There was no wire-to-wire sure thing this time around in Oscar’s picture race. Even with 10 nominees, every film encountered pangs of doubt about its Oscar chances sometime in the past year.
Though the supersized Oscar ballot seemed tailor-made for epic fantasy “Avatar” from James Cameron, who had the bona fides of an Oscar win with “Titanic,” the film still had to prove it wasn’t an overpriced folly. Defamer.com might not be the Academy’s go-to site for film critiques, but writer Richard Rushfield wasn’t too far out of the mainstream when he said, “We stand before you today to proclaim, sight unseen, that ‘Avatar’ will suck.”
Instead, the pic’s December release won over voters just in time to register their support on Oscar balloting.
In contrast, whispers about “Precious” as a kudos contender began with the film’s Sundance award-winning premiere, but they were accompanied by questions about the grim film’s Oscar viability, at least until the Academy’s June announcement that the nominees list would double. And, like “Precious,” “The Hurt Locker” relied on slow-but-steady word of mouth to make it a top voter pick instead of arriving with that status.
“An Education” also debuted to great notices at Sundance, with the benefit of seeming more typically Academy-friendly. However, the Carey Mulligan starrer didn’t receive a single picture award in the U.S. from a critics group or a guild, nor a Golden Globe drama nomination, leaving open the possibility that it was barely hanging on in the Oscar nom race. “District 9” echoed the Stateside drought of “Education,” but it also found a home with Oscar at the end, arguably at the expense of a pic frequently mentioned early on as a potential nominee, “Star Trek.”
Several films were on Oscar watch lists before they came out, and merely needed to deliver the goods. Sounds simple enough, but while it worked for “Inglourious Basterds” and “Up in the Air,” the ending was an unhappy one for others like “Amelia,” “Invictus” and “Nine.”
Of the many films on the resume of Joel and Ethan Coen, “A Serious Man” is only the third to draw an Oscar pic nom — and the most unlikely. Widely portrayed as a quiet film that the brothers were allowed to make as a reward for their past success, “Serious” won enough Acad members over with its quirky sincerity — albeit with its nomination hopes in suspense to the end.
“Up” premiered in May to favorable reviews, though it didn’t necessarily leave voters breathless in the fashion of the previous most recent Pixar releases, “Ratatouille” and “Wall-E.” But about a month later came the official expansion of the pic nominations, and “Up” was well-positioned to benefit.
Finally, there’s “The Blind Side.” The populist movie released by tiny Alcon Entertainment had no Oscar attention upon its release. But momentum that first built for Sandra Bullock in lead actress snowballed into a nod for the film itself, ensuring that every picture nom had a nervy ride to the Oscars.