‘Tis the season of hubris and feigned humility, of covert campaigning and overt obfuscating—Really-it’s-just-an-honor-to-be-nominated—of borrowed bling and $10,000 couture gowns that no one paid for. It’s a time of handicapping odds and making prognostications. Now that the Oscar nominations are in, the speculation begins. There is drama: Which ex will snatch Best Picture from his/her not-so-better-half? And there is suspense: Will Mo’Nique cave to convention and shave her legs? The Academy Awards will not bring about world peace, resuscitate the U.S. economy or resolve the crisis in Haiti. (But do expect to see lots of “Remember Haiti” ribbons adorning those couture gowns.) In the long run, the Oscars matter not one bit—save for the bottom line in the winner’s paychecks.
But damn, are they fun.
This year, the fun is multiplied by 10, as in 10 nominations for Best Picture. One could argue that this makes for a bloated field. (The Blind Side? Seriously?) On the other hand, you could argue that it opens up the field for smaller films that might have been overlooked. (Yay, District 9 and Precious!) One thing is for sure: It’ll make for an even longer night with an event that’s already a marathon stretching the tolerance of its viewing audience.
Speaking of marathons, there is the not-unexpected anointing of James Cameron’s 3-hour-long epic, Avatar, the most successful film ever, which was tapped with nine Oscar nominations. It’s a gorgeously imagined film that, notwithstanding its stilted dialogue, broke boundaries and set a new standard for filmmaking. It’s a film that’s also attracted its share of controversy; critics have had a field day analyzing the mega-blockbuster’s not-so-subtle themes about colonialism and its somewhat troubling, Dances-With-Wolves vibe. Up against Avatar is Kathryn Bigelow’s tense take on the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker, cast as the underdog. As Cameron and Bigelow were once married to each other, it’s already being dubbed the “battle of the exes,” but it’s also the battle of the big film versus the little film, pitting Cameron’s 3-D, sci-fi tale of the blue people versus Bigelow’s gritty realism. With all this hoopla, is there room for an upset? Will Tarantino’s blood-soaked Inglourious Basterds whomp them all? Or will this be the year of the little picture? Does Precious stand a chance? Should it?
I was pleasantly surprised to see District 9 in the mix. It’s seriously smart sci-fi with something to say about xenophobia, apartheid and the military industrial complex. (Will it win? Um, no.) Then there’s The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock, which I have yet to see because I couldn’t shake the whole Magical Negro feel of the trailers. (Am I wrong? Should I see it? Let me know.) I was underwhelmed by the existential navel-gazing of A Serious Man, but hey, it’s the Coen Brothers, so you pretty much expect them to represent at the Oscars. Up was charming—but Best Picture? Nah. I appreciated Up In the Air and its take on the downsizing of America. (I also appreciated—very much appreciated—George Clooney’s performance, on many levels. Let’s leave it at that.) But no way is it taking home the Oscar.
But even with this expanded category, there were some surprises about who was left out. Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are was a beautifully moody take on Maurice Sendak’s childhood classic. It was imaginative and fearless, a thing of wonder. So not even a nod for Art Direction? I don’t get it. And I was surprised to see Pedro Almodóvar’s Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces), starring his muse, Penélope Cruz, passed over for Best Foreign Film.
As for Best Director, once again, we’re going to see Cameron and Bigelow duking it out to the end. (We could very well see a split Oscar night, with Bigelow taking Best Director and Cameron taking home Best Picture.) Which is too bad for Tarantino, Jason Reitman (Up in the Air)—and Lee Daniels, who directed Precious and is only the second African-American director to be nominated for an Oscar. (And no, the first wasn’t Spike Lee. It was John Singleton for Boyz ‘N The Hood.) Nope, no black director has ever won.
I can’t call the Best Actor category—I can see Jeff Bridges taking home the little gold man for A Crazy Heart or Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker. Or Colin Firth for fashion designer Tom Ford’s A Single Man. And while I love me some Morgan Freeman—can anyone else play God with a straight face? Twice?—I can’t see him winning for playing Nelson Mandela in Invictus. And Clooney? Sorry, boo, but it’s just not going to be your year.
But will it be Gabourey Sidibe’s year? She’s been nominated for Best Actress. (Watching her giddy turn on Good Morning America after the awards nominations were announced, I think I’ll believe her if starts spouting the it’s-really-just-an-honor line.) Others up for Best Actress: Helen Mirren for The Last Station; Carey Mulligan for An Education; Meryl Streep’s been nominated. Again. (For Julie & Julia.) Can the Academy just go ahead and grant her a Lifetime Achievement Award already, so that the rest of the actresses in Hollywood stand a chance next award season?
Nominated for Best Supporting Actor are Matt Damon for his rugby-playing turn in Invictus (take on an Afrikaner accent and a prosthetic nose and you, too, can get nominated); Woody Harrelson for The Messenger, Christopher Plummer for The Last Station (unbelievably, his first), Stanley Tucci for his serial-killer turn in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones (also, unbelievably, Tucci’s first) and Christoph Waltz for playing a nasty Nazi in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Plummer’s likely to take the award, but I’ll be rooting for Waltz.
On the Supporting Actress front, Mo’Nique is the actor to beat. Sorry, Penélope Cruz (Nine); Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air); Maggie Gyllenhaal (A Crazy Heart), Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air). You just can’t compete with the fearlessness and the fabulousness that is Mo’Nique in Precious.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.