As we head into the hysterical final stretch of the Oscar season, we have a bit more perspective on this year's awards race. Odds-makers are going crazy trying to second-guess who the Academy members will vote for, as such a timid collection of nominations makes it fairly obvious who will win. But there are some categories that are too close to call, so we can look forward to at least a few moments of tension during the big show on Sunday, 26th February.
It seems like Oscar voting patterns get depressingly more conservative by the year. Indeed, this year virtually every complex, challenging film has been harshly snubbed, which is quite a shift from a year like 1970, when the X-rated gay drama Midnight Cowboy was nominated for seven Oscars and won three, including Best Picture.
In fact, the 1970s seems almost outrageously progressive from today's perspective, with edgy, controversial Best Picture nominees such as A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, The Exorcist, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, Midnight Express and Apocalypse Now. And the Best Picture winner in 1979 was the hauntingly dark war drama The Deer Hunter. For most of the 80s and 90s, the Academy was enamoured with big epics like Gandhi, Out of Africa, The Last Emperor, Dances With Wolves and Forrest Gump, with one blip when the horrific thriller The Silence of the Lambs snapped Best Picture in 1992.
Since then, both the nominees and winners have become more mainstream year by year. You can count the darkly complex Best Picture nominees since then on one hand, and only Brokeback Mountain in 2006 threatened to upset the trend (although it lost to the more crowd-friendly Crash). Expanding the field of Best Picture nominees to 10 in 2010 hinted that things might get better, especially when a gritty little film like The Hurt Locker won. Then last year's 10 were all fairly mainstream, although the inclusion of Winter's Bone at least showed willing.
This year, on the other hand, the nine nominees for Best Picture reveal something even more disturbing: that the voters are actually rather terrified of the real best films of 2011. These nine films are the most easily digested Best Picture nominees imaginable; only The Tree of Life would qualify as a challenging movie, and it stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. And the only hint of promise is that the front-runner, The Artist, is a French film, albeit one that's all about Hollywood.
On the other hand, almost every provocative, complex film, ground-breaking filmmaker, and disarming performance was overlooked this year. Acclaimed by critics and festivals, these are the films that linger in the mind long after we leave the cinema. Clearly the Oscar voters like their movies more easily digested. Which is why they ignored these five films, which are among the year's best:
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin. One of the most beautifully written and directed films of the year didn't even get a technical nominations for its dreamlike camerawork and editing. And how could they ignore Tilda Swinton, a previous Oscar-winner, for one of her finest performances? Easy: the movie's just too haunting.
2. Shame. In past years, films with strong sexual content weren't a problem, but the increasingly conservative voters were clearly terrified by Michael Fassbender's startlingly transparent (and yes, naked) performance as a troubled sex addict opposite a radiantly raw Carey Mulligan. And the film offers no easy answers.
3. Drive. This sleek thriller won best director at Cannes, and yet Nicolas Winding Refn's astonishing film only managed to get one Oscar nod (for sound editing). And nothing for two stars at the peak of their powers: Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan (again).
4. Melancholia. The Academy has never liked Lars von Trier, but they could at least have acknowledged the beautiful cinematography or the amazing Kristen Dunst, who won best actress at Cannes. Perhaps von Trier's ill-timed Nazi joke scuppered its chances.
5. Young Adult. Charlize Theron won an Oscar in 2004 for playing a lesbian serial killer, and yet her even more impressive turn as a woman stuck in her destructive adolescence was too dark for voters. They also ignored Diablo Cody's pitch-perfect script, which is even sharper than Juno, for which she won an Oscar in 2008.
As for which five these films would replace, that's not so difficult: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is an over-emotional, over-constructed ode to 9/11 grief. War Horse is a terrific little story turned into a slushy, manipulative epic. Midnight in Paris is a charming tale with terrific characters but not much backbone. The Help is a simplified look at racial issues in the American South. And Hugo mashes together two incomplete stories while fudging key facts about film history.
But none of the nine nominees are likely to trouble audiences. With the possible exception of The Tree of Life, which requires some effort just to process its kaleidoscopic structure, these are all happy films about beautiful actors (Brad Pitt! George Clooney!), adorable teen boys or sassy women on a path to redemption. They're heart-warming movies for depressed times.
At least The Artist is a work of art, with a layered screenplay and terrific nominated performances that deserve to win. Meryl Streep should win (but may not) for her startling depiction of a woman who just happens to be Margaret Thatcher. And it's about time Christopher Plummer took home the top prize.
Of course, there isn't space to nominate every worthy film and performance. And at least Oscar managed to remember the screenplays for Margin Call and A Separation. But both of those highly acclaimed films deserved more attention from a group that thinks of itself as the last word in cinema.
So are the Oscars voting themselves into irrelevance? Well, it's hard to give them much credit when they give Transformers 3 as many nominations as A Separation and Drive combined.