AVATAR: A Best Picture nod for sure, and also Best Director for James Cameron.
After years of shrinking audiences and low-grossing Best Picture nominees, the Academy this year is hedging its bets. Why not expand the slate from five to 10, allowing voters to give lip service to the artsy-fartsy fare while also nominating the big box-office potboilers that they and everybody except for film critics really wanted to see? That way, more people will watch the awards show, even though with five extra movies, it will probably run even longer than it does already. Translation: not only will Avatar be nominated this year with no qualms of conscience, so will Star Trek and District 9.
Avatar will also earn James Cameron a Best Director nomination. Its 3-D technology has been called the future of movies, but its themes shed light on what's going on right now. The Iraq War and environmentalism subtexts are obvious; less discussed is the unsettling suggestion that white people want to live the lives of blue-skinned aliens who are a cross between Native American stereotypes and nine-foot-tall NBA players.
Star Trek is also timely, despite its futuristic setting. It relates a parable of two leaders, with the impetuous, non-reflective Kirk resembling George Bush and the rational, half-human/half-alien Spock as Obama. And then there's Invictus, Clint Eastwood's film about Nelson Mandela. Or is the story of a black man who becomes the president of a racially divided country and rules with moderation and wisdom just too 2008?
Okay, let's at least give Morgan Freeman a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of the South African leader and a Best Supporting Actor nod to the token white guy played by Matt Damon. But that's not the narrative that's hot right now, at least on screen. Instead, regressive racial fears and fantasies have eclipsed most of the idealism inspired by Obama's election. The kinds of nasty attitudes explored in the sleeper hit from South Africa, District 9, a sci-fi allegory about apartheid.
So much for slumming — on to the serious movies. Like The Blind Side — though with its $200-million-plus take, this true story of a white family who take in a homeless African-American teenager and turn him into an NFL player can hardly be considered an esoteric indie. It does, however, reassure audiences with its comfortable racial stereotypes, and Sandra Bullock figures to be among the Best Actress nominees with her role as a rich white woman who whips a childlike, Mandingo-sized black boy into shape.
More along the art-film lines is Lee Daniels's Precious. Many critics have called this one to task for its grotesque depiction of the African-American family. Despite, or maybe because of this, it will get nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Gabourey Sidibe as the abused teenager of the title, and Best Supporting Actress for Mo'Nique as Precious's monstrous welfare mother.
THE HURT LOCKER: Kathryn Bigelow’s take on the Iraq War also figures to be up for Best Picture and Best Director.
Not all the issues raised at Oscar time will be race-related. Remember Iraq? By now, you might well have it confused with the CGI fairyland of Avatar. Nonetheless, Kathryn Bigelow's The HurtLocker is the most critically acclaimed film of the year. It surveys the war with a strict, non-partisan realism that will likely earn it nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jeremy Renner), and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Mackie). And though the Iraq-War-on-the-homefront melodrama The Messenger won't make the Best Picture cut, I'll throw in Best Supporting Actor consideration for Woody Harrelson.