Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oscar de-brief, or: why the middle of the road is not such a bad place

For those of us who follow the Oscar season pathologically, it can be a strange time really caring which films get nominated & which don't. For me it started with watching the Oscars & the Golden Globes to see which films I should be watching (I was naive back then), and because there is something undeniably 'historic' about each year's Oscar choices. Although they can be random & middling, they have an impact, people notice & a certain prestige attaches itself to these films. It makes it an interesting race to watch & when I feel weird about it I just remember that other people watch football & really, really care. The more I watched the Oscars, the more I wanted to know what each category meant (Art Direction used to be a real puzzler), which helped me learn more about film and, more importantly, the more I wanted to know which contenders - especially actors - didn't make it to the final countdown, but could have / should have, who was in the running. The race, not just the nominees became the fascination.

These days I still watch with interest, but evidently far less emotional investment than many others, for which - truth be told - I am grateful. Perhaps because I have accepted that the Oscars are what they are & that it's okay if the movies I love aren't recognised, because that's not the point. As Sasha Stone so wisely puts it - the trick is not minding. Of course I dramatically widen my eyes when they do strange things like nominate three songs from Enchanted over anything from Into the Wild, or snub Albert Brooks, but in the final equation, the Academy's vote may hold more social sway, my devotion to the film's I love is validation enough.

That being said, I am pleased with this year's nominations. There are some very good surprises, like Gary Oldman & Demian Bichir for Best Actor, and some insignificant poor points, like snubbing basically all the year's original songs. On the actors' front, I am very pleased to see Rooney Mara included, as I have long predicted her as the pretty young thing to beat all the others (Elizabeth Olsen, Felicity Jones, even Kirsten Dunst), although I thought her nomination would be at the expense of Glenn Close, not that Close would edge out Tilda Swinton. I was really, really excited about a Best Actress nomination for the great Swinton, but I should have known better than to count out Glenn Close. I haven't yet seen her film (which seems to drain many of pleasant things to say about it), but as a career Actress, there's no doubt she deserves to be back in the race. She is a skilled performer & unlikely to give a bad performance, perhaps just not the one people expected.

Close's nomination also screwed with my Supporting Actress nominations, as I didn't think Janet McTeer would get in without Close, and I was betting against Close. But there they both are & I am very pleased for Janet McTeer, even though I thought Shailene Woodley had too much traction to miss.

Although it's sad to see Michael Fassbender shut out after all that, it does warm the heart to see both Gary Oldman & Demian Bichir in the race. The Albert Brooks burn in Supporting is another shocker, although I suppose it could have been expected. The solitary Sound Mixing nod for Drive is almost insulting but it was never going to be an Oscar film anyway. And my big emotional investment was in Nick Nolte, anyway, which paid off beautifully. Now just build him a campaign to threaten Christopher Plummer's (probably too late to upset that cart).

The Academy shows some keen insight into what made Moneyball so appealling, nailing it on the head with its nominations select nominations for the performances, the screenplay, the editing & the sound mixing. A perfect example of what distinguishes sound mixing from sound editing, if ever there was one.

I also thank the Academy for including The Tree of Life, however. A single weirdy choice that makes all the middle of the road nominees quite okay. That one film that we will still be talking & writing about in years to come, even though it is probably the one to make your average film goer widen their eyes dramatically.

And on that note - as long as they include the odd Tree of Life, I am happy for the Academy to settle on the  more Oscar-y middle of the road films like The Help, Moneyball, Midnight in Paris & even The Ides of March (with its single nomination). These may not be the most exciting films in a year of pretty exciting films, but the Oscars are not about honouring art, per se, but honouring Cinema. Bear with me. Sure cinema can be high art & it is exhilarating to those of us who like them, but to the vast majority of cinema goers, an awards body celebrating only the most extreme or groundbreaking in cinema would be fatally marginalising. The reason the Oscars are what they are is because they are able to balance art with entertainment. A vast majority of cinema goers are not primarily there for the art, and that is okay. It would be insanely elitist to assume that true cinema excludes them. Cinema, at it's heart is about enthralling the masses, and I truly do applaud the Academy's ability to find the balance. Awarding quality - if not sensational - films that everyday people actually liked is what makes people take them seriously, so when they lean more left of centre, say to No Country for Old Men or even The Hurt Locker, people pay attention, and it means something for those films.

Films like Moneyball, The Ides of March, Midnight in Paris & even the uneven, but very affecting The Help, are quality, thoughtful films that I can recommend to friends who do not share my appetite for challenging cinema. Films that they will be willing to give a chance over Mission Impossible and New Year's Eve, and not regret it. Middle of the road films are middle ground films and we all need middle ground to bridge the gap between ignorance & snobbery. And once more, I applaud the Oscars for understanding the middle ground.

Lastly, I would like to mention how thrilling it is to see the genius behind so many of the funny people on TV acknowledged and honoured at a proper awards show. In one year - and here I move beyond the Oscars - we have seen both of the IT Crowd guys celebrated - Richard Ayoade as Best Debut British Writer / Director for Submarine & Chris O'Dowd nominated for the BAFTA Orange Rising Star Award (presumably for his contribution to Bridesmaids) - as well as a SNL veteran (Kirsten Wiig), one of the Flight of the Conchords boys (Bret McKenzie) & the "big girl"  from Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly (Melissa McCarthy) become Oscar nominees (as screenwriter for Bridesmaids, song writer of Man or Muppet  & Best Supporting Actress for Bridesmaids, respectively). The times they are a-changing.