Watching the nominations for the 2012 Academy Awards yesterday, it dawned on me that there’s a very distinct theme running through this year’s nominees. I thought of a decent (though perhaps not 100% accurate word if you’re gonna get really technical!) word to sum this up: classicism.
Let’s take the nominees for Best Picture first. Now, let’s look at what must be the front-runners for this prize. Since 1980, every winner of Best Picture has gained at least a nomination in the Best Editing category too – lending weight to my constant argument that the editing of a film is perhaps one of the most important aspects of making a good movie. So using this formula we can whittle it down to The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo and Moneyball. In true Rolf Harris style: can you guess what it is yet? Hugo is, give or take, about George Melies and the birth of cinema, while The Artist centres on the trials of an actor at the birth of sound in cinema. The Descendants is in a long line of famiy-based dramas, while Moneyball is a sports film (which are, if you look at nominations from past years, pretty popular with old Oscar).
The Best Actor category is perhaps the best for showing what I’m trying to point out here: if we exclude Demian Bichir in A Separation (of which I’m very happy – a foreign film being nominated in something other than the Best Foreign Film category! Huzzah!), then we’re left with Jean Dujardin in The Artist, George Clooney in The Descendants, Brad Pitt in Moneyball and Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Dujardin seems like the odd one out here – but he does play a classic actor (albeit fictional, but the sentiment is still there). Clooney, Pitt and Oldman all seem either to be classic actors and distinguished and towing that line between “serious” acting and superstardom, much like bygone days.
So really, doesn’t old Oscar seem like he’s picking old-timey production values and star quality this year? There are probably two contributing factors to this: firstly, the fact that the 2011 Oscars were dominated, at least in the major categories, by The King’s Speech – i.e. America and Hollywood was defeated somewhat by Britain (at least on paper: if we look at the funding and all that, America contributed more to the success of The King’s Speech than you’d imagine). Secondly, the unconventional contest between Avatar and The Hurt Locker in 2010 brought the increasingly technological nature of Hollywood cinema to the fore: if Avatar had won, it would have meant that Oscar acknowledged big bucks and flashy CGI over general filmic integrity. Oddly though, I agreed when people suggested that using motion capture is still acting – but there’s still good acting and bad acting, whether you do it in a bobbly suit or not.
Few of the nominations in the Best Picture category this year can be said to be making big bucks, or indeed that loads of money was spent on them – Moneyball and The Descendants are what I’d like to call ‘indie-Clooney’ and ‘indie-Pitt’ (which they do much better in than your standard commercial fare) and so far The Artist has made less than a million at the Box Office. Yep, seriously. People have even demanded their money back because it’s silent. Yep, really. Despite all that publicity. The directors acknowledged this year are also mostly of the 70s old-guard or are very much in step with that movement – so we have Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick and Steven Spielberg (sort of) nominated. Maybe they’ve all perfected their art.
So perhaps we can say that Oscar is acknowledging three things: that big money doesn’t necessarily make a good movie, that artistic merit is best, and that artistic merit is even greater when it’s American. This return to a sense of classicism might seem a bit mean of Oscar in a technological age, but there are more truly great movies nomiated this year than in previous – so a classic feel might just bump up the excitement about who’s going to win on the night.