Among The 10 Top Oscar Nods, A Few Surprises

James Cameron's smash hit Avatar and the war movie The Hurt Locker lead the Oscars field this year, with the gritty drama Precious, the South African sci-fi film District 9 and the football drama The Blind Side also in the top 10. Critic Wesley Morris talks over the list with Tell Me More host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE.

Coming up, a conversation with renowned pianist George Winston about his latest project, his interpretation of many songs from the Peanuts cartoons. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, Oscar nominations were announced this morning. The James Cameron science fiction blockbuster "Avatar" and the war movie "The Heart Locker" led the field with nine nominations each. But films with African-Americans in prominent roles, both in front of and behind the camera, had strong showings as well, with "The Blind Side" and "Precious" up for multiple nominations each, including Best Picture.

Joining us to talk more about this is Wesley Morris. He is the film critic for the Boston Globe. Welcome back. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. WESLEY MORRIS (Film Critic, Boston Globe): Hi, Michel, how are you?

MARTIN: Well, Wesley, this is a big day for Hollywood, always a big day. And I'm wondering, you know, why is it such a big day? Why do we care so much?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: I love that you ask that question because every year I ask myself the same question too. The Oscars are an American institution, kind of a global institution at this point. I think the Oscars are trying to figure out what they still mean to other people and, you know, a very good case in point this year is expending the nomination pool from five films to 10.

MARTIN: Why did they do that? That's going to make for a long night.

Mr. MORRIS: The reason this happened initially is because last year there was a lot of controversy about "The Dark Knight" not being a nominee, and the thinking I think was fewer people watched the broadcast because "The Dark Knight" wasn't nominated for Best Picture and so why don't we just expand the field and please the many people who were upset that the popular movies weren't nominated.

MARTIN: So this idea is simply to get more people to watch by including more films as the contenders?

Mr. MORRIS: Yes.

MARTIN: It's kind of like the Rooney Rule in the NFL; you've got to nominate somebody even if you're not going to hire him is that the idea?

Mr. MORRIS: Yes, very good, exactly. But, you know, I will also say this. I frequently do wonder who came in sixth in the nomination, like who came in seventh, like if there's somebody that I was really rooting for to be one of the five people, I wonder if that person was number six. So now at least in one category we know what six through 10 were.

MARTIN: All right, well, let's talk about some of the ones that were nominated. "Precious" was nominated. Do you think that under the old system it would have been?

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah, I think "Precious" would have been one of the five films.

MARTIN: And it was nominated for several awards, including adapted screenplay; of course it was adapted for the novel "Push," by Sapphire, which is part of the extraordinarily long title.

Mr. MORRIS: You have to say the whole thing, Michel.

MARTIN: Best Actress Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the title character, and Mo'Nique for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Precious' horribly abusive mother Mary Jones. And Mo'Nique, it should be mentioned, has already won a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for the role.

Let's just play a short clip for people who haven't seen it. In this clip she's talking to the social worker, who's played by Mariah Carey

Mr. MORRIS: Who's excellent.

MARTIN: who is excellent, about her conduct, and she is finally being called to account for her behavior. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Precious")

Ms. MO'NIQUE (Actor): (as Mary) I don't want you to sit there and judge me, Ms. Weiss.

Ms. MARIAH CAREY (Actor): (as Mrs. Weiss) You shut up and you let him abuse your daughter.

Ms. MO'NIQUE: (as Mary) I did not want him to abuse my daughter. I did not want him to hurt her.

Ms. CAREY: (as Mrs. Weiss) But you allowed him to hurt her.

Ms. MO'NIQUE: (as Mary) I did not want him to do nothing to her (unintelligible) did to her who else was going to love me? Who was going to make me feel good?

MARTIN: You know, this is one of those roles that, you know, people you're tempted to reach for the clich�s what is it - chewing up the scenery?

Mr. MORRIS: Scenery.

MARTIN: Do you think that she is a contender? There has been some behind the scenes talk about how she may not be in as strong a position because she is not campaigning for an award. I think it might be news for people that actually have to campaign for these things.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, that's how it typically works. But I mean, you know, I would say that what she is doing or not doing in this case is kind of revolutionary in some ways. This is a woman who said, look, I've got enough stuff going on. I have a family. I have a talk show. I have supported this movie. I love this movie, but I didn't take the part to win awards.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the men. We can't leave the men out. You've mentioned that there's a Best Actor nod to Morgan Freeman for "Invictus." This is the story of the South African rugby team and the South African president, Nelson Mandela, who kind of uses the team to forge a sense of nationhood in the post-apartheid years. In this field, George Clooney is nominated for "Up in the Air," and, of course, there is Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart." So, who do you think has the edge here?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, Morgan Freeman is well on his way to becoming like the Meryl Streep of the men. I mean, so, well, he did win the last time he was nominated. But I just feel like at this point, you know, his take on Nelson Mandela was it was Nelson Mandela like. But I mean, ultimately the sort of the inner dignity that he brings out of this man that he's playing, it is very striking. And he is Morgan Freeman. I think Jeff Bridges is pretty much assured the Oscar for this part. He hasn't ever won before. He's been nominated a bunch of times. He's one of those sort of maverick institutions in Hollywood.

But I think of these five people, I think my favorite performance is Jeremy Renner's in "The Hurt Locker." You know, I was blown away by how smart and confident that performance was. I mean, he basically plays the part like a star.

MARTIN: Okay, so finally, if there's a film that's been nominated that you haven't had a chance to see, what do you most recommend

Mr. MORRIS: Of the 10?

MARTIN: that you go and see. Of the 10 that you say you really just - be sure you go and see it just so that you'll know what everybody is talking about.

Mr. MORRIS: "Precious" is, for me, the one that people have least seen, I think, on this list. I think it is made of these 10 movies (unintelligible) "An Education" and "Precious" have the made least amount of money. "The Hurt Locker" is also sort of been under-seen. If you haven't seen "Avatar" I guess, you know, if you're the one person in America who hasn't seen that movie.

MARTIN: I keep waiting for you to come up for a babysit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: I'm going to come down, Michel.

MARTIN: Thank you, okay. Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Boston Globe. And he joined us on the line from his office in Boston. Thank you, Wesley.

Mr. MORRIS: Thank you, Michel.

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