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Oscar derby update: 'Avatar' battles 'Up in the Air' and 'Inglourious Basterds' for best picture

December 30, 2009 |  9:41 am

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Just two weeks ago an esteemed Oscarologist crowed to me over the phone, "I am proud to say that I have never, never wavered in my prediction that 'Up in the Air' will win best picture. It obviously is the one film in the race that has the pedigree."

Then, last week, he switched his prediction to "Avatar" — just like many other Oscar pundits, including Sasha Stone (Awards Daily) and Jeffrey Wells (Hollywood-Elsewhere). See our updated Buzzmeter here.

What's interesting about him jumping horses is that he had already seen "Avatar" when boasting to me about his firm faith in "Up in the Air." That means the recent megabuzz surrounding "Avatar" has convinced him that it's suddenly the pony to ride.

But another esteemed Oscarologist, Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly, is still high on "Up in the Air." However, he believes that the ascendancy of "Avatar" "is likely the death knell for 'Star Trek' and 'District 9's' best picture hopes, since there probably won't be room for two sci-fi films in the list of 10. Likewise, other box-office smashes like 'The Hangover' and 'The Blind Side' now seem quite pale by comparison to James Cameron’s visionary work."

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Regardless of what's nominated, only a few contenders seem to have the potential to win best picture. The list: "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds," "Precious" and "Up in the Air." My, my, that's only five! How strange that the academy chose this year to expand the best-picture race to 10 slots.

Over at InContention.com, Guy Lodge now becomes the one other brave Oscarologist to back me up on my prediction that "Inglourious Basterds" will win. Smart move, Guy! Just a month ago, he was part of the screeching chorus condemning me publicly even for taking "Basterds" seriously as a contender. He wrote, "Tom O’Neil has suggested 'Basterds' can win best picture, and he's probably just spinning his wheels. I’ll gladly eat my hat if that happens."

Just prior to the recent announcement of Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations — where "Basterds" romped, proving its muscle — InContention.com had "Basterds" listed in its fourth tier of potential contenders, way down below "Bright Star" and "The Last Station" and a few dozen other films. After those noms came out, Kris Tapley finally included the movie in his Oscar best-pic predix, but he continued to snub Quentin Tarantino in the directors' race. Then, the other day, he added Tarantino.

I shouldn't pick on my colleagues at InContention for doing what all other pundits are doing too — dismissing, for some crazy reason, one of the most formidable contenders for the top Oscar. I got ridiculed and lambasted almost universally across the blogosphere for suggesting that it's even seriously in the running. Scott Feinberg (AndTheWinnerIs) even bragged publicly at Jeff Wells' blog that, just like Tapley, he ranked "Basterds" and Tarantino "pretty far down." In fact, in Feinberg's case, he merely ranked "Basterds" in his 12th spot on Nov. 18, but nonetheless he thought that "Bright Star," "Julie & Julia" and "A Serious Man" had better shots to be nominated and to win. Currently, Scott ranks "Basterds" in fourth place to win.

Over at HitFix, Greg Ellwood almost busted a gut laughing at my suggestion that "Basterds" was a serioius contender, insisting that "there are more holes in his theory than a slice of swiss cheese" while dismissing my prediction as "just a nice reach for page views" on the Web.

At TheWrap, Steve Pond pooh-poohed me too, but a bit more respectfully, saying, "Sorry, Tom. I’m not buying this one." Now Steve is obviously coming 'round, albeit slowly. He ranks "Inglourious Basterds" in his eighth position. Last month Jeff Wells told his readers at Hollywood-Elsewhere, "Trust me -- this won't happen." Now he ranks "Basterds" in seventh place. 

Hmmm ... what do you think all these pundits will say when "Basterds" and "Avatar" lead with the most Oscar nominations when bids are unveiled on Feb. 2, eh? Till then, it's good to see them moving in the right direction, albeit grudgingly in some cases.

To read in-depth explanation of why I believe "Basterds" will win best picture, click here.

Some Oscar pundits like to dismiss any handicapping I do because of a few bum early predix in the past. I remind you that I almost always trounce the vast majority of rivals at the Buzzmeter (last year I tied for first place --- see here) and many of my longshot calls come through ("Departures" for best foreign film last year, Marion Cotillard for best actress of 2007 when virtually every pundit predicted Julie Christie). But I like to start crystal-balling early in derby season and if I dare to forecast a wrong winner several months before the Oscarcast, it doesn't matter if I change my mind later. Some rival pundits like to call out my earliest, wrong call. That's what Ellwood did in his post zapping my "Basterds" forecast, adding, "Remember 'Sweeney Todd,' Tom?" Yes, Greg, I do. Click here to see your prediction that "Dreamgirls" would win best picture one year earlier. You weren't alone. Many other Gurus of Gold agreed with you, including David Poland, Sasha Stone and Kris Tapley. A few weeks earlier you and Stone predicted "The Good German" would win. Neither flick, of course, was even nominated. One year later, most of the Gurus of Gold picked "Atonement" early. At least it got nominated. Is it fair to quote those predictions now — so far out of the context when they were made?

Granted, "Avatar" seems to be out front now, and, yes, it can win. But beware: Oscar voters don't fill out ballots to decide a winner for another month and a half. That's forever in fickle Hollywood time. Historically, voters have shown enormous reluctance to give golden statuettes to sci-fi/fantasy fare. They nominate those films generously sometimes. "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring" reaped 13 bids in 2001 — that's the second most in Oscar history — but it lost best picture to "A Beautiful Mind," even though the latter film was under fierce media attack for sugar-coating its true-life story. The last film of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Return of the King," finally ended up winning best picture because it had to. Academy members would've been strung up from lampposts along Wilshire Boulevard if they'd still refused to give hobbits their due.

Now why should we assume that voters will eagerly embrace blue monkeys?

I admit that "Basterds" probably won't get the most first-place votes, but a weighted ballot is being used this year. Academy members are ranking all 10 contenders. While chatting with many voters, I hear widely divergent opinions of "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker," "Precious" and "Up in the Air," but support for "Basterds" is strong and consistent. That's why it is the most formidable contender of all.

RELATED POSTS

Why 'Inglourious Basterds' will win best picture at the Oscars (part 2)

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Poll: How many Oscars nominations will 'Avatar' get?

It's really complicated: Can Meryl Streep beat herself at the Golden Globes?

Poll: Who will win the SAG Award for best actress?

Poll: Which Golden Globe nominee will win best comedy/musical picture?

Poll: Who'll win the Golden Globe for best drama actor? George Clooney? Jeff Bridges?

"Avatar" photo: 20th Century Fox. "Inglourious Basterds" photo: the Weinstein Co.

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