The Oscars, as I hope we’ve established by now, are not simply a beauty contest. But when it comes to the half-dozen categories that reward visuals, that can be hard to remember. Here’s this year’s rundown:
Best Art Direction
The Artist Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 Hugo Midnight in Paris War Horse
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:
It’s over. No more surges or collapses, no more micro-measurements of momentum, no more fingers to the wind. Voting for the Oscar nominations has closed, and the results will be announced bright and early on Tuesday, January 24, so every day this week I’ll be rolling out my predictions. Take these to the bank! Actually, please don’t. It’s not easy trying to crystal-ball the collective, aggregated taste of Pedro Almodóvar and Ernest Borgnine and Peter Dinklage and Olivia de Havilland and the guy who shot The Wedding Planner and the costume designer of Vanilla Sky. Throw in more than 5,000 other voters and you have, at best, barely educated guesswork. With that in mind ...
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.)
Or, rather, will it be a supporting vampire, or a supporting werewolf? With its plentiful stock of wolfcake and bloodsuckers, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 is a bonanza for a category that’s often among the Razzies’ most predictable. Due to a fluke of scheduling, though, the name-brand Supporting Actors the Razzies typically love — Burt Reynolds, Marlon Wayans, Verne Troyer, Jon Voight, and (of course) Rob Schneider — have zero movies due to be released in 2011. That means some fresh Razzie meat come January 23!
Will Jackson Rathbone follow up his shocking Razzie win last year with another nomination? Might Taylor Lautner have better luck in Supporting Actor than he did in Worst Actor last year, when he lost to Ashton Kutcher? What about Kellan Lutz as vampire Emmett, the most bloodless of the bunch? Or Michael Sheen as Aro, who seems prepared to devour the scenery like so many shrieking coeds? Or Jamie Campbell Bower, who … uh … we can’t remember who “Caius” is. At any rate, they’re all front-runners, so let’s put them there.