Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Oscar Meta 2011

And now we get to the fun part of the Oscar nominations. After all the nominees have been tallied, surprises and snubs noted, and lists made up of the films we still need to watch - in my case too many - it's time to pull back and look at the big picture. What do the 2011 Academy Award nominees say about the state of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and about the state of American cinema, if it says anything at all?

It's a good year. I think this is the first time in a long time that I've felt the Oscars have been so relevant and in sync with the artistic achievements of the film community and the popular culture at the same time. In the Best Director category are Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, the Coen brothers, and David O. Russell - the madman behind "I Heart Huckabees"! - an unthinkable prospect just a year or two ago. These are some of the most exciting American filmmakers working today, and they're at the height of their creative powers. Nobody's here because they're a legacy pick or a sentimental favorite. Even Tom Hooper, who directed the most conservative film of the bunch, "The King's Speech," is a relative novice who has mostly worked in television. Personally, I would have booted him in favor of Christopher Nolan in a second, but you could have a really good debate about it on the actual merits of their films.

What's been really surprising is how well the nominated films have been doing at the box office this year. While many would-be holiday blockbusters tanked or underperformed, ticket sales have been robust for the prestige pics like "The Black Swan" and 'The King's Speech." The Social Network," our current Best Picture frontrunner, was a surprise hit in September, pulling in nearly $100 million with no benefit from awards season chatter. When crowd-pleasers "Avatar" and "The Blind Side" muscled into the Best Picture race last year, analysts declared them concessions to populism. This year, the highest grossing nominated films after PIXAR's "Toy Story 3" are "Inception," widely lauded for its intellectually stimulating puzzle-box plot, and "True Grit," the Coen Brothers' western. This year's films are not only more critically acclaimed than the last bunch (higher Metacritic average), but more people have seen them already.

Expanding the number of Best Picture nominees to ten was a great idea. In the past, the Academy was simply not comfortable with nominating certain films, like animated features or genre pictures. Therefore, especially between 2004 and 2007, there was practically no overlap between the Best Picture nominees and the films that audiences actually went out and saw. Oscar viewership plummeted because no one had heard of films like "Babel" and "The Reader." The actual frontrunners for Best Picture still tend to be heavy dramas, but the full list of anointed nominees is now a much better reflection of what the American cinemascape actually looks like. This year in particular showcases a good mix of titles, from the expensive blockbusters to the microbudgeted indies.

This is also having an interesting effect on the content of the films themselves. Thanks to the critical accolades heaped on commercial genre pictures like "The Dark Knight," "Inglorious Basterds," and "District 9," our serious filmmakers are more willing to tackle this kind of material now. Aronofsky's "Black Swan" has been categorized by many as a horror film, with elements of camp. Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" is a desert survival movie. "Inception" is science fiction. The year's big historical drama, "The King's Speech," is much more of a crowd-pleaser than similar nominees of the past like "The Queen" and "Atonement." And with the caveat that these things tend to be cyclical, there have been indications that movie viewers are warming up to films with more substance, in reaction to too many disappointments at the multiplex.

I expect that audiences are coming because the best films of the year are more accessible now than they've been in the past, but this probably isn't by chance. Getting cynical for a minute, the independent film market took a dive with the recession that it hasn't fully recovered from. More challenging films with fewer commercial prospects were less likely to be bought and distributed, and thus less likely to get financed and made at all. This year's major nominees may be more diverse in terms of genre and themes, but the Academy has also taken a few steps back in other areas. There are no films with cross cultural elements, no big foreign language contenders, no social justice or "message" movies ("The Kids Are All Right" is far more nuanced than you've heard), and the acting nominees are overwhelmingly Caucasian, with the iffy exception of Javier Bardem for the Spanish language "Biutiful."

The last few years have also given us a bumper crop of miserable, angst-ridden pictures, like "Precious," "No Country For Old Men," "Frost/Nixon," and "The Hurt Locker," perhaps reflecting the mood of the creative community and the psychological impact of larger national and global conflicts. In 2008, Jon Stewart asked during his Academy Awards ceremony hosting gig, "Does this town need a hug?" So it's nice to be have a roster of Best Picture nominees that isn't so depressing, and I can actually prod friends and relations to come see them with me. On the other hand, I don't want the pendulum swing too far back in the other direction either. Relevance and popularity are two different things, and shouldn't be confused. I don't want to see films like "Precious" disappear, simply because they're harder to sell and champion.

Finally, there's this whole New Hollywood v. Old Hollywood narrative that's being trotted out again. It's good copy, but it's total bunk. "The Social Network" has lots of younger up-and-coming actors and is about Facebook. "The King's Speech" is a costume drama with a middle-aged British monarch. None of the other Best Picture nominees fit the narrative. "True Grit," the other big contender, neatly subverts it by featuring both older and younger leads. Yes, we have a pair of young hosts and lots of younger nominees this year, including Hailee Steinfeld, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jesse Eisenberg. Many older favorites like Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, and Lesley Manville didn't secure predicted acting nominations. And yet, Andrew Garfield ("The Social Network") lost out a spot in the Best Supporting Actor race to John Hawkes ("Winter's Bone") and Mila Kunis ("The Black Swan") couldn't gain traction for Best Supporting Actress against Jacki Weaver ("Animal Kingdom").

Now we head into the month of furious campaigning and conjecture before the big night on February 27th. I plan to enjoy it, as I have no stake in the race and it's fun watching the studio executives tie themselves in knots over dreams of Oscar gold. I hear Harvey Weinstein is pulling out all the stops and threatening to cut "The King's Speech" for a family-friendly version without the therapeutic profanities. Someone, please stop this man before he hurts himself. Other than that, Hollywood, go forth and do battle.

Because it's Oscar season again, the most wonderful time of the year to be a film nerd.

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