Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar speaks, but who's really listening?

The King's Speech or The Social Network? Which will land Oscar's top prize?

When the Oscar nominations were announced this morning at 5:30 a.m. Pacific Time, the cable news stations barely blinked. They were all too busy reporting and commenting on an event that had yet to happen, namely President Obama’s highly anticipated State of the Union address.

What would the president say? What should he say? Would he antagonize his base? Would Republicans cut him any slack? Is he a true centrist or a rabid leftist trying to squeeze into a business suit?

Could it be, as my friend and Denver Post columnist Mike Littwin argues, that politics – ceaselessly batted about on the radio and TV airwaves -- has become the new national pastime? I’d embellish Littwin’s thought and say that politics may have become the new entertainment, an arena in which we act out dramas that seem to reverberate at levels guaranteed to raise blood pressure.

"Don’t take my guns." "Don’t mess with my Social Security." "Sarah Palin’s an idiot." "Sarah Palin speaks truth to elk." You're familiar I'm sure with the 24/7-news-and-opinion drill that many of us routinely denounce, even as we indulge our addiction to it.

The State of the Union aside, those of us who spend too much time writing and thinking about movies are obligated at least to nod toward Oscar. Truth be told, my head is already weary from seasonal acknowledgement. Oscar, which now brings up the rear, almost seems like an afterthought.

For the cinemarati, January has become a slog through an apparently inexhaustible stream of praise: critics’ awards, the Golden Globes, and the various industry group awards: SAG (actors), DGA (directors) and PGA (producers) to name but a few.

Here’s a common lament: Critics supposedly are at odds with the public taste. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but what’s even more apparent is that the gap between critics and the industry seems to have vanished. The 10 pictures nominated for best picture easily could constitute a respectable critic’s 10-best list.

Gone are the days when Hollywood would attempt to honor big-ticket prestige pictures: Little-ticket prestige pictures are – and have been – the rage. Witness: The Fighter, Winter’s Bone and The King’s Speech, all nominated for best picture.

The King’s Speech led the field with 12 nominations, followed by True Grit, which garnered 10. The race probably narrows to a smack down between The King’s Speech and The Social Network with King’s Speech gaining momentum in a showdown between the old and the new.

Topical, trendy and smart, The Social Network tells the story of the founding of Facebook. Historical, familiar and solid, The King’s Speech focuses on a stammering king who must deliver an important speech on the eve of World War II.

Had George VI, the character played by Oscar nominee Colin Firth, been in a similar situation today, he could have skipped the bother and posted on Facebook.

So where are the surprises if any?

If John Hawkes was awake at 5:30 a.m., he might have been spitting coffee all over his newspaper. He was nominated in the best supporting actor category for his work in Winter’s Bone. Winter’s Bone tells the story of a young woman looking for her father in the Ozarks. Hawke’s plays the girl’s uncle, a man caught up in the meth trade. Inclusion always means exclusion, as well. Did Hawkes take a place that could have gone to Matt Damon for his work in True Grit? Maybe Hawkes took the spot that many thought would go to Andrew Garfield of Social Network. Among those who probably have reason to feel snubbed: Ryan Gosling. He was passed over in the best actor category while his co-star, Michelle Williams, was nominated in the best actress category for her work in blue-collar break-up picture, Blue Valentine. Some of us thought Mila Kundis would receive nod for her work as a ballerina in The Black Swan. She didn’t.

A standard Oscar anomaly occurs when a picture is nominated for best picture (Inception), but its director (Christopher Nolan) is overlooked. Yes, that happened, too.

I’m not sure anyone really expected Javier Bardem, a fine actor, to show up on the best actor list for playing a dying man who helps run Barcelona’s illegal immigrant trade in Biutiful, which also was nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar.

If you haven’t been paying attention, you may have been surprised to see that Jackie Weaver (who?) was nominated for best supporting actress for her work as the mother of a Melbourne clan of criminals in Animal Kingdom or that The Illusionist showed up as a nominee for best animated film. It’s French, lovely and probably doesn’t stand a chance against Toy Story 3.

Youth seems to have been well-served Tuesday morning: Two of the actress nominees have yet to turn 21: Jennifer Lawrence nominated for best actress for her work in Winter’s Bone, is 21; Hailee Steinfeld, nominated for best supporting actress for her performance in True Grit, is 14.

I am not among the legions of fans of the documentary Waiting for Superman, which amounted to cheerleading for charter schools, but I was amazed when a friend called to point out that it didn’t make the list of five documentaries nominated for best feature-length documentary.

So, it’s your turn now. Take aim at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which will present its big show on Feb. 27. At that point, I’ll be sitting in front of a television pondering this question: Where is Ricky Gervais when we really need him?

For a complete list of nominees, visit The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences website.

*Initially, I said Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right) had been overlooked in this category. He wasn't.

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