THE LONG SHOT: Now what?

Posted by · 4:59 pm · February 4th, 2010

Jeremy Renner in The Hurt LockerA whole 31 days ahead of the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony, the race already feels like it’s winding down.

Of the precursors, only BAFTA and the lesser guilds (sorry, WGA, but you brought irrelevance upon yourself) lie in wait to distract us from a month of wafty speculation and idle editorializing. Trust me, you’re going to get very sick of the phrase “battle of the exes” before the month is out … if you aren’t already.

For me, a trip to the Berlinale next week couldn’t be better timed – a few days of seeing and discussing some new films, including several of this year’s hot Sundance titles, will be a welcome vacation from the ever-dwindling pool of names and titles we’ve been talking about since the fall.

But if you’re not one of the lucky few who can make it to a festival – or if you’re as uninspired as everyone else by the new releases of the last few weeks – fresh perspective needn’t come only from fresh films. I recently had the pleasure of rewatching “The Hurt Locker” and getting happily reacquainted with it as a movie, rather than as the industry story it has grown into over the months.

Awards season can sometimes smother the movies it celebrates, turning them into representations of competing social and artistic ideals that they were never intended to be. As the competition narrows, these definitions get progressively more binary – and the side-taking more vicious. (You only have to look at Roger Ebert’s online opposition of “Avatar” to see what the season can make us do to movies we even like.)

One has only to look at the way in which the media has cornered the two presumed frontrunners for Best Picture – “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” – into diametrically opposed camps to see how Oscar mania can skew a film’s identity. The “David vs. Goliath” is both a neat angle and, in financial terms, a true one. But however many hundreds of millions of dollars separate the films in terms of both price and gross, this narrative obscures the fact that the films have a lot more in common than just the romantic history of their helmers.

Stephen Lang in AvatarAs one of the cheapest and lowest-grossing of this year’s Best Picture nominees, it’s understandable that champions of independent cinema have rallied around Kathryn Bigelow’s terse, tough film – its success, like that of “Precious,” a gesture of encouragement to fellow filmmakers to keep budgets low and ambitions high.

At the same time, however, “The Hurt Locker” is not the lofty arthouse work that certain journalists would now have you believe. Rather, it’s a kickass action thriller that plays as well to the older bourgeois audiences at whom it was marketed as to the adventurous teenage boys who might have stumbled upon it. The storytelling might be a little more refined, but it’s recognizably the work of the woman behind such macho commercial entertainments as “Point Break” and “Strange Days.”

If you view it, as I do, as a summer sleeper that never quite was (blame the marketing, not the movie) the film becomes less “Avatar’s” opposite number and more its smaller, cooler young brother. Their tastes and textures might be very different – one is romantic, the other pragmatic — but they’re both hard-driving combat movies from highly visual craftsmen steeped in genre filmmaking; throw “District 9” into the mix, and the Academy happened upon three such films in one year.

As much, then, as journalists would like to paint this year’s Best Picture race as a bitter throwdown between indie pluck and studio bloat, there are sure to be plenty of Academy members who like both movies … or neither. As Kris pointed out earlier today, the innovation of preferential voting this year allows room for a film with a markedly more gentle aesthetic (“Up in the Air,” say, or even “The Blind Side”) to emerge as a spoiler.

Similarly misaligned battle lines also exist in the Best Actress race, with observers quick to define themselves as a Sandra Bullock or Meryl Streep supporter (frequently denigrating the opposition in the process). Again, this horse-race rather obscures the fact that Bullock and Streep are essentially on the same team – beloved, middle-aged Hollywood stalwarts in perky studio fare – while the young indie one-two of Carey Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe makes for more narratively compelling opposition.

Sandra Bullock in The Blind SideIf this sounds like I’m trying to falsely inject complications into races that seem largely cut-and-dried, I assure you I’m not. I’m confident that many of the frontrunners are indeed immovable – though a mere two days after the nominations, the blogosphere and Twitterverse are doing their best to make you think otherwise.

“Are Christoph Waltz and Mo’Nique really locks?” they cry. (Yes – sometimes it really does come down to the performance.) “Can Jeremy Renner pull an Adrien Brody?” they muse. (No – Brody was up against four previous winners, not a decades-overdue Jeff Bridges.)

And so on and so forth – such will be the practice as we continue to amuse overselves over the next few weeks of Oscar-watching. But if any upsets do lie ahead, it’ll be because Academy members now have over a month to distance themselves from the precursor buzz and to watch (or rewatch) the movies – only to find that they don’t all fit into the neat boxes they expected them to. Before we settle in for a February of spitballing and occasional mud-slinging, we’d do well to do likewise.

→ 31 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Long Shot

31 responses so far

  • 1 2-04-2010 at 5:27 pm

    Kevin said...

    Thanks for pointing out how people get to worked up about the mud-slinging. It’s as if no one can just love the movies themselves, they have to take sides, and trash the ones they don’t plant themselves behind. Good job on pointing out Ebert’s Avatar rants. It’s like he loved the movie, but won’t support it’s success. Makes no sense. I personally loved Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, and Up in the Air equally, but for completely different reasons? Since when is it not allowed to love more than one Best Picture contender and be happy with whatever film wins? Granted, there are years when something is completely undeserving that wins (Crash vs. Brokeback) but that shouldn’t force you to choose sides. It doesn’t have to be Film A vs. Film B. Awards season is where good films go to die. Just because you support one particular film doesn’t mean you should trash it’s competition. In the long run, Oscar mean very little. They aren’t as grand of implications as we would all love to think. Just love the films you love and move on.

  • 2 2-04-2010 at 5:31 pm

    Sir Andrew said...

    Be careful saying the race is cut and dried. Who knows what could happen between now and then (though it’s true, with hardly any precursor awards until the Oscars, maybe nothing will happen)? But you never know. For a long time, it was Up in the Air, then it was Precious, then it was Avatar, and now it’s The Hurt Locker.

  • 3 2-04-2010 at 5:59 pm

    Colin Low said...

    If Meryl doesn’t win, we’ll have four first-time winners on our hands. When was the last year that happened?

  • 4 2-04-2010 at 6:02 pm

    Troy said...

    “The storytelling might be a little more refined, but it’s recognizably the work of the woman behind such macho commercial entertainments as “Point Break” and “Strange Days.””

    I’d hardly say recognizably…

  • 5 2-04-2010 at 6:07 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Colin: Not that long ago, actually — 2006. (Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Alan Arkin,if your memory needs jogging.)

    Troy: I’d say very recognizably, but everyone sees a different movie in their head. For me, there’s no mistaking a Bigelow film — even a more radical departure from form like “The Weight of Water.”

  • 6 2-04-2010 at 6:22 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Ebert gives at least two dozen four star reviews every year. He’s not knocking Avatar by saying out of the 30 or so movies he loved, it’s nowhere near the best.

  • 7 2-04-2010 at 6:44 pm

    david said...

    Not since the Brokeback Mountain/Crash year have people been so passionate about taking sides and defending the film they have the most love for. The Hurt Locker is my favorite film of the year, but since so many film snobs are trying to tear down Avatar (my second favorite film of the year), I really wouldn’t mind seeing Cameron and company take Best Picture now. It just seems like one of those “passion” years where people are drawing a line in the sand, and taking sides. I’m now throwing down my gun, deserting The Hurt Locker camp, and joining the tree people of Pandora (though I won’t allow all that sexy blue smurf flesh to cloud my vision when I check off The Hurt Locker for Best Picture in my Oscar pools).

  • 8 2-04-2010 at 6:53 pm

    Zan said...

    Now that The Hurt Locker is out on DVD, many are purchasing or renting it, but I’ve heard many accounts from Iraq vets that say the film is poppycock in terms of a lot of the embellishment of the realism it tries to capture.

    I still love it though and am rooting for it or IB.

  • 9 2-04-2010 at 7:00 pm

    david said...

    Don’t sit on the fence Zan…either buck up and be a solider, or take matters into your own hands and become a basterd.

  • 10 2-04-2010 at 7:55 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Guy, to be fair, 12 of the 20 acting nominees are first-timers, so the odds are already leaning that way.

  • 11 2-04-2010 at 9:02 pm

    Glenn said...

    David, the thing is that the Brokeback/Crash rivalry didn’t start until AFTER the winner was announced since most people just assumed Brokeback would win and had dismissed Crash due to its non-showing at the Globes and Brokeback dominant force throughout the precursors (it won as many prizes as Mo’Nique or Waltz).

  • 12 2-04-2010 at 9:54 pm

    Molly said...

    The mud-slinging is getting craaaazy. I LOVE The Hurt Locker, and I like Avatar. It’s been difficult for me to deal with the Avatar crazies, because even though I enjoyed the movie, I just want to smack them. It’s not in my Top 10 of the year, but I accept where it’s going and I did honestly enjoy it… but there are times where I want to completely irrationally tear it apart, just out of spite.

    It’s also gotten to the point where I honestly am AFRAID for if Sandra Bullock wins. I’m rooting for Mulligan either way, but it’s as if people are just realizing now that it’s not JUST about the performance.

    I LOVE Sandra Bullock. I’m a 19 year old girl. I practically worshipped Miss Congeniality as a kid. Do I think she should win Best Actress? No. She’s no where near the best. Am I rooting against her? I wasn’t before, just because I love her so much in general, but I am now, just because I fear the backlash she faces from people unwilling to accept the fact that she’s an incredibly kind and funny woman. After watching these races for years, I know it’s not always about being the best. I desperately wish it was (for the sake of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Where the Wild Things are, at least!!), but it’s not.

    Sandra Bullock isn’t an evil lady just because some people like her. I understand hating on the performance, but I honestly don’t think she can help the fact that she’s getting the votes… I don’t blame her for relishing the experience she’s had this year. It’s quite extraordinary for any actor, I imagine.

  • 13 2-04-2010 at 10:11 pm

    DC Remmert said...

    Im currently trying not to vomit in my mouth at the very notion of a Blind Side upset. It would be a disaster of epic proportions. Sandra Bullock winning the Oscar over Meryl Streep and Gabby Sidibe is sickening enough, but a best picture win would be the tip of the iceberg. If you ask me, Where the Wild Things Are is far more a superior film… I still have no clue why it has been so overlooked this season. Am I crazy Guy??

  • 14 2-04-2010 at 10:35 pm

    Zan said...

    Thanks for the advice, David. I’ll consider such sagacious wisdom.

  • 15 2-05-2010 at 2:11 am

    Edward L. said...

    “they’re both hard-driving combat movies from highly visual craftsmen steeped in genre filmmaking”

    Shouldn’t that be craftspeople? :-)

    I agree that there’s a falsity about the way people set contenders in opposition to one another and personally I find the race more exciting when things aren’t painted as being so diametrically opposed.

    Still puzzled about the lack of love for Bright Star and The Road, but time for me to start coming to terms with it!

  • 16 2-05-2010 at 2:57 am

    Andrew2 said...

    Edward L, I feel for your pain, but I’ve been preparing for the Bright Star snub for weeks now, so it was no suprise. Apparition’s campaign was appalling and they should have released the film in November rather than September to maximise the buzz.

    Re: The THL, it is my #2 film of the year but it is now horribly overrated. Its supporters go overboard just to prove that a box office flop (yes, that’s what it was) should win BP. I hope it wins but it would really be rewriting Oscar history for such a “small” film to win. And it isnt some arthouse work of art, it is an action film after all

  • 17 2-05-2010 at 2:58 am

    Andrew2 said...

    Blind Side as a spoiler?? You have got to be joking, right? It will probably come 9th or 10th in the ballot

  • 18 2-05-2010 at 2:59 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    DC Remmert: Well, I’m on the record as a “Where the Wild Things Are” devotee — it was my second-favourite U.S. release of the year. So I certainly don’t think you’re crazy. Alas, I also think it’s all too obvious why it wasn’t an Academy picture.

    Edward L: Ha, I don’t do political correctness. But well caught.

  • 19 2-05-2010 at 4:01 am

    Edward L. said...

    Andrew2: Yep, it’s odd how it feels as if Bright Star would have benefited from a later release date and The Road from an earlier one! Oh, the weird and wonderful ways in which the race works!

  • 20 2-05-2010 at 4:24 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Personally, I think The Road would have been doomed with any release date. Films that look that unprepossessing to general viewers need critics to rally behind them, and word on the film was mixed from the get-go.

  • 21 2-05-2010 at 4:51 am

    Edward L. said...

    Guy: Yes, I guess so. It certainly isn’t an easy sell. And I wasn’t expecting to think too highly of it – I read the novel last year and really loved it, so I was prepared for the film to be a big disappointment or even an outright failure. But, as I think John Hillcoat pointed out in an interview, the trailers were badly misleading, with all that jagged newsreel-style footage of apocalyse, none of which appears in the film. I found the film itself to be very elegant and understated, and very involving. I’m surprised it didn’t get more traction from Viggo’s presence and from the technical achievements, which I felt were considerable.

    Never mind – I still love Viggo, and still love the Oscars! (‘Love’ is such a versatile word…)

  • 22 2-05-2010 at 5:51 am

    Morgan said...

    Not to trash on The Hurt Locker or Bigelow or anything, but… Strange Days was a stupid movie that not only had one of the worst rape-murder scenes ever, but is the only “serious” movie I’ve ever walked out of laughing (five minutes before the eventual end, apparently).

  • 23 2-05-2010 at 7:28 am

    Megan said...

    “…but I’ve heard many accounts from Iraq vets that say the film is poppycock in terms of a lot of the embellishment of the realism it tries to capture.”

    Yeah, but wouldn’t vets argue that MOST movies that deal in some kind of treatment in war come nowhere near reality?

    Think back to the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan.” That shit felt REAL. Still, there were those who lived it that, while they claimed it was as close as one could come, it still doesn’t capture the actual atrocities of war.

    It’s film. Everything gets romanticized in one way or another.

  • 24 2-05-2010 at 8:11 am

    Zan said...

    That’s not what I mean. A lot of the details are askew.

    For example, the snipers would never use silver juice packs while sniping. They’d be dead instantly.

    There are no renegades like James that get away with whatever they want. EOD teams are always together (more than just three autonomous soldiers), and when they defuse IEDs, they don’t just leave them sitting there. They can easily be re-engaged for further use, so they make sure to recover them as well.

    Speaking of James, him sneaking off VBC was a joke. You saw that intense scrutiny he faces when he returns? It would be completely implausible to think he would get off in the first place. And even if he did, he’d face stern consequences when he returned, a lot more than were brought on by his paltry excuse. Also, think of the instance when they inanely split up and Geraghty’s character is being dragged off. Yes, they rescue him, but almost immediately afterwards, JAMES GOES RIGHT BACK TO WORK! There would be swift disciplinary measures, including probable dishonorable discharge.

    A lot of little stuff that added up too– wearing uni patches on the wrong side, using Vietnam-era helicopters to transport a casualty, the general recklessness that was embellished.

    It’s a very entertaining film with good craft, but simultaneously, it’s chock full of errors regarding semantics, so one would either have to conscientiously looked past them or recognize that this is a very flawed film.

  • 25 2-05-2010 at 8:14 am

    Zan said...

    It’s akin to me directing a film about a basketball player and enhancing the environment by adding non-existent penalties, altering scoring measures, and creating a bunch of rules that don’t exist.

    It’s all about establishing credibility and knowing what your subject matter is. They should’ve hired a military consultant for the film. No idea why they didn’t.

  • 26 2-05-2010 at 8:34 am

    Speaking English said...

    Exactly. And that’s why Boal’s script is immeasurably flawed and should come nowhere near that Screenplay category. For a guy who was actually out there you would think he would have gotten his facts straight, yet the movie is closer to John Wayne in Iraq than the realistic war drama it purports to be.

  • 27 2-05-2010 at 6:02 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Oh Christ, this boring argument again. Points for consistency, English.

  • 28 2-06-2010 at 12:34 am

    Speaking English said...

    But isn’t it true?

  • 29 2-06-2010 at 4:54 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Points for persistence, too.

    Word from informed parties is varied — the internet is a wonderful place to select arguments. Bottom line is, I don’t care one way or the other. Clearly you do, but I’m astonished that you haven’t got a tiny bit bored of rehashing the same points against one film for six months.

    There’s productive debate, and there’s simple whining. You crossed into the latter realm a while back.

  • 30 2-06-2010 at 10:52 am

    Zan said...

    Sorry if my arguments struck you that way, Guy. I still love the film, but I am just going to play devil’s advocate somewhat since I know that there are fallacies. I watched this film with my grandfather, a Vietnam vet himself, and he even picked out some of the errors despite never having served in Iraq specifically.

    I’m just saying that given the nominees it’s the best choice, but if we were considering all angles I don’t see why unreliable fact-checking gets a pass.

  • 31 2-06-2010 at 12:19 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Bored? Why would I get bored speaking the truth about a movie that’s become horrendously overrated? And it IS the truth. The movie is riddled with falsehoods masquerading as reality. You can still love the film, but at least acknowledge THAT.