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'Avatar,' 'Basterds' deserving of top Oscar prize

Jake Sully and Neytiri make "Avatar" deserving of the Best Picture Oscar (Photo courtesy of imdb.com)
Jake Sully and Neytiri make "Avatar" deserving of the Best Picture Oscar (Photo courtesy of imdb.com)

By Riley Simpson
Sports Editor
This weekend is special to me.
It’s not due the opening of the event picture “Alice in Wonderland”; personally, I don’t care for the Tim Burton re-imagining, mostly because it unnecessarily features Johnny Depp as the same character he plays in every movie.
Nor is it due to the fact that it’s finally March, automatically guaranteeing spring weather in my mind — but we all know that, based on the forecast by weatherman Punxsutawney Phil , there’s still two more weeks of bitter and unforgiving winter to endure.
No, this weekend is special because it’s Oscar weekend.
And what’s special about Oscar weekend this year is not the five extra films nominated for Best Picture — a ploy by the Academy to boost ratings, no doubt — or the fact that the Oscar show itself will be spectacular — Steve Martin AND Alec Baldwin hosting?! Together?! (which will boost ratings even more).  The special thing is that, for the first time since I was five and learned to speak fluently in Oscar, I have no idea which movie I want most to win the top prize.
Sure, a few of the 10 Best Picture nominees can be rooted out: “District 9,” although one of the best movies in the sci-fi genre in a while, is not Oscar material.  In fact, I doubt it can even win awards in the technical — thank you, “Avatar”— and writing —thank you, “Up in the Air” and “Precious”— categories, even though “District 9” could have definitely won them if it had been released any other year.
Similarly, “A Serious Man,” the dark comedy nominee from the Brothers Coen, could easily win with its unique storytelling and humor if not for the other powerhouses in its respective categories—like Best Original Screenplay.
Next is “Up,” the adorable and adventurous animated gem from Pixar.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved the incredible and breathtaking journey of Mr. Fredrickson, Russell and Dug along with the refreshingly real beginning scenes, showing that animated movies aren’t all fluff.  But the truth is, “Up” doesn’t need a Best Picture win; it already has Best Animated Feature all sewn up.
“An Education” is the biggest underdog this year. The 1960s drama about an English girl choosing between a higher education at Oxford and hanging with Peter Sarsgaard really faces seemingly insurmountable odds at winning any, let alone the three awards for which it received nominations.  About one percent of voters in a Yahoo! poll favor this movie as the Best Picture over the other nine.
And then there’s “The Blind Side.”  I mean, when the Academy was thinking about expanding the number of nominees for Best Picture, did that open the flood gates for run-on-the-mill, clichéd and heartwarming sports movies like “The Blind Side?”  The only memorable aspects of the movie are the genuine performances: Best Actress-nominee Sandra Bullock’s commanding yet caring Leigh Anne Tuohy — who will most likely beat out Meryl Streep’s Julia Child impression in “Julie & Julia”  — and the compassionate Quinton Aaron as the tall, dark and athletic introvert.  Besides these, “The Blind Side” is a B movie at best.
Just think of all the good movies that deserved “The Blind Side’s” spot: “Star Trek” (that’s the Trekkie side of me speaking), “(500) Days of Summer” (that’s the romantic-comedy-lover side of me speaking) and even “The Hangover” (that’s the person-with-a-sense-of-humor side of me speaking).  While you’re at it, Academy, along with “The Blind Side,” why not just nominate “G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra” or “Land of the Lost?!”
Now comes the hard part. These five — “Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Inglorious Basterds,” “Precious” and “Up in the Air” — are the movies that would have been left if the number of nominees had remained at five. There is no room for error when deciding which of these films deserves the gold.
“Precious” is the numbing and heart-wrenching drama of an overweight and seriously abused inner-city teenage girl (Gabourey Sibide is the movie’s heart and soul as Precious) who is regularly raped by her father — which has resulted in two children —  and beaten physically and psychologically by her sadistic mother (a harrowing performance by Mo’Nique that should earn her an Oscar, finally severing her from “Phat Girls” and “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins” and movies of that ilk).  Other than the deep screenplay and amazing cast — which features Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey in surprise supporting roles along with the two strong leading ladies — “Precious” is an unbalanced movie.  Lee Daniels’ direction is brilliant in some scenes and lackluster in others.  But “Precious” could win Best Picture on the cast and writing alone.
Jason Reitman seems to be an infallible filmmaker.  His first two successes, “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” tackled controversial topics — the positives of cigarettes and teenage pregnancy — and found personal angles via amazing writing, acting and direction.  “Up in the Air,” follows the his mold, with Reitman co-writing the sharp and biting Oscar-nominated screenplay —which follows George Clooney as a frequent flier who travels from city to city firing workers — and directing it to perfection.  The acting, though, is the strongest part of “Up in the Air.”  Clooney honestly deserves an Oscar for his elite performance as Ryan Brigham, an intelligent and philosophical man — he talks at seminars, preaching that relationships weigh humans down.  The two Supporting Actress-nominees, Vera Farminga and Anna Kendrick, also shine as independent business women.
Which brings us to our two war-themed nominees, “Locker” and “Basterds.” At the moment, “Locker,” the powerful and gritty Iraqi war drama following an elite, adrenaline-addicted Army bomb squad team in 2004 Baghdad, is the favorite to win.  But upon viewing the very last copy from Blockbuster, I wasn’t as impressed as I had hoped.  Yes, it was neatly and perfectly created by Best Director-nominee (and probable winner), Kathryn Bigelow (she also held the reins of “Point Break,” another adrenaline-junkie movie), and yes, it includes a layered and mature performance by Best Actor-nominee, Jeremy Renner — along with some earth-shattering explosions and “Boom Boom Pow’s” — but it didn’t reach me on the same level as “Inglorious Basterds.”
Christoph Waltz in "Inglorious Basterds" (Photo courtesy of imdb.com).
Christoph Waltz in "Inglorious Basterds" (Photo courtesy of imdb.com).

Quentin Tarantino struck again with his fun and wicked World War II fairy tale about Nazi-killing Jews concocting the assassination of Adolf Hitler.  It’s probably the biggest risk Tarantino’s taken; he’s pushing the gun fights and explosions to second fiddle and letting the beautifully crafted and Oscar-worthy screenplay and amazing ensemble cast take center stage.  What “Basterds” has that “Locker” doesn’t: agonizingly intense conversations that are better than any shoot-out or action scene, especially when they involve Best Supporting Actor shoe-in Christoph Waltz’s cleverly diabolical Col. Hans Landa.  I mean, the intensity of his scenes makes bomb-diffusing in Baghdad seem like a lighthearted game of checkers.
The last entry is by far the most bodacious and non-bogus — in the words of Bill S. Preston Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan — piece of film-making of the century: “Avatar.”  While some people are less-than-thrilled while talking about James Cameron’s box-office smash and epic, I honestly loved this movie.  Yes, the script is a little clunky at times, but that’s the only real downfall. The rest is a magical feast of amazing and breathtaking art brilliantly integrated with seething emotion.
“Avatar” did get gypped, though.  Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri “missed by that much” — as my friend Maxwell Smart would say — at nabbing a Best Actress nomination.  And yes, she was acting.  It wasn’t just her voice.  It was her on screen doing those flips and shooting those arrows, all with a kajillion dots on her face in blue spandex — the plethora of blue skin would be added later.  But you know how I knew it was acting?  She, along with the rest of the movie, made me feel.
So as the days wind down, I still have yet to make my pick for Best Picture.  Will I go with the terrific performances and writing in “Up in the Air” and “Precious?”  Or perhaps the intensity found in the favorite “The Hurt Locker.”  There’s always the spectacle in “Avatar.”
But then again, it’s always the small details that make a movie that much better than the rest.
In this case, it’s probably the pleasantly surprising narration by Samuel L. Jackson’s found in “Basterds.”
You see, it’s the little things that win Oscars.

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