I often get asked the question if I think the Academy’s demographics are changing, if the infusion of younger voters is changing the way they choose what they think is best. I am not sure that I could say it was the infusion of the young so much as a turn towards the art of filmmaking, rather than the emotional impact of the experience. If I could name one of the biggest changes I’ve seen since 1999, when I first started covering the race annually, it would be this: after Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash, there was a shift in how the Academy chose its best picture. It became less about what they “liked” and more about what they thought was the “best.”
Since then, their choices have been about great filmmaking – directors working at the top of their game, with an assured hand, in complete command of their story. Their choices seem to continually baffle awards watchers, or, specifically, the Gurus of Gold – a group assembled to be the experts in how the Academy votes. But they seem to be always questioning the Academy’s ability to know a great film when they see one, choosing instead to view them as an infantilized group that can’t handle ambiguity of plot, complexity of story, and mostly, a deliberate lack of a feelgood component. They haven’t seemed to notice because every year there is continued doubt that this movie or that movie can win.
This was the case starting with The Departed. It couldn’t win because Leonardo DiCaprio died at the end, and thus, it was unsatisfying. The Academy voters would shy away from that, they said. They were wrong. It was a great film that both audiences and critics loved. Combine that with Martin Scorsese being overdue and you have a perfect storm for a win. But it took “Oscar experts” way too long to figure that out. They presumed Scorsese would win the director prize, but that the film couldn’t, wouldn’t win Best Picture.
The next year came No Country for Old Men, which won virtually every critics award in its path. It was practically a landslide, with one major holdout, the Los Angeles Film Critics who picked There Will Be Blood. To the critics, there wasn’t a more worthy film to win big than No Country. Add that to the careers of the Coen brothers and their never having won the Best Pic prize and again, you have a perfect storm to win.
But what about that ending, so many people said. The ending is too ambiguous for the voters. Maybe it will win Best Director but it can’t win Best Picture. Many were, strangely enough, predicting Atonement for a while, but then settled on Juno because it was the feelgood movie of the year. No Country for Old Men was too dark, too depressing and that ending. You could hear people agitating about it – no one thought the Academy could “go there.” They underestimated their ability to be smart enough to appreciate the stunning cinematic achievement that No Country for Old Men is. You know from the first five minutes that you are in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. The Departed has the same steady hand. When they pull the trigger you know they are going to hit their target.
Slumdog Millionaire was the only one no one had any dispute about: it was a done deal. There were no arguments, no hemming and hawking, no complaints. But that’s because Slumdog Millionaire had both things operating at once – it had Danny Boyle’s reputation as an outsider but nonetheless well respected director. You know from the first five minutes that you are in the hands of someone who is not going to drop the ball. You can then sit back and let the movie take over. The film couldn’t lose.
Last year’s Hurt Locker was considered too small to win. It was a “depressing” war movie with no happy ending. Many people lamented that “nothing happened,” and that movies about Iraq were dead. But again, like The Departed and No Country for Old Men, we were following the director, Kathryn Bigelow, who couldn’t lose. Even still, the film couldn’t win Best Picture. It wasn’t until it won the Producers Guild that minds were changed.
The critics knew The Hurt Locker was the best film of the year. The critics knew that No Country for Old Men was the best film of that year. Many critics knew The Departed was the best film of that year, give or take. Many other films seemed to be competing for critics darling that year but The Departed did win Boston, Chicago and the Critics Choice awards, not to mention the DGA and the WGA.
Judging by the last several years, one would have to be asleep at the wheel to not notice how the Academy has changed, how its choices have become more thoughtful, how much more important critically acclaimed films have become; it is not just about the emotional payoff anymore. I’m not saying it isn’t going to shift back. It very well might do that this year. But there is no recent precedent to suggest, as David Poland did the other day, that “no way can The Social Network win Best Picture.”
He seems to be reverting back to the days when the critics really didn’t matter so much because they were so far out of whack from the Oscars it wasn’t worth counting them. I myself used to write “Academy voters are not critics.” But that paradigm has shifted. As Oscar watchers we must adapt and evolve to the way the Academy itself is changing, otherwise we are our own worst problem, not that they weren’t already.
Those I heard saying The Departed, No Country and The Hurt Locker couldn’t win WERE Oscar watchers, for the most part, experts who are supposed to be good at reading the Academy. But here we are, heading into another year where a film is doing extremely well with the critics, has a director who will likely be the frontrunner for the DGA — a film that is critically acclaimed by Film Comment, Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan, the Boston Film Critics, the Chicago film critics, the LA film critics, the NY film critics — and still, the prognosticators are saying it can’t win best picture.
I know that I sound like a broken record, and that many of you are tired of this being an All Social Network All The Time site, but I think it is worth taking note of both the shifts in the Academy, as well as those in the world of Oscar watching. I don’t see anyone else doing it so why shouldn’t we.
for Old Men
|The Hurt Locker||D||W||W||W||W||W||W||W||W||W||W|
|The Social Network||W||W||W||W||W||W||N|
This isn’t to say that suddenly the guilds will take the race into a different direction. I am not saying they won’t. But I am saying that, to watch the last few years and not see the impact that the critics awards DO have on the race is to, well, be missing the bigger picture. If anyone is asked what movie looks most likely to win right now, at this stage in the race, they would have to say, based on the evidence, that The Social Network is in the lead. The only thing preventing them from doing so is their own stubbornness about the film itself: not a good enough reason.
Let’s watch and see what happens. To my mind, the films that might have a shot would be Toy Story 3, The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right and The King’s Speech. The Fighter is the only one with true momentum, because it is new to the race and it’s popped up with a ferocity at the Golden Globes and the BFCA. It will have some catching up to do. The King’s Speech won audience awards at Toronto and at the Hamptons, which definitely keeps it in the race, and Toy Story 3 probably has an outside shot to become the first animated film to win — if and only if the “experts” are right that the Academy will never give their Best Picture Oscar to the Social Network.
I hope I have stated it in a way that can lift some of the fangirl stigma off of my shoulders. I am 75% fangirl, but 25% Oscar watcher. And even if The Social Network wasn’t my favorite film of the year, I still would believe its place in the race right now is very strong. As it stands, though, it is one of the few films I’ve seen this year that does what The Departed, No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker did: it is a film about human nature, and it tells its story with an elegant perfection, never missing a beat. All of the elements presented work. Great directing, great writing, great acting, great score, great editing, great cinematography.
I also see the Academy differently than I did when I first started. In fact, I changed the logo from “Nobody Knows Anything” to “The Trick is Not Minding,” and finally, “If You Dream, Dream Big,” which Ryan chose. The reason for this is that the Academy has proven itself to have great taste lately, nothing anyone could really complain about – fled are the accusations of mediocre choices. To recognize a film as good as No Country for Old Men and award it thusly, despite its unconventional story, should silence any argument that a movie like The Social Network can’t win. It’s really as simple as that. It certainly can win. Whether it will win, well, nobody knows anything.