Monday, February 26, 2007

The Academy finally grows up

I have a love/hate relationship with the Academy Awards. I usually wind up complaining and whining about which films get nominated and which ones don’t. I become outraged when deserving films lose to more popular, but lesser works. Nearly a decade later, I am still fuming about “Titanic’s” best picture win. It was never the king of my world.

And yet every year I watch diligently. But why? It is just the opinion of a group of people. There are numerous award shows that hardly raise an eyebrow, but because the Oscars are the biggest they hold a fascination.

It is just an opinion, but within the film industry and culturally that opinion has been made significant. What wins and is nominated can dictate the trends of Hollywood. It isn’t a guarantee, but an Oscar win can change a career, Just look at Jamie Foxx. He went from a grade B comedian, to an A-list actor practically overnight. Oh how quickly we forgot “Booty Call.”

Too often the Academy failed to notice the truly remarkable films in any given year. Spectacles like “Gladiator” and “Chicago” tended to be the easy wins. But the last couple years have brought a shift that is refreshing. The Academy has increasingly been nominating and awarding films that are important socially, culturally and globally.

Last year saw numerous nominations for films like “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Crash” and “Munich.” They were films that had something to say about the world’s past, present and future. This year the trend continued with nominations for weighty films like “Babel,” “Last King of Scotland,” “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Children of Men.”

There has also been a broader inclusion of smaller or independent films. This year saw “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Half Nelson” and “Little Children” scoring nominations in major categories. Perhaps this is a statement of where the best films are coming from now. The fact that this year’s Oscars were the most international ever, something that was repeated multiple times through out the evening, is a further reflection of this.

It is as if the Academy members suddenly became politically and globally aware. They usually left the political messages to be sent by the best documentary category (i.e. this year’s winner “An Inconvenient Truth”), not the big categories. That Melissa Etheridge’s theme song for “An Inconvenient Truth” beat out three songs from “Dreamgirls” felt as important of a statement as the film itself winning.

A Hollywood film, “The Departed”, was the evening’s big winner, but Hollywood doesn’t always churn out crap, sometimes substance creeps in, and in the hands of Martin Scorsese, “The Departed” isn’t the run-of-the-mill remake of a foreign film.

This was Scorsese’s year. There was no way he could be denied an Oscar for best direction again. “The Departed,” while not flawless, is an example of dynamic storytelling brought forth by a dream cast that doesn’t let down. It is the sort of film Hollywood should and could be making consistently if the lowest denominator still didn’t make a buck.

As for the ceremony itself, it is still a bloated affair, with too much needless filler. This year clocked in at just over three hours and 45 minutes. Padding included nice, but unnecessary clip montages of foreign films, films about writing and films about America.

Some of the filler was enjoyable. Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C. Reilly sang a lively song about how comedians never get their due at the Oscars. Another highlight was the sound effects choir, which “sang” the effects for a series of film clips. Quite impressive.

Ellen Degeneres was a fine host, who at times seemed uncertain of herself, but in a way that was part of her charm. Then again, maybe that was all part of the act. Her best bits involved her venturing into the audience to chat with directors Clint Eastwood and Scorese.

She gave Scorsese a fake script for a movie called “Good mommas,” a cross between “Goodfellas” and “Big Momma’s House.” As for Eastwood she scored a photo with him for her myspace. The photographer: Steven Spielberg.

As far as winners go, the evening was rarely a shocker. As anticipated, Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren and Jennifer Hudson all won. Alan Arkin, with his win for best supporting actor in “Little Miss Sunshine,” was one of the few surprise wins.

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” a favorite for best foreign language film, lost to Germany’s “The Lives of Others.” The Academy has a funny way of balancing things though and awarded “Pan’s Labyrinth” for its achievements in art direction, make up and cinematography.

Acceptance speeches were largely forgettable, although Hudson was genuinely surprised and honored and Whitaker spoke passionately about the power of acting to connect to people. Scorsese had the most memorable acceptance speech moment when he asked, “Could you double check the envelope?”

Overall, my love/hate relationship this year is leaning away from the hatred. Perhaps the Academy is aging in dog years because at 79 it seems to have finally outgrown those awkward teen years. Let’s just hope it doesn’t go wild when it hits 21.


tw said...

Hear hear for a more inclusive Oscar night. Helen Mirren's Q+A with the press was all I watched (Oscar party invites having been a bit thin on the ground here in my street) but it seemed a gracious and yet somehow appropriately clipped response to all the glitz and the gushing. For the first time ever, I find that I have seen two of the contending films - Pan's Labyrinth and the Queen - so the net must have widened somewhere.

Eygló said...

Even though I didn't watch the Oscars this year it felt as if I'd seen the awards through your blog. I hope you're right about the Oscars growing up.