As the Academy continues to discuss an accelerated awards calendar for future Oscars (coming in 2013: Goodbye, paper ballots; hello, electronic voting and endless conspiracy theories about hacking!), there’s one thing I hope the Board of Governors will bear in mind: They need to allow one week for generalized postnomination rage. This wasn’t necessary before the Internet, which tends to reinforce in everyone the need to express, via blog, tweet, or status update, the conviction that anyone who doesn’t share their taste must by definition be dumb or corrupt. This year’s anger seems to have taken two forms:
If I were feeling less generous and more cynical on this holiest of all Oscar-calendar mornings, I might say that to decipher this year’s Academy Awards contest, we need only look for inspiration to the GOP presidential race. The Artist is Mitt Romney — desperate to please, doesn’t stand for anything in particular, not especially popular with the general public, will eventually keep most of its money offshore, and, though dinged up and trash-talked, will probably cross the finish line first by default. The Descendants is Newt Gingrich (emotionally unsteady, hard on wives, doing better than expected, but probably can’t go all the way). Hugo is Rick Santorum (a little slow, doesn’t really like anything that changed in the culture in the last 80 years). And The Tree of Life is Jon Huntsman (believes in evolution, probably a little too classy for this field).
I’d like to thank the Academy for throwing an extra mystery at those of us who treat predicting the Oscars as something between a hobby and a blood sport: This year, we have to figure out not only which movies will be nominated, but how many. After concluding that the appropriate number of Best Picture contenders was five for 65 consecutive years, and then 10 for two consecutive years, what the Academy’s board of governors has now settled on is “from five to ten.” How can we narrow that down? Well, the Academy did offer one clue by revealing that when it experimentally retabulated the ballots from 2001 through 2008, the results yielded, in different years, five, six, seven, eight, and nine nominees — but never ten.
Oh, how lonely it is to be in the minority of viewers who hate an acclaimed movie. It’s like watching your friends throw their hands up on Space Mountain and go “Wheeee!” when you’re just claustrophobic and nauseated in outer space, or deciding to leave the slumber party early just as someone pulls out a bottle of cooking wine to get crunk. You have failed at enjoying something that will win Oscars. You failed to be moved. Your heart is faulty. Your ears are the only set of ears that don’t want to hear more ukulele music. When you sigh at The Descendants, expecting your sigh to settle among other disaffected exhalations of stale air, somebody claps a hand over your mouth and insists that “this mature, well-acted dramatic comedy is deeply satisfying, maybe even cathartic." Wheee! Look at those glittering planets zipping by! Who’s that curmudgeon throwing up on her own shoes?!
What a frenetically busy weekend it was in the handing out of shinies and sparklies and mantel-trinkets to chronically underappreciated movie people, who at other times of the year often have to survive for weeks without winning anything. Critics’ groups in Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco announced their honorees, as did online critics in New York; conclaves in Detroit and Houston revealed their lists; and the American Film Institute named its 10 best movies. That’s a lot of noise! All of these simultaneously live-tweeted prizelets are microtwitches in the Oscar race, and it’s true that come ballot time, no Oscar voter is going to find himself frozen in indecision, his pen hovering above his ballot as he frets, “But dare I go against Detroit?” However, it’s still possible to pull some larger trendlines from this surge of hyperbolic over-celebration of film achievement. And if it’s not, let’s pretend it is.
In thinking about the race for Best Picture this week I found myself drifting unhappily back to the 1980s, specifically to a stretch during which the Oscars reacted to an uncertain (i.e., post-Raging Bull) period in high-end American moviemaking by retreating to a safer, more virtuous and conservative definition of "prestige" films. In a period of just seven years, Best Picture Oscars were won by Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Amadeus, Out of Africa, and The Last Emperor. Some of those movies were good, and all of them had their virtues. But collectively, all they told us about the world and times in which they were made is that apparently nobody in 1980s Hollywood wanted to think about 1980s America.
This year’s Best Picture contest is starting to feel afflicted by a similar sense of what I would call belligerent nostalgia. The two movies to win high-profile prizes so far, The Artist and Hugo, are both being hailed as odes to the early days of cinema. But really, they’re not. The Artist tells you everything it knows about the painful transition from silents to talkies in its first 10 minutes: It’s an undeniably charming but extremely slight comedy-drama that mimics the most basic elements of silents (They were black-and-white! The screen wasn’t wide!), but seems more engaged by their poignant quaintness than by the visual language, wit, beauty, complexity, or psychological richness of the movies it purports to honor. And as enchanting as it can be to enter the glittering, hermetically sealed but vividly three-dimensional toy chest/train station universe that Martin Scorsese has created in Hugo, there is something slightly self-adoring about the story it tells. Hugo is not a valentine to the dawn of movies — it’s a valentine to people who send those valentines, a halo placed lovingly atop the heads of cinephiles and film preservationists. (And, not incidentally, film critics and Oscar voters.)
The National Board of Review announced its annual movie awards today, and although this remains a deeply weird organization whose membership is opaque and whole method of selection is — to be generous about it — impenetrable, we should probably not hold it against any of the many, many movies or people that managed to win something today, so bravo to all of them. The big victors were two films that got blanked the other day by the New York Critics Circle: Hugo, which took awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and The Descendants, which won prizes for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Shailene Woodley), and Best Adapted Screenplay.
I’m going to begin this edition of Oscarmetrics with a cautionary tale about overreaction, backlash, and misbehavior. Appropriately, it comes from one Best Picture nominee, and it’s about another. In the 2005 film Capote, we watch our brilliant, narcissistic protagonist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) experience a friend’s success the only way he can — as a staggering personal humiliation. He attends the premiere of the movie version of his loyal pal Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Afterward, Lee finds him at the bar, magnificently self-absorbed, and, of course, choked with jealousy.
“How’d you like the movie, Truman?” she asks patiently. He can’t even rouse himself to look at her. She finally walks away — at which point he murmurs sourly, to himself, “I, frankly, don’t see what all the fuss is about.” And nobody cares.
As we enter a season that’s defined by a great deal of fuss, of hyperbolic praise, and of hyperbolic dissent, it bears remembering that at some point in the next few months, we’re all going to find ourselves on the losing side of at least one movie argument. And when a film that everybody seems to love leaves us cold, we all, to some extent, risk sounding like Truman Capote — pissy, superior, bitter, bored. This is the time of year when the ridiculous word “overrated” gets tossed around as if it were an actual qualitative property of a movie rather than a silly side argument about what other people thought of it. So my current resolution is to try to be arrogant about movies that I love, but humble about movies that work for everybody else but not for me.
There are many ways of looking at a Best Actor Oscar race. You can ask yourself who gave the year’s strongest performances. You can think about who’s overdue, who’s surprising, who works the circuit effectively, who exceeds expectations, who elevates his movie the most by his presence in it. But ultimately, the question that decides the nominations is always this one: Who do actors want to vote for?
This year, that may be tough to answer, since Best Actor is shaping up to be an extremely unusual race. In Column A, we have three Goliaths: George Clooney for The Descendants, Leonardo DiCaprio for J. Edgar, and Brad Pitt for Moneyball. And in Column B, we have a whole bunch of Davids. The problem for the Davids is that they’re not Goliaths. The problem for the Goliaths is that voting for Davids is usually a lot more fun.
In covering the Oscar race so far, I’ve tried to focus on movies that have already opened. But this week, I’m tossing that approach, because effective immediately, the attention of the Oscar-punditry universe swivels decisively forward. The last eight weekends of 2011 will bring more than two dozen movies with aspirations as modest as a single acting nomination and as grandiose as sweeping the slate from Best Picture to Best Makeup.
So from now until year’s end, the goal of every contender that opened before November 1 is simply survival. Think of the next two months as a tidal wave, and of early hopefuls like Midnight in Paris, The Help, and Moneyball as trees along the shore line. Some of those trees will topple — and a couple of months from now, those still standing may look that much taller. Same goes for the movies in the big wave; some will arrive with obliterating force while others will weaken the closer they get. (Please take the above tortured analogy as my tribute to Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter.) With that in mind, this Oscarmetrics installment is a cheat sheet — a map of the parallel tracks of reality and hype along which the race will now proceed.
Written by Max Landis (son of John), and starring mostly unknowns (yep, that’s Michael B. Jordan from Friday Night Lights), Chronicle looks to breathe some new life into the “found footage” genre. The film follows three friends who happen upon an unknown substance, develop super powers, and ultimately turn on each other.
Verdict: The trailer has sort of a District 9 vibe. Excitement building.
Last week, while seeking evidence of how quickly Academy Awards campaign rhetoric can hit bottom, I came across the following Huffington Post headline. I know it’s still early, but we may have already found, in five words, the perfect storm of hysteria, prematurity, and inaccuracy. Here’s the headline:
“Madonna Bombs; Oscar Hopes Dead?”
Let me offer a word-by-word translation, since unless you are dangerously fluent in awards hyperbole, this announcement should be completely incomprehensible to you. “Madonna” is Madonna. She has made — meaning directed, but not starred in — a movie called W.E. “W” stands for Wallis Simpson; “E” stands for King Edward VIII, so in historical terms, this is a movie about the romance that caused the British abdication crisis in 1936; in movie terms, this is a spinoff of The King’s Speech that’s all about Colin Firth’s sneering Nazi-symp asshole brother, except now he’s a good guy. Even though Madonna has enough psychic power to have successfully mind-wiped the world’s population 10 years ago into believing that she is the descendant of a lovely old-money family from Sussex instead of a crabby Italian lady from Michigan, this particular piece of image alteration may be too tall an order.