Over the Thanksgiving weekend, certain things started to crystallize about this year's Best Picture Oscar race. Films like "Hugo," "My Week With Marilyn" and "The Artist" opened, joining the already-percolating "The Descendants" and earlier hopeful nominees like "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball" and "The Help." Studios held sneak screenings of two more that aren't due in theaters for weeks yet, "War Horse" and "We Bought A Zoo," leaving Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" the biggest contender yet to be revealed.
And as many, including Awards Daily's Sasha Stone, have started to notice, there's something of a recurring theme here. These films are, for the most part, crowd-pleasers, aiming for the heart over the head, and more often than not, seemingly reducing audiences to tears. It's not that they don't deal with tough subjects, with grief, infidelity, racism, 9/11, war and suicide among the topics covered. But they are all, to varying degrees, comfort food, sharing a certain nostalgia (bar perhaps "Moneyball" and 'Zoo') for by-gone eras; in other words, the very definition of what's traditionally be seen as an "Oscar movie." Hell, even the experimental "The Tree of Life" is a film rooted in a longing for the past.
We don't necessarily mean this is as a slight. There are films on that list that this writer likes very much. There are films that this writer doesn't. There are one or two that we haven't seen yet. But with all these films connecting with both audiences and critics, there's clearly a trend here. When "The Help," a film whose message is "wasn't racism bad when they used to have it in the olden days," is the most socially-engaged of the quote-unquote best films of the year, you know people are in the mood for escapism. They are light, and fun, and make you tear up, and are not likely to keep you arguing in the theater lobby long after the screening has finished. That's fine — cinema is a broad church, and not every great film has to reinvent the artform or feel ripped from the headlines. But it does seem odd that almost every one of the films in contention are relative crowd-pleasers.
The reasons for this might be varied, but we suspect it involves the tough times. When the news is so depressing, with economies collapsing, and people rioting, and wars still ongoing, people are connecting principally with films that talk about days gone by (something true even of the less crowd-pleasing "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" or "J. Edgar"), or offer a cathartic cry, than with films that reflect the era in which they were created, or really get into the nitty-gritty of human existence (fans of "The Descendants" might disagree, but for us, it's a film of platitudes, with scattered moments of truthfulness), or even push the art of cinema forward.
So what's new, right? The Academy is an aged body that consistently goes for the wrong movies and ignore the right ones, favoring soft fare over hard, and it should be no surprise that these are the films expected to connect with them. Well, yes. But also no. Let's not forget, Best Picture nominated films in the 1970s, admittedly something of a golden age, included "Five Easy Pieces," "M*A*S*H," "The French Connection," "The Godfather," "Deliverance," "The Exorcist," "Cries and Whispers," "Chinatown," "The Conversation," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Nashville," "All The President's Men," "Network," "Taxi Driver," "An Unmarried Woman" and "Apocalypse Now."
But days gone by, right? Those who voted for those films have become conservative in old age, and favor the safe stuff that doesn't go anywhere near the boundaries, let alone push them? Again, this is partly true, but partly not. Let's not forget, that golden era of the 1970s also saw "Airport, "Fiddler on the Roof," "Nicholas and Alexandra," "The Sting," "The Towering Inferno," "Rocky," "The Goodbye Girl," and "Heaven Can Wait," milquetoast blockbusters as misbegotten as any of late, nominated, while nominees and winners in recent memory include tough, complex, even experimental fare, films including "The Insider," "In The Bedroom," "Traffic," "Capote," "No Country For Old Men," "Michael Clayton," "There Will Be Blood," "A Serious Man," "The Hurt Locker," "Black Swan," "The Social Network" and "Winter's Bone." The idea that the Oscars has become exclusively the realm of comforting crowdpleasers rather than great film is a fallacy.
Academy membership is an ever-shifting thing. It'll always be true that it leans old, simply because it's a lifetime gig. They don't release exact figures, but we're pretty sure that the majority of its 6000 members are over the age of 60. But new members are added all the time as this year, Russell Brand, Ellen Page, Anthony Mackie, Gregg Araki, John Cameron Mitchell and Daniel Waters all were invited into the club. And while a move into conservatism in old age is obviously common, that's not always the case. Think of Francis Ford Coppola, now remixing his films on an iPad in front of live audiences. As recent history has shown, there's a significant enough proportion of the group that won't go for traditional "Oscar movies."
And so we come, very belatedly, to the point. The rule change this year means that 5% of first choice votes are needed to win a best picture nomination. And it's easy to imagine that at least 5% of membership (a mere 300 people) won't want to pick the nostalgia of "The Artist" or "Hugo" or "Midnight in Paris," or the sentimentality of "War Horse." The front-runners might all be crowd-pleasers, but crowd-pleasers don't necessarily please everyone, and there are some who might wish to place their vote for something more significant.
There are warm-and-fuzzy choices that could qualify. "The Descendants" is well-regarded, after all, and its bittersweet quality might fit into that demographic, even if some of them might feel, like ourselves, that it's Diet Payne. "Moneyball" is fearsomely smart in a "Social Network" stylee, and Bennett Miller gives it a mostly unsentimental sheen, while still managing to make it play like gangbusters. From what we hear, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is more restrained than the sugar-fest you might be expecting. But it also could mean that some films that we've dismissed from the running, for the most part, have a serious chance of getting in.
We'd figured that the uncompromisingly unlikable nature of the central character in "Young Adult" would be a big sticking block. We'd assumed that the NC-17 rating and explicit sexuality of "Shame" would drive most away. We'd guessed that the rape-and-murder quotient of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" would count it out. But in a field with so much sentimentality (and again, we're not necessarily using sentimental as an insult here), there seems to be a hole for a film with a little darkness, and while "The King's Speech" was a classic Oscar-type victor last year, the trend of late ("The Hurt Locker," "No Country For Old Men," "The Departed") has been towards complex, grown-up fare, and that's the kind of thing that's not really been discussed much so far. At the very least, it means that the less well-received heart-warmers, say "We Bought A Zoo" or "My Week With Marilyn," have a tougher road ahead of them.
We're not saying these films will win. We're not saying there's a late surge towards "Melancholia" or anything. The Academy has a certain pendulum-like quality, and it's entirely possible that we're swinging back towards another conservative period like the mid 80s, and all this will come to naught. And with the new rules, it's possible, nay likely, that a 9th or 10th slot, where something like "Shame" might have fit last year as "Winter's Bone" did, will now fail to gain the 5% of first choice votes needed to qualify. But with "War Horse," "The Artist" and "Hugo," among others, all courting the same demographic of voters, there's a significant chance that other voters will start to look elsewhere. And we sort of hope they do.
And that split vote starts to look crucial when you get to the post-nomination voting. Whereas "The Artist" once looked like the clear popular favorite, it now has serious competition from Scorsese and Spielberg. Last year was a two-way race for Best Picture between "The Social Network" and "The King's Speech," resulting in victory for the latter, but what if the voters for it had been torn between three philosophically-similar films? Or more? At the very least, if our thesis is correct, it bodes well for the slightly more thoughtful "The Descendants" or "Moneyball," or even the hard-edged "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," should that deliver. At this point, we're posing questions more than making predictions, but the idea is more feasible than it seemed a few weeks ago.