Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: The Ghetto Categories

Cinema is a democratic medium, and the following three categories demonstrate the extraordinary diversity of the movies. Of course, while works in the Animated Feature, Foreign Language Film, and Documentary Feature categories accomplish their craft in decidedly different ways, they nevertheless conform with the standard filmmaking process – that is, they create moving pictures and then streamline them into a narrative. But these categories share another, more troubling similarity: They're all a farce.

I don't mean to denigrate the films that the Academy recognizes in these categories each year; as with most categories, the quality of the nominees tends to range from very good to mediocre. It's the very existence of the categories that vexes me. Rewarding particular types of movies specifically because they're made according to a certain method propagates a sort of ghetto culture, a suggestion that these pictures are somehow lesser in stature compared to "real" movies. And what's to stop the increased proliferation of such ruthless segregation? If we have a Best Animated Feature category, why not a Best Action Film, or Best Movie Based on a True Story, or Best Picture with At Least Two Black-and-White Dream Sequences?

Admittedly, I'm overstating things a bit. In recent years – and, not coincidentally, once the Academy expanded the field to 10 nominees – the Best Picture category has featured several animated contenders (though the omission of Wall-E in 2008 still rankles), and foreign-language films have garnered recognition in other categories with greater regularity over the past decade (as with quintuple-nominee Amour this year). And I suppose some acknowledgement of these achievements, even if it brands them as "other" movies, is preferable to ignoring them entirely. Still, I can't help but view these categories, at least in principle, as vulgar consolation prizes, complete with a note from the Academy that reads, "Thank you for submitting your minor work for our consideration, and please accept this token Oscar – now leave the room so the adults can finally talk."

Such is life. In the meantime, these categories are here, and unless the Manifesto's readership suddenly multiplies by several million, there's no indication that they're disappearing any time soon. As such, we soldier on with our predictions.


The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

This is a two-movie race, plain and simple, between Brave and Wreck-It Ralph. The argument for Brave is that it was marginally more popular with the public, as it raked in $237 million at the box office, while Wreck-It Ralph was forced to settle for a measly $185 million. That said, there isn't a pure correlation here between box-office supremacy and Oscar gold, as past winners Rango, Happy Feet, and Spirited Away can attest. The more relevant metric is critical appreciation, and while Wreck-It Ralph may not have been as beloved as prior victors such as Toy Story 3 and Ratatouille, it's still generally viewed as a triumph, whereas notices for Brave were warm but not ecstatic. The burly brawler holds off the spirited redhead.

Frankenweenie and Paranorman are strikingly similar films, as both focus on outcast youths who must suddenly become saviors of their endangered communities. They're also both disappointments, beginning with promise and flavorful characters before lapsing into dull, loud, generic action sequences. Of the two, Paranorman is more fully realized, but neither escapes the sensation of unfulfilled potential. The Pirates! Band of Misfits, meanwhile, is playful and humorous, but it ultimately feels more like a sketch comedy that strains when stretched to feature length.

It says something about the extraordinary heights to which the Pixar brand has ascended that Brave can be viewed a relative failure. A pleasant, familiar tale of a plucky heroine desperate to forge her own identity, Brave admittedly lacks the spark and ingenuity of past Pixar greats. But it is by no means a bad movie. Visually breathtaking even by Pixar's standards – watch the curls of Merida's flaming red hair bob and bounce as she rushes through the Scottish countryside – it also functions as a resounding reminder of the limitless possibilities of animation. Many scenes in the movie's second half, in which a fearsome-looking bear behaves in a decidedly un-fearsome manner, are milestones of physical comedy and grace, and they elevate an otherwise traditional story into a new-age marvel.

Still, Wreck-It Ralph is my winner here. Nearly as magnificent-looking as Brave – the gorgeous, wild environments within the film are all lovingly detailed – it sets itself apart with its screenplay, a wonderfully inventive work of whimsy and surprise. A quest story set inside an ingeniously designed universe, the movie makes sly thematic points even as it unveils one breathtaking sight after another. As the imperatives of its genre demand, Wreck-It Ralph is noisy and flashy, but it is also sharp of mind and pure of heart.

The Secret World of Arrietty
Wreck-It Ralph

Not the strongest year for animation, but these three pictures are various degrees of enchanting. Brave is visually spell-binding, while Wreck-It Ralph is ceaselessly funny and inventive, but The Secret World of Arrietty is pure magic, a tender, heart-wrenching tale of friendship and survival in a big, scary, all-too-real world.

My ideal winner: The Secret World of Arrietty.


A Royal Affair
War Witch

No need to get fancy here. I've heard positive rumblings about No, and costume dramas such as A Royal Affair always play well with a broad contingent of the Academy. But here's a simple stat: No movie ever nominated for Best Picture has lost in this category. Picking against Amour is just foolish.

The Kid with a Bike
Miss Bala
Rust and Bone

I can't complete my "Should Win" field, as I've only seen one of the Academy's nominees due to lack of theatrical distribution, but that doesn't mean 2012 didn't offer a number of stellar subtitled pictures. Amour is a worthy Oscar winner, and its shattering tale of resilient love and protracted death is made all the more painful through Michael Haneke's restrained, fiercely unsentimental approach. Headhunters is a crackerjack thriller that never stops entertaining. The Kid with a Bike, being a Dardenne Brothers film, considers human frailty and compassion with an unadorned style as quiet as it is powerful. Miss Bala uses similarly deliberate and technically accomplished means in order to achieve far more explosive and kinetic ends. Rust and Bone flatly refuses to pander to its audience in crafting a deeply moving story of loss and redemption.

My ideal winner: Headhunters.

Also deserving: Declaration of War (for its unflinchingly honest look at scared-shitless parents); Farewell, My Queen (for its ravishing beauty); The Flowers of War (for fearlessly finding dignity within depravity); Goodbye First Love (for examining love and heartbreak with clarity rather than sentimentality); In Darkness (for telling a compelling story, no matter how clich├ęd); Michael (for examining human ugliness with clinical detachment); Sleepless Night (for earning its title by never releasing its foot from the gas pedal).


5 Broken Cameras
The Gatekeepers
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Searching for Sugar Man

O.K., here's where I declare myself a gigantic hypocrite, especially in light of my holier-than-thou introduction to this post. I don't watch documentaries. It's the one class of movies that I'm simply incapable of enjoying. It has nothing to do with their content; it's that, if there isn't an element of artifice involved, I can't engage. Now, let me be clear: This failing is entirely mine. I do not dispute that the documentary is a perfectly valid form of filmmaking and that many documentaries are objectively good. I just can't watch them. Sorry.

Anyway, because I haven't seen any of the nominees, predicting the winner here is a bit tricky. That said, the buzz on Searching for Sugar Man has been strong, and it just won at the BAFTAs, so I see no point in going against the grain.

No comments: