The 83rd Academy Awards

As an award-following blog (though admittedly I’m “following” awards that are almost a century out of date, at present), it would be hard to let the Academy Awards go by without comment.  As it happens, though, I’m a huge fan of the Academy Awards.  This is not, it should be pointed out, a popular stance in the Oscar-watching blogs this time of year.  This is when Oscar-obsessed film bloggers, their eyes bugging out of their heads, screech about the “middlebrow taste” of the Academy, denounce the “bourgeois” tripe that is likely to get this year’s awards, and lament that the awards aren’t handed out by discerning critics who appreciate film history….people a lot like them.  The fact that these critics can’t agree between themselves on which films are “important” never seems to bother them.

The truth is, it’s really hard to agree on matters of taste—a fact even the ancient world was familiar with, given that “de gustibus non est disputandum” is handed down to us from those good old days.  The fact that film critics think they’re better qualified to pick award-winners than the people who actually make great films is not surprising…but it’s also a bit irksome, from my perspective.  I’m not saying the actors and directors and cinematographers are automatically more qualified to have an opinion—I just think their opinions shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.  People are always too willing to enshrine their personal opinions as “facts about the world”, rather than points of view.  I don’t begrudge anyone the right to express themselves clearly, but bashing other opinions (or, just as bad, explaining why people are “duped” or “following their hearts and not their heads” or whatever other excuses you make for why “your” movie won’t win) feels cheap to me.

All this talk about the Oscars, of course, has an important parallel with the Pulitzers, awards that (unlike the Oscars) are not generally chosen by those who work in the field, but also awards that (like the Oscars) often face the charge of being “middlebrow”, “boring”, and “safe”.  I don’t know, but wonder, what the novelists, essayists, and poets of the 1920s would have done if they’d had the Pulitzers to hand out.  Sure, we dream that they’d have picked a lot of Fitzgerald and Hemingway.  But I wonder if Tarkington wouldn’t have been just as successful.

I’m rambling, though, and I want to fixate on a couple of things about this year’s Oscars.  First of all, this vitriolic atmosphere on the Internet is about the only sour thing for me about this year’s awards.  I’ve seen 9 of the 10 Best Picture nominees (couldn’t watch James Franco cut his arm off—I’m sure it was a great film, honestly, but I just couldn’t bring myself to see it), and a wide range of other films: at least one nominee in every category but makeup, foreign language film, and documentary short subject, and a total of 24 films (feature and short).  And I’ve really enjoyed all but 2 of them, which is an astounding record in my opinion—I’ll admit that I can’t find anything to praise about a live-action short called “The Crush” (I have to believe there were better options), but I could even list off some good things about the other film I didn’t enjoy (“The Kids Are All Right”—I’m sorry, people, I don’t see what everyone was talking about).  And the other films were astounding, moving, thoughtful, gripping, funny…frankly, if liking these films makes my taste “middlebrow”, then may my forehead stay where it is forever.  Sure, I preferred some to others (and would be disappointed if some nominees beat out others, since I think there are some truly deserving winners this year), but I just can’t tap into this Internet anger—anger that’s primarily directed against what I think is likely the best film I saw this year, “The King’s Speech”, because it’s expected to defeat the film the critics call my generation’s movie, “The Social Network” (which, frankly, was also really good).

It’s caused me to wonder if people are more irrational about movies than books.  I mean, I can get pretty outraged about a bad book (some of you read my review on this blog of The Able McLaughlins….a review that, in all honesty, I probably should have reined myself in on more than I did).  And so can other people I know.  But I feel like I’ve seen (and participated in) louder and more diametrically opposed arguments about movies than ever about books.  There’s something a lot more emotional about these disagreements.  But am I right?  Or am I just reacting to this Oscar catfight with a misguided (and inaccurate) view of the conversations we have about books?  And if I’m right, why is it that we get more fired up about films (denigrating those we hate and worshiping those we love)?  I’m not arguing that people love films more than books in general—I’m saying that when people disagree about the merits of a film, they’re more passionate than when they disagree about a book.  And I might be wrong.

I’ll probably say a bit more after the Oscars.  For now, let me tell you to track down and see a couple of films that probably will get little attention tomorrow, since I think they’re worthy of more praise than that.  Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” is unlike the movies you normally see, because it’s essentially about good people who do their best to enjoy regular lives—actors who inhabit people, not roles, and who make you want to hang out with them in their backyard or go out to garden with them.  It won’t blow your mind, but as an exploration of love, and luck, and friendship, it’s pretty great.  And though the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” got some deserved good press, it’s gotten lost in the buzz for other films, and frankly I think it’s right up there with the best films I saw this year—fantastic dialogue, moving music, unbelievably gorgeous cinematography (which I hope is recognized: Roger Deakins is amazing), and wonderful performances spearheaded by a little girl named Hailee Steinfeld who you’ve never seen before (but who strikes me as having the presence and maturity to remain talented through the awkward transition years of her late teens).  Lastly, this year’s Live-Action Short Films are really pretty great—whether you like romantic comedy (“God of Love”), touching coming-of-age (“Wish 143”), or a serious take on the genocide in Burundi (“Na Wewe”), each of these will do more for you in 20 minutes than a lot of films can in 5 times that length.  Comcast will show you all 5 for $5 through OnDemand, and maybe poking around the Internet will find you links to them too (or perhaps you can buy them on iTunes).  No one watches short films anymore, I know: watch these to discover what you’ve been missing.

A poll for Oscar week

Given that at least mild enthusiasm was expressed in favor of the occasional poll, I thought I’d put out a poll this week in anticipation of the Academy Awards, asking your opinion on the best adaptation of a novel to film.  The options provided are some favorites of mine (and some that are widely praised), but if I’ve set it up right, you can type in your own answer (and I hope you will).  And I encourage some conversation in the comments about good and bad adaptations you’ve seen—it would be nice to hear what folks have to say!