February 20, 2007
I admit that The Last Kiss review below became a bit involved. For involved reviews of a more relevant kind, folks should check out The New Republic's new Oscar blog, which is filling its niche nicely. I never wanted to see Babel, so I'm feeling a bit lost, and I really, really don't think that "Twenty years from now, Borat will be a classic, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist, the way Easy Rider did in the 1960s or Wall Street did in the 1980s," but Ross's lament that middlebrow movies have largely vanished from the Best Picture category is one I share:
Sure, Driving Miss Daisy slugging it out with Dead Poets Society and Field of Dreams might not have been a matchup made in film school heaven, but it made for good award-show theater--as did 1991's Beauty and the Beast versus Silence of the Lambs battle royale, and Braveheart's 1995 competition with Babe, Apollo 13, and Sense and Sensibility, and 1999's Shakespeare in Love versus Saving Private Ryan, and a host of others.
Whereas today, the Academy is more likely to nominate movies that are highbrow and semi-artsy without being any good: Sometimes they're awful (Babel, Crash) and sometimes they're just overpraised (last year's Good Night and Good Luck, this year's Letters From Iwo Jima), but in either case they aren't any fun.
So I'm with him in rooting for The Departed, and I'll go a step farther and say that Jack Nicholson's campy performance didn't bother me at all.
I think a lot of people like to present the Academy's tastes as somehow dramatically different "now" than they were "then"; the longer view is that while some fads come and go, the Oscars are generally consistent and consistently sort of middlebrow. They've rarely rewarded true genius, they're suspicious of really challenging ideas, and they prefer big hugs to familiar veterans over daring exploits by untested unknowns. Best Picture is rarely a great category, and it's rare to get the confluence of great art and great filmmaking of a truly great picture that wins - often what you get is a crowd pleaser that everyone liked but nobody loves (or, you get Titanic). The Academy's current vogue for punishing itself over liberal guilt - the award last year to the dismal "Crash", and the highly possible win by "Babel" this year - may be a new-ish trend, but hardly a harbinger of some seismic shift, since both are also all star pictures with entirely safe, predictable messaging. The most "difficult" and ambitious pictures this year - Pan's Labyrinth, Notes on a Scandal, Children of Men, The Black Dahlia, etc - are nowhere to be seen except in lower categories. And you can go back all the way to the beginning (1927) to see that littler of this is new.
Of the nominees, I'd say first that Dreamgirls was robbed; it's all but inexcusable that the film wasn't nominated for Best Picture (I love its dubious distinction of being the first time ever that the most nominated film isn't up for Best Picture; the Academy could spend years punishing themselves over that). I think The Queen should win, but right now don't expect it. Letters From Iwo Jima could surprise everyone; they love Clint, love love love him. As for The Departed, I think the long embarrassment of not rewarding Scorsese may require it winning, but his neediness, combined with never quite delivering the picture that could win (I think the film is fine, but the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs is superior, and I think the ending is a mess), may give them room to keep him out yet again. Babel could get there, though I hope not, as I think Crash amply covered this. Little Miss Sunshine has I think run its course.
Can you tell I'm a bit of a freak for Oscar? :)
Posted by: weboy | Feb 20, 2007 8:48:05 AM
The best movie I saw this year was Children of Men. In the Mexican new wave (or whatever it's called) Iñárritu is a pretender whereas Cuaron is the real deal.
Posted by: david mizner | Feb 20, 2007 8:48:12 AM
To hold the belief that Crash or Letters from Iwo Jima are anything other than middlebrow is to misunderstand the category completely.
I would rather read TNR's bloggers on WMDs than movies any day of the week. yeesh. and why would they pick Ross instead of his co-blogger Reihan? Were they afraid Reihan would argue for giving Best Picture to Idiocracy? That's at least as considered a view as the idea that the middlebrow is missing from the Oscars.
Posted by: never trust TNR | Feb 20, 2007 8:48:34 AM
I thought Babel was good. I understand the animus towards it, but I think that animus is really overblown. There are lots of problems with it--he milks the children in danger idea for all it's worth. But I was moved by it. I never saw Crash so I can't compare it.
It certainly isn't a fun film, though.
Posted by: RWB | Feb 20, 2007 10:29:24 AM
I think the film is fine, but the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs is superior, and I think the ending is a mess
weboy, I agree completely. Any fans of Departed that haven't seen Internal Affairs yet are depriving themselves of a better film with a better ending.
Posted by: nolo | Feb 20, 2007 11:10:48 AM
My favorite comment about Crash was that it wasn't even the best movie last year starring Terrence Howard. That was an absolutely true statement, and for all its grit, Hustle & Flow was also more fun.
I agree with never trust TNR, though: this argument seems to misstate the concept of middlebrow. Shakespeare in Love, like anything written by Stoppard, played word games that dared the audience to be as clever as it was. Sense and Sensibility remains the most elegant theatrical-release version of a Jane Austen novel ever made. And implying that Dances with Wolves is middlebrow, well, I just don't get that at all. Middlebrow is conventional, no? What is conventional in DWW? Isn't the problem with Costner as a director that he consistently tries too hard to be impressive and ends up falling flat? Isn't that the opposite of middlebrow?
So maybe it's not that I disagree with Ross, it's that I'm not sure what he means by the word. Because in a certain light, one could argue that Star Wars was more middlebrow than Annie Hall, but in another light, the opposite is true. He seems to be using the word simply to mean movies that are fun, but why attempts (failed or realized) at high-minded intellectualism can't also be fun is beyond me.
Posted by: jhupp | Feb 20, 2007 11:11:40 AM
"Isn't the problem with Costner as a director that he consistently tries too hard to be impressive and ends up falling flat?"
Nah, that's the definition of middlebrow.
I blame the effing boomers. If it wasn't for boomers, Zach Braff would have an Oscar in every pocket.
Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 20, 2007 11:54:59 AM
Oh, man. Bob, please don't go there. I held off of the Last Kiss post because I have oh so many things to say about Mr. Braff, and my unsubmitted comment was like seven paragraphs long. (Short version: good at funny acting, insanely bad at dramatic acting. Treats music the same way the guy who plays his acoustic guitar at parties to get girls does. Lost courage at the end of Garden State, and he nearly undermined an otherwise really good movie by doing so.)
You may be right about "middlebrow," but I tend to think of it differently. I feel like it means not trying to be impressive. Sometimes it's unimpressively good; other times it's unimpressively bad. Again, this is the problem I have with what seems to be Ross's ambiguity.
Posted by: jhupp | Feb 20, 2007 2:06:58 PM
"Sure, Driving Miss Daisy slugging it out with Dead Poets Society and Field of Dreams might not have been a matchup made in film school heaven"
Those are three pretty lousy movies.
In fact, 9 years out of 10, you can count on the Best Picture™ winner being a pretty lousy movie.
This is not a new phenomenon.
Throughout the history of the Oscars™, the winners tend to be mediocre to lousy movies, with the movies we remember as being the best of those years being nowhere to be found among the Academy Awards™ winners.
Posted by: Petey | Feb 20, 2007 6:52:19 PM
"For involved reviews of a more relevant kind, folks should check out The New Republic's new Oscar blog, which is filling its niche nicely."
Listening to a bunch of political writers discuss movies is like listening to a bunch of actors discuss politics.
My favorite quote:
the 2006 box office top ten is a pretty depressing place. But then I would say that: Casino Royale (No. 9) is the only one of the ten I've seen.
Posted by: Petey | Feb 20, 2007 6:59:31 PM
I can't root for The Departed. I think the Academy's continuing snub of the totally overrated critics' darling Martin Scorsese-- the Bruce Springsteen of film, in that he gets great reviews even when he puts crap up on the screen-- is one of the few redeeming qualities of the organization.
Posted by: Dilan Esper | Feb 21, 2007 11:04:05 PM
Posted by: judy | Sep 26, 2007 11:57:45 AM
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