Page last updated at 16:31 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Oscar nominations pitch popcorn against politics

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Art and commerce go head to head at this year's Oscars. But will Avatar hurt The Hurt Locker, or the other way around?

James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow
Cameron and Bigelow divorced in 1991 but remain good friends

This year's Oscar nominations suggest Academy members have a clear choice to make - between crowd-pleasing, popcorn entertainment and high-brow fare with a political or sociological subtext.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the two films with the most nominations - James Cameron's science-fiction blockbuster Avatar, and Kathryn Bigelow's edgy Iraq drama The Hurt Locker.

The fact that Cameron and Bigelow were once husband and wife gives an intriguing personal dimension to this year's event.

It is worth noting also that Bigelow, 58, is only the fourth female film-maker ever to be shortlisted for the best director award in the Academy's 81-year history.

But the real talking point is what these movies represent - not so much a battle of the sexes, but an age-old battle between art and commerce.

Indifferent

Should the Academy celebrate a fantastical film like Avatar, which has struck enough of a chord with cinemagoers for it to become the all-time box-office champion?

Or should it recognise the urgent realism of The Hurt Locker, a thriller whose tense war zone heroics might well have been ripped from today's front pages?

Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino's only Oscar to date came for co-writing Pulp Fiction

In recent years it has been films like the latter - critically acclaimed yet largely ignored by the public - that have found favour on Oscar night.

This, however, has had a knock-on effect on the annual telecast's ratings, with US viewers understandably indifferent to awards being given to films they haven't seen.

The decision to broaden the best picture category this year to include 10 nominations instead of the usual five was intended to redress this perceived imbalance.

As an experiment, though, it must only be considered a partial success.

Yes, Avatar is joined by sci-fi hit District 9 and Pixar animation Up - movies that critics and audiences have adored in equal measure.

There is also a surprise inclusion for The Blind Side, a fact-based weepie starring Sandra Bullock that has become something of a pop-culture phenomenon in the United States.

Yet hopes that JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot might make the best picture cut this year have proved to be unfounded.

Nor was there room for popular farce The Hangover, despite it being named best comedy at the Golden Globes last month.

Oversight

Instead the Academy has cited films like Precious, An Education and A Serious Man - critical darlings that have, so far, generated only modest box-office returns.

The received wisdom is that voters will split the difference this year, giving Avatar best picture and Bigelow best director.

Star Trek
Star Trek was not one of the 10 films nominated for best picture

That will allow the Academy to celebrate Cameron for turning a profit while simultaneously redressing an unsightly gender oversight - no woman has ever walked away with the best director statuette.

However, the eight nominations received by Inglourious Basterds rather sets the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons.

Few would have expected Quentin Tarantino's riotous World War II fantasy to figure quite so prominently in this year's line-up.

Could he pull off the ultimate upset by elbowing either Cameron or Bigelow off the Academy podium?

If he did, it would be the biggest Oscar shock since Crash beat Brokeback Mountain to the best picture award in 2006.

In the acting categories, though, one suspects there will be few surprises.

The well-regarded Jeff Bridges, for example, seems almost certain to be named best actor for Crazy Heart, one of those redemptive fables so beloved by Academy's predominantly middle-aged members.

Recession

The Blind Side's inclusion in the best picture field can only boost Bullock's chances of winning her first Oscar for best actress.

Few, meanwhile, would bet against Christoph Waltz from Inglourious Basterds for supporting actor, or Precious star Mo'Nique for supporting actress - given the fact they have already picked up almost every major pre-Oscar award in those categories.

The White Ribbon
Austere German drama The White Ribbon is up for best foreign film

Up should win best animated feature, while Palme d'Or winner The White Ribbon is a good bet for the best foreign film award.

And while British political farce In the Loop should be commended for its adapted screenplay nomination, the award itself looks likely to go to Jason Reitman's recession rom-com Up in the Air.

Tarantino looks set to win the original screenplay Oscar for Basterds - the same award he won for Pulp Fiction in 1995.

All of which leaves Nick Park - up for best animated short for Wallace and Gromit adventure A Matter of Loaf and Death - as Britain's best chance of trophy glory.

That is bad news for Britain's Colin Firth, Carey Mulligan and Dame Helen Mirren, who may find themselves heading home empty-handed from this year's festivities.

Dame Helen, though, will be happy with her best actress nod for The Last Station - especially after being bizarrely denied one by Bafta.



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