Tuesday, Feb. 02, 2010

Best Picture

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

For the past decade or so, the selection of movies competing for the Best Picture Academy Award has come mostly from a boutique of small indie films — Juno, The Reader, Little Miss Sunshine. This year, with the expansion of the nominations from five to 10, it's more like a Walmart. Half of the Best Picture finalists — Avatar, Up, The Blind Side, Inglourious Basterds and District 9 — earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office; and Up in the Air, with nominations for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay and nods for all three of its lead actors, stands a good chance of reaching that mark. If the elders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — which doubled the number of slots after a host of worthy little political dramas pushed megahit The Dark Knight out of the Best Picture category last year — wanted a more populist, or at least popular, list of finalists, they got it.

So what impact will the five extra Best Picture nominees have on the race? None. It's like filling out the Kentucky Derby field with five Central Park carriage horses. The movies that surely would have resided in the top five — Avatar, the Iraq bomb-squad thriller The Hurt Locker, the comedy-drama Up in the Air, Quentin Tarantino's revisionist World War II movie Inglourious Basterds and the indie inspirational Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire — stayed secure in their slots.

Veteran handicappers figure this is a two-horse race, between James Cameron's Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, both of which led the morning's haul with nine nominations each. (Inglourious Basterds got eight.) Both are stories of a U.S. military contingent in an alien land; other than that, and the fact that they're both terrific pictures, the movies are polar opposites. In The Hurt Locker the soldiers are the heroes; in Avatar they're mostly the villains. One film trucks in gritty realism, the other in soaring fantasy. Avatar is on pace to be the highest-grossing movie of all time; The Hurt Locker would be the lowest-grossing film to win a Best Picture award. In addition to that category, the two films will be fighting it out for Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Music (Original Score), Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.

The rest is filler. The Blind Side, a low-budget movie kidnapped by the mass audience, gives the Oscar list a People's Choice tinge. The inclusion of District 9 is pretty cool — the inventive sci-fi parable came from nowhere (actually, South Africa) to charm critics, mall rats and, now, the Academy. Bless the voters for including Pixar's insta-classic Up, which is also nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, which it will probably win. Some analysts predicted that A Serious Man and An Education would be hurt by accusations of anti-Semitism by members of the Jewish community. But the backlash turned out to be mere ankle nips; both films were among the 10 Best Picture finalists and received screenplay nominations as well.

More Best Picture nominees mean fewer wallflowers. This year the big ignoree was Clint Eastwood's Invictus, which earned a couple of acting nominations but was excluded from the élite group. Eastwood is a grand old lion at the Academy, and a project with his directing Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela might have seemed a dead cinch. It wasn't, and neither was The Hangover, the raucous comedy hit whose fortunes probably fell as The Blind Side's rose. But these movies were fighting only to see who gets to stand at the back of the group photo. Planted in front are Avatar, The Hurt Locker and maybe, if it regains the lifting wind that made it an early favorite, Up in the Air. We'll find out on Oscar night, March 7.