The Surprise Party

Lately, forecasting the Oscar nominees has felt all too predictable. There are so many precursor awards, and there are even more Oscar handicappers (such as Dave Karger with Entertainment Weekly and Tom O’ Neill with The Los Angeles Times) who regularly update the favorites. So I’m happy when the actual nominations are announced and there a few surprises. Do I agree with the surprise selections or snubs? In a way it doesn’t matter. It’s something to talk about, write about, complain about, or in a few cases, celebrate. Hey, it's still a few days before the Super Bowl and I need to fill the void.

Overall the Academy acquitted itself well. Most of the picks were deserving, with only a couple of “Say What?” choices. So once again, let’s look at this year’s crop and hand out some grades:

127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

Grade: A-. In the second year of ten Best Picture noms, the Academy voters seem to have gotten the hang of it. The Town missing out was a small surprise, but maybe after Mystic River, The Departed, and Gone Baby Gone in recent years, there was a Boston crime drama overload. Winter’s Bone was a little overrated, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would have been a more deserving choice. But I’m glad that we again have an animated film selected. Toy Story 3 was no doubt one of the best films of 2010, as Up was in 2009. If having ten Best Picture nominees means that animated films have a place at the table, that alone makes the change worth it.

Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Joel & Ethan Coen – True Grit
David Fincher – The Social Network
Tom Hooper – The King’s Speech
David O. Russell – The Fighter

Grade: A. I can’t complain about any of these, even though, like many, I expected Christopher Nolan to finally snag a Best Director nomination for Inception. Darren Aronofsky should have been nominated in prior years for Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, so it’s gratifying to finally see him get recognized.

Javier Bardem – Biutiful
Jeff Bridges – True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Colin Firth – The King’s Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours

Grade: B+. Never underestimate the power of Julia Roberts. She launched a full throttle campaign for her friend and Eat Pray Love co-star Javier Bardem. Even though Biutiful was a foreign language film that, in and of itself, did not garner much attention, Roberts succeeded. To be fair, Bardem did deliver a powerful performance, even though the film was disappointing and disjointed. Still, how can you ignore Ryan Gosling, who bared his heart and soul in Blue Valentine? Michelle Williams was deservedly recognized; she and Gosling’s work together made the film succeed. To nominate one and not the other does not make much sense.

Annette Bening – The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine

Grade: B. Lawrence benefitted from being the star of the surprise breakout indie film. If you take a step back and look at her performance, you realize it’s flat and wooden. It’s a shame she was selected over Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right. Yes, Bening was picked for the same film. But, as with Williams and Gosling, Bening’s and Moore’s chemistry made their film work. You instantly believed that their characters were a loving but contentious couple together for a long time. Many have pointed out that Bening is a beloved veteran actress who has delivered stellar work for a long time. True, but doesn’t all of that apply to Moore as well?

Christian Bale – The Fighter
John Hawkes – Winter’s Bone
Jeremy Renner – The Town
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush – The King’s Speech

Grade: A. Almost everyone, myself included, had Andrew Garfield for The Social Network as one of the five. Nothing against Garfield, but Hawkes’s inclusion instead was a pleasant surprise. A longtime character actor, he had shined in very small films such as Me and You and Everyone We Know. He gave so much power and depth to Teardrop, his character in Winter’s Bone. In his face you could see the defeatism, the hardship, and the self-inflected wounds in Teardrop’s life. I hope this nomination leads Hawkes to bigger and better roles.

Amy Adams – The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter – The King’s Speech
Melissa Leo – The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom

Grade: B -. The best acting of the year may have been done by True Grit producer Scott Rudin, who claimed with a straight face that Steinfeld’s role of Mattie Ross really was supporting, not lead. Never mind that Steinfeld is in nearly every scene of the movie. Never mind that Ross narrates the film. It’s her story, for crying out loud!!! As good as Steinfeld was, her nomination continues the ridiculous Oscar tradition of relegating youth roles, no matter how central to the story they are, to the supporting category. Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense are just some of the most egregious examples. Of course the actors’ studios push them for the supporting field because the competition is easier. That doesn’t mean the Academy has to go along. But I thought a few years ago, when Academy voters nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider for Best Actress, that they had overcome this foolishness. I guess I was wrong.

Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich – Toy Story 3
Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy – 127 Hours
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen – True Grit
Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini – Winter’s Bone
Aaron Sorkin – The Social Network

Grade: B. The term “adapted” may be just as loose as “supporting” for Academy purposes. According to Unkrich, Toy Story 3 falls into the “adapted’ territory because it’s based on “pre-existing characters.” Still there was no prior book, play, song, or even story outline to work from. So if I wrote a screenplay (scary thought alert!!) where Tom Sawyer and Johnny Appleseed were kidnapped by aliens and became rulers of the galaxy, that would be considered adapted? This is even more sketchy than when the Coen bothers got a similar adaptation for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Their work was supposedly adapted from Homer’s Ulysses, a book the Coens admitted they never read.

Why not move Toy Story 3 into the Original Screenplay category and instead include Nikolaj Arcel’s and Rasmus Heisterberg’s brilliant work adapting Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Adapting a worldwide best-seller is no easy feat. You need to be true to the book, so as not to alienate it’s fans, while also producing a script that works cinematically. Arcel and Heisterberg pulled this off masterfully, and they deserve more recognition then they have received.

Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg – The Kids Are All Right
Mike Leigh – Another Year
Christopher Nolan – Inception
David Seidler – The King’s Speech
Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, & Keith Dorrington – The Fighter

Grade: B. So if you move Toy Story 3 into the Original Screenplay, which one of these five do you bump? Easy, Mike Leigh for Another Year. Nothing against the fine film, but it’s well known that Leigh comes up with a basic story outline and then the actors improvise the dialogue. As film critic Bill Henry noted, to be fair the Academy would have had to nominate the film’s entire cast.

In last year’s Oscar nominations column, I wrote that “(Gabourey) Sidibe’s and Mo’Nique’s nominations (for Precious) are at the very least, small steps toward a Hollywood that looks a little more like the rest of America.” Last year Lee Daniels became just second African-American to receive a Best Director nomination. That’s why this year it’s distressing to see a group of nominees whiter than a 1950s Deep South country club. To put things in perspective, there were more African-Americans at a Jewish wedding in Israel (namely, mine) than in the major Oscar nominees.

The sad part of all of this is not the nominations themselves, but, as Greg Kilday from The Hollywood Reporter wrote “As we look at the movies this year, there really weren't movies in contention from African-American filmmakers... It's not the academy's fault. It speaks to a larger issue in the industry in that it is still difficult for black filmmakers to do movies about black film matter.” Kilday pointed out that the only movie from a black filmmaker to receive major distribution in 2010 was For Colored Girls, from Tyler Perry. Like most of Perry’s efforts this film received mixed reviews at best. Where are the films from Spike Lee, John Singleton, Kasi Lemmons, the Hughes brothers, Mario Van Peebles, Lee Daniels, Forest Whitaker, or Denzel Washington, (just to name a few)? And it’s not just African-Americans. Hollywood studios greenlight far too few films by and about Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans.

This lack of diversity does not reflect racism but rather timidity. Too many studio executives suffer from an aversion to risk-taking, the fear of doing anything different or anything that won’t appeal to a wide demographic. While this thinking may not be bigoted, it is short-sighted. Don’t African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans go to the movies? Don’t they watch DVDs? And, who exactly are the minorities here? Many studies predict that in the not-too-distant future, Caucasians will be a minority in the U.S. So while Hollywood decisionmakers may believe that supporting work from non-whites may be a risk, not doing so might be the bigger risk.

Adam Spector
February 1, 2011

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