Great Oscar debate: What is the real best picture?

Should "Inception" have been included? Can "True Grit" cause an upset? Salon's critics discuss

Published February 26, 2011 1:01AM (EST)

Stills from "Social Network," "Black Swan," and "The King's Speech"
Stills from "Social Network," "Black Swan," and "The King's Speech"

Matt Zoller Seitz: Well, here we go again: Three months ago it seemed as though one film, "The Social Network," was the clear front-runner, practically a lock for best picture and a lot of other awards, too. And here we are looking at a possible upset by "The King's Speech."

This happens pretty regularly, doesn't it? A certain movie comes in and is a critical and even popular success early in the race. Then a little closer to the ceremony there comes a dark horse. "Driving Miss Daisy" ran over "Born on the Fourth of July" in 1989.  "Shakespeare in Love" ambushed "Saving Private Ryan" in 1998. And in 2005, "Crash" put down "Brokeback Mountain."

Is this part of the film industry and news media cycle? If so, why does it keep happening? What itch does it scratch? What need does it serve?

Andrew O'Hehir: We definitely have seen the pendulum swing back to the point where almost everyone (me included) now expects a big, big night for "The King's Speech." Which maybe signals Hollywood going back toward what people think it is  -- sentimental, middle-of-the-road and spectacle-friendly -- instead of what it actually has been the last few seasons, when critic-beloved, Indiewood-type movies dominated.

MZS: Do you think there's a kind of reflexive, instinctual, collective desire to liven things up, too -- an impulse that's not so much about the films as the contest, and the ratings and ad money and box office associated with the contest?

AOH: I'm afraid that may be so -- but isn't that human nature? If you're in a prison cell, you bet on cockroach races. In the field of politics, actual policymaking is now a distant footnote, and we're near the point when presidential campaigns will actually never stop. But yes, it may just be about the competition. It's as if "The Social Network" already won, and now it's the stuttering royalty's turn.

MZS: We have 10 best picture nominees again this year -- which was supposed to make the race more inclusive and populist and whatever, even though Oscar talk still comes down to two, maybe three nominees -- so let's acknowledge them shooting gallery style. Set 'em up and knock 'em down. 


AOH: There's a brutal karma at work here, isn't there? Many of us suspect that the academy instituted the new order of 10 best picture nominees because Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" was not nominated a couple of years back. Now here's Nolan with another huge international success. And yes, it's nominated this time -- but it's a total afterthought in the race.

Look, it's a very popular movie, which by definition means a lot of people really liked it. I'm still getting e-mails from Nolan's fans telling me how badly I misunderstood the movie and him, and that it's really a work of genius. Look, it's got visual style and some of it is exciting, but as a movie I found it clunky and overblown and oddly masturbatory. A nerd-fest without any actual intellectual challenge. I don't see much lasting value there, and it's definitely not going to win this award.

MZS: No -- it has no chance of winning. And as a movie? I admire the fact that it exists. Any time a $200 million blockbuster demonstrates any kind of formal ambition at all, I'm excited for viewers and for the industry. But to me the entire movie can be summed up as "Yadda yadda yadda yadda yadda BRAAAAAHHHHHM! Cut to new location. Yadda yadda yadda yadda yadda BRAAAAAHHHHHM!" The "BRAAAAAAAHHHHM" being that mallet-to-the-medulla score, which some joker cleverly reduced to its essence: a big red button.

I'm a believer that when this many people adore a movie, there must be something to it; but the flip side of that is, that something, whatever it is, might very well not be to everyone's liking, and fans need to accept that, too. It isn't a personal affront if every single person on earth doesn't love what you love. As David Bordwell, a defender of the movie, pointed out, "Inception" is an exposition-driven film, very left-brained, perhaps more a puzzle or game than a story. I am generally not a fan of those kinds of films and found it emotionally dead. Too many lyrics, not enough music, if you know what I mean.


"Winter's Bone"

AOH: I'm a huge fan of "Winter's Bone," and I would kind of love to live in a version of America where a brutal small-budget indie about a teenage girl from a family of meth-cookers in the Ozarks wins best picture. We've already discussed the phenomenal young actress Jennifer Lawrence, and should also mention the Oscar-nominated supporting performance of John Hawkes, who plays a terrifying character who tells his wife: "I already told you to shut up with my mouth." Breakout roles for both of them, and the movie is also terrifically directed by Debra Granik. It's a nasty, violent little thriller that is also a female-centric family movie set in a poor, white backwater of Middle America.

Let's note that there has been some controversy over "Winter's Bone," with some critics slagging it avidly as a condescending, patronizing, coastal-snob portrait of downscale, redneck-inflected America. I don't agree with that at all, and both Granik and the author of the original novel have street cred and middle-of-the-country roots. They didn't parachute in from a film-as-anthropology conference at NYU or whatever.

MZS: A lot of movies get that complaint: "You're exploiting the poor! This is a freak show!" Sometimes they have a point. But other times, let's face it, that's upper-middle-class college-educated leftist code for "I'm not a snob -- I just resent being asked to empathize with people I consider abrasive and low-class." It's a way of taking what may very well be the complainer's problem and turning it into the problem of the filmmakers and people who like the movie. The same complaints were directed at "Precious" -- which had a similarly unnerving, "Laughing at them, or with them?" tone that critics have no problem processing when Pedro Almodóvar or Todd Solondz do it. I've also heard that complaint leveled at many Coen brothers movies, from "Raising Arizona" through "A Serious Man," and -- wandering off the Oscar-possibles footpath -- the films of Harmony Korine and Larry Clark. That gripe has also been directed, to a somewhat lesser degree, toward many of the characters in "The Fighter," particularly Melissa Leo's and Christian Bale's characters. A fair percentage of the time, the complaint is bullshit, definitely so in the case of "Winter's Bone," which is about as condescending toward its characters as a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. I thought it was a heartbreaking, lovely, unusual movie, midway between a detective film and a slice-of-life drama about the rural poor. And I adored the heroine.

"The Fighter"

MZS: And since we're talking about movies that prompt "Freak show" complaints, we might as well segue into David O. Russell's "The Fighter."

Boxing movie? Family drama? Legit portrait of real-world concerns? Condescending whitezploitation?

AOH: American cinema could use more condescending whitezploitation. (Off topic: See Matt Porterfield's terrific little Baltimore indie "Putty Hill," everybody.) I liked "The Fighter" a lot, much more than I was expecting to, and I feel like sticking up for it.

Both Melissa Leo and Amy Adams are nominated for supporting actress, so they might end up canceling each other out and allowing Helena Bonham Carter of "The King's Speech" to snatch the prize (not that that would be so terrible). Christian Bale has a pretty good chance on the supporting-actor side. But his movie suffered for various reasons -- a lot of them marketing reasons. To me it's a raucous, rich, complicated movie about America in the '90s, and if it's not quite on the level of "Three Kings," it demonstrates that David O. Russell still has his mojo. But in a year with a lot of glitzier, high-concept movies I think a lot of people were like, "I don't want to see an artier version of 'Rocky.'" Or maybe they thought it was a sequel to "The Wrestler," Darren Aronofsky's previous movie. (Aronofsky actually did help produce 'The Fighter.")

The movie needed a different set of signals -- a snazzier title, packaging that made it look less like a coulda-been-a-contenduh boxing movie, and maybe more temporal and conceptual separation from the other movies it slightly resembled. I enjoyed it and I look forward to seeing it two or three more times. I could watch that scene where Melissa Leo and all her indistinguishable daughters keep describing Amy Adams as "that MTV girl" like 10 times in a row and still find it funny. 

MZS: "The Fighter" doesn't reinvent or subvert anything; it just brings unusual intelligence, humor and fellow-feeling to what could have been a typical triumph-of-the-underdog sports picture. It's more a movie about reconciling loyalty to your family against the very real possibility that the whole clan has a pathology that's stopping each individual member from achieving their full potential. And no movie memory from 2011 brings a smile to my face faster than that silhouetted shot of Christian Bale's Dicky Eklund and Mark Wahlberg's Micky Ward working through high-speed combinations in that arena entryway with rock blasting on the soundtrack. It's the modern Massachusetts white boys' answer to Celie and Nettie Harris doing the hand-clap game in "The Color Purple." Pure sibling bliss. And about Dicky: One of my closest friends in college was a gifted athlete who became a crack addict and then got clean. Anybody who's been through that, or been friends with a person who went through that, will find more truth than shtick in Christian Bale's performance. And they might point out that crack addicts can be pretty shticky, because they have to be; it's a way of hanging onto what's left of their personalities.

Does "The Fighter" have a snowball's chance in hell of sneaking in and winning best picture?

AOH: Well, I've heard that theory: "Social Network" and "King's Speech" divide partisans, and "The Fighter" emerges as a consensus-building winner. Sounds like bad electoral science to me.

"127 Hours"

AOH: Oh, brother. We touched on "127 Hours" when we discussed the inescapable James Franco, who is simultaneously so charming and so wearying. I didn't hate the movie, but I basically think it's showboating, ADHD-inducing trash, and that Danny Boyle has deliberately and gleefully abandoned all restraint. It's a movie about a guy trapped in the wilderness, and Scooby-Doo is mentioned not once or twice but three times. He only appears twice, and speaks once, I think: Scooby-doobie-DOO! I think you liked it even less.  

MZS: The more I think about that film the less I respect it. Danny Boyle chose to make a movie about a guy who spends 127 hours with his arm pinned by a rock, but he cannot stand to actually sit still and look at it, live with it, deal with it. He has to keep jazzing things up. It's a fundamental failure of vision, a bad-faith movie that's doing everything it possibly can to not deal with the essence of what it's about: facing the possibility of one's own death with stillness and concentration. It probably should have been a little no-budget indie movie. But it wasn't, and it's a hit, and it's gotten nominated for Oscars, and money and success talk and bullshit walks, right? So what do I know?

"Toy Story 3"

MZS: "Toy Story 3." Overrated? Great? Somewhere in between? A legit best picture nominee, or another "Look, we're populist, we nominated a hit!"

AOH: I'm not offended that it was nominated. It's a pretty excellent animated adventure that exemplifies Pixar's not-so-gradual slide toward making movies aimed at nostalgic adults that, along the way, are perfectly acceptable kid flicks. I'm pretty sure I liked it more than my 6-year-old son did, although he was certainly caught up in the drama. Obviously he hasn't seen "Cool Hand Luke," or the other prison movies director Lee Unkrich and the writers reference. I believe "Toy Story 3" is now the top-grossing animated feature of all time, and it's definitely a well-made, highly enjoyable entertainment with a sweet spirit. That's pretty much a win for everybody.

But Pixar has such a cult following, especially among the youngish film media, that I feel like its movies are consistently overpraised. A little, maybe not a lot. When I hear people, in apparent seriousness, discussing "Toy Story 3" as a Holocaust metaphor -- instead of what it really is, an up-market remake of "The Brave Little Toaster" -- I mean, what can you really say?

MZS: No chance of winning -- not that anyone associated with the movie expects that or would lose sleep over it. Surprising and powerful climax. The rest is sweet and funny and does not disgrace the series, except for a couple of mild sexual references and tonally weird "gay guys are sissies!" jokes that seemed more Dreamworks than Pixar. "Toy Story 2" said everything the series needed to say on all the themes addressed in "Toy Story 3," and it said them in one sequence: the "When She Loved Me" montage

"The Kids Are All Right"

MZS: "The Kids Are All Right." A politically significant movie? A long sitcom episode with an edge? Any hope of an upset here in any category but best actress?

AOH: We talked about this film in passing while praising Annette Bening's performance (for which I now suspect she will not be rewarded). I've seen the movie three times, and it definitely delivers; Julianne Moore's climactic monologue about the difficulty of marriage made my wife totally bawl. Now, it is a bit sitcom-ish and MOR, albeit with three really good actors playing the central triangle, and it will mainly be remembered as the groundbreaking lesbian-marriage movie, which was both entertaining and convincing, and went right at the fluid nature of human sexuality. Those are not bad things.

But it isn't Pedro Almodóvar. And it's lot squarer than Lisa Cholodenko's earlier films -- and that was purposeful. I don't think it has any chance in this category. 

MZS: No, no prospects as best picture. The movie has stuck with me more strongly than I imagined it would, though. I've seen it twice, and the second time it started to feel like a Mike Leigh film in James L. Brooks drag, which is pretty sneaky.

"True Grit"

MZS: "True Grit." Any upset potential? It's a hit -- surprisingly so, considering that like so many Coen brothers movies it doesn't deliver anything remotely like what the ad campaign promised. This is no revenge thriller.

AOH: The surprise chick-flick of the season! Although I guess we're not surprised any longer, since "True Grit" has now far, far outstripped "No Country for Old Men" as the highest-grossing film Joel and Ethan Coen have ever made.

I think there's an area of longueur in the middle of the movie, when it briefly stops being the story of the amazing Mattie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfeld), and loses the musicality of its wonderful 19th-century American English script, and becomes a more conventional western. But that is largely redeemed by the remarkable conclusion. Essentially I think it's a tremendous film, and I know it has levels I haven't plumbed yet. I think the Coens are on a tremendous run. I need to go back and rewatch "Burn After Reading," which I strongly disliked, because I halfway suspect I will change my mind. I don't honestly know why this isn't in the best-picture conversation. 

MZS: I wonder if maybe it didn't resonate with New York and Los Angeles academy members in quite the same way that it did with moviegoers between the coasts, or in states where there's an actual, ancestral memory of the reality of what the novel and the films turned into myth. "True Grit" is a great story about a young woman coming of age, becoming more mature and experiencing loss but not necessarily turning into a different or "better" person. It's about how trauma seasons people, toughens them up.  Anybody could respond to that, in theory. But I think the vernacular, the cowboy imagery, the vast expanses of unspoiled countryside also plug into what you might call a cultural memory. Yes, moviegoers in any geographical terrain could conceivably appreciate it and project themselves into it. But I wonder, if you live in what's called "big sky" country -- or anyplace where you're surrounded by the real-life historical residue of things that many moviegoers know only from western films -- is it possible that you might feel "True Grit" more deeply than if you're looking at it more abstractly, as a genre exercise, as a western?

I've seen it twice myself and I know there's much more to it than I've grasped yet. This is one of two least-appreciated, potentially most important nominees. I think you know what the other one is -- and I want to save it for last.

"The Social Network"

MZS: Is there anything to say about "The Social Network" besides, "Great script. Great direction. Great acting. Tight, entertaining movie. Too bad you got the hook this year, guys"?

AOH: I agree with all of that. But also see a sub-rosa generational conflict in this movie, in which director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, both north of 40, take on this phenomenal younger avatar figure and the entire social media demographic he represents. I think this is partly conscious and partly not, and that to some degree Sorkin is trying to shoehorn Mark Zuckerberg -- or at least his imagined Mark Zuckerberg -- into a "Great Gatsby"-style fable about new money and new media in the 21st century.

Now, I think you disagree with me about that, but it could -- if I'm even partly right -- provide a psychological explanation as to why Hollywood seems to have turned subtly against "The Social Network." It's an exemplary work of craftsmanship, but I much prefer the right-brain, Sorkin-free David Fincher of "Zodiac," which to me is the closest he's come to a masterpiece. 

MZS: I think the most original writing about this movie has been done by Richard Brody, The New Yorker's film blogger. He wrote, "'The Social Network' is the latter-day successor to 'Amadeus,' the story of a genius whose invention far surpasses the socially challenged and socially disdained mereness of his person (the Winklevi would be Salieri), but it succeeds where 'Amadeus' fails. Fincher and Sorkin evoke the mystery of genius." That pretty much says it all. The "Whither the Facebook generation?" question to me seems a red herring -- and it's entirely possible that the academy bought into it, or allowed the film's competitors this year to persuade them to fixate on it, and not see the deeper story.

Yes, Aaron Sorkin would not have written this particular story if it hadn't been about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. But strip away the particulars and it could be the story of any socially inept, aggrieved, ambitious innovator who bends the world until it matches the vision he sees in his head. On top of all that, it's just such a smart, tight movie, the kind that I'll probably dread coming across on cable later, because if it's on I will have to watch it until the end -- a movie like "All About Eve," "The Apartment," "Sweet Smell of Success" or "Miller's Crossing," where I just marvel at its formal perfection and keep noticing new things to admire about it.

"The King's Speech"

MZS: So, "The King's Speech."

Sorry, Andrew. I know you really like it. But it's my sixth or seventh favorite of the nominated movies, if that.  Yes, it's uplifting. Yes, it's well-constructed, well-written, well-acted. But it's not as daring and unusual as a couple of the other nominated movies, "Inception" and "Black Swan," and it doesn't have the gemlike perfection of some of the more conventionally minded nominees: "The Social Network," "True Grit," "Winter's Bone" or even -- as seemingly loose as it is -- "The Fighter." What do you see in it?

AOH: Well, I'm a sucker for 20th-century history -- all of it, really -- and especially for works of fiction and nonfiction that make us consider it from a new perspective. And the perspective of King George VI, who was, from the viewpoint of any conventional historian, a completely irrelevant figure, is an unusual vantage point. I'm not going to argue this is astonishing or life-changing cinema, or anything. But I think "The King's Speech" allows us to see this peculiar guy and his disability as pivot points in history, marking a moment when the British Empire is on the way out but not dead yet, when he knows he has become an anachronism but still almost believes he is in that chair because God said so.

Also, it's wonderfully acted and has some great comic bits in it. I love Helena Bonham Carter as the future queen and Guy Pearce as the moronic, pro-Nazi King Edward.

Is it history-making cinema? No. And it's not my favorite among the nominees either.

"Black Swan"

MZS: "Black Swan," baby. "Black Swan" all the way.

This is the first Darren Aronofsky film I've flat-out loved rather than somewhat distantly admired. I don't really give a damn about its imperfections; I've even reconciled myself to what I consider to be one of its central failures, the miscasting of Natalie Portman, who's completely convincing as the White Swan but did not persuade me that she truly became the Black Swan. That nail-on-the-head conflict that's built into almost every scene of the film -- White Swan vs. Black Swan art, and what that distinction represents -- is reductionist and overblown and probably silly. But it gets at something real, something important.

Most Hollywood films are White Swan movies, or White Elephant movies, to use the critic Manny Farber's term. "Black Swan" is a Black Swan movie. It's crazy. It's unpredictable. It's a blast from the id. You aren't quite sure how to take it. It's in the vein of Buñuel and Ken Russell and David Lynch and Paul Verhoeven and David Cronenberg. Is any of it supposed to be taken literally? Is it camp? Is it trying to be camp? Does Darren Aronofsky really mean anything he's saying to us or showing us? What the fuck just happened? Why is Winona Ryder stabbing herself in the face? Are the feathers figurative or real? More! More! More films like this! I would rather see 10 more movies as "imperfect" as "Black Swan" than sit through "The King's Speech" again, and if I had my way, this movie would win best picture, if only to smack the entire industry across the face and say, "Look at this wild, personal movie. Marvel at it. It makes no rational sense. It is expressionist nightmare madness. It came straight from the filmmaker's gut. It's as mysterious and personal as a dream.  And it made a ton of money! Audiences responded! Not everything has to be conventional. Take some risks, for God's sake!"

AOH: At this point we're just going to congratulate each other on our excellent taste while the audience rolls its eyes in disgust. I agree with all of that, pretty strongly. And you've captured the fact that many of the allegations made against "Black Swan" -- that it's crazy, or trashy, or that it borders on total camp, or that it doesn't make that much sense on a literal level -- are all things that work for the movie, not against it.

I would point to the script as the movie's biggest flaw, and specifically the choreographer character played by Vincent Cassel, who supplies crucial explication every time he opens his mouth. ("You have to metamorphose into your evil twin!" I think that's actually the line!) But this is a mindfuck monster movie that eats its flaws and grows fat on them, and I totally concur that Aronofsky has matched story and technique in a way he's never come close to before.

It was you who made the remark that the title of this movie will now stand for a type of film, and that 20 years from now people may describe some freak-out hallucinatory head-trip as a "Black Swan movie." There's nothing else on this year's list that comes close to that. A "Social Network" movie? A "King's Speech" movie. No, I don't think so.

MZS: "Black Swan," baby. All the way.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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By Matt Zoller Seitz

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