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Keeping Hope -- and Magic -- Alive as the Curtain Falls on Awards Season

Thompson on Hollywood By Sophia Savage | Thompson on Hollywood February 21, 2012 at 10:00AM

The magic of movies hasn't gone anywhere, but disillusionment comes with that dream. We all have to grow up, and for some of us that means having to learn that movie magic -- like all magic -- looks different from behind the curtain.
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"The Tree of Life"
"The Tree of Life"

The magic of movies hasn't gone anywhere, but disillusionment comes with that dream. We all have to grow up, and for some of us that means having to learn that movie magic -- like all magic -- looks different from behind the curtain. The Academy Awards telecast has always been my favorite show on TV. The little girl standing in front of the mirror holding a hairbrush as a mic and accepting her Oscar -- that was me, I admit it.

But now I live in Los Angeles, and I write about movies. The magic has shifted. Awards season is now a six-month mountain and once you've climbed to the top, all you can see is the bottom of the next mountain, because by now you’re already intimate with this year’s landscape.

Where Has the Magic Gone?

I know I'm not alone. Plenty of aspiring young filmmakers still idealistically view the craft as a vehicle for artistic expression and social commentary. The magic for them has nothing to do with awards. It's about slogging through an often antagonistic industry, with the often delusional belief that a film will triumph anyway.

The magic comes from micro-budget films like "Bellflower" somehow finding a route to distribution and turning out better than they would have been if it had been easy. Or a Danish director setting out to make an homage to 1980s B-movies and ending up with an American classic: "Drive." Or watching a studio-produced film that defies conventional methods and modes of valuation, like "Moneyball."

Surprised that "The Tree of Life" and "The Help" are both nominated for Best Picture? Shocked that "Bridesmaids"'s Melissa McCarthy beat out the likes of Carey Mulligan ("Shame") for a Best Supporting Actress nomination? Angry that yet again, not a single female director was nominated? Well, the voting members Academy are 94% white and 77% male. And they reflect the demographics of their industry. But it only reminds us of why our own taste matters.

Some of the best film commentary is inspired by opposing conventional thinking and the Academy bandwagon. A subjective art form has the ability to inspire objective debate. We assert ourselves through our taste -- we identify with winners, losers, outsiders or the snubbed because that's what allows us to feel connected to a particular film that lit a spark within us. It's personal and political. Look what fools we make of ourselves, all in the name of movies. If that's not magic, I don't know what is.

Consider some examples of passionate --and sometimes wishful--debate about this year’s awards contenders.

Low Art

The Envelope suggests that Hollywood doesn't like itself: "It may make a lot of junk, but it doesn't mistake that junk for art. Junk, not even high-grossing junk, doesn't win Oscars. High-minded movies do." That is where the self-loathing comes in. It may be the crap movies that make money and keep execs in their offices, but they know it as much as we do. The high-minded Oscars become the venue "to stage a small protest against the sorts of movies they feel we the audience sadistically forces them to make."

The Guardian asks: Why do Academy members snub fanboy-friendly films? It attests that the organization has always been "loath to honor" genre films -- a Western didn't win until 1990 ("Dances with Wolves") and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"'s Best Picture win in 2004 was a big deal. The Guardian's Ben Child notes that several 2011 films that were successful at the box office (without the boost of an Oscar nod) may be deserving of awards gravitas. Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive," he says, is the most obvious omission and "shockingly under-served."

Max von Sydow in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"
Max von Sydow in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"

While Oscar nominations are buoying the box office success of films like "The Artist," Refn's excellently reviewed genre turn is "exactly the kind of film which could have done with a little help from the Academy. More than any other film this year, its absence hints that Oscars voters remain, at heart, out-of-touch, po-faced stick-in-the-muds." Child argues that it's the "lazy inclusion each year of films and actors who fit a certain A-list Hollywood mold" that is unforgivable.

High Hopes

HitFix's Roth Cornet delivers a convincing argument for "Moneyball" to take home the top prize on February 26, contending that the film "asks us to step beyond limited perspective and the children's game of spectacle and showmanship in order to honor hidden and untapped potential and depth. What could be a more applicable (and timely) Best Picture winner than that?"

At the core of "Moneyball" is the question: How do we value ourselves (regardless of how others value us)? Cornet writes: "'Moneyball' reminds us of the times that we hit a home run and are so focused on the wrong thing that we don’t even know it."

Salon's projection of what Oscars would be like in an alternate universe -- one where "Twilight" would win Best Picture -- serves up a legitimate argument that the Oscars are actually self-destructive. "The Academy’s taste has wandered increasingly far from that of the mass audience," says Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "This isn’t exactly breaking news, but most popular genres of film are de facto ineligible for Oscar consideration: Superhero movies, thrillers, crime dramas, romantic comedies and franchise pictures of any kind.”

On the flip side, O'Hehir observes, “the Academy largely steers away from the kinds of serious arthouse dramas that play film festivals.”

Instead, “the real-life Oscars find themselves hopelessly trapped in the middle, endorsing calculated middlebrow pablum that everybody involved knows is a big pile of unmemorable 'meh.' If the aim... is to present the best face of the American film industry to the world, then this whole situation is ridiculous and self-destructive."

Lastly, The New York Times' A.O. Scott says "Oscar cynicism has become its own special form of Oscar hype."

This article is related to: Features, Awards, Awards, Academy Awards, Awards, Oscars


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.