Tuesday, February 2, 2010

We'd Like to Thank the Academy

If we could put aside, for a moment, debates over the merit of Avatar and The Hurt Locker, we would like to take a moment to focus in on two movies which were nominated for best picture but have little hope of actually winning: Up and District 9.  We were more than a little surprised to see these make the list, as they represent two genres the Academy has been quick to dismiss in the past: animation and science fiction movies grossing less than a billion dollars.

The Academy has had a long history of bias against genre films, and when they've deviated from this tradition, the results have often been comical.  After failing to honor Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers, Return of the King swept the Oscars, picking up awards it had no right to claim, while not a single member of its phenomenal cast received so much as a nomination.  As much as we enjoyed seeing a fantasy movie make history, it was somewhat sobering to see it given an Oscar for "best song" against far more worthy contenders.

But, unlike Star Wars before it, at least The Lord of the Rings was honored.  Movies which have shaped our conception of film are routinely ignored by the Academy.  Where were the Best Picture nominations for Superman, Blade Runner, or Empire Strikes Back?  Limited to five spots, these movies weren't even acknowledged, let alone given the statue they deserved.  Meanwhile, animated films have been relegated to a separate category, protecting live-action films from the often superior offerings from Pixar.

Apparently, the Academy has turned over a new leaf.  They have expanded their list of nominations to ten, permitting them room to acknowledge films with geekier leanings alongside the usual suspects of dramas and historical epics.  At last, Pixar is permitted to compete, while a pair of science fiction epics are nominated, as well.

However, we find ourselves somewhat uneasy.  Of the genre films nominated, the movie with the best chance of winning is Avatar, a notion which has us conflicted.  While we enjoyed Avatar, the idea of dubbing it the "best picture of the year" strikes us deeply cynical.  And yet, in some ways, wasn't it?

We have long held the belief that many critics have offered an unbalanced appraisal of effects-driven films, decrying every issue with the acting and directing, while largely ignoring the technical marvels that advance the industry.  Certainly Avatar is destined to transform movie making.

But there is little denying that the movie fails to achieve any real emotional resonance.  It must be acknowledged that it's hard to imagine good writing would have hindered Avatar's successes.

Likewise, it's likely that Avatar's failings will magnify with time.  Influencing technology can be as much a curse as a blessing for a movie's legacy.  In the coming years, there will likely be dozens of large budget epics utilizing the techniques and devices created for Avatar.  Can Cameron's film really hope to stand up to these in comparison?

Fortunately, the Academy has nine other options to choose from.  Pundits seem convinced it will come down between The Hurt Locker (we keep meaning to get around to seeing that, by the way) and Avatar, though no one really knows how the increased field will play out.

If anything, we'd have liked to see a few more movies honored.  While we enjoyed District 9 and we are still in awe at what was accomplished with so small a budget, it's our considered and honest opinion that Star Trek is actually a better movie.  We can appreciate the Academy's reluctance to endorse both this and Avatar, but we still miss its absence.

Moreover, we were disappointed not to see Where the Wild Things Are nominated.  While Avatar may have moved into new technological areas, Where the Wild Things Are delved into themes that had never been considered in such a way before.  We ask you, which is more impressive?

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