I love the Oscars. They’re my Superbowl, or Stanley Cup, or whatever big exciting sports event you prefer, and I’ve only missed them once in the last 27 years. I’ve been throwing Oscar parties for 14 years, with an annual betting pool I almost never win. And, on top of all that, I do my best to see all the best picture nominees before the ceremony. Since teaming with an even-more devoted friend, I haven’t missed a best picture nominee since 2008, when no power in the ‘verse could make me care enough to watch Atonement.
But they do not make it easy.
Every year the accusations of the Academy being out of touch with contemporary tastes fly, and every year the Academy does everything in its power to earn those complaints. Sure, now and then they’ll make a token attempt to seem “hip” or “with it,” like having Cirque du Soleil do a tribute to action sequences, or hiring someone with youth appeal to host and then immediately regretting it, but they’re still going to fill the nominee list with obscure art house movies that nobody saw.
Even after they hit a breaking point, and changed the best picture rules. They went from five nominees to up to ten, supposedly so they’d be able to sneak in some more popular films, but instead just nominate even more obscure movies nobody cares about.
And frankly, sometimes a movie makes the cut that just really shouldn’t have. A movie that makes one have to ask… Academy, are you even trying?
Examples, you ask? But of course.
2008: The Reader
2009 (the year they handed out trophies for 2008, in case you think I mistyped) was the breaking point. 2009 was the year the Academy had to stop and take stock. 2009 was the year that the North American (and, I assume, international) viewing public was pushed as far as they could by the obscurity of the nominees. And as such, 2009 was the year that the traditional “Oscar bump,” a surge in ticket sales that followed receiving a nomination, failed to materialize, at least not to the extent it typically had.
And the poster child for this? Not the bland, weirdly unambitious Curious Case of Benjamin Button (in which Brad Pitt ages backwards but nobody seems to care), but The Reader. Specifically, why nominate The Reader and not, say, The Dark Knight? One of the most highly reviewed movies of the year and a massive, massive hit. You’d think, said the populace, that a film that proved itself to be a favourite of critics and audiences alike on that scale would at least warrant a nomination. And some replied “Just because it made literally a billion dollars at the box office doesn’t mean it’s a best picture contender.”
But the real question, beyond “Why not the Dark Knight,” is “Why the fucking Reader?”
Why it didn’t deserve the nod: The Reader barely even knew what it was about. Was it about the Holocaust? Illiteracy? Injustice? Who knows. It’s all over the place.
Teenager Michael Berg has an affair with Hanna, an older woman (Kate Winslet), that supposedly affects every relationship he has for the rest of his life. Like, right away. He’s unable to connect with or commit to other women because of this three-month affair, due to… I don’t know. It’s not clear. Her only winning attribute seemed to be “Willing to have sex with him,” and while she may have been the first woman with that particular willingness she was not, by any stretch, unique.
But fine, she was his first great love and her disappearing at the end of the summer hurt him in a way that younger, blonder co-eds couldn’t cure. I’ll cede that for now. Ten years later, he sees her again… on trial for war crimes. She was part of a group of SS women that locked a bunch of Jewish prisoners in a burning church, and the other defendants are claiming she wrote out the orders and is therefore more responsible than they are. A claim which Michael knows to be untrue, because he knows her secret: she’s illiterate. She couldn’t possibly have written out the orders. She won’t admit it, because she’s been hiding her illiteracy her whole life (it’s the only reason she was even in the SS), and takes the fall. Michael, in shock over his love being a Nazi war criminal, remains silent and lets her go away.
And lets a group of other war criminals lie their way into reduced sentences. Let’s not forget that. In not defending Hanna he lets all the other defendants walk away. And that’s where I call bullshit. Either Hanna’s his one great love (again–they were together for three months when he was 17) that haunts him for the rest of his days, or she’s someone he cares so little for that he’ll let a gang of war criminals frame her and send her to prison for decades. Pick a side.
The plot makes no real sense. The characters’ motivations are fuzzy at best. On Rotten Tomatoes, it scored an anemic 61%, barely ahead of My Bloody Valentine 3D. But because it’s sort of about the Holocaust, sure, let’s make it a best picture nominee.
What should have replaced it: Even putting aside the Dark Knight, in 2008 we had the Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s heartbreaking story of a washed up pro-wrestler trying to find a purpose in life without the adoration of the crowds.
Not your thing? How about RocknRolla, Guy Ritchie’s urban crime masterpiece? After years of playing in the genre with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, he was firing on all cylinders when he wrote and directed this complex story of criminals and would-be power-players all united by a purloined lucky painting.
No? How about Valkyrie, the true story of the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler? There’s an all star cast of British actors (and, yes, Tom Cruise, I know that’s a dealbreaker for some of you) playing the good Nazis. But no. Let’s nominate the movie about the guy who’s so conflicted about his country’s past he’s stuck in boring, pointless inaction rather than the movie about people who tried to do something.
2009: The Blind Side
A few big hits snuck into the nominees the year after Dark Knight was excluded. There’s Up, from Pixar… there’s Avatar, proving that the Oscars are a billion-dollar whore when it’s James Cameron making it rain… and there’s The Blind Side, in which Sandra Bullock plays a rich woman who takes in a homeless black youth in order to save him from gang life and insert him onto her alma mater’s football team. But mostly the first thing.
Why it didn’t deserve the nod: Maybe one day Hollywood will make an inspirational, Oscar nominated movie about a black person who accomplished something without the aid of a magical white person. It’s not The Help, and it’s not even 12 Years a Slave, but it’s most definitely not The Blind Side.
But I’m singling it out because it’s so aggressively empty. The movie does everything it can for the bulk of the running time to squash any conflict in the story. Michael is immediately accepted into his new home, there’s never a second thought, any resistance to him playing football for the college is quashed by Sandra Bullock’s southern sassiness, even the gang he used to run with is no match for her Kentucky-fried stubbornness… and then at the very end, it generates the most forced, unbelievable conflict it can to finally inject a little drama into the story. Too little, too late to save this tale of how rich white people can fix everything if they can be bothered to try.
What should have replaced it: I want to say Black Dynamite, the note-perfect parody of 70s blacksploitation films. I also want to say (500) Days of Summer, the amazing deconstruction of “manic pixie dream girl” love stories. But let’s talk A Single Man.
A Single Man is the story of a gay professor in the early 1960s, a time when it was even more difficult to live openly. His partner died in a car crash eight months earlier, and due to the times and his position, he can’t even grieve publicly. He can’t find solace in his best friend, for not even she believes that his one great love was a “real” relationship, and that he just hasn’t tried hard enough to like women (specifically, her). And so he set out to enjoy what he intends to be his last night on Earth.
It might not be as flashy as Milk, but it was an excellent examination of the subtler tragedies of being gay in a less tolerant time. Not that we’ve nailed tolerance today. Which if anything makes it even more worthwhile.
Well I’m not a big fan of 127 Hours and had forgotten entirely about The Kids Are Alright, but I’ll give this year a pass. Nothing that was nominated really offended me. Not like the year after.
2011: The Tree of Life
Fuck this movie. Fuck this movie so hard.
Why it didn’t deserve the nod: Because it’s a two hour screensaver, that’s why! The story, if there even is a story, is incomprehensible. The characters have no depth because it’s impossible to learn anything about them when they’re just wandering around a series of images whose meaning is cloaked in bizarre and off-putting lurching camera work.
After opening with aged-up Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain receiving news that their son (I think?) is dead, and Sean Penn receiving the same news, we cut back to the origin of the universe. Followed by the time of the dinosaurs. Why? I still don’t know. How can this have added to the story when there basically isn’t any story to add to?
I don’t know what the point of this movie was. I hated all of it, every minute, every artistic choice. Nominating Tree of Life for best picture is like nominating the crazy guy screaming at traffic for a Tony.
I mean that was the weakest year for best picture nominees this century, but Jesus fuck.
What should have replaced it: The Muppets. Sure, it had no chance of being nominated for anything but best song (damn right it won that), but I’m saying the Muppets anyway. First of all, because the best picture nominees were a sorry lot that year. Midnight in Paris and The Descendants were good, and The Artist… sure had a neat gimmick, but after that there’s a big drop-off in quality. And second, because no movie in 2011 brought as much sheer, unadulterated joy as the magnificent return of Kermit and crew, and being a movie that fully and magnificently fun to watch has to be better than some piece of garbage that the Academy assumed was good because they didn’t understand it.
And it has Amy Adams. Awards folk love Amy Adams. Because Amy Adams is inherently lovable and nobody can be that out of touch.
2011 Bonus Round: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
2010 got let off the hook, so I have room to mention the second worst nominee from 2011, in which a young boy’s autism cures 9/11.
No, really. He wanders around New York being autistic and people magically get over 9/11, that is what happens. Oskar Schell’s father used to delight him with puzzles and mysteries, but when he’s killed on 9/11 Oskar decides there must be one great mystery left, and in seeking it out, he accidentally helps some other people with their problems. Not that he really cares about that. Or his mother, who is alive, also grieving, and trying to reach out to a son who couldn’t give a fuck about her from what I could tell. Instead, he works with the man who rents a room from his grandmother, who turns out to have (probably) been his grandfather.
It’s a load of wank that builds into basically nothing. Its attempts at emotional manipulation are so obvious they don’t even work. The only reason I can see for it being nominated at all is the 9/11 connection. And maybe the presence of Tom Hanks.
What should have replaced it: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a tense spy drama in which Gary Oldman (doing some of his best work, which is saying something) must figure out which of four British operatives is working for the Soviets. Or My Week With Marilyn, a truly charming movie about a PA who is assigned to keep an eye on Marilyn Monroe while she’s filming The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier, a famously doomed pairing. Or anything that doesn’t ask me to root for a kid who’s being unreasonable and unlikable because his father died a year earlier.
2012: Zero Dark Thirty
The nominees the following year weren’t nearly as bleak as the 2011 crowd. But the low point is probably the story of the ten-year search for Osama bin Laden, which makes you feel every minute of those ten years.
Why it didn’t deserve the nod: How do you make the search for the world’s most wanted terrorist so damned boring? Debate whether the film endorsed torture or revealed it didn’t provide good intel all you want, but once the torture sequence is done, we’re stuck with years upon years of nothing happening. Followed by a sequence in which bin Laden’s location is found… followed by about 15-20 minutes of the lead character (who, by the way, is a complete cipher, devoid of anything we as an audience can relate or connect to) being frustrated that months go by without action on her intel.
Months of the government doing nothing. Makes all the walking in the Lord of the Rings movies look like the battle of New York from The Avengers.
And when they finally do raid the house and kill bin Laden, it’s still boring. There’s no tension, no sense of danger. Say it’s because we know how the story ends if you like, but a quick trip to Wikipedia tells you how fellow nominee Argo ends and that one still had me on the edge of my seat.
What should have replaced it: Skyfall. Yeah, you heard me, Skyfall. An absolute triumph of a Bond movie, again beloved by critics and audiences, and the exact sort of thing they claimed they expanded the best picture category to include. Masterfully directed, tense and exciting in every way Zero Dark Thirty wasn’t, the pinnacle of its craft, with one of the best villain performances out there. The Oscars “honoured” the 50th Anniversary of James Bond with a montage and a performance of Goldfinger, but they should’ve given Skyfall a nomination.
And now we’re weeks away from the announcement of the best picture of 2013. The nominees aren’t quite as pathetic as 2011, with nothing as bad or undeserving as Tree of Life or Extremely Loud (they’d be hard pressed to screw up that hard again so soon), but there’s still a couple in there they could’ve skipped. But I’ll talk about that more soon, when I rank the nominees.