Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Not As Good As...": The 2010 Best Picture Oscar Nominees

As I do every year, let me begin with the qualification that no real importance should be attached to the Academy Award's selection of "Best Picture" nominees nor to the Academy's ultimate determination of the "best" in said category. The Academy remains an extraordinarily taste-deprived organization historically, whose very few citations of comparatively deserving films suggests the happenstance of such picks - even a broken clock, as they say, is capable of honoring Clint Eastwood twice.  This year too the Academy seems poised to bestow their highest prize justly on David Fincher's The Social Network, if that is the AMPAS manages not to take customary leave of their senses in order to honor risible co-front runner The King's Speech instead.  If in fact the latter manages to pull out the win, it will be one more for strikingly indifferent craftsmanship and the "good story." If, however, the right film somehow does prove victorious, chalk up a rare top prize about which the auteurist faction can and should be pleased, and one for a genuinely first-rate piece of audio-visual storytelling.

While The Social Network is clearly the fillet among this year's ten selections, at least for this writer, the remaining nine nominees do include (at minimum) one and perhaps two or three additional choices that rank among this year's better English-language efforts.  That 'one,' that other unequivocal pick, is Joel and Ethan Coen's exceptionally well-made True Grit, with very fine, nominated performances from Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges, as well as from the snubbed Matt Damon.  Though there seems to be less of the Coen's in their latest than there was in the brothers' very respectable 'best picture' winner, No Country for Old Men (2007) - not that Fincher's Zodiac (2007) wouldn't have qualified as the superior choice that year as well - True Grit nonetheless emerges as one of the year's singular entertainments, and one of the better films in the Minnesota-born duo's career.  After all, less of the Coen's for this native Minnesotan is not always such a bad thing.

Among those films for which I am more qualified in my support, the one title that I would be most inclined to argue deserves inclusion among this year's nominees would be Christopher Nolan's Inception.  Synthesizing the director's previous efforts, for good or for ill - and I do believe it is for both in this instance - Inception ultimately proves remarkable, likewise, for its skillful manipulation of Griffithian cross-cutting to balance its multiple overlapping temporalities (contained especially in the film's final act).  While his partisans may disagree, Inception betters Martin Scorsese's career box-office peak Shutter Island, whose "B"-form feels as bloated and distended as Inception's "A"-form proves crisp; it is altogether unclear to this writer what lessons Scorsese gleaned from his comparatively lean pulp sources.  On the other hand, Banksy's very solid Oscar-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, might offer stiffer competition for Nolan in the category of ontologies in crisis, though it is not entirely clear to this writer that Exit Through the Gift Shop's advantage on the level of content bests Nolan's final-act formal superiority.

With the remaining seven 'best picture' nominees, however, I am quite certain that the Academy might have managed better selections - with some of its choices naturally much more egregious than others.  What follows, accordingly, are this author's picks for films that, in a more just Oscar world, would have taken the place of those that were in fact selected.  (Not that I am so sure that I really want to live in such a world, however, given how much fun it is, year in and year out, to come up with strained comparisons and to bad-mouth the Academy's breaches in judgment.)      

Danny Boyle's 127 Hours
Not As Good As: Tony Scott's Unstoppable
Connections: Hyper-kinetic aesthetics, real-world heroism

Among 2010's slate of undeserving choices, there is a very special place reserved for Boyle's 127 Hours.  What is most remarkable to this author about Boyle's latest exercise in bad taste - leave it to the director of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) to reintroduce the motif of the body's contact with human waste; an authorial signature to be proud of! - is how astonishingly unsuited the filmmaker's hyper-kinetic form is for his motionless subject: Boyle's coked-out aesthetic essentially militates against reproducing the experience that ostensibly provides the film with its subject.  By comparison, Scott's relentless idiom perfectly suits his runaway train subject matter, while his predilection for multiple screens (unlike Boyle's similar, unmotivated split-screen technique) explicitly springs from a real-world, twenty-four hour news cycle analogy.  In a perfect world, Unstoppable and not The King's Speech would be the film challenging The Social Network for the top prize.    

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan
Not As Good As: Frederick Wiseman's Boxing Gym
Connection: Footwork

Though it is a far less embarrassing a choice than 127 Hours - Aronofsky's film does at least manifest impressive craft appropriate to its subject - Black Swan was not 2010's best depiction of a dance-like athletic pursuit.  Rather, this honor belonged to Frederick Wiseman's La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris (2009) follow-up, Boxing Gym, with its commensurate emphasis on the internal rhythms of the sport's training (not that this writer has seen La danse, for the sake of full disclosure).  While both 2010 films indeed reconfigure the forms of their narratives in the shape of their respective contents - with Boxing Gym providing the more radical departure from narratological norms, and thus the more substantial generic redefinition - Wiseman's invisible-observer documentary adds an allegorical dimension in the invisibility of the cameramen in the interior space's numerous mirrors that serves to define the filmmaker's idiom across his career.  In the case of Black Swan versus Boxing Gym, it is more a matter of the omission of the latter than it is of an outright injustice.

David O. Russell's The Fighter
Not As Good As: Ben Affleck's The Town
Connection: Working-class Massachusetts

Substantially more inferior to Wiseman's boxing film, while also being more generically relevant on the surface, Russell's Rocky-Raging Bull mash-up in fact lacks mostly for the sport's visceral dimension, opting instead for the genre's against-all-odds, super-conventional story-arc.  What Russell's film does bring, however awkwardly, is the local Lowell color; in this respect, The Fighter compares - and again suffers by virtue of the comparison - to Affleck's Charlestown-situated, second directorial offering.  Indeed with The Town, Affleck continues to chart life in his hometown with an amoral sympathy not unlike that of Scorsese for his own New York.  Of course, it must be recalled that Scorsese's similarly cartographic Taxi Driver (1976) was passed over by the Academy in favor of Rocky, as was Affleck's classical antecedent Clint Eastwood's un-nominated The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right
Not As Good As: Mike Leigh's Another Year
Connection: "Interlopers" and the well-healed, modern liberal family

Like The Town, and quite unlike Unstoppable or Boxing GymAnother Year represents another instance of an easily conceivable nominee that somehow missed the cut.  Among those films this year in which a well-healed, modern liberal family is impacted the actions of an "interloper," the Academy has opted predictably to cite the platitudinous The Kids Are All Right rather than Leigh's rich treatise on the difficulties of adult friendship.  Though admittedly Another Year's conversations suffer from being a bit too on-point early on, Leigh's supremely humanist film ultimately overcomes this deficiency in its creation of nuanced, living characters with lives traveling very different trajectories.  For this viewer at least, Leigh's characters, especially Lesley Manville's deeply flawed Mary, are people with whom one wants to spend time as the seasons organically progress.  By comparison, Cholodenko's casually fake film overwhelmingly relies on its viewer's consent to its politics in order to reaffirm its modern family - despite the fact that arguably we would prefer to see Julianne Moore with 'interloper' Mark Ruffalo.

Tom Hooper's The King's Speech
Not As Good As: Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer
Connection: World leaders experiencing crises of communication

Polanski's The Ghost Writer is everything that Hooper's multiple Oscar nominee The King's Speech is not: the former is a very carefully composed work with clearly discernible artistic (Hollywood "B" picture-brand works of classical decoupage) and philosophical (mid-century, Judaic Existentialism) points-of-view  that maintains an approximate (that is, Bush-era) contemporary resonance.  In contrast, Hooper's film follows Hollywood's default narrative arc and reaffirms its ideological assumptions, despite its UK pedigree, within an indistinct form that foremost privileges award-attracting performances.  That is, Polanski's film suggests an art made out of the desire for personal expression, whereas Hooper's indicates the pursuit of prestige and material reward.  Oscar typically prefers the latter.    

Lee Unkrich's Toy Story 3
Not As Good As: Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist
Connection: Nostalgic "Best Animated Feature Film" nominees

While I have limited myself to English-language works heretofore in keeping with the Oscar's own de facto procedures, the apparently now annual Pixar slot offers a natural point of deviation, given especially the Academy's willingness to nominate Chomet's The Illusionist, along with Toy Story 3, as one of the year's 'Best Animated' features.  In both cases, the animated film's makers trade in nostalgia, with Unkrich depicting a lost childhood (as instantiated by the franchise's discarded toys) to Chomet's articulation of a waning artistic mode - that is, of the music-hall culture in which the latter film's real-life model Tatischeff is forced to participate.  Where The Illusionist truly emerges as the superior option, however - beyond its more sensitive object of its nostalgia - is in its connection to film history, not only as a posthumous, comparatively Chaplinesque entry into story-author Jacques Tati's great body of work, but also as a metonymy for the disappearing craft of hand-animation itself.  

Deb Granik's Winter's Bone
Not As Good As: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's Sweetgrass
Connection: Flyover-country ethnography

Admired presumably for its mythic, if ostensibly naturalistic portrayal of its under-class Ozark subjects, Granik's Winter's Bone in fact does little to chart real life in its cold-hued, late-season landscapes; rather, Granik manipulates the spareness of her locations for her outsider's tale of suffering and momentary relief, producing a work that pities before it alleviates its spectator from a specific social responsibility.  (Granik's film therefore lacks both the authentic regionalism and the social import of Lance Hammer's Oscar-ignored indie Ballast, 2008.)  Barbash and Castaing-Taylor's Sweetgrass, on the other hand, subsumes its viewer in the now lost tradition of public lands grazing in rural Montana, showcasing a life that is authentically difficult without offering a pat, feel-good resolution. And it does so with a sense-of-humor that Granik's miserablism lacks.


Peter said...

Could you explain, or point me to a link that explains, why The Social Network is not considered the most Hollywood(in a bad way) film nominated this year? When precision, tricks and gloss squeeze the life out of characters (that are actually still alive in real life!!) and you can actually see the ink dripping out of the mouths of the actors when they say their lines, usually critics pejoratively call that "Hollywood". Why has this film ducked that label? Is it Fincher? And don't toss the C-word. It takes more than empty 'craft' to win over critics, no? I am honestly baffled.

Michael J. Anderson said...

I think the simple explanation is that THE SOCIAL NETWORK is interesting for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with giving life to Mark Zuckerberg. Beyond the reasons that I have provided in my earlier post on the film (http://tativille.blogspot.com/2010/09/48th-new-york-film-festival-social.html) I would add Fincher's success in making compelling, on a moment-to-moment basis, the story of an internet start-up. This is far from an easy task. To me this is Hollywood at its latter-day best, not its worst.

Matt said...

I concur with your assessment of THE SOCIAL NETWORK Michael. Two other reasons that prompt me to judge the film superior to the other American releases this year are its commentary on American individualism as well as its insistence upon the integrity of a psychological narrative, rather than a chronological one.
Furthermore, even though the film's dialogue is indubitably stylized, it does not serve to immaturely spell out its subtext, but rather provides complexity and allure.
A wonderful post, Michael, and I appreciate the caveat for BLACK SWAN :-)

Matt Singer said...


Surprised by your love for THE TOWN, especially since in that same blurb you bash THE FIGHTER for its "super-conventional story-arc." I liked THE TOWN as a solid genre film but is there anything that isn't "super-conventional" about its own "story-arc?" The incredibly efficient gang going out on one last job, the humane criminal laid low by his loyalty to a crazy risk-taking partner, the love story with a good and innocent woman who doesn't know her lover's dangerous profession, the cop driven to crazed lengths to catch his prey. Not to mention that most of the movie, including the working class Boston milieu and the bank robbers' working methods, is lifted from Peter Yates' 1973 film THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. That was a more unusual crime story with weightier and thornier moral issues -- as was Affleck's first directorial effort, GONE BABY GONE.

Which is not to say THE TOWN is bad. I think it works for exactly the same reasons THE FIGHTER works: it is a satisfying genre piece that provides all the requisite beats you expect of a film of its respective genre. It doesn't reinvent the wheel. It's just a very well-made wheel. I'm not seeing much difference between the two films in terms of their goals or their achievements.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Matt, of course you are correct: both are examples of highly conventional filmmaking - though I do believe that THE TOWN succeeds where THE FIGHTER fails. I suppose one thing to which I object in the latter, which I don't feel is a problem in the former - that is, one place where I see a real difference - are Russell's "mugging," over-acted performances. I think Affleck does a fine job with his actors, extracting relatively casual, naturalistic performances, whereas Russell's actors really "ham" it up. They are acting the living hell out of his screenplay - in the very worst sense if you ask me (which you sort of did). There is a cartoonish quality to Russell's Mass. - see the seven sisters - that isn't there in THE TOWN. Indeed, I would argue that Affleck gets his regional authenticity genuinely, as a consequence of familiarity that doesn't have announce itself with every strained accent, whereas Russell's feels like a posture. This is an impression so I concede the possibility that we will differ here.

Matt Singer said...


You write:

"There is a cartoonish quality to Russell's Mass. - see the seven sisters - that isn't there in THE TOWN."

Indeed there is. But THE FIGHTER's cartoonishness doesn't make it inauthentic. I would encourage you to watch HIGH ON CRACK STREET, the HBO documentary we see them making in THE FIGHTER. You can watch the whole thing online here:


The Dicky in THE FIGHTER is not much of an exaggeration from the guy in HIGH ON CRACK STREET. Neither are the rest of the Ward/Eklund clan. In fact the stuff that didn't make the cut of THE FIGHTER that we see in HIGH ON CRACK STREET was sometimes even crazier. For example, to raise money for Dicky's defense, the family charges admission to a viewing of the tape of his Sugar Ray Leonard fight. While people are watching the Sugar Ray fight on tape a real fight breaks out in the hall they rented!

Are the performances in THE FIGHTER "big?" Absolutely. But they're not bigger than the people they're playing. You called the Bahston accents "strained" -- I think I think they're pretty good across the board and I've heard nothing but praise for the accents from people from New England. As someone who's spent a lot of time in Rhode Island, they certainly passed my own smell test. And you go on and on about Affleck coming to his regional authenticity "genuinely." Last I checked Mark Wahlberg was from Boston as well, and as star and producer of THE FIGHTER he was as fundamental in making this movie happen as anyone else.

Again, I enjoyed THE TOWN. But "authentic?" THE TOWN claims that the Charlestown area of Boston is "the bank robbery capital of America." According to people I know who live in the area that's completely absurd. According to this article (http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2010/0917/The-Town-Is-Charlestown-really-America-s-bank-robbery-capital) in the Christian Science Monitor, THE TOWN's assertion that Charlestown is the crime capital of America is just plain false. The article states that Boston police stats show "that Charlestown has barely more than 2 percent of all Boston robberies, not just bank robberies" and that "the whole state of Massachusetts has fewer than 3 percent of all bank robberies nationwide."

THE TOWN, in other words, is a total fiction. On the other hand, THE FIGHTER is based on a true story. It was made with the participation of the people whose lives are featured in the film. In order to more authentically capture Micky Ward's fights, Russell brought in the HBO TV crew that shot his matches; he also had the real HBO commentators come in and redeliver the actual lines they'd read during the real fights (you can compare them on YouTube).

I think you liked one movie more than the other. That is entirely valid. But I think you're choosing to call the movie you liked "authentic" because you like it, not because it actually *is* authentic.

Michael J. Anderson said...

So, I shouldn't have used the word "authentic" - I will admit you scored on this one (to adopt a boxing metaphor for a discussion of a film that viscerally lacks exciting boxing sequences). I do think THE TOWN exceeds THE FIGHTER in local color, in describing a place robustly, fictitiously or not. So authentic no, but it still registers "a" place in much greater detail in my view.

The reality is that (as I mentioned when seeing you last night!) really, as you indeed charge, I just like THE TOWN more. A lot more, as it happens. I honestly can't see what anyone sees in THE FIGHTER, which to be honest I found exceedingly crude, whether or not it is authentic (who cares) and lacking in the economy that many, myself included, look for in Hollywood entertainments. I feel that Affleck's narrative efficiently tells a story within a world that the film likewise sketches in substantial scope.

That's really it.