Who Will Win? The Big Picture on Best Picture
Which film will win the top prize… and which will stand the test of time?
NICK: So, Nathaniel: you and I talk about the Oscars a lot (as in, all year ’round), but I’d hazard that Best Picture is nowhere near the top of the list of categories we review most often. It feels like a more diluted roster than you find in the other races because of the broad-consensus voting protocol that produces it. Also, by January, I always know which among the competing films is your favorite (The Social Network), as you know mine (Toy Story 3). I’d prefer, then, to start with a topic we haven’t really discussed. 2010 marks the second year of the resuscitated tradition of having ten nominees in the grand derby. How does this year’s set compare to last year’s for you, and do you wish Oscar had stuck with a Final Five?
NATHANIEL: The thing I find most noteworthy about the Double-Wide (“Best Picture: Now with Middle America Appeal!”) is that if it was supposed to capture more blockbusters, it may have been extraneous. This year’s nominees were all big hits minus three: the family crisis comedy The Kids Are All Right (which was still quite profitable) and the limb-severing double feature Winter’s Bone and 127 Hours. It’s doubtful that any of those three would have qualified in a smaller field of five. You can’t really call the Academy “out of touch” as people are prone to do when the public is also flocking to traditional Oscar Bait like The King’s Speech. For Your Consideration: a Royalty Porn period drama just cracked the magic $100 million mark at the US box office!
The Ten does provide a rangy picture of the film year but, on the other hand, it makes the nomination less special and only further amplifies what I think is Oscar’s biggest and least discussed weakness: the voters simply don’t see enough movies. That’s evident every time they name a movie Best Everything, from Picture to Actor to Bottle Washer.
NICK: Yes, single-film sweeps are grating, especially when they derive from voters not seeking out alternatives, or subscribing blithely to studio marketing. Still, I think they acquitted themselves well this year: no manifestly unworthy films like last year’s The Blind Side penetrated the Best Picture roster. In fact, The Kids Are All Right is a huge trade up in the family dramedy department. Similarly, The Social Network easily outclasses Up in the Air as a capitalist parable-cum-character study, and The Fighter is auteurist pulp that doesn’t make me feel like an Inglourious Basterd for watching it. “The Sundance sensation,” “the F/X spectacular,” “the Coen Brothers flick,” “the Nice English Movie™,” and “the nutso genre freakout” (last year: District 9; this year: Black Swan) feel more or less like even trades to me from last year. Toy Story 3 ups Up, too, so only this year’s adrenalin-junkie drama (127 Hours) feels like a big letdown compared to last year’s (The Hurt Locker). The voters don’t see enough movies, but maybe they feel like their work is done once they’ve filled their favorite slots?
Just for the sheer departure from Oscar’s usual taste, District 9 was maybe my favorite nominee last year, even though it was only my fourth favorite of the movies. This year, I’m thrilled to see AMPAS stamp an indie as indie as Winter’s Bone and a crowd-pleaser as deftly colorful as The Fighter. What nominations got you the most jazzed, whether or not you’d vote for them?
NATHANIEL: It was hard to be “jazzed” per se, because we knew for months in advance what the lineup would be. Only 11 films kept showing up during precursor season. The Town was just the slowest to find a seat in that last round of musical chairs. My love for Black Swan has deflated a bit over the past month: awards fatigue, or will it prove just a passing fancy? But I was still thrilled that its weirdo fusion of lowbrow camp horror and high art milieu wasn’t dodging tomatoes upon its debut. People threw roses instead.
I guess I was happiest about The Kids Are All Right. I think it’s grossly undervalued as it’s quite deftly constructed and enjoyably specific in temperament and language. I’ve heard people refer to it as a sitcom… Well, it’s comedic and there’s definitely a situation! But I don’t think they meant it as a compliment.
NICK: I get you, though that movie hasn’t held that well for me. Meanwhile, The King’s Speech, the other movie by a director with TV experience, seems destined for the win. Are you okay with this? Do you hold out any hope for a Social Network coup? Speech is my least favorite nominee, though I hate being told I’m part of a “backlash.” On first sight, it struck me as awkwardly assembled and unambitious, though now if you speak against it, you’re apparently some kind of contrarian drone.
NATHANIEL: Hope springs eternal. And is also eternally foolish when it comes to trusting Oscar to choose the right picture.
I always have to comfort myself with my awards season mantra, “Great movies are their own rewards.” I plan to chant it in lotus pose each morning until the season ends. The Social Network is great. Whether or not the elite of the industry feel any warmth towards it at this balloting moment is another matter entirely.
As for “awkwardly assembled,” I guess you’re not high on The King’s Speech‘s editing nod then? I have your back on “unambitious,” though I do find it a pleasant piffle. Inception is actually my least favorite from the field but I’m glad it’s there all the same and would sooner swap The King’s Speech out. I do think Hollywood needs more of Nolan’s kind of ambition even when said ambition trips all over itself. I tried to watch Inception a second time, and I just couldn’t make it through. Once the visual “wow” became familiar, there was nothing left for me to latch on to. I can’t get behind its ideas about ideas, and apart from Tom Hardy the actors all felt like bored props, and the film is constantly explaining itself. Not all the Claritin in the world can prevent my allergic reaction to that much exposition.
NICK: I think we’ve found ourselves at the same place with Inception, with you having liked it a little more when it debuted and me having had a fuller allergy attack on first pass, as much as I liked the sonic wall, Cotillard, Hardy, the typically handsome Pfister photography, and Ken Watanabe’s taste in décor.
I think The King’s Speech has the prize in the bag, even though it builds so predictably to the big, titular oration and still can’t trust us to be stirred by Bertie’s words, or his delivery, or Lionel’s sympathetic encouragement, so it drowns us in gratuitous Beethoven. Rush is so fully the steady, understanding helpmeet, it’s a miracle the nominators didn’t relegate him to Best Supporting Actress, where that character profile always clicks. He might have won!
As for favorites, I know Toy Story 3 may not have innovated much from its exemplary predecessors, but even more than my second favorite, The Fighter, it replenishes American movies with emotional directness, a love of ensemble, a comic vim, and a knack for surprising the audience while still rewarding our expectations. The bleak simplicity of the brush with mortality would have gone down as the emotional climax of the year, if it weren’t for the unexpected, voluptuous, fully earned poignancy of the actual finale. The shirt I wore to go see it is still drying.
NATHANIEL: Hee. I normally don’t get embarrassed about crying at movies on account of it being so rare. This was a different case altogether. Even the 3D glasses could not hide my shame. I needed something closer to a muzzle, or perhaps some good post-production sound mixing. I actually emitted blubbering noises! If you try to stifle those they sound even more pitiable.
The reason I can’t name Toy Story 3 “best of the year” is because of its hugely unfair advantage. It has had fifteen years to break down our emotional resistance and fifteen years to massage those tear ducts. If you wanted me to vote for Best Longform Series, I’d totally do it.
And yet, a surprise win for the toys would still delight me on account of the “narrative” of Pixar’s ascendance. They’ve owned the cinema for the last decade so why not mark the end of an era with the best rubber stamp the industry has? I say “end of an era” because nothing lasts forever and, well, Cars 2? And its straight to DVD spinoff, Planes??? Yeesh. Speaking of molten furnaces and impending mortality.
I amend. Nothing lasts forever except great movies. I feel quite confident that people will still be watching Toy Story 3 in 2051. By that time there will have been at least twenty-five more inspirational movies about famous people overcoming personal obstacles to replace The King’s Speech.
Nathaniel Rogers is the creator of TheFilmExperience.net, a popular web destination for actress enthusiasts, Oscar obsessives and people who believe in cinema beyond the latest blockbuster. He works as a freelance writer in New York City.
Nick Davis writes essay-length film reviews at his website www.NicksFlickPicks.com,
which includes a performance-by-performance history of the Best Actress Oscar. He is
also a professor of film, English, and gender studies at Northwestern University.