In Contention


THE LONG SHOT: A toast to the douchebags

Posted by Guy Lodge · 5:34 pm · February 24th, 2011

(Not-quite-final predictions here.)

176 days from the unofficial opening of my Oscar season — a breakfast-hour press screening of “Black Swan” on the first day of the Venice Film Festival — it’s fair to say I’m ready for the endgame.

Aren’t we all? Whether you’re delighted or disappointed by where the awards trail has led us thus far, it’s fair to say it offers little further room for discovery. Back in the golden days of September, pundits whittled the race down to “The King’s Speech” versus “The Social Network,” past versus present, comfort versus cred, That Was Then versus This Is My Now. And as much as I clung to the idea that it couldn’t be that simple, they were right.

The axis may have swung in this narrative across the season, and the side-taking may have become more heated in the post-nomination phase, but the fact remains that the increasingly small world of Oscar blogging has largely revolved around two films for the better part of six months. If you want to know what this looped conversation has done to our collective brains, look no further than the fact that I just quoted Jordin Sparks lyrics in the paragraph above.

Oscar season may be where a lot of us cut our teeth as movie buffs, but this year’s conversation has travelled so far from the films themselves — trading merely in constructs of what they represent — that a new blogger could quite easily hold his own in the fracas without having seen a single nominee. The great joy of attending last week’s admittedly uneven Berlin Film Festival was not just seeing a spate of fresh international films unburdened by Oscar buzz, but conversing and arguing about them with other critics — not as contenders, not in opposition to fellow contenders, but as self-standing works.

If “The King’s Speech” has reached the frontrunner’s position without many critics bothering to discuss it individually on these terms, that could speak to the relative blandness of both its form and content — the reason so many have seized on its rigidly stylized off-center compositions as either a virtue or a sticking point is because they amount to the film’s single assertive cinematic element. For my part, I found the film phony and irrelevant long before I thought of it as a threat for the Best Picture Oscar, but my arguments against it have so long condensed into all-purpose soundbites that I find myself wanting (if somehow never committing) to revisit the film to rediscover what specifics so irked me.

I’d venture that it’s been several years since a Best Picture frontrunner split Oscar-watchers quite so neatly into “for” and “against” camps; certainly, it’s rare that such a milquetoast film has prompted such strong reactions across the blogosphere. But if fans of the film’s opponents — be it “The Social Network,” “The Fighter” or “Winter’s Bone” — seem more protective than usual, that could be a sentiment tied into the narratives of the films themselves.

As I glance across other major players in the race, I’m struck by how many of them center on characters who could be described at best as outsiders, and at worst as losers: the socially autistic outcasts of “The Social Network,” of course, but also the cripplingly self-serving working-class family of “The Fighter,” the insecure homosexual partners (and their equally unmoored children) of “The Kids Are All Right,” the rejected, purposeless playthings of “Toy Story 3,” or the disenfranchised, warily regarded teen protagonist of “Winter’s Bone.”

The trail of loserdom extends far past the Best Picture category: the corrupt, redemption-seeking cop of “Biutiful,” the knowingly helpless lovers of “Blue Valentine,” the cruelly outmoded entertainer of “The Illusionist,” the variously self-aware loners of “Another Year,” even the pettily destructive, control-mongering parents of “Dogtooth.” Something in all these films invites a measure of unhappy identification on the part of the viewer — but does “The King’s Speech,” with its own disadvantaged protagonist, tap into the same vein of empathy, or does its privileged milieu and wholly positive outcome make it the most rousingly escapist film of the lot?

If “The King’s Speech” emerges triumphant on Sunday, as it probably will, the result will reveal little of the Academy beyond a preference for minimal moral conflict. This, after all, is how the idiot-savant-made-good of “Forrest Gump” beat the damned lowlifes of “Pulp Fiction,” or how the noble cultural tourist of “Dances With Wolves” defeated the pitiless criminals of “GoodFellas.”

Something similar applies to the performance awards: if Geoffrey Rush’s loyal, lovable Lionel Logue pips Christian Bale’s bolshy, deluded Dicky Eklund in the Best Supporting Actor race, or if a trio of scarred, stroppy women, led by Jacki Weaver’s sociopathic matriarch, falls to Helena Bonham Carter’s sweetly bland Queen Mother in the corresponding female category, we’ll know it’s one of those years when voters, despite giving themselves a host of prickly options, are seeking the softest place to fall.

Perhaps overwhelmed by their own boldness last year — when they defied public approval to reward a terse, bleak story of social and psychological damage in warfare — the Academy may well be feeling the familiar mantra, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

There’s ultimately little to complain about if voters feel closest to the film that makes them feel warmest inside; we claim every year that we want them to vote sincerely, and a “King’s Speech” vote is nothing if not a heart vote. Before the inevitable fallout, however, it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate the challenging, even profound, cross-section of human failure the Academy has conjured, as if by way of accidental compensation, among the nominees.

With its widely presumed loss neatly befitting its narrative of non-acceptance, one can sense the “Social Network” fanclub already reclaiming the film as their own, as if the Academy had never endorsed it in the first place. It’s this kind of pretzel logic that has me eager for Monday morning, when the movies once more become the property of individual imaginations and not ideological parties.

[Photos: Paramount Pictures, The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Classics]




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38 responses so far

  • 1 2-24-2011 at 5:52 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Excellent piece, Guy.

    I’m just happy to be a huge fan of The King’s Speech, The Social Network, The Fighter, and Black Swan this year; as some years, I loathe whatever sweeps in and wins the most awards.

  • 2 2-24-2011 at 5:57 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    I honestly thought the Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas days were over with Departed, No Country and Hurt Locker but I guess a relapse was in order.

    Here’s hoping Malick, Soderbergh, Almodovar, Cronenberg, Von Trier, WKW etc.. are at least part of the awards conversation this year.

  • 3 2-24-2011 at 6:27 pm

    Marc R. said...

    Matt- when u read off those names it almost makes u hope for a year like 2007 again, both in the numerous amount of quality films and the Academy picking inspired choices. I get shivers just thinking about it

  • 4 2-24-2011 at 6:39 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    Matt, some argue that what went on the past few years did not result from shifting preferences on the part of AMPAS members. It was just that tradtional “awards season bait” movies that succeeded with reviews and box office weren’t around. An excellent articulation of this view with a theory behind it comes from Tom Shone, and some commenters discussed this stuff in other threads.

  • 5 2-24-2011 at 7:08 pm

    Nelson said...

    It’s so interesting for me because I am a huge fan of most of the Best Picture nominees and my top 4 films of the year were: Black Swan, The Social Network, The King’s Speech, and The Fighter. So I find it really difficult to root for either TSN or TKS because I have such respect for both films. Guy and Kris, I know you guys didn’t care much for The King’s Speech and the film’s buzz has certainly divided all Oscar lovers to one of two camps. At this point I will be happy to see The King’s Speech win, and I will always love The Social Network. My point is, is it still acceptable to like them both? Aren’t they both really incredible films for very different reasons? Why does one have to be “stuffy and old school” or the other have to be “dark and diminishing”? I will look back at 2010 as one of my favorite years for film, and at this point I will just be happy to see it all play out. I am glad they’re both going to get the Screenplay wins.

  • 6 2-24-2011 at 7:19 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    Nelson, I believe Kris gave King’s Speech a strong review.

  • 7 2-24-2011 at 7:48 pm

    DylanS said...

    Wonderfull piece as always, Guy. I still find it disappointing that one of my least favorite films is probably, if not definetly going to win Best Picture, I still think seven of the BP nominees are personal faves of 2010 and all are films I intend to revisit for the rest of my still very young film-viewing life, and that is a victory in and of itself.

    The only category I have any passion left for, in that I have a horse in the race who’s fate doesn’t already feel predetermined, is Best Director. TKS will walk away w/ Best Picture, fine, but Fincher deserves the award, hands down.

  • 8 2-24-2011 at 8:04 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Yeah, if I recall, Kris initially gave The King’s Speech 3.5 stars out of 4 and the pondered 4. But I don’t want to put words in his mouth.

  • 9 2-24-2011 at 8:20 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    DylanS, you mean least fave contender right. It would be very challenging to like “King’s Speech” least of movies in 2010.

  • 10 2-24-2011 at 8:22 pm

    Patryk said...

    “…My point is, is it still acceptable to like them both? ”

    How about is it still acceptable to dislike them both?

    “Black Swan” all the way.

  • 11 2-24-2011 at 8:28 pm

    KNSat said...

    One thing that has struck me about the hatred of some critics for TKS is this attitude that highlighting the good in people is somehow not worthy. Why is it that someone being an a-hole is considered better drama than someone being a decent person? TSN takes the basics of the real Zuckerberg and exaggerates or falsifies the worst parts of his personality and that’s considered good drama. TKS takes on the real friendship, happy marriage and inspirational war leadership of the king, and that’s written off as sentimental and bland. So one film is cutting-edge, zeitgeist movie-making, and the other is backward and stodgy? How ironic that this classy, low-budget independent British drama is somehow considered the film for stupid people. I think that the shocking popularity of the film is a sign that people have been starving for quality films that make us want to be better people, not bigger a-holes. If that’s considered old-fashioned and boring, maybe it’s time for a values reevaluation.

  • 12 2-24-2011 at 8:34 pm

    PaulinJapan said...

    I think that even the most rabid TSN “guru’s” appreciate that the TKS is a good piece of film making, perfectly acceptable to like.

    Where people are outraged is that their is a clear consensus that it is nowhere near the “best” film of the year, as evidenced by the critics overwhelming response to TSN.

    If you love the Oscars, then one would hope that they reward the best, which is what they have done in the last few years. Sadly, it looks like this year they are reverting to the feel good option of yore.

  • 13 2-24-2011 at 8:45 pm

    JJ1 said...

    I love everything that KNSat just wrote. Everything.

    And I happen to love TSN, too.

  • 14 2-24-2011 at 8:45 pm

    James C said...

    I guess people are moved by different things. I found myself rather moved by The Social Network. Maybe that’s the kind of thing I respond too, human flaws.

  • 15 2-24-2011 at 9:02 pm

    Anthony Ruggio said...

    I have to agree with PaulinJapan. Fans of TSN might come across as hating on TKS in light of the impending telecast, but most of them (I can only speculate) probably don’t think it’s a bad film. For example, myself, I like it well enough. The problem lays with the fact that I don’t consider it the BEST of the year. I want the best to win, and TKS, while a good film, does not deserve to win over better films like TSN, Black Swan, or Inception.

  • 16 2-24-2011 at 9:22 pm

    Glenn said...

    I think the curious aspect to come out of this season is the hypocricy. People (ahem, “people”) want the Academy to be “relevant” and reward movie’s “people actually see”… as long as it’s the one they like the most. Even if “The King’s Speech” is seen by more people, and I’d wager liked for many more then “The Social Network”, certain folks don’t want it to win. Understandable if you prefer “The Social Network”, but a win for “The King’s Speech” would probably do more at this stage to reconfirm the Academy’s relevance in 2011.

    Great piece, yet again, Guy.

  • 17 2-24-2011 at 9:53 pm

    Pablo (BOG) said...

    I still dont get how everyone is so fascinated with TSN. Its a good movie with great work but just good. Not a masterpiece at all.

    TKS is not a masterpiece but a better movie in my believe

    Although if GREAT had to win, which should be the case, Black Swan or 127 Hours should win

  • 18 2-24-2011 at 10:01 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***I honestly thought the Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas days were over with Departed, No Country and Hurt Locker but I guess a relapse was in order.***

    I HATE when people bring up “Dances with Wolves” to criticize the Academy for picking the wrong films. That’s a terrific movie that was a mightily deserving winner.

  • 19 2-24-2011 at 10:06 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Predicting 4 awards for “The King’s Speech” seems right to me. For my predictions I went with Tom Hooper and took out a win for costumes, but I think your prediction is more plausible (and, for me, more ideal).

  • 20 2-24-2011 at 10:21 pm

    Anthony Ruggio said...

    @Glenn

    Relevance isn’t just about box office, it’s about timeliness. Obviously a film can’t be great just because it’s topical, but if you have a film that is great and also happens to be topical, that = relevance. The King’s Speech is a film that represents the past, the Oscar winner of yore, and a group of people (the Royal family) that have no relevance to current issues. The Royal family are celebrities, nothing more. Even during the time The King’s Speech depicts, they didn’t really wield much power. They gave speeches to “cheer up” the Brits with moral support, but they didn’t actually make important political decisions. The film exaggerates their importantance immensely. The Social Network represents the present/future, the Oscar winner of “now,” and certainly has relevance to modern issues of sociology and communication. And while the film may not depict “important” events, its themes are what make it an important film. And therefore a relevant one. Besides, it’s not like TSN disappointed at the boxoffice. 97 mil for a dialogue-driven drama with no stars and a plot revolving around the invention of a website that many people (most Americans over 40) cannot relate to…well, that’s more impressive to me than an uplifting “overcoming adversity” crowdpleaser like TKS making money during the heart of awards season.

  • 21 2-25-2011 at 12:27 am

    DarkLayers said...

    Anthony R, I think that although the feel of ‘Social Network’ is current, the social salience is somewhat lacking because it describes these folks and what occurred between them and the focus on users is minimal. That ampas voters often go for safer fare is decidedly not new. Look at the fates of Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Raging Bull, Pulp Fiction, and Fargo. I am not arguing that we should instantly add speech to the list of undeserving winners. Rather, the stuff that’s bothering some Social Network fans is to be expected.

  • 22 2-25-2011 at 1:10 am

    Anthony Ruggio said...

    I would argue that the characters of TSN and what occurs between them is symbolic of social networking’s effect on communication, social interaction, and our day-to-day lives. You’re right, the film doesn’t just come out and say “this is how it affects our lives.” It’s much more subtle than that. It’s all in the details, the background elements. Just look at the beginning montage that parallels three different things: Zuckerberg’s creation of Facemash, the parties going on at the Phoenix Club, and the sheep herding that Facemash creates amongst Harvard.

  • 23 2-25-2011 at 4:08 am

    Godfather said...

    In spite of the royal trappings and tidy story, it is the subtlety of how the relationship grows between Bertie and Logue that sustains both the performances and depth of “The King’s Speech.” While the other films may be more gritty, less elegant, or depict humanity’s “losers” on more familiar socioeconomic levels, the empowerment depicted in TKS’s man-helping- man narrative and the bumps that go with that are undeniable AND visceral in the experience of watching the film. Give it another try, Guy. For the record, I’m not enamored of every royal bio-pic that comes Stateside; but the journey of these two men, their individual ways of discovering each other and the patience required to do so, was genuine on a superior level — and ultimately transcended their very different classes.

  • 24 2-25-2011 at 5:30 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Nice work Guy — I am so bored with the whole Oscar thing this year — have been for a while — worried that we film and Oscar writers are part of the problem, just too much of it? — seriously, been writing about the race since TIFF…so bored and uninterested.

  • 25 2-25-2011 at 6:23 am

    evelyn garver said...

    Oscar winning films are supposed to be timely? I thought they were supposed to be timeless.

  • 26 2-25-2011 at 6:24 am

    Edwin Drood said...

    …or it could be that “Forrest Gump” prevailed over “Pulp Fiction” and “Dances with Wolves” over “GoodFellas” because, in the end, they were and are better films. Certainly they were then and are now the more popular, except amongst a minority who seem to think that their tastes are somehow better informed and/or more refined…

  • 27 2-25-2011 at 6:25 am

    evelyn garver said...

    Sorry. I forgot to compliment Guy on his terrific commentary.

  • 28 2-25-2011 at 6:37 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    …or it could be that “Forrest Gump” prevailed over “Pulp Fiction” and “Dances with Wolves” over “GoodFellas” because, in the end, they were and are better films.”

    Sorry, but such comments are useless in a discussion like this, since they offer no point of engagement to anyone who feels differently. I’m trying to go beyond vague, objective measures of quality in my point about those races.

    “X won because it was better, and still is.”
    “Well, I’ve always thought Y was better.”
    “Funny, I now prefer Z.”

    Do you see how pointless and arbitrary this kind of conversation is? And if we’re going to bring “certain” popularity into it, why can’t we all just accept that “Twilight: Eclipse” was robbed, and call it a day?

  • 29 2-25-2011 at 6:45 am

    DarkLayers said...

    Anthony Ruggio, my problem with that line is that I think the business endeavor is what tore Saverin and Zuckerberg apart. Zuckerberg wanted it to succeed. I think its a stretch to say it illustrates widespread effects of social networking on our lives.

  • 30 2-25-2011 at 7:27 am

    David said...

    I honestly feel like the Academy has become more inclined to pick someone like Bale over Rush.

    The Supporting Actor category has, for the past few years, been partial to a host of morally bankrupt individuals: Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Ledger (The Dark Knight), and Waltz (Inglourious Basterds).

    Bolshy and deluded seems a lot more probable than loyal and lovable, if you ask me.

  • 31 2-25-2011 at 8:23 am

    Freddy Ardanza said...

    I don’t understand what is so impressive in The Social Network. What is so cinematic in filming courtroom dramas?. This film could have been more relevant if it would be about comunications and how facebook change the way we interact with each other and not about who stole an idea or who is more of an asshole in that movie.

    In every part of the world everybody crave for good leadership, for guidance for someone who make people feel good, it wasn’t just 2 years ago that in USA the people choose a President just because inspire sentiments of hope and change?. The funeral of Lady Diana, 14 years ago, show how deeply people in UK and the rest of the world care for the royal family. So, to say that The King’s Speach is irrelevant because represent the past is in my opinion nonsense.

  • 32 2-25-2011 at 8:35 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    The funeral of Lady Diana, 14 years ago, show how deeply people in UK and the rest of the world care for the royal family.

    That’s a rather odd statement, since until rather recently, the whole Diana issue prompted widespread public antipathy towards the institution of the royal family. I mean, they made a certain Oscar-winning film about that very subject.

  • 33 2-25-2011 at 9:03 am

    Freddy Ardanza said...

    Well maybe not the whole royal family, the monarchy is still a very popular institution in UK and Spain.

  • 34 2-25-2011 at 11:01 am

    Anthony Ruggio said...

    “I don’t understand…”

    You’ve already made your argument irrelevant.

  • 35 2-25-2011 at 8:27 pm

    Al said...

    I can’t honestly see this being regarded as a Forrest Gump/ Dances With Wolves victory year mostly because there is no universally agreed upon behemoth that would lose to Kings Speech. Personally I would put Black Swan right up there with Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction, and I’m sure others feel strongly about their personal favorite of the year, but there isn’t a single film this year that has the near universal appeal of those two films that had lost in the past.

  • 36 2-25-2011 at 8:41 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***but there isn’t a single film this year that has the near universal appeal of those two films that had lost in the past.***

    “The Social Network,” winning more awards than any other film in history, wouldn’t account for being universal appeal?

  • 37 2-25-2011 at 11:13 pm

    Alandre Drakes said...

    First I want to thank Guy for writing this article. Great insights like these is what makes you one of the few relevant voices during Oscar season. I have to admit I am guilty of following groupthink sometimes during the race.

    @Freddy Ardanza

    Excuse me if I sound rude but what are you talking about? It’s not the fact that Fincher filmed courtroom dramas but how he filmed them that makes them cinematic. And Sorkin’s writing indeed says more about communication in the first scene than most movies do in their entirety. The movie may ostensibly be about intellectual property but that’s missing the forest for the trees. Lot of that going around these days.

  • 38 2-26-2011 at 3:11 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I wouldn’t say Pulp Fiction and GoodFellas had “universal appeal,” per se.