The Fine Line: How the Oscars subdue controversy by embracing it

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Looking through the latest score of Oscar nominees, it’s difficult not to be a little bit happy. Eight of the nine nominees for Best Picture actually sort of deserve to be there, as do most of the acting nominees.  It’s actually difficult to pinpoint the greatest surprise success, though you’d have a hard time arguing that it’s not either Michael Haneke’s Amour and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Both of these films “stole” Best Director nominees from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck, though we named them as the two best movies of the year.

However, the Oscars have slowly been dwindling further into mediocrity long before the Academy switched their Best Picture policy to, “We’ll nominate however many goddamn movies we feel like” and kept the directing category limited at five nominees.  Looking at the past five years of winners, three of them (Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and last year’s The Artist) were the un-upsetting crowd-pleasers of their respective year.  The other two (No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker) were technical masterworks deserving of the kind of pedigree the Oscars are supposed to represent.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal (screenplay)
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle and Joel Edgerton

In 2008’s The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal created a searingly suspenseful modern war movie about a bomb diffuser addicted to the rush of potential detonation, which became a history-making Oscar and critical darling in the process. It was a grimy and unsanitized piece of work, more obsessed with masculinity on the edge than serving up an overt political agenda.

Zero Dark Thirty is almost clinical by comparison, if no less nerve-wracking.  In chronicling the obsessive decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, Boal and Bigelow re-examine the American psyche on a much broader scope.  Again they try to keep an agenda out of it and simply dramatize the facts, but the sensitivity and  weight of those findings make it impossible to avoid controversy.

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Are women trapped in film’s hurt locker?

The always engaging Manohla Dargis of the New York Times recently wrote a brilliant article about what Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win at the Oscars means.  Dargis’ thorough, bullet-proof essay concludes that women in film are probed about their personal life more than men as well as “ghettoized in romantic comedy.”

This got me thinking about some of those recent movies, both romantic and comical, and just how they view women.  Let’s take a look at two of 2009’s biggest films: The Hangover and The Twilight Saga: New Moon.

At a glance, these films may appear to have absolutely nothing in common.  On closer analysis though, they both share some kind of anti-feminist philosophy.   The Hangover operates under the philosophy that women are either a nuisance, or just total bitches, while New Moon treats its female “heroine” like a junkie looking for a testosterone fix.

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The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar: Stuck Between a Bomb, and a Blue Face?

Image courtesy of New York Daily News

Even though there are 10 Best Picture nominees this year, as usual it comes down to a couple front-runners. As the March 7th air date approaches, two films, one of which is unexpected, have emerged as clear front-runners.

In this corner, the people’s champion; James Cameron’s high budget, jaw-dropping 3D epic Avatar. In the other corner, the critic’s darling; Kathryn Bigelow’s low budget, highly praised, action face-melter The Hurt Locker.  So, how did it come to pass that these two films made it to the top?

Avatar was always a front-runner.  Ten years in the making, big twelve million dollar camera, 3D visuals to die for- combine these three things with James ‘Titanic’ Cameron, and you have yourself a sure-fire hit.  However, it was initially speculated that either Up In the Air or, way earlier in the season, Precious would square off with it.  As the many daunting awards ceremonies have shown though, Jason Reitman’s film is really only going to expect a screenplay award, while Lee Daniels can only expect Mo’Nique’s Best Supporting Actress win for his film. How did Bigelow edge them out then?

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Hurt Locker

Image courtesy of IGN

The Hurt Locker
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Ralph Fiennes

The Hurt Locker is that little military movie in the summer you didn’t see because you’d rather have watched Transformers 2 for the third and fourth time in a row. But I wouldn’t put myself on any pedestal, I didn’t see The Hurt Locker until it came out on DVD after garnering a plethora of critic groups awards and Golden Globe nominations, hoping the hype for Hurt was worth the watch. It is the movie against all odds, small budget in a big summer, female director in an industry run by men, an Iraqi war setting in the age of modern war movies being serious taboo, The Hurt Locker overcomes those obstacles, but not with the blast of fierce action as critics promise. Instead, it’s defused and delivered with a slow burning tension which is rare among war movies.

The film follows the reckless Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) as he steps up to head a bomb squad unit serving in Baghdad. His unusual and ballsy methods are not only cause trouble for the squad, but often is responsible for their ability to overcome some of the great obstacles they face. Their journey is a journey with no destination of place, but that of time. Each day survived is one day closer to them returning to home to their wives and families. The plot appears to follow the conventions of a typical modern war film, but The Hurt Locker is far from that. Taking unexpected turns and leaving politics aside, director Katherine Bigelow explores deep into what makes these characters tick, sans all the standard patriotic “I love my country” bullshit.

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