Oscars like it’s 1997

It’s my favorite time of year: Oscar season.

It’s already hard not to think of 1997 when examining the slate of 2009 Oscar contenders, mostly because James Cameron is back on the radar with Avatar. (Full disclosure: If you haven’t seen Avatar yet, go see it. Now. That means you, Mother.)

But when I saw that The Hurt Locker had won the National Society of Films Critics prize for Best Picture, I realized that each of the “big five” films this year has an uncanny pairing of sorts to a 1997 Best Picture nominee. While there are 10 slots this year for Best Picture, five really stand out: Up in the Air, Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Precious and Inglourious Basterds.

1. Up in the Air = As Good As It Gets

Up in the Air and As Good As It Gets are both fairly intimate character studies and actors’ films. There’s no CGI spectacle in either of them, and both received recognition mostly for their acting. George Clooney looks very likely to win Best Actor, similar to how Jack Nicholson won for As Good As It Gets. While Up in the Air has no lead actress (Helen Hunt won for As Good As It Gets), Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga will likely receive supporting nominations. The Best Actress prize is likely to be replaced with an Adapted Screenplay prize for Up in the Air.

2. Precious = Good Will Hunting

Precious, like Good Will Hunting, is a rise-above-adversity story, detailing the life of a struggling young person who receives support and guidance from mentors and works to improve her lot in life. Similar to how Good Will Hunting received a Best Supporting Actor prize for Robin Williams, Precious’ marquee award will likely be Best Supporting Actress for Mo’Nique. It’s unlikely to win the Adapted Screenplay award, though (Good Will Hunting had a second win for Original Screenplay).

3. Inglourious Basterds = The Full Monty

Inglourious Basterds is fabulous, beautifully done and brilliant. It’s also bawdy, bent and perverse, which makes it a good soul mate for The Full Monty, another blackish comedy that was beloved but doomed to play as an also-ran. The Full Monty took home an Oscar for Best Score, and Inglourious Basterds looks likely to win Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz and possibly Original Screenplay for Quentin Tarantino.

4. The Hurt Locker = L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential was probably the best film of 1997, just like The Hurt Locker was probably the best film of 2009. Both received numerous critics’ prizes, and both had comparatively low grosses at the box office. L.A. Confidential had only about $30 million going into Oscar season (it grossed about double that during the winter/spring awards season) and The Hurt Locker grossed only about $12 million during its theatrical run (Summit might re-release it in a few cities in late January or February for Oscar-campaigning purposes). Yet despite its critical success, L.A. Confidential managed to win only two Oscars: Best Supporting Actress for Kim Basinger and Best Adapted Screenplay. The Hurt Locker seems likely to take home Best Editing and possibly even Best Director for Kathryn Bigelow (making her the first woman to win the prize). But its weak theatrical run looks likely to hamstring it when it comes to the big win.

5. Avatar = Titanic

This isn’t just because both are James Cameron films. Avatar, like Titanic, is getting too big to be ignored. It also has been mostly passed over for early critics’ prizes and looks likely to win the lion’s share of technical awards. Titanic won Best Picture (and Best Director) without winning an acting award (it was nominated for two) or even being nominated for Original Screenplay. Avatar is likely to face the same hurdles (no Best Picture winner has ever taken the prize with no acting or screenplay nominations). Most of the major awards (acting, screenplays, possibly editing and director) will go to other films, just like in 1997. But it’s still the biggest thing out there now, like Titanic was, and it’s not slowing down.

Spooky, isn’t it?

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