With the best picture nominations extended to include District 9, and Avatar breaking the all-time box office record, many genre fans felt this would be their night at the Oscars. They were wrong, of course, but I’m not sure the Academy can be accused of snubbing science-fiction this time around. Yes, District 9 is a fine movie, and Avatar certainly has its supporters (I’m just not one of them), but it’s also been an exceptional year for non-genre filmmaking.
Truth be told, I too was expecting a big Avatar love fest, much like what happened with Titanic (1997) a decade ago. I dubbed it the Dark Knight apology, theorizing the Academy wouldn’t dare go against public opinion two years in a row. Thankfully, the voters showed more integrity than that. To say genre movies were somehow robbed would be to dismiss the visceral poignancy of The Hurt Locker’s apolitical message, the timeliness of Up in the Air’s depiction of a shifting corporate culture, the challenge of adapting any work by Sapphire, and the fact that no one with a soul can watch the first fifteen minutes of Up without getting teary-eyed.
Acting Out in Typical Fashion
The evening featured few surprises, especially in regards to the four acting categories. Mo’Nique and Christoph Waltz took home the supporting role Oscars for their work in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire: Dead Man’s Chest and Inglorious Basterds respectively because the Academy loves villainous characters and because their performances were very good indeed. Also, Jeff Bridges finally got his own golden statuette after fifty years of awesomeness, which could be viewed as a victory of sorts for genre fans, seeing as the actor is perhaps best known for his depiction of Starman in 1984 (well, that and the Dude in 1998’s The Big Lebowski) and more recently tried to kill Iron Man.
As for Sandra Bullock, while I’m tickled she managed to earn both an Oscar and a Razzie (for All about Steve, which I haven’t seen) in the same year, I think most of us knew she’d win best actress in a leading role the minute we saw the trailer for The Blind Side. It’s the sort of role–and career–the Academy loves to reward, and, hey, she really was quite good in it. Also, her acceptance speech was priceless, mixing earnest sentimentality with her unique brand of absurdist wit: “Meryl, you know what I think of you. And you’re such a good kisser.”
Winning on a Technicality
As expected, Avatar took most of the technical awards, including visual effects and cinematography. I don’t know how I feel about that last one. Cinematography, it seems to me, should involve more, you know, filming of stuff. At least they didn’t give it to the other fantasy flick in the category, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, most of which was computer generated as well, except everything was made to look dull and murky. I kept expecting Hermione to die of a vitamin D deficiency.
Anyway, Star Trek, which I thought was a better science-fiction film than Avatar, did score one golden statuette, that for makeup. I guess Rachel McNichols painted green from head to toe really struck a chord with the Academy. On the subject of striking a chord and poorly conceived segues, I know it’s not a technical award in any shape or form, but Pixar’s Up won the Oscar for animated feature film. Was there any doubt? To my surprise, Avatar wasn’t even nominated. Ba-dum-tish.
Writing on the Wall
No genre picture was competing for best original screenplay, so I’m going to go ahead and skip to the adapted screenplay category, which featured District 9 among its nominees. Now, I happen to quite like Neill Blomkamp’s alien thriller, which created a believable sci-fi reality with the same budget James Cameron used to tie his left shoe, but, as I looked at the other distinguished titles nominated for the award (I loved every minute of Up in the Air), I couldn’t help but wonder, what the hell?
First, District 9 is based on a short film by the same writer-director. Same concept, same creative team, same medium: that’s a rewrite, not an adaptation. Second, take away the exotic setting and giant cockroaches, and all you’ve left is a generic buddy-cop story with bouts of ultra-violence. Thankfully, the Oscar went to Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls. To my surprise, James Cameron’s popular reimagining of Pocahontas (1995) wasn’t even nominated. Ba-dum-dum-tish.
Bringing On the Hurt
Oh, I forgot to mention The Hurt Locker took home the Oscar for original screenplay. In fact, the movie won all the major categories, including editing and directing, so I was less than shocked when Tom Hanks announced it had also won the award for best picture. The Hurt Locker wasn’t my favourite nominee, but it was the most deserving. The film says so much in so few words, reminding us of the high cost of war without ever delving into trite (and often contradictory) hippie platitudes. It’s sort of the anti-Avatar that way. Wacca-wacca-wacca.
Still disappointed about having to wait another year for science-fiction to get the best picture nod? Here’s a thought to keep you warm at night: Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award winning director of The Hurt Locker, is no stranger to genre filmmaking. She wrote and directed Near Dark (1987), a vampire flick with Bill Paxton, and made the brilliant futuristic thriller Strange Days (1995), for which her ex-husband James Cameron wrote the screenplay. Trust me, fellow genre fans: we were well served.
The Evening Itself (or Bits and Pieces… Of Cheese)
- Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were fine hosts, but seeing Neil Patrick Harris in the opening number made me think he might have been better.
- Whoever worked on the memoriam montage this year forgot Farrah Fawcett but included Michael Jackson, who, to my knowledge, only did one feature film, Moonwalker (1988), which was really more of a music video collection. John Hughes got a separate memoriam.
- They didn’t perform the nominated songs this year, which is surprising given the soiree was produced by Adam Shankman of So You Think You Can Dance fame. The bit featuring The League of Extraordinary Dancers was awesome though.
- Ben Stiller presented an award dressed as one of them ThunderSmurfs from Avatar.
- The Academy tried to give lip service to genre fans by doing a tribute to horror. It’s too bad the montage was put together by people who couldn’t care less about horror fiction. The same five or six thrillers kept cycling over and over again. Where were Cat People (1942), The Fly (1958), The Thing (1981), 28 Days Later (2002), Nosferatu (1922), and on what planet are Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and Twilight (2008) considered scary movies?
In the end, Avatar, the great hope for genre fans everywhere, only won three Academy Awards. I’m sure James Cameron cried a full fourteen seconds before taking a dip in his Scrooge McDuck money pool.