Monday, January 26, 2009

Golden Globes Down, Oscars to Go

The big awards shows come and go around this time of year, and it generally makes me pause and wonder: have I been too hung up on outdated culture (classic movies, old books) to keep up with current cultural developments? And from there, I usually go on to a different question: why should I bother keeping up with current culture, when 99% of it... even the greatest, most memorable, award-winning movies... will slip out of cultural consciousness in about five months? I really don't think ANY of the acclaimed films will be worth talking about after a few months have gone by.

Still, this year is exceptional. I've seen most of them -- I saw Dark Knight a number of times, I saw The Wrestler and Revolutionary Road and Doubt, and just recently I managed to see Slumdog Millionaire. I've seen Wall-e a couple times, too. The big winners I've missed are The Curious Case of Benajmin Button, Rachel Getting Married, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, and Defiance.

Here, as you can see, we have our usual round-up of Oscar contenders. There are a few historical epics, one of which deals with World War II. There was bound to be a holocaust movie in there, with the likes of Valkyrie, The Reader, and Defiance all floating around. There are also two emotional dramas, the type of movie that involves a lot of yelling and leads to a restrained but tragic conclusion. I was lucky enough to see both of these character dramas, and they are both more than worth a trip to the cinema. I'll discuss them in a little more detail below. Aside from these, there was an off-the-beaten-path character study by Aaronofsky, and a Forrest Gump -esque piece of magical realism by David Fincher. Except for the enormous acclaim given to a comic book movie, there weren't too many surprises in store for the Hollywood enthusiast.

My own take on these Oscar contenders involves the question: which ones will resonate? In ten years, which ones will you be proud to remember seeing in theaters? Which ones will you heard mentioned in conversation, or referenced in a classroom? It's sort of a standard lineup of genres and directors... will any of the big winners this year really be remembered by cinema history?

The character dramas, Doubt and Revolutionary Road, and the historical epics, The Reader, Frost/Nixon, and Defiance, are probably the least likely to last. These are annual Oscar stuffing, films that follow our expectations for "good movies," and there have been a LOT of these types of films that have come and gone. Fincher's entry is probably the same -- it draws on certain magical realist genre conventions, along with Forrest Gump and Big Fish, and even though I'm sure it's luminant and gorgeous, I don't think it will be remembered above these predecessors. I think Fincher will have to be a lot more radical with his style and approach if he's ever going to top what he did with Seven.

The Wrestler may make a more lasting impression. Aaronofsky is being accorded an auteur's status in Hollywood, so his films will be regarded as more than mere flashes in the vanishing slipstream of Hollywood... they'll be evaluated as part of an ouvere. This particular film will be seen as a turning point for Aaronofsky, and will be remembered, just as history remembers OK Computer as Radiohead's stylistic defining moment.

The Dark Knight is the other 2008 film that history will certainly remember, for a number of reasons. Its association with Christopher Nolan, a director in his prime, and Heath Ledger's shocking death before its premiere, have created a perfect storm for the film's cultural legacy. The fact that it lived up to fans' expectations will cement its longevity. There's also something more subtle in The Dark Knight's success, and that's the fact that it's a comic-book/action movie that's made a serious impression on audiences, reviewers, and even the Academy. Culture is increasingly answering to the tastes of the mass audience, with the ubiquity of snide bloggers (ahem), mash-ups, leaked gossip, and YouTube clips. The Academy won't be able to continue ignoring popular film -- action, comedy, science fiction, and comic book movies -- when they look for Best Picture nominees. The Dark Knight is an early harbinger of a trend that's inevitably going to continue.

For me, Slumdog Millionaire is a big wildcard. It had a number of qualities to set it apart, both from the 2008 films and within the scope of cinema history. It's the most popular, acclaimed Hollywood/Bollywood crossover (though there have been others, like Bend It Like Beckham) and, again, it's associated with an up-and-coming director (Danny Boyle). However, it depended heavily on a pop culture aesthetic, and this fact -- which is an asset in The Dark Knight, whose purpose was grave and whose historical circumstances were striking -- may turn out to work against Slumdog Millionaire, whose stylistic playfulness may prevent it from being taken seriously in the long term.

Before I sign off on this little award show rumination, I need to give a shout-out to Doubt and Revolutionary Road. Doubt won't be remembered in history, except as a good film, but it's a phenomenal piece of character drama. The strength of the film may be due largely to the strength of the source material, and honestly, the film even felt like a play. The settings were small and generic enough that it seemed like they could have been set up in a small theater and rotated to create a space for exposition. Within this cramped, intimate format, Phillip Seymore Hoffman and Meryl Streep depict flawed heroic personalities that continue to resonate with me, and their clash -- charisma versus conviction -- is like the real-world version of Hector and Achylles. The strength of Streep's character will leave you in awe.

Revolutionary Road resonated with me, as well, though its appeal may be less universal in this regard. Though this is undeniably a tale of the insecurities and social pressures that hovered over the heads of families in the 50's, it also uses those sensibilities to tap a more universal theme. For me, this was the theme of hope and fear that goes along with defying the expectations of those around you. For anyone who sees themselves reaching for a dream (welcome to New York), but who knows they may have to give up everything for it, and to reconsider every role they've been conditioned to fill, the anxiety and powerlessness of Frank and April will seem brutally timeless. The film taps our natural fears of failure and need to conform, and it asks a tough question: did society destroy Frank and April by denying them their dreams? Did they destroy themselves by reaching for those dreams? Or did they destroy themselves by not reaching far enough for them?

Those are my many and varied thoughts on the Oscar and Globe movies of 2008. I think it's time for me to go back to my classics... Hollywood, I'll see you in a year or so.

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