Mirroring the wider film industry’s own identity crisis and financial restructuring, the Academy Awards currently finds itself in a curious phase of renewal. In its own eyes, and through the alterations it imposes on itself year after year, it is engaged in a constant struggle between attempting to single out each year’s most impressive cinema and – here’s the paradox – accurately reflecting the verdicts of regular moviegoers.
Invoking box office totals in illustrating this line of thought is arguably a troublesome science, but I feel there is some consequence in pointing out that the film with the highest worldwide gross out of the nine Best Picture nominees is The Help with just over $200 million. This is a paltry return compared to last year’s blockbuster nominees The King’s Speech, Black Swan, True Grit and The Social Network – the four brought in $1 billion in comparison. Essentially, what I’m trying to say with this (admittedly very elementary) number-crunching, is that one of the defining reasons the Oscar race feels so flat this year is that its selection of films have failed to make a certain significant impression on the chattering whirl of mass culture.
This year’s films in themselves are surely brilliantly representative of some of modern US cinema’s key preoccupations and currents (3D; reliance on known entities like famous novels and plays; reflexive meditations on film itself) – but we don’t have anything to savour quite like Nina Sayers’s tragic journey to the far edges of homicidal perfectionism [Black Swan], or the vim and vigour of Zuckerberg’s revolutionary invention (and equally revolutionary arrogance) [The Social Network], or even the indisputable feel-good factor of watching King George conquer his stutter and win our rarely-patriotic hearts [The King’s Speech].
The graduating class of 2011, as I see it, is a bland, unsurprising and self-serving bunch. And it is that final adjective to which I’d like to draw the most attention, because it defines these pictures’ most disarming and thought-provoking quality: they are films besotted and nostalgic for their own materiality as films, but not in the traditionally post-modern way we might attach to Tarantino or most of the French New Wave.
Showering all the prestige on the likes of The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, and War Horse seems an ideological vote as much as anything. It exalts the nostalgic quality of the films themselves; a strained, awkward reminder that classical notions of filmmaking and film culture must be worth defending in light of the medium’s ever-uncertain future. The directors nominated are for the most part perennial names nominated for less vital work, which nonetheless appeals to the Academy’s taste – the brand identity takes precedence over its actual output. Without doubt, it can be argued that the slant towards passé subject-matter is nothing more than benign appreciation, an Academy taking pleasure at seeing its own craft explored and realised in depth. But in light of what a progressive clip the wider film universe seems to be heading in, delving back into this classicism seems like the most self-justifying and immobilising of measures.
I’m not a particularly big admirer of 2011’s vaunted Best Picture frontrunner The Artist; but maybe the majority are so charmed by the excitement of this film (and they really do have every right to be) that they frame the note-perfect re-appropriation of silent cinema technique as a very necessary and even quite subversive (in light of recent, controversial technological advances) reconnection with our filmic past. Not that I’m always against this kind of calculated artifice in principle, but The Artist resembled a kind of classic Hollywood fancy dress show for me, the gestures of romance, charm and pathos whirring like cogs in a piece over-determined and presumptive of our submission to it. Bizarrely for a film I expected to adore, I almost had to work hard to enjoy it, to look beyond the fussily pristine surface and savour its odd bit of poetry, like the sound nightmare sequence or Peppy Miller miming a seduction with George Valentin’s jacket on a coat rack.
The other films like The Descendants and Moneyball, which don’t immediately fall into the nostalgic category, are so anonymous and unprepossessing as not to factor into any kind of wider analysis. It’s the yearly gulp of Scott Rudin-certified ‘quality’ mature cinema that vanishes from our collective psyches almost instantly after the awards race closes, scrubbed up and phony like a George Clooney paparazzi grin. Unsurprisingly, I’m pretty chuffed that The Tree of Life is an officially Oscar nominated picture, its continued awards success from the critics’ groups to the guilds and back constantly reminds doubters of its existence as a contender. Hopefully Billy Crystal’s opening monologue will have something as smirk-worthy as when he sung ‘Seabiscuit’ to the tune of Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger.
I’m just looking forward for this all to be over, so we can get focused on anticipating 2012 releases of films from the likes of Michael Haneke, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson and Alfonso Cuaron to name a small bunch. Each new year in cinema is rich with possibility, and the awards season is really an unnecessary reminder of how good we have it.