Yesterday, Kris Tapley lamented on Twitter, “Most over-covered, over-considered Oscar season ever. Yes, I’m aware of the irony.” Is it really the case, though, or is there just more of it online? It seems to me that every year there is consideration and over-consideration and hemming and hawing and denying the obvious. Maybe he means there are just more people doing it, or maybe he means the strange kind of obsession on the frontrunner this year — as in, The Social Network keeps winning an unprecedented amount of early awards yet no one is ready to believe the Academy will vote for “that kind of movie.” The King’s Speech is more their kind of movie, but can an animated film win? What about The Fighter? And on and on it goes. I don’t see it as any different from any year except a Slumdog Millionaire kind of year where there is no argument, no debate – there is simply a clear winner for Best Picture and so the debate turns to the other categories. In the Oscar race, though, it’s much more fun to have suspense than to have no suspense, especially with the big prize.¬† It was much more miserable knowing than not knowing. This is the kind of year that keeps my interest high in the race.
There was a moment back in 2004 or 2005 when Oscar coverage really did explode. But it only did in so much as the market could bear. Print Oscar stuff didn’t work so well, as it turned out. There wasn’t a lot of interest in the Oscar race “out there.” But “in here” interest is unending. To me, a tired old saloon lady to it all, not a lot has changed. There is more speculation, more chatter, but it is mostly as it’s always been: making things up because there isn’t a lot to know or say, imagining things that simply aren’t there, hoping for things that aren’t going to happen, and injecting one’s taste into what boils down to a majority vote. In other words, it doesn’t matter what, as Dave Karger calls him, “Joe the Sound Guy” thinks. It’s what Joe the Sound Guy, Rachel the Editor, Bob the FX Guy, Carl the Actor, Felix The Director and all of their friends think. A majority vote is a consensus – a highest, or lowest, common denominator.
But what of the preferential ballot? It should only make a difference if the race is close. Early on I said that this year’s race was not The Social Network vs. The King’s Speech. It was The Social Network and everything else. There is the one movie and then it’s challengers. Back then, it hadn’t yet won everything in sight; I was going on the merit of the film alone, something my colleagues weren’t yet ready to do. Why did I take to the movie the way some others didn’t? Part of it was the kinds of reviews I was seeing. It wasn’t just a rave from Scott Foundas, but a rave from Devin Faraci, and then a rave from the New York Times, the LA Times, and before you knew it, a stack of 100s piling up at Metacritic from people who usually differ in their opinions on films. Most importantly, there was really only ONE critic who hated the movie. Even more importantly, it ended up the highest scored film on Metacritic, something that is rare for a mainstream Hollywood film to do. Usually it’s an obscure foreign film or an animated film. Then, when it topped (second, after Carlos, which isn’t in play) Film Comment and Indiewire’s polls that drove the point home further. I was following what random Tweeters were saying after seeing it and 98% of them were raving about it. Yes, since they’re on Twitter they’re hooked into social networking already so it might hit home for them. But what my colleagues seemed to be missing about the film was that it wasn’t the social networking aspect of it that was driving the praise: it was the story.
The power of the story. Full stop. It is a great story brilliantly told. The director does not seek to get in front of the story but to tell it well. It is helped by a brilliant lead performance. The great story is what drove Slumdog Millionaire to its juggernaut success. If we movie lovers, critics, and audiences know one thing it’s how to recognize a great story when we see one. How do we know? We just do. We are taken somewhere unexpected. We are entertained, moved, inspired, and with this, occasionally angry. It’s the story, it’s the story, it’s the story.
So, what was the problem? What continues to be the problem? Academy members aren’t critics, problem number 1. It’s about Facebook and Academy members are Luddites, problem number 2. We don’t like any of the characters, problem number 3.
Taking away all of those problems would be Tom Hooper’s sweetly moving film about the stammering George VI, with Colin Firth in a career-best performance, never overdoing it, but finding the humanity in a man who is essentially a rich and entitled King. He, along with the supporting cast, and Hooper manage to make us feel something for the King when the truth is, who would ever feel sorry for a King? “Never feel sorry for a man who owns a plane,” David Mamet’s line from The Edge. We feel sorry for the world’s youngest billionaire, inexplicably, and yes, we feel sorry for the King of England.
The other films that are sure to get number ones, or high votes would have to be The Fighter, True Grit, Inception and Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3 might turn out to be the one film everyone who hates all of the other movies can rally behind. It comes without much baggage and would be the kind of My Fair Lady, easy street pick that they’ve been known for in their past. Since we have ten Best Picture nominees there is a greater chance of Pic and Director splitting the vote – but that only happens when two films, or even three films, are equally strong heading into the race. Until we hear from the guilds we still don’t know what films are the ones that will hit all markers, as all of the winners since Crash have done.
What are the markers? There are usually two, sometimes three, movies that are nominated for everything: PGA, DGA, SAG, Art Directors, Editors, Costume (although that one is iffy), Cinematographers, Sound, Sound Editing (it helps), WGA, etc. You can chart the last few winners and you’ll see that they do show up everywhere until at last they win the Oscar for Best Picture because they’ve already shown broad support. If it’s true that The Social Network is too social networky, too modern society-y, too alienating, any dissent will likely show up in this next phase, the guild noms. So far, we aren’t seeing any sign of it slowing down. But it’s early yet. We’ve a long road ahead.
In the Oscar race, as with all things, we are only limited by our own lack of imagination. This week, Oscar voters will begin to jot down their favorites of the year. Each of the 15 branches will choose their picks in the various categories; everyone will choose Best Picture. We’re back to the piles of ten. The films that will get in will be the ones people choose as number 1, number 2, and number 3. This ensures that only the favorites will be represented. First, all collected ballots, 5,000 or so, will be divided into piles of number one choices.
Next, as I think I understand it. they take the piles with least amount of number ones, remove the top choice and redistribute into the various other piles. And so on until we are left with ten big ass piles. It isn’t so hard, under such circumstances, to imagine how it will go, for at least seven titles. There could be some mysterious happenings we back here in the cheap seats just aren’t seeing. Like, will Black Swan not be as popular as we think it will. Like, will another movie we’re all overlooking slip in undetected, the notorious “Blind Side slot.”
But we should never lose sight of the reason we are here at all, not to “get the Oscar race right,” because who cares, right? But to ruminate on what makes a good performance great; what makes a good movie great and why we care at all about this. We care because what is celebrated today opens doors for what will be celebrated tomorrow. A film that only made $12 million at the box office but was not only a great film on its own, not only the first winner ever directed by a woman, but the best and most revealing film about our involvement in the Iraq war. If you miss that part about last year’s win, you miss everything.
Our appreciation of films are reflected by the times we live in. The Kids Are All Right is a howl for the greater conflict of our government, and our religious fanatics, to prevent gay couples from marrying. People say if you took out the gay part of it you wouldn’t have a movie. Exactly. If you took Iraq out of it you wouldn’t have The Hurt Locker. Why tell a story at all if you’re not telling a story? The Kids Are All Right IS about a family with gay parents working things out in a culture that still bows to the male as the head of the household. It bucks tradition while at the same time, holds on tight to the tradition of “family.”
If you took out Crystal Meth from Winter’s Bone you wouldn’t have that story. Why? Because not only is meth the driving force of evil in Debra Granik’s film, it’s the driving force of evil to way too many poorer regions of our country. The rich get richer and the poor get high. But for the one girl who has the stones to stand up to it all. THAT is a good story.
If you took out bank robbing you wouldn’t have The Town’s main through line. And yes, you wouldn’t because what would be the point of telling that story? Affleck’s film not only tells the story of a guy who wants out of that kind of life, but it shifts focus onto the corporate criminals who just robbed our own country blind. Robbing the crooks who stole from us? The real Robin Hood. That is what The Town is about, and that is why it resonated when it first came out, and why it continues to resonate.
Take out the stammering part of the King’s Speech and you don’t have a movie. Well, yeah, you don’t. Because what would be the point of telling yet another story about a British royal and their angst, their duty, the pointlessness of their inevitable extinction? It needed to be told because it’s worth showing how difficult it was for George VI just to speak to his people, and in so doing, it gives some relief to those who suffer from disabilities that aren’t socially acceptable. Any chance to break down the preconceptions about disabilities the better.
Take away the dreams and you don’t have Inception, take away the murder of Mattie’s father and you don’t have True Grit‚Ä¶These are stories that have a reason to be told at all. Any great film must begin with a great story. If you are really lucky, that great story gets told by a great director, and is finally delivered by adept actors. When you’re really lucky you also have cinematographers working at the top of their game and film composers who enhance the story, take you deeper, and illuminate its nuances.
Here’s to them, the great storytellers. They make this job easy. And they are the best reason, the only reason, to keep watching Oscar.