Breaking Down the “Best” Pictures at This Year’s Oscars

This year’s Oscars are not going to be exciting. That might be like telling you that tonight is going to be dark, but trust me, it’s going to be worse than usual. I can’t remember if the Oscars have been called the “gay Superbowl” (because of the fashion and hot people) or the “nerd Superbowl” (because of the movies ), but in either case, it is an event I look forward to every year.

But this time around? Not so much. The slate of nominees this year for the most part ranges from tame at best to dull at worst, and the safest of safe hosts, Billy Crystal, likely won’t be creating any controversies to be talked about the next day.

I want to quickly break down the nine best picture nominees this year, and you might get some idea of why the ceremony isn’t exactly going to be riveting. Ever since they opened up the nominations to up to ten films, there have always been one or two that elicit a “really?” This year, there are several, if not the majority. Let’s take a look.

1. The Artist

We’ll start with the best, and I’ll say up front that The Artist’s slew of nominations are perhaps the most deserved out of the group. Yes, it’s kind of a gimmick, being a silent film in a modern era, and many are dismissing it as such. But the performances, the filming and the story make for undeniably one of the best quality, most entertaining films of the year. That said, other than those who have gone out of their way to find the one theater near them playing the movie, not that many people have seen it. And if it does win the night, I think it will have been one of the least watched movie to do so, as it’s only grossed $28M to date.

2. Hugo

Here we have example number two that Hollywood is absolutely in love with itself. The Artist is entirely about the medium of film, and it creates an effective story around that. Hugo is all about film as well (though you wouldn’t know that from the preview at all), and it’s even more of a blatant love letter. But I know very few people that have seen the film and have actually been wowed by it. Yes, the moments that show the creation of old films by a former director are well done, but the overall story is awkward, and it is not the “vindication of 3D” that everyone says it is, as you stop noticing the format about ten minutes in. If this was directed by anyone but Martin Scorsese, there is no way you would see it here, and with 11 nominations no less. It’s pure politics.

3. The Help

If we were cutting the Best Picture list down to the usual five, I would have no problem giving The Help a spot. It’s a rare case of box office success meeting critical praise, and it really is a powerful story about racism in the South during the civil rights era. And the best part is that it wasn’t necessarily trying to be Oscar bait, it just so happened to be good enough to be recognized all on its own. The film and its cast deserve the nominations, one of only a few films that does so this year.

4. The Descendants

One of the more perplexing picks this year for Best Picture has to be The Descendants, starring George Clooney as a slightly more emotionally confused version of himself, which apparently warrants him a Best Actor nomination to boot. He has to deal with his two daughters when his wife falls into a coma, and the revelation that she’s cheated on him. Despite the heavy subject matter, it’s a film that lacks any sort of impact whatsoever, and I forgot it practically the moment the credits rolled. It’s like a quirky indie comedy with heart, minus the comedy, and minus half of the heart as well.

  • Alex

    I’m pretty sure this will “top” the year The Hurt Locker won as the lowest rated Oscars of all time. Most of the favorites for the categories are movies most people either didn’t see, didn’t understand, or just flat out didn’t like. I know this is one year where I probably will just look up the winners on Monday morning.

  • Jake Fortner

    I’ve always hated the phrase “out of touch” when discussing the Oscars, because it is usually used to refer to the fact that The Academy doesn’t reward films that are more popular than are actually GOOD. In a strictly film sense, WTF is so good about half of this shit??? Film isn’t some goddamn hallway for you to walk through and feel sad about the lonely pictures backlit by sad music. It is a series of sounds, music, and images that create a feeling and response from a viewer based on diction, expectation, and experience from said viewer with the used imagery/sound/music at hand. There is absolutely NOWHERE it is said a movie has to be what everyone says it has to be.

    Think about it, you believe in Hollywood editing, and Hollywood writing, correct? That is to say, your films often have an establishing shot, then several smaller shots so you are rarely confused as to where you are at all times, and the plot is often written very straight forward chronologically where a character has some cliche backstory/development that is actually as shallow as an inch (i.e. in The Grey Liam Neesan’s wife). Then, said characer is thrust into a basic conflict that often snowballs slightly over time until the inevitable conclusion. However, over the running time of this hypothetical film, you are never asked what is going on, but rather accepted most of all of it as fact and what you DID ask the film you were sure to get an answer sometime later or at least some sort of validation. What I mean is you never had to construct what was happening in your mind because everything was layed out in front of you. This is called passive viewing, or YOU the passive viewer. What it creates is a viewer who wants to be stimulated by something with minimal effort or the illusion of effort (by attempting to confuse the audience and then explain it right to them in the end, i.e. any psychological horror twist end). This means the movie doesn’t do anything make sure you are fed proper doses of everything, and the only real difference is how they wrap it.

    The opposite of this would be very hard for the modern audience to get into, but there are enough “in-between” films that you can gradually teach yourself to not become a passive viewer. You may ask “why?”, well, I’ll tell you. You may think that being a passive viewer is the way it should be cuz, after all, this is entertainment. But if you watch film in a more engaging way, the film becomes an incredibly rewarding experience as well as challenging you to think or at least understand the experience you just had with the film. This sounds like too much work for something so trivial (and Paul has mentioned it’s difficulty wwith his review of Melancholia) but I swear once you start and practice for as little as a month or so, with just a few movies, you will start to get to the point where it comes naturally to you, and the amount you don’t understand and are frustrated by will minimize.

    I know, it sounds like film major bullshit, but it’s to the point where now I DO THIS WITH EVERY FORM OF ART OR MEDIA. I can’t be suckered in by bullshit songs that all use the same G key or Am key with the same progression and talk about their lost love or how they’re so badass for going to have sex with a girl tonight. Even video games: I’m playing Metal Gear Solid 2 and cn’t help but notice the post-modernist expression within it (the game’s famous for it, I’m not pulling that out of my ass; Bioshock’s ending is famous for being post modernist as well)

    This isn’t to sound intelligent or any of that bullshit because that doesn’t matter. What I’m talking about is NOT limiting a medium to the candy coated, chemically-altered-to-fit-everyone’s-taste shit that pollutes everything.

    When the Academy nominates films, it shouldn’t be to reward the Hollywood way of doing things, the processed, developed by machine way. It should be award films that manipulate and use all of it’s tools to it’s advantage to bring across of series of ideas, themes, and emotion to the audience in the most constructive and intelligently designed fashion. Its not that rare, actually, as I would include “There Will Be Blood”, “A Serious Man”, “Bable”, hell even “Unforgiven” to be included as to being at least CLOSE to this. (Unforgiven and A Serious Man are wild cards, sort of, because they use a lot of Hollywood tricks to manipulate the audience).

    Tree of Life, on an artistic level, in my opinion that is VERY debatable, as I’ve had many discussions over this film, is sort of a failure. The film doesn’t reach it’s extremely far reaching goal, but it does have a really good movie kerneled in the middle, but that’s not enough to excuse it. I agree it’s not my favorite movie of the year.

    Most of these films aren’t good, and The Help stands out in particular. It’s a film on racism that is factually incorrect as well as being Hollywood as shit. It’s just a hallway, and it may have attempted to pretend it wasn’t, but it’s on my list of worst films ever nominated for an Oscar (you are too, Extremely Loud, you are SO very on there).

    My point is just that The Awards aren’t to show how in touch they are, they’re to show what films have mastered their craft, and almost none of these films do that. Points to The Artist, but even then, the plot is Singing in the Rain, the acting is nonexistent, which I’m absolutely okay with, and the film is actually filmed like a film in the 40s, not a silent era. It’s a great novelty film and nice love letter to early Hollywood, but it wouldn’t be best film this year if we hadn’t had one of the worst years in a decade or so.

  • I know it won’t win over The Artist, but Hugo was a masterpiece in my eyes and Scorcese’s best film since Goodfellas.

  • Uncoolaidman

    I can handle the Artist winning best picture even though, as you mentioned, it really seems to be kind of a gimmick. What I can’t understand is any of the major performances being worthy of an oscar nomination. Sorry, I’m just not impressed by being good at drastically overreacting to everything.

  • Mike

    @Jake- Thank you, not only for your very well said assessment of what the academy awards really are and aren’t, but more specifically for what you said about the way the artist was filmed. My brother and I watch a lot of older movies and were excited to see The Artist mainly to see how they filmed a silent movie while still getting praise from a modern audience. The answer was to not film it like a silent movie, and instead like a movie from the 40’s, like you said.

    I think one person who has to be kicking himself over the success and praise being thrown towards The Artist is Guy Madden (although I doubt he cares). There’s a director who’s been using and experimenting with silent and early cinema techniques with (in my opinion) great success, yet you’d be hard pressed to find anyone outside of film school circles who know any of his movies.

  • Diva D

    @Jake –

    “It is a series of sounds, music, and images that create a feeling and response from a viewer based on diction, expectation, and experience from said viewer with the used imagery/sound/music at hand.”

    …What? Duh. That doesn’t rule out any of the movies nominated for Best Picture, by the way. And it’s ridiculous of you to criticize people for trying to put film in a box when you just outlined a sweeping damnation of everything made in the Hollywood style. And somehow you indicted The Grey along with films made on an assembly line, which… okay. If you say so.

    Then again, you seem to think it matters what key a song is in. And think The Artist doesn’t have acting in it (whatever the hell that means). Incidentally, nowhere in your dismissal of The Artist’s artistic worth do you consider the emotional register of the characters’ story, which for me (and many, many others) is quite high. You’re losing the forest for the trees, in my opinion.

    You also disparage the idea of creating narrative cohesion in films, which are a storytelling medium, and that’s one of the dumbest criticisms I’ve heard in a while. What movies DO you like?

    Steven Spielberg is one of the most skilled filmic storytellers to ever walk the face of the earth. War Horse isn’t my favorite movie of the year either, but it IS well-crafted. Sure, its crafted traditionally or classically, but that hardly translates to being a poor example of the medium.

  • Jake Fortner


    I guess I didn’t explain myself well enough, or you didn’t read me correctly. The quote you mention isn’t meant to rule out anything, but to establish what film is in an abstract sense, only to continue to my next point of why is film always lumped up with only being this one executed style, and everything else is artistic or only for film majors? What I mean is that you can call it narrative cohesion, but what that means is you can’t cohere a narrative more complicated than what Holywood gives you. You don’t need a strict narrative, and many films are very good without having one. But when you do have a narrative, it doesn’t have to be so straight forward as these films, nor is it as rewarding for film to be this straightforward and obvious.

    The funny thing is I LIKE all of the movies you mentioned, including The Grey (which is as predictable as they come, as well as ripping off quite a few movies, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun or entertaining, just part of an “assembly line”), but when it comes to rewarding people for being at the top of their craft, why not reward those who are actually able to manipulate the elements at hand? Spielberg is amazing, and he has deserved his fair share of credit, but then there are the likes of Ingmar Bergman, or Early Jim Jarmusch (for writing), or films like Man With The Movie Camera which is the definitive met-film, or The Conformist, or the original Solaris . . . they may not be the best example as they are hard to get into (except Bergman, in my opinioin) but they manipulated expectation and their writing, camerawork, production design, sound design, etc. to evoke a response from the audience and a further understanding of what the author’s intention was from the audience, with more involvement and reward.

    I didn’t mean to damn Hollywood, I meant to damn it as the default way films are made.

    The key of music thing, the focus was on the progression within the key, but whatever. Read it how you like.

    I said the Artist’s acting was nonexistant, and what I mean by that is while sure, they emoted well, anyone who’s been in an editing room can tell you that all of that can be manipulated in editing, and was done so rather easily. But the film did have acting, and I liked it, I was just exaggerating. As for emotional register, well, what emotional register? The film was a novelty film with a ripped-off plot which is fine for a novelty film but then the only real emotional register is for the love of these types of films. In that regard, sure, I liked it, that’s what the thing was meant to do, but given my love of silent film over 40s Hollywood, I couldn’t help but wince as they missed the mark.

    To say this medium is a storytelling medium I think is also missing the mark. It’s popular to say/think this, but too many films prove this to be untrue, as do many classic novels. Novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow, Invisible Man, and Animal Farm to an extent aren’t focused on telling a good story. My god, if they were, their stories are very odd. They are meant to manipulate the elements at hand to express something, as I’ve said half a dozen times. Storytelling seems to get all of the nostalgia, but as an adult the story doesn’t resonate as much as what is said. Storytelling is still awesome, and a great story is great, but there are more rewarding things in both of these and many other artistic mediums.

    My overall point, I guess, is that so many GREAT films are overlooked or dismissed as not being in touch, as being ridiculous, or pretentious, and that gives way for mediocre work like The Help, which I indeed hated. Not to mention, why reward a film that so obviously is trying to manipulate you, where you can see and pinpoint the manipulation without even trying?

  • Diva D

    Apologies for any misreadings I undertook. For what it’s worth, I think that refusing to consider anything other than what a movie accomplishes on first blush is way too limiting a way to approach it. In this, at least, we are on the same page.

    It’s been too long since I’ve read Invisible Man, and I’ve only ever read parts of Gravity’s Rainbow, but Animal Farm most definitely has a story. It’s weird, for sure, but the narrative is there. So, too, is the narrative in Lord of the Flies, which I consider to be a better book because it tells as much truth, but also works on an emotional level that Animal Farm doesn’t even try for.

    One of my favorite movies is Brazil, and I love Brave New World as well. Both have very (VERY) odd narratives, but the narrative is what elevates the material from “essay” or “sermon” to something higher. Intellectual appreciation is all well and good, but not enough for me to fall in love.

    Speaking of falling in love, your description of The Artist as a cold experiment in recreating old film styles is missing the real core of that movie, which is a story about two PEOPLE. That’s where the emotional register comes from, and wincing because it looks like it was made in the 40s instead of the 20s is, as I said, missing the forest for the trees.

    Also, I’m not championing The Help. I didn’t see it because it didn’t really look like it was going to offer me anything. I heard from people that I trust that it was fine, but nothing special. The Academy has its frustrating biases, to be sure, but that they were willing to nominate Tree of Life ALONE indicates to me that they don’t need movies to come off an assembly line to earn recognition.

    “My overall point, I guess, is that so many GREAT films are overlooked or dismissed as not being in touch, as being ridiculous, or pretentious”

    I agree with that statement. Although I think that intellectual filmgoers like yourself will additionally dismiss a movie for being manipulative or visceral, as if film by nature isn’t manipulative. Which it indisputably is, as the entire process of filmmaking is artificially manipulating disparate elements to create some sort of reaction. And frankly, few are more obvious about it than Ingmar Bergman — he just happens to have a hell of a lot to say.

  • MetFanMac

    To reiterate: no movie “took the spot” of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (or any other movie for that matter). There were only nine movies nominated, meaning there was an open slot but no tenth movie got enough votes to get placed in it.

  • zsasz

    The girl with the dragon tattoo would only ever be able to win a ‘best opening sequence’ award. Maybe a biggest disappointment award too, but nothing else.

  • Jake Fortner

    @ Diva

    I can definitely hear where you’re coming from, and I think I agree with you for the most part. It is easy to overlook less intellectual films as being simple manipulation when, as you stated, all film is manipulation (the artistic Soviet Montage is nothing BUT bias manipulation).

    I’m glad to find a fellow lover of Brazil! I too, love this film, and I would agree the plot is significantly important to the film, although I’d say my enjoyment and for me what elevates it is it’s wonderful satire and intelligent absurdist humor that at times can be ahead of it’s time.

    As for the Artist, I disagree with you mosty because I didn’t find the plot or the characters to mean much to me. As I said on my first post, the film is incredibly close to Singing in the Rain, and there isn’t much to the plot other than to capture the type of Hollywood writing popular in the 30s-40s. I love silent cinema, and films like Broken Blossoms, Metropolis, and many of Malies’ films are some of my favorites (also, I prefer Buster Keaton over Chapman), and it was a little disappointing to find something so obviously overflowing with love for cinema (every nook and cranny gets it right) to miss the mark in loving silent cinema. In all honesty, if the film WAS a perfect ode to silent film, it would be much less popular outside silent film lovers, but still.

    The Academy does nominate films outside the assembly line, but they seem to be overrun by the lackluster films from the factory. The Help, Extremely Loud, even The Descendants (which is, although I liked it, as generic-indie-film as they come). A good example is Drive getting snubbed this year, which is a meta-genre film that deconstructs it’s own tropes and study’s it’s genre. It’s far from perfect, and I’ getting sick of hearing about it, but it was one of my favorite films of the year.

    Ingmar Bergman gets his point across in an obvious way (God is dead, religion is absurd, life is hell), but that’s a very generic sense of what he’s saying. When you go into films like Winter Light and find the representation of God in the woman in love with our protagonist, a preacher, and listen to their discussions it becomes much less obvious. The other thing about Bergman is that he doesn’t have a final say in his films very often. He may have that last word that would SOUND like his final say, but the evidence he gives to back it up he often argues with. His films are arguments that never find the perfect answer, but rather must settle for one, while fully knowing there are arguments to the contrary. I find them quite fascinating and every time I watch one I always find a different way of thinking about them. But I will agree Bergman isn’t for everyone.