Monday, February 27, 2012

Oscar Aftermath & a Brief Look at Cinema in 2011

By Steve Evans

Handicapping the Academy Awards can be a fool’s game, as evidenced last night with the Oscars distributed across a slate of wildly different films. The Artist, a French arthouse picture harkening to the silent era and filmed in black and white, came away with five Oscars: for best picture, director Michel Hazanavicius, best actor Jean Dujardin, original musical score and costume design. It was the first silent film since 1929’s Wings to win best picture (in the first year of the Academy Awards) and the first winner shot in the boxlike 4:3 ratio since Marty in 1955. All best picture winners have been filmed in widescreen since Marty.

Francophiles can rejoice. Three of the best picture nominees, The Artist, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, were all period pieces set in France.

The Artist and Hugo are movies about the love of movies. Hugo also won a quintet of Oscars, although in technical categories including cinematography and special effects.

Meryl Streep’s win for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady was expected, although her chances seemed to waver after the film’s producers distributed a reportedly annoying email to the academy’s voting members saying it was “about time” she won again. Streep last received a Best Actress Oscar for Sophie’s Choice in 1982.

I correctly predicted wins for Alexander Payne and Woody Allen in the best adapted and best original screenplay categories, respectively, for The Descendants and Midnight in Paris. George Clooney had been the odds-on favorite to win Best Actor for The Descendants, but left the Hollywood and Highland Center auditorium sporting only a classical tuxedo and dignified smile.

Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, a challenging and beautifully shot film about nothing less than all creation and life itself, was shut out of the Oscars. I saw this mesmerizing film last summer on its original run and about a third of the audience walked out before the credits, scratching their heads. I suspect academy voters did, too. This is depressing since film artists working within the studio system may be less likely to push the boundaries of the medium if they believe their efforts will go unrewarded. While many Indie films continue to challenge audiences, the very nature of independent cinema has evolved dramatically over the last 20 years. Now independent productions are often viewed as a testing ground for aspiring filmmakers who want to win festival prizes that catch the attention of the major leagues in Hollywood. Many independent pictures screen like calling cards from directors who yearn for greater things.

This, of course, misses the point of producing independent cinema, where lower budgets and lesser known actors can take chances with minimal risk.

Here, then, is an apt segue on the state of film: Minimizing risk is what show business is all about. Last year produced a record 28 films that were sequels to earlier hits. Of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in 2011, nine of them were sequels. The final Harry Potter installment topped the list with $1.3 billion in worldwide revenues, followed by Michael Bay’s third Transformers film, and the fourth entries in the Pirates of the Caribbean, Twilight and Mission Impossible franchises. Every single one of them cost more than $175 million to produce and market.

All aesthetic judgements aside, these are the movies most people paid to see in 2011. All are heavy on special effects, with thin, merely serviceable scripts. Story takes a back seat to spectacle and furious, multi-channel sound.

The Artist was shot on a budget of approximately $15 million and produced returns of not-quite $73 million, according to figures from Box Office Mojo. This take represents only 13 percent of the box office produced by Disney/Pixar’s poorly-reviewed Cars 2, which ranked 10th in highest grossing films last year.

Arthouse pictures give Hollywood a thin patina of artistic respectability, but when it comes to bankrolling big movies, studios still place their bets on the sure thing. This is why you can look forward to another Spiderman movie this year, another Batman adventure, a second GI Joe action flick, the final installment of the Twilight series, a remake of Total Recall with Colin Farrell in the Schwarzenegger role, a remake of The Great Gatsby with Leonardo Di Caprio stepping into Robert Redford’s shoes in the title role, a film adaptation of the videogame Halo and, yes, another Godzilla picture.

I could ramble on another six paragraphs, but there are plenty of websites that list the slate of pictures scheduled for release in 2012. If you can find half a dozen original films about something – anything – you’ve never seen before, kindly let me know.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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