Oscar Moment: “A Single Man”

13 11 2009

Today’s “Oscar Moment” is brought to you by the movie “A Single Man,” adapted from a decades-old novel by Christopher Isherwood (if that sounds like the closing of “Sesame Street,” excuse my tardiness of honoring the show’s 40th anniversary).  The movie could follow a similar awards season road to “Slumdog Millionaire.”  Both were discovered at film festivals, got a distributor, and began attracting much Oscar talk.  “A Single Man” burst onto the scene at the Venice Film Festival, where Colin Firth took home the prize for Best Actor.  He has since become a frontrunner in the Best Actor race at the Oscars.  But Firth is not the only part of the movie getting attention.  Julianne Moore has gained some traction in a tight Best Supporting Actress race, and Tom Ford, former fashion designer (something I know only from a quick Google search), has won raves for his first film.

From watching the trailer, after the shock of watching a montage filled with Ford’s distinct, visually arresting style, you probably are asking, “This looks good, but what is this movie about?”  The movie centers around middle-aged homosexual British professor George Falconer (Firth) and him reeling from the death of his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode, “Watchmen”).  It follows him over the course of a day, consoled by close friend Charley (Moore), as he tries to discover if life is worth living without Jim.

It is a tight Best Actor field this year, with heavyweights such as Morgan Freeman, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Jeff Bridges in contention.  Yet most people seem to think that Firth is safe for at least a nomination.  He is a likable actor, never demanding much attention, and making missteps in only the quietest of fashions.  Although many people seem to have postulated that the Academy is very homophobic from its snub of “Brokeback Mountain,” the Best Actor prize went to Sean Penn for playing homosexual San Francisco mayor Harvey Milk last year.

Moore perhaps faces even stiffer competition in Best Supporting Actress.  Mo’Nique is a lock (which I can now testify to from seeing the movie).  Barring a complete flop of “Nine,” at least one actress will get in, if not two.  “Up in the Air” has two strong candidates in the category, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga.  “The Lovely Bones” could also has two potential nominees with past winners Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon.  I don’t think Moore is a certainty by any means, but I must keep in mind that I have not seen her performance in the movie.  But she is a four-time nominee, and maybe it is her time.  We all know how desperate the Academy was to award Kate Winslet last year after five times coming up empty on Oscar night, even willing to commit category fraud to give it to her.

As for the Best Picture/Director duo, it seems to be less likely than the two actors.  The film’s subject matter could likely hurt it – I say this not because of my own personal beliefs but because there exists a large faction of old white men in the Academy opposed to homosexuality.  I think the triumph of “Milk” last year shows significant progress, but nonetheless, this homophobia still exists, even if in vestiges.  Without the expansion of the field of Best Picture nominees, I don’t think this would have a chance.  But I think “A Single Man” lurks at the bottom of the ten or just outside of it.  If one of the heavyweights like “Invictus” or “The Lovely Bones” underwhelms, I think “A Single Man” could sneak in and steal a spot.  As for director Tom Ford, I am quite skeptical about his chances.  While the trailer shows an appealing stylistic approach, this cannot cover the fact that this is Ford’s first film.  It is fairly rare for a director to earn a nomination for their first project, and in such a strong year for directors, I think Ford will get lost in a crowd of big names like Clint Eastwood, Peter Jackson, and James Cameron.

I feel like I close every “Oscar Moment” on the same note: “I don’t care if it gets nominated, this looks good enough to get me to a theater!”  The same goes for “A Single Man,” which opens in limited release on December 11 and will gradually expand across the country as awards season progresses.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actor (Colin Firth), Best Supporting Actress (Moore), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director (Tom Ford)

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Random Factoid #52

18 09 2009

I hope I don’t sound like a goody-goody when I say this, but I have never watched a pirated movie online.  I respect the amount of time and hard work that the director, actors, and crew put into making a movie, be it “Milk” or “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” that I feel that it would be wronging them to cheat them of the money that they deserve.





FEATURE: Define “Best Picture”

14 09 2009

For those of you not familiar with the movie industry, several high-profile film festivals (Toronto, Telluride, Venice) have occurred over the past week, inciting much talk about the upcoming onslaught of movies that will be highly considered for Academy Awards.  For those who read the factoids, it is hardly a secret that this season also brings a rush of euphoria for me.  I will keep you posted with trailers and buzz, and I will also soon be posting early predictions for nominees.  But as kind of a warm-up for what is to come, I wanted to give my answer to the question an age-old question: how do you define “Best Picture”?  What you will read below is an English paper that I wrote last year for a compare and contrast essay, mainly what critics think and what audiences think about the best movie of the year.

One Sunday in February or March every year, all the focus of popular culture turns to the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, California, for the Academy Awards.  The glitz and glamour dominates the red carpet, yet the two most important people glide down the red carpet almost inconspicuously. Cameras do not flash in their face; people do not ogle at their outfits or speculate about whether or not they will end up in the tabloids; Ryan Seacrest from E! might interview them just for kicks.  Although just accountants, these two people hold a briefcase filled with twenty-four envelopes that will change the lives of many people.  Millions of moviegoers across the world watch the ceremony to find out the names inside the envelopes, but they stay tuned in to hear the presenter call out a movie, not a name.  They want to see what over 5,810 people working in the movie industry voted as the Best Picture.  However, for many moviegoers across America, their opinions do not match the Academy’s. Many of them have never heard of some of the nominated movies; some of the movies might not have played in their town.  With each passing year, a divide between what the general public perceives as Best Picture and what the Academy chooses as its Best Picture has grown wider and wider.

The Academy gave two awards for motion pictures at the first ceremony: one for “Outstanding Picture” and “Unique and Artistic Picture.”  At the next awards ceremony, they merged the two awards into “Best Picture,” claiming that the two categories were similar enough that they only merited one award.  And still to this day, the Academy Award for Best Picture represents the ultimate prize for any movie.  But are the members of the Academy voting for a movie that is outstanding or one that is unique and artistic?  Any movie can be outstanding, yet few merit the term “unique and artistic.”  It appears that they choose to award the outstanding because such an adjective is so opinionated that it can easily be swayed by many factors.

Recently, the process of selecting a Best Picture in recent years has become less subjective and more political.  The most well known case occurred in 2005 when “Crash” won Best Picture over “Brokeback Mountain,” the latter of which had won almost every award possible.  Because the movie focused on the lives of two closeted homosexual men, most people attributed its loss to homophobia.

The voters are often hand out Best Picture to a director that they like.  Handing out Best Picture along with Best Director has become all but standard practice: 59 of the 81 Best Picture winners also won Best Director. Many people assume that 2006’s Best Picture winner, “The Departed,” won only because they felt obliged to give an award to Martin Scorsese, then the perennial Oscar bridesmaid.

The Oscar voters also like to play it safe, rarely awarding controversial or provocative films.  In 1993, they awarded Best Picture to “Schindler’s List,” a film about the Holocaust.  Although many acclaimed movies were produced about the subject in the 50 years since the horrific genocide, “Schindler’s List” marked the first nomination for Best Picture for a film about the Holocaust.  The Academy generally receives movies set in the past more favorably than movies set in the present or future.  In 2008, “Slumdog Millionaire” was the only movie set in the present day.

The voters are notorious for selecting similar types of movies, which have become known as “Oscar Bait.”  To qualify as “Oscar Bait,” a movie needs an acclaimed director, a respected cast, and a subject matter that appeals to the Academy.  The Holocaust, elaborate period pieces, and biographies have become recent favorites.

It is difficult to gauge what the general public perceives as the Best Picture of the year.  Are box office grosses telling of the Best Picture?  Clearly not, otherwise Best Picture winners from this decade would include such classics as “Spider-Man 3,” “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  Usually the highest grossing movie of the year involves an adaptation of a comic book or another popular book series; often times sequels top the list.   These movies are made to pack audiences into the multiplexes.  The People’s Choice Awards cannot truthfully depict the public’s perception because they pick the same kind of movies that dominate the box office.

Perhaps the most accurate indicator of the moviegoer’s Best Picture is the IMDb (Internet Movie Database) poll.   On this website, hundreds of thousands of moviegoers rate movies on a scale of one to ten stars.  IMDb uses a weighted average to get a rating of the movie, and they maintain a chart of the 250 best-rated movies.  The ratings give a fairly accurate representation of how the public feels about a movie; however, the system has a few flaws.  When a movie initially hits theaters, people flood the site and rate the movie very highly.  After some time, people revisit their ratings and lower them, and the average drops.   Readers often give movies with controversial subject matter one star to drop their average.  “Milk,” a 2008 Best Picture nominee about the first openly homosexual man to hold public office in the United States, was in the IMDb’s 250 highest rated films before it received the nomination.  But once the nomination highlighted the theme of the movie, homophobic voters rushed to IMDb to rate it one star.  Now, “Milk” has received 1,146 ratings of one star; unforgettable films like “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “Fool’s Gold” have less one star ratings.  With no completely legitimate means of discovering what movie audiences across America think is the Best Picture, maybe the Academy voters discount the opinion of the average moviegoer in general.

So why can’t the mainstream moviegoer and the Academy voter find harmony in a pick for Best Picture?  Perhaps the Academy has forgotten what Best Picture really means.  David Carr of The New York Times said, “It should be the kind of movie that is so good that it brings both civilians and the critical vanguard together.”  Ideally, a mixture of box office success and critical praise would result in a Best Picture win (or at the very least a nomination).  But if the Academy believed in such a formula, “The Dark Knight,” the film with the highest critical praise and box office gross, would have won Best Picture in 2008.  And while that year’s Best Picture winner, “Slumdog Millionaire,” was a box office sensation, the film relied on the awards season to fuel its box office.  According to Boxofficemojo.com, over 65% of its gross was accumulated after it received the nomination for Best Picture.

The average moviegoers of America have a way to show the Academy how they feel about the Best Picture choices.  Ratings of the Academy Awards telecast have shown how pleased America is with the likely winner.  When “Titanic,” the highest grossing movie in history, won Best Picture in 1997, over 57 million people watched the show.  The highest ratings that the show has received came from when the Best Picture winners were box office successes, such as “The Lord of the Rings.”  But when the Best Picture went to low-budgeted, little seen independent films like “Crash” and “No Country for Old Men,” the ratings fell to all-time lows.

Every individual looks for something different in a Best Picture.  Some are looking for a movie with cultural resonance.   Some are looking for the movie that can make them laugh until they cry.  Some are looking for a movie that makes a unique, artistic statement.  Some are looking for a movie with most exhilarating car chase.  Although the process of choosing a Best Picture winner is subjective, maybe a day will come when a movie will find us that can satisfy all that we are looking for, both for Academy voters and normal moviegoers alike.

What do you think?  Is it possible to have a movie that can unite the critical vanguard and the audience at the megaplex?  How do you define Best Picture?  How many questions do I have to pose before you comment?!?

Until the next reel,
Marshall