24 March 2010

Health Care Reform

Basically, what Biden said. The Affordable Care Act is far from perfect and certainly won't be the last word on the subject, but this is a big deal indeed, the most significant piece of domestic legislation passed in the lifetime of anyone under 40 and proof that our political system is still capable of taking on big issues. Forget for a moment all the talk about public options, subsidy levels, CBO projections, etc., and focus on the big picture: the principle that the government should guarantee access to affordable health insurance for everyone is now enshrined in American law. And frivolous lawsuits and Republican talk of repeal notwithstanding, it's here to stay.

07 March 2010

Hurt So Good (aka Anything But Avatar)

A year after fielding one of the lamer Best Picture slates of recent years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made some big changes to its headline category for the 82nd Oscars. For the first time in 66 years, the Best Picture field consists of 10 films instead of five. The move was presumably a response to criticism of last year's nominees, which failed to include popular and critical favorites The Dark Knight and WALL*E in favor of bland Oscar bait like Frost/Nixon and The Reader.

For this year at least, it appears to have worked, with the overwhelming majority of cinephiles likely to find something to like (as well as something to hate). If we assume that the five Best Director nominees correspond to the movies that would have been selected for a Best Picture field of five (probably a good bet in light of the various precursor awards), then the five additional nominees include: a sci-fi allegory (District 9), a cynical art movie (A Serious Man), a cartoon about a septagenarian (Up), a literary British prestige picture (An Education), and an MOR populist entertainment (The Blind Side). I haven’t seen the latter two, although I suspect I’ll catch up with An Education at some point. But Up and District 9 are worthy inclusions that wouldn’t have made it into a field of five, and others would make the case for A Serious Man as well. None of the three feel like the traditional middlebrow Best Picture nominee.

Likely to join those five as also-rans tonight is Precious, a mostly bleak drama about a teenage girl (Gabourey Sidibe) dealing with incest, abuse, poverty, and illiteracy in 1980s Harlem. The makers of Precious deserve some credit for putting this kind of difficult material onscreen, but the whole thing made me a bit queasy, and not always in a good way. It made me think about Céline and—well, there’s a reason Céline ended up becoming a fascist. The Jason Reitman-directed George Clooney vehicle Up in the Air, a superficial drama about a man who fires people for a living, looked like a contender back in November but happily seems to have faded. The movie has nothing whatsoever to say about unemployment or the recession or much of anything else, but it’s at least a more competent film than Reitman’s Juno.

Tonight’s contest appears to be a classic David-and-Goliath showdown between James Cameron’s super-mega-blockbuster Avatar, the highest-grossing film in the history of the universe or whatever, and Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker, about a sergeant (Jeremy Renner) who defuses bombs for a living. Regardless of which way the big prize goes, it appears more than likely that Bigelow will become the first woman to take home a Best Director award.

I didn’t hate Avatar. Cameron’s groundbreaking visual effects kept me interested for the first half or so, but I lost interest in the Pocahantas/Dances With Wolves storyline after a while, and the ill-advised attempts at political allegory, which managed to be both heavy-handed and incoherent, were too much to take. And 3-D still feels like a gimmick to me; if this is the future of cinema, count me out. (An Avatar win for Cinematography would be at least as depressing as a Best Picture triumph). The superbly crafted The Hurt Locker is clearly the superior choice and would rank as one of the most deserving Best Picture winners of the past 15 years or so, but of course deserve’s got nothing to do with it. Knee-jerk futurism combined with the blind worship of money, the venerable civic religion of both Hollywood and America, could well trump everything else. But I hope not.

If there’s a dark horse in this race, it’s Quentin Tarantino’s voluble World War II fantasy Inglourious Basterds, my own favorite film of the year. Shaking off the cobwebs of generations of WWII movies, Tarantino’s film is both fluently conversant with the cinematic past and strikingly original in its appropriations thereof. It also has the most original take on Nazi evil in eons, courtesy of Christoph Waltz, whose comically deranged portrayal of the decadent Col. Hans Landa is tonight’s second-surest bet.

Predicted winners below, along with my personal choices, where applicable. The alert reader will note that I have fewer opinions than I used to, as well as less inclination to see bad movies.

Best Picture

In addition to expanding the field, the Academy changed the voting system for this category only. Rather than voting for one film, each voter is now asked to rank the nominees 1 through 10. After the first-place votes are counted, if no film has more than 50 percent of the vote, the film with the fewest votes is eliminated and its ballots are redistributed among the remaining nine films according to their No. 2 choices (i.e., the highest-ranked choice that hasn’t already been eliminated). This process repeats itself until one film has more than 50 percent of the vote. The upshot of the new system, known as “preferential balloting,” is that the film that gets the most first-place votes won’t necessarily be the winner. My guess is that this favors The Hurt Locker, a film that comparatively few people dislike, over the more polarizing Avatar.

Will win: The Hurt Locker
Should win: Inglourious Basterds

Best Director

Kathryn Bieglow’s one of those directors working on the edge of the mainstream whose name on a genre movie usually means it’s going to be interesting. Like last year’s winner, Danny Boyle, she’s put together a decent, if uneven, career and deserves to win one of these. Unlike Boyle, she has a chance to do it for one of her better films.

W: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
S: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Best Actress

Despite The Blind Side’s getting a Best Picture nomination, I just can’t bring myself to believe the Academy’s going to give an Oscar to Sandra Bullock. Surely they won’t go through with it. On the other hand, Helen Hunt won one, so who knows? Early on, it looked like this might finally be the year for Meryl Streep to take home her third Oscar, and first since the early ’80s, for her performance as Julia Child in Julie and Julia. Bullock is the clear favorite, and she’ll probably win…but this reminds me a bit of the Jack Nicholson/Daniel Day Lewis race back in 2002, when Adrien Brody snuck in and took the statue.

W: Carey Mulligan, An Education
S: [no pick]

Best Actor

Back in November, it looked like this might be George Clooney’s year, but Jeff Bridges took control of the race around the end of the year and appears headed to a landslide win. I haven’t seen Crazy Heart, so I’ll just pretend he won for The Big Lebowski instead.

W: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
S: Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Best Supporting Actor

That’s a bingo.

W: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
S: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress

W: Mo'Nique, Precious
S: Mo'Nique, Precious

Screenplay, Original
W: Inglourious Basterds
S: Inglourious Basterds

Screenplay, Adapted
W: Up in the Air
S: In the Loop

Animated Feature
W: Up
S: Up (close second: Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Documentary Feature
W: The Cove
S: [no pick]

Foreign Language Film
W: El Secreto de Sus Ojos
S: [no pick]

W: Avatar
S: Inglourious Basterds

Art Direction
W: Avatar
S: [no pick]

W: The Hurt Locker
S: Inglourious Basterds

Visual Effects
W: Avatar
S: Avatar

Costume Design
W: The Young Victoria
S: [no pick]

W: Star Trek
S: Star Trek

Sound Mixing
W: The Hurt Locker
S: The Hurt Locker

Sound Editing
W: Avatar
S: The Hurt Locker

Original Score
W: Up
S: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Original Song
W: “The Weary Kind,” Crazy Heart
S: [no pick]

Animated Short
W: A Matter of Loaf and Death
S: [no pick]

Live Action Short
W: The Door
S: [no pick]

Documentary Short
W: The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant
S: [no pick]