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Hollywood's Orgy of Self-Congratulation
Prognosticating the Oscars
by KIM NICOLINI

About five years ago, I swore I would never watch the Academy Awards again because every year watching the awards pissed me off more and more. The Oscars aren’t about awarding the “best” of anything. They aren’t about honoring great filmmaking or acting but about the politics of Hollywood, about taking note of who’s inside, who’s outside, what the celebrity cause is, and what is going to make the Industry look and feel good.

Watching the Academy Awards can be an infuriating experience for someone who actually pays attention to what they’re seeing when they’re watching a movie and isn’t interested in grand standing Hollywood films that wear their self-importance on their sleeve. I personally prefer films that demonstrate a mastery of the medium executed with a fresh vision that dares to dismantle Hollywood norms.

Hollywood norms are best addressed when they’re undressed and refashioned into something new instead of something just recycled. But Hollywood feels more comfortable in the Recycle Genre, and that’s why watching the Academy Awards can be really frustrating.

Truly the Academy Awards (at least in the past few decades) exist purely to give the Hollywood movie industry a great big pat on its own back for its own importance. 21st century Best Picture winners include sweeping cinematic spectacles about war and/or the brutality of man against man (Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings – Return of the King, Hurt Locker). Other winners include triumphant and/or heartbreaking tales of the downtrodden, disenfranchised, disabled or otherwise economically, physically or emotionally compromised (A Beautiful Mind, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Slumdog Millionaire). Let’s not forget the historically significant film of great import (A King’s Speech). There’s also the nod to an outsider director who’s been overlooked by the Academy. (e.g. they finally gave Martin Scorcese and Oscar for The Departed after passing him over for years because he stayed in New York and refused to go to Hollywood.) Then there’s the outlier musical (Chicago). Since Moulin Rouge revived the musical at the cineplex, the Academy periodically feels compelled to toss an award to a musical. Finally there is the self-referential film that touts how great Hollywood is and always has been (The Artist). In any case, the Academy likes movies that make it look good and make the audience feel good, either because they let us experience stories of great human triumph or allow us to feel good for feeling bad.  In between, there’s a lot of bean counting (who’s won what and who needs to win what).

With all that in mind, let’s move onto this year’s Best Picture nominations and my projections. Surprisingly, now that the Academy has expanded the Best Picture nominees to include nine contenders, there are actually four films on the list that could receive Best Picture without pissing me off (Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook and Django).

The oddball on the list is Michael Haneke’s Amour which is a technically perfect film about the inevitability of death and the long slow deteriorating process that gets us there.  The movie starts with the end (death), and then proceeds in real-time realism as it follows an old couple through their last days together after the wife has suffered a stroke. This is the kind of touching human subject that Hollywood usually likes throwing awards to. (Look! We’re honoring old people who get strokes and die! Everyone can relate!) But, Haneke is such an extremely controlled director that his films become oppressive and claustrophobic even when attempting to be “human.” His mastery of the medium is so self-imposing and comes off as so self-important that his films become virtuoso productions in cinematic strangulation. The extreme realism gives no room to breathe, and therefore no room for the Academy to open its door and let this film in.  Author Bret Easton Ellis said of Amour: “It’s like watching Hitler direct On Golden Pond.” So, Haneke’s film may be the most brilliantly competent cinematic production on the list, but there is no way in hell it’s winning Best Picture. For the record, Hollywood doesn’t really like Hitler.

In my opinion, Django is the best picture to be nominated, but it doesn’t stand a chance in the Academy. Taking on the subject of slavery with an original screenplay, Quentin Tarantino delivers one hell of a fresh, daring, and disrupting vision of American history and the slave trade. The screenwriting, directing, editing, and acting are all superb. Not a line or scene is wasted. The problem is that the movie is too controversial (god forbid the public perceive the Academy as racist even though the film exposes the inherent racism in America), and Quentin Tarantino is too much of an outsider (self-taught filmmaker). Frankly, Tarantino is too much of a renegade in style, subject matter and education for his film to receive this award. The Academy does like to honor African Americans, but it likes to do it carefully. Django is anything but careful. As I wrote in my review of Django, you can’t expose the atrocity of slavery by couching it in politically correct and safe cinema.

If a “slavery” movie is going to win the award, it will be Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the distant, historically important political procedural that takes on the subject of slavery through the back door of the political process and the white men who run it. Personally, I found the movie a big yawn fest and offensive. The black characters who do appear are stereotypes, but unlike the ones in Django, they are not self-conscious. Spielberg attempts to show black people with cautious “humane” sympathy, but instead his cautious attempts not to be racist end up being horribly racially offensive.  The film’s affected acting and grandiose historicism are so inflated with self-importance that they bludgeoned me to sleep. However, I don’t see Lincoln as a winner because I think Lincoln and Django cancel each other out.

If any “black” movie is going to win, it will be Beasts of the Southern Wild, the little movie that could. What this movie has in its favor, in the eyes of the Academy, is that it is a story of tremendous human will and it stars the little powerhouse  Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an academy award. Certainly the movie carries some of Hollywood’s favorite themes – triumph of the underdog; a father/child – life/death narrative, and u a utopian vision of the will to survive, love and live. There is actually a slight chance this movie could win because the Academy would feel very good about itself if it were to give the Best Picture award to a film that is a slightly veiled history of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. However, the fact that the filmmakers are industry outsiders will probably prevent it from winning. Benh Zeitlin made the movie with the DIY New Orleans movie-making collective Court 13 which intentionally goes against the grain of Hollywood by building their own equipment, using non-actors and working outside of the industry. The industry may have adopted this film as its “cause celebre,” but I don’t know if it will go so far as to give it the Best Picture Oscar. It’s too much of a renegade production.

The movie that I really liked that I think has the best chance of winning is Silver Linings Playbook. This is a great classic Hollywood movie with a 21st century twist. As I wrote in my review, “David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook may very well be the Feel Good Movie of the Year even if we ultimately end up feeling good by accepting our imperfections and embracing how dysfunctional we are as people.” This movie has everything the Academy likes: overcoming obstacles (psychosis), family issues, reality, and romance. It is a tribute to classic Hollywood cinema while being firmly placed in the Prozac Age. I bank on Silver Linings winning because it has all the ingredients that make everyone love it and enough edge to not be considered entirely sugar-coated. It also maintains safe distance from such dangerous ground as slavery and torture (see Lincoln, Django and Zero Dark Thirty).

When I first saw the nominees, I predicted that Life of Pi would win because of the beautiful spectacle, the New Age themes, and, most importantly, because the Academy “owes” Ang Lee an Oscar after slighting him when Brokeback Mountain –  “the first openly gay film to ever be nominated for Best Picture” – didn’t win the Best Picture award in 2005. Mind you, being the First Gay Picture doesn’t mean it’s the Best Picture, but the (gay) public was outraged that Brokeback didn’t win. Identity politics play a huge role in how the Academy doles out its awards.  So, Life of Pi still might win the Oscar as a band-aid for its past offense against Ang Lee.

As far as Les Miserables goes, this movie is included in the mix because of the “importance” of the musical, the grandiosity of the sets and costumes, the fact that actors actually sing, and because of Anne Hathaway’s astonishingly great performance. But it won’t win. It’s not time for a musical to win.

This brings me to the final two films nominated for Best Picture – Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. Regardless of Kathyrn Bigelow’s politically provocative agenda, feminist undercurrent, and her theoretical, historical and cinematic savvy, there is not a chance in hell that the Academy is going to give the award to a film that walks such a controversial line on torture. Personally, I didn’t find the torture scenes offensive as much as I found the film confused, flat and dull. It took what could be very interesting subject matter (recent history, the “work” of fighting terrorism, etc.) and made it into a Made In Guantanamo For Lifetime Channel movie.

Now we wind down to Argo, which I referred to in my review as “the most self-congratulatory film Hollywood has ever made.” When Argo won the Golden Globe, I was shocked and mortified that such a tedious, dull piece of political propaganda could win. But then I remembered all the ingredients that would make it an Academy winner: Historical Import + Hollywood Heroism.

So, with all that said, what is my prediction for Best Picture? I cringe at the thought of Argo winning, but I do think it has a chance. Nevertheless, my money is on Silver Linings Playbook because it is a “safe bet.” It skirts politics and race, and it grounds itself in Hollywood genre while providing a large enough dose of real humanity to give it that “feel good about addressing the difficult” thread that Hollywood likes to pat itself on the back for. But don’t put your money on it. There are too many variables, and nothing about the Academy Awards is about what’s the Best Picture. It’s about what Hollywood thinks is best for itself. We’ll have to wait to Sunday to see what that is.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.