie is a nice big money maker at the box office with loads of popular acclaim like Forrest Gump was in 1994.
Tom Hanks' forays into serious acting have proven to be a mixed bag of results(he never impressed me much in Philadelphia)but he has made some very smart choices over the years when it comes to picking roles that suit his dramatic talents and Gump was one that played off on his humor and charm rather well.
His onscreen presence was vivid enough to make the slipping into big points in history bits that his character needed to do in the story be just part of the background and not take center stage:
A major setback for Avatar is that while it does have both high tech and human interest,it's set in a science fiction story line. Sci-fi and fantasy films tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to the Oscars(which will probably hold back District 9 and most likely took Star Trek out of the running).
Many may think that James Cameron has another Titanic on his hands but that movie had the advantage of being based on an actual historical event that gave it enough clout for Academy voters to mark their ballots for it without any shame. The same may not hold true for Avatar,I fear:
TRUE TALES OF TRIUMPH: This is a genre that has been in hiding for awhile and has occasionally attached itself to another subgenre as a survival tactic. The Blind Side is not a critical darling by any means but it does hold sway with movie goers and Hollywood trend setters alike(there were plenty of cheers when it was named as a Best Picture nominee at the official announcement ceremony a few weeks ago).
In addition to the "based on a true story' angle,The Blind Side does have the success in sports thing going for it as well. Hollywood tends to be more generous towards fictional sports movies(Rocky,Million Dollar Baby)than the real deal but they do let one reach the finish line once in a while like Chariots of Fire did in 1981:
There are those who will point out the inconsistencies in the onscreen version vs. the real life facts but such distinctions never really bother the voters much. If it didn't deter them from giving the golden boy to A Beautiful Mind(which had a truckload of them),it certainly won't matter for The Blind Side here:
So,in conclusion,the films that have the best shot at winning Best Picture this year are The Hurt Locker and The Blind Side,with a slim chance left open for Avatar(after all,they did give LOTR:Return of the King one). This is all purely my opinion but I do have a decent track record when it comes to these things-my personal predictions were slightly over 50-50 last year.
Hopefully,the film that does win is one that truly deserves to be named with the greats of the past and worth watching by future generations of film goers. Nothing is perfect in life and especially art yet it never hurts to keep your fingers crossed and wish for the best:
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