Weighing in on the Academy Awards Nominees

I am generally not a fan of the Academy Awards.  I rarely stay up late enough to watch them all.  I’ll confess that right up front.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the “Oscars,” is essentially a bunch of movie-makers voting for themselves and their friends.   Not that they are not extremely talented film-makers.  But all too often, as they might themselves acknowledge, the results end up not as “bests” but as “most effective (read ‘expensive’) ad campaigns.”   And the award ceremony itself ends up as an over-blown, self-congratulatory endurance contest.

In principal, the Golden Globe Awards tend to be more objectively trust-worthy in my mind, sponsored as they are by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.  That is until this year, when they tried to outdo the Academy at their own Ceremony game, and featured a thoroughly distasteful Ricky Gervais as the host show-off. The Globes as usual served as a good predictor of the Academy’s nominations, but there are some surprisingly significant variations.   As fun as they both were, I can’t imagine Red or The Tourist on any “Best” list, next to the very appealing The Kids Are All Right.  Nor can I imagine why you would nominate Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo for their roles in the latter while ignoring the equally wonderful Julianne Moore.   At least the Globes found a way, however obscure, to mention The Company Men, for most promising “new” director or something like that.  The Academy ignored it altogether, and indeed many reviewers found it overbearing and unsympathetic, ignoring its truths and fine ensemble performances, most notably Chris Cooper’s.  Okay, I got that off my chest; see my earlier blog on The Company Men.

For some incomprehensible reason, the Globes no longer have an award category for documentaries.  And there’s only one omission from the Oscar list this year glaring enough to make me mad:  Whatever happened to Waiting for Superman, and why is it not up there at the top of the best documentary category?  What am I missing?  I’m not persuaded that its omission is free of political persuasion.  Did the AFT threaten to boycott or something?  At least it’s due out on DVD and Blu Ray in two weeks.  I will take another look at it, and there will no doubt be further discussion in these pages.  No matter what its politics, and no matter who gets blamed or glorified in the film, its basic claim that the American schools system is badly in need of repair is not an arguable fact.  That we should shut our eyes to that truth on any grounds that the film distorts or misjudges is to grossly disserve American kids and the future viability of our democracy.  …  Sorry.  ’nuff for now.

But every now and then, the Academy gets it right.   There was a really good list to choose from this time around, despite the much longer list of 2010 films that were just plain bad  (Meaning what on earth does this have to do with me and the world as I know it?), no matter how commercially successful.  This year, it really does look like quality trumped ad campaigns, even though the latter did pay off as always.  I understand that when Fox Searchlight reluctantly agreed to distribute Darren Aronovsky’s Black Swan, only after they guessed it might be a hit, they actually threw $13 million into advertising and distribution of a movie that only cost $17 million.  I’m actually surprised it couldn’t buy supporting role nominations for the fully deserving Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel.

It’s a pretty damn good list of nominations this year!   The best surprises for me were the well-deserved nominations for Winter’s Bone in several different categories, including best actress, best supporting actor, best screenwriting, and best picture.  I don’t think it stands a chance of winning anything against “the big boys,” but it certainly deserves the attention it will now get as a result of the nominations.   And in the end, ignoring the future earnings potential and reputation boost for those involved, I could care less who or what “wins.”  At heart, it’s a terrific, painfully honest little story of human dignity and determination.   It’s a “little guy vs. the mob” movie, a kind of On the Waterfront transposed to the Ozarks, with little Jennifer Lawrence in the Brando role.  Rent it!

The other happy surprise is that someone finally noticed the outstanding debut performance of Hailee Steinfield in True Grit.  She was only nominally listed in the film credits after the three “stars,” Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.  All three are fine actors, although this may not be anywhere near their best work, nor would I consider it in the best picture category, much as I liked it.  Brolin has minimal screen time as a dramatically unsatisfying villain, while at the same time, young Hailee is rarely off-screen, and should have been considered for best actress rather than supporting actress.  She has one of the great cinema lines of the year:  “I don’t drink coffee.  Don’t be ridiculous.  I’m only 14.” (… or something like that.)   Ah well.  I’m just glad she’s there, anyway.

I’m always delighted to see Javier Bardem nominated for a best actor; he’s an uncannily powerful screen presence.  But in fact there is almost no one in the major categories that I would not also want to consider.  My personal favorite is Colin Firth and what he calls “our little film, The King’s Speech,” however historically skewered it may be.   But whoever actually wins, they all deserve our watching, and Hollywood deserves to know that we are eager for more films sans car chases, robots, deafening sound tracks, blood and big guns.   And we’re willing to pay at the box office to get them.  Hello out there? We want characters with some depth that we can relate to!  We want stories!

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3 Responses to Weighing in on the Academy Awards Nominees

  1. Gregory Cox says:

    Well said. I agree with your choices and mentions. The academy is always problematic, if not down right incompetent.

  2. Tim Hulsey says:

    Oscar behaved wisely in snubbing WAITING FOR SUPERMAN. The director, Davis Guggenheim, already has his statuette for AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH — and there may even be a minor backlash against that earlier work now that Americans have learned to what extent Al Gore played fast and loose with his facts. WAITING also may not have been doctrinaire enough for the left-wing producers who currently dominate the field of screen documentaries. More to the point, though, the Best Documentary category exhibits a bias toward narrative, and from a narrative standpoint, WAITING is a terrible movie — scattershot, unfocused, drifting, lacking any sense of progress or closure. The climax of the film is lifted from THE LOTTERY, a superior narrative documentary released earlier in 2010.

  3. Elizabeth Fuller says:

    Bill — Please watch “The Kids Are All Right” again, and focus on those moments — one of them much longer than a moment — when Annette Benning has no lines. She, like Colin Firth, says it all, sans dialogue.

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