MUSE interviewed four UC Davis professors and film experts about their favorite movies of 2009 and their predictions for the 2010 Academy Awards, airing Mar. 7. Dean Simonton, psychology, uses quantitative methods to predict Academy Award winners. Sarah Pia Anderson, Theatre and Dance, has directed many television shows including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Ugly Betty.” Pablo Ortiz, music, has composed award-winning film music for over 25 years. Jaimey Fisher, German, participates in the Committee in Charge for Film Studies and is an expert in German and Italian cinema.
What were some of your favorite films this year?
Professor Jaimey Fisher, German: Of the mainstream US releases, I’d say The Hurt Locker was my favorite film of 2009. I thought it was excellent as a genre film that also pushed the envelope of mainstream entertainment – something its director Kathryn Bigelow does consistently in her films.
Professor Sarah Pia Anderson, Theatre and Dance: It was a very strong year. I loved Avatar and The Hurt Locker. They seemed to represent two totally different forms of cinema. Avatar is using very new technology that James Cameron and his team invented and is very beautiful and very captivating and unique. It’s a story against aggression in the same way that The Hurt Locker is. The Hurt Locker is a more conventional, naturalistic, pseudo-documentary. So they couldn’t be farther apart in terms of the actual craft of filmmaking. And then you’ve got the animated film Up, which I thought was a brilliant film, because it’s animation taking on complex themes of life and how to live after death. We’ve come a long, long way from Bambi! I thought District 9 was a wonderful film. The way it was shot, it had special effects but they were very low-tech, as opposed to Avatar. But the story was very effective. The story is always what keeps people watching. We as human beings are not the heroes in these movies. The animals, the aliens, the indigenous people are the heroes in these movies. The environment plays a large part in these stories and I like that.
What films do you think will win at the Academy Awards?
Professor Pablo Ortiz, Music: I think The Hurt Locker is probably going to be Best Director and a number of other Bests. It could be Best Actor, maybe Original Screenplay. It conveys the notion that when people go to Iraq, they enter a completely different dimension. What I liked the best was the scene of [Staff Sergeant James] in the supermarket looking at the cereal, without understanding anything at all. There are hundreds of thousands of people in that situation. It’s kind of disturbing. The explicit message of the film is that the war is addictive. I think [Jeremy Renner]’s performance is excellent.
Professor Dean Simonton, Psychology: With respect to Avatar, box office is a good predictor of hardly anything. A lot of blockbusters get no awards and are critically panned. The problem that Avatar faces is that it gathered not one single nod for acting or screenplay. The only important nomination it received from the standpoint of best picture awards is the nod for Best Director, but in this respect it may be confounded with a producer with a phenomenal box office track record.
Fisher: In terms of the overall number of awards, I suspect Avatar will do very well. Hollywood tends to favor films that do well commercially over those that don’t – see Titanic, a highly mediocre film – but I’m pulling for Kathryn Bigelow, especially for Best Director, both since she deserves it and since no woman has ever won – a scandal on many levels.
Anderson: I think that Avatar will probably win Best Picture, but it may not. The Oscars are very political. People like to give prizes to people who haven’t had them before.
What did you find most memorable about the movies of 2009? Did you notice any trends?
Ortiz: [The films this year] are diverse. Avatar, of course, is science fiction but it’s supposed to be green and all-encompassing, if you wish, on the left. The Hurt Locker is surprisingly in the middle when you think politics, and I think that’s interesting – the fact that it talks about something as hard to talk about the war without really taking a side. That’s something that’s a big divider for people.
Fisher: I think The Hurt Locker was the best U.S. film of the year and Michael Haneke’s excellent White Ribbon has a very good chance for the foreign language Oscar – both are about violence and even more so the generation of violence, so that might be a trend we’ll look back on. White Ribbon is a highly original period piece about the era right before World War I, and shows how a community’s brutal treatment of its member can perpetuate violence. Haneke pretty clearly meant the film and these mechanisms as an allegory for our contemporary world. But it’s also obvious that Avatar will change cinema more than any other work this year. The box office of the picture has been incredible at a time of widespread anxiety about theatrical releases, so we’ll be seeing a wave of 3D children’s films, general films, TVs, everything. Of course the film doesn’t do much for film narrative or, perhaps least of all, acting. It’s no accident that the Screen Actors Guild gave Inglorious Basterds its Best Ensemble award, not Avatar.
Simonton: I was pleasantly surprised to see District 9 nominated for Best Picture because the Academy tends to shy away from sci-fi, especially relatively low-budget sci-fi (by Hollywood standards). But I saw it, and thought it was a great movie. Another odd thing, of course, is the Academy’s decision to have 10 nominees for Best Picture. By doubling the number, they included a lot of good films that might otherwise be ignored, such as the already mentioned District 9. But that increase also means that some of the nominees are questionable. For example, I have to wonder about A Serious Man. It received no nods for direction or acting, and how much of the nod for best screenplay was because it was written by the Coen brothers, who are now filmmaking legends?
Anderson: The theme [this year] is that we as a species need to look at what we’re doing to the planet. On the epic stage, human beings are becoming the enemy. Whether we are our own enemy, we are definitely the enemy. The films in the Oscar race reflect collective, particularly American, concerns. They’re all about how the land fits and where human beings fit right now. The thing I would also stress is the enormous difference between the scale [of the films]. District 9 and Hurt Locker were almost independent features, and they’re in the same frame as possibly the biggest studio picture ever made, Avatar. It’s really remarkable.
ROBIN MIGDOL can be reached at email@example.com.