In a scene in the Oscar-nominated film An Education, an older British man with designs on a precocious teenage girl concocts a story for her parents about how he is taking her to visit his old professor, C.S. Lewis. Although Lewis does not figure further in the film, this is a pivotal moment. The thrilled parents grant their permission, and their starry-eyed daughter, who dreams of attending Oxford and experiencing a life of fashionable high culture, becomes further enmeshed in the deceptive world of her superficially cultured suitor. The film does a decent, if predictable, job of showing the way bright, eager young souls can confuse sham culture with real education. The film has absolutely nothing to say, however, about what might constitute a true education.
The passing allusion to Lewis and his popularity—even celebrity—among middle-class Brits underscores something that is increasingly rare in our popular culture: art that occupies a middle and mediating ground between high and low culture and that mixes entertainment with an instructive reflection on the big questions. Nowhere is this lack more evident than in the standard type of film that is nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Picture: a film that very few Americans have seen and that represents not so much high culture versus low as a parochial world of antipopular culture.
Perhaps in the hope of expanding interest in its fatuous and self-indulgent awards ceremony, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has expanded its list of nominees for Best Picture from five to ten. This year's list includes three films that rank in the box-office top ten for the year 2009: Up, The Blind Side, and the record-pummeling Avatar, about which I have already opined. Of the three, each of which has received some recognition in other year-end award ceremonies, Pixar's Up is the most finely crafted story—a tale about loving fidelity, grief, old age, renewal, and growing up. It is one of the most compelling films ever made about friendship between young and old.
The inclusion of these three films does not mean, however, that the Academy has gone populist. Not only An Education, but also Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, and the Coen brothers' A Serious Man investigate the themes of false dreams, detached lives, and empty quests that often attract those who cast the votes for Best Picture. Of the three, Up in the Air is the most enticing story, although it seems in the end to have been produced largely as Oscar bait. (The Best Picture nominee Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, a bleaker, female version of the also-nominated The Blind Side's tale of a rise from the projects, is perhaps the hardest of this year's films to categorize, except that it comes awfully close to wallowing in the sort of human degradation that appeals to the Academy.)
Among the nominees there is also an interesting group of what might loosely be called war films: The Hurt Locker, District 9, and Inglourious Basterds. The real revelation here is QuentinTarantino's Inglourious Basterds, a film that may serve to resurrect a filmmaking career that seemed in irreversible decline. The film stars Brad Pitt as the head of a World War Two Jewish-American commando unit sent to Europe with the purpose of "killing Nazis." The unit does more than that; it inspires fear in its inhuman enemies. The action is fast-paced and the dialogue, witty. Tarantino's humor works here in large part because Inglourious Basterds gleefully embraces the clear sense of good and evil that is the presupposition of the plot.
An odd pairing, I know, but Up and Inglourious Basterds seem to me to be the two most noteworthy of the nominated films. What about other, nonnominated films? Not worthy of nomination but worth mentioning are Ponyo, another delightful animated fantasy from Hayao Miyazaki, and Paranormal Activity, a low-budget horror film that uses subtle techniques of suspense to make a chilling case for demonic presence.
There is, for me, one glaring omission on the Best Picture list: Crazy Heart. It features Jeff Bridges as a heavy-drinking, once-famous country-music star whose life is barely held together by his commitment to playing the next gig. Then it is held together by his love for a sometime reporter and single mom played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. What could have been a predictable plot manages to surprise in a number of ways. A downward spiral seems to mark the end of the line for Bridges' character. But it doesn't. The possibility of recovery and redemption seems to signal a tidy happy ending. But it doesn't. Redemption here does not mean recovery of all that is lost; in this case, it involves a distinction between what one wants and what one needs. Crazy Heart is a memorable and richly human film, the best of the year.