Monday, February 28, 2011

A Treatise Concerning the 2011 Academy Awards and the Continuing Retrenchment of the Tastes and Values of the Middle-Aged in Cinema Culture

Another year, another Oscars.

I've always been a great fan of the Academy Awards. Maybe it's because I've never felt at ease in the overly-macho, chest-thumping world of the NFL (or maybe it's because my team never wins) but the Oscars have always been my Super Bowl. I buy lots of beer, spread out the chips and salsa, and all my rowdy friends are coming over to try and calculate who will that the most little naked men home with them.

Of course, any film buff will tell you that the Oscars are a sham. Half the time the Academy votes for the wrong film, the other half of the time they vote for an obvious bit of Oscar bait clearly made to inspire the old fogies to accolade it with the title of Best Picture. And then sometimes you get a pretty good movie year chalk full of perfectly fine movies but the whole event is muddled by the oftentimes self-important ceremony of the whole thing.

This year borrowed liberally from the latter two categories, which I suppose ranks it somewhere in the middle of the eighty-three years of Academy Awards.

For starters, I was actually impressed by the surprising utility of the recently-expanded ten Best Picture nominees. Last year I railed against the injustice of the Academy doubling the field and allowing in the rabble of the multiplex. With the possible exceptions of the superfluous Toy Story 3 and the overrated Kids Are All Right, ten nominees felt like a healthy, more robust lineup for the Awards. Someone made a good point to me that so many more movies are released nowadays compared to sixty years ago when ten nominees was last used that the system makes sense given the options available to voters. I'm coming around to that idea, but this was a textbook example of a year when there were only two real options.

All eyes were on the duel between The King's Speech and The Social Network. Two films about the way new forms of communication can revolutionize the world and the human drama behind them, King's Speech and Social Network had been pegged as frontrunners and rivals since well before their release. Any discussions about who would win really came down to debating the merits of the two very good, maybe even great, films in the eyes of the Academy. Would the traditional British costume drama prevail or might the bluehairs go out on a limb and support something that speaks to the next generation (and you know, powering political revolutions as I type this)?

Many were hoping that a possible Social Network win could change the way the Oscars work. No longer would they be a predictable rewarding of calculation, but maybe they could become truly relevant again. The two films split the minor categories fairly evenly, both took home screenplay awards in their respective categories, but King's Speech won the day with Best Director, Actor, and Picture. Oscar wasn't ready to completely embrace the Millennials quite yet.

Appealing to a younger crowd was the openly not-so-secret theme of the night. The Academy tapped A-listers Anne Hathaway and James Franco to host, avoiding the usual pick of old comedians. The two therefore become the youngest hosts in Oscar history. But the results weren't quite as electrifying as might be hoped for. While both enormously talented (both are Oscar nominees themselves, Franco this year in particular) the pair proved a somewhat awkward selection. Hathaway, though charming and affable, proved that comedy is not her strongest suit and Franco was deadpan to a fault, rumor has it due to chemical influences.

The Powers That Be wisely cut the genre montages (no Twilight kids in sight, thank Christ) and did away with the one-time experiment of the Colin Farrell-powered Former Castmate Appreciation Ceremony for every single acting nominee. The result was a briskly paced telecast that seemed to fly by in relative record time (if just over three hours is your idea of a short ceremony). However, the opening skit involving Hathaway and Franco inserting themselves into the year's various nominated films, while humorous and generally providing some needed levity, felt like something out of the dreaded MTV Movie Awards and therefore below the Academy.

The ceremony, if not the results, showed that there is still an awkward discrepancy between the theater-going youth of the nation and the Academy's power base of generally more conservative Baby Boomers. An attempt to make the Oscars new and sexy met with mixed results. With a little polish, maybe they'll perfect the formula; but when you only have one night a year to work it out, these things take time.

The King's Speech is a genuinely amazing film, deserving of its night's prizes. No one should be disappointed at its triumph over The Social Network and all other comers. However, it's victory sends a signal that the Academy is not quite ready to embrace something fresh, current, and relevant to the current generation of moviegoers (young people still make up the vast majority of cinema patrons in the United States). For now, Generation Y will have to take solace in the fact that a very well-made film about them almost made it all the way.

Or you know, we could just bitch about it on Facebook.