Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Some Random Thoughts on the Academy Awards And My Final Thoughts on 2010 in Film...

Warning: Extremely stream of conscious

The Superficial:
Regarding the presentation itself, I'll keep this brief, as the hosts, the rhythm, the writing, etc. have all been discussed ad nauseum. I'll just say the following: I'm not so naive as to be clueless that a lot of decisions (if not all) are driven by money. Yes, it's true there is a sizable chunk of the Academy Awards viewing audience who don't watch or care about movies and are simply tuning in for the spectacle. These people are real. I've met several of them. I'm sure they are perfectly decent people. But (and here's where the pretension kicks in) they are not an audience that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences should desire to please or even want anything to do with. The Oscars should take a cue from the Tony Awards, The Independent Spirit Awards and even your local industry specific trade show honoring the best in automotive and farm equipment. That is, actually make it about the people in the room you're honoring rather than desperately, transparently, unappealingly and unsuccessfully trying to cater to the lowest common denominator. That is all.

The Winners/Nominees:
An extremely scatter-shot year where the Academy seemed to spread the wealth. But I want to be effusive for a moment and talk about the acting winners. Reading various blogs and awards pundits, I understand there are varying opinions about the merits of Christian Bale, Colin Firth, Melissa Leo and Natalie Portman. For my money, this is the first year in a long time where each of the four acting categories were awarded to both good and iconic performances. I can easily see each of the four actors being remembered for their turns in their respective films. Let me elaborate. Even in years like 2008, which awarded four worthy performances, there were one or two that seem destined to become forgettable. Kate Winslet was fine in The Reader, but that will not be the performance she is remembered for in her career retrospective. If not for the fact that she won an Oscar for it, I bet The Reader might have joined Little Children as one of Winslet's roles people have a hard time remembering twenty-five years from now when sounding off each of her Oscar nominated performances. But Colin Firth's Bertie, Natalie Portman's Nina, Melissa Leo's Alice and Christian Bale's Dicky are all accomplished turns (to varying degrees) and memorable ones as well. What's more fantastic is that my vote would have only gone to one of these performers (Bale) if I actually had a ballot. It was gratifying to watch Natalie Portman, for instance--a limited actress who gave what was easily the weakest performance in her very strong category--win for a very accomplished, tricky turn, also her best to date.

Poor Tom Hooper. The guy is now saddled with winning a Best Director trophy on his first nomination and the backlash is brewing. It's analogous to Ron Howard beating Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, David Lynch and Robert Altman in 2001, which I hope the Academy looks back upon with the appropriate level of embarrassment. Luckily, Tom Hooper doesn't seem nearly as self-important and fatuous as Ron Howard, but I do wonder what his incentive is to try at this point, since he's been so hastily rewarded for such a pedestrian effort. Fincher, Aronofsky and Russell each created singular pieces of work, without the slightest hint of ambivalence to their direction. The dubious distinction of least deserving among the directing nominees is pretty much a toss-up between Tom Hooper and the Coens. I firmly believe that had No Country for Old Men not won three years ago, we may be have been looking at a True Grit love fest this year. Nonetheless, Hooper unseated some seriously visionary filmmakers to get the win and the look on his face during his acceptance speech (or am I imagining things?) tells me that he seems at least partially aware that the nomination without the win probably would have been better in the long run for his career. Ask Sam Mendes about that one. As the dust settles on 2010, Hooper's win won't smell so fresh, even more so than The King Speech's Best Picture win. He will join the ranks of Carol Reed, John G. Avildsen and Richard Attenborough as anomalous best director winners, regarded with some measure of head-scratching, given that at least two or three of the also-rans in their respective years would have made more interesting and historically resonant alternatives. None of this is to say that I think the guy is a bad filmmaker. He may well surprise in the years to come. I hope I'm wrong. Your move, Hooper.

Back to Best Actress for a moment. I adore Michelle Williams. I'm so glad she exists and I really like what she's giving cinema in terms of prickly, complicated performances in interesting, striking films that are neither commercial nor critical slam dunks on paper. Here she sits with her second Oscar nomination in five years, Busy Phillips still loyally at her side (love that friendship) and wearing it with a mix of clear affection for the work, but mild befuddlement for its recognition. I suspect that had Brokeback Mountain not been her debut nomination, she may have won. Not to take anything away from Rachel Weisz, but 2005's crowning of her lead work in The Constant Gardener as the Best Supporting Actress performance of the year reads as a clear example of what lack of consensus can breed. I suspect the reasoning that year went something like this. "Michelle Williams was great, an Oscar to a "Dawson's Creek" alum? Let's let her prove herself a little more. Amy Adams in Junebug? Who the hell is Amy Adams? And furthermore, what the hell is Junebug? Catherine Keener? I like her. She's nominated for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, right? Capote? Nah...not enough theatrics. Frances McDormand in North Country? thanks. Didn't see that movie. Rachel Weisz...she kind of looks like Kate Winslet. She's British, so I'm sure she's good. Plus, I heard the movie's really serious and world conscious. Tic." And scene. Watching the trailer for Meek's Cutoff earlier today, I'm convinced that Michelle Williams will be nominated again in the near future, if not necessarily for that film. She seems committed to making the kinds of films that cinephiles love, even if they leave audiences and most critics cold. I also suspect that she may never win, which is totally fine. Looking at her filmography, it seems that Brokeback Mountain may be as close to Oscar's wheelhouse as she's willing to get. I applaud her choices and it's nothing short of miraculous that her work in Blue Valentine got cited.

What about Jennifer Lawrence, who I've heard referred to as the Carey Mulligan of this year. I hope Lawrence secretly takes umbrage that comparison, given how slight An Education is when propped up against Winter's Bone as a film swept into a ten wide Best Picture field by its central performance. Despite having had no chance to get up on stage and deliver a gushing speech, I still think Lawrence, in the few interviews I saw has made the season work better for her than Mulligan did a year ago. I'm not sure if either will ever see a nomination again (a little over half of first time acting nominees don't), but Lawrence is in a good position right now. She's the acting nominee whose next move I'm most awaiting with bated breath, X-Men: First Class notwithstanding (I'm sorry, that movie just looks silly and I am a huge X-Men fan).

I am less curious about Natalie Portman's next career-move. I say this not to slight her. As I've stated, her performance in Black Swan is handily her best work. It's preferable by a mile to most of the recent Best Actress winners going back as far as Charlize Theron (easily the best of the 2000s winners). That being said, Portman's Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan feels less like a great actress finally getting her due (Kate Winslet) than it does a limited actress with clear strengths and weaknesses finally finding a director and a vehicle that plays to her assets as a performer (Hilary Swank, the first time). This idea that Natalie Portman is overdue for a win and that her laurels for Black Swan are the culmination of a great career is an idea I've heard floated all season from casual and literate movie-watchers alike. Being comfortably familiar with her filmography and looking at what she has coming down the pipe, this is a narrative that I just do not understand, even while having no real qualms about her winning Best Actress for this particular performance. Over at The Film Experience, on a recent podcast, the idea of which Oscar nominated performers could play which of the other Oscar nominated roles was discussed (a fun hypothetical to consider). Natalie Portman's possible inability to play something as naturalistic and stripped down as Michelle Williams's part in Blue Valentine was discussed. I agree wholeheartedly and I'll further submit that Williams, also capable of petite, frail and shrinking, could quite possibly have given us a completely different, but no less captivating Nina Sayers. Nicole Kidman, fabulous in Rabbit Hole (and in general) is an actress who I could also see bringing something interesting to the role, had the project been made fifteen years ago. And though Jennifer Lawrence remains relatively untested, the way she avoided all of the scenery-chewing cliches that could have made her turn in Winter's Bone more showy, sure, but less interesting makes me think we're bound to see a career with real range. I'm not sure Natalie Portman could convincingly play any of the other four Best Actress performances. I'm less sure that she'll ever top her turn in Black Swan and almost certain that she's not necessarily interested in doing so. She seems very content at shrinking away, not just from public life, but from acting in general, so in that way (and many others) it's good she was rewarded for this performance.

I've heard enough griping about The Social Network's wins in both editing and original score that I feel it prudent to address both. First of all, I take issue with the notion that elaborate editing is an automatic catch-all for good editing. In the tech categories, it often seems that best equals most, as evidenced by Alice in Wonderland's baffling Oscar for Best Costume Design and, even more infuriatingly, Best Art Direction. Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall did a marvelous job on The Social Network, juggling three or four different timelines. Flashback and parallel narrative structure i.s really hard to pull off well and The Social Network weaves it all seamlessly and in a way that serves the narrative. 127 Hours, which is much flashier fare, could have done with less cuts (and less obvious cuts), especially in the cave. And hats off to the Academy for recognizing Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's superb work in the original score category. It's kind of flabbergasting the number of people I've heard gripe about this win who I've never heard comment one way or the other on the a film's score. Atmospheric, minimalist, instantly recognizable and sure to become iconic. At once, everything that an Oscar winning score should be and the type of score they overlook too often.

How I wish I had stuck to my instinct that Roger Deakins wouldn't win for his work in True Grit. Even I fell prey to the groupthink that surrounded the notion that the overdue lenser would finally land a statue, though my gut told me Wally Pfister would get it. If I had my ballot to make over again, I'd probably replace Deakins (who I cited) with Yorick Le Saux for I Am Love or the evocative, unfussy work of Michael McDonough in Winter's Bone, a film which I loved (and love more each time I rewatch), but ultimately won no gold medals in my year-end rewards. Deakins work in True Grit, while tailor made for awards consideration on paper, isn't terribly exciting and I'm fine with his loss here.

In my review of The King's Speech, I stated that both the effusive response of the audience at the theater and the demographic of said audience told me that it would definitely give The Social Network a run for its money. Actually, what I knew in my heart, but probably didn't want to admit at the time, was that it was definitely going to win Best Picture. Ultimately, I'm surprised by how much the outcome didn't really upset me. This is, after all, quite similar to 2005 when Brokeback Moutain lost to Crash in that Best Picture was actually within grasp for my favorite film of the year, but was then given to my least favorite of the nominees. Maybe it's because I saw The Social Network's loss coming and was able to steel myself, whereas Crash's victory over Brokeback Mountain was out of nowhere and still remains unprecedented. And now, five years later, I do think that in a twisted way, appreciate Crash's Best Picture win, if only because of what it revealed about the Academy and what it said about the climate at the time. The King's Speech winning Best Picture for 2010 does not indicate a backslide, but rather says a lot about the cinematic landscape in 2010. Regardless of my misgivings about Bertie and his wacky pals, it was simply too successful in its modest goals and too comfortably within the Oscar wheelhouse to lose. The idea that The Departed, No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker represented some changing of the guard at the Academy is a falsehood. It's always about what's going on in each given year. And lest we forget that in 2008, Slumdog Millionaire, a very traditional film with traditional narrative tropes (albeit wrapped in a flashy package) won Best Picture, smack dab in the middle of this supposed new trending towards darker, more forward-thinking and visionary Best Picture winners. If we want to get reductive and talk about The King's Speech equivalent in the years of The Departed, No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker, you'd probably be looking at The Queen, Atonement and An Education, all of which were pre-ordained, sight-unseen Oscar bait of various quality and none of which were beloved enough by audiences or the Academy to do as well as The King's Speech did. Will history look kindly on a Best Picture win for The King's Speech? I'm almost certain that it won't. But one can't know for sure. Take The Hurt Locker, which I cited as my favorite (at the time) of the 2009 Best Picture nominees. Even though I'm happy it won, if pressed, I have to admit that I seldom think about the The Hurt Locker a year after the fact. If I had a ballot to cast today, Inglourious Basterds would probably get my vote as the more robust and resonating piece of cinema. It's anyone's guess which 2010 films will rise and fall in terms of my own esteem. I can already tell you that Black Swan and The Fighter, two films I loved in my initial viewings and still admire greatly, have started to experience the dreaded fade. Ungodly numbers of subsequent viewings of The Social Network and Winter's Bone have only made me love those titles more. But for 2010, the Academy has spoken. The King's Speech will be remembered as the film they loved and that, as they say, is that.

Closing Thoughts
Another Oscar year has come and gone and really...what is there left to say? Well, if you've been following my blog, there's plenty. I've been more terse about the Oscar race than I have in the previous two years that I've been operating this blog. Full disclosure (and I'm violating my own policy of not getting delving into my personal life on this blog), my personal aesthetic has gone through a sort of renaissance these past few years. I'm seeing more movies and really discovering, not so much what my tastes are (which has actually changed very little), but I'm developing my own language and vocabulary to communicate those tastes more effectively. I'm so glad I embarked on the Big Pretentious Movie Summer last year. Even if I didn't finish the list, which I ultimately plan to do, it was such a leap forward in my appreciation of filmwatching for its own sake, completely divorced from awards and box office. I watched movies like Interiors, Naked, Midnight Cowboy, Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, Days of Heaven, Breakfast at Tiffany's, none of which I had seen before and now can't imagine what life was like before having seen them (all the while appreciating them on very different levels). And that being the case, I've learned that the Oscars really must be taken with a grain of salt. I'm not just talking about The King's Speech unseating my favorite film of the year, The Social Network in both Best Picture and Best Director, which I contended on this very blog was likely and very possible, respectively. It's a catch-all. Even when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences crowns one's favorite film or performance, they are still a just a group of people weighing in on things. Their opinion is not gospel. Never has been, never will be. And that's not a knock on them, because truth be told, no one's opinion is gospel. The Social Network remains, to me, the best film of 2010 as does Hunger the best film of 2009 and Rachel Getting Married of 2008. None of those films won Best Picture and two of the three weren't even nominated--a fact that diminishes none of the immense joy and cinematic discovery I've experienced on repeat viewings of each of these titles. And isn't that what movie watching is all about? As Nathaniel over at The Film Experience wisely states, "A great film is its own reward."

1 comment:

Frances said...

Planning ahead is one of the secrets of rich people. If you wish to do this, you could do so with the guidance of experts from