Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Oscar Time Capsule

Kristopher Tapley, of InContention.com, is a critic who frequently infuriates me, but who just as frequently allows the clouds of whiny punditry to part and lets the logic shine through. Case in point, this article about the inevitability of The King's Speech's frontrunner status, how that status was decided not just in the last week but at the end of the summer (when it received a five-minute standing ovation at its Telluride Film Festival premiere), and how that status (coupled with disappointment over The Social Network's fading star) is starting an inevitable backlash.

One thing to remember is the difference between these supposed early indicators - the critics groups and the Hollywood Foreign Press who put on the Golden Globes (all of which are pretty small groups of people) - and the real meat of the season - the guild awards and the Academy (each of whose membership runs at the several-thousand mark). The Social Network is an exquisite film that does exactly what it sets out to do, but the buzz around it became built up to the point of hyperbole in the early weeks of campaigning, mostly due to Rolling Stone's Peter Travers and his comment about "defining a generation" (which, by the way, I don't think is true, but that's a whole 'nother post). Meanwhile, if you stepped back from the stats and actually talked to Academy members (obviously, I didn't do this personally, but I've read a great deal of commentary from those who have), upon mentioning The King's Speech, you'd see many, many of them get that far away look in their eyes and gush like a teenager with a life-defining crush. People really love this movie. So do I. The "Camptown Races" bit brings me to tears every --- damn, there I go again.

But of course, once a film starts to become the more obvious frontrunner, people will try to knock it down. It already happened with The Social Network, back in those heady days of its reign atop the prediction lists. If it's not historians or the real people involved complaining because it isn't a documentary and leaves things out (e.g., Bertie's support of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement and whether or not Mark Zuckerberg had an "Erica Albright" in his life when he started Facemash), then it's the screeching commenters claiming that if the movie wins (just talking about King's Speech now) it will be a blight on the Academy's history, which ... really, now. Rotten Tomatoes is probably not a completely objective measuring stick, but it's probably as good as we've got, and while The King's Speech doesn't have quite as high a rating as three of its Best Picture competitors - The Social Network, Toy Story 3, and Winter's Bone - at 88% fresh it is still "better" (whatever that means) than 2008's Best Picture Slumdog Millionaire, 2002's winner Chicago, and 2004's winner Million Dollar Baby. I mean, it's not like we're talking about the embarrassment of 1956 known (sadly) as "Best Picture winner Around the World in 80 Days," for crying out loud!

As exciting as the race is to watch, it doesn't ultimately mean anything, other than that whichever film wins will possibly make a bit more money - or, in the case of The Hurt Locker, maybe not. (Side note, loosely related: Harvey Weinstein, sensing victory in the air for The King's Speech and hence more money for the studio, is trying to edit the film to get a PG-13 so that more people will see it. Director Tom Hooper, for his part, has no intention of cutting anything, and his DGA plaque could give him some pull there. But they may add ... bleeps. *facepalm*)

The Oscars are a time capsule. They are, to paraphrase Amy Poehler's genius deadpanning at the SAGs, the opinion of a certain group of people at a certain time. The Academy is not five guys in a room somewhere, nor are they some all-ruling Taste Police. Was Rocky really the best film of 1976? I don't think so, but it caught the collective cultural consciousness that year in a big way even if history would grow more respect and affection for its stellar competitors Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President's Men. Was Titanic really a better film than L.A. Confidential and Good Will Hunting in 2007? I say no to L.A. Confidential, actually, unless you cut out that bullshit ending, but who cares, really? Loads of people (not just Leo fangirls but people in the industry) LOVED that movie. Personally, I really love that the Academy so often votes with its 6000 or so hearts rather than with its heads.

I do think there's something to Matt Damon's old suggestion that you really can't properly appraise a film's merits until it's at least 10 years old (though I disagree that we should wait that long to give awards). But hey, let's try it. Let's take a look at what was up for Best Picture 10 years ago...

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Erin Brockovich

Dudes, I love Chocolat as much as the next red-blooded gal, but it had no place on that list. Nor did Erin Brockovich, if you ask me. Of course, if we were really doing this proper, those same five films would probably not be the final five in contention now. So let's look at some of the notable films that might or might not make that list if we were to make it today.

Almost Famous
American Psycho
Amores Perros
Battle Royale
Before Night Falls
Best in Show
Billy Elliot
Chicken Run
Dancer in the Dark
In the Mood for Love
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Nurse Betty
O Brother, Where Art Thou
Requiem for a Dream
Sexy Beast
Wonder Boys
You Can Count on Me

At a glance, I see at least a few among those titles that might get in due to their directors having done excellent work over the last decade and bringing new appreciation to their 2000 films. Specifically, I see the films of two current Best Director nominees, Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky) and O Brother, Where Art Thou (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen). Plus a third film by a director many feel should have been in that mix this year - Memento (Christopher Nolan). Two of those three could respectably replace Chocolat and Erin Brockovich in a list of 5, and if we're going for 10, let's throw in all three. Billy Elliot should probably be in there too (its director, on the other hand, probably wouldn't be in the Directing slate if we were doing this now). I'd round the 10 out with Almost Famous, Quills, and Wonder Boys. But that's just me. Those movies have, I think, stood the test of time and people enjoy and respect them as much as, if not more than, they did during the films' original releases.

I'd better not go further than that, because man, can you imagine how different the movie business would be if we waited that long to give out awards for a particular year? Not just to movies but to actors and craftspeople as well? I mean, you could stage a comeback off an "Oscar bump." That is, if the Oscars still had as much prestige and pressure around them if they were ten years behind the times.

But then again, I kind of like the way it is now, being able to look back over Oscar history and see, with pleasure or regret, the films that were loved and revered at the time. It's certainly nice to have your affection for a film validated by an award show like the Oscars. I mean, who among us LOTR wonks could forget the anxiety and excitement that accompanied the 2003 Middle Earth Oscar ceremony (and the subsequent laying down of crowbars after Return of the King's clean sweep)? But the films we love should be the films we love, regardless of what some voting body declares is awards-worthy.

One of my favorite things to read between last year's Oscar season and this one has been a column called "Life Without Oscar," also on InContention.com. Chad Hartigan went through each Oscar year and picked one film that didn't receive a single nomination and highlighted it as an example that the Oscars are not the be-all and end-all of what a great movie is. There's a good deal of snooty arthouse fare among his posts, but there's also "Kindergarten Cop" and "What's Up, Doc" - just to give you a feel of the range of titles. :P

Not that it matters, since I don't get to vote on the Oscars, but my Best Picture pick of the ten nominees THIS year would be Black Swan, with Aronofsky as Best Director. Obviously, I always knew there'd be no way in hell my FAVORITE movie of the year would be in the race, even with ten nominees. :P But hey, you love what you love. Don't let any stupid critics or award shows (or me, of course) tell you what's worth admiring.

Unless what you love and admire is Twilight, in which case ... I don't even.

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