Not since the 1970s have we seen such a display of anti-heroes, reluctant leaders, and misfits filling the shoes of the traditional male figure that often leads the charge in both American film and the Oscar race. Since we have been looking at the 1970s in our podcasts, one is reminded that during an era where we don’t feel like winners, particularly, the films we respond to can sometimes reflect that.
Still, though they may not be traditional male leads offered up this year, we still have plenty of heroes. They are dressed up differently; they can come from anywhere and still rule the world. Or if they don’t rule the world, they are doing one small heroic act that often saves them from a life of futility. This is Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. This is Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone. This is Doug MacRay in The Town. This is Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech. This is Nic in the Kids Are All Right. This is Cobb in Inception.
But then there are the rulers. They are non-traditional leaders, to be sure, but their ultimate victory is assured. Their objective? To win. How do they accomplish that? By any means necessary. This is Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. This is Nina Sayers in Black Swan. This is King George VI. For some, that makes them likable. Others, not so much. But they will always have our admiration because of either their raw talent, their willingness to cut down anyone who gets in their way (they do what has to be done), or their need to rise to the occasion — this is much of the force that drives invention and change. There is always a price one has to pay for being a winner. Because to win, someone else has to lose.
As we come to the next phase of the race, where the critics awards start to shift things, some films will fall away. Others will emerge strong. There is still a question mark as to how the Coen brothers’ True Grit will impact the race; it is never just down to one opinion versus another. It has more to do with consensus, perception, and that thing with feathers: buzz. The Coens’ Burn After Reading, for instance, did not much impact the race when it was released, but it turns out to be one of their best films.¬† The Big Lebowski had zero impact, with critics or at the box office but it has emerged as one of their most popular, most beloved films. Somewhere in there, True Grit will fall. If it makes bank, that helps its chances significantly. They aren’t going for Oscar, though, not with this — not that they ever have, really. True Gritis easily one of 2010’s best. It will be one of the ten Best Picture nominees, without question.
What is Oscar heat? It isn’t something you can manufacture, force or generate.¬† It’s a bit like sexiness: it’s either there or it isn’t. Plenty of films seem to have Oscar heat right now: The King’s Speech, Black Swan, True Grit, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3, The Fighter, Winter’s Bone, The Town, 127 Hours, Inception. There are more still that should have heat and don’t — whether they have heat or not doesn’t decide whether they are good or not: Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, Hereafter, Barney’s Version, Made in Dagenham, Never Let Me Go, Let Me In, etc.¬† What you are looking for Best Picture, though, isn’t the movie that might fit into that hole if you push hard enough. You are looking for the one that slides right in, baby.
The one that is going to slide right in is going to be the one that most industry voters can agree upon is the best. Its Oscar heat will be undeniable. You feel it when you’re watching the film if it makes you thrilled to be watching it. You feel it when you finish watching the film and can’t wait to tell people about it, or at least discuss it. You feel it if you are standing on the edge of making history — to see the first woman finally win Best Director, and her film win Best Picture. That is a fire that doesn’t stop burning until it turns into white heat. We’re not talking orange or red heat, here. White. All the way. Does this mean the film will have staying power? Not necessarily. A fire that burns brightest doesn’t always burn longest. But lately, the way the Academy has been voting, their films really do seem like they will stand the test of the time. The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker – what a run they’ve had.
Every year there is one movie that has this thing you can’t put your finger on. You can feel it, if you aren’t resisting the urge due to there being another film you like better. The inevitability of something like Million Dollar Baby or Gladiator can drive you crazy if you know a better movie is in the mix. But it doesn’t matter because white heat simply can’t be denied. Right now, in this phase of the race, many of us have our own idea of what film has the right stuff. Many of us disagree about this. And there is no definitive way of knowing until the critics awards start flooding in, and then the guild awards. You can’t count on what you don’t know. You always have to start with what you do know.
What do you know? You know a movie that’s gotten the best reviews of the year will have to be taken seriously. What else do you know? You know that the director is usually the star of the Best Picture race. What do you also know? That with ten best picture contenders, a split is a bit more likely to take place than if there are five. While this year’s race is still wide open, in many ways, there are a scant few movies that seem to have every necessary thing to win.
The critics do matter. It makes a difference, as we’ve learned over the past many years, that you can’t put a film in the number one spot to win until you’ve heard for the mainstream critics. It is much more organic when the film lands at number one BECAUSE of the good reviews. I’m not talking about reviews from me, or Jeff Wells, or Kris Tapley or even Anne Thompson. I’m talking about reviews from TIME, LA Times’ Kenneth Turan, NY Times’ AO Scott or Manohla Dargis. The New Yorker, New York Magazine, NPR, the Wall Street Journal. Entertainment Weekly. These are the reviews that count in the Oscar race. Why? Because more often than not, these are the critics Academy members are paying attention to. Why else? Because these are the critics who fuel the all-important critics AWARDS, like the NYFCC, the LAFCA and the NSFC (National Society).
I know, I will get a lot of blowback for that above statement. I always do. You just have to take it from someone who has been watching this stuff for over a decade. And it’s been this way for MANY decades, not just this last one. And it isn’t going to change any time soon – not in the film world, not in the art world, not in the music world. There has to be a standard. Otherwise, there is no point in awarding “best” at all. The Oscars and the critics awards are not public opinion polls.
At this stage of the race, it is difficult to say what movie is going to win. But I can tell you this much. The reason better be a positive, not a negative. When it’s a negative (except in the case of Brokeback Mountain), it almost never applies anymore. It might have applied in decades past, but now things like “it isn’t emotional enough for the Academy,” or “the characters aren’t likable enough,” or “it doesn’t have a happy ending,” or “the hero dies at the end,” or “it didn’t make enough money.” It won’t do, my friends. The reason has to be that it is the film most industry voters and critics can agree upon as the best of the year. Full stop. Not “good enough,” or “emotional enough” or “made the most money.” But the BEST film. The only answer to the question is whether it is good enough to win or not. So when people say Toy Story 3 can’t win because it is an animated film, that is a negative, and it won’t fly. The answer has to be because it isn’t good enough to win. Is it better than The King’s Speech, Black Swan, The Social Network, 127 Hours or True Grit? If the answer is yes for a lot of people, you will have your winner.
The two directors who seem to be at the top of the heap so far would be David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky, and the Coens can never be counted out. In the final analysis, as we enter the crucial month of December, my money is still on The Social Network, not because it’s David Fincher’s time, or because it supposedly captures the zeitgeist, or because it is about Facebook – but because it just a damned good movie. David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin/Jesse Eisenberg/Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — take out any one of those vital components and you don’t have the best film of the year. Also in its favor, it already has crossover appeal. It is going to end up making an appearance on the top ten lists of film snobs and mainstream critics alike. It feels to me like it’s still the one that is going to hit the widest number of markers to win.
But it’s early yet. And we’ve got a hell of a season ahead of us. Stay frosty, Oscar watchers. This is going to be one hell of a fight.