In an ideal world, according to a majority of the 29 critics and writers polled by indieWIRE this week, "The Social Network" reigns supreme. The Facebook saga has been deemed worthy of several top prizes at the Oscars on Sunday, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.
By now, however, most people are realists. According to the consensus, "The King's Speech" has several big prizes on lockdown. The Weinstein Company played the campaign game well--but "The Social Network," with its calculated embodiment of America's cultural Zeitgeist, the changing modes of communication and a nascent generation of ruthless competition, deserves to win it.
The Weinstein brothers are widely regarded as game changers in Oscar history, hucksters whose finesse with finicky Oscar voters transformed the awards season into a propaganda battlefield. Post-Weinstein trickery, "The Social Network" would seem like the ideal Oscar darling. Unlike the British-produced "The King's Speech," Fincher's movie is a quintessential American story, and so are the Oscars.
A valued national pastime just a few notches below baseball (but far easier on the eyes), the 83-year-old event has an almost ritualistic following. If the movies released in this country reflect its collective identity, then the Oscars give it a face and the Kodak Theater provides its wardrobe.
At Sunday's ceremony, a number of factors will invoke the Oscars' cultural weight: Anyone can submit questions to red carpet guests via Twitter (@TheAcademy) and through the Academy's official Facebook page. The highly touted "virtual set" has been designed to carry viewers through several decades of American movies, implicating both the audience in the room and the millions of viewers at home in the annals of Oscar history. The message is clear: We are all Oscar.
That's the stuff they're smoking, anyway. But everybody takes a hit at some point, whether or not they choose to buy it. Decrying the Oscars as a "ludicrously overhyped, trivial spectacle of industry narcissism," The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis admitted she can't wait to attend the ceremony over the weekend. Writing for The New Republic, David Thomson echoed everyone else by prematurely awarding Best Picture to "The King's Speech." "Is it a good film?" he concluded. "It doesn't matter."
What, then, does matter? Much of the fanfare surrounding the Oscars has little to do with the actual art of making movies; the fetishization of details takes prominence. At indieWIRE headquarters, we've been inundated with press releases announcing hilarious non sequiturs ranging from analysis of actresses' lips to Oscar-brand cocktails and newly designed envelopes. "Will Twitter predict the Oscar?" asked one e-mail headline. Maybe it can tell us if Natalie Portman will take the podium, but it won't tell us what she'll wear. (That being said, some fashion pundits have wagered a few guesses.)
A little more sanity is in store for Saturday afternoon's Spirit awards. indieWIRE's contributors consider "Winter's Bone" to be the current frontrunner, whereas it barely managed to slip into the Best Picture race at the Oscars. But the room will also contain faces and names from a much broader spectrum of contemporary cinema, the sort of widespread recognition that the Oscars can rarely sustain. Nominees like Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Stiller will sit alongside "Daddy Longlegs" star Ronald Bronstein and "Tiny Furniture" cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. If the Oscars are America, then this preceding ceremony is its backlot.
Nevertheless, the most complex cinematic arrangement lies at the bigger event on Sunday. The Best Foreign Film contenders deal with darker themes than any of the frontrunners for Best Picture, and the documentary category comes down to a surreal duel between economic turmoil and creative inauthenticity. That latter scenario, where "Inside Job" faces competition from "Exit Through the Gift Shop," embodies the essence of the Oscars. Charles Ferguson's breakdown of the global financial crisis supports the argument that movies exist to deliver ideas, while Banksy's movie comically displays how anyone can make them up and get some attention for it. Somewhere between those two pronouncements, these insanely reductive award shows have the semblance of a purpose.