Monday, May 28, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 2009

The Contenders:

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker (winner)
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

What’s Missing

What do you say about the year where Best Picture nominations were boosted from five nominations to up to 10 except to say that this wasn’t really a great year for that boost? There are plenty of movies that were nominated that I think could easily be kicked to the curb and a few that I think are worth bringing up. Admittedly, based on my tastes, no serious Oscar person is going to consider movies like Zombieland, Triangle, and I Sell the Dead aren’t going to show up, but I can at least consider them in my head. Moon was likely bumped by a couple of science fiction nominations already, and Mary and Max by the presence of a different animated film. There are no foreign language films on this list, which means that both Three Idiots and The White Ribbon were snubbed. Beyond that, I’d have loved a nomination for In the Loop. And before you mention Fish Tank, know that I hated Fish Tank.

Weeding through the Nominees

10. There are going to be some bad nominations the year when the number of nominations double. Avatar, which has nothing beyond the spectacle of the film and the presence of Sigourney Weaver to recommend it, is the poster child for this. I’ll be the first to admit that for its time and in the theater, it was pretty visually fantastic. Beyond that, I don’t really care at all about it. The story is not only dumb, it’s predictably dumb because it’s just Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas or Ferngully or The Last Samurai. Yeah, it’s pretty and it made a lot of money. But best picture? Zombieland would be a better choice.

9. There are going to be a few places in this wrap-up where I’m going to buck convention. I know that I’m supposed to like A Serious Man, but I really didn’t. I didn’t like the characters, and I didn’t think there was any real comedy in the situation that was supposed to be comedic. There was nothing here that I cared about and I was happy when the film was over. I like dark comedy. I enjoy film that take dark turns. But there was nothing here that offered anything other than a completely bleak and unrelenting progression of misery. Pass.

8. We’re going to do this again: I disliked An Education, a movie that I think a lot of people should have been in genuine contention for the top position. I know that I’m supposed to like and I am happy to say that An Education is well-acted and nicely filmed. There is a great deal to recommend the film, and I simply don’t like it very much. There are plenty of things that I take complaints about when I do these write-ups, and I’m imagining that the low position of An Education will be one of those things. But the truth is that I simply don’t like the movie.

7. The Blind Side is the first of these movies that I can claim to like, and in this case, I’m just barely getting there. I don’t know that this is a film I’d bring myself to watch a second time since there was barely enough worth seeing the first time around. It’s a fine story, I suppose, but I don’t think it has any business being here. While I like it more than the previous two places on this list, I can see nominations for those films much more readily. I don’t like those films, but there are people who do. The Blind Side just isn’t enough to really warrant being nominated.

6. I probably like Precious more than I should, because this is a movie that doesn’t just manipulate its audience, it telegraphs that manipulation, points to it, and then goes exactly where you expect it’s going to. It’s one of those “misery parfait” movies of pain layered on top of nastiness layered on top of awfulness. I get why people think it’s a great movie, and I’m happy to say that it’s at least a pretty good one, mostly for Gabourey Sidibe and a surprising role from Mariah Carey. But it’s manipulative as hell, and that doesn’t gain a lot of traction from me.

5. Inglourious Basterds would be the choice of a lot of people, I think. I’ll admit right now that part of the reason that this movie is as low on this list as this is because I may well have a mental block when it comes to Quentin Tarantino. My running opinion of him and his movies are that he’d be a lot better as a filmmaker if he stopped trying to be awesome and instead tried to merely be good. I don’t care about the references he can make, and I think that frequently detracts from the film he’s making. A less clever film would almost certainly be a better one, not that I think I could convince him.

4. As we get to the top tier of nominations, we find a collection of films that I more or less gave the same rating to on Letterboxd. What this means is that the distinctions here are going to be a bit more subtle. Up in the Air was a film I found surprisingly moving. I expected very little from this and was surprised at both the emotional depth of the film itself and the emotional depth of George Clooney’s performance. I like the other films a little more, but I wouldn’t squawk terribly if someone wanted to put this on the top.

3. I was excited to see District 9 nominated for Best Picture because it’s not the sort of film that normally gets a nomination. This is not merely a science fiction film, but a science fiction film that attempts to be based in a very real world. Like the best science fiction, District 9 manages to be about the real human condition and real human problems. That it serves as a metaphor for racism and the apartheid system and comes from South Africa is all a part of what makes the film work as well as it does. It’s great to see movies like this one in the running, and this one deserved to be here.

2. Up is one of very few animated films to achieve the lofty status of Best Picture nominee, a feat that virtually guarantees a Best Animated Feature win and not a win in this category. If we could award for specific parts of films, the opening few minutes of Up is probably the purest, most beautifully realized film sequence of its year, possibly its decade. There’s a lot to love in this film—that wonderful opening, the vibrant characters, the great relationship between Carl and Russell. Up defies expectations from Pixar by being so different in so many ways and still being so good.

My Choice

1. Ultimately, I can’t get to a reason to not give the statue to The Hurt Locker, and my rule has always been that ties (and anything like ties) go to the Academy. Opinions have varied on this film. I’ve had students tell me this is nothing like the Iraq experience and others (including one who worked in bomb disposal) tell me that it was disturbingly accurate. Regardless of the realism to being in a combat zone, the film itself is a masterpiece of characterization and the exploration of a personality type. It’s a film that manages to be exciting and also contain a real depth. It’s important, and for that and for its other qualities, I’m leaving it where Oscar put it.

Final Analysis


  1. We'll have to agree to disagree on Tarantino. He doesn't have to trade being clever for being good. He is good.

    I have Inglorious Basterds and The Watchmen tied as my favorite movie for 2009 on my IMDB list of favorite movies. I've been thinking of adding In the Loop and making it a three-way tie.

    Another one that I think about adding into the mix is The Spirit, but I am much in the minority on that one.

    1. I think that's a pretty common opinion.

      I think Tarantino is a smug douchebro who has read too many of his own press clippings.

  2. I'd give it to The Hurt Locker, too. Though I could also easily give it to something like Mary and Max.

    1. In an open field, Mary and Max would be in the running for certain.

  3. So many films and so few I can even say I marginally liked.

    I disliked The Hurt Locker intensely but nothing compared to how much I detested Up in the Air.

    Avatar was an adequate entertainment but that was about it. The Blind Side made my teeth hurt with its goo and I wasn't impressed by A Serious Man.

    I'm not much of a Tarantino fan but I liked Inglorious Basterds though not enough for any sort of award giving.

    I liked An Education much more than you but while it would make my list of 5 it would end up near the bottom.

    Actually of the entire list I would choose Up which was a beautifully crafted movie as my winner. As someone who can't usually stand animated films I guess that's saying something.

    However in an open field it would only make my list not win the prize. Moon is far better than almost everything that received a nomination but my winner would be the Peruvian ghost story Undertow which is such an amazing and powerful film.

    1. It would seem in a lot of respects that our opinions are opposite on a lot of these movies. I found Up in the Air surprisingly affecting, and I liked the underlying message of The Hurt Locker a lot.

      That said, I wouldn't squawk terribly if Up had won. And I agree that Moon should have been here.

  4. Great breakdown of a pretty tough year. Love where you ranked Avatar. And to think, it came so close to winning. If I voted in 2009, Precious would've gotten my vote. I loved that damn movie at the time. Today, I'd go with Inglourious or The Hurt Locker.

    1. How sad is it that Titanic, a James Cameron movie based on a real, widely known and studied event, was less predictable than Avatar?

      Precious is a movie that hasn't aged very well for me.

    2. I think there were lots of good movies from '09, just not lots of good movies nominated. I'm completely with you on An Education. That would be my last place finisher. I don't hate Avatar quite the way I hate An Education. Avatar is just one I was unimpressed with even as I walking out of the theater after having seen it for the first time. We're pretty much in line with The Blind Side, too. I liked A Serious Man, but not that much. I'm a big fan of Precious. Everything you say about it is true, but it still gets its hooks into me. As for the performances in that movie, it's all about Mo'Nique's amazing work. I'm also a fan of Inglorious Basterds, but agree it was often too clever for its own good. With this and Death Proof, QT went way off the rails with the references because they were often too blatant and just took up time instead of advancing the plot.

      Big fan of District 9. Happy to see it get nommed and happy to see you have it so high. Up in the Air left me rather lukewarm. I liked it, didn't love it. Up, on the other hand, is phenomenal. I wouldn't have any qualms with that being anyone's top pick. Of the noms, it very well may be mine, now. Back in '09/'10 it was The Hurt Locker. Still a great movie so I am more than okay with that being the winner.

      In an open field, I might go with Mary and Max. As much as I love Up, I think Mary and Max is even better.

      There were some excellent foreign flicks I wouldn't have minded seeing get some love in this category. Broken Embraces, the original The Secret in Their Eyes, and the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, all come to mind. So too does Park Chan-wook's vampire flick Thirst, but of course, horror.

      Speaking of horror, I would love Drag Me to Hell or Zombieland to have earned a nom.

      And yes, In the Loop and Moon are both fantastic.

    3. I agree with you on Mo'Nique in Precious. I've defended her Oscar more than once in the past. My relationship with Precious mirrors yours with The Hurt Locker. It's not a movie that has aged well for me for some reason, but I was very taken with it when I first saw it, obvious manipulation and all.

      I appear to be kind of alone on Up in the Air, but I'm okay with that. There is a particular personality type that I find fascinating, and Clooney's character fits that.

      In a completly open field, Mary and Max would make my list of nominations. So would Up and District 9. Since it's an expanded field for this year, I'd be able to include In the Loop, Moon, Three Idiots, and The White Ribbon.

      I really do need to see Thirst one of these days. I have a copy of it; I just haven't gotten to it.