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Awards Season Wrap: Riddles & Confusion

Kudos campaigns reflect '09 and its uncertainty

Ah, the follies of youth! When I was much younger, back in November, I wondered if the films of 2009 would be an accurate reflection of the year. Little did I realize it wasn’t just the films but the entire awards season that was the time capsule, capturing all the feelings that made our lives so exciting: impatience, anger, suspense and confusion.

A few years ago, Oscars were held at the end of March. Now, as we constantly multitask and double our workloads (or double our attempts to find work), we’ve become an ADD society. The wait seems endless: After the Feb. 20-21 Writers Guild Awards/BAFTAs, it’s two whole weeks until the Spirit Awards on March 5 and the Oscars on March 7. C’mon, hurry up!

The question of who will win is, as always, generating the suspense this season. But that’s been mixed with the confusion from the 10 best picture nominees and the preferential voting rules in the category.

Last year, “Slumdog Millionaire” had taken every major prize before the Academy Awards, so the Oscar outcome seemed almost inevitable. This year, there is more uncertainty — and more energy — as “The Hurt Locker,” “Avatar” and “Inglourious Basterds” have won key “bellwether” awards. To a pessimist, this sounds like mixed signals. To an optimist: genuine suspense!

Many in the mainstream press portray the race as David vs. Goliath, “The Hurt Locker” vs. “Avatar.” Many entertainment journalists love to point out the discrepancies in the two films’ budgets, B.O., visual styles, et al.

In fact, it may be a four-horse race (or even a 10-horse race) because the preferential voting presents a curve ball.

To summarize briefly: Oscar voters fill out all 10 blank best-picture slots on their ballots, listing the pics in order of their preference. The wise and mysterious folks at PricewaterhouseCoopers will then count ballots, going through first-place choices. If no film reaches 51%, they move to choice No. 2, then 3, etc. (It’s more complicated than this, but trust me, you don’t need to know.)

A lot of Oscar hopefuls are using this mysterious method to predict their own victory. In past years, some have trumpeted their chances of winning by saying, “The frontrunner is admired the most, but our film is loved the most.” Now, there’s an odd, new twist from reps of at least three contenders: “Maybe our film isn’t admired or loved the best, but it’s everyone’s third favorite, so we will win!”

I love this kind of goofy, optimistic logic. And I love the fact that goofiness does, in fact, reflect 2009.

When “Paranormal Activity,” budgeted at $16,000, earns $167 million, and “little” films like “New Moon” and “The Hangover” outgross “Watchmen” and a “Terminator” sequel, you know the rules are changing.

Thanks to these 2009 surprise hits, everybody immediately began to adapt: film execs, folks at the Big Five agencies (CAA, WME, UTA, ICM and Paradigm), management firms, the smaller tenpercenteries and, of course, the creatives.

But these audience shifts, as well as Hollywood’s, are symptoms of bigger changes. There is a sense of constant anxiety. A few years ago, people had goals: “In five years, I will be doing this, and then in 10 years, doing that!” Fate often changed those plans, but at least folks could make plans. Now everyone seems too fearful or superstitious to think ahead: “Five years from now? Who knows if I’ll even have a job in two months!”

Throw in health-care frenzy, pop-culture phenoms (Susan Boyle, Octomom, Jon & Kate, Balloon Boy) and the fact that technology is changing everything … yup, that 2009 was one wacky year!

The Oscar contenders reflect that.

In “A Serious Man,” Michael Stuhlbarg shows an insanely complicated formula to his students, warning,”Even though you can’t figure it out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm.” And that was 2009 in a nutshell: You will be responsible, even though you may not understand it. You may not even understand yourself. “Am I a good person?” Sandra Bullock wonders in “The Blind Side.” George Clooney in “Up in the Air” asks, “Who the fuck am I?”

His character, like the hero of “The Hurt Locker,” flirts with change only to decide against it. The folks in “Avatar,” “District 9” and “An Education” have a strong vision of what they want, only to learn that their vision wasn’t as clear as it seemed. The “Up” and “Precious” heroes slowly and reluctantly liberate themselves. In “Inglourious Basterds,” Christoph Waltz vows to change. But hey, he’s a Nazi, so you can’t trust him.

While there’s confusion and suspense this year, some things never change. An annual awards-season tradition is mudslinging. Once the nominations are announced, everyone knows who the competition is, so the battles get personal.

This year, best-pic contenders “Inglourious Basterds” and “An Education” are being hit with charges of anti-Semitism (!!???) in blogs, newly created websites and even print stories. Hmm, months and months after these pics opened, someone brings this up? As ballots close Tuesday, the knives are out.

The bad news is that people are still doing this; the good news is that few take it seriously. After charges against “A Beautiful Mind” and “Slumdog Millionaire” were raised, and the films won the top prize, the media seem fairly immune to this sort of thing.

All in all, it’s been a fascinating season. Thanks and congrats to all of you who worked so hard.

Read previous columns at Variety.com/Gray

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