26 February 2011

The Critic's Speech

How quickly things change. As recently as the Golden Globes six weeks ago it looked like The Social Network, David Fincher’s fast-talking flick about the founding of Facebook, would be this year’s big winner, continuing a recent Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences trend of honoring slightly more adventurous fare, including The Hurt Locker (Best Picture, 2009), No Country for Old Men (2007), and more arguably The Departed (2006). But now that the various industry guilds have weighed in, it looks like a virtual lock that Best Picture will go to The King’s Speech, a far more conventional drama about the relationship between Britain’s King George VI and his speech therapist, played, respectively, by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.

The dramatic mid-January turn in the race set some Oscar talking heads yapping about an unprecedented split between critics’ groups and the industry. But it’s actually quite precedented. I’ll admit to having been sold on The Social Network as the inevitable Best Picture winner before The King’s Speech starting winning nearly every guild award in sight, but I should have reserved judgment. Nothing's ever set in stone until the guilds begin to weigh in. After all, we’ve seen this sort of dichotomy before—consider 1990 (GoodFellas sweeps the critics’ awards; Dances With Wolves takes the Globe and the Oscar) or 1997 (same deal for L.A. Confidential and Titanic). The difference today is that there are now a bazillion redundant critics’ groups, making their influence on the process appear greater than it actually is. The only real oddity here is The Social Network’s victory at the Globes, but that could be just another sign of their declining influence as an Oscar precursor.

The King’s Speech is by no means a bad film. Firth and especially Rush are quite good, and director Tom Hooper clearly put some thought into his camera placements. I can only assume that most AMPAS voters will be willing to look past (a) the predicatable way the film puts you through the paces of its story and (b) the fact that the whole movie is about a freakin' speech impediment. So it goes. But my favorites never win (although at least they get nominated more often now). Caring too much about the winners is a fool’s game and always has been—I mean, they gave Best Picture to Crash a few years ago for goodness’ sake.

But having said that, this year’s group of Best Picture nominees is a solid overall bunch, with Black Swan and Winter’s Bone joining The Social Network as contenders for my oft-postponed Top 10 list. (I’ll have more to say about these three when I finally get around to posting my Top 10 sometime next month.) The Fighter, directed by David O. Russell, was a well-acted and heartfelt, if highly conventional, boxing drama. Others would make the case for the Coen brothers’ dull remake of True Grit or Christopher Nolan’s "deep" Inception, a movie utterly devoid of serious formal ideas or intellectual content. (Compare the overall feel of the movie with that of any of David Lynch’s better films, and you’ll see what I mean.) I hadn't endured so much expository dialogue in one place since Attack of the Clones. Joining Inception among the presumed also-rans that failed to land a Best Director nomination (I’m officially ready to go back to five BP nominees, by the way) are the look-how-normal-we-are lesbian-family comedy The Kids Are All Right and the taut Ozarks drama Winter’s Bone, featuring a breakout performance from Jennifer Lawrence, as well as Toy Story 3 and 127 Hours, both unseen by me.

Predictions and preferences (where applicable) below. I should note that, in the 10-or-so years I've been doing this, I've never been less confident in my predictions than I am this year, so if you’re putting any money on this, please take my picks with a bigger grain of salt than usual.

Best Picture

One of the few locks on the board in what looks to be a very tough predictions year.

Will win: The King’s Speech
Should win: The Social Network

Best Director

For some reason, Hooper beating Fincher seems much harder to take than The King's Speech winning Best Picture (Aaron Sorkin’s excellent script for The Social Network could easily have come off as a series of glib one-liners if not for Fincher’s crisp pacing and mastery of tone). Perhaps for this reason, many prognosticators are predicting a split decision from the Academy, but with Hooper having taken the Director’s Guild award it’s hard to see a different result here.

W: Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
S: David Fincher, The Social Network

Best Actor

Colin Firth seems destined to win this for the second-best performance in The King’s Speech. I preferred Jesse Eisenberg’s steely, implosive take on Mark Zuckerberg, but I don’t see any chance of an upset here. And I'd like to give a shout-out here to the unnominated Edgar Ramírez, who gave the performance of the year in the title role of Olivier Assayas’ satirical terrorism epic, Carlos.

W: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
S: Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

Best Actress

This one will almost surely go to Natalie Portman, whose naturalistic turn in Black Swan effectively anchors the deliberately cartoonish performances of the film’s supporting cast. Some are predicting an upset from Annette Bening, but this feels like one of those inevitable Best Actress coronations to me.

W: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
S: Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

Best Supporting Actress

Anyone could win this one.

W: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
S: Amy Adams, The Fighter

Best Supporting Actor

Four terrific perfomances in this category, as well as a pretty good one from Mark Ruffalo. Bale triumphs over Rush, but just barely.

W: Christian Bale, The Fighter
S: Christian Bale, The Fighter

Screenplay, Original
W: The King’s Speech
S: Another Year

Screenplay, Adapted
W: The Social Network
S: The Social Network

Animated Feature
W: Toy Story 3

Documentary Feature
W: Inside Job

Foreign Language Film
W: In a Better World

W: True Grit
S: The Social Network

Art Direction
W: Inception
S: Inception

W: The Social Network
S: The Social Network

Visual Effects
W: Inception
S: Inception

Costume Design
W: The King’s Speech
S: Alice in Wonderland

W: The Wolfman

Sound Mixing
W: Inception
S: The Social Network

Sound Editing
W: Inception
S: Unstoppable

Original Score
W: The King’s Speech
S: The Social Network

Original Song:
W: “We Belong Together,” Toy Story 3

Animated Short
W: Day & Night

Live Action Short
W: Na Wewe

Documentary Short
W: Strangers No More