THE LONG SHOT: What is an “Oscar movie” these days?

Posted by · 5:14 pm · October 21st, 2009

George Clooney in Up in the Air“God, that thing’s just going to shit Academy Awards out of its ass next year, isn’t it?,” I overheard a journo behind me remark to his companion, as I made my way out of the “Up in the Air” press screening on Sunday. “It’s such an Oscar movie.”

Two things struck me as interesting about this throwaway remark, both relating to the lack of care with which both Oscar pundits and “serious” film lovers tend to regard the Academy Awards.

The first was that, isolated and in print, the guy’s words appear dismissive of “Up in the Air,” yet they actually capped a mostly enthusiastic response to the film. His tone dipped almost apologetically as he applied the “Oscar movie” label, as if it somehow sullied an otherwise fine effort.

More to the point, however, the remark seemed indicative of the transitive stage the Academy Awards seem to be in at the moment, as simultaneously resistant and vulnerable to industry change as the protagonist of Jason Reitman’s film – and facing a similar crisis of purpose. For 15 years ago – if not necessarily 15 years before that – “Up in the Air” wouldn’t have been decreed an “Oscar movie” at all.

Yes, it’s starry, serious-minded and trades in accessibly weighty human drama, three virtues the Oscars have never been averse to in their 81-year history. But it’s also contemporary, dryly comedic and comparatively small-scale, three things that wouldn’t really have flown at the height of the Academy’s period-prestige phase.

Through the 1990s, following one of the most adventurous and atypical Best Picture winners in the Academy’s history, “The Silence of the Lambs,” voters, as if frightened by their own boldness, largely retreated into the safe territory of the period epic. “Braveheart,” “The English Patient,” “Titanic” and “Shakespeare in Love” may be wildly different in their specifics — and indeed, two of them were against-the-grain victors — but they were all lavishly mounted romantic works that, for many, still define the “Oscar movie” template.

Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas in The English PatientThe 2000s, however, have proved such a template to be largely unreliable. When, at the start of the decade, “American Beauty” became the first contemporary-set Best Picture champ in eight long years, it seemed an edgier choice at the time than it probably was, but it did kick off a decade of winners that, for the most part, only ticked half the usual Academy boxes.

“Gladiator” may have been a hefty historical epic, but it was also an action-based summer blockbuster; “Chicago” may have been an older-skewing period musical, but it was also a cold-hearted comedy; “Slumdog Millionaire” may have been an uplifting rags-to-riches romance, but it was also an indie with an all-Asian cast.

Other winners include a grimly existentialist thriller, an extravagant fantasy and a genre-movie remake of a film that would never even have been a contender for foreign-language honors. Only the safe, stolid biopic “A Beautiful Mind” resembled no-holds-barred Oscar bait, and it was also, coincidentally or otherwise, the most tepidly received winner of the decade.

Yet pundits continue to pin early expectations on the lush studio product that most closely matches the outdated 1990s model. “Cold Mountain,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Dreamgirls” all failed even to secure nominations; “The Aviator” and “Atonement” were luckier, but left their seasons as also-rans after entering as frontrunners. In some cases, the films missed simply because they weren’t good enough, but much of the time, they were victims of voters seeking something new without knowing quite what they were looking for. “It’s not you,” the Academy was telling the glitzy prestige contenders. “It’s me.”

So what of this year’s bunch? If the mostly withering early reviews are to be believed, we already have the season’s old-model sacrificial lamb in the shape of “Amelia,” while the field of serious contenders is littered with films that, like “Up in the Air,” look from some angles like Oscar-bait, and from others emphatically not.

Stanley Tucci in The Lovely BonesI discussed last week the progressive implications that an urban-targeted Best Picture winner like “Precious” would have, despite its Academy-friendly against-the-odds survivor story. “The Hurt Locker” may belong to a previously Academy-favored genre, but its political currency and overriding bleakness pose something of a challenge to voters.

“An Education” is an elegiac period romance (an Academy plus), but it’s also a teen-centered study of a borderline-pedophilic relationship (not so much). Even the season’s token prestige literary adaptation, “The Lovely Bones,” has wild fantastic and spiritual elements that distinguish it from prototypical Academy fare.

And so it is that the two unseen December releases still topping most pundits’ prediction lists are the ones that adhere closest to the old “Oscar movie” model. “Invictus,” Clint Eastwood’s true-life drama focusing on a modern day political icon, with-racial unification and sporting-underdog narratives thrown in for good measure, seems almost too perfect a storm for Academy voters; “Nine,” a comic musical riff on the travails of a womanizing auteur, isn’t quite as Academy-ready in content, but has matchless pedigree and a sisterly resemblance to a recent winner.

Advised only by my gut, I’m willing to place a bet that neither of these titles will be the one to emerge from the evening’s final envelope on March 7 – if only because Academy voters seem to be enjoying their newfound freedom to wrong-foot industry expectation. That said, picking the obvious prestige picture might represent more of an aberration than anything else these days.

→ 27 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Long Shot

27 responses so far

  • 1 10-21-2009 at 5:35 pm

    James.C said...

    Hi Guy. Off topic.

    Where is your White Ribbon review? I want to read it so badly.

  • 2 10-21-2009 at 6:03 pm

    leocdc said...

    In accord with you, what are the chances for films less classical Oscar movies like District 9 and Where the wild things are… because I’ve seen the first and it’s the best film I’ve seen since Wall-e (favourite film of 2008). I enjoyed it more than Slumdog Millionaire and TDK even!!
    So I’d love to see more love to this untraditional movies!!
    What do you personally think about it?

  • 3 10-21-2009 at 6:04 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    James: It’ll be ready tomorrow sometime. The last two days have been too crammed for me to dedicate the necessary time to it.

    But thanks for your anticipation!

  • 4 10-21-2009 at 6:08 pm

    snowballa said...

    When I think “Oscar Movie”, I usually think safe, biopic, drama, melodramatic and almost always forgettable in 5 years. However, that’s because of the choices of the past years. Even “Precious” is safe in that it’s African-Americans in peril and thus ignites “white guilt”. Reminds me of “The Color Purple” in that respect

  • 5 10-21-2009 at 6:13 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    On paper, I’d say “District 9” has the slimmest of chances of a Best Picture nom, since it was the sleeper/phenomenon of the summer, and more of a talking point that any of the other genre blockbusters that people are championing for a nod. (I like its chances more than “Star Trek,” for example.) But in the real world, I don’t think it has a shot.

    And “Where the Wild Things Are” strikes me as too eccentric and too contentious to warrant consideration.

  • 6 10-21-2009 at 6:15 pm

    James D. said...

    Different films may be winning, but many of the nominees are still Oscar bait. Last year, couldn’t all four of the nominees (Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader, Frost/Nixon) minus the winner be classified as Oscar bait? 2007 was not as bad, with Atonement being the only real standout, but the point still remains that studios continue to make films for the Academy.

    I think you are setting too many specifics for what qualifies as Oscar bait. Without having seen An Education, it sounds like an Oscar film (Generally, a stuffy British period drama is a shoo-in).

    Also, Oscar bait films such as Revolutionary Road and Doubt garnered other nominations, but not the ultimate one. Beyond that, in many categories the Oscar bait still wins (last year, Penn beating Rourke and Winslet beating Hathaway).

    I would agree with your larger point that the tastes have gotten more eclectic, though. I am on record as being very disapproving of Slumdog Millionaire, but as you and many have mentioned, who could have seen that coming? Who would imagine the Academy warming up to the nihilistic No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, or a comedy like Juno?

  • 7 10-21-2009 at 6:16 pm

    James.C said...

    I am really looking forward to the review, Guy.

    This is probably my most anticipated movie this year. It looks so Bergman-esque.

  • 8 10-21-2009 at 6:57 pm

    j said...

    Well, I like to think of the movies I personally like as not Oscar bait. And of my favorite 5 films of the decade, only Milk was a serious contender. It was awesome and gay and from a director who mostly does edgy fare.

    That said, of the dozen-ish main contenders
    Surprising – Hurt Locker (no stars, female director), Bright Star (same, but also the director has come off of pretty mediocre-to-badly reviewed films), Up (animated), A Single Man (fashion designer debut director, long-working star with no major accolades, gay)

    Mixed – Avatar (Titanic follow-up…about aliens), Serious Man (Coens, but no-star comedy), Up in the Air (Reitman/Clooney, but comedy that hadn’t been getting huge buzz until people saw it), Education (Mulligan/Scherfig as a surprise, but the material not as much), Precious (black director/no-name cast but the annual make white people pat themselves on the back for being sympathetic movie)

    Bait (Cast, crew, subject matter) – Invictus, Nine, Bones

  • 9 10-21-2009 at 7:18 pm

    Morgan said...

    I just think that Oscar-season movies (the fall and end of year releases) are burning through their hype in ever decreasing cycles, these days. I think we saw that with Slumdog Millionaire last year. That movie was a slow burn that nobody saw coming, and it steamrolled everything else.

    On that note, the big NYT spread for Precious strikes me as way, way too early. It’s not even Halloween yet. They risk killing the buzz by pushing it too hard.

    Has anyone ever actually gone back to October of last year to revisit what was being touted as a “sure thing” at the time? I think you’ll be surprised…

  • 10 10-21-2009 at 7:23 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    I’m surprised you think the Coen Brothers are “Oscar Bait,” j. Of the fifteen feature films they’ve made, only three have been nominated for Oscars, and only two have recieved Best Picture nominations.

    I realized that they’ve enjoyed critical success and a dedicated following (including from yours truly) for most of their careers, but AMPAS (with one huge exception) have been relatively tepid toward them.

  • 11 10-21-2009 at 7:54 pm

    leocdc said...

    Thanks for your response Guy!!
    I have to say that doing a little research I found that WTWTA is one of the movies with most 100’s on Metacritic (today it has 8). Just Ponyo, Up and The Hurt Locker has more 100’s. District 9 has 7, Star Trek and Drag me toHell has 6, Inglorious Basterd and 500 Days of Summer has 5. I forgot to mention A Serious Man which have 9. Other little movie like Goodbye Solo has 8 too, but it’s so under the radar for the Oscars that almost nobody talks about chances for it.
    What do you think about this stadistics? It could have a relevance at the end of the day? (Anything that could help District 9 or WTWTA for me is fine xD)

  • 12 10-21-2009 at 8:37 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    im sorry but the lovely bones is just not bait, if it were not peter jackson no one would have this on their radar, besides being a popular novel, amelia invictus and nine really seem like the only true oscar movies this year, with maybe an education skirting the boundary

  • 13 10-21-2009 at 8:52 pm

    Mike said...

    I agree with James D. and the fact that the acting prizes still go to Oscar bait (mostly). Here is proof:

    Lead Actor
    08 – Sean Penn – Harvey Milk biopic = oscar bait
    07 – Daniel Day Lewis – oil dude = not so much although he is DDL.
    06 – Forest Whitaker – Idi Amin biopic = oscar bait
    05 – Philip Seymour Hoffman – Truamn Capote biopic = oscar bait

    Lead Actor
    08 – Kate Winslet – Nazi guard, holocaust movie = oscar bait
    07 – Marion Cotillard – Eidth Piaf biopic = oscar bait
    06 – Helen Mirren – QE2 = major oscar bait
    05 – Reese Witherspoon – Wife of troubled singer, biopic of June Carter CAsh = Oscar bait
    04 – Hilary Swank – CLint Eastwood movie = oscar bait

    I’m not saying the best performance never won, which it generally did, just that the winners were usually the baitiest.

  • 14 10-21-2009 at 9:06 pm

    JM said...

    Something else to explore that is relevant: Which films already have a built-in Oscars promotional budget allocated in contract. Ex: THE LOVELY BONES. I’d wager Clint Eastwood’s does as well. And which distributors/films need to build buzz before a campaign is planned, such as in the case of films like ONCE.

    + perhaps examine the larger picture: What do the Oscars mean, why were they created? and do they improve the landscape and make us a better creative community? are they a great choice, or the best choice, to enhance audience enjoyment of film? are there other entertainment stories that journalists might focus on instead of reporting the same stories during awards and year after year?

  • 15 10-21-2009 at 11:22 pm

    Glenn said...

    Guy, I would’ve thought that you of all people would realise that “Saving Private Ryan” is by FAR the more typical “Oscar movie”. WWII, directed by Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks? Whereas “Shakespeare in Love” starred young pretty people (mostly) and is a romantic comedy (which they’ve only awarded the Best Picture statue to a couple of times).

  • 16 10-22-2009 at 12:19 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I’ve begun to think of an “Oscar movie” as one that captures something in the zeitgeist, whatever the makeup of its parts. I sense a slight corner turned with the No Country, Slumdog and Crash wins. Invictus, Precious or Up in the Air would certainly continue that trend.

  • 17 10-22-2009 at 12:26 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Without having seen An Education, it sounds like an Oscar film (Generally, a stuffy British period drama is a shoo-in).”

    Stuffy? No. Besides, I make a point of “An Education”‘s baity elements.

    Glenn: Of course it was less of a gimme than “Ryan,” as I acknowledge in the article with the “against-the-grain” qualifier. But it still had a few hooky elements (period, pretty, vaguely historical) that fed into the general perception of what an “Oscar movie” might constitute. There is obviously room to play within the formula, as “Shakespeare” did.

    Leocdc: I think you’re taking Metacritic scores a little too much to heart. They’re helpful as a general indicator of critical warmth, but it’s pointless to break them down that specifically.

  • 18 10-22-2009 at 12:30 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Kris: I agree. Though that still makes a winner like “The Departed” an aberration.

  • 19 10-22-2009 at 12:33 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I think exceptions like that (the opportunity to finally award Scorsese) are allowed.

  • 20 10-22-2009 at 12:53 am

    j said...

    Yeah, in the last 30+ years, only Shakespeare in Love has won out of comedies. Though…in the last 30-ish years, the only musicals that have come out even nominated are Moulin Rouge & Chicago. I highly doubt Nine can win when the other musical to win these past few decades is also by Marshall; I also doubt Invictus could win because only a few directors have had their movies get a higher combined # of Pic & Director Oscars: Wyler with 6, Ford/Capra with 5. Oh, and Coens I only consider baity because they’ve won oh so recently.

    I don’t think the # of 100’s necessarily means anything, but I like to check (# of 100’s*2) + (# of 88-99…though I think only 88-91 is possible), then divide that by # of reviews to see on average how much raving is being done.

  • 21 10-22-2009 at 12:56 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Chicago” was a comedy through and through, surely.

  • 22 10-22-2009 at 2:50 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Am I the only one that fears those 10 BP nods will all go to ‘regular’ Oscar movies except for Avatar? That means a total shutout of the summer hits.

  • 23 10-22-2009 at 3:59 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I tend to agree, though on gut feeling, I don’t think “Avatar” is a BP nominee. And I still think “Up” will make it.

    That said, I personally find it difficult to think of a summer hit that I’m really passionate about. (Unless you count “Public Enemies” as a hit, though it hasn’t a prayer anyway.) So I wouldn’t say I “fear” such an outcome. In fact, I surreptitiously hope it would put the Best Picture Ten idea out of the Academy’s mind.

  • 24 10-22-2009 at 6:13 am

    red_wine said...

    Basterds! I know its vaguely shallow but it is still very good film-making and exemplary acting(baring a few players). I can’t say I loved it but I thoroughly enjoyed and was hooked all the way through the 3 times that I saw it in a theatre.

    A large no. of people really like that movie and its already somewhat of a cult movie. And I do believe that it will bring some people to the show if it is nominated. Right now, I would include it in a 10 best of the year in a jiffy. And something tells me, it will stay there regardless of what I see. I know Kris despises it, but can you see it being nominated Guy?

  • 25 10-22-2009 at 10:19 am

    billybil said...

    I just had what I find is an interesting thought – any chance the 10 screenplay nominations could equate the 10 best pic nominations? I realize the chances of 5 adapted and 5 original splitting right down the middle like that would be surprising but….

  • 26 10-22-2009 at 10:28 am

    Ben M. said...

    My guess is with 10 nominees there will be at least one more commerical or unconventional contender in the mix (Avatar and Up seem the most likely at this point), but I also see the majority of the slots going to the type of films that would otherwise get acting and screenplay nods but miss out on BP.

  • 27 10-22-2009 at 11:52 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Red_Wine: Another one that makes sense on paper, given that it should get a healthy spread of noms in tech categories, obviously one for Waltz and perhaps a screenplay nod, given the dismal state of that category right now. But I’m still having trouble imagining the voters going for something so flip, particularly since critics’ groups are unlikely to latch onto it. Bottom line: I don’t know.

    Billybil: Unlikely. The writers’ branch almost always throws in one or two nominees that are way off the Best Picture radar: “In Bruges,” for example, wouldn’t have made the cut, even with 10 nominations. Same goes for any number of recent nominees like, say, “Ghost World” or “Lars and the Real Girl.”