Whenever I hit the “like” button on Facebook, or one of the hundreds of sites I visit every day that is connected back to Facebook, I always feel my primate roots rising up: pretty shiny thing? I LIKE it. I like it, I press a button that expresses how I feel. What has been missing in many of our internet experiences has been our emotions, our tastes clearly defined. We had smileys, we had DIGG, we had the ability to email articles. But we never were able to send out a message that tells the world how we’re feeling. LIKE. A word that has been branded, almost, by Facebook.
But “like” also factors heavily into the Oscar race, as we all now know. There is, for instance, one main reason why Oscar pundits are still predicting The Social Network to win Screenplay, Director, but not Picture. Why? The characters aren’t likable enough. People like to feel good when they vote and let’s face it, they DO usually vote for whom they most like. It’s as if each contender had a “like” button on them.
The main reason people underestimate The Social Network is because of its emotional content, or alleged lack thereof. There is plenty of emotion in the film, just not the right kind. We see anger, envy, greed, lust, heartbreak. But we don’t see a character we root for in the traditional “Oscar-y” way. This same refrain is run every year. It was the reason The Departed couldn’t win. It was the reason No Country for Old Men couldn’t win, and it was the reason, along with poor box office, that The Hurt Locker couldn’t win.Academy voters, like audiences, know a good film when they see one, despite the rather condescending way they are being prejudged by Oscar bloggers and pundits. The so-called “old voters” in the Academy were young once, and when they were young they ushered in the likes of Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, The Godfathers I and II.
But it’s a long season, and the coverage has exploded from the last time it exploded. We are still seeing plenty of new planets formed after the big bang of Oscar sites back when I started up. The demand continues to outweigh the supply, even if there is really nothing to report. This is the point where the wild theories start to sprout up. This movie will win, that movie will win, maybe this movie can win – anything but the small handful of films that really do have the stuff to go all the way. Hope springs eternal for those looking for a dramatic way to watch the race unfold.
I can say this, and by now I sound like a broken record, but you can’t go wrong by predicting a film you know is good enough to win. If you want to argue Toy Story 3 for the win, don’t argue that it will win because The Social Network can’t. Argue that it should win because it’s BETTER than The Social Network (and, by my count, no film this year is better than the Social Network). Argue that Toy Story 3 deserves to win because it is about our lives now in America – it is about change, moving on, growing up, learning – and it is about Pixar’s enormous success with animation film. Argue anything BUT this idea that it will win because it is sappy and The Social Network isn’t. That theory went out the window when Little Miss Sunshine failed to overtake The Departed. The Departed was the better film and the Academy recognized that. It was made better by the satisfaction of finally giving Scorsese a win, just as finally rewarding a woman last year made the Hurt Locker’s win more sweet — but these movies WERE the best, and they DESERVED to win regardless.
If you want to argue The King’s Speech is the one to beat don’t do it as an anti-Social Network vote, which is what I’m seeing and hearing. Argue it will win because it SHOULD win, because it is the best film of 2010 and deserves to be rewarded for that. Be prepared to explain why you think it is the best film and why it will win. I think this is where many pundits go wrong, as they play it safe in order to look more “right” by the end of the race.
Removing one’s emotions is the way to go to be a great predictor. But that only works as we get closer to nominations time, after the major precursors, like the DGA, the PGA, the WGA and the SAG have been handed out. It doesn’t really work now, in this stage, where you only have your own tastes, and that of the critics and the public to go on. Right now is when you need to know a great movie from a not so great movie, and to figure out which film will be “liked” by a majority.
I don’t know about you but I can’t do that by assuming people are stupid. I can only do that by assuming they are smart and willing to recognize greatness even if it doesn’t fit into a traditional model.
We are in the calm before the storm. Tomorrow, or very soon thereafter, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers will kick off the annual tradition of Top Ten lists. I don’t know what film will make his number 1, but I know The Social Network will be high up on it. Next weekend, the major critics groups announce their winners.¬† The Golden Globes announce on Tuesday. It’s all happening.
And very soon thereafter, we’ll hear from the BFCA, the HFPA, and eventually the guilds. Right now everything seems possible. And that’s not entirely a bad thing.
Here is how I currently see the top categories:
1. The Social Network.
For it: It has all of the heat heading into the race but none of the high expectations. That gives it the coveted spot of being both underestimated but highly regarded. This is always where you want your movie to be as we head into the precursors. It has the perfect balance of brilliant writing, directing and acting – with all parts equal in their excellence. It has social resonance. It is about the right now. It is the film young people are excited about (pundits will tell you this is a bad thing; on the contrary, I think it is the best thing). It is a film about the American spirit unbound — inventiveness, genius, revolutionary thinking — and it is about the new overtaking the old most importantly. We watch the money because we can’t believe this ineffectual nerd could become the youngest billionaire in the world. Fincher has never been so in command of his vision. Obsessive-compulsive to detail, he is the perfect complement to Aaron Sorkin’s fireworks. And Jesse Eisenberg brings humanity to Mark Zuckerberg. It is a subtle yet compelling performance, one of the best of the year by a long way. The Social Network just works.
Against it: Its association with Facebook, which puts people who aren’t interested in Facebook off. It goes by quickly and is talky. You have to have your brain turned on to follow what’s going on. Sorkin and Fincher aren’t exactly the most likable (there’s that word again). They aren’t, say, Danny Boyle or Clint Eastwood. Voters like to feel good when they’re voting, so what will make them feel good about this?
2. The King’s Speech
For it: It is a feelgood film about overcoming a disability, driven by two of the year’s best performances. Watching Firth and Rush go toe-to-toe is nothing short of spectacular. Director Tom Hooper does not upstage their performances with his direction, but knows that the key to the film’s success is all about keeping it on Firth and Rush. The King’s Speech taps into this idea that we are all kings inside if we can find our voice.
Against it: It was made the frontrunner too early and therefore had to live up to unrealistically high expectations. It is also a story about British people. The AMPAS tends to be drawn more to American stories.
For it: Christopher Nolan’s insane, brilliant dreamscape takes us into a place we’ve never quite gone before: the subconscious. The achievement here is the grand expanse of Nolan’s imagination. That he was able to bring his imaginative vision to the big screen is practically a miracle, given the kind of crap that makes money these days.¬†¬†¬† At the heart of Inception is a love story. In its own strange way it is a film noir, with Marion Cotillard very much the femme fatale – a frightening, seductive presence who threatens to drown our hero. But she isn’t even real, is she. She’s being kept alive by him. A whole world that exists in the induced dreaming of the film’s characters. In Inception, you are never quite sure where you are. Eventually, you find your way out of the maze. But what a ride getting there and back out. What a ride.
Against it: It is, or can be, confusing if you’re not willing to invest energy trying to figure it out. It is sci-fi-ish enough that it falls into genre discrimination.
4. True Grit – The Coens
For it – Joel and Ethan Coen remain the best filmmakers working in American film. It really is as simple as that. Their movie would have to be a complete bomb not to be taken seriously. That True Grit is anything but that makes it a strong and formidable contender. It is the Coens foray into the mysterious landscape of human emotion, something they haven’t done, like ever. It shows they are maturing as storytellers because, little by little lately, they seem to be exposing much more of their fleshy underneath. This is easily one of the year’s best, despite one bad early review by Todd McCarthy. It is refreshing to see the western make a comeback, even if it’s done Coen style, with lots of absurdist humor thrown at it. There are some of the year’s most memorable scenes therein, to be discussed later after most of the rest of the public have a chance to see it.
Against it: The Coens have already won their big prize too recently. It is not as dark as the Academy seems to like them to be. Their two Oscar-friendly films have been very dark.
5. Black Swan
For it – Bottom line, Darren Aronofsky has never made a film this good. It only gets better with subsequent viewings, and it is driven by a fully charged, absolutely stunning performance by Natalie Portman who goes down deep to reach in and pull Nina out. We see so much of Nina here – her paranoia, fear, sadness, frustration, determination – it is all there on Portman’s face. Again, like many of the best films this year, no director could have pulled this off without his star. And Black Swan is not a lot without Portman. But as an artist, Aronofsky is not afraid to look ridiculous. He doesn’t have to try too hard – he can splay it open and let the innards spill out. He’s on his way, with this film, to being of the cinematic greats.
Against it – surprisingly lackluster reviews, mostly from prominent male critics. Sadly, this is the Academy demo. It is also a love it/hate it film and that can sometimes mean it’s squeezed out.
6. Toy Story 3
For it – one of the best reviewed films of the year, currently the year’s highest grossing film, up to $415 million. It closes out a beloved series that is perhaps one of the most engaging trilogies since the Lord of the Rings films. It is an audience pleasing film, something everyone can watch and enjoy; no one can possibly hate this movie. It does contain some heavy thematic content, like Andy’s growing up and passing his beloved toys onto someone who will appreciate them instead of saving them in his attic for himself: toys are nothing if they aren’t loved and played with.
Against it: It’s an animated movie. They didn’t go and create a whole separate category for animated films if they didn’t want them to be judged separately. Actors control the Academy, for the most part, and animated films are not their bread and butter. Finally, Toy Story 3 has a hard time matching the gravitas in films like The Social Network, Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone, etc. How much do grownups really care about toys anymore?
7. 127 Hours
For it – Danny Boyle’s exuberance is unique, especially this year. The beauty of that film, the compelling face of James Franco throughout, and the ultimate life-affirming ending all make this one of the most emotionally rich experiences in film at all, but in this year’s Oscar race specifically. It stands out because of the way it looks and because of the way it makes us feel.
Against it – people might be too afraid to watch it because of “the scene.” It is all on Franco. If you don’t buy him in the part, the film will be hard to connect.
8. The Kids Are All Right
For it – a revolutionary film about diverse American families. Director Lisa Cholodenko provides us with richly drawn, complex, unique female characters, lesbians in fact who actually seem like normal people! Imagine that. It brings up many points for discussion about what makes a family, and whether or not we do accept gay families the way we should. It isn’t a preachy film in the least. It is driven by the characters, their relationships and their own struggles. It is a great movie. Pure and simple. Annette Bening gives what is perhaps her best performance — a funny, smart, imperfect protagonist who has something worth fighting for.
Against it – If another film comes along that is stronger, this one feels like its place could be shaken a little. Other than that, it doesn’t seem to have much against it.
9. Winter’s Bone
For it – early rave reviews have kept this film alive since the early part of the year. What a strange world we’re brought into here. Debra Granik’s vision of the stark reality of this meth-drenched community feels starkly real. But it isn’t just this world that feels authentic – this, due to the truly great performances by Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, but the emotional truths presented here are hard to deny. Jennifer Lawrence provides a formidable young female hero who not only saves her family’s home but manages to resist the temptation to surrender to the poisons of the place. Winter’s Bone is the kind of film that embeds itself and doesn’t leave your thoughts for a long time afterward. Both The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone offer the Oscar race with a little diversity, as they are both directed and co-written by women.
Against it: Another film might take its place. Men rule the Oscar race. That’s just how it is, despite last year.
10. The Town or The Fighter (I can’t choose)
Both Ben Affleck’s The Town and David O’Russell’s The Fighter are going to duke it out for the people’s spot — ensemble casts, working class — The Town is incredibly popular “on the street,” and with all of those actors it stands a good chance of a SAG ensemble nod. The Fighter is getting raves from those who have seen it but has not yet been critic/audience tested. We’ll have to watch and see how it does. Can it get close to The Town’s near-$100 million take? Perhaps both films will make it in.
1. David Fincher, The Social Network
2. Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
3. Christopher Nolan, Inception
4. Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
5. Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
1. Natalie Portman, Black Swan
2. Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
3. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
4. Lesley Manville, Another Year
5. Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
If only: Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
1. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
2. James Franco, 127 Hours
3. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
4. Robert Duvall, Get Low
5. Javier Bardem, Biutiful
If only: Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
1. Melissa Leo, The Fighter
2. Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
3. Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
4. Sissy Spacek, Get Low
5. Amy Adams, The Fighter
If only: Ruth Sheen, Another Year
1. Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech
2. Christian Bale, The Fighter
3. Sean Penn, Fair Game
4. Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
5. John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone (wild card pick but what the hell)
If only: Justin Timberlake, The Social Network
1. Black Swan
2. The King’s Speech
4. Another Year
5. The Kids Are All Right
If only: Blue Valentine
1. The Social Network
2. 127 Hours
3. Toy Story 3
4. Winter’s Bone
5. True Grit
If only: Fair Game
But just remember, nobody knows anything for sure right now. You do know some things. You know that there are a couple of movies that have done well with critics and with audiences. But even still, your guess is as good, if not better, than mine. Any name could be thrust into the race now and come out a winner. We just don’t know. We throw it all on the wall to see what sticks.