Tomorrow, the 83rd annual Academy Awards will take place in Hollywood, and one film will be crowned “Best Picture” of 2010. For a year in which the movie industry got off to an amazingly slow start, I’m happy to say that the race for the coveted best picture award appears more competitive and stocked full of quality films than it has been in several years. Earlier this year, however, it wasn’t looking so good for the film industry. Up until somewhere around July, I had been privately cursing Hollywood for putting out nothing even remotely Oscar-worthy besides Inception. Of course, that’s always how it seems to go, where studios strategically distribute the films they find most Oscar-worthy much closer to the start of the movie awards season (Oscar chatter begins as early as September and peaks in January and February with the Screen Actors Guild awards, the Golden Globes, and the Academy Awards). As a result, a number of films were released in the fall and winter of 2010 that quickly catapulted into critics’ top 10 lists all across the country.
Every year, I try to watch as many of these films as I can or convince myself I’m going to watch every movie that has been nominated for best picture, yet that always ends up becoming more of an overwhelming undertaking than you might think. In fact, that goal only became more unattainable starting last year when the Academy expanded it’s best picture nominee category to include ten films, instead of the previous (and much more manageable) five.
Last year I was able to see about half of the films nominated for best picture, prior to the awards show. This year, I’ve made unprecedented efforts to get to the theater and am proud to say I’ve seen 7 out of the 10 films nominated for best picture. Of those 7 films, I think it’s safe to say that Inception and Toy Story 3 are no threat to take home the best picture crown; however impressive or well-made those movies are in their own right, they just aren’t best-picture worthy, especially with this year’s batch of top-notch films. (Although I must note I’ve heard critics think Toy Story 3 could actually win). The other five films that I’ve seen are widely considered the best five of 2010:
The Social Network
The King’s Speech
Anyone who follows the Oscars knows how political they are–how films and performances are never viewed nor judged in a vacuum, but rather multiple external factors come into play when grading the noteworthiness of each year’s cinematic accomplishments. Often, an actor may give a performance so mesmerizing or groundbreaking that they are all but guaranteed to take home the hardware at each awards show. This year, for example, the likeliest shoo-in comes under the best female actor category where Natalie Portman will surely win for her Black Swan performance. Rarely, however, is the best picture award as easy to predict, in fact I can’t remember a year in which there were ever five films so worthy of taking home the crown. But because these five films are so evenly matched in the quality of their production, and because their subject material spans across a diverse range of topics, I think it’s important to identify some of the key factors or most pressing issues that will affect the decisions made my voters in 2011. By taking a look back at recent trends from the past few years, and by comparing those trends against the current socio-cultural-political climate, I think we might be able to take a fairly well-educated guess at which film will be given top honors this weekend.
First, it’s important to remember that the Academy consists of almost 6,000 people working in the film industry. These voters are based primarily in Los Angeles, while only about 800 of the voters are from New York City. That’s important to remember, so I’ll say it again: all of the voters work within the film industry, and most of the voters live in or around Hollywood. The voters consist of famous actors and not-so-famous cinematographers, as well as makeup artists, musicians, producers, studio executives, and others. All of these people are charged with ranking these films one through ten, resulting in system that favors the films that are most unanimously considered to be the best of the year. In some ways, voting for best picture is also like voting for the MVP of a sports league. For example, this year in the NBA, Derrick Rose might get the MVP award because he is deemed the most valuable player to his team, however, we all know that LeBron James is the best player in the league. I have a sense that the film that wins best picture will be more like the MVP of the film industry for this past year, rather than simply the “best” film. In other words, the best picture might not be the most impressive overall film, but rather the most important piece of cinema this year, or the most thought-provoking, or the most inspiring, or the most tragic.
And that’s where the sociologist in me starts to realize that this year, True Grit and Black Swan fall short.
True Grit may be the most visually impressive film of the year. It has a good chance of winning for best cinematography, and the Coen brothers have become experts at delivering pure cinematic experiences. Certainly, we can count on them for producing an all-around solid film whenever they put their minds to it. Problem is, True Grit is exactly that: a very solid, well-done film. You might argue that therein lies the beauty, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (Roger Ebert’s heir-elect) does in his post-modern critique of True Grit, stating the film “concerns itself not with using movies to answer external questions” but becomes more of a metaphor for an older, simpler mode of film-making where goal-driven autership didn’t get in the way of classic, filmic story-telling. Despite the article’s enhancing perspective (http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/2628) True Grit still comes off as more of a B-effort by the Coen brothers (they even had a book and a film to adapt and build from), and it pale’s in comparison to films like No Country For Old Men, and lacks any sort of “x-factors” that distinguish it as a remarkable, best-picture-worthy film.
Black Swan, on the other hand, has a number of remarkable moments, many of which are exhilarating, frightening, and mesmerizing all at once. It delves deep into the mind of an artist attempting to perfect her craft, as she struggles to control her mind and body amidst external pressure and paranoia. The film is undoubtedly the most thrilling nominee and easily the scariest film to be nominated for best picture since the Sixth Sense in 2000. The problem with the film is that it is too self-absorbed within the realm of artistry. More specifically, the pursuit of creative perfection through film, music, literature, or in this case dance, has been the topic of many great texts over time, however, rarely does it provide a platform for the type of discoverable moments that people can relate to on any mass-scale. Aronofksy’s work is admirable and frequently daring, yet I don’t believe there’s enough relevant subtext to sway the mass-market into accepting this film as best picture, let alone the 6,000 voters (even if their careers are based within an industry, much like the world of ballet, that produces art).
This leaves three more films to choose from, of which I believe The King’s Speech and The Social Network are the favorites to win.
The King’s Speech is a nearly perfect period-piece that is cemented by its historical significance. Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth all give truly excellent performances. The movie is at times tragic, often funny, and ultimately triumphant. A lot of critics have over-looked the cinematography, even condemned the use of wide-angle lens, but the camera moves as if it is both detached from and enthralled by the events that unfold. The dark hued pastel color scheme gives the film an atmosphere that is both cartoonish and deathly serious at the same time, while World War II hangs over the plot like a ticking bomb, providing urgency to a film that at its core is about friendships and class difference. Audiences everywhere were given a rare gem of a film that both entertains, informs, and enlightens. Rarely do two characters within a film form a bond that cuts through class divisions in a way that viewers can sympathize with 70 years after the setting, while working against the backdrop of one of the greatest conflicts in our modern history, while also making audiences laugh out loud along the way. The main reason I think The King’s Speech will be overlooked this year is because it’s British. Something tells me that after The Hurt Locker, set in Iraq, and Slumdog Millionaire, set in India, the Academy will want to award the Oscar to a film that speaks more specifically to American values, which brings us to…
The Social Network, perhaps the most talked-about film of the year and the winner of best picture at the Golden Globes. I love Jessie Eisenberg, a lot. But his strong performance is not even amongst the most notable, Oscar-worthy elements of this film. When you talk about a movie that is going to be remembered in 10 or 20 years, that’s usually the type of film the Academy likes to vote for. In terms of social and cultural importance, The Social Network takes the cake for obvious reasons. Facebook continues to define not only a generation of electronically-engaged young people, but also tackles salient psychological, intellectual, and ethical issues that relate to the rise of the internet. As someone who is very interested in the internet: where its leading us, how it affects us, and how the very core of our lives are changing because of it, it’s hard for me to say that this film doesn’t deserve to win best picture. Regardless of the subject material, the film is directed by David Fincher who instills a foreboding omnipresence, highlighting the sense that with new light-speed technology and unprecedented access to information, comes unprecedented amounts of that which is unknown. The music compliments these suspicions as well–you can’t help but be nervous and excited about the unspecified significance of everything that’s going on in the film, but you recognize it’s importance may be beyond our own comprehension. In terms of appropriateness and timeliness, The Social Network is a definite favorite to win best picture.
This leaves us with only one more film, my dark-horse candidate to win best picture and the film that I think voters will most unanimously rank in their top three. I worry that votes might fluctuate for the polarizing, controversial subject material of The Social Network or that voters will fall victim to the love it/hate it reaction that is often connoted with period pieces likes The King’s Speech. The Fighter, however, has a little bit of everything that you’d expect to find in an all-around, Oscar-worthy film.
Christian Bale is of course excellent in his role as crack addict, brother, washed up hometown hero, and local legend turned self-absorbed villain turned savior. Mark Whalberg proves once again he can be a leading man without dominating any aspect of an all-around excellent film. Melissa Leo and Amy Adams also give incredibly honest and powerful performances. The plot won’t shock you–in a lot of ways it’s just another boxer-on-the-rise story, but there’s also so much more, so much nuance to the story that it makes Rocky look like a simpleton. The issues of class, demonstrated through instances of drugs and poverty, ground the film in a more somber reality. Meanwhile, Micky battles through the eternal struggles of self vs. group, ambition vs. responsibility, independence vs. family. The film is shot quite well, right from the beginning you expect a certain level of artistry that sustains throughout. It’s impressive from a cinematographic point of view, it’s full of excellent performances, and it glides through more issues in just under two hours than most Americans have dealt with in a lifetime. For those who believe that our political climate has shifted such that issues of class, and socio-economic status have been thrust into the forefront of our national, collective imaginations (surpassing race, which seemed much more present two years ago upon Obama’s election), this film speaks more directly to those present issues than any other. Unfortunately this year, Hollywood hasn’t just shied away from issues of race, it has included all together less black people in movies than in years past. If you want to read more about how this year’s Oscars have been a “whiteout”, there’s a whole NY Times article on it right here:
The bottom line is that The Fighter, in my opinion, was a really excellent film that has just as good a shot to win best picture as The King’s Speech or The Social Network. The reason I think it will win is because class-based issues seem to be dominating current domestic political discussions, and those discussions may prove to be more meaningful in the eyes of Academy voters than the issues raised in a movie about Facebook. I suspect that the majority of voters who reside in L.A. will look for a film that speaks to current, serious issues that can be understood and discussed within today’s socio-political landscape. That’s why The Fighter is my MVP for this year, even if the other two films may be more impressive, or prove more meaningful and important down the line.
Apologies to Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are Alright, and 127 Hours, which I’m sure could also surprise people—but overall, I think it comes down to a three-way race that could go in any direction. Just don’t be surprised if you have to see The Fighter again, after it wins best picture, to really appreciate everything that’s thrown at you in that film.