Anyone who reads Cinematical regularly knows that Oscar and I went through an amicable divorce a long while back. The Academy hasn't picked the best film of the year as the Oscar winner in at least ten years, in my opinion, nor are they above handing the big prize to a film that's not only unworthy, but legitimately bad. Crash? A Beautiful Mind? I'm not going to throw Chicago into that category, but it certainly didn't even deserve to be on the top ten list of any respectable critic, let alone walk away with the Best Picture statuette. Chalk up another major blunder this year. No matter which film walks away with Oscar -- whether it's Babel, The Departed, The Queen, Letters From Iwo Jima, or Little Miss Sunshine -- a really splendid work of art, Marie Antoinette, will go unrewarded. Normally, this is the part of the piece where I would launch into how all the critics were wrong and I was right, but the odd thing about the oversight of Marie is that the major critics seemingly agree with me.
Released back in October, before the calculated late-December releases begin muscling their way into the voters' memories, Marie was greeted by an ebullient four-star review by Roger Ebert. The Los Angeles Times' Carina Chocano seconded, calling the film "startlingly original," which it is. The Times A.O. Scott remarked -- "What to do for pleasure? Go see this movie, for starters." The Washington Post, Salon.com, The Hollywood Reporter, The Philadelphia Enquirer, Entertainment Weekly, and smaller outlets like Slant.com all heaped praise on the film, and declared it to be among the best of the year. Add in the pedigree of the director -- an important young filmmaker and prior Oscar winner, Sofia Coppola -- and it seems like the film would have been swept along by the tide until finally walking away the big winner tonight. Instead, the film will have only one opportunity to win an Oscar, in the throwaway category of Best Achievement in Costume Design. Yes, the costume work is good, but let's not kid ourselves -- it's a booby prize for a serious film, if it's won at all.
The film bravely tells the story of the legendary French-Austrian queen in a completely contemporary style, using soft-punk on the soundtrack and employing various other jarring anachronisms -- I think I even heard the 18th century queen use the word "like" a couple of times, Valley girl style -- all as an experiment for keeping us locked into the emotional headspace of a trapped heiress who has neither the education or the strong personality to make the most of her situation. In the face of the revolution, she is helpless to do anything about it, so she blocks it out -- as does Coppola. The starving masses of Paris go completely unseen until they are finally storming the Queen's palace. Once you share the Queen's surprise at having her dollhouse-world so quickly and forcefully interrupted, the hard work of creating sympathy for the historically vilified figure is done for you. On top of this, Coppola employed some subtle and remarkable visual innovations, including a totally unpredictable shot selection and long, quiet takes, to help blast the viewer out of their expectations.
The most charitable explanation for why Marie was snubbed on the Best Picture and Best Director fronts this year would be that the Academy members have simply become too involved in 'protecting' the Awards from criticism. As we've seen this year with some Best Picture nominees, the studios are not above coopting the general media to more or less force the Academy to either nominate a desired film or be prepared to pay hell for it in 'Why did Film X get snubbed?' stories. The Academy is notoriously vulnerable to media pressures, and probably simply couldn't fit Marie in amongst all their more important considerations, like making sure Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and other luminaries get their supposedly just desserts. Do Matt Damon and other stars think they are helping the Academy by essentially accusing it of corruption in advance, if it doesn't give out an award to a certain director? What does Scorsese care if he wins anyway? Alfred Hitchcock never won Best Director, for God's sake. Maybe he could have gotten on the phone to tell his stars to shut up.
A less charitable -- and more likely -- explanation is that the voters simply no longer pay enough attention to the tide of films that come rolling by each year to pick out the best ones. They have a foggy idea of what they are being bashed over the head to nominate, so they roll over without much of a fuss and nominated it. They know enough to zig where the Globes zag, but that's just a self-preservation instinct, not any sign of moxy. I have to tune in and watch the Oscars tonight, but don't mistake that for actually thinking that what we're covering is actually anything of great importance. It's high-school writ large -- the bullies and the popular kids will muscle their way onto the main stage, while the special kids will sit back in the shadows and wait to be recognized later. The special, eggshell world created in Marie Antoinette is a remarkable filmic idea brought to life and one that doesn't need the stamp of approval of a bunch of 70-year old retired make-up stylists.