Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: Best Picture and Best Director

For most of the Oscars' history, the categories of Best Picture and Best Director were virtual redundancies, with the filmmaker of the former almost always being honored in the latter. Yet the Academy started spicing things around the turn of the century, and in the eight-year span from 1998 to 2005, four directors earned trophies for movies that failed to come away with the big prize.

The last four years, however, have signaled a return to the systematic overlap of the prior half-century. Will 2010 prove to be different? We can only hope.


Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

I normally save my analysis of Best Picture for last, but this year, there's little point, given the complete lack of suspense. Anyone picking against The King's Speech is grasping for an elusive justification and ignoring the simple truth. (For example, those desperate to pick an alternative might eagerly point out that The King's Speech takes considerable liberties with the facts, namely that the character played by Guy Pearce was actually a Nazi sympathizer. It's an entirely correct charge, and it's just as entirely meaningless. Indeed, you could levy that exact same complaint against The Social Network. This isn't an award for best documentary, folks.)

That simple truth is twofold. First, The King's Speech bears all the hallmarks of a classic Oscar winner (historical drama, British pedigree, triumphant ending, protagonist with physical disability, naked Gwyneth Paltrow – O.K., that last one only applies to Shakespeare in Love, but everything else is valid). Second, the movie won at the Producers' Guild, an association that uses the same (moronic) preferential voting system as the Academy and that just happens to be the single best predictor of Best Picture at the Oscars.

Defy those facts at your peril. I wish I could mount a serious argument in favor of The Social Network, but as ardent a supporter of that film as I am, it just doesn't have the Oscar juice. This race was over a long time ago.

With 10 nominees, let's break these into five tiers of two films apiece.

Tier 5: These aren't the droids you're looking for. I liked Winter's Bone just fine, but why critics singled it out as the standard-bearer of the 2010 indie scene is beyond me; it's an appropriately small-scale film that doesn't try to do too much, but its ultimate impact is correspondingly slight. 127 Hours is almost the opposite – a brash, sensory-heavy experience that can't recognize when to hit the brakes.

Tier 4: Decent movie. Can we go now? The Fighter is a suitably pleasant filmgoing experience that, outside of Christian Bale's extraordinary performance, takes no chances and breaks no new ground whatsoever. The Kids Are All Right is more cagey and ambitious, but it can't quite connect its themes of familial strife and sexual identity into a unifying thesis.

Tier 3: Solidly workmanlike and thoroughly enjoyable. The King's Speech may be as safe as The Fighter in terms of its traditional style and its exploration of underdog genre tropes, but it proceeds with such clarity and fluidity that it's impossible not to enjoy. True Grit similarly mines familiar territory, but the Coen Brothers' masterful dexterity elevates it to high art.

Tier 2: Prepare to get your world rocked. Black Swan, in its own maniacal way, provides the giddiest moviegoing experience of the year, as if you surrender yourself to its flights of phantasmagorical fancy, you'll be hypnotized with horror. Toy Story 3, meanwhile, revisits old friends with a strikingly new perspective, resulting in the most emotional moment at the movies this year. Either way, you're feeling something, and that's what great movies are about.

Tier 1: Wow. My two favorite films of the year, as I've been saying for some time, are Inception and The Social Network. Both are products of impeccable craftsmanship, but the similarities may end there. Inception is a daring, singular vision, a lavishly designed thrill ride down the rabbit hole of our own minds. The Social Network, in contrast, is a precise, surgical character study of innovative genius and a gripping examination of the twin desires for individual recognition and human connection. Both are magnificent cinematic achievements that will be remembered long beyond this year's Oscar ceremony.

So which is better? It's a bit unsavory to reduce the discussion of two monumental works of art to a question that is so vulgarly binary, but the award is for Best Picture, so such is life. The answer, I think, depends upon what you most value in movies. Do you favor intimate, dialogue-driven pictures that prod at society's eternal need for relationships in an increasingly isolated world? Or do you prefer excruciatingly detailed, boldly original set pieces that function both as thrilling escapism and as probing philosophical questions about the very nature of dreams?

Again, this is a false choice, as the proper answer is "both". But the question must be answered, and fantasy junkie that I am, I tend to favor the latter. Make no mistake, The Social Network is perfect. But Inception is transcendent. And that's why it's the best movie of 2010.

I'll unveil this at some point when I post my own top 10 list for 2010. My reason for waiting isn't that I'm intentionally teasing my readers (the nerve! the suspense!) but that I want to see as many movies as possible before finalizing my list. Granted, of all the releases in 2010, I watched 92 in theatres, plus another 34 on Netflix, but there are still many more I need to consume. A movie fanatic's work, it appears, is never done.


Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Joel & Ethan Coen – True Grit
David Fincher – The Social Network
Tom Hooper – The King's Speech
David O. Russell – The Fighter

Now we're talking. The curious thing about this year's Oscars is that, while the Best Picture award is virtually a foregone conclusion, the Best Director race remains thoroughly in debate. It's merely a two-party show, however, as the only real contenders are Tom Hooper for The King's Speech and David Fincher for The Social Network. The prevailing theory from some pundits is that The Social Network, being fucking awesome, has to win at least one major category, and given that Colin Firth is a Fenster-Sneckler-380 lock for Best Actor, Fincher is the Facebook crowd's best bet. Moreover, said pundits contend that Fincher is a known name amidst Academy circles, whereas Hooper is a relative amateur, meaning the latter hasn't yet paid his dues.

Unfortunately, I have major issues with that theory. First, Hooper won at the Directors' Guild, and no filmmaker who won that award has lost at the Oscars since Rob Marshall for Chicago in 2002. Second, I'm already pegging The Social Network to win a major award, namely Best Adapted Screenplay. And finally, Fincher isn't exactly Clint Eastwood – this is only his second nomination, and he's still just 48 years old, so voters will have plenty of opportunities to reward him in the future.

I hope I'm wrong, of course, as I do in so many categories at this year's Oscars. But too many arrows are pointing in Hooper's direction. And if I'm right, well, here's to what Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park.

Russell's nomination is a sham and merits no further discussion. Hooper's isn't much more deserved, as his workmanlike approach to The King's Speech is serviceable but hardly award-worthy. The Coens do their usual magnificent work in True Grit, and even if the result is strangely unmemorable, that shouldn't take away from the Brothers' poise and precision.

Now, outside of the completely badass Henley Regatta sequence, it's tempting to overlook Fincher's masterful command of The Social Network, given that the film plays host to Aaron Sorkin's superb screenplay and a bevy of flawless performances. But it's Fincher's movie, and he ensures that the pacing remains tight, the editing crisp, and the visuals sharp yet unobtrusive.

That said, I'm actually going to go against The Social Network and take Darren Aronofsky for his startlingly ambitious work in Black Swan. Part of it is just a matter of relative value-add; Fincher started his movie with a great script and a top-notch cast, whereas the premise of Aronofsky's picture is utterly preposterous and stars an actress who, until this film, had never truly wowed audiences. But the helmer of Requiem for a Dream dives into the absurdity of Black Swan with both a fanboy's relish and a maestro's discipline, transforming a potentially laughable horror flick into an unforgettable movie that is delectably nightmarish.

Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Christopher Nolan – Inception
Martin Scorsese – Shutter Island
Edgar Wright – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
David Yates – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Aronofsky's nomination is welcome; Nolan's snub is criminal. Scorsese abandons all sense of discipline and turns a nonsensical mess into a compelling psychological thriller. Wright brings boundless energy to the off-kilter universe of Scott Pilgrim, and the result is pure joy. Yates, in contrast, approaches the penultimate installment of a landmark cinematic franchise with patience and restraint, creating an exhilarating adaptation that stands quite well on its own.

(Note: I could write 3,000 words about the following clip and still have plenty left in reserve. Suffice it to say that it perfectly embodies everything that's great about Yates' adaptations – refusal to bind himself slavishly to the books, willingness to let music and visuals tell his story, and a deft, unassuming hand with his actors. It's magic.)

Joel & Ethan Coen – True Grit
Nash Edgerton – The Square
David Fincher – The Social Network
Luca Guadagnino – I Am Love
Roman Polanski – The Ghost Writer

A former stunt coordinator, Edgerton brings the same ruthless craftsmanship that the Coen Brothers brought to their debut 26 years ago in Blood Simple. Joel and Ethan, meanwhile, have hardly lost their touch, as True Grit shows. Guadagnino proves that Scorsese isn't the only director who never knows when to stop, converting potential schlock into serious art. Polanski, the great auteur, has rarely seemed to be enjoying himself more than in The Ghost Writer, right down to his devilish final shot.

Also deserving: Ben Affleck – The Town (for injecting energy into a stock crime picture); J. Blakeson – The Disappearance of Alice Creed (for that riveting silent opening sequence); Juan Jose Campanella – The Secret in Their Eyes (for that riveting single take at the soccer stadium); Anton Corbijn – The American (for proving that imagery can speak as loudly as dialogue); Giorgos Lanthimos – Dogtooth (for observing insanity with extreme detachment); Matt Reeves – Let Me In (for illustrating that scary movies aren't all about the "Boo!" moments).

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