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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

‘Avatar’ vs. ‘The Hurt Locker’

Will the Oscars get it right this time?

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Will wonders never cease? Or have the Oscars redressed their sometimes-dubious reputation by nominating an unheralded, gritty, independent war film of unlikely audience appeal—a film barely screened before being rushed to DVD and that grossed only $12 million? With nine nominations, The Hurt Locker has not only become the prestige favorite among reviewers, but also challenges the $2 billion popularity of Avatar.

In the past, Oscar politics have always afforded a curiously unpredictable compromise between box office popularity, artistic status and behind-the-scenes favoritism. Last year the glitzy, over-hyped Slumdog Millionaire shut out superior, if downbeat, films such as Doubt and The Reader.

A conservative caution still hovers over the Academy. The controversial but quiet artistry of 2005’s BrokebackMountain lost the Best Picture award to a piece of social drivel (Crash) despite its international acclaim and great box office. The same fate may fall to the unusual Hurt Locker at envelope time.

Both films share an aesthetic similarity. The tragic subtlety of Brokeback is not unlike the psychological changes driving the simple men in The Hurt Locker. They do not perceive the dynamic undercurrent that will alter their destinies, forces apparent only to the audience. Reprising the Rosebud symbolism in Citizen Kane, the most pregnant moment in The Hurt Locker takes place in a supermarket.

The qualities of the immensely popular Avatar are not so easily dismissed, however. Those expecting to see another advanced case of the sci-fi technotrash so dear to the hearts of the young were shocked to discover a movie described even by TheNew Yorker as a “beautiful work” with many lovely, lyric moments. Like The Wizard of Oz, it offered fantasy in a charming package. Even the obligatory action scenes were unexpectedly imaginative. Although James Cameron’s Avatar is far more sophisticated than his previous blockbuster, Titanic, he may yet lose the Best Director trophy to Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow.

Of the other nominations, only Precious had much to offer. This savagely cruel study of the under-culture of poverty contains the best performance of the year, by nominee Mo’Nique. She made cruelty seem necessary, ordinary, yet poignant.

Also in the running is the cheesy Inglourious Basterds, another of Quentin Tarantino’s contemptuously clever efforts to thumb his nose at the audience and make them love it. Yet his style remains deliciously lowbrow. Supporting Actor nominee Christoph Waltz tries, sometimes intermittently, to introduce a touch of class.

None of the major acting nominees set new marks, although a good guess would be that predictably warmhearted performances by Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges might melt the Academy’s heart.

The Academy balks at too-easy predictions, thriving on the suspense they mistake for discretion. Avatar has too much going for it to lose, but alone among this year’s contenders, The Hurt Locker is the work of art. n

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