Monday, March 1, 2010

Oscar Strategy

My Oscar Strategy fell apart this year.  This is not entirely my fault.  Anyone can manage to see 5 Oscar nominees before the broadcast.  I saw 7 of 10.  I am not saying it is impossible to see 10.  Only impossible for me.

There is no secret behind choosing 10 nominees in a field where 5 will do.  Producers (no doubt with some incentive from ABC) strategize that with 10 films, fans (viewers) are more likely to find their favorite in the running (and tune in).  By this logic, there would be 4 teams in the Super Bowl.  So keep your eye on ABC.

This does more to the odds than simply split and block votes.  The Best Picture votes are also weighted by order of preference rather than simply finding a majority count.  As anyone who has selected Student Leader of the Year can tell you, this can have unexpected mathematical results when more people agree on the lower ranking film than the Best Picture.  The 3rd or 4th favorite could actually win Best Picture.  This explains the cheers when The Blind Side was read.  It is an even all-favorites contender, as is Up and Up in the Air, while most of the others will appeal to a fewer fraction as the “best.”  Still with me?  If you want to see what the odds-makers have to say about it, check out gambling911’s explanation.

This is the Drawing In Room’s 4th  Oscar ceremony, and as in the past years (2009, 2008, 2007), I hope to give you my commentary and freethink hour by hour.  It is the closest I can come to sharing this night with you.  It is otherwise sacred.  It has taken me a while to get enough opinion to post this year’s predictions, but I am now as close as I think I can get, unless Netflix delivers the Basterds before Sunday.  Not having seen 3 of these does not exclude me from having opinions about them, of course.

I had plans for seeing An Education – twice, in fact – but both times I came up with something better to do.  It made a compelling Masterpiece Theatre-type trailer,  but then I remembered I could catch a matinee of [Title of Show] in Boston, and another time a BPL exhibit on Edgar Allen Poe.  Did you hear me?  A collection of letters on Poe struck me as more compelling than this film.  For that reason only, I put it as my 10th choice, even though I know that if I saw it, I would probably like it.  Call this the “meh” position.   Plus, I still tend to get Peter Saarsgard and Steven Soderburgh confused, and I should be past that by now.

Inglourious Basterds has been at "long wait" in my queue for several weeks.  Netflix just keeps skipping over it.  Could one of you return yours, please?  Again, I will base my #9 rank on what I know about the film rather than what I don’t know, like… what it’s like.  I do enjoy Quentin Tarentino’s vision, about 50% of the time.  Other times he is too grindhouse for me.  I am not sure which 50% Basterds is, but I feel pretty strongly that a Tarantino film is not going to win the Oscar anytime soon.  I realize we said this once about Woody Allen, too, and every under-biting dog has his day, but I think it is not today.

I did not see Avatar either.  A few years ago, after suffering through the first LOTR, I decided I could give myself permission to skip nominees that I was pretty certain I was not going to like.  If there was ever a year to take advantage of that, it was a year of fitting 10 pictures into 6 weeks.  It has a better chance than where I am ranking it : #8.  I do find the technical achievements impressive and Performance Capture a fascinating development.  But I don't see in 3D in real life as it is.  And I was pretty sure it would be stupid. 

The slate of 10 is what gives the makers of District 9 the opportunity to use "Academy Award Nominee" in front of their names. A technical achievement in many of the same ways as Avatar, with a similar "alien like me" sensibility, District 9 is solid cinema that delivers on its premise.  That premise is derivative, and so is the film.   If you mistakenly watched Plan 9 or 9 instead of District 9... it won't really matter.  9 gets a 7.

In the middle field I am placing The Blind Side and Precious, and not for the same reasons.  I have mentioned above that The Blind Side, as the mainstream all-around-competent film most people in the industry can agree is good at being what it set out to be.  I lost track of my syntax there.  But what I am saying is that The Blind Side does not make any promises it can't keep.  File it under Mr. Holland's Opus.  Within 10 years it will be a Thanksgiving Day staple on TBS or TNT because American families love football and underdog stories.  And most of us want to think we would help out a kid like that, even if we wouldn't.

Much is being made of the Streep/Bullock face-off for Best Actress and here is what I will say about that.  Both played real women; both played outside their usual box.  Both put on a crazy accent and stood up to the system.  Neither played a death camp victim, prostitute, or mentally challenged musician.  So from there all you have is popularity among the branch.  And this may be a break-even.  Meryl Streep does get nominated a lot.  What she doesn't do is win.  Bullock can hold her own against someone who wins 1/8 of the time.

This puts Precious as my #5, and I want you to know that I really liked Precious.  First and foremost those performances, and I put Mariah Carey's disappearance into a disengaged Bronxy social worker ahead of Mo'Nique's reincarnation of Sybil's mother in the green kitchen.  Mo'Nique will blow your mind -- with TNT.

Precious does not have "weaknesses," but stylistic choices that took me out of its reality and made me feel like I could see the audience comment cards.  Precious's inner fantasies were too uneven for a motif, and felt borrowed from Slumdog Millionaire.  And like Millionaire's, this film's supposedly happy ending seemed ignorant of the fact that the character is no more prepared to face the opportunities ahead than she was the nightmare she was living.  Now she is homeless, HIV positive, and the mother of 2, one of whom has Down's Syndrome.  Still uneducated and 16.  What I loved are the performances, the chemistry between Precious and her teacher Miss Rain, and the merciful (though horrifying) revelation of how cycles of abuse continue.  I actually liked this better than Millionaire, yet we may not honor that story 2 years in a row.

Kathryn Bigelow's year?  May be.  The Hurt Locker was my Oscar front-runner, based only on industry buzz, until I saw it.  The buzz may still be correct, and there is no surprise if it wins.  Most pundits put this race between Avatar and Hurt Locker and everyone else can stay home.  This may be the kind of win that happens when people vote for what they think will win rather than what they think should win, simply because they want to choose a winner and not a loser.  We elect a lot of officials that way, so why not award Best Picture?   

The Hurt Locker's message comes in the final five minutes and 2 lines of the film.  It takes a long time to get there, and we are not particularly moved, because the guy is such a Asshole we are just glad to be rid of him.  I give it the 4-slot for creating a world and not explaining it too much (though the script is awkward in places, particularly in the beginning where men in a specific small sub-culture should not have to explain their jobs and their jargon to each other).  For creating a real sense of tension and confused feelings, for making me think for a moment -- like Blaster Mike -- that we could just kill this guy and no questions would be asked.  Side by side, frame for frame, this may be a better film than Platoon.  But I was moved by Platoon, and not moved at all by The Hurt Locker.

Here comes a surprise, then.  I am going to rank A Serious Man as #3.  Go ahead, challenge me.  I count on the Coens to take me some place unexpected and to rarely understand what is happening when we get there.  I believe what Charles Baxter said:
If you're trying to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end but haven't found a way of tying it up dramatically, an epiphany will do the job. But it often ends up feeling like a shortcut, and besides...I've had so god-damned few epiphanies in my life that I'm suspicious of them.
Narrative can be cathartic without epiphany.  And though I have never been able to pull that off as a writer myself, I am very appreciative as a reader (or viewer).  Add to that fresh characters and rich settings in the service of cinematic storytelling, without the crutch of voiceover and titles and explanatory flashbacks, and you have something truly transporting.

Are you reading ahead?  Stop that.  We are down to "films beginning with 'up' for 200, Alex." 

I had moderate expectations for Up in the Air.  In fact, I thought it was something very different from what it turned out to be.  This surprise may be driving my rank.  Market yourself as a throwaway, then show me something else, and you make a different impression.  Here again we have a world outside the mainstream with its own rules and culture, into which we are invited as long as we can keep up.  Why, you may ask, do I disdain science fiction and fantasy so much if this is what I respond to?  I'll have to get into that some other time.  It usually boils down to what I call the Dr Seuss postulate: It doesn't count as rhyming if you make the words up. 

What about all the voiceover, you ask.  Yeh, well.. that is a shame.  That could have waited for the Backpack seminar.  I should take off more points for that.  And there is not a lot of cinema at work either.  So let's call this by it's name:  I have both automated people's jobs AND been laid off.  So this may not be an objective reaction.  I may just have fallen hard for another story I now don't have to write.

I like Up in the Air even better as a companion piece to Up, a very different film about a man's relationship to his "stuff," and what it does to his ability to connect with the World.  Both characters are entrenched in a world of their making where everything is just so and unchanging until an over-eager companion barges through uninvited, with his/her own ideas.

I have heard the argument that animated films should not be in the Best Picture category, and I don't subscribe to that rule as an absolute.  I thought that Beauty and the Beast more than deserved their nomination when they broke the barrier on this category, and  Up surpasses that achievement with its originality.  I will concede that two animated films in the running (3 if you count District 9, and maybe we should) does start to overwhelm.  But I am not in favor of splitting Best Picture into a bunch of genres like drama, comedy, musical, etc. Otherwise you just have the Grammys.   So I will agree to this: if the other "best film" categories exclude a title from being best in show (documentaries, foreign films, shorts, and animated features could not be nominated) then I will support keeping animated features in the animated category.  But now we need to define what animated means.  And that could get very hairy.

For this year, Up is the best in show.  Up has achieved  the best in what this film set out to be through acting/characterization, art direction, animation, visual story telling, pacing, and  the narrative itself.  It is funny, sad, thought-provoking, exciting, insightful, satisfying.  If I were an Academy voter, I would put Up in my #1 slot and not worry at all what that might do to the chances of everyone else's #1.

Do you not agree with that which I have said to you now?


  1. Interesting commentary. I have seen 8 of the 10 movies. I didn't see Precious or Up. I disagree with you in one place. I REALLY didn't like A Serious Man. But I really DID like An Education--it's a coming of age story about a girl which is a rare commodity. And Peter Skaarsgard's performance is really great as the creepy older guy. As for the other two movies you didn't see: I hated Inglorious Basterds and thought Avatar was derivative and unimaginative, even with all the impressive technology.

  2. I can't vote because I have only seen three of the movies - my bad! Up was one of them and I loved it, so hope it wins. Inglorious Basterds is bloody, violent, and Tarentino... and I really liked it - call me weird. Not the best film of the year, tho. I put it last in my list - Up, Blindside and IB. I'll be tuned in to see how you call the action, Bud.

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