With just two days to go until the Oscars, the weary award-season grumbling is reaching its peak, and right on schedule. People whine that the awards season is dull, stretched out so long that there are no longer any surprises. They moan that this year the acting awards are already locked up, and the Academy is going to give Best Picture to a film that opened seven months ago — boooring. But here's where the complainers need to realize just what the Oscars have done. Yes, things seem predictable now, but that's only because for months folks like us have been analyzing every minuscule detail, leaked e-mail, and acceptance speech. If you look more closely, you'll see that this year has proved full of surprises, and called attention to movies that would normally be ignored. In other words: The Oscar system worked.
You can bet Danny DeVito's little bag of carrots that most people had never heard of Christoph Waltz back in June, and just thought of Mo'Nique as that corny comedienne from Phat Girlz. Now everyone paying attention knows exactly what these two actors can do, and the heat generated by Mo'Nique's performance helped bring audiences to see her hard-to-sell indie, Precious. And The Hurt Locker's supposed lock? The idea that a film like this can even become a front-runner while making just $12 million in a year where Avatar made box-office history is, indeed, shocking. When it proved a dud at the box office last September, everyone expected it to get blown out of the water by the bloated, hype-heavy Oscar bait ahead (remember The Lovely Bones?). But it didn't. In all likelihood, the Academy is about to hand Best Picture to a great film with an indie heart that grossed several times less than any other Best Picture in history. Even if a Great Leonopteryx swoops down into the Kodak Theater and swallows Jeremy Renner whole, this film has won, because more people will see it.
And what if the Academy anoints Avatar, a movie that doesn't need anyone else to go see it? Then they'll be justly championing one of the most successful and innovative films in history, one that fits two genres that never win: action movies and effects spectacles. Step back a bit and consider that a 3-D, mostly animated sci-fi film about blue alien New Agers might actually win Best Picture. In the great cosmic Tree-of-Souls scheme of things, that should count as a pretty major surprise, especially because so many people were predicting it would flop in early December.
The Oscar hype machine — and that's all these awards have ever been — worked for the common good. Excellent movies that too few people saw (from District 9 to Hurt Locker) are now on everyone's Netflix lists. Previously unknown actors (from Waltz to Carey Mulligan) who deserve respect are getting it. Kathryn Bigelow might not have to go seven years between green-lights again. Enjoy the show!
That is, unless The Blind Side and Sandra Bullock pull off their own surprises. Then perhaps it's time to go back to grumbling.