Thursday, September 24, 2009

Oscar Update: Season Preview

Am I the only one who is feeling fairly apathetic about the fall slate of movies this year? There are still quite a few films I really want to see – Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, Lee Daniel’s Precious, James Cameron’s Avatar, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, Lone Sherfig’s An Education, Rob Marshall’s Nine, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare At Goats, Aaron Schneider’s Get Low, Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, Wes Anderson, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Pernassus foremost among them. And yet, even with these films, I am not feeling the same level of anticipation as I have in years past. I am sure that some of these films will be great, and probably some other ones not listed here I will also love, but this year for the first time in a long time, I am not feeling the same “gotta see it” buzz that I normally do at this time of year.

I am an Oscar fan, always have been, and always will be, and I make no apologies for it. To some, I know that the Oscars are shallow and superficial, and are little more than a popularity competition. Of course they are right, but I look at the Oscars from a slightly different perspective. I do think it is valuable to have a conversation once a year about what the best films of the last 12 months were. The Oscars – whether they get it right or wrong (and let’s face facts, they get it wrong more often than not) – sets the conversation in motion. Last year, with their weakest slate of nominees in recent memory, the Academy was still able to get the conversation rolling. People were angry that popular, critically acclaimed films like The Dark Knight and Wall-E were left out of the running, not to mention smaller films The Wrestler (and for me, Synecdoche, New York). But did it stifle the conversation? No, it just made things more impassioned.

Sometimes this passion becomes misdirected. Last year, everyone loved Slumdog Millionaire until they realized that everyone else also loved Slumdog Millionaire, then it became a favorite whipping boy. The year before, the same thing happened with Juno. What people never seem to realize is that the Academy represents a cross section of voters, meaning that a diverse group of films usually gets in (I’ll ignore last year, because they went straight down the middle that year). In 2007 for example, the Academy nominated a teen oriented comedy (Juno), a respected, epic costume drama (Atonement), a mainstream, intelligent thriller (Michael Clayton), and not one, but two dark critical hits (No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood). That people started complaining that films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Zodiac did not get nominated shows that they don’t really understand how the system works. Don’t you think that voters who liked those films probably threw their weight behind No Country and Blood? Would someone who loves comedies pick either of those films over Juno? What about older viewers who like costume dramas, are they going with dark films, or Atonement? And for fans of mainstream filmmaking, does it get any better than Michael Clayton?

You have to understand that the Academy cannot possibly nominate ALL of your own personal favorites, because individual voters only have so many power over these things. The ranking system of voting ensures that a number of different films, from different genres, loved by different segments of the Academy are going to get in. If Jesse James or Zodiac had have gotten in, it would not have been Juno that got kicked out – but No Country or Blood. The better argument to make would therefore be that Juno did not deserve to be nominated over Superbad, Knocked Up or whatever comedy that year you happened to prefer. That Eastern Promises or Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead should have gotten Michael Clayton’s slot, or that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or Away from Her should have gotten Atonement’s slot. These are the films that are really “competing” for votes against each other.

A complex series of factors goes into what voters vote for every year at the Oscars. Some voters will vote for their favorites, whether or not they have any hope of being nominated. I respect these people, but I suspect they are in the minority. The rest of the voters look at factors like box office performance, critical reception and precursor awards to decide who to vote for. Does this mean they vote for films they do not love? Not at all. But it does mean that if they are trying to decide between say There Will Be Blood and The Assassination of Jesse James, because Blood has more box office, better overall reviews and a lot more precursor awards than Jesse James, that they may easily decide to throw their support to it, rather than Jesse James and risk throwing their vote away. These are the types of things you hire Oscar consultants to do. There job for the studio is to convince voters to 1) See the movie and 2) That voting for the movie will not be wasting their vote. They cannot make the movie any better or worse, and they cannot make people like the movie, but they can tilt the scales a little bit.

This year, the added wrinkle in the Oscar race is that instead of the normal five nominees for Best Picture, there will be 10. There is precedent for this – throughout the 1930s and early 1940s they often nominated 10 films instead of 5. The announcement had been met with a very mixed reaction so far, but you can place me firmly in the positive camp. While the move will certainly allow more spots for the studios “prestige” Oscar fare to get in, it may also allow some stranger, more idiosyncratic choices to sneak in as well. So while a snub the magnitude of Dreamgirls will probably not happen in the new era of 10 nominees, and at least a few of those extra slots will go to more dreary films like Frost/Nixon or The Reader (but hell, they both got in with just 5 slots!), it also means that films that normally had no chance could sneak in.

Inglorious Basterds is a film that would probably not have much of a hope to crack the top 5, but with 10 slots, it looks pretty good. None of Pixar’s movies have ever been able to get a best picture nomination, but this year, Up looks like a damn near lock. Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed The Hurt Locker is the type of small film that the Academy routinely overlooks, but with additional spots it could get in. Foreign masters, like Michael Haneke and his brilliant The White Ribbon, could find themselves in play. Hell, the chance to nominate a documentary for the best picture Oscar – which just a year ago seemed like a pipe dream – could actually come true, depending on the reaction of the Academy to Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, or the acclaimed movie The Cove. And these are just the obvious ones that were always on the cusp of cracking the top five, but never seemed to get in. What of even stranger choices? Hell, a love it or hate it film like Antichrist, needing much less support now than ever, could conceivably break in (okay, that is still probably a pipe dream, but you never know until we actually see how things play out).

The movie to go to 10 films seems like a direct reaction to the outcry that met last year’s nominees. No matter what criteria you used last year, the two most critically acclaimed films were The Dark Knight and Wall-E, and both were genuine audience hits as well. But neither film got nominated, with the older, stodgier Academy crowd going for prestige dramas The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, Frost/Nixon and The Reader, to go along with another genuine audience hit Slumdog Millionaire. Ratings for the Oscars have continually decreased year over year this decade, with the highest rating being when there is a genuine audience hit in play (the year The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King took home best picture was the highest rated telecast since the year Titanic won). Of course, the Academy brass cannot force its members to nominate more popular films, but by increasing the field to 10, surely a few of them will sneak in.

While I am firmly in favor of the ten nominee slate, I do hold the right to change my mind once the nominees do come in. If all the Academy uses those extra five slots are more prestige dramas from major studios, then the experiment will be a failure. I like to be optimistic and think that with more slots, they are going to more adventuresome, but if they aren’t, then perhaps they should go back to five nominees. But we won’t know until we do know. And the people rallying against the Academy for messing with tradition in this way are nuts. The Oscars, like everything else, needs to evolve and change to stay relevant. In the past, they have done this by adding extra categories. So what is wrong with expanding the Best Picture list to 10? I would object if they did the same thing with any other category, but in a world where every critic makes up a Top 10 list every year, then having ten nominees for the top prize just makes logical sense.

Some have already suggested that at least seven of the ten best picture slots have been decided. They point to Precious, An Education, Up in the Air, Invictus, Nine, Up and The Lovely Bones as the locks. But that’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it. No one has seen Invictus, Nine or The Lovely Bones yet, so no matter what the pedigree is, there is a chance that any of the films could completely bomb out, right? And just because Precious, An Education and Up in the Air were big hits with audiences at Toronto, it does not mean that that success will necessarily transform into a Best Picture Nomination. But even if they are right, that still leaves three spots open. It’s those three spots that I look forward to seeing what happens. We really do have to wait until these films hit theaters, and regular movie goers and critics get a chance to fully digest the films before we know anything for sure.

We are just at the beginning of the season so far, and right now, there are still lots of films jockeying for position and for our attention. There are still too many unknown quantities to call this race over before it even begins. So while I am still not quite feeling the Oscar fever yet, I think that once the September doldrums give way to October, November and December – where there is a seemingly potential Oscar movie or two released every single week – I will become excited again. Let the games begin!

Note: This is going to be a weekly column from now until the Oscars are given out in February. Some weeks will be longer, some shorter. Some will focus on one category, while others will focus on a variety of issues. In the coming weeks, I hope to have Oscar columns on the Foreign Language Race – which is now shaping up quickly as around half of the countries (including Canada!) have already announced their submissions, and we should have the final list sometime in October. As well, I will do columns on the documentary shortlist and animated shortlist when they are announced (sometime in October and November). But mainly, I will focus on the main categories. Last week, I did a complete chart of how I see the Oscar race shaping up, and I will continue to post those, probably about every two weeks or so, but I will not have commentary on them. That is what these columns are for.

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