As 2010 draws to a close, certain cultural standards remain firmly in place: "American Idol" is still the top show, and the Oscar season is still a popularity contest. Studios work so hard to make sure their movies get noticed that the media hoopla almost entirely revolves around how much various marketing efforts can make voters notice the hype. Movies? What movies? Less about the actual product than the quality of its paint job, the awards season generally amounts to little more than "American Idol" with movie stars.
Case in point: Natalie Portman's upcoming baby bump. Recent news that the "Black Swan" star got knocked up by the movie's choreographer, New York Ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied — whom she intends to marry — would normally appear in the tabloids and virtually nowhere else. But given Portman's current status as a front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar, the pregnancy news immediately became fodder for eager pundits.
Journalists reasonably wondered whether Portman's pregnancy could impact her ability to campaign for the gold. Some suggested that it might actually improve her chances. After all, fellow contender Annette Bening merely plays a middle-aged lesbian mother in "The Kids Are Alright," while Portman really dances in "Black Swan," and it's quite obvious now that she paid very close attention to her instructor. Ordinarily the stuff of gossip, Portman's pregnancy creates the perception of a deep personal commitment to her performance — she gave herself over to the role to the extent that it merged with her life.
The popularity contest tends to make dark horses even darker. Aaron Sorkin is an obvious lock for Best Adapted Screenplay partly because "The Social Network" owes much of its appeal to his zippy deconstruction of unbridled youth ambition, but mainly because he's Aaron Sorkin. Voters understand the guy and know his work. They relish the opportunity to award his talent, trouncing comparatively original contenders for the same category such as "Winter's Bone," "I Love You Phillip Morris" and even "127 Hours," which during another year would be less of an underdog.
Speaking of "Another Year": Mike Leigh's marvelous mid-life crisis drama, one of my favorites of 2010, suffers from that frustrating condition where a movie walks too softly to reach the stature of the giants surrounding it. Leigh has always had a tough time getting the Academy to notice his shrewd approach to character development, and he's not that into the whole campaigning process at any rate. But star Lesley Manville, once considered at the top of the crop for the Best Actress category, has started to slip — while, in the Best Supporting Actress category, "The Fighter" star Melissa Leo has started to rise.
Leo, whose nomination for "Frozen River" in 2009 took many by surprise, has a better shot this time around. As the mother of sibling boxers played by Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, she's memorable for being loud, wide-eyed and overall extraordinarily beast-like in her evocation of maternal intensity (although I prefer Jacki Weaver filling a comparable role in "Animal Kingdom"). That seems more likely to sell voters than Manville's solemn portrait of middle-aged desperation in "Another Year."
The problem plagues virtually every category this year. Voters may love Jeff Bridges in "True Grit," but Colin Firth does stutterers proud in "The King's Speech," and it's "his turn," anyway. "I Am Love" is unquestionably a better family drama than "The Kids Are All Right," but the former throws people off with its brooding nature, while "Kids" assumes a life-affirming pose. (Destined for a similar fate, "Rabbit Hole"—another family drama—will keep "I Am Love" warm in the corner.)
Thanks to the Pixar Touch, "Toy Story 3" naturally has the Best Animated Feature category locked down. But Disney wants more for the movie and has aimed its crosshairs on a Best Picture nomination. If that meant it had to rescind a place in the other category, I'd suggest making room for the barely-seen but equally eligible "Idiots and Angels," the finest feature-length accomplishment by legendary indie animator Bill Plympton. Miraculously short-listed for the Oscar earlier this year, "Idiots" lacks the resources for a hearty campaign, and with only three slots in the whole category, chances are strong that most voters won't even notice it.
One of the best reviewed movie of the year, "Toy Story 3" made tons of money and gave millions of audiences exactly what they wanted. Yet the question of whether it really needs the Oscar when it has already achieved so many other feats has no relevance here; the Pixar Touch is infallible. Even "How to Train Your Dragon," which also dwarfs the prospects of "Idiots and Angels," doesn't stand a chance.
One of the more curious clashes of values exists in the Best Documentary category. Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman" will run up against Banksy's "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which could mark the biggest underdog triumph of the year if it wins. An anonymous graffiti artist whose movie decries the modern commercial depreciation of artistic value could legitimately invade the biggest commercial event on the Hollywood calendar. A nomination alone would prove that not every champion needs to play into market standards in order to come close to the podium. Then again, "Superman," which is less a movie than the formulation of a cause, could easily confirm that voters prefer to play it safe and vote for a message that ruffles the fewest feathers in the room.
The superficiality of the Oscar race can sometimes damage the reputations of the front-runners, which look like old news by the time the actual ceremony takes place. That should offer some solace for some of the commendable mid-size movies of 2010. "Phillip Morris" does amusingly complex things with tone and should wear its obscurity with pride. "The American" is a fascinatingly spare anti-thriller that also defies basic categorization. "Let Me In" elegantly taps into the oppressiveness of childhood alienation through the allegorical qualities of the vampire subgenre, but try explaining that to voters faced with more readily classifiable options. "Cyrus" proves that advanced improv techniques can actually translate into familiar comedic tropes, but the Duplass brothers exist in too small of a niche for the Academy to take notice yet. Uniquely beloved, these movies exist off the beaten path , but maybe they say enough simply by staying there.