Oscar Nominees: The Wisdom of Ten

Forty-five days before the show, I knew this much about the 83rd academy awards. That actress Anne Hatheway would be sharing hosting duties with actor/writer/grad student/painter/cologne salesman/likely nominee James Franco, that all convincing predictions held that the top runners for major awards were The Social Network and The King’s Speech, and that the show’s duration would feel long, very long, but still not as long as most angry bloggers would say it felt.

The length will be nothing new, but it will seem more justified than usual, because, for the second year in a row, the academy will admit ten nominees. For most of the remembered lifetimes, the nominees have been limited to five. This traces back to the seventeenth academy awards, held in 1945 and broadcast for the first time on ABC Radio, a tinny limited format presumably unable to deal with an unwieldy ten nominees. Before 1945, ten nominees were the norm. The academy has stated their own account of why they’ve returned to 10 films, but, speaking from a strictly historical perspective, Batman did it. Specifically, The Dark Night, 2007’s billion-grossing, critically applauded, even-the-naysayers-are-on-board superhero flick, which was shut out of the five contenders, a fact attributed to the low-standing comic book movies hold among academy members.

Of course, a good film year might produce thirty great films, just as a bad one might not quite yield ten, and some fans will always have to see the darlings go unnoticed. But the earlier number was painfully constraining. The five nominee system made it very hard for certain kinds of films—genre pictures, smaller productions, foreign films—to get a chance, and much easier for other films, like big budgeted dramas with historical elements, to coast to victory.

Having ten nominees broadens the playing field to include more popular fare and more cerebral, challenging small-scale stuff too, leaving the applicant pool for greatness looking more democratic than ever—and more sophisticated. For example of variety, one need only check last year’s pool of nominees, which had  two sci-fi flicks, a dark comedy, a cartoon about flying houses, an inspiring football drama, and the winner, The Hurt Locker, the first film to earn a female an Oscar for direction.
Because of this magazine’s print deadline, I had to submit this before the Academy made its best picture announcements. Still, most critic’s circles and nerdy speculators had made their roundup, and I feel confident discussing a few shoo-ins for the best picture nominees. None of these fine films quite reinvent the wheel, but they broaden the scope of mainstream filmmaking, and offer hours of entertainment.

This was a somewhat chatty year for American movies, with the Oscar frontrunners films either especially attuned to their voluminous dialogue, or else earning their prestige by the large discussions they generate. The two top runners focus heavily on the power of speech: Mark Zuckerberg, a physically unintimidating man, is almost pathologically articulate, making mincemeat of the lawyers who try to one-up him in the film’s legal battles. King George of England, on the other hand, is unable to properly use the privileges of the throne because of a debilitating speech impediment.

In the most acclaimed movie of the year, The Social Network, we follow Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, a man so verbally-assured in his assessments of those around him and so indifferent to—or unaware of—the feelings of others, that he repulses his only love interest in the first scene, severs all meaningful friendships by the film’s end, and would seem primed for the sort of paralyzing misanthropy Ben Stiller evinced so well in Greenberg, were he not spared this ignominy by his astounding levels of wealth and power. But for all he lacks in the finer points of humanity, his grasp on human nature is assured: when he transmutes his anger over a breakup into a  picture rating website called Facemash, his private gripes become instantly popular (and instantly hurtful). A far cry from the Horatio Alger heroes of the past, this young man manages to sidestep the route of self-improvement by reengineering our ways of socializing. By the film’s end, its hero has given anyone with an internet connection the ability to say whatever it is they please to the hundreds of separate, easily ignored thumbnail pictures that have become their friends.

In contrast to the conditions of instant-communication depicted in The Social Network, The King’s Speech is about the challenges of speaking in general, and of answering to circumstances that require us to speak for something larger than ourselves (the coming of WWII, in his case). The film follows the reluctant ascension of King George VI, as he succeeds his miscreant brother to become King of England (his brother abdicated to marry a twice-divorced American woman). The presentation is high-brow enough to curry academy favor, but the King’s speech problems are so relatable and human that it makes even unemployed viewers extend Britain’s future king sympathies normally reserved for boxing underdogs. While The Social Network greets a new dark future, The King’s Speech is a valentine to the allure of twentieth century staples like a liberal education (Shakespeare gets many readings throughout the film), a proud, modern Monarchy, and radio technology. Firth gives a wonderfully wounded, but never overly-endearing performance as the King. His stammering can seem very much the motions of a man suppressing tears, and in addition to its nostalgia for monarchical panache and fine dress, The King’s Speech shows reverence for the psychologist’s conception of human problems—a fact best highlighted by a joyous montage wherein the camera pans in out from speech therapist Lionel Logue’s couch to the often comic vocal exercises of the King. It is a wonderful compliment to friendship and self-improvement, but the zeitgeist remains behind the darker presentation of human nature found in The Social Network.

Minding the Mind-Benders

Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan are the two films that had the most fun playing with the concepts of alternate realities, eliciting audible “Whoa’s” from some audience members, while leaving the unconverted with a mere “Huh?” Both films originate in written projects rumored to be ten years in the works; both were made by acclaimed filmmakers who have not yet made a nominated film. Inception immerses you in its strange dream world and spends a lot of time—too much time—explaining it (for those who find these explanations dull, worry not: your attention will be rewarded with explosions). Using what mildly looks like dialysis equipment, the architects of the film basically do mind-to-mind hacking for financial gain. Since the subconscious is a limitless tempestuous thing, the dream worlds the architects partially invade/partially design quickly prove hazardous. It’s all very confusing, but confusing in a way that encourages the audience to catch up with the rules and follow along, and underneath the puzzling technicalities is a more relatable mystery about a man trying to overcome past tragedies. And the three-dream montage that carries the last third of the film is a thing of real beauty.

The filmmakers behind Black Swan seem far less concerned with people agreeing on a common interpretation. Obviously not all the events in Black Swan are real, but sussing out which ones is a great deal of trouble, and might be a fool’s errand. The travails of Nina, an ambitious and talented dancer compromised by nothing so much as her own purity, get an expressionistic treatment complete with hallucinations of talking paintings, wing-like growths, and some seriously intense mother issues. While the film offers some color-coded visual cues as to what may be going on, it seems not to care about hammering home one account of what is really happening, and we might be best off reading the film as an especially dark and metaphorical fairy tale. It certainly won’t win best picture, but it’s one of the odder films in recent years to command high praise from critics, a generous budget from producers, and a pretty large number of moviegoers—some expecting a horror movie, some a movie about ballet, some a physically punishing acting vehicle—and all getting…well, whatever it is Black Swan is… camp? post-camp? anti-camp?…websites swarm with guesses. However, the camerawork thrills and Portman is outstanding: it’s not often I’ve felt the lines of an actor’s forehead, and the skin between her toes, used to better performative affect. In a way the film’s success at the Oscar will have less to do with the odd (and, for me, less-than-satisfying) story on the screen, than with the more familiar story behind it: e.g. the reinvention of a major actor through a physically punishing, transformative role—the most famous instance of this probably being De Niro’s award-winning performance in Raging Bull.

This list leaves out a number of strong films this year, including True Grit, Winter’s Bone, and The Fighter, but these four films give an exciting picture of the ever-changing face of modern cinema.