The Best Picture Wins Best Picture

March 8, 2010 | 15 books mentioned 24 5 min read

coverThe Oscars, for as long as I can remember watching them, have been a tangle of thorns. The bramble invariably bears fruit, but the berries are often difficult to reach, or worse yet, unripe. Last year’s Slumdog Millionaire was not the worst movie to win Best Picture—let us not forget Crash, Return of the King, and Million Dollar Baby, just to name three from this decade—but it was still green: a simple film in the basest sense, one that glanced at big themes like poverty and class warfare, but refused, ultimately, to scrutinize them. As I wrote in a review of a much better film last year (Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre):

Slumdog was a financial success for the same reason that it was an artistic failure: it skimmed, both cinematographically and emotionally, over its subjects. It purported to be about class struggle in India, and the requisite horrors of poverty. But instead it was a shiny, loud, and clean fairytale. Slumdog overcame tragedy, but the adversity dramatized was so disingenuous that the triumph seemed saccharine at worst, and shallow at best. A lot of people, though, must have seen Boyle’s allegory as fresh and optimistic, and the film rode that sentiment to the Oscars.

covercoverThe Best Picture award, expanded this year to ten nominees, seemed at first like an ecumenical gesture on the part of the Academy. I loved the idea that more small films, hypothetically, would get to stand beside the studio epics. And though The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man made the cut, so did Avatar, District 9 and The Blind Side, suggesting to me that the dilution of the category was more a wink and a nod to thoughtful filmmakers than a sincere unification with them. Where was A Single Man? Where was Antichrist? Why was Up nominated for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature?

The Hurt Locker is another sort of film. It follows the fate of three soldiers in Iraq charged with disarming IEDs in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) after Thompson is killed in the line of duty. James is as unconcerned with danger as James Bond is with venereal disease, and he approaches his work with the spiritual calm of a man raking a rock garden. What is immediately evident watching The Hurt Locker is that the film is existential rather than polemical. The soldiers aren’t interested in why they’re in country. The other men on James’ team—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are concerned only with surviving until they leave. James, on the other hand, seems captivated by his work and pursues it with the Platonic conviction that all labor is ethically sound if done excellently.

Along with The Messenger, which I reviewed for The Millions, I saw The Hurt Locker as a testament to what “popular” cinema should strive to be. Just because I love Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and feel that, stylistically and ethically, it’s one of the most important films of the decade, doesn’t mean I expect it to ever find a broad American audience (it’s in black and white, for one, and for another, the actors speak German). The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, combined with the suspense of more traditional action fare (say, The Bourne Identity) the moral quandaries of Dr. Strangelove and the chauvinistic camaraderie of The Decline of the American Empire, all without delivering a simple message. In The Hurt Locker, war is both despicable and intoxicating. Some soldiers can’t wait to get home, and others dread leaving the battlefield. And yet it was popular amongst servicemen and critics alike. Emily Colette Wilkinson, who commented on my review “The Holy Trinity: Three Iraq War Films Define a New Apolitical Aesthetic,” wrote that her sister in Afghanistan loved The Hurt Locker. “It seems to have really connected with soldiers.”

All of this is to say that, from a commercial and an artistic perspective, The Hurt Locker was a revelatory example of the kind of film that could be made near Hollywood, if not exactly inside it. If it were to beat out Avatar, somehow, the Academy Awards were no longer a circle-jerk (as a friend of mine so quaintly put it), but, if briefly, a coronation ceremony for some damned fine art.

Before the show began, I was convinced that Avatar would win, though in retrospect that conviction came from the fact that everyone else seemed convinced it would. I have friends who enjoyed it, and I even lunched with two acquaintances a month back who thought it was not only the best film of the season, but perhaps the greatest achievement in cinematographic history. But, as my roommate Ty (who was born around the time Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hitting record and was named, somewhat ironically, after the great, morally bankrupt Cobb) put it, to paraphrase, the Avatar champions were confusing spectacle with good storytelling. Avatar was a miracle if you saw it stoned in 3-D IMAX and ignored the performances and the dialogue, but a disaster if you paid attention to the actors and the lines they delivered. A technological marvel does not a best picture make, one could say. Avatar deserved every special effects award it got nominated for. But how, phenomena aside, can a film that garners no writing or acting nods possibly be an appropriate candidate for Best Picture? Fundamentally, shouldn’t a great film be an amalgamation of writing, acting, photography, and direction? The Hurt Locker was nominated, in addition to sound editing and mixing, for acting, writing, photography, and directing, as well as for the overall product. Avatar, on the other hand, was up for sound, special effects, cinematography, and directing, but received no acknowledgments whatsoever for its screenplay or the actors—digitally rendered or otherwise—who brought those stale lines to half life.

This polemic (for what else could you call my assault on James Cameron?) may seem a little cruel in the wake of the awards. Avatar, as it turns out, lost to The Hurt Locker on all the narrative fronts, and some of the technical ones, too. It won for best special effects, cinematography, and art direction, but The Hurt Locker won Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Perhaps I’m in shock still, and expect to read in a few days that all of Kathryn Bigelow’s accolades got rescinded and heaped upon the Na’vi. But I think my unrest, or at least my disbelief in The Hurt Locker’s success, is grounded in my fear that the 82nd Academy Awards were an anomaly rather than the birth of a trend. Last night’s ceremony was, undoubtedly, an unprecedented victory for small films. The Hurt Locker cost $14 million to make, and Avatar $2 billion, if I’m misremembering my figures correctly. And James Cameron doesn’t lose many contests he’s expecting to win, especially to his ex-wife.

My hope, in the end, is that the incessant hype around Avatar didn’t simply annoy voters until they voted against it, out of nothing more than spite. My dream is that the republic of Hollywood, in its lovely dresses and tailored tuxedos, realized that a poor story poorly told papered over with handsome colors  and textures is still nothing more than a poor story. Avatar has revolutionized, one suspects, the way big movies will get made in the future. But it did nothing to illuminate the human condition. The Hurt Locker, though, will haunt moviegoers long after Cameron’s virtual camera technology is commonplace on Monday Night Football broadcasts. Avatar is the new technological benchmark—which means it’s transient. Eventually something will surpass it. The Hurt Locker, conversely, like any true work of art, is permanent.

is the author of the novel, We're Getting On, and the co-writer of the award-winning true crime podcast, Leonard: Political Prisoner, about the wrongful conviction of Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier.  More at


  1. You believe that the Hurt Locker is a piece of art and more deserving of an Oscar than Avatar? What a farce. You’re right though, Avatar’s story was horrible (wait, no it wasn’t).

  2. With the exception of “Avatar,” I find the inclusion of genre films, animated features, etc. more refreshing the standard choices for ‘Best Picture.’ Hollywood prides itself on rewarding/nominating ‘deep’ films or issue-based pictures, like “Crash,” “Slumdog,” “Invictus,” etc. I find these choices to be self-congratulatory; why can’t a commercial film like “The Dark Knight” or “UP” be capable of winning best picture? I agree that “The Hurt Locker” was the best film of the lot (well, that or “UP”), but the Academy wasn’t ‘brave’ for picking it. I’m sure Hollywood is annoyingly proud of themselves for picking such a film.



  5. Dude, way to alienate your readers immediately by bashing four excellent films. I know quite a lot of people thought Crash was heavy-handed, but I saw it at a Magic Johnson theater where the guys behind me got pissed off when people treated African-Americans poorly…and then ululated and mocked the Persians. So maybe it wasn’t heavy-handed enough. And while I am glad that Avatar and James Cameron missed out on the awards they didn’t deserve and loved Hurt Locker and A Single Man, I think you’re too quick to dismiss “sweeping” movies or ones that might be a bit emotionally manipulative. Not all movies have to be deep and narrow and harrowing to be great.

    Also, I wish someone could get as worked up about the fact that, though Up had a wonderful beginning, it lacked focus in a big way and wasn’t nearly as engrossing as Coraline.

  6. Rob, since I live in a bubble of people who didn’t care much for Avatar (and I mean this in all sincerity), can you give me some insight into why you thought it was more deserving of the Oscar?

  7. @Rob

    You really thought the Pocohontas myth recycled with a resource called “unobtainium” was a great story? You’re on The Millions, don’t you read good stories?

  8. Justin, I agree that opening up the best picture category to include “genre” films is, potentially, a positive thing. And I’m sure Hollywood is patting itself on the back today for picking The Hurt Locker. That being said, “commercial” films tend to get branded with that moniker because they’re broad and — excluding a few choice examples — simple. I wouldn’t call The Dark Knight a “simple” film on a thematic/ethical level. In fact, it raised some interesting ideas. But though it was superior to Slumdog and Benjamin Button, even if you didn’t chop off that gratuitous sequel-in-forty-minutes ending, it wasn’t in my opinion a better film than Milk or the Wrestler. It was a good, or even great, comic book film (one of the best, I’m told) but it was still a movie about Batman with a lot of explosions — and, of course, a tremendous performance by Ledger.

  9. Kati, I don’t mean to suggest that there wasn’t some redeeming value to Slumdog, Million Dollar Baby, and Crash (I won’t defend Return of the King anymore than I will Avatar). But the Best Picture category should be reserved for films that both strive for something important and subsequently achieve a great aesthetic. Crash might have been thematically important, but it was unforgivably heavy-handed. Million Dollar Baby, from a boxing standpoint as well as a narrative one, was as stilted as, say, that last 30 minutes of Invictus, which are 30 of the most masturbatory minutes that Eastwood has ever rendered. As for Slumdog, I’ve spent enough time making fun of it. There’s a link in my article to a review that goes into greater depth, so I’ll leave it to you if you want to read my argument.

    Anyway, my point was not that those four films were the four worst to come out in their respective years. They just happen to be highly undeserving of Oscars.

  10. While I agree with your comments on Avatar, Slumdog, and Crash, I respectfully disagree with you that Hurt Locker was fully deserving of an Oscar.. Some of the sequences in the film were very well made, and well these sequences were truly suspenseful, I don’t feel that the movie as a whole worked. For an example, Renner in America with his cereal aisle was a touch to obvious.

    That said, it was better than 99% of movies out there, but I definitely think Inglorious Basterds was more deserving for the best picture nod.

  11. Neil, I enjoyed the goddamn hell out of Inglorious. And I also agree that the end of Hurt Locker — especially the scene with his son — could’ve been cut in half. But I think the ambition of The Hurt Locker was perhaps greater than Inglorious, and because Hurt was at least 95% successful, I had to back it. But don’t get me wrong. I loved Inglorious, even if the end, for me, got a little silly.

  12. That’s really interesting that you feel Hurt Locker had more ambition than Inglorious Basterds. Out of curiosity, how so? I feel that Basterds was the definition of ambitious with the revision of history and the scenes that jumped, literally, out of the screen. I will watch Hurt Locker again, assuming it has a post-Oscar run in theaters.

  13. I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Slumdog Millionaire “purported to be about class struggle in India,” when I think the only thing it purported itself to be was a love story set against the backdrop of the struggling class system in India. I think as a coming of age story with a romantic relationship at the center it succeeded.

    Remember, a film has to have reached some kind of commercial success to win an academy award for best picture, that’s just how it is. There are always better movies and performances that don’t get nominated.

    I don’t think that “commercial” necessarily speaks to the content of the film, but rather the impact. “Commercial” means: a lot of people see it. There is a sense that the performance or film that made the most impact either culturally or artistically is the most deserving to win. Monique’s performance this year is a perfect example. I remember being angry when Bjork’s performance in Dancer in the Dark was not recognized, but then again, no one saw Dancer in the Dark. It barely made back a third of its small budget. Its impact, unfortunately, is small.

    I think that voters like to award success stories, because that’s what inspires people in Hollywood. That’s why low budget movies that are able to create a big impact culturally are often the dark horses to win best picture. “Sin Nombre,” an incredible film, had no chance of being a best picture nominee when it made under 3 million dollars. “Slumdog Millionaire,” of course a lesser film, miraculously made a huge impact when millions of people all over the world saw it. That’s the kind of success that people like to vote for. It’s like the retarded girl who wins homecoming queen after making everyone cry at the assembly.

    Of course, The Hurt Locker totally defies this by being the lowest grossing best picture film of all time. I hope this win means that everyone in the world will now see it. It’s quite good.

  14. Neil, I think that The Hurt Locker was thematically more ambitious. I’m not sure Basterds had a point to prove. It was just an exciting, high-style WWII film full of a bunch of solid — and sometimes extraordinary — acting. But I don’t think Tarantino intended it to be more than a tribute to a class of films he admires. Bigelow, on the other hand, was making a more contemporary commentary, and her message was more complex. That’s all I intended by my comment.

  15. David, I think all the points you make are valid. In the end, I’m an idealist, and wish — often hopelessly — that the culture surrounding the Academy Awards will mature. My distaste for Slumdog comes from the fact that everyone seemed to think it was a great movie. I don’t have a problem with it being successful, but when people get so caught up in the rags-to-riches Danny Boyle romance, they end up thinking, because the picture doesn’t resemble what normally takes home the prize, that it was some profound work of art. If it had simply been a minor indie film, I wouldn’t have liked it anymore, but I wouldn’t still view it as endemic of the Hollywood culture cancer. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, is a small, complicated film (with flaws, of course) that is both a Cinderella story and a good film. The voters did well last night.

  16. I’ve only been reading this site for a couple of weeks, and I’m feeling very good about my choice of book blog. However, this was one of the more alienating and pretentious-sounding posts I’ve read so far, and whaddya know? it’s about movies! How’d that happen? Anyway, James seems to acknowledge a very important section of modern film while completely writing off an equally legitimate section. Much like books, I think there’s merit and room for praise in both the “commercial” and the “artistic.” These days, the two very often live with one another. However, unlike books, I think it’s fair to note that story isn’t the only thing that matters. If Slumdog deserved its prize (and of course, that’s always up for debate), it was because it was a stylistic success as much as a narrative success.

    And to write off Up and District 9? That just seems dumb. Similarly, I think an inclusion of Antichrist would have merely been to please the small segment of movie-goers who didn’t think it was anything more than suffer-porn. A Serious Man, though, I completely agree.

    James, I’m really bummed about this post, but reading the comments makes me feel as though you’re not as close-minded as you seem to be in your writing.


  17. Tim, it’s probably safe to assume that I’m pretentious. In my defense, I really love when good films (totally subjective, I understand) get recognized by the masses. Similarly, it bothers me when bad or even mediocre films (equally subjective) get praised. You’ll notice that I don’t make fun of Gladiator anywhere in the article or my subsequent comments. Based on everything else I’ve damned to hell on this page (a lot, it appears!), you might assume that I’d have lampooned that picture, too. I don’t think Gladiator was Best Picture material by any means, but its winning doesn’t bother me too much because, as a spectacle and a narrative, it accomplished exactly what it set out to, and did so admirably. Is it a great film? No. But it’s a great blockbuster. Simple-ish script, predictable but very passable acting, and over all, highly entertaining. Believe me, I’m not above entertainment for the sake of entertainment. I’m just lobbying for big films to be as good as they can be. Gladiator is as good as it can be. Avatar, on the other hand, is not. Far from it. As for Antichrist, I agree that it borders, or crosses the border, into suffer-porn, as you call it. But man, oh, man did I have a visceral reaction to it. I mentioned it in a review of Precious I wrote for this site, and called it despicable. I stand by that adjective. But what is the purpose of film? If it’s to astound, then Antichrist astounded me. I’ve thought about that work as much as I’ve mulled over the final scene between Precious, her mother, and the social worker, or over the last bomb in The Hurt Locker. You and I may have different definitions of “good” and “bad,” but I hope you see that I’m trying to present consistent, supported opinions, even if those opinions piss some people off.

  18. I’m gobsmacked that you seem to have decided The Return of the King is the single worst best picture winner of the past decade. Even as a jaded and pretentious Tsai-watching, Tarkovsky-loving, sat-through-Wavelength-and-liked-it Bela Tarr fan I can still appreciate that it’s a blockbuster film with an indie DIY aesthetic (they built their own forge to manufacture arms, for crying out loud.) And the acting is generally good, certainly far better than the horrific Sigourney Weaver performance in Avatar. I think I’d put that trilogy right at the top of the winners from the past decade, now that I look back at the list. But in general I agree with your sentiment in this post.

  19. Just as an addendum, I have to congratulate I BLOG WHO BLOG for the satire. Pretty solid. But I wonder if the anonymous commentator is opposed to criticism in general, or just mine. Or maybe I BLOG WHO BLOG is James Cameron. I think that would be best.

  20. Emily Wilkinson’s sister may have loved the movie, but my brother-in-law and his unit (afghanistan – dealing with the type of events portrayed in the movie) thought the movie was a poorly-made cartoon – reflecting the fantasies of the director rather than a serious treatment of war. They like me laughed through the entire film (laughing at, rather than with). My two cents. Now back to the books!

  21. In general, I agree with your sentiments in this post, but before I go on I should disclose that I really enjoyed Avatar, and was, for some reason, bored by The Hurt Locker. I don’t dispute its merit for the Best Picture, but I take issue with little critical thought given to it.

    In some ways, you can argue that for Avatar’s lacking on the script and performance, The Hurt Locker was lacking on anything particularly groundbreaking. Sure, it was finally an apolitical Iraq War picture, but some call it Generation Kill on the big screen. Since there is no official definition for “Best Picture,” you can assume that some people take it to mean very different things. For example, in a lot of ways I consider the “Best Picture” to also have a sort of “bigness” to it– something that’s a bit bigger than life (not to be confused with big budgets, big receipts, or big popularity). For me personally, many of the merits of The Hurt Locker are shared among many smaller and more independent fare that tell frank and honest stories well. It just makes it all seem a little arbitrary– why THL over everything else, if gutsy frankness is what you’re going for? Additionally, if someone looks at “Best Picture” as the film that breaks new ground (whether in story, special effects, performance, cinematography, etc.), you could make a decent argument for Avatar‘s merit for the award, or in the least for the film’s ongoing importance.

    All the same, I think I agree with you regarding the Best Picture generally being an amalgamation of those four major traits. Maybe I object to the assumption that The Hurt Locker is the perfect epitome of “deserved” Best Pictures, and the automatic derision of “bigger” but well-produced fare (e.g. Return of the King), but overall I’m on board.

    What I take most issue with is the following:

    Avatar is the new technological benchmark—which means it’s transient. Eventually something will surpass it. The Hurt Locker, conversely, like any true work of art, is permanent.

    I completely disagree with this. I’m sure the artists that worked on Avatar to make it look the way it does, and the crewmembers who invented the technology to change the way a film interacts with the audience, would disagree wholeheartedly. You’re right– quite some time in the future, Avatar will eventually be out-stripped technologically. However, people will continue to return to just like any piece of history. Think of Star Wars, a technical feat in its time. Has it not stood the test of time? Even Gone With The Wind— the story and the dialog is so trite and outdated, but it is a benchmark in cinema: it is the prototypical Hollywood epic. Are we to believe that, because Monet et al initiated the Impressionist movement, they were made moot when their style became more commonplace?

    Clearly, I’m not comparing Avatar to Monet– they’re apples and oranges– but it’s the point I’m trying to make. Can we not look at the visual effects, which you admit are groundbreaking (and are, truly, years ahead of anyone else), as just as worthy of an art form as well-written lines?

  22. Hey! “The Jazz Singer” was a mighty hit only because it introduced synchronized sound to the cinema. And “Bwana Devil” inflicted the wonders of 3-D on a surprised public. So both films are technological breakthroughs. But do you want to see them now? (Hint: you don’t.) Even though “Avatar” cleaned up at the box office and is selling furiously on DVD, it is not a film to sit through more than once (and that’s only for the neato three-dimensional look of the film, which the DVD will lack). I too was convinced that, given that “Avatar” had employed hundreds of movie people for years, it would get the Oscar just out of gratitude. I don’t think “THL” is the best anything either, but it was miles ahead of the competition (save for “A Serious Man” and “Up”). I just think it’s a miracle that really happened.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.