David vs. Goliath: Can 'Hurt Locker' beat 'Avatar'?

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

The company picnic known as the Academy Awards will be held Sunday at the Hollywood Kodak Theatre, just down the boulevard from the famous handprints in concrete in front of Mann's Chinese. This year's tuxedoed and sequined picnic is laying out double the usual best picture nominees. Not since1944 — the year "Casablanca" won for best picture of 1943 — has this happened.

A few weeks ago, I thought the Oscar was "Avatar's" to lose. Once the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced plans to expand the picture roster to 10, it seemed like destiny. We're hacking our way out of a recession. We needed a box-office hero, and in the Oscar bash producers' quest for ratings fire, what could stoke it better than a big blue hit?

If "Avatar" does indeed win the top prize Oscar night, it will be the highest-grossing picture ever to do so. It is, after all, the highest-grossing film of all time, having zoomed past the $2 billion mark.

But now I wonder. I wonder if the Oscar voters, having paid lip service to the big tent idea with 10 best picture nominees, will favor "The Hurt Locker" after all. Various oddsmakers keeping book on the matter peg it as an extremely close race. If "The Hurt Locker" wins, by most measurements it will be the lowest-grossing Academy Award winner in history.

Critics groups worldwide have lauded director Kathryn Bigelow's drama, set in the worst of the Iraq war among a group of bomb tech experts. But when the Hollywood-centric Producers Guild of America chose "The Hurt Locker" over "Avatar" on Jan. 24, the winds shifted.

At an event recently, a member of the Writers Guild of America came up to me and we chatted, and he said that while he admired "The Hurt Locker," he didn't love the movie — it's just not "built" enough for his tastes. Others feel differently. I think the script's lack of customary war-movie narrative machinery makes it stronger, not weaker.

The voting rules have changed this year. In The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg explained it this way: Voting members of the academy, 5,800 of them, "are being asked to rank their choices from one to 10. In the unlikely event that a picture gets an outright majority of first-choice votes, the counting's over. If not, the last-place finisher is dropped and its voters' second choices are distributed among the movies still in the running. If there's still no majority, the second-to-last-place finisher gets eliminated, and its voters' second (or third) choices are counted. And so on, until one of the nominees goes over fifty percent."

Does this mean an upset or two in the making? I would like that. The show, to be hosted this year by Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, is always better for it.

But at this point a win for "The Hurt Locker" would not qualify as an upset. As Tony Bennett says in "The Oscar" (1966), the last word on this or any other subject: We'll see who's sitting on top of the glass mountain called Success, come March 7.


The 82nd Academy Awards will be broadcast at 8:30 p.m. EST Sunday on ABC.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.