No pic comes out of nowhere, and this year’s 10 best picture nominees have distinct forebears — though not always the ones that first spring to mind. Here are a bunch of past Oscar nominees and winners that seem to be in the DNA of this year’s contenders.
‘AVATAR’ AND ‘DISTRICT 9’: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF DIFFERENT KINDS
As an epic about sympathetic aliens in mortal combat with mostly dastardly humans, James Cameron’s “Avatar” resembles 1990’s best picture “Dances With Wolves” and — as anyone who surfs the Internet is now aware — “Pocahontas.” Conversely, Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” pits mostly unsympathetic aliens against mostly unsympathetric humans, which may be nearest in spirit to “Planet of the Apes,” and in both spirit and cinema-verite style to “The Battle of Algiers.”
‘THE BLIND SIDE’: RACE RELATIONS
Forget the sports stuff. Pic’s real appeal lies in the intersection of the white family and African-American kid. It’s a far cry from best picture nominees whose sole concern is the races clashing (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”; “Driving Miss Daisy”). If “The Blind Side” hadn’t been a true story about a black youth, the Michael character could be anyone from the underclass coming into contact with wealth and privilege. If anything, “The Blind Side” is closest in form to 1963 best pic nominee “Lilies of the Field”: In both cases, race is far less significant than class. (And lest we forget, “Lilies” yielded Sidney Poitier his Oscar.)
‘AN EDUCATION’: COMING OF (UNDER)AGE IN LONDON
While the younger man/older woman fling has been used to explore sexual frustration (“The Graduate”), bittersweet nostalgia (“Summer of ’42”) or psychosexual confusion (“The Reader”), younger women and older men coupling generally get the compassionate treatment of “Roman Holiday,” “Sabrina” and 1958 best picture winner “Gigi.” Really, the edgy “An Education” harks way back to 1953’s “Lili,” in which a sweet young thing is menaced by an oily, pathetic roue. Meanwhile, Lone Scherfig’s take on mod London was surely influenced by 1965 best pic nominee “Darling” — which, come to think of it, also features an s.y.t. and an oily roue.
‘THE HURT LOCKER’: GRIMLY PURPOSEFUL MEN AT WAR
Serious, award-contending war films traditionally focus on a small squad or platoon engaged in some impossible mission, including best picture winners “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Platoon” and “The Deer Hunter,” and nominees “Saving Private Ryan” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” A notable post-WWII mixture of serious battle action and service comedy was 1949’s best picture nominee “Battleground.”
‘INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS’: RAGTAG, MISFIT MEN AT WAR
The comic streak began to flourish with 1953’s “Stalag 17” and its best actor wiseguy, William Holden. A decade later, warfare could be depicted with mordant hilarity (“The Dirty Dozen”) and even convey antiwar sentiment (1969 best picture nominee “The Guns of Navarone”). Quentin Tarantino has surely seen all those movies and mashed them up in his head.
‘PRECIOUS’: UP FROM THE UNDERCLASS
Hollywood has paid precious little attention — at Oscar time, anyway — to life in U.S. urban ghettos. The Academy has shown love to studies of rural African-American life (“Sounder”; “The Color Purple”), but, except for “Malcolm X,” most mean-streets tales were of the ’70s blaxploitation genre Oscar recognized only with 1970’s best song, “Shaft.” The real precursors of Lee Daniels’ neo-neorealist shocker are from overseas: “I Vitelloni,” “Salaam Bombay!,” “Central Station” and “City of God.” These chilling portraits of desperate underclass youth, along with best foreign-language honorees “Shoeshine” and “Tsotsi,” qualify as forebears more than anything produced in America.
‘A SERIOUS MAN’: OY, SUCH TSURIS
In the Coen brothers’ prologue and concern with Jewish tradition, one can see glimpses of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Yentl.” At the same time, there’s the Jewish self-critique evident in “The Pawnbroker” and “Goodbye, Columbus.” Of course, family dysfunction is restricted to no ethnicity (1980’s best picture “Ordinary People”), but what “A Serious Man” most resembles is 1950 best pic nominee “Father of the Bride,” with Spencer Tracy and Michael Stuhlbarg both playing rock-ribbed, decent paterfamilias trying to keep their head while those about them are losing theirs.
‘UP’: LATE-LIFE CRISIS
Ask any thesp who qualifies for the senior discount at Denny’s: Hollywood is “No Country for Old Men” (and not so hot for old women, either). Most of the time, the industry’s version of elder care involves stasis: Edith Evans in “The Whisperers”; Albert Finney in “The Dresser.” Sometimes there’s a May-December (usually hapless) fling: Burt Lancaster in “Atlantic City”; Peter O’Toole in “Venus.” But Carl Frederickson doesn’t curl “Up” and die — he gets active, like Charles Laughton in “Witness for the Prosecution.” He goes on a road trip, like Richard Farnsworth in “The Straight Story.” Above all, he travels with a partner and a dream, which makes Art Carney in “Harry and Tonto” the only winner among this crew — and “Up’s” real grandpa.
‘UP IN THE AIR’: MIDLIFE CRISIS
When the angst kicks in in one’s 40s — as with best actor nominees Jack Lemmon (winner for “Save the Tiger”), Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”) and William Holden (“Network”) — it tends to manifest itself in nostalgia for the way things used to be, and acting on a powerful attraction to a younger woman. But when the restlessness lacks a significant sexual component — as with George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham — our aching hero tends to take on a younger colleague’s education, and such mentorship resulted in Oscars for Michael Douglas (“Wall Street”) and Paul Newman (“The Color of Money”). Bodes well, George.