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Oscars 2010 Predictions: Avatar vs The Hurt Locker

Although I’ve not had the benefit of seeing all the nominated films yet, I’m ready to talk Oscar predictions. You probably know I take these awards with a sizeable pinch of salt given the Academy’s various prejudices, and I certainly don’t watch the ceremony. Many suspect the expanded list of 10 titles for best picture is an attempt to retain mainstream attention, knowing they hurt their credibility by, unsurprisingly, failing to recognise The Dark Knight last year. The longer list allows Up to become the second ever animated film to be nominated for best picture (after Beauty and the Beast, though I argued Wall-E deserved to make the shortlist last year) but I suspect the continuing existence of an “animated feature film” category will prevent one winning for some time.

At any rate the nominations still provide a reference point to look back at the past year’s releases. The politics make some awards easy to predict and some incredibly difficult. There is no doubt, however, that the big fight is between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Here is the full list of nominations.

OscarSupporting Actor: Easiest of the lot. It has to be Christoph Waltz as the deliciously villainous Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. That said, I agree with many who wish Peter Capaldi had at least been nominated for In The Loop.
Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique’s turn in Precious has been such a surprise that it’s almost certain to win.
Lead Actor: Although it’s only about to open in the UK, smart money is clearly on Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart.
Lead Actress: Hard to call, with no clear standout for me. I’d quite like to see Carey Mulligan pick it up for An Education, but I think Meryl Streep will take it.
Animated Feature Film: the best selection for a long time, and I’ll be pretty happy no matter what. I’d love to see a stop-motion feature take the crown (Coraline or Fantastic Mr Fox) or Disney rewarded for a strong return to traditional hand-drawn animation, but I suspect Up will win, not undeservedly.
Adapted screenplay: Difficult, but maybe this is where Up In The Air will pull through. Another category where I’d be happy with any result.
Original screenplay: While I’m pleased to see Inglourious Basterds nominated for best picture, Tarantino has no chance of winning and I think his reward will be here.
Director: I think this may be one of those very rare years when the awards for best picture and best director go in different directions. I was totally behind Avatar until I saw The Hurt Locker and now it’s going to be a fascinating competition. For Cameron and his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow to be releasing such strong films in the same year is an interesting coincidence, and both deserve these awards. I think Bigelow will take the directing crown and Avatar best picture, but it could easily be the other way around. I hate to think it would influence voting but a female winner would be fantastic. On the other hand Cameron’s sheer creative force and involvement perhaps suggest the right outcome is the reverse. There is an outside chance The Hurt Locker could win both.
Best Picture: See above.

Of the rest I initially thought Avatar would mop up and come home with the most awards even if The Hurt Locker took the big ones. However on closer inspection, cinematography, editing and sound editing probably are deserved by The Hurt Locker, while visual effects and art direction are clearly Avatar’s greatest strengths.

Although the film was on my radar, I was surprised by how much a last-minute viewing of The Hurt Locker changed my opinion (despite the fact I’m rather fond of Bigelow: back in 1987 she directed one of my favourite vampire flicks, Near Dark, which never actually uses the word “vampire”). Not only is it an intelligent, non-exploitative view of US military presence in Iraq, but its brief denouement provides an excellent modern musing on military life too, without which it would not have resonated nearly so well. As James stares in confusion at a wall of cereal boxes in a supermarket, we feel the intimidatingly oppressive choice of civilian life.

Above all though, its non-judgemental tone seems to reflect my view on the military which is that it’s a job people choose like any other. Those who make a career of it are not any more or less patriotic or to be held in any higher or lower regard. All those whom I know who have chosen that route have done so for the same reason I became a lawyer: they found something at which they were good, and an environment in which they thrive.

Avatar: changing the face (and depth) of films?

My criteria for seeing Avatar were that it had to be on the largest screen possible and in 3D to get the fullest experience. And so I ended up at the BFI IMAX at midnight (on a side note, I really miss midnight screenings) with its bigger-than-a-house screen. My review is up, but in short this is something you really must experience. Unusually I say this without any real intellectual connection to the film or its characters, but rather from a purely emotional/entertainment perspective. The audacity of the project is incredible, as is the fact James Cameron was able to conceptualise it 15 years ago and finally realise and see it through to completion. It turns out “exploring another world” hyperbole was in fact entirely accurate.

Some critics are querying whether this is a game changer in terms of how we give awards for performances since Zoe Saldana’s character is only ever seen in CGI, but it is undeniably her performance that comes through. Should the award go to her, the effects people or both? Of course this debate really dates back to Andy Serkis’ Gollum which was very much his performance, since even the facial animation was based upon his acting. However the facial mapping in Avatar‘s new breed of performance capture is incredible.

This is also the new benchmark for 3D films, to the point where I hope other films won’t bother unless they’re going to do it properly. Up to this point, Coraline has been my touchstone for 3D since as a stop-motion film it was “real” 3D filmed with stereoscopic cameras. The subtler into-the-screen 3D is definitely the right way to do it (and the reason I was unimpressed by the 3D Alice in Wonderland trailer as, despite impressive detail, far too much was unnecessarily flying out of the screen), but these two films highlight two fundamentally different approaches. With Coraline you are offered a 3D window to observe, so the trick to avoiding a headache is to learn to look around as in the real world, focusing on individual parts rather than attempting to take in the entire screen at once as with traditional films. Avatar merges this with traditional narrow depth-of-field shots, meaning the viewer is not always free to look around as they wish. Instead the trick is to relax and allow your eyes to be guided to whatever is in focus. It is perhaps disconcerting, but it does provide a more cinematic effect.

Awards Season

Awards season has snuck up on me this year, so I suddenly find myself adrift with a deluge of big film releases. This post is really a map through the next two months for myself, but  since it’ll probably be of use to others, I figured I’d share. The release dates are all for UK general releases, so expect to see some earlier preview screenings and for them generally to arrive sooner in the USA.

Avatar 17 December 2009
James Cameron’s return after a decade is a massively hyped sci-fi spectacle that promises a journey to another world. As a result I intentionally quashed my expectations but rave reviews suggest this is easily the event movie of the year, not least for its groundbreaking 3D visual effects. Whether it will have a lasting impact only time will tell, but for this year it’s certainly marked its territory.

Nine18 December 2009
I’m not exactly known as a musical lover, but Nine will be the first to draw me in for a while. Though I tend to dislike the approach of a plot that merely aims to tie loosely together a series of musical numbers, the strength of the cast alone — with Daniel Day Lewis and Marion Cotillard at its core — has won me over (though some fantastic burlesque choreography may have helped).

Sherlock Holmes26 December 2009
While not gunning for Oscar glory like the others here, Guy Ritchie’s brawling take on the world’s greatest detective, starring a strangely cast Robert Downey, Jr., finally started to make sense once the trailers emerged. A fun romp through Victorian Britain, and hopefully a return to form for Ritchie (I know some some fans have enjoyed his work in the interim) it is also perhaps more faithful than some realise.

The Road4 January 2010
A harrowing post-apocalyptic tale that portrays a broken civilisation in which humanity is left fractured and without morality. Against this backdrop a father travels with his son and tries to instill the strength of self-preservation and the value of humanity in him.

Up In The Air15 January 2010
Based upon their follow-up offerings, it seems director Jason Reitman was the more talented one behind Juno as his latest with George Clooney has caused a fair stir, not least for its timely story of a constantly travelling corporate downsizer. Meanwhile writer Diablo Cody penned the universally panned Jennifer’s Body, which failed abysmally despite having Megan Fox’s body in the titular role.

Brothers22 January 2010
Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire may not sound like obvious names for this emotionally raw story of a soldier’s return and inability to reconnect with his family, but the performances look incredibly powerful with Natalie Portman rounding out the cast. With her husband presumed dead, she turns to his brother for help.

The Lovely Bones29 January 2010
Peter Jackson’s latest film will seem more familiar to those who knew him before The Lord of the Rings. The film is based on the novel about a teenage girl who was brutally murdered and now watches her family cope in the aftermath, while also coming to terms with her own death.

Precious29 January 2010
This is an unrelentingly bleak tale of an obese, illiterate and abused teenage black girl in 1980’s Harlem. It is the only film in this list I am not certain I will attempt to see, depending on my mood at the time, since this is clearly not entertaining viewing. Mo’Nique’s highly praised performance certainly has my interest. It’s based on the novel Push, the name allegedly being changed due to concerns over confusion with the action-thriller of the same name last year (which now seems a non-issue since no one remembers it anyway).

Edge of Darkness29 January 2010
For those not yet entirely alienated by Mel Gibson’s public behaviour, he plays a homicide detective seeking answers and revenge after the death of his activist daughter. More importantly, it’s directed by Martin Campbell, the best Bond director of recent years who helmed both Casino Royale and GoldenEye.

Crazy Heart19 February 2010
Those that have seen The Wrestler will feel a certain sense of déjà vu in watching the trailer for this film, which follows a similar story of a washed up professional, in this case a country singer instead of a wrestler, and with Jeff Bridges in the lead instead of Mickey Rourke. Once again, a powerhouse character study from the lead is what carries and dominates the film.

"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2023 Priyan Meewella

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