Thursday, March 4, 2010

Why Are We Watching This Again?

As you loyal ChargeShot!!! readers may have noticed, it's Oscar season. And with Oscar season comes the inevitable scramble to watch the movies that you've heard the critics rave about since Sundance 2009, but whose limited theatrical run and low marketing budget mean that they've somehow slipped under the radar.

Us ChargeShot!!! writers have been comparing notes as to how many of the Best Picture nominees we've managed to see (yours truly is at 10 out of 10, though many of my co-bloggers have wisely skipped Precious and The Blind Side). We're all a bunch of huge nerds, but even outside the blogosphere the rest of the world is finally getting around to watching The Hurt Locker before the big event Sunday at 8 pm Eastern.

I don't think this is an isolated ritual. Last year, my roommate and I tried three different times to go see The Reader in theaters, and all three times the film was completely sold out. The Reader is not a good movie, nor is it a movie that you would think would attract such a wide audience. But, once a film earns one of those coveted Best Picture Nomination slots, millions of Americans feel compelled to watch movies that they normally wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole (I watched The Blind Side, for God's sake).

Why do we do this? On one hand, I feel it's a good thing. There are plenty movies out there that deserve a wider audience, movies that the studios don't do anything to support until they start racking up the awards and nominations. Last year's Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire was originally slated to be released as a direct-to-DVD bargain bin title; after earning a bajillion awards, it went on to gross $141 million dollars domestically, and another $230 million worldwide - not a bad haul for what amounts to a foreign language film, something that is usually anathema in this country. But it's a movie with a feel-good ending and a large amount of popular appeal - yet didn't stand to make any money until it's Best Picture nomination.

On the other hand, there's the danger that Americans will let the critics and the Academy make their movie choices for them. How to explain the fact that Crash, a subpar movie even by the kindest of standards, has been the number one rented movie from Netflix for over a year now? Shouldn't the American populace be actively searching for good movies to watch, and not just blankly accepting the Academy's choices for the five ten best movies of the year?

So I'm torn. I appreciate that Oscar nominations have led me to view good movies that I might have never looked twice at otherwise. But for every Michael Clayton, there's a Precious or The Reader that I'm compelled to go see to stay up-to-date on the Oscar race, even though I couldn't care two shits about the film at all. There's hidden cinematic gems, but sometimes I feel the Academy is just fucking with me (again, Blind Side, I'm looking at you).

Really, if you want to start digging for unknown masterpieces, the best place to start is not the Best Picture nominations (which are almost always of a populist bent), but rather in some of the more obscure categories. These are the ones that even the hardcore movie fans who pester you to enter their Oscar pool might not have seen.

My personal favorites are the two Best Screenplay categories. Yes, there's movies like Up in the Air and Inglourious Basterds, both high-grossing success stories that you've probably heard of. But there's also In the Loop, the best black comedy I've seen in a long time. The movie juggles nearly a dozen memorable characters involved in a farcical political drama that functions as a satire not only of the Iraq War, but of politicians in general. It's smart, it's funny, it's made less than $3 million dollars, and was ignored in all the other categories. But it's worth your time, and is not only a better movie than Precious, but could hold its own against An Education.

Similarly, The Messenger is another movie that entered the awards season with virtually no fanfare, ratcheting an eclectic pair of Oscar nominations for Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor. It's a smart drama about the Iraq War that's set in the present day United States, following a pair of soldiers who are assigned to responsibility of informing families that their loved ones have been killed in the line of duty. It manages to take the difficult stance of being critical of the war without being preachy, and respectful of the soldiers without being overtly aggressive or jingoistic. It's not a perfect movie, but I'm glad I got a chance to see it, and it's not one that I would have ended up watching if it hadn't been nominated for anything.

There's plenty of good movies that are buried in the more obscure Oscar categories that are worth checking out. So next time you can't get your hands on the Best Picture nominees, check out some of the other films up for an award. If nothing else, they're they're something different, and it might just give you a slight edge in the next Oscar pool.