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And the Loser Is…
The Academy has a long track record of making the wrong choices come Oscar time. But a critic can still hope
Bear with me while I overwhelm you with some lists. Here’s the first: Tolstoy, Twain, Proust, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Borges. These are authors who never received the Nobel Prize for Literature, though the Swedish committee had numerous opportunities to recognize them. Here’s another: the Beatles’ “white” album, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet. These are albums released the same year that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave the Grammy Award to Glen Campbell’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix.
The child becomes a man and puts aside childish things, which includes respect for prizes. But here are two more lists. Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Preston Sturges, François Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick: These are filmmakers who, combined, have won fewer Best Director Oscars than Kevin Costner. City Lights, Vertigo, The Searchers, Some Like It Hot, Singin’ in the Rain, The Third Man, The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday, Touch of Evil, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West, Blade Runner: These are movies that weren’t nominated for Best Picture let alone awarded—and this is the abbreviated roster. I have another dozen omissions as astounding, and that’s before we even get to foreign-language films. Clearly, then, the Academy Awards have no more credibility than the Nobels or Grammys (well, all right, maybe the Grammys). Yet I watch the Oscars as religiously as I ignore not only the Nobels and Grammys but the Emmys, Tonys, MTV Awards, People’s Choice thingies, and Golden Globes. (An entire section of the Los Angeles Times recently devoted to Golden Globe nominations may in and of itself justify the newspaper’s demise.)
Born in the silent era, with the first ceremony hosted by Douglas Fairbanks at the Roosevelt Hotel, the Oscars are a tradition in a business that doesn’t have much of it, and the biggest spectacle in a business that’s often nothing but. Classy while also completely demeaning, they involve large-stake consequences for people’s careers and lives. Ten years ago when I began proposing alternative Oscars in this magazine, I imagined I would be naming movies like those above: no-brainer masterpieces that eluded a clueless Hollywood. But something odd happened as the decade unfolded. More than half the movies I chose received Best Picture nods; three went on to win. Of the others, Talk to Her, Sexy Beast, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—which not so long ago never would have been on the motion picture academy’s radar—were contenders for major directing, writing, and acting awards. Some of this was me meeting the Academy halfway, my inner Hobbit opting for The Lord of the Rings, for instance, until by the end of the decade we were changing places, with me rooting for lumpen proletariat favorite Avatar over the ultimately triumphant critics’ darling The Hurt Locker. You would think the Oscar folks have turned into a bunch of cinephiles or something. You know, people who actually care about movies.
Partly due to the inconsistent ratings of the Oscar broadcast, the perfectly nitwitted argument has emerged that the Academy is elitist and all the poor little blockbusters are being neglected. Of course the Academy is elitist. It’s called an “academy.” It purports to give awards for “excellence.” While Avatar was my preference, I believe James Cameron’s picture emerged rather OK from its crushing Oscar defeat, making do with a couple billion dollars in ticket sales around the world; in the meantime more people saw The Hurt Locker, a good movie that deserved a greater audience. It grieves me to say so, because mocking the Oscars is such elitist fun, but the truth is that the awards have gotten smarter, more serious, even occasionally daring, particularly as the Academy gets younger, a contention in which I have no vested interest since, gazing around me for the last ten years, I find I’m one of the old guys.
The cleaving of generations is a recurring phenomenon for the Academy Awards as it is for anything else. Generational divides have manifested themselves now and again over the awards’ 83-year history, most prominently 40-some years ago when the New Hollywood of Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Five Easy Pieces found its Oscar prospects trumped by the Old Hollywood of In the Heat of the Night, Oliver!, and Patton. But this statement stacks the deck. Heat of the Night dealt engagingly with the volatile issue of the day, race; Oliver! was the most sophisticated musical since West Side Story; and Patton had a smart, subversive script by an unknown Francis Ford Coppola. This decade we’ve seen a similar sea change but with a progressively different result: An academy that started out honoring the traditional likes of Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, and Chicago was hijacked by guerrillas who favored not only The Hurt Locker but Slumdog Millionaire and No Country for Old Men. When Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is the most old-school Oscar winner of recent memory, the future has arrived. The traditionalist/insurrectionist standoffs this year between The King’s Speech and The Social Network, Colin Firth and James Franco, and Annette Bening and Natalie Portman are interesting only when you remember that the supposedly establishment Bening is married to the renegade who produced and starred in Bonnie and Clyde.
Over the final months of this past year, The Social Network has become the default favorite among critics for whom Inception lacks the gravitas and Toy Story 3 the pretensions. Directed with as much irreverence as finesse, as accessible as it is demanding, The Social Network is as timely as the tomorrow-was-five-minutes-ago moment allows and gets to have its moral implications both ways, or maybe four or five ways: It’s fun to become obscenely rich when you’re young; but it comes at the price of your soul. But it’s fun. But there’s a price. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t admire The Social Network, yet I also know very few who love it, and I for one pretty much gave up loving anything until 2010’s final week, when I saw two movies on which, at the least, I developed semiserious crushes. Strikingly these films straddle—whether brazenly or blithely isn’t clear—the old/new, traditional/insurrectionist divide when they aren’t rendering it meaningless, since they’re by far the most old-fashioned movies ever made by three of our most insistently modernist filmmakers.
In the case of David O. Russell, this modernism has expressed itself in the cerebral cool that distinguished Three Kings and Flirting with Disaster. In the case of Joel and Ethan Coen, even successes like Fargo have been so pitched in the key of irony that sometimes nothing but condescension comes through. The extent therefore to which their new films are deeply felt, even quietly rapturous, constitutes a breakthrough. Russell’s story of boxing brothers who follow different paths, The Fighter, is rescued from predictability by the emotional ambiguities of the real life that inspired it as well as the family drama that centers it. Though it may be that the Charles Portis novel—to which the Coen brothers’ True Grit is faithful 80 percent of the time (and shrewd about knowing which 80 percent to be faithful to)—has irony enough, the adaptation is intent on being wise rather than clever. A girl’s pursuit of her father’s killer through the Wild West, accompanied by a self-important Texas Ranger and a drunken over-the-hill lawman, isn’t just a rite of passage but one of those pivots beyond which life becomes an elegy for itself, even if you’re only 14. I confess that the populist in me also is impressed by the fervor with which filmgoers have embraced the Coens. The movies grow up with the rest of us, which is to say that—later than any of us might have thought possible—we grow younger as we get older.
The Real Winners
Steve Erickson saves you three hours and hands out his own Oscars
»Life becomes one long act of remembering in this instant classic. Resurrecting and updating cinema’s most time-locked genre, it lingers in the mind weeks after it’s seen.
Joel and Ethan Coen
»These smart-asses have bugged me since I saw their first feature more than a quarter century ago. But one by one—Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man—their movies swallow up my DVD shelf space, and True Grit may be as terrific as anything they’ve done. Honorable mentions to David Fincher’s dazzling The Social Network and the ambition and scope of Olivier Assasyas’s Carlos.
»This was an easier choice before I saw Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine, but Portman’s remains the year’s most intrepid and audacious performance physically, emotionally, and psychologically, lifting Darren Aronofsky’s certifiable phantasmagoria to another level.
The King’s Speech
»The year’s closest call over James Franco (for both the tour de force 127 Hours and an impressive Allen Ginsberg in Howl), Firth captures not just the way a raging stutter hovers between the speaker’s brain and tongue but how it racks him to his core. Let’s also recall, before it vanishes into the fog of political correctness, Casey Affleck’s turn in The Killer Inside Me ?; no performance in memory has had the courage to be so ferociously repellent.
»Anchoring a great movie that can only be as good as she is, this 13-year-old commands every moment as fully as her character means to. Kudos as well to Amy Adams, whose bar girl in The Fighter—her strongest performance yet—has grit of her own.
»Excepting perhaps the quietly powerful John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone, no one else comes close. Never nominated before, Bale is beginning to look like the next Daniel Day-Lewis; presumably he and director David O. Russell met their match in each other.
»Sidestepping sitcom premises (e.g., The Kids Are All Right), writer-director Nicole Holofcener makes art out of life at its most shambling. While some critics reduced this to a parable about liberal guilt, in fact it’s a meditation on mortality beneath the flaming leaves of a New York autumn. Runner-up: David Seidler’s The King’s Speech, about a monarch who might well say, “My kingdom for a single word that I might say well.”
The Social Nework
»Every good movie depends on a good script, but this movie is unimaginable without one. Sorkin is a rarity: a writer of ideas as well as a master of dialogue in a tradition stretching from Sturges to Mamet. As with those writers, the occupational hazard is that all his characters run the risk of talking the same. So in some ways the most impressive accomplishment is the creation of a central character, Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg, who sounds and thinks like no one else.
»Over Matthew Libatique’s delirious Black Swan and the alienated elegance of Harris Savides’s Somewhere, Roger Deakins’s lyricism and wintry light is spellbinding from the first image of a man dying in the night snow.
Art Direction and Special Effects
»Story? What story? Under the supervision of Kevin Ishioka, the cyberscape of this movie is everything—terrain infused with dark wonder.
»Notwithstanding the swirling construction of Inception, the exquisite balance of this film’s tone, as wrought by the writing and acting, is finally achieved in the Coens’ cut.
»Accompanying the archaeology of consciousness, this sonic mosaic of silences, roars, and dialogue drifting down the hallways of dream elevates the film from the incomprehensible.
»Difficult as it is to argue with Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s assured soundtrack for The Social Network, Daft Punk’s music feels at one with a world of endless night, pulsing with dread and majesty.
Toy Story 3
»I get why people argue for the hip and inventive The Illusionist, especially given the Jacques Tati pedigree, but this is the bookend 70 years later to Bambi and animation’s most universal and traumatic theme: parents and children losing each other. The last and best of a beloved trilogy.