…And the Nominees Are: Oscar Follow-Up

What makes the efforts of one director superior to those of another? If one person wins Best Director, does it stand to reason that they should also win Best Picture? I had these two questions– and sub-questions pertaining to both, as well as variations on each of said questions– rolling around in my head after last night’s almost thoroughly predictable 83rd annual Academy Awards ceremony, wherein many of the predictions I did make came to fruition save for The King’s Speech dominating the entire night, which it pointedly did not, except in the categories where it was given that the film would be crowned the victor and one in which I thought Tom Hooper’s excellent period drama would come up just short. And obviously, Hooper defeating four other comers including David Fincher for the Best Director trophy is causing me some degree of consternation.

There are other things that bugged me about last night. First and foremost among them are the reactions to Inception tying with The King’s Speech in total trophies awarded, which usual come around to the same point that each of Inception‘s wins were, for the most part, found in technical categories. Because that doesn’t matter, or something. Inception is, on a technical level, a masterpiece and probably the most accomplished film out of all others up for consideration for the topmost prizes; if one argues that what Nolan managed to achieve through his use of sound and visual effects and cinematography can’t be considered impressive then I can only assume they don’t care for movies especially, because those are– I would happily argue– the most purely cinematic awards offered at the entire show. Everything else can be summed up as vaguely as “Best Thing In a Thing”– not to discredit the efforts of actors and actresses, mind, but when you award a film with the Best Achievement In Cinematography statue, you’re telling the person behind the camera that they did the best job utilizing the tool that makes film film in the first place. That’s not small potatoes.

Except it is, because no one “sees” the cinematographer. They see the actors on screen, and primarily that’s what they concern themselves with, which is, I suppose, understandable enough. But I’d advise against walking into an award show misunderstanding what defines cinema and bestows it with its own unique identity as an art form. Technical awards they may be but they are, in spirit, among the most important and telling awards given out in an evening even if films generally aren’t remembered by the mainstream for taking them home. Maybe the heart of my discontent over the casual shrugging off of these victories stems from Nolan’s snubbing in the Best Director category, in which a victory surely would have legitimized the film’s other successes quite handily, but regardless of his candidacy Inception should be considered one of the night’s biggest winners.

Which brings me back to the film that will be publicly acknowledged as a winner, The King’s Speech, for taking home three of the biggest awards of the night. And coming back to that film, by default, brings me back to my questions about what it means to be the best director and whether the best director necessarily produces the best film every time. Without thinking too hard on the subject, one can answer “no” just by reviewing past Oscar ceremonies; when Ridley Scott’s Gladiator won Best Picture, Steven Soderbergh won for Best Director. Ang Lee won the latter award for Brokeback Mountain while Crash won the former. Lately the Academy seems to be backtracking on this policy a bit, but the Academy need not be the only barometer of quality and excellence in filmmaking– even if their past decisions do reinforce the point I’m making. The best direction doesn’t necessarily yield the best film; Katherine Bigelow, for example, directed The Hurt Locker beautifully and yet I found myself more enthralled by  District 9 and MOON, which themselves were both well-directed but more importantly provided a more satisfying movie-going experience.

This matters because while Tom Hooper may have been behind the best film of 2011– by Academy standards, and certainly not an unworthy film at all to win the award– his receipt of the Best Director prize feels like a gimme in light of the competition he faced in the form of David Fincher. The Social Network is a director’s movie, a film about a subject so uninteresting that it shouldn’t work for any reason whatsoever and yet does, on the back of the massive effort Fincher put into crafting each aspect of the film and molding the story into something palatable– let’s face it, “courtroom drama about the creation of Facebook” sounds like a rather dull synopsis on paper, and yet it wound up being one of the most intriguing and gripping films of the year. Now, one can argue that Hooper did the same with The King’s Speech by taking a low-conflict plot and making it genuinely entertaining and poignant, but Hooper’s wisest decisions were the ones made in regards to his cast– namely, he used the film as a staging for their performances and chooses to highlight their talent rather than succumb to personal vanity. In other words, The King’s Speech rides more on the strength of Firth, Rush, and even Bonham-Carter than it does on Hooper. And you can give Hooper credit for that, but it’s not enough to elevate him above Fincher as a director. If I have one genuine problem with the evening, it’s the way that this category went down. No, Fincher didn’t get robbed, he didn’t get snubbed, and it’s not like Hooper fumbled the movie and put everything on his actors. He did a great job, and certainly is deserving of honors– just not moreso than Fincher.

So that’s my one gripe of the show. I’m happy that The King’s Speech won Best Picture, and I’m really happy to see Inception get the recognition it deserves. I do, however, separate “gripes” from “disappointments”, and while I knew it would happen I nevertheless felt a little let down when Inside Job one the Best Documentary trophy. Loved that Charles Ferguson immediately went into a line about how it’s such a darn shame that crooked financial execs have not yet been brought to justice for screwing their country over…and then just as quickly pronounced that it’s not about politics. (Charles, hint: at that point in the game, you’re already several words over the line.) It’s no surprise whatsoever to see Inside Job win given its politics and given its high relevance, but Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real gem and a window into a culture alien to most of us. I freely admit that I wanted to see it win to see who would collect it almost as much as I wanted to see it win because it’s a great movie. Missed opportunity, Academy– at least Justin Timberlake tried to get in on the Banksy jokes.

In other news: Portman and Firth won. Who saw that coming? Everybody? Cool! Let’s have a “Precognition” party! Look, these two categories were just as decided as Best Picture and Best Animated Picture; if you were guessing anybody else had a chance then you were more optimistic than the rest of us, for which I applaud you. But it’s not just that Firth and Portman had the best campaigns and the most hype– they also turned out, almost without argument, the two best performances in their categories for 2010, with literally no serious competition to stand in their respective ways. Portman arguably could have been bested by Bening, but a) The Kids Are All Right was embraced and released almost within the same motion, and b) Bening’s performance just wasn’t Oscar worthy. (Or good.) And maybe Bardem had a snowball’s chance against Firth– after all, we’re talking about the first man to be nominated for Best Actor for a non-English role. That’s got to be worth style points to someone, though clearly not to someones. And of course the story’s the same in the Supporting categories, though here I really only wanted to see The King’s Speech dominate. For one, Rush is a hoss and he’s overdue for some recognition. For another, Bonham-Carter’s performance in your 2011 Best Picture winner proves that she really needs to break away from her domestic partner’s stable and make films with other people. At least her time in Harry Potter is close to an end, and maybe that will lead her to seek more roles outside of the fantasy/Burton genres. Frankly, I think that’d be great for everybody.

Overall? Well, it was an awards show. It was the Oscars. Everything that happens on the Oscars, and that people expect to happen on the Oscars, happened. Backs were patted, egos were stroked, and, yes, talent was recognized. But at the end of things, I still feel like I’m missing out on something when it comes to these shindigs; just the idea of keeping track of the winners, the losers, and the nominees– not to mention the total categories– is exhausting. Admittedly the show went pretty smoothly and very little actually dragged out, and the hosts and general shenanigans made everything easier to digest. So in the end, I had a pretty good time, and I’m pretty happy to see almost nothing but greatness awarded across the board.And the ultimate result of all of that?

I might come back next year with no reservations whatsoever. Check back in 2012.

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