In the absence of any great (by conventional wisdom) films, this year's crop of Oscar nominees represents a far more interesting group of films that we can remember. Expanding the Best Picture nominee list to 10 all but guarantees that, but was anyone expecting District 9 to get a nod? A win is about as likely as an impromptu snow storm localized to the winner's podium, but it's nice to see that not everyone feels the need to ghettoize the horror/sci-fi genre. We're certainly rooting for District 9 over Avatar, which justly deserves every imaginable technical award in addition to a special honorary prize for Cameron for sheer innovation. But as a film, we felt Avatar was ungainly sized at almost 3hrs with occasionally poor pacing and some cringe-worthy dialog. Anyone coming out of that film pretending to be unimpressed should be barred from all professional or amateur film criticism, but the mammoth technical achievement isn't big enough for the weaknesses to totally hide behind – a win in either the Picture or Director categories would be a self-serving Hollywood joke.
The brothers Coen are probably as surprised to see A Serious Man on the list as we are, as it was clearly seen as a deeply personal project for the pair, reflecting as it does on a slice of Jewish life in 1960's suburban Minnesota. A Serious Man isn't an easy film to like (though we really, really did) and this has the faint whiff of a courtesy nomination (or "Mission"). Our major complaint – where is the Supporting nod for Fred Melamed's gloriously despicable Sy Ableman?!?
Haven't seen Precious, Up in the Air or An Education yet, but we've heard great things and look forward to both, though there isn't a power on earth that can get us to The Blind Side and we're frankly astonished to see it here.
Pixar's Up has a dead solid lock on the Best Animated Feature category and that's just where it belongs, as mixing animated films in with the best picture crowd seems to do a disservice to both. Up is a very good film that has moments of greatness, but it's not Pixar's best.
The Hurt Locker left us shaken and stunned; its director Kathryn Bigelow most mature, assured work and easily the best film about modern warfare since Black Hawk Down. Like that film, it wisely eschews politics and large-scale questions about our presence in Middle Eastern conflict and concentrates on characters etchings of the soldiers serving the country. The bomb defusing sequences are raw-nerve tense without any of the typical Hollywood action histrionics that accompany most studio-made war films (the explosions here, though smaller in scale than ones we might see in Transformers, have a ferocious verisimilitude that leaves you breathless). And though Renner is likely to lose out to Jeff Bridges, we were thrilled to see his name turn up on the nominee list. Watch his face in the cereal aisle of a supermarket – wordless, perfect screen acting.
Quentin's Inglorious Basterds really surprised us last fall; we had already gone on record as a Death Proof hater, carelessly spending all the good will that Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror had stored up in the first half of Grindhouse – and we weren't the only one to think that Quentin had lost the plot. But Basterds was a real return to form; beautifully operatic in structure with a fabulously carefree attitude towards historical accuracy and period music (by the time David Bowie appears on the soundtrack, you're either on the train or waiting back at the station) and the product of a filmmaker who still gets jazzed making movies. Waltz seems to be the one universally agreed upon lock in the Supporting Actor category and we will be properly thrilled to see him win.
Major Category Nominee List:
The Blind Side
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
James Cameron, 'Avatar'
Kathryn Bigelow, 'The Hurt Locker'
Quentin Tarantino, 'Inglourious Basterds'
Lee Daniels, 'Precious'
Jason Reitman, 'Up in the Air'
Jeff Bridges, 'Crazy Heart'
George Clooney, 'Up in the Air'
Colin Firth, 'A Single Man'
Morgan Freeman, 'Invictus'
Jeremy Renner, 'The Hurt Locker'
Sandra Bullock, 'The Blind Side'
Helen Mirren, 'The Last Station'
Carey Mulligan, 'An Education'
Gabourey Sidibe, 'Precious'
Meryl Streep, 'Julie and Julia'
Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon, 'Invictus'
Woody Harrelson, 'The Messenger'
Christopher Plummer, 'The Last Station'
Stanley Tucci, 'The Lovely Bones'
Christoph Waltz, 'Inglourious Basterds'
Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, 'Nine'
Vera Farmiga, 'Up in the Air'
Maggie Gyllenhaal, 'Crazy Heart'
Anna Kendrick, 'Up in the Air'
Best Animated Feature Film
'Fantastic Mr. Fox'
'The Princess and the Frog'
The Secret of Kells'
Best Original Screenplay
'The Hurt Locker'
'A Serious Man'
Best Adapted Screenplay
'In the Loop'
'Up in the Air'