An Oscar field worthy of its own award
With about 24 hours of distance from, and clarity on, the Oscar nominations, it's as refreshing as a glass of lemonade to find that the choices look as diverse and sprightly as they did in the bleary hours of Tuesday morning.
It's not just that nearly every major genre -- the action epic, the coming-of-age love story, the science-fiction saga, the uplifting drama, the dark drama, the cartoon romp and the war movie -- is represented but that the best examples of the form made the cut. That's clear from the triumph of "District 9" over "Star Trek," but it's true right on down the line, with "Up," "Precious" and pretty much every nominee with an (inferior) analogue, including "Blind Side" over its less worthy inspirational-sports-movie counterpart, "Invictus."
Some argue that the extra five slots mean little, a chance for the academy to make a naked play for viewers. But there's something to be said for simply making sure -- in a way that's organic, not name checking -- that films that are executed well get their best picture due regardless of genre, just as the academy (mostly) used to do, before it went all dark and niche and ignored entire categories. And that's exactly what the group did this year. Even those who rolled their eyes at "The Blind Side" were hard-pressed, when pressed, to come up with a convincing alternative.
("The Hangover" is probably the best counterexample. And it's a fun movie. But it's not a perfect comedy even by its own standards, more anarchic and outrageous. Besides, the academy is always going to adhere a little to tradition, and a story of a spitfire woman fighting an intractable social problem follows in the footsteps of "Erin Brockovich" and other worthy films. You need to look a lot harder to find an Oscar precedent for "The Hangover." Comedies are hard, say its defenders. And they are. But playing hockey is hard too, yet you won't see Alexander Ovechkin making any acceptance speeches at the Kodak.)It's not fashionable to react to an Oscar announcement with an absence of complaining. Which is why some are intent on keeping the kvetching alive. Most of the movies that round out the bottom five, bray the naysayers, have a snowball's chance in Fiji of actually winning. (That's actually true. The voting system works such that you need a broad consensus of voters, not just die-hards, to capture the top prize, so even if a few hundred academy members are moved to vote for "District 9" as their No. 1 choice, the film won't win.) So why, they say, did the academy even bother? The race that will unfold in the next few weeks is no different from the race in any previous years between a couple of elite films.
But the fact that the bottom five face long odds only validates that the Oscars are doing something right. No one is saying "The Blind Side" should be singled out as best movie of the year, just that it deserves to take its place among that field.
From the other side, there are also those who want the academy to embrace populism but who complain that this version of populism is misguided. One critic friend noted that the ghosts of "The Dark Knight" and "Wall-E" are angry today, hovering above "The Blind Side," wondering, "This is what we died for?" But this seems like a clever exercise in selective reasoning. "The Blind Side" may be heartfelt and sincere (i.e., not a typical academy movie), but it's basically a perfect example of the form. Which pretty much echoes what defenders of "The Dark Knight" said -- yes, it's a superhero movie with flying villains and cars that turn into motorcycles (i.e., not a typical academy movie), but it's basically a perfect example of the form. When it comes to including the best movies of the year, a well-done film is a well-done film. You can't pick your populism.
-- Steven Zeitchik
(For full Oscar coverage and commentary, click on my colleague Kenneth Turan's take on the field's diversity, John Horn's piece on the causes and effects of the high-grossing Oscar nominees, Claudia Eller and Ben Fritz reporting on the nominees' attempt at a box-office bounce and Patrick Goldstein on the gauntlet that the Grammys have thrown down to the Oscars.)
Photo: Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron in "The Blind Side." Credit: Warner Bros.