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The Big Day

03.07.10 at 7:20 pm ET
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As much as we all love Oscar, might it not make sense to find an alternative that stepped away from this sort of Fascist iconography that is straight out of Franco's Spain?

Dateline: my living room.

Please forgive the diversion from the usually scheduled programming. We pause to give you: the Oscars riff.

For reasons that are unclear, my wife and I have made the Oscars one of the central events of our calendar year. I am no longer in Fort Myers, in fact, because of the import that we place on the event (coupled, incidentally, with the need to attend some doctor’s appointments during her final weeks of pregnancy).

For roughly the last five years, we have engaged in the maniacal consumption of movies over roughly a six-week span. We largely ignore the cinematic landscape for the other 46 weeks of the year, but once the list of Nominees is announced, it’s go time. In past years, we’ve averaged more than one Oscar-nominated movie per day. This year, with mobility somewhat diminished by the alien life form that is inhabiting my wife, we were limited, but nonetheless got a chance to see a respectable 26 of 43 nominated films (a .605 average), covering 90 of 121 nominations (.744).

Why? All for the sake of having one evening in which we can sound informed about pop (and not-so-pop) culture. That being the case, it’s worth jumping on the proverbial soapbox not merely to make up for my deficient height, but also to say my peace about this year’s movie class.

Synopsis: Almost to my chagrin, there is no question that Avatar was the most important movie to come out this year. It will change the way in which films are not just watched but seen. Arguably, it is the most significant movie to emerge since Star Wars cemented the action blockbuster as the defining production mode in Hollywood. Even so, it’s far from the best movie. The idea of James Cameron sitting around the set and talking smugly in his funny little invented language, telling everyone, “I see you, my brother,” is rather tedious.

Avatar is an important movie, and technologically, it has no equal. But it’s no more a great movie than was Titanic. (Tangent: one of the darker periods of my life was spent as a travel-guide writer in Orlando. There, not only did I confront the great oddity of having to attend things like Disney parks and insipid dinner theatre by myself, but I also had to navigate schlock like Titanic: The Museum … which still interested me more than the movie. End rant.)

There are some fine movies in this class — some beautifully made, others compelling for various reasons. I have no problem with the expansion of the best picture nominees to 10 films — but I am appalled that Blind Side was included in that list, over other, far better movies (most notably “A Single Man”). One other thing of which I’ve become convinced: of all the ways in which one can spend two hours in a movie theater, there may be none better than the slate of live-action and animated shorts.

Anyhoo, a few thoughts on the categories before the red carpet hoopla shifts from E! to ABC…

BEST PICTURE

I join the rest of the world in anticipating a win for the Hurt Locker, but I do not consider it to have been the Best Picture. Yes, it was a powerful exploration of the addictive power of war, reminiscent of messages that have been authored since All Quiet on the Western Front about the divide that exists between the military and civilian worlds. But I’m not even certain that it’s the most touching movie of that genre — the highly underrated “Messenger” is comparably powerful, as well as an excellent reminder that Woody Harrelson is far more gifted than the character of Billy Hoyle would suggest.

Anyhoo, I would proclaim the Best Picture to be “Up in the Air,” a singularly timely film that is strikingly original, and that should, at least, win Adapted Screenplay.

From the standpoint of movies that were just very, very well made artworks, “An Education” and “A Single Man” (the latter of which was omitted, rather absurdly, from best picture consideration) stood out in this class.

With “Hurt Locker” the likely winner of the category, I assume Kathryn Bigelow will take home Best Director honors, and that the film will also swipe “Original Screenplay” honors from Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.”

BEST ACTOR, LEADING ROLE

A strong class (though I did not see Morgan Freeman in “Invictus”). Jeff Bridges is considered a near-mortal lock, which is fine, even if “Crazy Heart” might as well have been the sequel to “Ray.” Bridges’ character type has been seen plenty of times, and I found his performance wanting in comparison to the extraordinary performance of Colin Firth in “A Single Man.” Firth’s technical skill was, frankly, dazzling, as his use of narrative silence and subtlety to portray a complex, lonely and empathetic character was striking. Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air” was tremendous, and he was compelling, but Bridges will take this.

BEST ACTRESS, LEADING ROLE

I suspect that Meryl Streep win have an upset in this category, edging ahead of the favored Sandra Bullock. (Bullock’s performance was perfectly fine for an endearing character, but this was not a performance for the ages. Oh, and it’s worth stating the usual: the spectacular book on which the movie is based is the vastly superior form of entertainment.)

That said, Carey Mulligan’s character in “An Education” was the far more fascinating one, and her character was far more nuanced. A shame that she won’t take the category.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

If anyone but Christopher Waltz wins, they shouldn’t bother with the rest of the show. No actor made this kind of impact in such a limited time on screen.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

What Christopher Waltz was to Best Supporting Actor, Mo’Nique was to both the mid-word apostrophe and the Best Supporting Actress category. (It is worth mentioning here that “Precious” was such a good movie that even Mariah Carey seemed like something other than the insane ex-girlfriend of Derek Jeter and Tom Brady in it. Kudos to the wardrobe department for not electing not to have her wear her full-length Washington Wizards dress-thing that she wore at the All-Star game some years ago. What the hell?)

MOST ENJOYABLE 24 MINUTES OF THIS OSCAR SEASON

Go on iTunes and find “Instead of Abracadabra.” This is, to my mind, the funniest movie to come out in 2009, surpassing even “The Hangover.” It won’t win — the live action short will come down to “The Door” and “Kavi” — but “Instead of Abracadabra” was one of the only films in this category that didn’t make you feel horrible about the world. Of the animated shorts, “Logorama” probably should win, even if “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty” was, to my mind, the most entertaining film in this category.

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