The world has changed since the US elected its first African-American president. The news that White America could and did elect the right person for the job has renewed our faith in the institution, and perhaps made us feel more hopeful, even as the economy collapses around us while the holiday season looms; we are full of hope and our country feels right again.
We knew going in that the election would change things. Perhaps our election coverage was dressed up in the disguise of how it might influence the Oscar race but no matter how we got here, here we are. Things have changed. The mood has lifted. There is no time for themes that remember the dark ages, unless, of course, they‚Äôre about super heroes tugging the country out of them.
It is into this newfound hope that the films with the most beautiful messages, the most hopeful ones, are emerging strong in the Oscar race. Wall-E and Slumdog Millionaire. This is why, probably, that the more painful, bleak films about the human condition are being ignored. This doesn‚Äôt really have to do with the quality of film but the time into which they emerge; in years to come, if the mood ever swings back, the films will enjoy renewed appreciation. A film like Revolutionary Road doesn‚Äôt seem to have a place in the post-Obama world. It‚Äôs being locked away in a padded room somewhere so that the celebration of life can continue.
The Oscar race for Best Picture does not reflect the year‚Äôs best films, it never has. It reflects the current mood of the country and of the voters. Sometimes we get lucky, though, and there is alignment. Under Bush, films like The Departed and No Country for Old Men could triumph over feelgood fare like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno; just like the Nixon era gave rise to Oscar‚Äôs best decade for Best Picture wins. Unfortunately, the same can‚Äôt be said for the Reagan era but that‚Äôs because, despite it all, Americans were supposedly happy. When the Republicans AND the Democrats are disgruntled, it has produced some great results in the Oscar race.
This year, though, there is a palpable shift in the mood and in the films that are in the race. For the first time ever, an animated film stands a really good chance of WINNING Best Picture, without merely winning in its designated category – a move that would say, this WAS 2008‚Äôs best film. Period.
But then there are those pesky actors. The actors make up the largest branch in the Academy and they are the ones who are likely to not vote for Wall-E. In a year when SAG is considering going on a strike are they really going to vote for a film that says they aren‚Äôt a requirement to make a movie good? In fact, isn‚Äôt Wall-E voiced by mostly unknown character actors?
Judging by the way the critics are voting, before the guilds get a crack at it, Slumdog Millionaire is winning more than Wall-E and stands the best chance of winning Best Picture. In any other year it would simply be too ‚Äúhappy‚Äù to win. The ending is just too simplistic and fairy-tale-like to ever appeal to the mostly serious Academy voters, and there‚Äôs that Bollywood thing. But this year? Slumdog could take it all.
The film is also a tribute to international cinema, just as Obama appeals to an international population. We aren‚Äôt closed in anymore; we can be global. Perhaps our Oscar race can be too.
This is somewhat difficult for me because the films that moved me most, those that have had a lasting effect, aren‚Äôt ‚Äúwinning everything.‚Äù That happens, of course, more often than not. In fact, most of the time, except the past two years, I haven‚Äôt really felt strongly about the frontrunners. For me, Benjamin Button is maybe the best film I’ve seen this year, though critics aren’t going anywhere near it. Maybe because it‚Äôs hard to put that film up next to Slumdog or Wall-E and see anyone voting for it, not the way the country is feeling right now, not the way the world is feeling. I wouldn’t begrudge either film the win. They are both magnificent. It’s just that Button was a more complex experience for me personally.
Funnily enough, Wall-E and Slumdog aren’t really that different when you think about it: scrappers who live off of other people’s trash overcome their station, pursue the girl of their dreams and everyone lives happily ever after. These themes are universal and as old as the sun. With these two movies, though, it isn’t necessarily about what happens so much as how it happens.
Either film could break the “it could never happen” rule, just as Obama broke it this year. Anything can happen.
But then there are those pesky actors. With no known actors in Slumdog or Wall-E what does that say about the high salaries actors require to work? That they are inflated and unnecessary? If these films are the best the year has to offer is something deeply broken in Hollywood?
If actors want to stand up and be noticed they may be inclined to vote for movies with stars in them, maybe Milk, maybe Benjamin Button, maybe Doubt, maybe Frost/Nixon. It‚Äôs too soon to know how they will vote, or whether they care about their bread and butter or not. Voters do not vote with their heads but with their hearts. And if you‚Äôre heart is involved, how can anyone not vote for either Wall-E or Slumdog? Look at what they‚Äôve done to the usually stodgy critics. They‚Äôve turned them into puddles of liquid love.
This is also why, probably, Sally Hawkins is winning the acclaim that otherwise might be going to Melissa Leo – whose performance in Frozen River IS depressing but it is also as life-affirming as Hawkins‚Äô. But it‚Äôs about the downtrodden with aspirations of a double-wide trailer.¬† Likewise Mickey Rourke versus Sean Penn. Both characters are backed into a corner but one does so for the good of the country, the other is trying to find a reason to believe. Penn‚Äôs hopefulness could trump Rourke‚Äôs despair in a climate of change, in a climate of hope.
It is a mistake for anyone to assume the Oscar race is over, though, because the critics say it is. This is the first phase. The trends are set. There are many more stories to be told before it‚Äôs all said and done. It is a wide open race from my perspective, which is always exciting. Still, voters will be receiving their ballots in just over a week from now. The season has gone into heat. What‚Äôs coming next? That‚Äôs the million dollar question. So who wants to be a millionaire?