Staying up way past my bedtime on a school night to watch the Oscars is one of those strangely vivid childhood memories for me. The glamour and prestige of it all is palpable, and quite frankly hard to resist. And as much as I’d love to get back to the good old days of 5 best picture nominations and Billy Crystal as host with his unforgettable parody montages, the Academy Award ceremonies of the last two years reflect an unmistakable changing of our ideas about what (and who) the face of film should look like.
What interests me the most however, is how significant the difference between the two and only years of the “10-nom” Oscars have been. When looking at the two best picture ballets side by side, the nominees from this year are undoubtedly of a completely different caliber than those of last year. We’ve got The Social Network, Black Swan, and 127 Hours compared with The Blind Side, Precious, and District 9. Now I’m not saying these are bad movies by any means, but you can’t help but notice that they’re a completely different class of film.
The films from this year felt extremely fresh, raw even. Originality and envelope pushing are what they’re all about. Now, there’s a difference when a film’s only apparent purpose is to shock and awe the audience, but one that manages to challenge them while still having something very significant and provocative to get across is hard to beat. I would argue that most of the best picture category of 2011 accomplishes this splendidly; while the nominees from last year were especially light in this regard. They veered more towards the side of playing towards our sympathies, epic big-budget, big-emotion dramas that set out to…inspire? The 10-noms of 2010 applauded these films that were just approachable and tame enough to bring in a big audience and let everyone leave the theater with that sense that all is right with the world because they’ve just seen a story they know very well.
Even the choices for the respective hosts reflect this same notion. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, two older, very familiar comedians to the average American, were the faces of last year’s ceremony. The younger, fresh faces of James Franco and Anne Hathaway, both of whom have been attached to some of the more “risky” projects of recent times, grace the stage in 2011. What a difference a year makes.
You don’t even have to have seen any of these films to know what I’m talking about. Although I’d be willing to bet that a lot of you have. It’s because they’re intriguing. They have something different to say and they have a story to tell that we may not have heard before, but that piques our curiosities. I also know this because they’re actually doing well at the box office. Hollywood moguls have been stunned that these types of films have actually made so much money. “What do you mean men are going to see a movie about a ballet dancer who’s on a bullet train to crazy town?” It seems that Hollywood has underestimated the American public. But even so, why all the interest in these “artsy” movies?
These films, most of which have been in development since around 2008/2009 (the peak of the recession), embody an idea that I agree very strongly with: people need art in difficult times. And, being as most of this world revolves around money, what I’m referring to here is difficult economic times. An initial reaction to the recession may have been a need for a wave of familiar, feel-good movies that were coming out in 2009. But as time goes on, more and more have we felt the effects of this economic downturn, and art, specifically the art of film, is thriving. Artists are driven to be more prolific when they are struggling, so they turn to their craft. And we as viewers crave that innovation, that freshness, whether or not we tend to forget it sometimes. So, after what has been truly a superb year in film, I guess it’s safe to say there are some benefits to a worldwide economic crisis after all. We’ll all have to toast to that when we cozy up and tune in to the awards next week. Cheers!