Well, it’s that time again… the pop culture Super Bowl kicks off Sunday at 7 P.M. Chicago time (with, like the Super Bowl, the inane pre-game shows kicking off hours earlier). This year’s edition marks a pretty sedate year in movies… no blockbuster like Avatar, no great showdown like No Country for Old Men/There Will Be Blood, no abominations like Crash angling for Best Picture. In our year-end film wrap-up, we noted how slow a year it was for Hollywood. However, over the past couple of months as we caught up on Oscar nominees, we learned there was more than met the eye.
The Dilemma: Two years in, how do you feel about having ten nominees for Best Picture? To me, that’s one of the biggest storylines surrounding this year’s Oscars. Is the experiment working?
In one respect, the change is definitely having its intended effect, as I (and many others, I’m sure) watched movies I otherwise wouldn’t have seen just because they garnered a nomination (127 Hours, The King’s Speech). I’ve seen all ten nominees this year, and I know you have too. However, the increase in films seen per capita is likely more than cancelled out financially by illegal downloading.
At least this year, the expanded nominee field led to recognition for worthy films that otherwise would have been ignored during awards season — like Winter’s Bone. I think the four best films I saw this year all received Best Picture nominations, and that’s the first time I can ever remember that happening. On the other hand, we know going in that most of the ten nominees have utterly no shot at winning. There’s definitely a tier 1 and a tier 2, and we can figure out which is which by who gets Best Director nominations, and also who dominates the smaller awards and the guild awards.
This year also may be a bit fluky in terms of the best movies of the year actually correlating with what Academy voters like. I mean, look at last year’s nominees. The Blind Side? Precious? The nominee expansion certainly doesn’t guarantee a strong field. But, this didn’t feel like a particularly strong year for movies, so maybe the system is working in terms of getting the best films nominated.
David Simon Cowell: I guess that depends on what the experiment was intended to do. If it was meant to increase revenue (which it obviously was), I’m not sure whether the Oscar bounce is more spread out or bigger… I’d have to look at the numbers. If it was meant to award divergent films that would otherwise have been ignored (which the MPAA would claim), then maybe.
If there were only the traditional 5, I think they would be The Kings Speech, Black Swan, The Social Network, The Fighter and Inception (Nolan would be the annual Director omission). That means that Winter’s Bone, 127 Hours, and The Kids Are Alright got extra exposure… the Coens are big enough that True Grit would have found an audience, and Toy Story would have made a zillion dollars either way (although it is nice that the trilogy got some artistic credit). I’m glad that I saw all three, and I thought the first two were great. And I wouldn’t have definitely seen any of them without the Oscar nods.
The biggest surprise this year for me is that after a year I thought was really weak for movies, I genuinely liked all ten Best Picture nominees. I didn’t think any were incredible (i.e. No Country For Old Men, The Departed), but nor did I think any were terrible (i.e. Crash, Million Dollar Baby). Some I thought were great, some just good, but I enjoyed them all (ironically, my least favorite was probably True Grit, which was made by one of my all-time favorite directors).
T.D.: While I agree that the overall nominee field was strong, I can’t say I liked all ten films. I didn’t hate any of them, which is a refreshing change of pace, but for me the movies broke down into four clear tiers:
Five movies that fall somewhere on the very good-to-great scale (B+ to A movies) – Winter’s Bone, Inception, The Social Network, Black Swan, True Grit. These films all either showed enough creativity or were executed well enough to legitimately be in a discussion for best films of the year. Aside from True Grit, they all felt like movies that need to exist, that our world is better off for having.
Two movies that were well-made and which I enjoyed, and accomplished what they set out to do, but I don’t think set the bar high enough – 127 Hours, Toy Story 3
Three movies that are generic Hollywood fluff – The Kids are All Right, The King’s Speech, The Fighter. None of these were bad movies, but they’re all predictable, banal and inessential. In other words: completely unworthy of being in the same category as a film like Inception. All three are genre films that hit each of the expected notes of their given genre, and not in a particularly creative way.
I find myself growing angry that The King’s Speech is likely going to win Best Picture (and possibly Best Director). It’s a fine little movie, but I could have storyboarded it in full after the first five minutes. And it hits all the notes that the Academy fucking loves: overcoming adversity, a mentor/protegee relationship, a setting in non-modern England, a “great man”, even goddamn Nazis. It’s a shame that because of the Oscars, I have to feel bitter toward a film I don’t even really dislike. But The King’s Speech shouldn’t be in the conversation with the best few films of this year, let alone defeat them.
That brings me to another question: do you think the Oscars are growing too predictable because of the pre-Oscars award season and its attendant publicity?
D.S.C.: I think they’ve always been pretty predictable. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can only remember a few times when there were real surprises, and those were usually in Supporting categories (when
Marisa Tomei won, when Lauren Bacall didn’t, etc.) Most categories are a done deal, maybe with a slight dark horse lurking, and a few categories are a two-nominee toss-up.
Last year could have gone either way between Avatar and The Hurt Locker, Katheryn Bigelow and James Cameron, with Colin Firth lurking as a dark horse in the Best Actor category. At least according to bullshit Internet betting sites, all the major categories this year except for Best Actor and Adapted Screenplay have the possibility of an upset.
I do agree that the televising/following of pre-Oscar awards (the Guilds, etc.) has gotten completely out of hand and can take a good deal of the fun out of it if you let it. It’s a lot like the Super Bowl (most of sports, actually)… if you watch/listen to the weeks of build-up, you’re going to kill it. The best thing to do is ignore ESPN, sports radio, etc. and go into the game only with the knowledge you would have had anyway. I do that with the Oscars at this point.
I’m really surprised you felt so positively about True Grit. I was really disappointed… it seemed like the Coen Brothers and Jeff Bridges got together and said, “We won an Oscar with a Western based on a book and you won one playing a cowboy, what can we throw together?” I thought it was totally predictable and pretty boring… it was definitely my least favorite Coen flick since The Ladykillers (another remake, btw).
My top tier would be a combination of your top two, minus True Grit (obviously). I probably wouldn’t watch 127 Hours again, but was surprised how much it sucked me in and how well it dealt with a fairly limited visual story. My biggest problem was that it basically boiled down to the lesson, “Tell someone where you’re going.” And I obviously rate the Toy Story trilogy higher than you do… it’s up there with my favorite trilogies of all time. In fact, the only trilogies I can think of where all three were in the A-range quality-wise are that and Star Wars. If you didn’t tear up at the end of 3, you are a sociopathic monster who should commit yourself tomorrow.
As much as my heart wants an upset, I’ve been burned too many times… I know the Oscar voters are going with the sentimental lesson and The King’s Speech. It will be one of those years where the overrating of a perfectly decent movie will cause me to mostly hate it. If I were voting, I’d go for The Social Network… while I’d consider Black Swan and Inception, I think The Social Network was the best movie overall, and did a great job of turning a story that could have veered into TV-movie territory into something artistic.
That said, I thought the one part of The Kings Speech that isn’t overrated is Colin Firth’s performance… it was pretty incredible and deserves to win.
T.D.: I liked True Grit but didn’t love it. It’s my least favorite of the films in my top tier, and it’s definitely not top-level Coens. But the acting is great throughout, it was shot beautifully, and it’s a good, solid Western. Like with so many movies and TV shows these days, I could have done without the coda. It seems like this was the Coens at their safest and most commercial, perhaps responding to A Serious Man last year, which was the Coens at their most esoteric and introspective. I don’t think it serves them well to separate their commercial instincts from their “artier” instincts — when they combine the extremes of their personality, the results tend to be movies like No Country for Old Men or Fargo.
Similarly, I liked Firth in The King’s Speech, but wasn’t blown away by his performance. I think he’s been better elsewhere, like A Single Man. A stutter is one of the easiest tricks to garner audience sympathy, so he was playing with a stacked deck. I haven’t seen Bardem in Biutiful, but I feel the same way about the other actors in the category as I do about Firth. I think Bridges, Eisenberg, Firth and Franco were all playing characters right in their respective wheelhouses. Eisenberg was great, but he played Zuckerberg as a very Eisenberg’ed version of him. I guess of the group, I’d lean toward Firth. And it’s not like there were a ton of other incredible male lead performances this year that weren’t nominated. I’d put George Clooney in The American in with this group. And if Ryan Gosling’s goal in Blue Valentine was to make me hate the performance, the character, the movie, and Gosling himself — well, then he deserves some kind of reward.
The best performances of the year came from the ladies. Specifically, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Williams were all better than any of the nominated men. Portman will win because it’s the kind of showy, extroverted performance the Academy so loves, and I don’t begrudge her even if I preferred Lawrence and Williams.
Hailee Steinfeld should have been nominated in the lead category, and I hope she wins supporting actress. Jacki Weaver was the best part of Animal Kingdom – really, the only part of the movie that stood out at all. Bonham Carter couldn’t have been less challenged in The King’s Speech. And I hated, hated, hated Melissa Leo in The Fighter….what a cheap, mannered, garbage performance. All window dressing and no nuance. I liked Amy Adams better, but probably only because she’s pretty. Other than John Hawkes and Christian Bale, I didn’t much care for any of the supporting actor nominees.
D.S.C.: It wasn’t really the mechanics of the stammer that I liked… I just thought he was really skilled at conveying the frustration of the bind the character finds himself in. Maybe part of my love is that haven’t seen Firth in a major role before. Of the nominees, I would put James Franco second, given that if his performance wasn’t awesome, that movie falls apart (although I’d still prefer Seth Rogan to be the first Freaks and Geeks Oscar winner).
I agree that the women were strong, and that Portman should win. Will be pretty upset if Bening pulls the
upset. I don’t have anything against her, but didn’t think that performance was anything special. Have to give the Supporting Actor to Bale, although Hawkes was super strong too. Also, was actually happy that Stansfield was in the Supporting Actress category, because it means she actually has a chance to win… hope that she beats out Leo, who also was my least favorite in that category (although I like her in general).
The most striking thing to me when looking at the nominations was the makeup of the Best Original Screenplay category. You have Another Year, which is one of those Mike Leigh improvised “scripts” (I haven’t seen it… after giving 3-5 Leigh movies a chance and despising them all, I’ve decided he’s not my thing). You have The Fighter and The King’s Speech, both of which are based on a true story. That leaves The Kids Are Alright and Inception as the only truly original nominees (and obviously Inception should win). Is there anything that better illustrates the pathetic state Hollywood is in when it comes to producing new ideas?
T.D.: Yep, Hollywood is experiencing a serious dearth of creativity – or at least creativity that the powers that be allow to see the light of day. I’m sure there are a ton of great scripts out there that never get made because studio dollars have to go toward supporting the likes of Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son. I think this GQ article does a nice job giving an overview of this particular problem.
I also think it’s an outrage that Nolan was snubbed for a directing nomination, when Inception was handily the film that gained the most from creative, original direction. If Tom Hooper wins for The King’s Speech, we should just cancel the Oscars forever. Of the nominees who are there, I think it should be Fincher in a landslide, though he was helped tremendously in mood-setting by Trent Reznor’s score.
Of the other categories, the only nominated documentary I’ve seen is Exit Through the Gift Shop, which was great; and the only Foreign nominee I’ve seen is Dogtooth, which was also great. If those both win, I’ll be happy.
Were there any films/actors/elements from outside the nomination pool that got particularly screwed this year?
D.S.C.: It ain’t a dearth, it’s a desert. I mean, even a creative director like Nolan is best known for his superhero adaptations (which are really good, but still). If you were to take a handful of small-gross, auteur-type directors out of the equation (Wes and P.T. Anderson, the Coens, Tarantino, etc.) you’d have nothing but biopics, comic-book adaptions and versions of crappy chick-lit. It’s pathetic.
It should definitely be Fincher for Director. Even if you take out that his movie was way better, the major categories should have a career aspect to them (barring a major masterpiece) and he has a great ouevre. Hooper has two decent flicks (Kings and The Damned United… neither marked by their directorial brilliance). I’d also be fine with either Aronofsky and Russell… they’ve both in the middle of Oscar-worthy careers.
As for overlooked nominees, I thought Rabbit Hole was incredible… not only was Kidman another great performance in the Best Actress category, but it’s probably the best love story I’ve seen in years. It should have gotten the 10th Best Picture spot, True Grit for me. I also thought that Ryan Gosling gave one of the best performances of the year… I definitely felt more pity for his character than the hatred you felt. I thought it was like his performance in Half Nelson… he does a very good job with characters who are essentially well-meaning but can’t handle life. I would have traded him with Jeff Bridges in a second.
I’m excited that Aaron Sorkin will get an Oscar to go along with his Emmys. He’s always been a favorite of mine, and is probably the best in the business when it comes to dialogue. That he followed up the disaster of Studio 60 with great current-event scripts like Social and Charlie Wilson’s War has been a pleasant surprise… that he’s about to start an HBO show about a cable news network has me more than a bit nervous.
I would also be psyched about Exit Through The Gift Shop winning, especially since I’m convinced it is entirely a hoax… to have Banksy get up there to accept a documentary Oscar for a fictional film would be brilliant.
That’s about it… except to record your prediction of the ramifications for Mrs. Dilemma if a song Gwyneth Paltrow sings wins the Oscar for Best Song.
T.D.: I would almost rather have Gwyneth, history’s Greatest Monster, win than to fucking trot Randy Newman out there again. If I have one Oscar wish, it’s this: let it be Randy Newman’s last Oscar nomination and performance. And may he never be heard from again.