Check the Reel: And the Oscar goes to…

February 29, 2012

During the 84th Academy Awards broadcast, I was travelling back to Galesburg by car and unable to watch the ceremony, yet aside from certain quibbles about the presentation — questionable blackface from Billy Crystal, a surplus of montages and sound issues — it’s the nominations and winners that make the Oscars, not the skits, not the musical numbers, not even the fashion despite what entertainment magazines will have you think. … It’s about who is eligible for the honor and who receives it.

On both ends, this year’s Oscars largely delivered as expected: safe and predictable nominates mixed with a few carefully planned “surprises,” and victories we predicted a mile away. None of the winners were undeserving: “Midnight in Paris” was a dead ringer for Best Original Screenplay, even if Woody Allen wants nothing to do with the Oscars, and the one-two punch of Flight of the Conchords’ Brett McKenzie and “The Muppets” winning Best Original Song made me smile. Yes, it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes when Meryl Streep lands another acting award (where does she keep all those statuettes?) and maybe “The Artist” doesn’t have the majesty and experimental bravado of “The Tree of Life,” but they’re all successes I can support.

And yet there’s something about the list of honored films that sets me the wrong way. I didn’t feel any major sparks of excitement looking at the nominees, a problem that goes beyond this year’s Oscars and pervades the whole establishment. What’s the deal?

Let’s broach the issue this way: what are the main reasons people dislike the Oscars? “Too many independent movies,” some say. “If it’s small budget and rarely seen, that’s all the Academy needs. Blockbusters like ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’ can be as good as they want, they’ll only get a technical award or two.” Back before the Best Picture category expanded from five films to (about) ten, this was a serious shortcoming, hitting its peak with the callous treatment of “The Dark Knight” and “Wall-E” at 2008’s ceremony. Today, the mainstream stigma has slowly receded, not as apparent this year but seen with the several nominations given to “Avatar,” “District 9,” “Toy Story 3,” “Inception” and “Inglourious Basterds” in the last three years.

Even today, I’m not upset that “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” didn’t land the Best Picture list. As the conclusion to an ambitious, eight-part literary adaption, it hit all the right notes and gave Harry Potter fans what they expected, but never realized its vision with the undeniable artistry that earned “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” Best Picture. 2011 was an empty year for hard-hitting blockbusters, aside from maybe “Bridesmaids,” and it’s no loss to see Best Picture graced solely by independent features.

“All the big pictures are the same!” others yell. “The Oscar always goes to heartwarming, feel-good dramas over experimental, big idea genre films.” Now we’re getting somewhere! A look at Best Picture shows that saccharine melodramas — “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “War Horse,” “The Help,” “The Descendants” and “Moneyball” — dominated the landscape. All — excepting the execrable and cloying “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” — are good movies. But it’s a one-note playing field in a year with some of the most interesting films yet.

In fact, indie films suffered most over this genre prejudice. “Drive,” an urban Western with laser-perfect performances from Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks, received only a cursory Sound Editing nomination. “Shame,” “Melancholia” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin” were even more unfortunate. Dealing starkly with hypersexuality, Armageddon and teen shootings, these films had no chance in hell of reaching the Oscar show. And indeed, they were nowhere to be found come Feb. 26.

There are other problems too, of course — no “Winnie the Pooh” for Best Animated Feature, a dearth of Best Song nominees (only two this year), refusal to acknowledge Andy Serkis’ motion-cap work as acting — but it all comes down to a lack of variety. The Academy, as all awards shows tend to be, is conservative in its definition of the good movie. Science fiction, thrillers, superhero flicks and bleaker dramas continue to struggle for merit, and it is my hope that next year we will see a wider range of topics, genres and moods in the award selection.

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