Let me begin by saying that I have been ignoring my movie-reviewer responsibilities for a little while, both in that I haven't been watching many movies and the ones I have watched I haven't reviewed. (I've been watching Mad Men Season 2 on DVD, is one excuse.) Since this isn't a review either, let me just say that I found The Hurt Locker to be tremendously over-hyped, surprisingly formulaic with one-note characters and unremarkable writing. Shutter Island started slowly but turns into an enjoyable thriller. Now on to my main topic.
The Oscars are on Sunday, and I usually find myself watching more of the telecast than I plan, if only because I like to be conversant on the big topics of the day, and for whatever else you might to say about them, The Oscars have maintained societal relevance despite all their mistakes and their tone-deaf snootiness. This year, I've actually seen six of the ten Best Picture nominees, and thus feel unusually prepared.
There's only one thing stopping from paying special attention to the awards this year: the prevailing notion that so many of the big awards are locked up already, with no reasonable person expecting any surprise choices. Why is this the case? Did these movies and actors blow away the competition? Possibly, but an alternate explanation may be found in the culture of consensus that unfairly encompasses these awards and shuts off the debate that could make these awards more meaningful and interesting.
One thing that has always bugged me is that people place entirely too much emphasis on who they think will win the Oscar as to who they think should. This promotes the flawed idea that there are "Oscar-type" movies of an easily recognizable pedigree. The Oscars become less a contest of merit than an effort to keep the positive hype up and delay the inevitable backlash until after the ceremony. Several times in the recent past you could feel the backlash nipping at the heels of the winners as they walked off stage. Did anyone really think that Slumdog Millionaire was going to withstand the test of time and remain highly-regarded through the years?
When everyone starts talking about who will win, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and any possible discussion of relative merit becomes impossible. Granted, such a discussion is extremely difficult for a number of factors, most notably that many of us non-industry types have only seen a few of these movies, which leads to many picking their favorites based on past associations or emotional storylines. (See: the career Oscar, the comeback story, the "it's their turn" Oscar, the bright and bubbly newcomer, etc.)
Why don't people just talk about which movie or performance they thought was the best? A lot of it, I believe, comes down to fear of being somehow proven wrong, as though the popular choice must be right and you must be defective if you disagree. This is why I like Roger Ebert so much, even though I often can't understand his take on movies. On his best of 2009 he listed TWO Nicholas Cage movies, one of which was the widely-panned Knowing. There's a man who's not afraid to stand by his own thoughts.
Let's be brave and voice our own thoughts. Who cares if everyone knows The Hurt Locker is going to win Best Picture? I thought it was over-blown and poorly written, and Jeremy Renner's character in particular unbelievable. I like Inglourious Basterds best of the 10 they nominated, with A Serious Man right on it's tail. I can't believe Michael Stuhlbarg didn't get nominated for A Serious Man, or even Sharlto Copley for District 9, a movie I otherwise didn't care for. I didn't see any of the Actress nominees, but I don't know if any of them could top Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds. I liked Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air, but admittedly I missed Precious. Christoph Waltz deserves his runaway favorite status.
I know I may not have an expert opinion, but film critics and Academy members presumably do, and I have to wonder if a large number of them are simply going along with the flow and subsuming their personal tastes in an effort to get it "right." I just wish there was less of a cloud of inevitability surrounding the proceedings.