It was hard not to notice Robin Wright at the Critics Choice awards, striding out onto the stage with her still impossibly youthful legs, and announcing that 2011 was the Year of the Woman.  She referenced Bridesmaids and Dragon Tattoos, probably because she couldn’t say housemaids.   Either way, Bridesmaids, The Help and The Girl with Dragon Tattoo have reinvented what defines a hit and what defines an “Oscar movie.”  All three have been underestimated for one reason or another and yet have managed to stay relevant, even if the majority of the other films are more traditional male-driven narratives.  But the year of the woman?  Could it really be?

Look a little closer and you see a lot of strong female characters — Chloe Moretz in Hugo is a writer and drives much of the action.  Shailene Woodley is the best and most forceful thing about the Descendants and in Midnight in Paris it is the women who show Owen Wilson the way. One pulls him in, one pushes him out.  And then there’s Gertrude Stein (who punched him in the mouth).  Finally, The Artist is about two different careers and in the end the one who emerges from the ashes, saves the protagonist from ruin is a woman.   Of course, in this year’s awards race, Bernice Bejo is stuffed into the supporting category (where she belongs, damnit!) but in fact, she really is a co-lead with Jean Dujardin.

Even still, in many ways, this is the most boring Oscar year since Slumdog Millionaire made David Carr so bored and disgusted he quit covering the Oscars for good.  But in other ways, though, there are thrilling upsets sprouting up around the moldy edges.  A black and white silent movie for Best Picture?  Even though Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross rightfully won the Oscar last year for their score, it’s another thrilling notion that they might be in the Oscar race again, especially for their wildly subversive, superb score for the Dragon Tattoo.  Though the Oscar nominations have not yet been laid down, but should Reznor/Ross earn a second nomination in two years someone is going to look back and think, holy shit, Trent fucking Reznor.

The Best Actress race has Margaret Thatcher, Marilyn Monroe – a mother of a mass murderer, a woman subverting herself to become a man, and it’s hard to not notice those Bridesmaids, and The Help – maids who are becoming writers.  I watched The Help with my 13 year-old who wants to “write a novel” this year after seeing it.  My own inner beast has been overtaken by Lisbeth Salander on her motorcycle, with her taser gun, her laptop and her wide angle fiber optic lens.

Indeed, the Academy is made up of old fogies stuck in their ways.  But if the Oscar nominations mirror what we’re seeing in the guilds?  Perhaps our boredom and frustration springs from our inability to look.  There is something happening here, yes.

What is at stake? Oh, a whole lot of nothing.  At the end of the day, The Oscars are nothing more than a high validation of the sentiments of 6,000 or so.  For some of us, they are our mirror. If this group rewards a film that must mean it really did “deserve” to win.  When it was Brokeback Mountain up against Crash it felt like something bigger was at stake: a chance to make history, a moment to move the needle of progress ever-so-slightly.

Back before the Oscar race was covered 24/7, Hollywood had a greater notion of the political importance of the Oscar race.  If it just comes down to individual tastes why should it matter at all?   But Marlon Brando, Kim Basinger and Michael Moore, to name a few, have acknowledged the power of the Oscars to shift perception.  Hollywood listens to money.  Deeply held traditions mostly make money.  To shake those up you have to start somewhere.  I don’t think I could even cover the Oscar race at all if I didn’t think that they were somehow involved in the balance of power in Hollywood.  If things can shift there, maybe they can shift in bigger ways.

But the Oscars and politics have never been something people respond well to.  Inevitably, anyone who gives a damn is told to sit down and shut up.  It’s just entertainment, right?  It’s just a way to separate us from our $10.  Except that it isn’t, really.  We’re a culture that looks to movies to reflect who we are.  But when I look at movies I don’t see who we are so much as who we should want to be.  And when films are used as guidelines for our own identities?  That is when it becomes a problem for upstarts like me not seeing enough diversity in mainstream Hollywood.

84 years is a long time to have nothing important happen. It was too long coming for Kathryn Bigelow to win the Oscar and it was too long coming for Lee Daniels to be the first black director nominated for a DGA.  We have a black president and yet the only mainstream Hollywood film that could get made was one about Mississippi in the Civil Rights era — a moment in our history that Oscar voters are still grappling with.  The needle moves slowly within the Academy but it eventually moves.  The Help and Bridesmaids made so much money that they can’t be ignored.

But even if the political shifts aren’t your thing, you can’t deny how frustrating it’s been to have comedies and genre movies shut out for so long.  In a better world both Attack the Block and Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be seriously considered for Best Picture, whether they were “Oscar movies” or not.  It is the height of irony that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been thrust into the Oscar race despite David Fincher, Scott Rudin and Sony doing everything they could to ensure it wouldn’t be after last year’s colossal goat fuck. But the truth is, should the Oscar race be lucky enough to have a David Fincher film nominated once again (the jury is still out on that), it will be because he makes movies that are leagues beyond what other directors are doing in film.  Fincher, Payne, Scorsese and Hazanavicius have, this year, turned in immeasurably brilliant work.  It is one of the big bummers that the work of these directors must be filtered through the opinions of the plethora of film writers out there, most of whom are a little too comfortable thinking alike.  They glom on to a narrative and soon that narrative becomes the reality.  Well, it isn’t the reality.  We must be willing to strip away the comfort of like minds.

I am coming to terms with my own unwillingness to be open to the possibility of Bridesmaids as a serious contender. It reminds me of that scene in Shawshank Redemption when Red is working as bagging clerk at the grocery store and he asks permission to go to the bathroom.  Or the scene where the hitter in Moneyball doesn’t realize he’s hit a home run.  We are hindered only by our own inability to imagine the impossible becoming possible.  So to say that we were all underestimating Bridesmaids is kind of wrong thinking.  But I’m also too prideful to admit that I underestimated Bridesmaids.  I want to think that I didn’t underestimate it so much as I underestimated the Academy’s willingness to vote for it.   So what is happening here? Frustration at stereotypes, frustration at the same old dish being served up for dinner, frustration at the awards race being so stuck in its ways?

Bridesmaids is dangerously close to a Best Picture nomination.  In fact, it really looks like a definite possibility. If I was a betting person I’d have lost this bet as I assumed that the content in the film couldn’t earn it a nomination, especially when you consider the great many comedies that weren’t nominated over the past decades.  I even fought on Twitter about how impossible it seemed.   The three films that have been the most surprising to me this year in ways I never saw coming have been The Good: Bridesmaids and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the not so good: War Horse failing to hit the major guilds.  I would have reversed these two scenarios.   Those are two very different things.  Once you’ve been covering the race as long as I have you learn, year after year, to lower you expectations.  Every once in a great while, though, they surprise you.

But indeed, given the amount of support for the raunchy women in Bridesmaids by the actors, and the industry at large — as in, it’s time to give women props and time to reward a film that made $160 mil — you have to start really thinking that Best Picture is going to look something like this:

The Artist (PGA/SAG/DGA/ACE) + New York Film Critics
The Descendants (PGA/SAG/DGA/WGA/ACE) + LA Film Critics, Southeastern Film Critics
Midnight in Paris (PGA/SAG/DGA/WGA/ACE)
Hugo (PGA/DGA/WGA/ACE) + National Board of Review
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (PGA/DGA/WGA/ACE)
Bridesmaids  (PGA/SAG/WGA/ACE)
Moneyball (PGA/WGA/ACE)
The Help (PGA/SAG/WGA)
War Horse (PGA/ACE)

The Artist may very well take the year.   And that will say that another international production will have won Best Picture.  At a time when mainstream studios must put out fanboy crap, sequels and terribly written effects films to profit, the dramas coming out of American film are being, once again, overlooked for a film made by people who live in communities where art can overcome commerce, where ideas still flourish.

Do this long enough and you will find that something inside of you dies.  It doesn’t die quickly or dramatically, but slowly and over time.  Every so often, something of beauty will flutter past the window and in that moment, as you breath quickly in and get high off of the unpredictability of it all, you know that the same predictability of awards voting is what killed that thing about movies you loved so much — the disappearing into them.  Studios are afraid to invest in potential failures and so they play it safe.  Playing it safe means we get what we’re expecting and nothing more.   Voters don’t think about moving the needle, fortifying our foundation to ensure future generations have access to great films.  They just look at the movies and check off the ones they like best.

And so we are here again, at the end of the year, trying to make sense of this silly game of choosing which work of art of performance is the “best.”  The game is the game.  Even if we reach for something higher, sooner or later the air goes out of the room and we’re back to what we we’re most comfortable with.  We’re back to the majority vote.  We’re back to the idea that there has to be only one kind of Oscar movie.

Why do we care? Why do we want more? Why can’t we walk away?  Because we’re all hoping that this year the needle moves.    And just maybe it will.