The Oscar season can be divided into different parts, some more concentrated than others, some more important than others. The degree of importance fluctuates season to season. Some years Cannes matters more than Sundance. Other years it‚Äôs all about Toronto. This year, not a lot ‚Äúhappened‚Äù in Toronto Oscar-wise, but what was set in motion gained momentum. Only one film, the Coen brothers‚Äô A Serious Man, got a Toronto lift-off. The others landed earlier, but landed with a resounding bang. Those three films are Up in the Air, Precious and An Education. There are others lingering on the edges that will surely be among those remembered at year‚Äôs end – but it‚Äôs difficult to credit Toronto with their success – A Single Man is surely one of those.
No one begrudges the success of Jason Reitman who has become, oddly enough, kind of a king on the net among a certain group of young men who write for film websites. And it appears they are all chummy on Twitter. It would be gross if it didn‚Äôt illustrate the kind of unpretentious person Reitman is.
The private school-educated, industry-born director may have gotten breaks by birthright, surely got advice and help but has definitely proven himself, and himself alone, worthy of the high praise. He‚Äôs right at the moment where he‚Äôll either stay true to this great career he‚Äôs mapped out for himself, or whether he‚Äôll graduate to the big leagues and start making much bigger movies with bigger budgets.¬†¬† Either way, like Danny Boyle last year, only not quite so decidedly, Reitman is one of the big stars of this season.
But this is the moment where things begin to wind down and the rest of the Oscar movies bud and then bloom – it‚Äôs just two or three months for all of this to go down, during which time people go on vacation, celebrate holidays, pinch their pennies around Christmas and no one but us chickens is thinking strategically about the Oscar race. In fact, put that way it couldn‚Äôt seem sillier, more pointless.¬† Movies are art and entertainment; not cars or horses primed to race and win. Or so it always goes in the great lament against Oscar bloggers.
Only it is a race. It is a competition that pits studio against studio, publicist against publicist, fan again fan, blogger against blogger. Sorry to throw in the ‚Äúblogger‚Äù thing at the end. No one takes anyone seriously who uses the word ‚Äúblogger‚Äù in a sentence; it immediately downgrades the conversation. This was the main problem with Julie & Julia – Julie kept saying ‚Äúmy blog!‚Äù If you have to say ‚Äúmy blog‚Äù in a movie and not make a joke about it you are in trouble.
However, this brings me to my topic of the day — Best Picture and why I think, weirdly enough, Julie and Julia actually has a shot. But before we discuss this let‚Äôs take a moment to contemplate the unusual plethora of female directors in the mix this year, and that includes Nora Ephron. There is Lone Sherfig, she of the Dogme ‚Äô95 movement and director of An Education, the great and talented Kathryn Bigelow who has arguably made the best film of 2009, Nora Ephron, with a bonafide hit for the year (a rarity it feels like, especially for women), the upcoming Mira Nair‚Äôs Amelia, Anne Fontaine who directed Coco Avant Chanel (a film I can‚Äôt wait to see; actually, I‚Äôm looking forward to all of these). And so you see, just like that – the field has leveled, or very nearly.
How many of these films will end up on Oscar‚Äôs Big Ten list? Without that many Best Picture nominees there is scant chance for Julie and Julia. But with ten? It has a really good shot and here‚Äôs why. In broadening the reach to the ten best, the Academy has extended an olive branch to ‚Äúthe people.‚Äù The widening gap between Oscar and the public was good for Oscar, probably bad for the public. What it meant was that better films were being recognized by the Academy – this because there is now so much chatter about movies, good and bad, long before they ever hit the theaters that the public has very little say anymore about which films get chosen. That wasn‚Äôt always the case. For a long while there, box office drove the Oscars too.
A popular film that makes money these days is usually a ‚Äúshitstorm,‚Äù as Peter Travers would say. A horribly written, target-demo focused mess geared towards the lowest common denominator. As adult fare kept shrinking into the art house, so to did the shitstorms on the march take over the multiplex. You can‚Äôt blame the studios: they need the money. You can‚Äôt blame the public: they need the thrills. Who can you blame?
That isn‚Äôt really our problem to solve, however. In meditating on which direction the Academy might take the Big Ten, one can‚Äôt help but wonder if the many observations made at the time they made the decision were right: is this is a way to boost ratings? Is this a way to make the public more included in the Oscars? Is this a response to the Dark Knight‚Äôs shut-out and the subsequent disgust with the Oscars?
It might be. We have no way of knowing. My decade‚Äôs research into Academy voting practices has led me to believe that there are generally ten films floating around that most people, give or take a few, will agree are the year‚Äôs ten best. I think a lot of those people, critics excluded, would put Julie and Julia on that list.
If you are going to grab from different piles you have the luxury of branching out. There could be one animated, one doc, one foreign language. But there could also be a few big hits that are not shitstorms, but good enough to be worthy of a nomination. This gives the Academy room to choose films that might not have set the box office on fire but are too good to ignore, while also choosing films that did make money, that did drive the industry, that did strike a chord with the public at large; after all, Hollywood makes movies for audiences, presumably, they don‚Äôt make them to jerk themselves off in the privacy of their own ego-centric universe. Doesn‚Äôt every filmmaker hope people see their movies and isn‚Äôt the Oscar race one way to ensure that happens?
What I love about this concept is that if you have movies like Julie and Julia in the race, more people will hopefully be interested in the race. If more people are interested in the race, more people are going to check out the other films on the list. So you could have A Single Man, you could have A Serious Man, you could have Julie and Julia and you could have Up in the Air.¬† You could have a film like Inglourious Basterds nominated alongside a film like Invictus, maybe, or The Lovely Bones. And then there is Avatar. You see, there are no rules now regarding genre, or one hopes anyway. It should be a free-for-all where the ‚Äúbest‚Äù films aren‚Äôt necessarily ‚ÄúOscar films.‚Äù
The goal is to find the ten best movies period, not the ten best movies at the art house or at the multiplex. As the seasons winds down, those ten best will become more clear – and the reasons why they are one of the year‚Äôs best will vary. If you have spent any time at all consumed by the Oscar race you would have to be excited about the prospects.
Let me make it clear that I didn‚Äôt think Julie and Julia was entirely a good movie. It was half a good movie. The fact that it is one of the year‚Äôs biggest hits shows that many people disagreed with me. The half with Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci may be enough to put it in the race. And perhaps there are those out there who didn‚Äôt mind the Julie half. Either way, I don‚Äôt think it can be so easily written off.
To sum up, with only five, Julie and Julia has no chance in hell. With ten? Definitely a possibility.
People change from Summer to Fall, and from Fall to Winter. That‚Äôs why they release some movies in the Christmas season – at once to cash in on a time when families need something to do while also to riding the wave of emotion we experience. Some people call it the loneliest time of the year — Christmas to New Year‚Äôs. For others, it‚Äôs the time they yearn for most. What isn‚Äôt lacking is emotion.
Funny thing about emotions, though. They have a shelf-life. Lasting love for a film is rare. During the Oscar race, short-lived, passionate love is commonplace. With ten nominees, hopefully there will be more contemplation and less of-the-moment voting going on.
I often think ‚Äúof the moment‚Äù is a lot like ovulation: all systems have to be on target for implantation. However, I‚Äôm starting to see it a bit more like the beast in Poltergeist that turns the closet into a gaping mouth. The moment has to be exactly right to move between worlds. If a film comes out during the more emotionally-charged time of year it has a better opportunity to slip into that other world. If it‚Äôs too early in the year, it could be shut out and forgotten.
Usually it goes that the films everyone cared about in November or December can sometimes conquer the Oscars but is quickly forgotten by the following year. A spell is cast and once the spell wears off, one is left with the residue. And we now know that history does not look kindly upon the Oscar choices, with a few exceptions of course.
Even with ten, there are still going to be those that slip through the cracks and end up as a footnote in Damien Bona‚Äôs Inside Oscar— there are still going to be those movies everyone loves until they wake up with a bad Oscars hangover. But it edges ever-so-slightly towards a more perfect contest. It is still a race but its impossible rules will no longer hinder its cultural impact. At least, we hope not.