Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The Concise Oscar 2009 Dictionary

A Quick, Opinionated Guide To This Year’s Academy Awards Line-Up

Published: Feb 27, 2010 09:54:28 AM IST
Updated: Feb 27, 2010 03:26:47 PM IST
The Concise Oscar 2009 Dictionary
Image: Courtesy of WETA
Visual Brilliance The imagery in Avatar is hallucinatory

is for Alfred Molina, in An Education, playing Jack, Jenny’s (Carey Mulligan) father, a wonderful, restrained performance that deserved a nomination but didn’t get one. Molina is, by turns, bombastic, shy, confused, shrewd and, finally, devastated to find that his daughter has been seduced and left by a playboy. When Molina tells his daughter towards the end of the film: “…and he wasn’t who he said he was. He wasn’t who you said he was,” he breaks your heart with his helplessness.

is for Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino returns to form with this rollicking tale. Who else could have thought of using a knife to carve the swastika on a Nazi head as way for Jews to take revenge?

is for Courtship, in An Education. It is actually the start of a seduction (but we don’t know this yet). The lovely Jenny (Carey Mulligan) stands at the bus stop getting drenched in the rain. David (Peter Saarsgard) drives by. He stops, and tells Mulligan: “I can understand that you won’t accept a lift from a stranger, but I am a music lover and am very worried about your cello.” He puts the cello in the back seat, and drives very slowly while Mulligan walks next to the car talking to him. The English and their instruments!

is for Lee Daniels. It is hard to take a brutal, depressing tale of a down-and-out black woman (Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire - evidently Saphire negotiated much harder than Chetan Bhagat did with V. V. Chopra) and still manage to grab and hold the audience. But Daniels pulls it off, keeping it real, yet watchable.

is for Elegance. Forget Bullock, Streep or Mirren. As Jenny in An Education, Cary Mulligan is elegantly cool; her acting is economical, almost effortless. And her on-screen chemistry with Alfred Molina, who plays her father, is an absolute joy.

is for Francois Pienaar, as played by Matt Damon in Invictus. Just when we thought we had lost the talented Mr. Damon to Jason Bourne, he delivers a cool, nuanced portrayal of the captain of the South African Rugby team in the 1990s. Damon keeps it understated and that works beautifully to highlight Morgan Freeman’s Mandela.

is for Gallows Humour, as in The Hurt Locker. When a colonel asks the bomb disposal expert, William James (Jeremy Renner), “How many bombs have you disarmed?” James answers, “873.” The colonel persists: “So what’s best way to go about disarming these things?” James, straight-faced, answers, “The way you don’t die Sir.”

is for Helicoradian. Avatar deserves to be seen in 3D just for these hallucinatory flowers with red spiral leaves. According to Wikipedia, these plants are 3–4 metres (9.8–13 ft) tall and, when touched, they curl up and collapse into themselves instantly. They are zooplantae, part-animal, part-plant. Unless you are smoking stuff that you shouldn’t be, it is hard to think up this sort of visual imagery.

is for Invictus, a poem by W. E. Henley. It ends:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Nelson Mandela internalised the poem to help himself survive the long imprisonment. He then gave this line to the captain of the South African Rugby team.

is for Jeff Bridges. You can hate country music for its clichés. But not his country singer character in Crazy Heart. His performance encompasses almost the entire range of emotions available to actors; in that sense, his is perhaps the most complete acting performance of the year.

is for Kathryn Bigelow. The Hurt Locker is a sledgehammer, yet a very balanced portrayal of the American presence in Iraq. It takes guts to cast actors like Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes and kill them within ten minutes of their first appearances. A wonderfully human touch: Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) realising, in the middle of a heated battle, that he could die any time: “I want a son. At least he would care if I am dead.”

is for Loyalty, but in a perverse way. In Up In The Air, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), believes in having a very light “backpack” — a metaphor for relationships — but he travels to accumulate frequent flyer mileage points, becoming the seventh person in history to accumulate 10-million of them. (“More people have walked on the moon!”) In his seat in a plane, Clooney is visited by the captain, who says: “We thank you for your loyalty.”

Is for Mandela (as in Nelson) and Morgan (as in Freeman). In Invictus, Freeman does an amazing job of reproducing Mandela’s walk, speech, and that incredible smile. In one memorable scene, Mandela tells his head of security services, who is black, to include whites in his team: “Rainbow nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here. Forgiveness starts here. Forgiveness is such a powerful weapon.” At that point, Mandela and Morgan merge to give you a ringside view of history.

The Concise Oscar 2009 Dictionary
Image: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Hungover Love Jeff Bridges plays an alcoholic country singer in Crazy Heart

is for Nihilism, the environment The Hurt Locker creates. In its depiction of life in the Iraqi war zone, it is hard to see anything meaningful. As Eldrich Owen, one of the principal characters, says to his psychiatrist: “You say ‘Be all you can be.’ But what if all I can be is dead on the side of an Iraqi road?”

is for Optimism, which pervades The Blind Side and Invictus. Both films use sports as a way to break down barriers and get people to rise above themselves, but from almost opposite perspectives. The Blind Side has a white family taking care of a black kid; Invictus has a black legend persuading his race to rise above their justifiable desire for revenge.

is for Plane. As in Jefferson Airplane. In A Serious Man, when one of the principal characters, a Jew, is taken to meet with Rabbi Marshak, he expects wise Talmudic advice. Instead the rabbi asks: “When the truth is found to be lies. And all the hope within you dies. Then what?” Grace Slick answered it in her magnificent voice many years ago: “You need somebody to love.”

is for Quantum Physics. The strange paradox of Erwin Schrodinger’s alive/dead cat, which he used to demonstrate wave function, pops up — unexpectedly! — in A Serious Man. A student fails his physics exam and tells his teacher that he understands the “dead cat” but can’t solve the math. The teacher answers: “…the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean — even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.”

is for Jeremy Renner, who plays the high-adrenalin lead character, William James, in The Hurt Locker in a way that combines the volatility of Jim Morrison with the concentration of Russell Crowe. He burns through his role like a fuse in the bombs he defuses so well. He almost delivers the film on his own.

is for Seduction, airport-lounge-style in Up In The Air. He asks her which she likes more, Maestro or Hertz. A debate. Then he shows her his ConciergeKey loyalty card. She asks him how many miles he does every year. He says coyly: “It is a personal question and we have only just met.” She persists with, “How big?” She is only sizing up his mileage points, but both have the measure of each other soon after. Classic Clooney; classy Vera Framiga.

is for Terminating Agents in Up In the Air, where a firm specialises in sacking people through a video conference system. (One day an Indian IT company will have this as a business and they will call it Remote Human Resource Management.)

is for University. Oxford to be precise. Where Jenny (Carey Mulligan) wants to study in An Education. She is looking for an easy way to get in there, and gets conned by David. Spurned by her school she realises that “I will have to work hard for the things that I so want.” She digs in.

Is for Vera Farmiga. A sophisticated and understated performance that charms the viewer and surprises George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air. Memorable line: “Think of me as you, with a vagina.”

is for War, and its perverse beauty. The Hurt Locker features a wonderfully developed ambush sequence that takes place in the forlorn Iraqi outback. The Americans first face-off with what they think is the enemy. Who turn out to be a US-hired private army. Both groups are attacked by Iraqi sniper insurgents. The battle begins at mid-day and stretches out into the evening. The sequence has danger, comedy, tension, pathos and, finally, ennui.

is for the Xhosa tribe of South Africa, which Mandela belongs to. In Invictus, he tells a young lady that she is very beautiful. The lady replies: “Surely you are exaggerating.” He says, “My father was a Xhosa and a polygamist. I am not. But when I see a woman like you I think how lucky my father was.” Top that!

is for Youth. Actors such as Jeremy Renner, Vera Farmiga, Casey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Anna Kendrick are all less than 40 years old and competing for the big prize.

is for the Zeroes that get added to a film’s box office take once a film makes it to the nominations list. Newsweek estimated it at $6.7 million! (Source:

For the full official list of nominees, Click here

NEXT PAGE: How the New Voting System Works

The Concise Oscar 2009 Dictionary
Image: ©2009 Warner Bros. Entertainment Iand Spyglass Entertainment Funding, LLC.
Rainbow Nation Morgan Freeman (left) and Matt Damon in Invictus

How the New Voting System Works

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences traditionally followed the classic democratic voting system: Winner takes all. That is, the nominee with the highest number of votes wins. But Uncle Oscar (age 83) is learning new tricks this year.

For Best Picture, the Academy will use the instant run-off voting (IRV) method. It goes like this. There are 10 nominees. All 5,777 current members of the Academy rank all the films from 1 to 10. Then, to quote from Gaming The Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do About It (Hill and Wang, 2008), by William Poundstone:

“Imagine counting ballots by hand (it’s easier that way). Ballots are collected and placed in stacks, one for each candidate. Each stack contains all the ballots where a given candidate is ranked number one. Should one candidate get a clear majority of first-place votes, that candidate wins immediately.

“Otherwise you pick up the shortest stack. This represents the candidate with the fewest number of first-pace votes. This candidate is eliminated. You sift through the eliminated stack and use the second-place choices to redistribute the ballots to the remaining stacks. Again you check to see whether any candidate now has a majority of votes. If so, that candidate wins. Otherwise you continue eliminating candidates and redistributing ballots until one candidate achieves a majority.”

The economic logic is sound. Voters assign a certain ‘utility’ to every movie and rate them accordingly. If all the utilities assigned to every individual movie were to be summed up, you’d get the exact same winner as determined by the IRV. Statistically, the winner from IRV is certainly the most ‘preferred’ candidate.

Let’s delve a little deeper. Often, movies polarise voters. A die-hard Inglourious Basterds fan is unlikely to rate The Hurt Locker as highly. But Avatar or District 9 could be second-choice for both camps. So if Inglourious Basterds or The Hurt Locker get eliminated, Avatar or District 9 get their votes. These two could find themselves in the mix. So the movies that everyone ‘likes’ but not ‘loves’ could be real contenders. So, much as the cognoscenti may turn up their collective noses at the thought, don’t be surprised if you see James Cameron holding aloft the Best Film statuette. In short, Best Film may just see a “compromise” winner, the least offensive, the least esoteric but a good solid movie all-round.

(By Irshad Daftari, he is a statistics nerd)

(This story appears in the 05 March, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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