Oscar Bait
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Oscar Bait

Ranking the 2009 Best Picture Nominees

Expanding the pool to 10 movies also served to dilute it

By Todd Hill

Actor Guy Pearce, left, director Kathryn Bigelow and producer Greg Shapiro are seen after winning the Oscar for Best Motion Picture for “The Hurt Locker” at the 82nd Academy Awards on March 7, 2010. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did the right thing in 1944 when it more or less standardized its all-over-the-place Oscars, limiting the number of Best Picture nominees to five to match the number of nominees in the acting and most other award categories.

Beginning in 1931–32, the Academy had nominated anywhere from eight to 12 movies for Best Picture each year, although it appeared to settle on 10 nominated films in 1936, and in every one of those years — with the notable exception of 1939, arguably the best year in the history of American cinema — that was too many.

After 1944, for 55 years, five Best Picture nominees were almost always enough, but something changed in 2009. Specifically, “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s high-toned — and immensely popular — Batman flick, didn’t get a Best Pic nod from Academy voters that year, despite receiving eight lesser Oscar nominations (and winning two awards).

To presumably lessen the chance of a perceived snub like that happening again, the Academy jacked up the number of Best Picture nominees to 10 for movies released in 2009 and again in 2010, after which the number was changed to anywhere from five to 10 through 2020–21. And for the record, Academy voters did finally get around to nominating a superhero movie for Best Picture with 2018’s “Black Panther.”

I’ve always contended that the 2009 expansion was mostly done to goose the television ratings of the awards telecast, which under-performed during the ’00s. And sure enough, they jumped up by 13 percent in 2010, although the long-term viewing trend away from live TV events that aren’t sports quickly re-asserted itself as the ’10s unspooled.

More importantly, with 10 films from 2009 nominated for Best Picture, the risk that some titles would find their way in as filler inevitably came to pass. My personal ranking below of the nominees from best to worst, I think, makes it clear which movies still didn’t deserve to be at this suddenly less exclusive party.

George Clooney fires people for a living, with the help of Anna Kendrick, in the recession-themed film “Up in the Air.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

1.) Up in the Air

Timing counts for a lot. Jason Reitman’s dramedy of sorts captures A-lister George Clooney at the peak of his arc as a movie star, and making the most of that opportunity, draws on his well-known charms. Clooney portrays a frequent flier who fires people for a living, which renders the picture even more timely, coming as it did amidst the worst economic downturn in the U.S. since the 1930s. But how does it stand up today, outside of that context? Unfortunately, but fortunately for the film, economic dislocation remains as relevant as ever. But that’s only one reason why this is one of the most melancholic movies I know; its exploration of the importance of emotional connections continues to resonate as well. Vera Farmiga and then-newcomer Anna Kendrick shine in key supporting roles, and received Oscar recognition for their efforts. The film still stands as the high point of Reitman’s directorial career.

Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Director (Jason Reitman), Actor (George Clooney), Supporting Actress (Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick), Adapted Screenplay (Reitman and Sheldon Turner). Oscar wins, 0.

Jeremy Renner stars as the leader of a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit serving in Iraq in “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment

2.) The Hurt Locker

The Academy was never going to let America’s war in Iraq during the ’00s go unrecognized by the Academy without at least one Best Picture nomination. There were plenty of quality films on the topic to choose from, and this one — about a small unit defusing bombs — is the best of the lot. Just as important, it’s directed with confidence by Kathryn Bigelow, allowing Oscar voters to finally hand a Best Director award to a woman, one who just happened to make the best war movie of the decade. The cast here, led by Jeremy Renner, is able, but the movie is a directorial tour de force. Outside the horror genre, I don’t see a lot of contemporary movies that handle suspense this well, if they even try. Is it really so hard to accomplish? Bigelow’s effort could do with a more defined narrative arc, but you’ll have to look long and hard to find another movie as intensely suspenseful as this one.

Oscar nominations, 9 — Best Picture, Director (Kathryn Bigelow), Actor (Jeremy Renner), Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), Film Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing. Oscar wins, 6 — Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing.

Peter Sarsgaard’s man about town leads a young Carey Mulligan astray in the London-set “An Education.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

3.) An Education

This is a tricky one. Men well into their 30s don’t pursue teenage girls for any reasons that can be considered respectable (and no respectable movie is going to let them get away with it). This film works so well because, via a very smart screenplay by Nick Hornby, it’s told from the girl’s point of view. It’s also set in pre-Beatles London, which is another way of saying pre-everything, so when a debonair man with money and swell friends introduces the girl (Carey Mulligan in her breakthrough performance) to his world, we understand why she falls for it so easily. When her mother asks her how her night went and she responds, “Best night of my life,” our sympathy for the girl soars, since by escaping the clutches of her strict father she’s just walking into another trap. Calling this a feminist film seems simplistic and reductive, but it’s a fascinating watch handsomely produced and nicely played.

Oscar nominations, 3 — Best Picture, Actress (Carey Mulligan), Adapted Screenplay (Nick Hornby). Oscar wins, 0.

James Cameron’s “Avatar” is set in the 22nd century on a moon in the Alpha Centauri solar system, where the natives are blue. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

4.) Avatar

I knew a guy once who refused to see movies that featured blue people. I think he was primarily turned off by the Smurfs, but maybe not. This James Cameron techno-fest was a genuine cinematic event when it came out, and the number of films since then with a similar profile that didn’t involve superheroes is very small indeed. The ambition on full-throated display here has to be acknowledged and applauded. And just as with Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997), the haters have been trying to diminish this picture ever since it first hit theaters. Well, I don’t love it. Its plot, about a lone soldier of sorts representing a capitalist, colonialist overlord stepping into a native culture and taking its side, is “Dances With Wolves” (1990) all over again, just with blue people. The computerized visual effects are indeed amazing, but they’re also just computerized visual effects. Some day the sequels will arrive, but will the magic return all these years later? Doubt it.

Oscar nominations, 9 — Best Picture, Director (James Cameron), Film Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects. Oscar wins, 3 — Cinematography, Art Direction, Visual Effects.

Transformers-like aliens are subject to unrest in Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9,” which takes place in South Africa in the recent past. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

5.) District 9

Let’s put aside for a moment the unfortunate fact that director Neill Blomkamp has yet to again reach the heights he did with this, his first movie. Any filmmaker would kill to have this title on his or her resume, even if that’s all there is. Like so much in the sci-fi genre, this film is weighed down with some grand metaphorical ideas, and it’s very nifty how Blomkamp injects apartheid into what could otherwise be a standard yarn about space aliens. Typically, motion pictures depict space invaders as all-knowing, all-powerful beings bent on our destruction so they can steal our natural resources, or just because. But here they are portrayed as pathetic and starving, and are therefore easily shunted off into teeming refugee camps. It’s a conceit that lends itself to some striking visuals and surprising plot points. Eventually, the movie wallows in far less interesting body horror to keep the momentum going, but the high-concept stuff is fun while it lasts.

Oscar nominations, 4 — Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay (Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell), Film Editing, Visual Effects. Oscar wins, 0.

Eli Roth and Brad Pitt, from left, go hunting for some Nazis, POV-style, in the Quentin Tarantino World War II film “Inglourious Basterds.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

6.) Inglourious Basterds

To my mind, we don’t see enough new World War II adventure movies these days, but given that we’re not living in 1951 perhaps that’s understandable. Does this hyper-violent offering from Quentin Tarantino help to make up for this dearth? For QT’s many fans, without question. While the filmmaker’s now-venerable profile must be acknowledged, I’ve always found this hugely popular, Nazi-hunting splatter-fest to be largely derivative of the pulp titles that have informed pretty much all of Tarantino’s work. And sorry, but that’s limiting. Here’s another hot take — As a lead actor, Brad Pitt has often (although not always) been found wanting, and doesn’t make much of an impression here either. Maybe that’s not entirely fair, since Tarantino always manages to be the star of his pictures, even off-screen. And the director does give a lot of rope here to Christoph Waltz, enjoying a juicy villain role. Appropriately, Waltz waltzed away with this movie’s only Oscar.

Oscar nominations, 8 — Best Picture, Director (Quentin Tarantino), Supporting Actor (Christoph Waltz), Original Screenplay (Tarantino), Film Editing, Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing. Oscar wins, 1 — Supporting Actor.

In the Pixar film “Up,” Ed Asner voices Carl Fredericksen, a widower with a taste for adventure and a thing for balloons. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

7.) Up

I’ve never re-watched this Pixar creation and don’t expect that I ever will, but so many of us have seen its famed, four-minute marriage sequence more than once. It’s overstating it to say that it’s the saddest thing ever committed to the screen, but it’s up there, and it certainly represents one of many high points for Pixar. Imagine what these guys could accomplish if they made movies for adults. I’m not denigrating animated offerings for kids, but time and time again the minds at Pixar, in letting their storytelling ambitions show, have seemed constrained by their genre. Maybe this film’s Original Screenplay nomination was some solace. Inevitably, however, the movie was relegated to the Best Animated Feature ghetto, although its win for Original Score was well-deserved. The movie is concerned with a grouchy, old man who goes on a South American adventure with a Boy Scout, courtesy of several balloons. As balloon flicks go, it’s definitely a cut above “Around the World in 80 Days.”

Oscar nominations, 5 — Best Picture, Original Screenplay (Pete Docter, Tom McCarthy and Bob Peterson), Animated Feature, Original Score, Sound Editing. Oscar wins, 2 — Animated Feature, Original Score.

Gabourey Sidibe made her acting debut in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” for which she received much critical acclaim, and has been acting steadily in both film and television since. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

8.) Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

Because the extreme always manages to make an impression — that’s one explanation for why this film received so much Oscar love. By 2009, the Academy was finally mindful that it had a diversity problem, but it’s difficult to suggest that this movie depicts the African-American community in anything remotely resembling a positive light. Gabourey Sidibe stars as an obese, young welfare mom with a life seemingly without possibilities, not to mention a horrible mother (Mo’Nique, just the latest woman to get Academy recognition for portraying a maternal nightmare). The acting is superb across the board; I was most taken with Mariah Carey’s unrecognizable, and surprising, turn as a civil servant. But Lee Daniels’ film, even if it’s honest, has also been described as misery porn, and I believe aptly so. My reasoning for why this small film did relatively well at the Oscars is simply this — “The Blind Side” (see below).

Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Director (Lee Daniels), Actress (Gabourey Sidibe), Supporting Actress (Mo’Nique), Adapted Screenplay (Geoffrey Fletcher), Film Editing. Oscar wins, 2 — Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay.

Michael Stuhlbarg portrays a physics professor with impressive blackboard skills in the Coen brothers’ film “A Serious Man.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features

9.) A Serious Man

This title regularly does well in the inevitable rankings of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, and I’ve never quite understood why. Something of a comedic lark, the movie takes place in a Jewish community in 1960s Minnesota, a setting familiar to the Coens, and that familiarity lends the movie considerable authenticity, at least visually. A capable Michael Stuhlbarg stars as a man whose wife is leaving him, propelling the character through a landmine of multiple insecurities, both personal and professional. To his profound disappointment, he finds his faith lacking as he looks for answers. At least I guess that’s what this movie’s about, although what I most readily recall about the film are old Jewish people coughing elaborately. The pictures of the brothers Coen often leave me scratching my head, and when I do find one I like it’s often a title that most Coen aficionados fairly despise. I don’t know what that says about me, or the Coens.

Oscar nominations, 2 — Best Picture, Original Screenplay (Joel and Ethan Coen). Oscar wins, 0.

Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her portrayal of an interior designer who showed Quinton Aaron (as real-life character Michael Oher) a better life through football in “The Blind Side.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

10.) The Blind Side

Will Hollywood ever realize that white savior movies are in fact vile? Let’s not hold our breath; nearly 10 years after this nauseating crowd-pleaser squeezed into the Best Picture race, the similarly themed “Green Book” actually won the award. I realize that this film about a rich, white woman who takes a black boy under her arm and helps him become a big football star is based on real-life events. That hardly makes it defensible. The movie is well made in every practical respect, it just didn’t deserve this kind of profile. Sandra Bullock won her only Oscar to date for her performance here, and while she’s a longtime actress of quality, in a perfect world she would’ve won the same award four years later for her turn in “Gravity.” What’s worst is that this white savior film tries to focus most of its attention on the white savior, ignoring the reality that her country-club life would’ve gone along just fine if she had never met the kid. Let’s stop making these movies now.

Oscar nominations, 2 — Best Picture, Actress (Sandra Bullock). Oscar wins, 1 — Actress.

For further consideration

The entire bottom half of my ranking above could’ve been left out of the running for Best Picture without any complaint from me. If nothing else, that may have allowed three other films, with a whopping two overall Oscar nominations among them, to populate the list instead.

Juliette Binoche, center, stars in the French-language film “Summer Hours,” a drama centered on a substantive inheritance directed by Olivier Assayas. Photo courtesy of MK2 Productions

The French filmmaker Olivier Assayas has been doing substantive work for a long time, and while “Summer Hours” may or may not be his best movie, it’s the one that’s stayed with me. A thoughtful rumination about family starring Juliette Binoche, the film asks tricky questions about art and possessions and whether their value can or should transcend generations. It would hardly have been unheard of for a foreign-language film to land a Best Picture nomination; 12 have done so as of this writing, although just one has won the award (South Korea’s “Parasite” in 2020).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are about to meet cute in an elevator in the Marc Webb romantic comedy of sorts “(500) Days of Summer.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

We shouldn’t waste too much time lamenting the passing of the romantic comedy (or at least its segregation into streaming). How quickly we forget all those bad rom-coms we once forced ourselves to sit through. The Marc Webb film “(500) Days of Summer” is actually about a breakup so maybe it’s not technically a rom-com, but it’s wistful and whimsical and wonderfully inventive, and very much the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. Unfortunately, it now appears to represent the high-water mark for director Marc Webb. It also captures stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel at or near the peak of their film careers.

Anthropomorphism is taken to an extreme in Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a caper film set in the canine world. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Once a fox, always a fox. Every time I watch one of Wes Anderson’s many live-action films it occurs to me that his creative sensibilities could really translate well to animation. This is because they have, at least the stop-motion variety. The phenomenon first came to light with “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and then again nine years later with “Isle of Dogs”). I don’t just say this because Anderson’s excessively fussy live-action flicks routinely get on my nerves. Although this movie, like all of the filmmaker’s projects, has been overpraised by the critical cinema literati, it works great as a canine “Ocean’s Eleven.”

About this project

Some people vow to visit every continent on the planet, others to read everything Shakespeare (allegedly) wrote. I’ve never had much interest in doing either, but I am committed to seeing every motion picture ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, back to the very first ones in 1927–28 (specifically, I’m talking about films nominated for Outstanding Picture, Outstanding Production, Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture and Best Picture; I’m not sure why the Academy has seen fit to change the name of the award so frequently).

I don’t for one moment presume to operate under the assumption that the Best Picture nominees have consistently represented the best American filmmakers have had to offer over time, which is why with each slate of nominees I also briefly consider some other consensus critical picks for the best movies of that year(s). Yes, there’s a lot of overlap, but not as much as there should be.

So, why am I taking the time to watch and then write about so many often sub-par movies (571 following the 2020–21 Academy Awards)? As anyone with just a passing knowledge of the Oscars knows, the voters often get it wrong, which isn’t so much fascinating as it is frustrating. The Oscars, however, have always mattered to the film industry, and matter still (the annual awards telecast, not so much). Each year’s Best Picture nominees help to paint a picture of how Hollywood saw itself at that time, and provide us with glimpses at trends in movie history that could be gone for good.

Most of all, they supply context. Think this year’s slate of nominees was the best ever? The worst? I can virtually guarantee you that’s not the case. No, really. You’d be surprised.

Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.

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Warm3wind

Warm3wind

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Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.