Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Mr. and ex-Mrs. Oscar®

If you wanted to be a modern day Frank Capra or Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch and you wanted to make a sparkling romantic comedy, you might come up with a plot like this. A husband and wife, who are both in the movie business, bicker and divorce because they are too professionally competitive. Although they have split, they continue to compete with each other, eventually winding up, against all odds, each with a movie nominated for Best Picture in the same year. Of course, on the big night, they both lose. But they end up, after much additional humorous bantering, reconciling there on the stage in front of the whole world. The movie ends on the couple kissing, to the cheers of worldwide audience of billions.

Like so many formula plots from Hollywood, this one has absolutely zero chance of actually happening in real life. Still, it is an irresistible angle for everyone writing about this year’s Academy Awards that former husband and wife James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow should have made movies that have tied for the most nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Cameron and Bigelow were married during Cameron’s The Abyss/Terminator 2: Judgment Day period, which also happened to be Bigelow’s Blue Steel/Point Break period. He was previously married to his producing partner Gale Anne Hurd. He was later married for a couple of years to Terminator star Linda Hamilton during his immediate post-Titanic period. Since 2000 he has been married to Suzy Amis, who had a small role in Titanic. Yes, there are many possibilities for a rollicking romcom in all of that.

The other new and interesting thing this year is the fact that the Best Picture category has been extended from five nominations to ten. The purpose of this seems to have been to show the world that even with ten slots to fill, the Academy still wasn’t going to nominate a Star Trek movie for an Oscar in a major category—even in a year when it actually might have deserved one.

As is my annual tradition, I have come up with my own predictions for the Oscar races, including my own potshots at who is liable, undeservedly, to get overlooked and who did not even get nominated but should have. You can see my predictions, such as they are, here.

While the notion of a former husband and wife in such direct and major competition may be new for the Oscars, the idea of a dramatic match-up between movies is not. In its usual bipolar fashion, the Academy has set this year’s awards up as a duel between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. When it comes to taking sides in this duel, I am at a disadvantage since I have seen the former but not the latter. But I have not let that fact stop me from taking sides. I will be rooting for Bigelow’s film. This is because people I know and respect and admire have told me that it is a really good movie. Moreover, as much as I have lamented the fact that science fiction and fantasy movies have historically gotten short shrift at the Oscars, I don’t really think Avatar is Best Picture material. Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t win or that lots of movies that I thought weren’t Best Picture material haven’t won before. But, if it does win, it will be a clear case of the box office ruling what is nominally an award for achievement in artistic quality.

Now Avatar is a tremendous technical accomplishment and a very skillfully made movie besides. And for that alone, I have given it as many stars as I have given any movie for 2009 that I have seen to date. But while it delivers in spades in the spectacle and event categories, it is not quite the type of movie that improves in the memory. In fact, you find yourself a bit embarrassed for liking it so much after the fact. It has pretensions of saying something Extremely Important but in the end it mainly delivers thrills. In other words, it is like a comic book. And that is too its credit because it came extremely close to being more like a cartoon and could have been embarrassingly laughable if Cameron had not been so skilled and competent. I’m sure that Cameron feels that he has made a courageous political statement with the movie. (Hollywood liberals always feel they are being courageous when they say the same thing that all their friends are saying.) And a lot of conservative pundits were indeed annoyed by its overt criticism of the U.S. military and its allegorically implied criticism of the Iraq war. But the fact is that the movie is such a comic book that the ostensible political message doesn’t really resonant in any meaningful way. The Hurt Locker, by all accounts, actually does manage to say something meaningful about the nature of war. It should come as no surprise that Bigelow’s movie (and everything about her) would be more mature than that of her ex, who can’t help but have affairs and/or marry the actors working for him.

I saw Avatar with my brother-in-law Joseph and, as we were driving away from the city and back to the dark rural corners of the west of Ireland where we live, it occurred to me that Joseph (who has had little exposure to computers and who has a bit of a memory problem because of a childhood accident) might not know the word “avatar.” So I asked him if he knew what the word meant. He thought for a moment and said, “It’s a place where you butcher animals.” As so often happens, he had nearly hit the nail on the head. He was, of course, thinking of a word more familiar to him, given his rural background: abattoir. But his comment more or less fit the tone of the movie, what with the carnage that befall the poor Na’vi. But there were other kinds of butchering going on in the film. It was as though various themes from literature, old and recent, were carved up and blended into a massive sausage of a 19th century Romantic novel (where man and nature were often at odds) with bits of latter-day embellishments dangling from every side and wrapped up in the skin of a video game. Cameron deserved his three stars from me, but I don’t particularly think he deserves the Best Picture or Best Director Oscar.

If the Academy felt inclined to honor a movie in the science fiction genre, it could have done worse than to include a few nominations for Duncan Jones’s very accomplished Moon. And while it was admiring the social grittiness of Lee Daniels’s Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, it could have also thrown a few crumbs to Andrea Arnold’s extremely well-made and well-acted Fish Tank. And is there any reason for denying Clint Eastwood a fifth nomination for Best Director when he has clearly made one of the best movies (Invictus) of the year? (He has already won twice, in addition to winning twice for Best Picture and getting the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.)

Maybe there is a quota on how many times a person can get nominated. No, that can’t be right. If that were true, how in the heck would you explain Meryl Streep?

-S.L., 11 February 2010

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