Every year, hope springs eternal until the awards actually start being handed out. The disappointment of not seeing your favorite film remembered and awarded is probably the worst part of the year. And of course, the flipside, when you see a movie you loved honored what could be better. Last year when The Social Network swept the National Board of Review it was not only like Christmas morning for me but it was like that one Christmas where you got the really great Barbie doll camping kit? You know, the one on TV like all the rich people have? You know, the thing that makes you forget the miserable reality of your day to day life?
Yes, it was a beautiful moment. And we awards watchers, crazy though we may be, ruining the film industry though we may be (the fanboys are ruining it MORE!) cling to every win like a Christmas treasure. For me NOW, every Christmas is staring at my computer screen, bleary-eyed, half-frantic, half-awake as I wait for another piece of the awards puzzle to drop. Though we bought our Christmas tree over the weekend, my daughter and I had a naked tree for the last few days until I couldn’t stand it anymore and had one of those single parent moments where I drove to the Walgreens at 10pm and plunked down my debit card for a few boxes of cheap Christmas lights, pushing my unwashed hair out of face and trying to find some Christmas cheer. And now, those lights, so optimistic, the Christmas tree still not totally dried out yet — indeed, there is hope.
So Oscar bloggers are a boil on the ass of the film community. I’m sure they are. But from where I sit, through the darkness and a blinking glittering tree, they are helping to keep great movies alive.
The Oscar race can’t really manufacture buzz out of thin air; it builds buzz that’s already there. Bob Dylan wrote, “you just want to be on the side that’s winning.” And, in truth, human beings seem not to be able to help themselves. We like losers who win. Perhaps this is why Jeff Wells at Hollywood-Elsewhere is always bringing up the fact that the Oakland A’s don’t win anything big at the end of the end of Moneyball. And if they had, maybe the movie would have made more money and maybe now the critics would be embracing it. Maybe the critics would have embraced Drive if it had been more about a cut-and-dried hero and not this grey area. Maybe it would have made more money if Ryan Gosling were a hero. And maybe then it would be winning awards. There is no forcing buzz. It is either there or it isn’t.
If you’re knee deep in the swamp of the Oscar race you know what real buzz is. And it usually ain’t what comes out of advocating. And still yet we advocate. We hope that our huffing and puffing will come to something. We hope that voters will listen to us and reward that movie that so deserves it. We hope.
The movies that seem to have the most buzz right now are, strangely enough, The Artist and Hugo. Both are nostalgic looks at America’s cinematic past. While The Artist was made by a Frenchman about America, Hugo was made by an American about a Frenchman. At least I think he’s French. Holding on still with a few awards here and there, Alexander Payne’s deeply moving and unforgettable film about our past and protecting our future, The Descendants. Bennett Miller’s bittersweet Moneyball, arguably among the best films I saw this year. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, though it really needs some kind of boost from the critics, The Help — just out on DVD — might become the only film to hit over $100 million in the Oscar race. Women? BLACK women? $100 mil? Steven Spielberg’s tearjerker War Horse, a film aimed at families, like so many of them this year, but undeniably moving. Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, though it might not rock the socks off Academy members it was one of the year’s more pleasurable moments. And Harry Potter, still in play – partly because it is the year’s highest grossing film. Partly because it has among the best reviews of any film this year, and finally and most importantly, because of the enormous, meteoric impact it’s had on whole generations for many years now. How does the Academy deny that film a Best Picture nomination?
The one movie I’ve seen and can’t talk about is so far on the other end of the spectrum from not just The Artist but every other movie we’ve seen this year. If you’ve noticed, there are no sex scenes in any of the major Oscar contenders. Not a one. The only films that go there are there Steve McQueen’s Shame, and it was slapped with an NC-17 rating, and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. You can see the strange puritanical impulses rearing their ugly head both in our Presidential race and now in the Oscar race. No one wants to go there.
Me? I’m never in that sentimental of a mood, especially during the holidays. I prefer films that stare down our less desirable truths but pull them apart too – the bloody ruins of who we really are, not whom we wish we were. The Film That Shall Not Be Named does that. Paddy Consadine’s brilliant Tyrannosar does that. Oren Moverman’s horrifying but exceptional Rampart does that. JC Chandor’s Margin Call does that. Steve McQueen’s Shame does that. Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar does that. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion does it as well. And lastly, David Cronenberg dives deep into our sexuality and our subconscious with A Dangerous Method.
It would be easy to take these two schools of thought — darkness and light — good and evil — heroes and anti-heroes and make a judgment as to which our voters will lean this year. In tougher times do we prefer the bonbons? In better times are we more prepared to dwell in the dark pools of our collective psyches? We don’t yet know the answer.
What we know is this and only this: so far, the Oscar race is The Artist’s to lose. It would be ironic if the critics’ darling turned out also to be the Best Picture winner this year, something not afforded to last year’s. Made for under $20 million, The Artist has the easy arithmetic The King’s Speech had — it doesn’t have to make a lot to do well. This is the model Hollywood filmmakers seem to like best. The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar — good storytelling, bare bones filmmaking, low cost, high profit. As production costs soar to unimaginable heights, the only kinds of films that get made are those that can earn back such a giant budget.
But when the talk turns to box office it starts to depress me. Shouldn’t movies be about something more important? Only the producers should worry about how much money a movie is going to make – the critics shouldn’t. As we head into the next week we’ll be learning what the Los Angeles Film Critics thought — what the Broadcast film critics, Hollywood Foreign Press, American Film Institute all thought. It’s roughly a month or so until the Oscar nominations. Right now is the fertile period of Oscar campaigning. It really all comes down to the next month.
And so it will be once again, my pretty Christmas tree keeping me company late into the night and into the dark early morning as I hover once again over the computer and wait for the awards to drop. In a year that’s so wide open it’s hard to know what will, if anything, dominate. We have our winner unless something else surprises from behind.
Sidenote: I wrote the above before reading Mark Harris’ post that criticizes The Artist and Hugo for being overly sentimental and not like movies of the 1980s (I would say of the 1970s). It’s a good piece and well worth the read — he’s on to something but I think he unfairly drags Scorsese’s film, a masterpiece in my mind, into the mix; after all, if you’re going to start calling Hugo “faux nostalgic” you might as well throw in Charles Dickens and Frank Capra. Scorsese is onto something much deeper, I think, than many of the films go anywhere near this year. It is, in its own way, every bit as dark as anything Scorsese has made. You have to look a little deeper, though. And I am not seeing many people doing that. However, I did like this one thing Harris wrote:
And a major surprise is something I’m rooting for, because it still feels too soon for the Oscar commentariat, a handful of critics, and the considerable forces of movie publicity to have pre-determined the final lineup. But we’re running perilously low on time for anything unexpected. By a week from Thursday, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the American Film Institute and the Golden Globes will all have announced their winners and nominees. And any movie or performance that hasn’t at least gotten a mention by then is going to have an almost impossibly difficult time reaching the radar of Oscar voters.
That’s why it’s so frustrating to not be able to talk about a certain movie. Right now is the time for the buzz to build. But it’s The Artist’s to lose at this point because no one is willing to find or grapple with anything more challenging than something safe. This was the same way people felt during the Slumdog Millionaire year too – it was as thought an inevitability had settled in and that was that. The Artist will have to win the DGA, the PGA and get somewhere near the SAG to finish this.
PGA will probably go for it. DGA, most certainly. The only possible challengers there would be, to my mind, David Fincher, Bennett Miller and Alexander Payne. The WGA should go Moneyball’s way — but it could go to Hugo. Gonna guess The Artist won’t be eligible for a WGA. The SAG — well, that could go to The Help. I’d be surprised, actually, if it didn’t.
The awards, they could be split up all over the place.