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2010: The Year of Staggering Irrelevance in Oscarland

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Posted on Jan 28, 2011

He’s not buying it, folks: Our resident reviewer isn’t keen on Darren Aronofsky’s accolade magnet, “Black Swan.”

By Richard Schickel

It begins sometime in early December, in a screening room near you, with a handful of middle-aged men and women impatiently awaiting the start of a new movie. “Bad year,” one of these critics muses. “Can’t remember a worse one,” someone else offers. To which I never counter with the logical comment, “Sure you can.”

It seems superfluous. Movies are the products of human ingenuity, or the lack thereof, which means, of course, that the vast majority of them are pretty bad and a substantial minority of them are just plain god-awful. This annual chorus of complaint rises in volume as the various critics groups announce their prizes and individual writers submit their 10-best lists. It climaxes, as it did earlier this week, with the announcement of the Academy Award nominations, which are presented—and reported upon in the press—with a certain objectivity. Mild surprise is rendered at various errors and omissions (What, no directorial nomination for Christopher Nolan?), dubious predictions about the outcome offered up. This year, the prizes will be presented on Feb. 27. And I promise you that by March 1 we will be unable to recall most of the winners, although there are always the display ads reminding us of who won the prize for best editing.

Thus do a few movies “enter history.” Except that history—especially movie history—has a way of moving to its own peculiar rhythms. For example, who knew, at the time, that the best movie of 1950 was “In a Lonely Place”? The Oscar that year went to “All About Eve,” which was OK, I suppose, though the film is so brittle that it tends to fall tinkling at your feet when you re-encounter it now. 

As 2010 drew to a close, “The Social Network” looked like a sure Oscar thing. I couldn’t understand that at all—a bunch of unpleasant people arguing over the inordinate profits of an Internet institution that was of no consequence to me—or, I would have thought, to anyone else over the age of 40. I guessed that the raves were arising from aging reviewers eager to prove their hipness and thus preserve their jobs from eager young things willing to work at half price.

This week’s very routine nominations hinted that I was not entirely wrong in my suppositions. “The Social Network” did all right—eight nods, most of them in significant categories—but three other films did better, and the coverage I read was notably reserved in its comments on the picture. I’m not saying it peaked early. I’m saying that the academy elders are not a group that spends a lot of time friending each other on Facebook. My guess is that they think “Network’s” protagonists are a bunch of snotty little twerps, not unlike some of their own sons and daughters, who after college moved back into the house to whine away a couple of years before entering the job market.

So it goes in this year of staggering irrelevance in Oscarland. Did you really profit by your exposure to the psychosexual hysteria of “Black Swan”? Or feel the triumph of the human spirit watching a guy cut off his arm to save his own life in “127 Hours”? Or thrill to the gnomic power of “Inception”? Or think that the always enjoyable Jeff Bridges was all that much better than John Wayne, who joyously subverted his own image in the original version of “True Grit”?

I’m not saying that the films nominated for best picture did not offer some incidental pleasures. For example, we all like Annette Bening, an obviously nice woman, a good and decently ambitious actress, whose successful taming of Warren Beatty’s libido also excites Hollywood’s admiration. But her work in the tepid “The Kids Are All Right” is more solid than stirring. I’ll take her in “The Grifters” or “Bugsy” every time. By the same token I’ll take Mark Ruffalo—a consistently underrated actor—in “Kids” over his competitors. His charm is very insinuating.

But still, this is The Year of Living Safely—within disguised genre limits, within emotionally predictable ranges. Except, perhaps, for “The King’s Speech.” It has the most nominations (12) and is therefore the front-runner for the best-picture prize. Yet support for the picture seems rather hangdog. It’s rather like arguing for “Mrs. Miniver” as a Major Motion Picture experience.

The virtues of “The King’s Speech” are so—I don’t know—traditional. Or seemingly so: Royalty brought down from its high horse and humanized as it struggles with its damned stammer; its nicely evoked reconstruction of another time and place; its sense that triumphing over a kingly speech impediment may have been a previously unknown hinge of fate. Watching it, you sometimes get a regressive feeling; it’s almost as if we were back in the 1930s, when about half the American movies were set in England or its colonies, and C. Aubrey Smith was the leader of the local “English colony,” captaining cricket teams in Santa Monica.

But I think “The King’s Speech” is better than that. Its acting is very formal—100 percent wool and several yards wide. And it has a lot of live-wire English eccentricity about it. It may look a little bit stuffed-shirt at first glance, but it has a lot of cross-class sniping. And it does impart the feeling that the bonding that takes place between Colin Firth’s George VI and Geoffrey Rush’s cheeky speech therapist may predict, sometime in the future, a genuine loosening of England’s class structure and strictures. And you really can’t beat the divine Helena Bonham Carter sitting on the king’s chest in aid of curing his stammer. 

Practically speaking, the success—so far—of this movie reflects the fact that academy membership skews old, as they say. The members are ever ready to stand up for what people used to call “The Tradition of Quality”—otherwise known as stodginess. But sometimes the stodgy is preferable to the dodgy. When it comes to the academy, it is always unwise to vote against amiability. Or likability. Or the merely well-spoken—which, all that stammering aside, “The King’s Speech” defiantly is.

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By dailyplanet, February 14, 2011 at 5:30 pm Link to this comment

I’ve been a lifelong movie fan…who rarely goes to the movies anymore. No, I’m
not someone either who prefers to watch new releases on my computer or
through some other viewing service.

Most of the new films released have no interest for me. What the film industry is
giving us are either super-hero, computerized technology extravaganzas
targeted to teen-age boys, or wearisome, stories of self-indulgent characters
wallowing in angst. As for “comedies,” you can hear the same level of wit
hanging out at the mall on Saturdays.

Movies have for the most part become a big bore reflecting the cultural vacuum
our country has fallen into. There may be some good acting work out there but
the material provided for actors makes the actors themselves interchangeable

I used to watch the Oscars religiously every year but didn’t last year. I will watch
this year expressively to see Eli Wallach presented with a Lifetime Achievement
Award.  He is an actor too long overlooked by the Academy; someone whose
performances were artful and always fun to watch.  When I think of “The Good,
The Bad and The Ugly, it’s not Clint Eastwood’s wooden poseur I want to see, it’s
Eli Wallach’s iconic bandit-character.

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By LocalHero, February 8, 2011 at 6:37 am Link to this comment

“Black Swan” was so well done that it almost made you forget what a steaming pile of dreck it was but it was a steaming pile of dreck nonetheless.

As is usually the case in these types of articles, the best film of the year isn’t even mentioned. That film was “The Tillman Story.”

“True Grit” was in my top 5 though along with “Let Me In,” “The Ghost Writer” and “Kick Ass.”

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By James M. Martin, February 1, 2011 at 12:08 am Link to this comment

Schickel is full of it.  There is nothing “brittle” about “All About Eve”; it is still one of the most perceptive critical examinations of the nature of stardom, the cyclical ending providing an Ouroboros tail-biting symbol for a world where you are only as good as your last show.  Some old guys just like to dis the glories of the past so they can distance themselves from it.  Schickel never was a well-respected critic in his heyday, when he worked for Time-Life.  Film students at the time, including myself, just laughed at him.

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By Inherit The Wind, January 31, 2011 at 11:32 pm Link to this comment

The men who rule Hollywood prefer films with buckets of blood, hateful main characters, machine mayhem, slimy sexual innuendo or just plain gratuitous sex, and an absence of logic, coherent dialog, and intelligence.

Yup.  And that’s their good points!  Now let’s get into their bad points like “product placement”, ie commercials in the middle of the movies you are watching. Or an ideal of beauty that borders on anorexia. Or pretending that Tom Cruise can act.

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By Ehrenstein, January 31, 2011 at 9:37 pm Link to this comment

Both “All About Eve” and “The Social Network” are better than Mr. Schickel will allow. “The Black Swan” worse.

“The Kings Speech” is a nice little movie.
The best picture of the year, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme” has yet to win a U.S. distributor, and isn’t likely to do so.

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By sharonsj, January 31, 2011 at 8:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Rather than argue about who deserves an award, what about a look at movies in general?  I can’t stand most movies made in the last fifteen years.  The men who rule Hollywood prefer films with buckets of blood, hateful main characters, machine mayhem, slimy sexual innuendo or just plain gratuitous sex, and an absence of logic, coherent dialog, and intelligence.

It’s like TV: two hundred channels and nothing to watch.  Tons of movies to choose from, and virtually none of them show the human spirit.  While “The King’s Speech” may not impress some of you, at least it has a lead character you can root for.

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By Inherit The Wind, January 31, 2011 at 6:58 pm Link to this comment

A look at the Oscar results of 1971 are enough to convince anyone with a brain that they mean nothing.
The nominees for best picture were:
Nicholas and Alexandra
A Fiddler on the Roof
The Last Picture Show
A Clockwork Orange
The French Connection.

Two movies were crap.
Two were decent but no more than that.

One movie was a major milestone and a work of genius that still awes people today, 40 years later.

The Oscar went to The French Connection, when the only TRULY great film that year was A Clockwork Orange.

Best Director went to William Friedkin (who?) for French Connection, not Stanley Kubrick.

Best Adaptation went to French Connection, not A Clockwork Orange.

Jane Fonda got best actress for Klute—an OK performance.  Julie Christie was stunning in McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The list of obvious screwups and discrepancies that year goes on and on. 

Sally Field has two Oscars for Best Actress.
Hillary Swank has two Oscars for Best Actress.
Meryl Streep, simply the best actress alive (with the possible exception of Vanessa Redgrave) has one. (and a Best Supporting for the useless Kramer vs Kramer).

That was the last year I considered the Oscars to be meaningful. 

The Oscars are crap.  The Golden Globes are crap.  The SAGs are crap.  The NY film Critics are crap.  The ONLY awards that EVER had a claim to legitimacy were “The People’s Choice Awards” because they at least measured popularity.

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By gerry, January 31, 2011 at 6:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


Just wondering if you knew that your hero, Guy Fawkes, was a catholic monarchist? Quite the symbol of liberty!

People might take you more seriously if you knew what you are talking about

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By proletariatprincess, January 31, 2011 at 3:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I watched the SAG Awards last night and they beat the Academy Awards by a mile for pure enjoyment and appreciation for the performance art.  Not only did it include television performances, it also included comedy as well.   
SAG and the Acacdemy are not the same, of course.  The former is sponsored by the Labor Movement while the latter is purely corporate.  But I admire the craft of acting more than all the other categories in the industry.  Actors have more influence on the projects that are produced than other artists in the industy.  Not only in the choices they make, but in the performance that can make or break a project.  Also, actors sometimes risk their own money and reputation on a subject about which they feel strongly.
So, yeah….  SAG was a much better and satisfying show than Oscar ever was.  It was also good to hear union members praise their union and the movement from the podium.
I vow to never miss another SAG Award show, regardless of whether I see the Oscars.

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By WriterOnTheStorm, January 31, 2011 at 2:25 pm Link to this comment

Relevant to what?

Hollywood is a business. It makes money by providing entertainment to a paying
puiblic. If relevance was profitable, you can bet your better eye that there would
be a hurt locker full of topical films vying for attention.

There isn’t. The topical has been rightly abandoned to tv, where USA and Oxygen
do forgettable movies about last week’s headlines. The only areas where
Hollywood maintains a competitive advantage is in scale and production value.
It’s not stupidity, or cynicism. It’s just math.

Given this, it’s a small wonder that films like “Network” or “Speech” get any
attention at all. But remember, Network’s true subject is not Facebook, it’s greed,
and what could be more relevant than that? The appeal of Speech may be that it
harkens back to a (possibly imagined) time when some people were motivated by
something other than greed.

As far as the Oscars go, well it was originally conceived as a way for Hollywood
to recognize its own achievements. The reason it matters to Hollywood is that
people in the industry care more about what their colleagues think than just
about anybody else. Seeking recognition from your peers is normal. That’s no
different from the people in any other business.

OTOH, why outsiders care so much about what Hollywood thinks of itself is a
fascinating subject. It says a lot more about them than the Oscars say about

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By mrfreeze, January 31, 2011 at 12:36 pm Link to this comment

I had the pleasure of seeing the Cohen Bros. True Grit recently and then saw the original on TV the other night.

I remember seeing the original in the theatre. It was good then. Not so good now.

The new version would have overwhelmed the 60’s-70’s audience. Reason: Old had “studio” grit, the kind of little-house-on-the-prairie feel. The new version is smeared with dirt, horse shit and truly imperfect people.

(by the way, the Oscars are irrelevant to me)

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By Anarcissie, January 31, 2011 at 12:13 pm Link to this comment

While I think the content of the Oscar thing is vacuous, the superficial appearances and performances might tell us something about the social order in which they’re embedded.

Apparently certain movies are ‘Oscar bait’; they’re deliberately targeted not only to make money but win Oscars.  We might call this second effort ‘Oscarbaiting’.

Certain attributes are believed to increase the Oscarbaitability of a film.  In an entertaining article in The Awl, Eric Freeman lists some of these: ‘subject matter dealing with an affliction rarely depicted in cinema, at least not with seriousness; a setting with great historical significance, especially to an Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences obsessed with World War II; a lead performance that requires a transformation, in this case vocally for star Colin Firth; an unobtrusive style; and a heartwarming story with a clear emotional arc.’  We should add ‘upper-class Brutish accents and culture in general’, since these have fascinated Hollywood from the beginning as icons of the classy.

These attributes tell us something about our mainstream movie industry, just as a brief encounter with such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin can be a dipstick into the condition and temperature of our knuckledraggers.  They seem to be sealed-off societies with arcane beliefs and rituals of their own, vaguely familiar and yet wildly distorted from anything we know.

It’s all quite entertaining, but I suppose drawing any serious conclusions from the evidence will require the services of anthropologists used to examining strange practices in distant lands.

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By skimohawk, January 30, 2011 at 11:28 pm Link to this comment

Anarcissie is absolutely correct.
Oscar Night is just another Hollywood ass-kissing session in formal attire.

Best Actor 1986: Paul Newman in “The Color of Money”

James Woods was nominated for his role in “Salvador”, but in their infinite wisdom, the members of the Academy gave “Salvador” exactly ZERO awards.

Please, tell me again how relevant the Academy Awards are to anything other than those in the audience.

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By Vince in WeHo, January 30, 2011 at 9:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You lost me at “All About Eve” was “okay.”

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By REDHORSE, January 30, 2011 at 5:38 pm Link to this comment


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By samosamo, January 30, 2011 at 5:24 pm Link to this comment


The more irrelevant, the more important it is in the euphemistic
charade of a facade of a world. Keeps the natives guessing about
things by refracting thoughts.

I have not seen much of any time when patronizing backslapping
was relevant and follywood is classic at this, which as akin to
some kind of ‘geo-engineering’ that will really is asinine.

There are definitely more important things in life.

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By RayLan, January 30, 2011 at 1:32 pm Link to this comment

““The King’s Speech” was just more recycled fluff,”
Neither the word recycled, nor the word fluff apply to the King’s Speech - it’s too well acted and layered for that.

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By Ben Wolf, January 30, 2011 at 12:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yes, actually I did find bridges more entertaining than Wayne in the role of Cogburn. 
Wayne was a terribly overrated actor

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By Anarcissie, January 29, 2011 at 8:34 pm Link to this comment

There’s a lot going on besides Reality TV.  Like, reality, for one thing.

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By Robespierre115, January 29, 2011 at 8:24 pm Link to this comment

“The King’s Speech” was just more recycled fluff, keeping alive the “Forrest Gump,” “Rain Man,” “Beautiful Mind” rule.

Someone make a decent epic about the French Revolution please!

I disagree with the reviewer on “Black Swan” though, it wasn’t a full masterpiece, but it was still a little more original than most films released in 2010.

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By peter ryan, January 29, 2011 at 4:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Schickel, do you know ANYTHING about movies?  You slam the great All About Eve and The Social Network, and gush over a stale, soggy, sappy old celluloid carcass like The King’s Speech?  Not only is King’s Speech a tedious, old-fashioned, middlebrow bore, but it’s loaded with historical inaccuracies. If it wins the Oscar over The Social Network, a film for our times, it will render the Academy as totally irrelevant and out of touch as you are.

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By PatrickHenry, January 29, 2011 at 1:18 pm Link to this comment

Maybe some new movies like ‘The USS Liberty’ or ‘Gaza Flotilla Raid’.  ‘The ‘Jonathan Pollard affair’ is definitely a winner.  ‘The real PNAC 9/11 in 3D’ is what I am waiting for.

No, in Hollywood Israel will always be shown to be a defender, never the transgressor.

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By Mike, January 29, 2011 at 1:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Couldn’t be more wrong.  The movies nominated this year are the best in years.  Get a clue.

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By RayLan, January 29, 2011 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment

The Awards are the mirror of Hollywood narcissicism - ‘Who’s the fairest of them all’ In all of the vulgar fluff that gets peddled on the pretext of being ‘new’ and young, ‘The King’s Speech’ was refreshing. I totslly disagree that ‘period’ and traditional means stodgy. What’s even worth writing about in the current American Idol, Reality TV American culture?

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By Anarcissie, January 29, 2011 at 11:25 am Link to this comment

Conflating the Oscars with goodness in movies is like conflating the New York Times best-seller list with goodness in literature.  Actually, it’s even more improbable, because the Oscars are merely industry self-promotion, whereas a best-seller list actually incorporates audience experience, however dumb.

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By DefeatedandGifted, January 29, 2011 at 7:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

‘Did you really profit by your exposure to the psychosexual hysteria of “Black Swan”?  I certainly did.  I thought it was absolutely fantastic.  “In a Lonely Place” is better than “All About Eve.”  But better than “Sunset Boulevard”?  What do you have against psychosexual hysteria exactly?
Truly, I’m not sure what you are arguing here.  Except that in the case of “The King’s Speech” that 2010’s “Mrs Miniver” *is* the Best Picture?

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