- The Washington Times - Friday, December 25, 2009

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences picked a lousy time to up the number of best-picture nominees from five to 10. As the year draws to a close and Oscar prognosticators begin to survey the landscape, it appears obvious that there are just three legitimate choices for the top honor this year.

First up is “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman and George Clooney’s timely tale about a man who fires people for a living and his search for connections in an increasingly plugged-in world he wants no part of. Though a fine film, it has an ambiguous ending critics have loved but that might leave Oscar voters cold; they don’t always need a happy ending, but they certainly don’t like being denied one, either.

Then there’s “The Hurt Locker,” the Iraq war movie extraordinaire from director Kathryn Bigelow. It’s an action thriller of the first order, packed with virtuoso set pieces and a visceral sense of danger. Awards watchers have sensed a definite resistance to the film from voters, however, and the box office (or lack thereof) doesn’t help: “The Hurt Locker” has taken in a paltry $12.7 million since its June release.

Those who doubt that money factors into things should consider this: In this decade, no film has won best picture with a gross lower than $54 million; the average box-office take for the winner has been $156.6 million. A $12.7 million gross may not be a back breaker, but it’s pretty close.

Which leaves an opening for “Avatar.”

James Cameron’s eco-opus will gross a boatload of money. It’s a technological marvel, drawing praise from critics, including the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, who called it ” ‘The Jazz Singer’ of 3-D filmmaking.” It’s winning huge praise from audiences and other awards programs, snagging a best-picture nomination at the Golden Globes before it was even released. It has a winning theme with a happy ending, a key for those turned off by the more mordant features of “The Hurt Locker” and “Up in the Air.”

It also is drawing a staggering amount of overpraise from the critical corps, attracted to its politically correct overtones and facile message of anti-imperialism and anti-corporatism. The movie pulls a whopping 94 percent from the “top critics” at Rotten Tomatoes.

This is a shocking development for a movie whose characters would generously be described as stereotypes and more accurately described as uninteresting cardboard cutouts. To say nothing of the fact that the story is plodding and predictable, telegraphing each plot point far in advance.

As Duncan Jones - the director of “Moon,” a far more interesting piece of sci-fi - put it on Twitter, “at what point in [“Avatar”] did you have any doubt what was going to happen next? Or were you ever surprised how it happened?”

That hasn’t stopped the critics from slobbering over this picture. The esteemed Roger Ebert, for example, gave “Avatar” four stars and ignored the broad brush strokes that the picture dealt in because “It has a flat-out green and anti-war message.”

Indeed, it’s a politically correct classic, the story of a Marine who goes to work for an evil corporation only to turn against said corporation when it reveals its plan to wipe out the noble blue catlike savages who have accepted him as one of their own.

The Academy is responding. The L.A. Times’ award-season blogger Pete Hammond reported that the film played to a full house at an Academy screening, which “indicates intense industry interest and the apparent thumbs-way-up reaction should alert 20th Century Fox and James Cameron that perhaps they should start planning for a big night at the Kodak on March 7.”

If “Avatar” were to overcome its storytelling deficiencies, mediocre acting and stereotypical characters to take home best picture at the Oscars over a more deserving winner, it wouldn’t be a first. Let’s take a trip back in time, shall we?

In 1990, everything seemed to be going Martin Scorsese’s way. “Goodfellas” was a box-office success, if not a staggering one, and the film was picking up plaudits from audiences and critics groups across the country. It won best picture at the BAFTAs (England’s Oscars) as well as from critics circles in Boston, New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.

When the Oscars rolled around, however, there was a shocking turn of events: “Dances With Wolves” took best picture, and Kevin Costner took best director. Why? The film’s politics.

It’s a classic story of white liberal guilt, the tale of an Army officer who turns against his country when he discovers the noble American Indians who have accepted him as one of their own are going to be massacred by a military whose weaponry is far more advanced.

Don’t be surprised to see history repeat itself when the Oscar winners are announced in March.

• SONNY BUNCH can be reached at sbunch@washingtontimes.com.

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