You may have heard that the race for best picture is between blue aliens and ticking time bombs, or perhaps you've become distracted by all the talk about ex-spouses and e-mails and misspelled bastards. Therefore, I'm here to tell you that the real Oscar showdown tonight should have been between two of the less-heralded nominees for best picture: Neill Blomkamp's District 9 and Jason Reitman's Up in the Air.
Up in the Air was the early front runner, highly-heralded out of the gate in September at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals thanks to a wave of good reviews (our own Eugene Novikov recommended it with reservations). That early praise had somewhat dissipated by the time the film finally dribbled out in limited release in December. And did holiday travelers really need to see George Clooney in an oppressively traditional character drama intent on discovery through self-flagellation? The movie became something that you saw because certain critics said you should. Still, admirers of the film were more than happy to reward it with nominations for best picture, director, actor (leading), actress (supporting - two), and screenplay adaptation.
District 9 is the more obviously audience-pleasing title, opening wide in August on the strength of its concept and Peter Jackson's good name, The popcorn picture earned rave reviews from the likes of me (and other critics too), addressing issues in a smart, subtle way while delivering big entertainment value. Its Academy Award nominations for best picture and screenplay adaptation may have been surprises, but were well-earned. It also won nods for best editing and visual effects.
The two films both feature dysfunctional families, a lead character who starts to make drastic changes in his life, and key scenes involving aircraft. They may not have any more in common than that, but if more attention had been paid to them, I think the Awards show tonight would have been far more interesting.