It is always a good thing when the best writers are attracted to, or forced to write about, the Oscar race. It automatically elevates the material. When the New York Times’ David Carr tripped into the Oscar race it changed everything. For a minute. But then it was back to business as usual – who can you trust, is anyone level-headed? Well, now Mark Harris is on the beat and, as most legit journos do when thrust into our clusterfuck, he takes a bit of a bemused tone to it all. Perhaps, to the outside world, our crowded little conclave of Oscar watching does sound weird and confusing, with premature calls being hurled right and left — but the trick to writing about the Oscars is to write about them as if you care about them because otherwise no one is going to want to read what you write. I think Harris walks a healthy line between bemusement (Manohla Dargis, for instance, who gives no attention to the race unless pressured to do so) and genuine interest; I happen to know he does have a real interest in the race and that is, perhaps, what makes him an engaging read.
Why am I writing about the 2012 Academy Awards race a full 181 days before the ceremony? If you have to ask, it means you’ve missed the news that when it comes to the Oscars, obsessive overkill is part of the fun. Also, because this post-Labor Day moment is the last opportunity to weigh in before things get complicated, and because in the minds of the people and companies that are spending money on it, the race has not only begun, it has already descended into tragicomedy. (Exhibit A: The mailed invitation that some Academy members have already received to attend a screening and mull the question of whether this year’s pantheon of Best Picture nominees should include Transformers: Dark of the Moon.)
Over the next six months, I will try to sort through the combination of need, ambition, competitiveness, insecurity, ego-stroking, undermining, strategizing, and — not to get inappropriately high-minded — genuine movie love that fuels an Oscar season. And this is going to be a good one, because it includes the desperately welcome element of surprise. To recap: Two years ago, the Academy decided to expand its Best Picture roster from five films to 10, largely as an act of populist atonement for failing to nominate The Dark Knight. This had two tangible results: a lowering of the bar (there is literally no way to undo the phrase “Best Picture nominee The Blind Side” from now until the end of recorded time) and a demolition of suspense. In last year’s run-up to the nominations, the measly list of contenders felt so predetermined that bloggers and handicappers were, for months, reduced to trying to drum up some excitement about whether The Town was going to get a nomination. (It didn’t, and outrage failed to resound throughout the land.)
Not for nothing but The Town remains one of the best movies of last year. It is one of the few I can watch over and over again.
At any rate, this week he’s looking at why Contagion isn’t being thought of as more of a Best Picture contender. I think it might have been but it’s only good, not great, and therein lies its problem. Harris goes on to clarify the only acting contenders he believes are in the race — he is mostly in line with our line of thinking in terms of the only sure bets right now (and even they aren’t totally sure) would be The Help and Midnight in Paris. I’m going to add The Descendants to that list. He has added Tree of Life. I am not so sure the Malick film will result in a nomination – but what it has going most for it is that it will be a #1 movie if it’s anything. That is its biggest blessing — conversely, Harry Potter isn’t a #1 movie for adults and that is its biggest problem.
Harris lists Brad Pitt for Tree of Life, Viola Davis for The Help and Christopher Plummer for Beginners as the only solid contenders right now. Again, I have to add George Clooney for The Descendants.
One has to try hard to be conservative about this – otherwise there is no logical discernment. I think Harris does this very very well. It’s like being good at refusing that unhealthy dessert: it’s so easy to dive right in, so much harder to say “no thank you.”