Geoffrey Macnab: Golden Globes underline absurdity of the gong season

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The 67th Golden Globes was a lopsided awards event. James Cameron carried off both the Best Picture and Best Director prizes for Avatar, which is now being talked up as the front-runner for the Oscars and is mowing down all competitors at the international box-office. At the same time, Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor award for his wonderful performance as the grizzled old country and western star in Crazy Heart.

Avatar and Crazy Heart are films from different universes. The former is an event movie that could never have been made without computers and digital technology. It is closer to the world of video games than it is to what we used to regard as cinema. Crazy Heart, by contrast, is a character-driven drama about a recognisable human being. Its pace is beguilingly slow – the film seems to take its tempo from the T-Bone Burnett soundtrack. Instead of Cameron’s 3D depiction of a distant planet Pandora, the main landscape it offers us is Jeff Bridges’ face. The closest it comes to action set-pieces is Bridges vomiting midway through a set, or driving his pick-up truck off the road.

That two such opposing films carried off the most prestigious awards underlines the absurdity of gong season. The annual movie beauty pageants seldom compare like with like.

Michael Haneke’s magisterial and old fashioned The White Ribbon won the Best Foreign Film award, as expected. It is a front-runner for the Oscar too. Its presence in a year when Avatar overshadows every other film is at least some reassurance that there remains a place for the well-crafted and provocative European arthouse movie – a genus that in recent times has seemed close to extinction.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which chooses the Golden Globes, is known for being bolder and more leftfield than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body behind the Oscars. It is made up of film critics rather than industry practitioners. Their choices often anticipate but are marginally different from the ones made on Oscar night.

If the critics cannot resist jumping on the Avatar bandwagon, the Academy members are bound to do the same. Avatar is a rare example of a movie that has made millions without alienating reviewers.

Notable losers in the Golden Globes include Rob Marshall’s Nine, which was nominated in five categories and won nothing. The film’s producers The Weinstein Company are masters at using awards nominations and wins to generate box office. However, Nine has underperformed in the US in spite of its all-star cast and its failure at the Globes won’t do anything to revive its fortunes. (The Weinsteins could console themselves that Christopher Waltz won the Supporting Actor award for his barnstorming turn as the Richard III-like Nazi villain in Inglourious Basterds.)

Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air, starring George Clooney, also made less of a splash than its more fervent admirers anticipated, winning only Best Screenplay. Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow had been hotly tipped for a Best Director award for The Hurt Locker, her superb film about a bomb disposal expert in Iraq. It could be argued that this was a far purer and better crafted piece of filmmaking than her ex-husband’s Avatar. Financed independently, shot on a shoestring, it is suffering now from its lack of bells and whistles. It’s not in 3D and it doesn’t have aliens. What it does offer – and what will surely win it some awards elsewhere – is intensity and depth of characterisation.

Showing that frat humour can sometimes win awards, Todd Phillips’s bachelor party comedy The Hangover picked up the prize for Best Film in the musical and comedy category. Meanwhile, Sandra Bullock beat a trio of Brits (Emily Blunt, Helen Mirren and Carey Mulligan) as well as Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe to the Best Actress award. Bullock, the cheery comedienne of countless romantic comedies, has successfully transformed herself from Miss Congeniality into a performer with a Meryl Streep-like gravitas. Streep, meanwhile, seems to be heading in the opposite direction, picking up yet another award for her pantomime-dame style depiction of chef Julia Child in Julie and Julia.

It’s hard to begrudge Avatar its success at the Golden Globes. This is a monumental movie that uses technology in a groundbreaking way. Exhibitors the world over are in raptures over the mesmeric effect it has had on audiences. Even so, a nagging suspicion remains that it isn’t quite the giant step forward for cinema that its champions claim. Arguably, it is even a step backward. That’s why it is a relief to see Jeff Bridges rewarded for his brilliant performance in Crazy Heart – a film that is gadget-free apart from the guitar on which he composes his lachrymose country and western ballads.

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