Posted Feb 3rd 2010, 03:50 PM
Last year’s Academy Awards were not the least-watched Oscars in history—that was the previous year—but they were widely perceived as contributing to the ongoing apathy of viewers by snubbing popular and critical favorites like The Dark Knight and WALL-E while honoring a roster of films (Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Milk, Doubt) aptly characterized by A. O. Scott’s phrase “hermetically sealed melodrama[s] of received thinking.” (By contrast, Scott called The Dark Knight and WALL-E “contrasting allegories pitched at the anxieties of the moment,” “populist entertainments of summertime” that incited the “interesting movie debates of 2008.”)
It was probably with an eye to overcoming that gap and reconnecting with viewers that the Academy announced last year that the list of Best Picture nominees would be expanded from five to ten, reviving a practice last seen in 1943.
This week’s announcement of the nominees for 2010 seem to provide some vindication of that decision. As Roger Ebert points out, one can surmise which of the ten Best Picture nominees would most likely have made a cut of five by comparing them to the five Best Director nominees. (This isn’t an infallible method, but it’s a good rule of thumb; last year the categories matched four out of five.)
That means without the expansion we would probably have gotten Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious and Up in the Air. The five “bonus” films are thus The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, A Serious Man and Up. While I haven’t yet seen all the films in either list, I find the latter five a more intriguing lineup than the former five. Anyway, at least four of the latter five are credible Best Picture material. (The Blind Side, a popular favorite with notable Christian themes, isn’t really Best Picture material, although Ross Douthat remarks that if “the alternative to ‘The Blind Side’ was ‘Invictus,’ then I’m glad the Academy went with Sandra Bullock’s hit instead.”)
But would the rule of ten have helped in another year? Would it have helped last year? After The Dark Knight and WALL-E, what then? Iron Man? That might be too many “millionaire playboy superhero with gadgets and no real powers” movies in one awards race even for me. Gran Torino? Changeling? Does Clint Eastwood need any more validation of his watchable but unremarkable films? Valkyrie? Tropic Thunder?
One side effect of the expansion is that a film that doesn’t make the cut of ten is even more snubbed than when it was only five. If it were only five, Invictus fans could feel like they were #6. Now they have to face having lost out not only to Up in the Air, but The Blind Side too. (Maybe the Academy is also starting to feel that Eastwood doesn’t need any more validation.)
For what it’s worth, only three of the Best Picture nominees were in my top 20, and only one (Up) was in my top 10, but it’s still a much better lineup than last year for my money.
Despite the expanded roster, it seems clear that all the drama remains between two films, ironically directed by ex-spouses James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow. Cameron’s mega-ultra-blockbuster Avatar dominated the Golden Globes, which often anticipate the Oscar winners—but then Bigelow’s taut, under-the-radar The Hurt Locker won at the Directors Guild Awards, which often anticipate the Best Director Oscar. A split decision—Avatar for Best Picture, Bigelow for best Director—isn’t out of the question. (Or perhaps the Academy could give them joint custody.)
Please don’t ask me to go through the acting awards and all. I just can’t work up the energy. (New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has sparked a meme in online Oscar discussion by remarking, “Let’s acknowledge that the Oscars are b—s— and we hate them.”)
One other category I do pay attention to is Best Animated Film. Most years, the ballot for this category is a short one, with only three films—and not infrequently even those three films aren’t all particularly memorable. (For 2001, the year the award was inaugurated, the ballot consisted of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Monsters, Inc. and Shrek. Probably the least inspired year for the category was 2006, with Cars, Happy Feet and Monster House.)
This year, for only the second time in the nine years since the award was created, there are five nominees. The other year was 2002, when Hayao Miyzaki’s brilliant Spirited Away beat out Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Treasure Planet (only one of which, Lilo & Stitch, is especially noteworthy).
This year’s lineup is the strongest ever: Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells and Up. I loved Up and Coraline, and while I wasn’t crazy about Fantastic Mr. Fox I can see where other people would be. The Princess and the Frog is at least a solid entertainment, though I agree with Ebert that Miyazaki’s Ponyo was more deserving.
That leaves The Secret of Kells—the first film ever nominated for the award that I hadn’t already seen, or even heard of. An off-the-map tale of Irish monks and Vikings, The Secret of Kells may or may not be a particularly good film, but it’s at least the sort of film I want to be looking out for. I guess the Oscars are occasionally good for something.
So, from your comments about the Oscar nominations, I see that Eastwood films aren’t your favorite? Only watchable, not remarkable? Even Unforgiven and Gran Torino? (I can see your reviews for Flags of Our Fathers and Million Dollar Baby.) Can you quickly name a director or two whose films are remarkable, in contrast to Eastwood’s? Thanks!
My sense is that Eastwood pretty consistently directs in the three-star range these days, doing perfectly respectable work without much depth, challenge or surprises. That’s not to say every film of his is in that category. I found the companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, remarkable enough to put on my top 10 for 2006. Gran Torino and Invictus I would put at that typical Eastwood three-star level, along with Changeling and Space Cowboys. Unforgiven is outside the phase in Eastwood’s career I’m considering (I haven’t rewatched it recently enough to be able to comment critically on it).
There are plenty of remarkable directors. To keep it roughly in the apples to apples range, we would want a contemporary director (not someone like Frank Capra, John Ford or Billy Wilder) with a well-established body of work (not a comparatively new talent, like Brad Bird, Wes Anderson or Christopher Nolan) of Hollywood entertainments (not someone like Terrence Malick, Hayao Miyazaki or Werner Herzog).
That narrows the field a bit. Steven Spielberg is an obvious candidate, of course. I hate to say it, but James Cameron is another. Lots of people would mention Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen; I haven’t been crazy about what I’ve seen of their recent work (and I don’t know their older work very well), but there’s an ambition to Scorsese’s recent films that is at least interesting, where Eastwood seems to me to tend to play it safe.
Peter Jackson probably deserves a lifetime achievement award for The Lord of the Rings, which is like six or eight regular films; he remains an interesting filmmaker, though it remains to be seen whether he can be consistently good again. Peter Weir is always interesting, though in his long career he hasn’t made a lot of films. The Coens and Tim Burton are worth mentioning, as uneven and arty as they are.
That’s what comes to mind for now.
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