Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Oscar roundtable

(Some friends and I got together in the week before Oscar nominations via e-mail to discuss the films of 2006 and the films that looked likely to be honored. I'd like to thank my fellow SDD contributors Jon and Tram Bich Ngo -- who also writes for Lucid Screening and Talk to Me, Harry Winston! -- and Everything Oscar editor Andy Scott.)

Todd: This year's Best Picture lineup is pretty set in stone, it would seem. Babel, The Departed, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine and The Queen look to be the five that make it, and I, honestly, can't think of a more boring list. It's not that any of these movies are explicitly bad -- even Babel is a better film than Crash was last year -- but they're just so crushingly middle-of-the-road.

Even The Departed, seemingly a better movie than director Martin Scorsese's last two efforts, is mostly a lark, not as full-to-brimming with insane directorial choices as Gangs of New York and The Aviator were. And, what's more, a lot of critically acclaimed movies with decent box office seem to have been left behind. And we're not just talking about, say, blockbusters that just wouldn't raise AMPAS' interest. A lot of films (that I know several of you don't like all that much), from United 93 to Children of Men to Pan's Labyrinth, are going to get overlooked just because AMPAS seemingly couldn't bother with them.

The last time there was similar political turmoil in the world at large -- the 1970s -- AMPAS wandered off the beaten path and rewarded some interesting stuff. Now it's a chore to get them to even nominate something that's not strictly middle-of-the-road.

Anyway. What do you think of the final five? And even though most of the categories seem pretty sewn up for nominations, doesn't it seem like just about anything could win?

Jon: Sadly, the only two nominees (well, guaranteed nominees) I've seen are Dreamgirls and LMS. I greatly enjoyed both, and I don't have as much of a problem with their nominations as some people, but I must agree there were are more deserving films out there, including United 93 and Children of Men. Even very commercial films like Casino Royale or (to a lesser extent) The Descent would've been more worthy choices, not to mention fun and off-beat.

Honestly, I kind of get the feeling that Academy is almost apologizing for last year's very un-commercial line-up (to both the public and ABC, who experienced the lowest ratings for a show not aired less than a week after war was declared), with a line-up that the public will find very easy to digest, with the exception of Babel (but that should find viewers that feel they just became more socially aware of the world by watching it).

As for predictability, the only other major category right now that is in total chaos in terms of who's getting in is Supporting Actor, where you literally have 10 different contenders, only two of whom are truly set in stone (Jack Nicholson in The Departed and Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls, with Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine almost there). Otherwise, total chaos. The best part still is that this is the same category that slipped in surprises like Alan Alda and William Hurt in the last couple years, so there's still the chance of somebody slipping in that few saw coming. Right now, I've got Arkin, Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children), Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond), Murphy and Nicholson.

My only worry with that line-up is that that also matches up with Entertainment Weekly's predictions, and I don't think they've ever gone 5/5 in the category.

Tram: I've only seen one of the five (The Queen) and quite frankly I'm not sure I can muster the excitement to see the rest. (While I concede that EW's newly released list of "25 films you must see before Oscar night" was terribly tempting, temptation can only get you so far.)

The Queen was quite enjoyable during the viewing. Yet a few days after viewing Stephen Frears' flick, I could not remember a single damn thing from the film.

Okay, let me retract that last sentence. There are ONLY two things I can still remember from The Queen. The first is that MILF (or is it GILF?) Helen Mirren was entirely game for the fashionably challenged looks of Queen Elizabeth II. And the second is that Tony Blair (played by Kate Beckinsale's ex, Michael Sheen, who astonishingly resembles the real man himself) ultimately saves the day with his razor sharp brash-not-too-brash communication skills (being able to empathize with both the modern British masses and the elite, traditional one-woman monarchy that is Elizabeth).

Babel, likewise, looks to be one of those film that reeks of boring, "respectable" quality. I have to admit I was semi-skeptical of the film from the get-go. In spite of all the fuss and hullabaloo from Cannes (Alejandro González Iñárritu nabbed the Best Director prize), I could not help but remember a juicy anecdote involving jury member Samuel L. Jackson. "Crash Benetton", he snarked to his fellow colleagues, according to several gossip reports. Well, if that isn't enough to scare me outta the nearest Landmark Theater, I don't know what will.

Films like Crash make me ever more cautious of the multi-linear device of storytelling that's quite trendy. Apparently, the whole "we are all interconnected" adage has paved the way for cheap transcendentalism. I feel pain. You feel pain. Hey, I know you from my babysitter! OMG, we're all the same?!

Then, there's this year's "the little indie that could", Little Miss Sunshine. I could've sworn that this past winter, the film was screaming my name, yelling "See me! See me!" It hollered my name during my United Airlines plane trip. But I just dozed off, only to be awakened by the feel-good finale which involves the clan getting their freak on/out to Rick James' "Superfreak" song at the beauty pageant. Upon arrival to my intended destination (Honolulu), there Little Miss Sunshine was again -- screening at my local $1.00 movie theater! But alas, two weeks and a much-ballyhooed DVD release later, I still haven't seen it.

Here's my v. subjective train-of-thought: If I ever wanna see an authentic portrayal of a dysfunctional family-in-action, I'll either pay another visit to mom and pops or rent a Jane Campion or John Cassavetes flick. But I'm pretty sure -- sure as hell, in fact -- wouldn't wanna see the "fun" in dysfunctional anytime soon.

Todd: If we're going to examine the five films, I've seen all of them. If I had seen enough films this year to have a top ten, The Departed would probably sneak in, but I don't know that any of the others would. I liked The Queen, but almost more as a museum piece -- an American regarding a work of art wholly outside of his area of expertise. So much of the film's plot is wrapped up, I think, in what the viewer's relationship is to the royalty (even if that relationship isn't existent) that my puzzled detachment was probably all wrong to go in with. Still, Mirren and Sheen were terrific, and the rest of the cast was strong as well. I'll never tire of seeing James Cromwell in a kilt -- when he guests on 24 later this season, I'm hoping he keeps the Scottish duds.

Babel, I thought, was quite a bit of good technical direction in search of a coherent narrative or theme or. . .hell, anything. I think Inarritu has a really good eye, and his actors always feel like they're in the same film, even if they never share screen time, but his weakness for the overriding theme of mankind's misery banding us together just rings hollow every time -- as hollow as those faux-Capra movies that people like Frank Darabont try to make every few years, where everything is all sunshine and puppies. Inarritu and screenwriter Arriaga prefer hitting the viewer in the face to actually saying something meaningful. You're supposed to like the blood in your mouth.

Little Miss Sunshine was a perfectly serviceable episode of a particularly good sitcom with an incredible cast. Sure, it relied a little too much on stupid plotting and "lessons learned," but that's why even the worst sitcoms are still popular years after they aired. Imagine my surprise when the film turned into one of THE critical hits of 2006 -- a critical love that didn't really manifest at the time, to be honest. It landed on lots of top ten lists and made the industry award rounds, and the whole thing puzzled me immensely. It was held up as a new triumph for American indie film, but this was about as far from American indie film as you could get. The problem is that the kinds of films that major studios used to make are now being made by their smaller subsidiaries as they chase the tentpole dollars.

Twenty years ago, Little Miss Sunshine would have starred Diane Keaton and Bette Midler somehow, and it would have been a Paramount production. Now, it's regarded as hip, simply because Hollywood's refusal to chase money from customers other than teenage boys labels everything from Clint Eastwood war dramas to LMS as "hip" and "edgy."

The Departed actually WAS hip and edgy, though. It's another film I've been surprised to see the level of praise for -- it's decidedly minor Scorsese, and it's obvious the guy is just having some fun and cashing a paycheck. But, hell, the script is so much fun, and the performances are so ridiculous that I won't complain if it wins the whole shebang. It's just a popcorn movie, but one executed with real panache.

Finally, there's Dreamgirls, a film which is both over- and under-rated, somehow. It has copious virtues and the detriment of a second half that behaves much like a deflating balloon. Jennifer Hudson, of course, is worth it, and she shoulders most of the load here, but I'm surprised this is inspiring as much adoration and vitriol as it is.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by many of the films that were passed over for industry prizes -- Letters from Iwo Jima, a film I wasn't terribly fond of, attempts to humanize America's WWII enemy (less successfully than Downfall, I might add); United 93 brings back one of the most painful days in American history with searing intensity; Pan's Labyrinth is a.) a fairy tale, b.) in a foreign language and c.) full of realistic violence, so I'm thinking it was never even an outside shot, even with its anti-fascism message; Volver was from Pedro Almodóvar (a filmmaker, I'll admit, who leaves me cold most of the time) with all that implies, as well as the Spanish thing; Children of Men came on too late and was relentlessly grim, even if that grimness was in service of a denouement that I found more emotionally affecting than anything outside of United 93 this year.

And that, of course, isn't to mention the numerous films that most AMPAS voters have never heard of that deserve recognition -- titles as varied as Three Times, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Old Joy and The Proposition. Out of all of these interesting titles (and MANY I haven't mentioned), it just seems odd to me that Babel was chosen as the "critics' darling." There were better, more critically acclaimed films to be chased, but I guess Babel makes white, limousine liberals feel good about themselves without ever suggesting that they actually, y'know, do something about the world's problems (Crash cast a similar spell -- and it won).

I guess I'm just disappointed in how disconnected these Oscars feel from the ACTUAL year in film 2006. Granted, there was no award-worthy blockbuster this year (Superman Returns came closest for me, but lackluster box office doomed it), but 2005's unusually diverse slate of nominees had given me hope that things might be changing. In reality, everything Hollywood produced last year fell flat, and 2006 was a return to form, more comparable to 2004 (when films like Eternal Sunshine, Passion of the Christ, The Incredibles, Spider-Man 2, Fahrenheit 9/11 and the Zhang Yimou traveling roadshow were passed over for the likes of Finding Neverland and Ray).

AMPAS has ALWAYS had middlebrow taste, of course, but I've always hoped that they could overcome this in at least one slot per category. I came to serious film discussion through the Oscars (I devoured most of the Best Picture nominees in late high school -- or as many as I could find in rural South Dakota), and it pains me to see so many mediocre films that will be dissected by kids decades from now. But that ignores, of course, just how many mediocre films have been nominated before.

Okay. I've talked enough. What performance or film or technical element from 2006 would you love to see nominated Oscar morning? It can be something realistic or something completely nuts. And explain your choice too!

Tram: "I came to serious film discussion through the Oscars (I devoured most of the Best Picture nominees in late high school -- or as many as I could find in rural South Dakota), and it pains me to see so many mediocre films that will be dissected by kids decades from now. But that ignores, of course, just how many mediocre films have been nominated before."

Oh WORD. In the grand tradition of the previous Oscar seasons, there has been an awful lot of backlash space devoted to the awards themselves (the most recognizable ones have been from Slant and The Onion's The AV Club). And while I can't say that it's unwarranted, a part of me crumbles inside when someone insists that it doesn't amount to anything, simply because it really does mean something to me.

The Oscars will always remain oddly endearing because it introduced me to some of my most favorite film and film directors today. I'm gonna go all the way by saying that the OscarWatch forums imparted me with more foundational film knowledge than any of the college film courses I've taken in the past three years *yes, cue the fiddles, plz!*

Anyhoo, while I think Todd has pretty much covered all the Limousine Liberal grounds necessary for an Oscar discussion, I would like to add Ryan Fleck's Half-Nelson as another entree into the white liberal guilt genre. In spite of the fine lead performance by Ryan Gosling and the overall proficient display of filmmaking onscreen, I thought the film was a calculating, little "woe is me, woe is me" fable under the guise of a liberal disillusionment veil. But to each their own, I guess. At the fear of becoming another Armond White (I think I should ban the word "smug" from my personal vocabulary), here is a piece I wrote a few months ago explaining my sentiments.

"What performance or film or technical element from 2006 would you love to see nominated Oscar morning? It can be something realistic or something completely nuts. And explain your choice too!"

I would pee in my pants if Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times got nommed for Best Picture, but yeah, it has no chance in hell. Ditto for Byambasuren Davaa's The Cave of the Yellow Dog. (It's about a girl and her cute, little dog! Watch it y'all!)

My most realistic Oscar wish would be Naomi Watts' performance in The Painted Veil and even that one's a long shot. I'm normally not a hardcore Watts' fan (Mulholland Dr. excepted), but damn, what I wouldn't give to see Watts slip in for the last Best Actress spot, in lieu of either Penelope Cruz (Volver) or Kate Winslet (Little Children) ... I know, the mind boggles -- I just kinda dissed Kate Winslet, Teh Goddess.

Todd: One of the things that's happened this year (as Tram mentioned) is that publications like The Onion and others have complained about the Oscar hype machine -- how it elevates "sure things" into Oscar steamrollers regardless of their quality. Dreamgirls is the typical movie held up as one that wasn't that good and was unfairly praised by the likes of Tom O'Neil and his ilk (who benefit from making the right calls at the earliest moment).

To be honest, the preponderance of online Oscar sites has grown tiresome to me, even though friends run a few of them. Back in the early 2000s, when I first got in to Oscarwatching, there were a handful of sites, which were mostly fan efforts that were conducted as labors of love. Sasha Stone's Oscarwatch.com and Tom O'Neil's Goldderby.com sprung up around the same time and cultivated two very different crowds of forum rabble who analyzed every single key turn in the race and statistic-ed the hell out of them. It was all fun and wonky and very, very geeky. (I particularly liked Stone's site, as she really seemed to have no patience for the whole Oscar game, and that thinly veiled contempt kept things edgy.)

No one on those forums thought they were dissecting the films' QUALITY, but, rather, their chances at winning an Oscar. But like all things fun and wonky and geeky (in the 00s, at least), it was co-opted. Now every publication has an Oscar blogger, and the awards season means big business for both trade papers and dailies. The Oscars, in an attempt to get away from efforts to predict them, shifted their schedule earlier, giving everything an air of unpredictability that has led to a mild upset in a two-horse race (Million Dollar Baby over The Aviator) and a shocking upset, historical in just how big of an upset it was (Crash over Brokeback Mountain).

This huge shift of emphasis has, frankly, dulled the excitement of the season for me. It's not just that AMPAS ignores the worthiest films; they've always done that. It's that it's rather unexciting to predict the same five films for best picture as everybody else and have it be something that graces the pages of even the New York Times. The whole thing has grown so massively overhyped that the simple pleasures of a stupid award show (seeing who botches their speeches, seeing how the academy decides to brush past the more obscure technical awards this year) have been subsumed by an ocean of press outlets that all seem to be seeing exactly how much like Access Hollywood they can be.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe all of the hype has made you guys enjoy the Oscars even more.

Jon: Hardly. The season has indeed gotten duller with the commercialization and hype of the whole race. The last few years everyone's predictions match up about 90% overall, with the occasional race that's still exciting (Supporting Actor is the only one, as I said earlier). This year you have two categories where the nominees are set in stone (Picture and Actress, Cruz/Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal/Mirren/Meryl Streep for The Devil Wears Prada/Winslet), two more that everyone matches up on with only a little room for excitement (Actor goes Leonardo DiCaprio for Blood Diamond or The Departed/Gosling/Peter O'Toole for Venus/Will Smith for The Pursuit of Happyness/Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland, with Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat possibly slipping in, and Supporting Actress going Adriana Barraza for Babel/Cate Blanchett for Notes on a Scandal/Abigail Breslin for Little Miss Sunshine/Hudson/Rinko Kikuchi for Babel, with Emily Blunt for The Devil Wears Prada or Toni Collette for Little Miss Sunshine hoping the love for their respective films sweep them in), and Director with its usual "Who will be the lone director??" suspense (But it's always possible for it to match 5/5 with Picture again, like last year).

However, a recent turn in the race (Little Miss Sunshine winning the Producers Guild of America award) has shaken the race up in ways that have excited those like me that like that now-rare excitement and PO'd those that despise the pedestrian tastes of the Academy (which are really nothing new).

A sadder part is how the commercialization of the race seems to be even affecting the precursors to the Oscars. When you look at the nominees for the Director's Guild of America, you don't get the sense that you're looking at a list of what directors thought was the best work their peers had done this year, but that they took their ballots and went "What is the most likely Best Picture line-up?" I doubt they actually say that, but awards that were once awards that merely lined up with Oscar are now trying to actually predict it.

The worst case of this would be the BFCA (Dubbed "Critics Choice Awards" for broadcast, heh), who would brag about how they always matched up with Oscar this certain amount of times in this category while presenting the award. Worse still about this is that by trying to predict the awards, they're avoiding what helped make tem such good predictors, like throwing out new names for the Academy to consider. Could Silence of the Lambs make it anywhere in today's Oscar environment? What about Babe?

Anyway, this Friday I expanded my list of Oscar contenders I've seen with The Queen, probably one of my personal picks for the very best of the year. It's an easy-to-digest film, yes, but unlike Dreamgirls and Little Miss Sunshine (still good films, mind you), it at least invites some interesting discussion about the world we live in today, what with the way we connect to people that we never actually knew, or how we're always struggling with the ways of previous or future generations, or even out-of-date ways of ruling, which oddly ring true after the film as I listened to power struggles between the President and the new Congress on how to deal with Iraq.

It actually comes a lot closer to being socially conscious then you give it credit for, Todd. Still, United 93 and Children of Men would make better representatives for the politics and social environment of today, but The Queen will do, I think.

Tram: Do any of y'all find it freaky that the New York Times' The Carpetbagger (née David Carr) refers to himself in the third person?

And yes, I do agree with both of you guys that the Oscars have become commercialized to extremes. Tom O'Neil's GoldDerby has now been co-opted with the LA Times' The Envelope, and the New York Times' with its ridiculous The Carpetbagger...

I find the commercialization frustrating because ten years ago (at the wee age of eleven) I became an Oscarwatcher due to my burgeoning love of movie trivia -- it was genuine. (I received the People Magazine Pop Culture Almanac as a Christmas present one year -- and bam -- I was set for life!)

For me, at least, the game of Oscar prognosticating has always been, more or less, an extension of geekdom. Since '97, I've religiously visited every Oscar site there ever was, from Zeusefer's weekly updated charts to the early EW boards. Which films have received the most Oscar nominations? Who lost in what category for what year? Which now-classic film got snubbed? Those pieces of trivia still excite me 'til this day.

And so while I understand where the likes of The AV Club's Scott Tobias and Slant's Ed Gonzalez are comin' from, these backlash pieces feel repetitive at best. It bears no repeating that the Oscars are middlebrow -- that's a given. The Oscars have been -- and will always be -- a barometer for the middlebrow. Why should this year be ANY different?

Instead, my love for the Oscars stems from divine dorkiness -- none of that film analytical/scholarly stuff (despite it serving as an introduction to such things). I’ve enjoyed the Oscars mainly for two things: 1) watching the whole goldderby race evolve in my own little, comfy bleachers and 2) rooting for the underdog, normally deemed too "upperbrow" for most conventional Academy members.

Charlie Kaufman's win for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Best Original Screenplay) in '05 remains one of the best memories I've ever had of Oscarwatching. In spite the fact that Kaufman was sweeping most of the precursors (including the Writers Guild Award), I was still on the edge of my seats, cautious of the Academy's conventional taste in film.

Oscarwatching becomes less fun once things get too serious and the giddy fanboy spirit dies down. Last year was pretty much an all-around downer. Just when I thought the John Horn-Patrick Goldstein "I am such a progressive Blue-Stater" podcast at The Envelope couldn't have been more worse, George Clooney had to deliver that infamous self-congratulatory speech. It was, like, y'all are a bunch of middlebrow limousine liberals! But I like you anyway, inspite of your hypocritical twittiness, so DON'T push it!

On a lighter note, you guys must have seen Nathaniel R’s brilliant short featuring all the Best Actress contenders? It reminds me of why I had loved the Oscars, in the first place.

Andy: I still can't get over how everybody is predicting the same Best Picture lineup. It's frustrating a.) because it's boring and b.) because if all goes according to plan, this will go down as one of the blandest lineups ever -- almost as bad as 2004, if you can believe it.

Of course, I'm happy that The Departed and The Queen are probable nominees. Along with Children of Men, they made 2006 somewhat tolerable. But beyond that, it gets ugly.

I get why everybody went nuts for Little Miss Sunshine. Even its biggest haters have to admit that it's a pretty cute movie. But what I don't get is why it's winning so many awards. People are treating it like its the second coming of Sideways when it's really anything but. Yeah, the performances are worthy, and so is the message, but at the end of the day it's really just a good movie disguised as a great one.

And then there's Dreamgirls. I hate talking about Dreamgirls because it makes me hate it more than I actually did. But as much as I respect Bill Condon for all that he's done for the movie musical, Dreamgirls is not very good -- certainly not as good as Chicago was. It kills me to say this because I really wanted it to be good. Hell, I anticipated it for over a year. But beyond Hudson and Murphy I found myself feeling more disappointed than not.

Nevertheless, I've accepted where they stand in the race. And I won't throw a big hissy fit if they're nominated. Both movies struck a chord with audiences so there's nothing I can really do about it. Besides, I'm more intrigued by the Babel love fest. It totally boggles my mind to think that it'll be nominated for Best Picture. But in a way, it's fitting because Babel really represents everything that was 2006: the year in movies: dull, slow; a real disappointment. What gives?
I guess the only way to make up for all this is to have some sort of surprise in the other categories. Maybe a nod for Guerillmo Del Toro for the brilliant Pan's Labyrinth or Sacha Baron Cohen, who really gave one of the best performances of the year. It's nice to see both audiences and critics respond so positively to his work. Hopefully Oscar will do the same.

Todd: Thanks for talking with me guys. I was going to say something brilliant in summation, but the Oscars are announced in 30 minutes. So I guess that would be pretty pointless. Here's hoping for big surprises and a few nominations that go against the grain!

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