Against The Hype

movies, criticism and their pleasures

The O. Russell Factor: Why Fewer Oscar Contenders are Not the Wider Best Picture Field’s Problem, and Maybe Even a Good Thing

January 25, 2014 By: Colin Low Category: Commentary

In a recent Grantland article, Mark Harris argues that the widened Oscar Best Picture field has shrunk the number of movies contending in the major Oscar races (namely the picture, director, acting and screenplay categories). As proof, Harris cites a “jarring statistic”: the past two years’ major-category nominations are spread among the fewest number of movies—12 this year, 14 last year—that we have seen in the Academy’s past 30 years. For Harris, this trend is cause for alarm: “A drop in the last two years… represents the encroachment of an all-or-nothing mentality that has… been fueled by the Academy’s misguided approach to its biggest prize.”

Such alarmism is surprising to witness from Harris, who has intervened with inimitable sharpness at many a time when others’ paranoias about the Oscar race have gone too far. In my assessment, Harris misleads us (and himself) in this case by focusing merely on the Oscar years of 1984 to 2013. This focus is misleading for a simple reason. Before the 2012/13 Oscar races, the last time a movie was nominated in all four acting categories was in 1981—just three years shy of the range Harris has chosen to consider.

Straddling the acting categories
Put another way, it has been 31 years since we last saw a movie that hogged at least seven of Oscar’s precious 40 to 45 major-category nominations. We’ve now seen this happen two years in a row: first with Silver Linings Playbook, and this year with American Hustle. The common factor is David O. Russell, now the only director ever in Academy history to have twice directed a movie that garnered a nomination in each acting category, let alone in back-to-back years. This singular record might reassure us that the past two Oscar years have been an anomaly to be marveled at, rather than a worrisome trend.


Review: The Hurt Locker

March 10, 2010 By: Colin Low Category: Capsuled Thoughts

So the ’09 Oscar season has come and gone, and I’ve managed to blog (sporadically, I know) through a full calendar year without making so much as a post on it. See, while I appreciate that the Academy Awards help to mark the passing of time in the movie-going world, I’m not obsessive enough about them—unlike certain bloggers I admire, bless ’em—to bother watching nominated movies (or even movies merely hyped for a nomination) that I don’t expect to at least give me a good time. Up to now I’ve managed to avoid The Blind Side, Crazy HeartInvictus, The Last Station, The Lovely Bones, Nine, A Serious Man, A Single Man, Up in the Air and The Young Victoria, and there’s nothing I’ve heard about those movies beyond their Oscar hype that remotely compels me to them.

What’s a blogger writing Against The Hype to do? Well, to start with, I’ll be happy to point out that this year, the Academy did anoint a movie that, aesthetically and politically, couldn’t deserve it more. It’s now enjoying a re-run in local theatres, so catch it while you can!

Review: The Hurt Locker

My two theatrical experiences of this latest Best Picture winner were dramatically different, even opposing. The first time around, having just finished my two-year stint in the army, my sympathies lay with sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who is tasked with providing cover against potential snipers and bomb-igniters. Both he and I couldn’t stop being frustrated at the wilful bravado of his new bomb-defusal team leader William James (Jeremy Renner), who strutted through potential killzones, held standoffs against cars, and threw away his comms headset at critical junctures, keeping his entire team in mortal risk. So despite a thoughtful gesture towards Sanborn in the sniper scene, I watched with a chilly disposition as James took a turn for the utterly reckless, imagining himself as some Bourne Supremacy-style renegade in two later scenes. Those two scenes, and the ones right after, are clearly positioned to “teach James a lesson”, so I couldn’t stand that The Hurt Locker‘s final scenes seemed eager to regress James into soldierly rock-stardom, with the music to match. Even if this was intended as irony, I felt aggrieved at the thought of siccing James on Sanborn’s wretched successor for a whole year. I left the theatre with mixed feelings, and then came online to discover a baffling ton of buzz for Renner’s performance, compared to almost none for Mackie. What a world!

After it re-opened last month, I returned to The Hurt Locker, eager to tether my perspective to James’ and see if that yielded a response closer to consensus. Lo, I found myself taking quickly to the bugger’s sexual charisma, as he grunted for help in removing the mortar-shield from his window, and flashed that rogue grin. By abandoning any notion of “gritty, realistic soldiering in Iraq” and instead tracing the movie’s eagerness to study James as its action star, I settled into a far more comfortable place from which to watch James dive into each new scenario that arose, and then to follow him down his self-inflicted missions. This time I caught, with full force, James’ sentimental logic and muffled desperation within those missions, or in the box of parts from bombs that almost killed him which he keeps under his bed, or in the world of difference between shoving a handgun into an Iraqi’s temple and racing against inevitability to unshackle another from his cage of bombs. The last shot of James, opaque in his bombsuit, transmuted from outraging to bleakly sad. Unfortunately, this made a casualty of Sanborn, who was clearly demoted from co-lead status, his pragmatism now too uptight for the genre’s demands.

These two Hurt Lockers still mingle in my mind, more dialectical than coherent. But forbid that an action flick or an Iraq anti-war movie should each stake claims on the other’s domain, or that the greatest overlap in those domains should lie in such gripping and diverse episodes of well-edited tension! I know a few people who, sight unseen, believe The Hurt Locker robbed Avatar‘s Oscar, but there will be others who will now seek this movie out and wage a fair battle against their preconceptions. I couldn’t be happier.

The Hurt Locker | 2009 | USA | Director: Kathryn Bigelow | Screenplay: Mark Boal | Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Christian Camargo, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly.


On the Lead Acting Oscar Winners

February 23, 2009 By: Colin Low Category: Uncategorized

seanBest Actor: Sean Penn in Milk
In hindsight, Sean Penn’s role as the charismatic, flamboyant Harvey Milk was just as much a comeback role as Randy the Ram was for Mickey Rourke, neutralising whatever advantage Rourke seemed to have in this regard. Faced with two actors who regularly “deglam” for their roles, the Academy might have seen Sean’s reglamming as the handsome, saintlike Milk as the greater acting “stretch”; after all, Penn hasn’t smiled since 1982, when he played surfer dude Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Atop this, more Academy voters saw and liked Milk than they did The Wrestler—which got only two acting noms, measly compared to Milk‘s Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Editing, Costume Design and Score noms. The Academy also admires Penn more, dislikable as both men can be (Penn managed a nomination for “going full retard” in I Am Sam. QED). And for an institution that has so often lauded mimicry as the best type of acting, there was no way in hell—in this reactionary Slumdog year—that all four acting trophies would go to fictional characters: the only other biopic perfs nominated were Frank Langella’s as Richard Nixon and Angelina Jolie’s as Christine Collins, neither of which had Penn’s near-unimous raves and comparable shot at the prize.

kateBest Actress: Kate Winslet in The Reader
Much as I want Kate to have an Oscar, I didn’t want her to win for this role as a Nazi camp guard, or as her repressed housewives in Revolutionary Road and Little Children. Kate’s presence in the movies shouldn’t be a downer; her stardom revolves around those prickly but lovable free spirits from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sense and Sensibility, Iris—in other words, performances that seem like offshoots of her own celebrity persona: the glamorous, intelligent and potty-mouthed British lady. I don’t begrudge that the stars aligned for her this year, with no comparatively “overdue” contenders, but I don’t agree with the claim that no new performance can ever do justice to her career—she accomplished that a mere four years ago with Eternal Sunshine‘s fiery Clementine, and I believe she has at least one more classic bohemian girl in her, waiting to be unleashed.