Feb 21, 2010

BEST FILM OF 2009: Avatar

1. Avatar A-
2. An Education B+
Anvil! The Story of Anvil! B+
4. The Road B+
5. Moon B+
Fish Tank B+
7. Bright Star B
8. Funny People B
Star Trek B
10. A Prophet B-
Worrying about the Oscars is a national past time in America, much like knocking Congress or cooking barbeques on the fourth of July. Each year the show’s ratings drop another few million to much consternation ad wracking of brows. Newspapers publish articles pointing out that 55 million tuned in to see Titanic win in 1998, but only 36 million did the same for Slumdog Millionaire last year. A tone of general national dismay is adopted. The Academy, meanwhile, like an unpopular government, unveils its latest efforts to win back public favor. This year, for instance, they have decided on ten best picture nominees; two presenters; guest appearances from Miley Cyrus, Kristen Stewart and Zac Efron; no performances of the best songs; no “introductions of the introductions”, and no cheesy thematics. “There’s no unifying theme,” the show’s producer, Bill Mechanic, proudly told the New York Times.

He wasn’t just talking about the interpretative dance numbers. The awards themselves are a picture of increasing fragmentation. The last film to pull of a clean sweep of all the “top five” Oscars — Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay — was Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Thus year, there will likely be as many winners as there are nominees, with the acting gongs scattered to the four winds, while Best film and Best Director head in different directions, something that used to happen once a decade but which has happened four times in the last ten years. The same for the Best Acting Oscars, which used to follow Best Picture over 50% of the time; in the last decade only two Best Picture winners — Gladiator and Million Dollar Baby — have generated Oscar heat for its leads.

Welcome to the Mr Potato Head Oscars, with one movie providing the lips, another the eyes, still another the ears and so on to make up an identikit picture of a winner. The Academy have always liked to spread the wealth of course, but this fragmentation testifies to deeper shifts in the industry as a whole. As Steven Spielberg noted in 1997,

"It is getting to the point where only two kinds of movies are being made, the tentpole summer or the Christmas hits or the sequels, and the audacious Gramercy, Fine Line or Miramax films. It’s kinda like India where there's an upper class and a poverty class and no middle class. Right now we are squeezing the middle class out of Hollywood and only allowing the 70 million plus films or the 10 million minus films."

There’s your problem. It is precisely that disappearing middle-class that used to provide the Academy with its prize winners — middle-brow, mid-priced “prestige” pics like Driving Miss Daisy, Amadeus, and Dances With Wolves, films that hymned the moral efficacy of a single individual. It wasn’t quite a genre but you certainly knew an Oscar-winner when you saw it. It had a symphonic scores and great landscapes and plush sunsets with heroes who ran the four minute mile, or went off to lead the Bolshevik revolution, free India from the English, and atone for the sins of the white man. There was a high likelihood of them wearing linen. If reduced to a movie pitch it might go something like: one individual, making a difference, in costume.

No longer. Somewhere between the moment when Leonardo Di Caprio’s brain matter hit the elevator wall at the end of The Departed and the first strangulation performed by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, the profile of your typical Best Picture winner has changed. And it ain’t Ghandi. This year, for instance, the most obvious movie on the Oscar genre was Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, which had barely finished shooting before it had been tagged and handicapped for Oscar glory, solely on the basis of its subject (Nelson Mandela) and its genre (Sports Underdog Movie). In fact it turned out to be a clunky, undernourished piece of work, the product of a non-competitive market, shot for $60 million, easily elbowed aside by the two main competitors, the gritty Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker, which cost just $16 million, and James Cameron’s special-effects epic Avatar, which cost upwards of $300 million — the indie and the blockbuster, exactly the two types of movie Spielberg saw inheriting the earth in 1997. Saving Private Ryan versus Shakespeare in Love, Chicago versus the Hours, Lord of the Rings versus Mystic River. Not for nothing has David Versus goliath become the dominant journalistic trope when writing about the Oscars. The Academy’s efforts to square the competing demands of art and commerce have increasingly led it to resemble Wile E Coyote, his legs astraddle an ever-widening chasm, while the desert floor waits invitingly below.

You have to go back to the seventies to find art and commerce working in something like concert, with the Oscars going to films likeThe Godfather, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Annie Hall — big consensus hits, beloved of both were critics and public alike, forged in the last era when the people giving the awards, and the audience for the films, happened to be the same group of people: adults over 30. There was an ease and confidence to their decisions entirely missing today, with Best Director and Best Picture splitting only once, in 1972, when The Godfather won Best Film while Bob Fosse nabbed Best Director, and the Best Actor gongs followed Best Picture over 50% of the time. These were movies driven in large part by the central performances — Brando in The Godfather, Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest, Keaton in Annie Hall — and today they seem as graven and unassailable as the presidents on mount Rushmore.

The first cracks in that consensus appeared with the arrival of Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977, blockbuster hits loosing such tidal waves of cash the Academy had no option but to hoist their skirts and ran headlong in the arms of the Europeans, with Amacord beating Jaws in 1975 (“They went for Fellini!” cried Spielberg on the night), Chariots of Fire beating Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, and Ghandi beating ET in 1982 — one wrinkly peace-loving guru against another, but one a historic personage played by Ben Kingsley, the other operated by 12 technicians with their hands up his rump. In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to mock the Academy’s hunger for prestige. These days, E.T, has become a much-loved classic while Ghandi has ascended to the ranks of the Great Unwatched in the sky, but you can’t help but wonder how that race would play out today, in a year that has seen multiple nominations for District 9, Avatar and Star Trek. Surrounded by his new blue buddies, E.T. might not have such reason to phone home, and one suspects he could take Bapu in three rounds.

The Academy has made its peace with the blockbuster, after a fashion, allowing first Forrest Gump (1994), then Titanic (1997) and Lord of the Rings (2003) into the winner’s paddock. All three swept the Oscars but with the exception of Tom Hanks, it was a very selective type of sweep, failing to generate any trophies for their actors, for instance, making up for it with wins in the technical categories. With special effects playing an increasingly large part in the Best Picture winners, the Academy went hunting for its actor and director Oscars in much smaller, independent films like Leaving Las Vegas and Monster’s Ball. The same with its Best Director Oscar which split off from the pack in 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2005. The days when you could tell each year by its Oscar winner (“1976: that was the year Cuckoo’s Nest”), gave to something requiring the memory of an elephant or at least access to Google: “Let me see now, 2002, wasn’t that the year Chicago won? But Polanksi got best director. And Almodovar got best script. But effects went to Gollum...”

Some will see in this evidence of the increasing irrelevance of the Oscars. Others will mourn the death of the moviemaking consensus that made films like The Godfather possible. Still others may detect signs of the death of the auteur. But the disappearance of the middle-brow is not the worst thing that could have happened to American movies. No development which leads to less films like Driving Miss Daisy and Dances with Wolves being made canbe wholly bad. Cinemagoers faced with a choice of The Hurt Locker and Avatar might even be said to be well-served, if in slight need of a romantic comedy starring Cameron Diaz.

The fact that James Cameron and Katherine Bigelow were once married to one another only serves to underline the point: these two complete one another. In terms of their Oscar handicap, both has what the other wants. Avatar has broken records at the box office, taking in over 2 billion worldwide, but lacks critical clout. The Hurt Locker is critically lauded but stands to become the least profitable winner of a Best Picture Oscar in recent memory. Combine the two movies and you’d have your Best Picture winner. Combine them, in fact, and you’d have precisely the kind of movie that used to sweep the Oscars.

No comments:

Post a Comment