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With four days to go until the Academy Awards, we've reached the point in the season -- indeed, given the season's inordinate length and predictability, we've been there for some time -- where everything that's potentially exciting or commendable about this year's awards can be turned against the institution behind them by sufficiently ill-tempered critics and observers.
Isn't it kind of cool that the Best Picture winner is almost certain to be a silent, black-and-white comedy with no household names involved, and the first Oscar champ in the category from outside the US or UK? Oh, I'm sorry, it isn't: assorted corners of the blogosphere have ruled that "The Artist" is disposable, middlebrow fluff, that the Academy is caving to the cynical philistinism of Harvey Weinstein, that voters are out of touch and un-American to boot. (Oh yeah, and Jean Dujardin is bloody Roberto Benigni all over again -- because all Europeans are the same, right?)
Isn't it great that a gifted, long-serving character actress is finally getting her due, despite belonging to a demographic minority rarely afforded such opportunities in the Hollywood mainstream? Oh, I beg your your pardon, it isn't: certain commenters would have you believe that Viola Davis is an over-entitled fraud, using her race as a ploy to guilt AMPAS members into voting for her in an elevated supporting role. And while we're about it, she's directly to blame for the fact that she's a black woman playing a maid in the film, and not the President of the United States.
Well, we can at least be happy that, at the ripe old age of 82, Christopher Plummer is set to finally receive his long-overdue Oscar statuette for a deft, witty, moving performance in an unusual independent film, right? Wrong again. His win will be a display of shameless sentimentalism on the Academy's part, and a conservative celebration of a nobly doomed gay character, and anyway, he was way better in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Okay, he wasn't, but how square is the Academy for not nominating that in more top categories? Well, except Best Actress, but Rooney Mara's totally full of herself, and that shouldn't be rewarded.
And so on and so forth. The words "you can't please everyone" come inevitably to mind, but given that the Academy is a compromised collective of conflicting opinions, they're equally unlikely to please themselves on an individual-by-individual basis. Is any one person pleased with the way all 119 nominee slots in this year's Oscar list have been filled? Has that ever been the case in any year? I can't imagine so. Yet the volume of journalistic and fan-based whinging about this year's race seems, if you'll forgive me, extremely loud -- or perhaps it's just set to amplify with each passing year, regardless of the films and names in contention, as the proliferation of columns, blogs and Twitter feeds devoted to the subject creates ever more outlets for venting over this or that slighted film, and this or that undeserving frontrunner -- the latter often a film that extended awards buzz and eventual Oscar success tend to demote in certain critics' estimation from mild appreciation to retroactive scepticism to outright demonization.
Given the statistical unlikelihood of the Academy's favorite films and individual achievements aligning with our own, it's always going to be easier to dwell on what they've got wrong -- just as it's always going to feel more virtuous to side against the group that preferred "How Green Was My Valley" to "Citizen Kane," that gave Al Pacino an Oscar for "Scent of a Woman," that never gave Alfred Hitchcock a competitive Oscar at all. Many critics feel secure when the Academy lives up to their bland expectations of their taste, and unnerved when they actually agree on something: that lovely Fiona Apple lyric, "I think he let me down when he didn't disappoint me," comes pithily to mind.
So it feels more heretical than it should do to say that I'm not angry with the Academy this year; indeed, I'd go so far as to say I'm moderately pleased with them. For the first time in over 20 years of Oscar-watching, almost all the frontrunners in the top categories are the contenders I'd be voting for myself if I had a ballot. (No, they're not the ones I'd have nominated in the first place, but it's as unreasonable to expect people to vote en masse for the likes of "Weekend" and "Margaret" as it is to denigrate those people for liking something as patently likeable as, oh, "The Artist.")
The positives continue. They've assembled an unembarrassing foreign-language film list. They've singled out outstanding technical elements in such Oscar-disadvantaged films as "Jane Eyre" and "Drive." They've adventurously reached out to both broad commercial comedy and Middle Eastern drama in the writing categories. They've finally let Gary Oldman past security. They've done okay.
I'm even, after having belatedly seen the film, sanguine about this year's most reviled nominee. The muddled, narratively specious "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" belongs about as near a list of the year's best films as it does a responsible-parenting seminar, but I was surprised to find just how much I admired its tonal abrasions, technical jangle and unlovable lead: it's perhaps the most dubious film of 2011 that I still feel inclined to defend against an overwhelming critical jihad, and far from my least favorite of this year's iffy Best Picture nominees.
I'd be lying if I said I hadn't made my own share of complaints over the course of the season -- I haven't exactly been quiet about my dislike of putative Best Picture runner-up "The Descendants," for starters -- but perhaps because the tide of ill feeling from many of my colleagues has got so exhausting to read, I feel more inclined than usual to accentuate the positive, even if the fog of the season sometimes has me confused as to what I'm defending. Am I speaking up for "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" as a movie, as an Oscar contender or as a mere variety of Oscar contender? Am I excited for "The Artist" more because I like it, or more because I like what its win suggests is possible? When the Oscar race is this far removed from one's own personal passions, is it diplomatic or demeaning to remain invested in the outcome?
I'm wavering on the answer to all these questions, but I know I'm looking forward to Sunday -- partly because the communal experience of watching the Oscars while drinking a shitload of alcohol is never without its pleasures, partly because I'm still enough of a geek to be intrigued by such up-in-the-air categories as Best Costume Design, but largely because I'm excited to see a handful of films and artists I sincerely like get a brief moment of glory before we all move on with our lives. Oh, there's plenty to take issue with, both regarding the Academy as an institution and some of the choices they've made this year. But it's late. We're all tired. Let's fight in the morning.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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