A few weeks ago, the holiday movie season – or, at least, the conventional wisdom on it – went a little nutty. The media decreed the following things: that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, with a $39.6 million opening weekend gross, was a disappointment; that Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, with a $23 million opening-weekend gross, was also a disappointment; and that The Descendants (closing in on $30 million) was underperforming. These weren’t opinions – they were incontrovertible movie-industry facts, delivered with the requisite tut-tutting of sky-is-falling doom. As for the awards season, that had all been sorted out, thank you, even though most of the relevant films had barely even begun to be seen by audiences. The Artist, mopping up critics’ awards, had Harvey Weinstein behind it, going into full-court-press Oscar mode, so of course it was foregone that that was going to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Best Actor looked like a runoff between George Clooney and The Artist’s Jean Dujardin. And The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? Sorry, not even in the running. Not an “awards film.” (Too violent! Too pulpy!)
But then a funny thing happened. All those surefire, ironclad box-office figures? Those numbers started to change their spots. (Or had the box-office tea-leaf readers simply been wrong in the first place?) Sherlock Holmes, it turned out, was a major, major hit. Alvin, while a piece of junk, connected to the kiddie-family audience after all. And The Descendants, chugging along, suddenly looked just like what it was: an exceptional movie for adults that was finding, and keeping, its audience, week by week. As for the awards predictions, unlike last year, when the King’s Speech juggernaut really did seem to get locked down about three minutes after the movie had come out, this year the attempt to do an instant reading of the writing on the wall may have backfired. A few weeks away from the mid-December madness, the process now seems a little more organic again. The surprise is suddenly back.
In light of all this fresh and new movie-industry…spontaneity, I figured I’d gather up a few random thoughts on the holiday awards-season movies, and look at how their momentum, both commercial and (in a funny way) artistic, is being shaped by perceptions that are still in flux. Here’s a look at who’s up and who’s down, and – just as important – why.
Can The Artist go the distance? Last year, Natalie Portman was declared the Best Actress front-runner from literally the moment that Black Swan premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The Artist inspired a similar response, in regard to its Best Picture prospects, from the moment that it made a splash at Cannes. That’s because the movie appeared to present a unique triple threat. A retro charming black-and-white silent film that made pre-sound-era conventions seem exotic by presenting them, implicitly, as an alternative to our own technologically mad culture, The Artist was the kind of movie that would rule the art-house audience; that had just enough zesty accessibility to woo mainstream moviegoers as well; and that, as a valentine to old Hollywood, would be catnip to a great many voters in the Academy, especially older ones. And maybe it will be. Yet more than a month out of the starting gate, The Artist has been a successful film without fully, crazily catching fire, and I’m not just speaking about its good-if-less-than-great numbers. I consider myself a fan of the movie, in that I found it delightful and even resonant (I gave it an A-minus), yet in the end, I was more softly touched than moved by it. And – this is the issue – I think it’s a movie that in its sentimental design, its embrace of love-conquers-all ancient Hollywood conventions, wants to move you. If The Artist fails to win Best Picture, it will be, in my opinion, because the final effect of the movie is a bit too genteel. It needed a four-hankie catharsis to match its delectable cleverness.
The fall, and rise, of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. There’s no arguing that the initial box-office numbers for David Fincher’s lavishly exciting serial-killer thriller were almost shockingly low. As much as a Harry Potter installment or a big-budget summer Marvel origin story, this was a movie that seemed to come with a gigantic built-in audience, and it appeared, at least to me, almost destined to be a pop-cultural event. So what happened? Well, for one thing, the movie has held steady. As it marches toward $100 million, in the context of a megaplex culture where any film that fights for adult eyeballs now faces an uphill battle, it is certainly hitting the sweet spot for a certain audience. Yet here’s why I think the picture was colossally mis-marketed. It’s clear that the whole feel-bad-movie-of-Christmas hook didn’t really take hold, but far more than that, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo should have been marketed with a vengeance to every teenager in America. Rooney Mara, as Lisbeth Salander, should have been splashed, shamelessly, across every newspaper and magazine and website as a transgressive fashion statement, a pierced-lip style icon. For Lisbeth, a waif in her mid-twenties, is basically, in spirit, an adolescent goth sociopath, a lone riot-grrrl fantasy figure. Now that Bella Swan has had her baby, Lisbeth, by all rights, should have been the American poster ghoul girl of the year, with teenage girls (and their dates), from trailer park to prep school, lining up to experience her big-screen exploits.
I’ve said this to people and provoked the inevitable response: “But no! The movie is way too dark and intense! It’s not really for kids! It’s too complicated! There’s that terrible rape scene! Plus, it’s rated R!” Yet this kind of reasoning, with its token veil of morality (we must protect the children!), starts to look awfully threadbare, and maybe hypocritical, when you consider that no one bats an eye at a luridly violent and egregious potboiler like The Devil Inside taking in $33 million its opening weekend – in large part because teenagers, hooked on cheap thrills, couldn’t wait to see it. Why is it that we treat a serious black-as-midnight thriller like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that actually has some feeling in it as if it were dangerous, but exploitation trash, devoid of any pretense of feeling, is fine? That said, I was pleased to see that Dragoon Tattoo, after being written off as a non-awards film, was restored to its rightful place on that slate by the Producers and Directors Guild Award nominations. The movie’s run is far from over. But the fact that it couldn’t come close to matching the opening-weekend grosses of The Devil Inside (no stars! no budget! the fifth Exorcist knockoff in five years! and, yes, it sucked!) says a lot about the devil of schlock addiction that’s eating away at our film culture.
Why has Meryl Streep been anointed for her brilliantly obvious impersonation of Margaret Thatcher? I’ve been a member of the New York Film Critics Circle for 20 years, and I can assure you that the only inside scuttlebutt at our annual voting meetings is this: There is no arguing, no debating, no critical cantankerousness, just endless rounds of balloting until a winner in every category ultimately emerges. What’s more, nothing ever wins on the first ballot. You generally go to least three ballots, if not four. But Meryl Streep, the last actress on the planet who needs another award, won this year for her performance in The Iron Lady…on the very first ballot. And I have to say that I found that bizarre. I thought Streep was as good as she could have been. Her impersonation of Thatcher’s playfully orotund gravity was exquisite (though I would have enjoyed it more had the movie recognized how little relationship there was between Thatcher’s dignity-of-the-common-man rhetoric and her corporate-friendly policies). After a while, though, Streep-Thatcher’s constant declaring of everything – this is a woman, at least in The Iron Lady, who would deign to declare how long she likes her eggs boiled (“NOT 15 minutes! A sin-ceeuh and bold TWELVE minutes…as my FATH-uh, and Churchill, most urrrgently be-LEEVED!”) – started to bore a hole through your skull. This was a great impersonation (abetted by a remarkable prosthetic-makeup job), but not a great performance, and the fact that Streep, thus far, has triumphed over Viola Davis, for her sublime work in The Help, is a mistake that I hope (and suspect) the Academy Awards will correct.
It’s Brad Pitt’s time. He deserves the Best Actor award, and he’ll get it: for being a great movie star who is also a great actor (in Moneyball), and also – hovering in the background – for being both of those things in the opposite order (in The Tree of Life).
The real message of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: No one gives a #@!*&%? about 9/11 films. Not having read the Jonathan Safran Foer novel, I went into Extremely Loud knowing nothing about it and found it compelling, in its slightly precious way, and also kind of moving. And yet…this is a film whose very existence is rooted in the presumption that Americans are eager to see a movie that will help them “deal with the crisis of 9/11.” Remember “too soon”? (How long ago that was!) Well, it’s now too late. The idea of assuming that a Hollywood movie could provide a therapeutic catharsis of national healing for the trauma of 10 years ago isn’t just a matter of lag timing. It’s a matter of not realizing what Americans are dealing with. In no way does it trivialize the profundity of 9/11 to say that we’ve long ago moved on to other traumas, because everyday American life, in the post-economic-meltdown world, has itself become a cautious study in shades of trauma. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is getting zero awards traction not because it’s a bad movie (it’s actually pretty good), but because it’s a movie that’s hooked to a zeitgeist that no longer exists.
Why The Help will win the Academy Award for Best Picture. For a while, I thought it might be Midnight in Paris (it’s certainly well loved enough), but I think it lacks the central, forceful performances that a Best Picture winner needs. The Help, I realize, took an awards-season demerit when the DGA failed to nominate its director, Tate Taylor. Yet one reason I think the film will win is that it’s the kind of socially conscious crowd-pleaser that, in Oscar land, transcends the aestheticized notion of a “director’s film.” This isn’t a film, it’s an all-out movie, and a soulfully stirring one about race in a distant time, and in our time as well. You may well ask: What, exactly, do the relationships between black housekeepers and their white employers in the Mississippi of the early Civil Rights era have to do with what’s going on today? Especially when I just declared a 9/11 movie utterly irrelevant. But race in America, and in movies, works in mysterious ways. The grand subtext of The Help – the very fact that it goes back that far in time – is the inner reality of the Obama era, when race, in our public political sphere, barely speaks its name, yet the anxiety of racial “difference” is a demon that hasn’t died. A movie like The Help comes along now to help us hold that demon up to the light. And that, I believe, is why it will be recognized.
So what are your awards-season thoughts this year? Who do you think will win the Oscars, and why?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman