March 3 2010 12:00 AM

Many contenders vie for best picture at this year’s Oscars, but not all are worthy

For the 2010 Academy Awards, the Motion Picture Academy decided to put 10 candidates in the running for best picture.Was it because 2009 brought us so many outstanding films that the usual five slots wouldn’t be enough? Or is this simply a gimmick designed to cater to people who gripe about how “artsy” the Oscars can be?

Looking back over the list of movies I saw last year, I’d say gimmick. There were many good films in 2009, but it was not one of those years in which it felt like Hollywood had buried us beneath an embarrassment of riches. Even some of the 10 best picture candidates could safely be placed in the “good, not great” category.

Really — “The Blind Side”? Admittedly, it’s an uplifting, well-produced drama with a few thought-provoking observations about the importance of practicing what you preach (especially if you’re preaching Christian values). On the other hand, it’s at least 15 minutes too long, and the cloying “comic relief ” provided by the wisecracking 9-year-old becomes hard to take.

Likewise, “District 9” is a clever, even provocative mockumentary that combines South Africa’s ugly race-relations history with a strong dose of science-fiction. An entertaining film, to be sure, but questionable as a best picture contender.

Even “Avatar,” for all its technical brilliance and mesmerizing visuals, is built around a flimsy screenplay: You’ve heard all those jokes about how James Cameron stole his ideas from “Dances With Wolves,” “Pocahontas” and “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest,” but in this case there’s more than a grain of truth in humor. In terms of its imagery, we’ve never seen anything quite like it; as far as the storyline is concerned, we’ve seen it many times before.

“Inglourious Basterds,” from writer-director Quentin Tarantino, and “A Serious Man,” from the Coen Brothers, are both admirable films with some striking sequences and strong performances. But they are hardly superior to “(500) Days of Summer,” “A Single Man,” “In the Loop” or some of the other noteworthy pictures that didn’t get nominated.

So now we’re back down to the customary five. “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” wears its rough edges like badges of honor and features a couple of electrifying performances from best actress nominee Gabourey Sadibe and best supporting actress nominee Mo’Nique. “Up in the Air” is a smart, superbly played comedy about an unfunny subject: corporate downsizing. After it premiered at the
Toronto International Film Festival last September, the buzz in the
film industry pegged it as the picture to beat for the best picture
trophy. Unfortunately, its light has dimmed a bit since then.

“An Education,” a wonderfully atmospheric and touching look at a May-September affair in 1961 London, netted a best actress nomination for Carey Mulligan and a best adapted screenplay nomination for Nick Hornby’s exceptionally fine writing. It deserves a much bigger audience than it has found so far.

“Up” is a marvelous mix of comedy, suspense, romance and thrills that can easily take its place among Pixar’s best features.

Kathryn Bigelow’s nerve-jangling “The Hurt Locker” uses the Iraq war as a backdrop for a gripping thriller. Bigelow is on track to be the first woman to win the best director prize, and she deserves it.

In many years, the best director statue goes hand-in-hand with best picture. 2010 may not work out that way, however. Most odds-makers are picking “Avatar” to win best picture, with “The Hurt Locker” squeaking in for a possible upset. Blockbusters are often given short shrift by Oscar voters, but “Avatar” — which is now the biggest moneymaker of all time — could turn out to be an exception.

If that turns out to be the case, James Cameron should be sure to thank Kevin Costner and the people behind “Pocahontas” and “Ferngully” for their invaluable contributions to his success.

For more reviews see Cole Smithey’s Movie week at

Academy Awards

8 p.m. Sunday, March 6 Telecast on ABC