Although just about everything has changed about the film business in the past couple of decades – the rise of CGI and 3D technology, the precipitous decline in the influence of marquee stars, the curious appeal of Adam Sandler – the Academy Awards continue to grind on as though nothing has changed. Every year there are the same stories written about how this year’s Oscars will either skew younger so that they can appeal to a less geriatric sensibility or how the ceremonies are going to recall the industry’s glory days of yore.
This year managed to be neither: a safe host thrown in at the (somewhat) last minute and a welcome shrugging-off of many of the trips down nostalgia lane that have cluttered up so many of these things. Certainly, there was bloviation laid on thick and pompous – Morgan Freeman’s sonorous introduction referencing “this magnificent event” didn’t bode well – but at least the ceremonies didn’t bother (except for the odd iPad reference) trying to be relevant as a piece of television. Which it never has been. The curious part is really that so many of us watch the thing.
As for the awards themselves, they seemed bent on falling over themselves to congratulate the very medium that they were a part of. Ten of the awards went to two films, The Artist and Hugo, whose emotional impact relied in large part on the heartfelt belief that cinema can be a transportive art. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it doesn’t belie an industry that seems capable of or interested in looking toward the future or even to its own current creative vanguard. Where’s the confidence? And how can the Academy properly bestow honors for the best that their art form has to offer if they don’t even nominate the right people and films to begin with? Certainly, A Separation
was the right choice for Foreign Language film, but in what universe should the competition have included the stultifying Bullhead and not the joyfully satiric Where Do We Go Now? or the deadpan playful Le Havre?
Here are a few of the Academy’s more egregious slip-ups:
#5 - Actor in a Leading Role: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
In a category dominated by performers capable to playing the quiet notes and spaces in between the big emotions almost better than the big moments, Jean Dujardin’s win for The Artist is particularly perplexing. His vivacious performance was not only of the bigger-is-better variety—no fault of the man himself, as that was clearly what director Michel Hazanavicius was driving for – but was also generally a two-note thing: happy or sad. Set against the stealthy and gripping work by Demián Bichir and Gary Oldman, this award is a curious choice, to say the least. To find the true injustice here, though, is to start thinking of all the astonishing lead roles that weren’t even on the list to begin with: Woody Harrelson’s ferocious work in Rampart, Michael Shannon’s devastating performance in Take Shelter, and Brad Pitt’s fine-tooled calibration in The Tree of Life (easily beating out the ease of his one-hand-behind-my-back role in Moneyball).
#4 – Documentary: Undefeated
Documentary has been a particularly fraught category for some years now, given the incredible strength of the American nonfiction film community. Each year brings two dozen films or more that could easily be placed into this slot and deserve the win. But for a year that brought us documentaries like Bill Cunningham NYC, Into the Void, and even Page One: Inside the New York Times, even nominating Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin’s solid but somewhat undercooked film about a football team from a poor high school in Memphis didn’t do the field any favors. Among the other nominees, the punishingly honest war film Hell and Back Again and superbly journalistic If a Tree Falls were in particular heads above the rest of the competition. This is a great win for Lindsay and Martin and will hopefully open more doors to them (they are directors to watch) but it would be hard to find a better example of the Academy going for the easy choice (underdog sports narrative).
#3 – Short Film (Animated): The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
This win was perhaps as preordained as any of the evening. Normally, the animated short with the most winsome and sentimental heart-plucking would be there courtesy of those master manipulators over at Pixar. And indeed this year’s offering from the Lasseter factory, La Luna, was truly whimsical and adorable, like a fairy tale that you made up as a child because you didn’t like how the Grimm’s ones kept turning out. But William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore was, if anything, many times more lachrymose. While its animation was undeniably superb, the story itself was a sentimental paean to the idea of literature and reading, much like those posters hung up in libraries showing actors acting as though they’re reading. It didn’t have a fraction the inventiveness of Grant Orchard and Sue Joffe’s zombie-chicken romp A Morning Stroll, or the storytelling prowess of Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby’s blackly comic yet heart-tugging Wild Life, about a clueless Englishman who goes looking for adventure on the Canadian frontier.
#2 – Music (Original Song): “Man of Muppet” from The Muppets
When there are only two songs left to nominate, and the orchestra (or whoever those people were lurking up in the balcony) isn’t even going to perform the winner, it is time to toss this category out. That would leave the ceremony an extra five or so minutes to fill up with more montages and close-ups of George Clooney being a good sport.
#1 – Cinematography: Hugo
Robert Richardson has become so synonymous with the work of directors from Scorsese to Stone to Tarantino that his rich textures and oversaturated colors have practically become the new standard for modern quality cinematography. His work on Scorsese’s Hugo was everything it should have been, filled with clockwork-timed sparks of beauty and seamless integration of special-effects into the film’s half-fantastical world; a proper homage to the birth of cinema. But whereas Richardson’s work is top of the line, in 2011 it went up against the symphonic river of imagery that was The Tree of Life. From the shimmering childhood nostalgia of the film’s small-town scenes to the arresting cataclysmic view of the universe’s creation, Emmanuel Lubezki’s work was the sort of thing you could see on the small screen, but it would be hard then to say that you had actually seen it. Very little has been witnessed like that since the Kubrick of 2001, and it would be hard for any cinematographer to compete.
But it wasn’t as though Scorsese’s film had lost out to, say, Michael Bay – and congratulations are actually in order to the Academy for doffing their hat to Marty’s picturebook fabulism in the technical categories (sound editing, sound mixing) that one would have assumed would have been taken over by Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Any loss for Bay is a win for civilization, even if it does mean looking to the past instead of to the future.