I've never felt particularly connected to Big-N Nature, that abstract category of life that usually consists of trees, dirt and non-human animals while more importantly excluding everything related to humans and civilization. As a result, I've had to find special work-arounds for modern spirituality. Some years ago, I decided that Catherine Zeta Jones is my power animal and George Clooney my spirit guide. I decided this just after seeing Ocean's 12 because despite the fact that it's not a particularly good movie and makes no pretense whatsoever to seriousness, I found both of those actors' performances compelling. There had to be something mystical at work. Ever since my awakening, I've done my level best to give whatever George Clooney has taken part in a chance, even when it's a mediocre film like The Men Who Stare At Goats or a good but overrated prestige piece like Good Night and Good Luck. That doesn't always mean I get around to those films immediately. Clooney's 2009 nomination magnet Up In The Air didn't grace my DVD player until well after the 82nd Academy Awards where it was up for six statues but won none of them. Like most critics, I generally enjoyed Up In The Air but I can see why it didn't sweep the Oscars. Still, it deserves the recognition it got.
In 2009, the Best Picture competition was so stiff it was like someone left it out in the snow during that year's brutal winter. Aside from the topically-charged winner The Hurt Locker, Up In The Air had to go up against two socially conscious dramas (The Blind Side and Precious), an elegant period piece (An Education), two sci-fi blockbusters (Avatar and District 9) and three Hollywood auteurs (Quentin Tarantino with Inglorious Basterds and the Coen Brothers with A Serious Man) who are considerably more established than director Jason Reitman. Granted, there were a few long shots on that list, especially A Serious Man, but Up In The Air's nomination was an honorable mention from the beginning. The film, from the perspective of scripting, direction and overall execution, is a good way to spend two hours and it does inspire thought, but it's too low-key to ever grab the spotlight, even in an off year.
The Best Actor award was the one most likely to nab Up In The Air an Oscar. Jeff Bridges ultimately won for his performance in Crazy Heart, though Colin Firth probably should have taken it with his considerably less calculated turn in A Single Man. George Clooney as perpetual traveler Ryan Bingham is good, but really he doesn't invent a new character for him so much as he applies a variation on the charming bachelor he's been playing since ER. Don't get me wrong, I'll watch that character in as many movies as he appears, but he'll never wow an audience that has come to expect him.
Up In The Air had two nominees for Best Supporting Actress, deservingly. Vera Farmiga brought a lot of subtlety to Alex Goran and she handled herself well alongside Clooney, which was really her only job. It wasn't a revolutionary performance, but it fit the bill just fine. The real surprise of Up In The Air and I think the part most likely to last well beyond the film's relevancy is Anna Kendrick's role as aspiring executive Natalie Keener. Up In The Air's three acts are almost too well-defined, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that Natalie is largely absent from the first and third. Kendrick gives easily the funniest, most nuanced performance in the movie. With the right career moves, she could have a place among the Hollywood elite and we'd be looking back at her performance in Up In The Air as an early sign of talent.
Up In The Air wasn't really robbed at the 82nd Academy Awards, but it deserved its nominations. It's good to see that a quiet, unglamorous philosophy movie stood alongside the best of 2009.