To be honest, I was feeling a little disenchanted about the Oscars this year. I wasn’t incredibly impressed with the nominations for Best Picture, albeit there were a few gems amongst the crowd. I knew it just wouldn’t feel right if The Artist (2011) didn’t win, but—lo and behold—the Academy did not fully disappoint this year. Although to be fair, there was a decent selection of nominations this year for Best Picture—such as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011), Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011), and Bennet Miller’s Moneyball (2011)—all good films, and yet at the same time, not quite Best Picture worthy. And yet a few of the films nominated didn’t quite cut it at all—particularly, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011) and Tate Taylor’s unfortunate film The Help (2011). We’re left with the only other Oscar worthy film—Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). Yet, the Academy obviously wasn’t ready for its unconventional method of storytelling. Hence, we’re left with the darling of the night—The Artist.
If you haven’t heard about The Artist yet, it’s a black and white, silent film that tells the story of Hollywood’s transition from silent classics to modern talkies. A tale of Hollywood’s fickle glamor in a time of technological advance, the sentiment evidently resonated with contemporary audiences. Consequently, the film swept the Oscars with ten nominations and five wins. Michel Hazanavicius took home a shiny gold man for Best Director, with Jean Dujardin celebrating a win for Best Actor, along with wins in Costume Design and Original Music Score. How great could a silent film be, you ask? Charlie Chaplin would be rolling in his grave if he heard that. Like the protagonist George Valetin (Jean Dujardin), Chaplin resisted the transition from silent films to talkies throughout the 1930s. In a Time article from February 1931, Chaplin defends his increasingly antiquated attachment to silent films: “Action is more generally understood than words. Like Chinese symbolism, it will mean different things according to its scenic connotation. Listen to a description of some unfamiliar object—an African warthog, for example; then look at a picture of the animal and see how surprised you are.” And where would we be without Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), a culturally significant commentary on industrialization and the Great Depression? Moreover, he made the mostly silent film in an era where audiences had come to expect and appreciate talkies, much like the audiences today in relation to The Artist.
Meanwhile, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was a close runner up to The Artist; it’s a strikingly beautiful film that asks macroscopic questions about existence, and yet in turn, answers these questions through the microcosm of relationships. It cleverly posits religion in the Deep South of the US against breathtaking representations of evolution, mimicking the film’s overall approach to grander life questions. The film is over two hours long, however, it manages to tell an incredibly rich story with limited dialogue—using instead a plethora of stunning images and snippets of whispered questions to God about the secrets of life. Yet, it is so unconventional in its cinematic approach, and had received such mixed reviews, that to win would have most likely been an upset. Scorsese’s Hugo is also a beautiful film that pays homage to cinema’s early development, albeit in the form of a children’s story. It is based on the true story of George Méliès, as told by Brian Selznick in his novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007). Méliès was a French filmmaker who created magical movies through innovative special effects techniques, including hand painting of the film. One of his most famous works, A Trip to the Moon (1902) became part of the cultural milieu of modern audiences vis-à-vis The Smashing Pumpkins video, Tonight, Tonight (1995). Although Hugo was a wonderful film, I wonder if it weren’t for its Oscar winning director, Martin Scorsese, if whether a children’s film would have otherwise made it to the Best Picture category. Another noteworthy film of the night was fellow smithie Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Saving Face (2011), winner for Best Documentary Short. It tells the plight of Pakistani women who have been disfigured by acid attacks, an act of violence against women that is all too common in Pakistan. Not only does the film follow the lives of the women and their encounters with plastic surgeon Dr. Muhammad Jawad, but it also shows the passing of the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill in the Pakistani Senate. The bill thankfully punishes perpetrators with prison time and large fines. I am also looking forward to seeing Best Foreign Language Film winner, A Separation (2011). Directed by Asghar Farhadi, it’s the first Iranian film to win an Oscar. Imagine how many more Iranain films we would be able to enjoy, if only all of them were allowed to be produced.
While I was surprised that Viola Davis didn’t bring home an Oscar for Best Actress—considering all the chatter after her SAG win—you can’t really argue over Meryl Streep’s stellar performance in The Iron Lady (2011). Unfortunately, I didn’t really like either film—neither the ode to Maggie Thatcher, nor the film adaption of Kathryn Stockett’s questionable novel, The Help. Nevertheless, these ladies deserve their accolades, along with the rest of the nominees—Michelle Williams for the wonderful My Week With Marilyn (2011), Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), and Glenn Close for Albert Nobbs (2011). Actually, scratch that last one, although the other two films I did thoroughly enjoy. In fact, it’s really hard not to giggle while thinking of Close’s performance as the transgender character of Albert Nobbs. Again, as I mentioned in a previous blog entry, why do queer characters always have to be tragic? Not only does Nobbs’ story end in inevitable sadness, but the character himself also suffers from a host of issues most likely placing him on the autistic spectrum. Yet, this is never truly revealed, simply explained away as leftover consequences of an unhappy childhood and sexual abuse. In turn, Glenn Close ends up painting an unbelievable caricature of yet another transman who is an unfortunate victim. The film’s saving grace is that Nobb’s true friend, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), is a transman who manages to achieve a happy and fulfilling life for most of the film. The character serves as a contrast to all that Nobbs could have been but wasn’t.
Although the Academy Awards tends to be an annual disappointment due to its “old boy’s club” ways, each year, there are always a few films that sneak by and which truly are great. Nevertheless, I fall for a man named Oscar every time; I’m unwittingly enchanted by the glamour and the prestige of the little bald golden man. Yet as long as you have the ability to whittle away the excess and see the good—some of the excellent films that pass through the public’s consciousness because of it; the appreciation for the art of filmmaking in all its facets—our annual Oscar routine is not in vain. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. While you’re enjoying some of your Oscar nominated selections from your Netflix queue this year, remember to evaluate the opinions of the old boy’s club with a critical eye. In the end, a cinematic experience is what makes you happy. It’s not about what the Academy or some critic (or me for that matter) tells you to think, but about what evokes that satisfying feeling after a good film; the appreciation of an hour and a half or so well spent.
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