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Posted 10th March 2009
It’s been a less than stunning American film year. But the Oscars annually continue to celebrate the industry, no matter how meagre Hollywood’s offerings, and how low-rated the telecast has become. And even this year’s skilfully crafted, artistically and intellectually timid best picture nominees (often the norm in recent Oscar years) haven’t gained favour with a mass audience that craves the constant chases and violence of The Dark Knight; kiddy, computer generated, anthropomorphic films like Kung Fu Panda 7, and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, or Twilight, a teen-age vampire romance. In fact, the five Best Picture nominees have accumulated less than half the box office of The Dark Knight.
Almost all of the big box-office hits (except possibly The Dark Knight and Wall-E) clearly reveal how limited the nation’s film taste is. Most filmgoers have no interest in spending an evening watching imaginative and venturesome or socially powerful works. They want movies that provide, especially at this difficult historical moment, an anodyne to the personal, political, and social realities that confront them; films that demand no reflection, offering simple sensation to be passively absorbed; films that leave the depths of self and society untouched.
I suppose we should then be grateful that Hollywood still nominates films with striking performances like Frank Langella’s in Frost/Nixon and Sean Penn’s in Milk. Even the breathlessly cut, vivid, and feel-good fairy-tale Slumdog Millionaire has its virtues. However, when I think of the nominees for Best Foreign Film - that include the hallucinatory, anti-war animation film, Waltz with Bashir, and the socially penetrating quasi-documentary The Class - one sees the difference between works of true originality, and a film like Milk, even though it is Hollywood’s best this year. Milk is a moving, spirited film about the public life of the first openly gay man elected to political office in the US, but it remains a relatively unsurprising biopic.
Laurent Cantet’s The Class, however, makes almost every American film about teachers look contrived and saturated with shallow uplift. The film’s classroom is a microcosm of immigrant, multi-cultural France - filled with resentful or inattentive students, who give the sensitive, smart, flawed teacher (whose character is not, in the Hollywood style, the film’s focus) a difficult time. The teacher can be a touch condescending, and could be more assertive about maintaining order. He also grossly miscalculates a charged classroom situation. But the film never suggests that he is the prime cause for the behavior of students who view the teacher and school as the enemy. The Class offers no magical transformations or teacher saviours - just an inner-city Paris classroom whose dynamics are truer and more intricate than any I have ever seen in a fictional film.
However, despite my lack of enthusiasm about the quality of the films nominated, I still plan to stay up all night to watch the Oscars. I am also aware that the awards are in some measure products of grubby manoeuvring, and costly promotional ads. For example, some publicity campaigns, such as the bid for a Best Picture Oscar for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, are estimated to have budgets over $10 million. The money spent can’t guarantee victory, but it provides an unfair advantage to the production company that has that kind of cash at its disposal.
But on Oscar night I’m watching the handsome Australian Tony- and Emmy-winning Australian actor - Hugh Jackman - best known for his song and dance roles in musicals and for playing a furry comic-book hero in the X-Men movies - act as master of ceremonies. He’s clearly no Bob Hope, Billy Crystal, or Jon Stewart but as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive he’s been placed in front of the cameras to appeal to the overwhelmingly female viewers of the Oscars and hopefully bring back a portion of its ever-diminishing audience.
Jackman filled out a tux nicely, delivered his lines seamlessly, and adeptly danced and sang a medley of Hollywood musical songs with Beyonce in a glitzy anachronistic Busby Berkeley-style production number. But he was unable to inject life into the generally dull proceedings. In fact, except for a wryly-funny exchange between Steve Martin and Tina Fey (the next Oscar master of ceremonies?) announcing the Oscar for best screenplay, there was barely any humour to lighten the self-congratulatory proceedings.
What there was, endlessly, were the winners either gracefully or awkwardly thanking cast members, production teams, wives, and parents - but nothing crudely entertaining (they needed Mickey Rourke for that) or particularly interesting was said. Except for Sean Penn, who won for Best Actor, and declared for gay rights by stating, “I think it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes.” The rest was predictable, including the Best Picture Oscar going to SlumDog Millionaire, the most crowd-pleasing of the nominees.
Still, I am such a creature of habit, that despite my complaints, I will be on the same couch next year watching. But if you would like an antidote to the lacklustre Oscar extravaganza, I recommend dipping into David Thomson’s (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) tendentious Have You Seen...?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Knopf). Written with idiosyncratic verve, Thomson provides concise critical takes of films ranging from Hollywood’s Ben Hur to Ingmar Bergman’s great Persona. I differ with a number of his judgments, but Thomson’s love for films and sceptical intelligence always make him worth reading.