Charles Thomson

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It's time for Oscars judges to stop taking their cues from power-mad critics
Sunday 30th January 2011, Sawf News

The 2011 Oscar nominations were revealed this week and, as usual, surprises were thin on the ground. Yes, Michelle Williams got an unexpected nod for Blue Valentine and the exclusion of Christopher Nolan in the best director category for Inception has raised many an eyebrow but, by and large, the nominations are once again almost exactly as everybody predicted.

The pattern repeats itself every year. Of the hundreds of films that hit the festival circuit in late Fall/early Winter, a handful will immediately begin to generate ‘Oscar buzz’.  This handful of films will consequently receive more and more attention at each subsequent festival, while an untold number of fantastic and often superior films are increasingly ignored. The ‘buzz’ generates Oscar predictions. Shortly thereafter, those predictions are largely confirmed.
I’m beginning to wonder just how accurate the word ‘predictions’ is when speaking about the media’s relationship with the Oscar nominations. In recent years the word ‘instructions’ seems like it might be far more accurate. Isn’t it a coincidence that every single year the handful of movies which generate the biggest ‘buzz’ early in the festival calendar almost always end up receiving multiple Oscar nominations? Why doesn’t the voting panel ever nominate anything we haven’t heard of? The statuettes are supposed to be awarded on merit, not on the back of a popularity contest judged by how much ‘buzz’ you can generate and how quickly.

And what is ‘Oscar buzz’ anyway? What does it mean? Does it even mean anything anymore, or is it just an empty phrase that critics now include in their reviews by force of habit? Who is doing all the so-called buzzing and who judges whether one film is getting more buzz than another?

In October I covered the London Film Festival for and the only ‘Oscar buzz’ I encountered consisted of reviewers discussing which movies had received said buzz at previous festivals. In reality, the only buzz was the perceived but intangible one that was so often mentioned in reviews but so rarely encountered on the ground during the screenings.

Shortlisted in categories including best picture, best director and best actor, this year’s predictable frontrunner is the Oscar-baiting historical drama The King’s Speech, in which Colin Firth plays Prince Albert as he struggles to overcome a crippling stammer, replace his brother as King of England and lead his country into war.

The raft of nominations for The King’s Speech is unsurprising but disappointing. As I wrote in my review, the film certainly ticks all the necessary boxes for Oscar glory; a true story, a cast of British thesps and a lead character suffering from a physical disability. However, walking into the movie’s London premiere after weeks of hyperbole and so-called ‘Oscar buzz’, I expected to be bowled over – but instead I was left underwhelmed and slightly perplexed as to what all the fuss was about.

I didn’t hate The King’s Speech – far from it. But after receiving as much hype as it had, I really expected more from the movie. Tonally, I felt it resembled a made-for-TV period drama (incidentally, a genre in which director Tom Hooper has far more experience than he does in movie-making ).

Moreover, while Colin Firth is undeniably a charismatic actor (and, in my estimation, should have taken home last year’s award for A Single Man), Prince Albert is a far from compelling character. In fact, he is often entirely dislikeable, frequently treating his beleaguered speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) like a peasant. The constant firing and re-hiring of Logue becomes repetitive and one occasionally wonders why, exactly, we’re supposed to be rooting for this Prince who seems intent on causing significant upset to everyone around him.

Geoffrey Rush as the eccentric Lionel Logue is magnificent. His nomination in the best supporting actor category is thoroughly deserved and I fully expect that he’ll win. Conversely, Helena Bonham Carter’s best supporting actress nod for her turn as Albert’s wife is puzzling given that she doesn’t seem to do much other than pop up in the occasional scene, look concerned and then disappear for another ten minutes.

Sure, The King’s Speech has a lot going for it; some strong performances (a great one from Rush) and a strong script. But several films at the London Film Festival stayed with me for far longer afterwards.

One of those films was Mike Leigh’s Another Year, which has received universal praise and so many five-star reviews that the movie’s title barely fits on the poster. The film, a study of several characters across four seasons and their evolving relationships, is a masterclass in pathos. But in spite of its magnificent performances (Lesley Manville as the alcoholic, chain-smoking Mary is an absolute joy), excellent pacing and beautiful cinematography, it has received one measly nomination in the best original screenplay category. The nomination of Helena Bonham Carter over Lesley Manville for best supporting actress is mind-boggling.

Another overlooked movie is Conviction, often unfairly criticized by reviewers for being unimaginative or predictable – despite being based on a true story. Would the critics have preferred that the story was manipulated to include helicopter chases and a romantic sub-plot featuring Clive Owen? Starring Hilary Swank as Betty-Anne Waters, Conviction tells the story of a waitress who put herself through law school in order to overturn her brother’s bogus murder conviction.

A shocking tale of corruption and abuse of power, the movie features some fine performances including strong but perhaps not career best turns from Swank and co-star Minnie Driver. But the real star of the show is Sam Rockwell as Betty-Anne’s wrongly accused bad boy brother Kenny. In direct contrast to Helena Bonham Carter’s nominated supporting performance in The King’s Speech, while Rockwell isn’t on-screen all that often during Conviction he steals every scene he’s in. His exclusion from the best supporting actor category is a real shame.

Not for the first time, the Academy Awards voting committee appears to have allowed the media’s hype machine to affect the nominations process. Black Swan is a gorgeous and gripping thriller which certainly deserves its nominations for direction, cinematography and editing, but Natalie Portman’s lead performance has been divisive.

While her physical dedication can’t be faulted, adhering to strict diets and dance training in order to believably play a ballerina, the film’s melodramatic nature renders Portman's performance a little monotone by default, affording her little opportunity to play anything other than shrill. Whether her performance is any more deserving than Hilary Swank’s turn in Conviction, for instance, I’m not convinced.

I propose an experiment. In anticipation of 2012’s nomination process, the voting panel should be sequestered from the beginning of the 2011 festival season until the moment the nominations are announced. Critics attending early festival screenings have a disconcerting amount of power, being able to propel a movie into the forefront of the Oscar panel’s minds with the mere suggestion of ‘Oscar buzz’.

By shielding the voting panel from the media’s months of potentially prejudicial predictions, we’ll end up – perhaps for the first time in many years – with a list of nominations that’s genuinely been assembled on the movies’ individual merits, rather than the hype that’s been built around them. I suspect that under those circumstances, we’d see a very different type of shortlist.

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Charles Thomson - Sky News