Part of The Oscar Experience, a regular series exploring the key movies and factors at play during Academy Awards season.
“Feel good movies.” Does the term fill you with dread or leave you feeling, well, good? With top ten lists piling up accompanied by celebratory capsules of the year’s best, I’d like to put this out there: the cinema is always a feel good experience if the movie is good, whether the movie is a brutal and brilliant metaphor for the apocalyptic masochism of severe depression (Hi, Melancholia!) or ends with an exuberantly pleasurable dance number (The Artist).
Nevertheless, year end list-making and the annual Oscar fever that follows sometimes turn “Feel Bad” right quick. One person’s glee-inducing stocking suffer is another person’s lump of coal. You don’t have to look too far to find your own favorites lambasted in someone else’s “worst of the year” or “overrated” lists.
I recently watched Arthur Christmas, a madcap animated farce about three generations of Santa Clauses springing into action when one child’s gift is forgotten. Arthur’s comedic conceit, that Christmas magic happens only with a team of thousands of elves and advanced sci-fi technology, yields a few big laughs. I loved the image of elves wielding “Naughty or Nice” meters to determine whether kids would get wonderful gifts or lumps of coal for the big holiday.
So herewith, a Naughty and Nice style breakdown of what we think is going on in key Oscar categories. Oscar ballots hit the mail on Tuesday December 27th so we hope AMPAS members spend the holiday watching their screeners so their voting will be more informed; I can’t imagine Vanessa Redgrave continuing to fly under the radar if they actually decide to watch their Coriolanus screeners.
GIFTS: Regardless of the merits of the performances, the category is currently led by Viola Davis (The Help), Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn), and Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady). That’s three enormously talented women who regularly deliver for moviegoers. The next three in line for the two remaining spots are also huge talents: Charlize Theron (Young Adult), Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk about Kevin).
If the final five is any combo of these names, it’s going to be one of the oldest skewing lineup in years, which will be a nice break from Hollywood’s typical preference for younger women in the Best Actress category. Statistically speaking, most Best Actress statues are won between the ages of 29 and 34 (good news for Michelle Williams who is 31; this love of young women could also benefit Rooney Mara [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] or Elizabeth Olsen [Martha Marcy May Marlene]). Only six actresses over 50 have ever won the lead actress prize. But no matter how the nominations shake out, this was a winning year for moviegoers with great female performances from a wide range of actresses in multiple genres.
LUMPS OF COAL: In all likelihood, Oscar won’t be able to break through their insufferable belief that mimicry is the single greatest form of acting, almost the only style of acting worth honoring year in and year out, with Williams’ Marilyn and Streep’s Iron Lady both within reach of a win. The imaginative collaborative creation of vivid original characters is consistently devalued by Oscar and unfortunately by critics, too. Note: Williams has won the most critics prizes this year and none have gone to Theron in Young Adult or Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia (who were as good or better at playing dazzling, destructive blondes).
GIFTS: With a lineup that’s likely to include George Clooney (The Descendants), Brad Pitt (Moneyball), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), and possibly Michael Fassbender (Shame) and Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar), the Best Actor category will be uncharacteristically more movie star glamourous than Best Actress. Whether or not he wins, it’s wonderful that Pitt’s career peak looks likely to be acknowledged with a nomination: Moneyball and The Tree of Life in one year? Now he’s just showing off!
LUMPS OF COAL: For many people Gary Oldman’s likely shut out will be a lump of coal on Oscar nomination morning, but it’s impressive that he stayed in the discussion at all given that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a true ensemble piece and his role has virtually no Oscar hooks or ceremony ready “clips.” It’s also sad to assume that Ryan Gosling’s tremendous year won’t net him a second nom; his Drive performance is A+ iconic star acting even if it isn’t “Oscary” in the usual ways. I’d rather see either or them and just about any one instead of another overworked DiCaprio biopic performance (You need only be cast in one and Oscar will ink you in), with Leo again asked to be constipated and anguished as an unhappy man suppressing secrets. Someone give this man a comedy before his face freezes.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
GIFTS: Though the eventual shortlist might not reflect it, it’s been a terrific year for comedic screenplays. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was his funniest in some time, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is hilarious for at least half its running time, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumulo’s Bridesmaids provided a funny template for the improv-friendly comedy that followed and Diablo Cody again proved herself as a true original wit with Young Adult.
LUMPS OF COAL: Two of the best screenplays of the year, Mike Mills’s touching father son drama Beginners and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation may find themselves on the outside looking in which is too bad as they both reap tremendous humanist rewards from their complicated emotional terrain. Will Reiser’s cancer comedy 50/50 seems to have more traction than either of them, perhaps buoyed by the great personal story (these things matter in awards) which is frustrating. The movie is not without its merits but it’s awfully uneven to be winning “Best” anything. Why does its sexism get such a free pass with critics?
GIFTS: Hugo and The Artist both celebrate the movies and if Oscar has to get all romantic and sentimental, better to do it at the movies than anywhere else. The Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball… it’s been a good year for films and the Oscar lineup might just reflect that.
LUMPS OF COAL: If you’re hoping for new blood it’s just not your year. Automatic Oscar traction and critical goodwill usually follows icons like Martin Scorsese, Allen, Terrence Malick, Steven Spielberg and Alexander Payne by virtue of them just showing up, provided that they don’t bomb spectacularly. War Horse comes closest to doing so, but few people seem to mind since it’s Spielberg and he gets a lot of rope each time. That there were so many icons working this year makes it more difficult for the fresher voices or the more challenging films to get a foothold.
Would Farhadi (A Separation) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), whose efforts are better than most of the frontrunners, have gathered more steam if all of these icons weren’t still sitting in their director’s chairs, blocking the way?
When it comes to this year’s Oscar race are you expecting naughty or nice results? Which nomination would be a total lump of coal in your stocking?
Nathaniel Rogers is the creator of TheFilmExperience.net, a popular web destination for actress enthusiasts, Oscar obsessives and people who believe in cinema beyond the latest blockbuster. He works as a freelance writer in New York City.