Monday, March 8, 2010

The King of the World is Dead! Long Live the Queen!

Well, at last our long national nightmare is finally over: the 82nd Academy Awards have come and gone. You can now stop calculating formulas to get the best picks in your office Oscar pool, and you no longer have any sort of obligation to keep Precious in your Netflix queue.

I for one am somewhat relieved for Oscar season to have finally passed, it's had a grip on moviegoers' since last fall and now we can all go back to watching movies without whispering to our friends "The Oscar buzz for this one is huge..." during the trailers.

The winners were for the most part completely predictable, but that in no way diminished from the history-making of the ceremony's finale, as Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win for Best Director in the Academy's history. It was a pretty big deal and I'm fairly certain that everyone watching was plenty aware of that, but how could such an important Oscar night feel so clumsy and awkward? That probably had less to do with the nominees and winners and more with the presentation.

Much has been made this year of the Oscars' attempts to become more "populist" (i.e. "stupid") in an effort to attract a wider home viewing audience. To counter allegations of Hollywood elitism, this year the Academy nominated ten films for Best Picture instead of the usual five, something that hasn't been done since Casablanca won in 1943. While being billed as a return to old-timey Hollywood tradition, the move was transparently made to get bigger, more widely-seen films into the Oscars with the expectation that more people will watch if movies they like are nominated.

Everyone remembers last year's Oscars party when that one guy wouldn't stop complaining that The Dark Knight wasn't nominated for Best Picture, well this year he was probably complaining about Star Trek. When the ten movie format was announced last year, everyone was sure that J.J. Abrams' space opera was a lock for a nomination. Even before the usual round of Oscar bait was released, everyone was sure that Trek was going to be given a spot in the the ten as a nod to and representative of all the fine blockbusters released in 2009. Unfortunately, this was the year (or perhaps was going to be the year) of Avatar, and the big budget science fiction slot was filled by the highest grossing movie of all time. In a doubly confusing slap in the face of Trekkies worldwide, the just fine but without-a-chance District 9 was nominated for Best Picture as well (and was given an introduction by Chris Pine!).

The problem with ten Best Pictures was that none of them seemed to be anything but dead in the water. By doubling the field of nominations, the Academy effectively diminished the honor of being nominated by fifty percent. Films like District 9 and The Blind Side, usually ghettoized as nerdy science fiction and "inspirational" schmaltz, were now presented as if they were anything but just that. I can't honestly believe that a great number of Academy members seriously gave much of a thought to voting for either of these films, whatever their merits may be. Besides, it has been common knowledge that this was going to be a showdown between Hurt Locker and Avatar anyway. Why else would you put former spouses/current rivals Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron right next to each other in the audience?

The ceremony itself was something of a mild disaster. Hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin bumbled their way through their monologues and banter where one of them probably would have done just fine. Gigantic montages of scenes from all ten Best Picture nominees were presented throughout the evening and ended up taking so long that Tom Hanks didn't even have time to give an introduction when he came out to announce the winner. The performances of the numbers nominated for Best Original Song were sacrificed on the altar of Ten Best Pictures as well, and a break dancing troupe's performance during a medley of the Best Original Score nominees was truly the low point of the evening. For chrissakes, a guy did the Robot as an interpretation of the score from Up: that's unforgivable.

Regardless of the unpleasant surprises during the ceremony itself, the acting winners were almost exactly as everyone has predicted. Christoph Waltz deservedly won for Best Supporting Actor in Inglourious Basterds as he has been predicted to since Cannes. This didn't stop him from being completely gracious and humbled by the award. It was touching to see a man who spent most of movie strutting around with such malicious confidence be so happy to win an Oscar he has to have known he would get since this past summer. Waltz's win, the first award of the night, however great to see, set the tone for a mediocre night in the acting category. Not to slight the winners, they all gave fine performances, but there must have been something wrong with this year's field of acting nominees because this was the most easily predicted Oscars in a long time. The odds were just not that high on this one.

Mo'Nique won Best Supporting Actress for Precious; like Waltz she has been a long time lock in the category for playing a villain, continuing a trend of rewarding evil performances. I wasn't sure what she meant when she thanked the Academy for not making their votes "about the politics". Really? Is the Academy usually hostile towards movies like Precious? I've never really been aboard Precious' "little indie that could" bandwagon. It had the backing of two of the biggest names in Hollywood and was Oscar material in every way. I was actually surprised by how good Precious was, it wasn't perfect by any means but it wasn't the pandering poverty porn it had the potential to be. And yes, Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe both gave really good performances. I just don't think it was as much of an underdog as its cast and crew thought it was. Believe in yourself, Precious!

Jeff Bridges won for Best Actor and did nothing with his acceptance speech to dispel the notion that he is in fact the Dude, which is perfectly fine by me. His performance in Crazy Heart was more than deserving of the award and its good to see a great actor who has been nominated so many times finally get his due. Sandra Bullock took home Best Actress and became the first person in history to win and Oscar and a Razzie in the same weekend. As much as I hated The Blind Side for being low-brow, pandering, "inspirational" crap with a message of white paternalism that's really kind of unsettling in this day and age, I have to admit that Bullock was pretty good in it. Just as Christoph Waltz can win for playing a Nazi and Mo'Nique can win for playing an abusive mother, Bullock can certainly win for playing a pretty white lady who helps black people out by teaching them how to play football. Maybe that's what Mo'Nique meant about not making it about the politics.

I really don't think enough can be said about Kathryn Bigelow's win for Best Director. In an industry where women are usually seen as only being able to make stupid romantic comedies and weepy melodramas, Kathryn Bigelow won as the odds-on favorite by a longshot for directing an action-packed war movie. That's really just mind blowing. This was really important moment for women, directors, and women directors everywhere and I'm sure the Academy's going to be patting themselves on the back for years to come over this.

Most importantly of all, Hurt Locker and its director defeated Avatar, the best picture won Best Picture. I was really afraid style would beat substance this year, especially with the ceremony's craptacular new format as an indicator of the lowered expectations of the Academy. But history was made and we "snobs" safely held on to the Oscars for another year.

Now I'm going to sit back and watch Crank 2: High Voltage because after months of watching what the Academy tells me I should watch, I think I've earned it.

Oh, and if you'd like some more views into Charge Shot!!!'s views on this year's Oscars, check out these past posts and our Twitter.