The Oscars are exactly one week from tonight. I’m an Oscar fiend. I know about the politics and the cash exchanging hands in one form or another. I understand that the Academy voters just like certain actors and certain directors, but I still get worked up for the Oscars. And I still love them.
Fair warning, this article is 100% a personal, biased opinion mixed with unsubstantiated theories, projections and thoughts. Take it as you like.
This year I am less than enthused about the Best Picture nominees. While I have been against certain nominated films in the past, I don’t believe I can remember a time when we have been presented with a more lackluster pack of films, mostly done by talented filmmakers. As I said in my Frost/Nixon article, it feels like that film was nominated just because the name Ron Howard was on the screen at the end, but I am afraid that is not necessarily the exception to the rule.
Hans’s article about the great work of David Fincher and the less-then-stellar Benjamin Button illustrates yet another example of a lesser (story wise, at least) work by an amazing artist getting a free pass.
The other three are damn good movies, but there have been many more well-done, emotionally affecting films released this year. Milk is a story that has already been told in an Oscar winning documentary (decades ago, nonetheless), and The Reader, well done as it is, feels like absolute Oscar bait. The only one of the five best picture nominees that I feel has an honest claim to its nomination is Slumdog Millionaire. Films like Doubt and The Wrestler and even The Dark Knight feel more honest to the title “best picture of the year” than the other four nominees.
Why is this? Is it just me being hyper-subjective and not allowing any room for the opinions of others? I’m sure that is part of it, but another factor for the choices, I believe, is simple process of elimination.
Let’s look at the films that were getting some Oscar buzz but were denied the top prize. First off is The Dark Knight. Can a film be denied a nomination simply because it is too popular? Not really. Let’s not forget Titanic’s well-deserved (and I stand by that) nomination and win in this same category. Or the year that The Return of the King swept through almost every category including the top prize. With King, though, it took two excellent previous pictures and a long list of Hollywood A-List actors doing press and singing the praises of director Peter Jackson before the Academy finally threw it’s hands up and said “Okay, we give. A Best Picture nomination to the fantasy Hobbit film it is.” For Titanic, the sell was easier. Even though the film made a billion dollars, it was a period piece with tragic tones, a class-centric theme and a lot of heavy emotional scenes.
The Dark Knight, however, is a harder sell. It’s not based on a piece of great literature (while Tolkien’s literary prowess is in dispute for some, Hollywood kinda thinks of “classic literature” different from academia). It’s not a period piece. Instead, it’s based on a comic book and is an action-packed fantasy. And a damn good crime film filled with amazing performances, interesting ideas, and well-executed thematic material. But I don’t know if the Academy will ever get past the dude in the bat costume.
Second on the list is Doubt. This one, to be honest, perplexes me. The movie is well acted, well directed, based on a play, and it’s a period piece. While I didn’t put it on my top ten, it is indisputably an excellent film, certainly better than at least three films on the list. Plus it had a lot of love in other awards. So why leave it off the list? My hypothesis (and this is all these arguments are, folks) is simple. The Academy only had one spot for a heavy, guilt ridden character piece, and The Reader screamed “Oscar” louder than Doubt, even though it isn’t as good as the simple Catholic drama. Also, the Oscars have an obsession with being topical, and the subject matter of Doubt felt very five years ago–where as Slumdog is wildly relevant. Milk and The Reader are themes we have seen before, but the Academy is always up for a good movie about Nazis and World War II as well as themes of homosexual rights (made more topical by the recent California vote).
My point with the above is not that these themes should discount a movie or push a movie to the top tier of consideration. I personally believe that the theme is irrelevant as long as it is interesting and well-done, but the Academy, I believe, disagrees, even if only on a purely subconscious level.
We now reach our final film for your consideration: The Wrestler. While I liked a couple of other movies better this year, this is the one I would have most liked to have seen get a nomination. It’s because of Rourke’s performance and Aronofsky’s unflinching dedication to quality, but it’s also because of the immense heart, without any sentimentality, of the film. It’s gut-wrenching and touching but never pulls a punch.
This movie, I believe, was left off the nomination list for a few reasons that I will recount quickly. First, I think the Academy saw Rourke’s awesome performance and defined the movie by it, and only it. With the great character of Randy the Ram, it is easy to be awed, hand out a best actor Oscar, and be done with it. But who wrote that character? Who shepherded the character toward greatness, filmed him in an appropriate way, cut the movie together to complement it, created amazing themes and emotional moments, and eventually handed over a film that seemed effortless? Yes, there is a lot of talent behind this movie, and the movie, itself, deserves the nomination.
The second reason it was snubbed is, I believe, Aronofsky himself. Hollywood doesn’t like him. He stays in his little New York hole and makes low-budget pictures, turning down offer after offer to direct higher profile material. He also has a reputation of being, as Mickey Rourke puts it, tough. And I still think Hollywood wants to make him pay for The Fountain (a movie I have loved since its release, but I’m in the minority). You’re only as good as your last movie, they say, and the cerebral Fountain is still too clear in their memory.
But lets get briefly back to reality. Here is the order in which I would rank the actual Best Picture nominees…
1. Slumdog Millionaire
3. The Reader
4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
So there is good news. It looks like my favorite on the list has a serious chance of winning. And if Rourke doesn’t take away his deserved best Actor nomination, Sean Penn will, and for a very good performance.
Like I said, I understand the politics, and I am guilty of falling prey to personal biases as well. But the Oscars should be about the best picture and the best performances. I’d love to see a not-very-good movie get a best actor or actress nomination just because that’s the way it is. I’d love to see the Best Picture list filled with movies nobody has ever heard of, or movies everyone has seen, just because they deserve it. The Academy has been doing this for so long, though, that sometimes they can’t see the forest for the trees. There is a bit of a formula, and Hollywood follows trends (remember a few years ago when you didn’t have a chance in hell unless you were a low-budget indie film?).
It’s hard to do what needs to be done with these awards: take it with a grain of salt, sit back, and try not to get too outraged. After all, it’s only a little award. I take solace in knowing that there are a lot of best picture winners that will only be remembered in that context and not as great cinema. No Kubrick picture has ever won best picture, but they will all be remembered long after the laskluster A Beautiful Mind fades from the public consciousness.
But it’s Oscar season, so it’s time to bitch. It’s time to look for any excuse to sit down with friends and argue about your favorite movies and explain why this movie or that one is unworthy. It’s a good time to think through what you love about film and why. THAT, more than anything, is why I love the Oscars, regardless of whether or not I agree with them.