This morning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominees. News media followed the announcements particularly closely because the field for Best Picture was broadened from five to ten.
By doubling the number of nominees, film critics noted on every major network, the Academy encouraged the recognition of blockbuster films as possible Best Picture nominees. Popular choices, not just art house films that no one (but people like me) go to see, would make the list. On E! Ben Lyons considered the “traditional five” in his pre-announcement speculation. I don’t think he meant to imply a two-tiered system, with five “traditionally classy” films that would’ve received a nom anyway and five “popular” films now being included, but many moviegoers likely anticipated the Top Ten might break down that way.
When the noms were announced, I didn’t see these predictions fulfilled. Where was a groundbreaking choice like Star Trek? Avatar probably filled that slot, in part because its reception has been huge week after week at the box office, in part because its technology has been heralded as the future of film making. Up probably wouldn’t have made the list if the nominations had been kept to five, the same for The Blind Side (although Sandra Bullock would’ve scored a Best Actress nod anyway). For all the hype about the “surprises” coming in the expanded Best Picture list, I didn’t feel terribly surprised.
The expanded list included a few "popular" choices and a blockbuster, so I guess the Top Ten fulfilled expectations. It gave a thumbs up to films that wouldn't have otherwise made the cut and likely will bring in more Oscar night viewers who have seen at least Avatar or The Blind Side. Maybe that's all it's supposed to do.
But then, I guess I’ve been pondering the future of film (and television, given that LOST’s final premiere arrives tonight). In the next few months I’ll be blogging those ponderings regarding specific aspects of film making, but I’ll finish my immediate ramble here. I guess I was hoping that more films with a history like District 9 would be encouraged.
Many of my friends didn’t like District 9, but I liked it if found it sometimes difficult to watch. It’s a blend of entertainment with a “serious art” theme. What pleases me this morning is that a project that started as a documentary-style 6-minute film a few years ago gained momentum and eventually got the backing it needed to become a full-length feature on big screens. Now it's been recognized by the Academy. That’s the story I want to follow, because I think it provides hope for so many little films and as-yet-unrecognized film makers to get their stories out to the public.
The web is a good place for short films to start. Perhaps that’s why I’m just as fascinated with Girl Number 9, told in five-minute segments over five days online, as with Avatar. Big budget, big studio, big technology = success seems to be the prevailing model. Not all films in the Academy’s Top Ten followed that formula, but enough still do that they dictate the number and types of films financed each year.
Story, however, should be key to what is made. Is a story worth telling on film? online? (And I'm not talking YouTube home movies.) I may be just as entertained by the expectation of the next day’s online 5-minute serialized scenes as an hour 35 of technical wizardry or celebrity star turn on a big screen.
Storytelling is an art, as well as a commercial venture. The stories that stick with us don’t have to cost a lot to make, but they need to be well told, well acted. I don’t know the budget for some of these online features recently capturing my attention, but the web seems to offer more creative freedom for serious film makers with seriously low budgets. They may even get the attention of audiences and potential backers. Even if the online version isn't expanded for wider screens and longer run time, it's still worth making if it tells a great story in an innovative way. Maybe someday in the not-too-distant future I’ll be looking to other media for more of the stories that appeal to me.
It’s not that I’ve been unhappy with recent films. Of those receiving the “big” nominations for acting, writing, directing, and best picture, my favorites are A Single Man (with an incredible performance by Colin Firth), Up in the Air (but that’s probably because I relate to George Clooney’s character), An Education, and Up. I haven’t seen all the nominated films or performances yet, so my list likely will expand by Oscar night.
I simply don’t want to ascribe to the notion that Academy-recognized films are all that’s entertaining, or even the best of film. I know that my taste isn’t the same as the rest of the movie-going public, but it’s for that very reason that I hope short films, new film makers, and less expensive productions will get more of a chance to tell their stories, even in tough economic times. Not all short or low-budget movies are festival darlings or “art house” features—which make both the films and venues sound pretentious. I don’t see why either Art or Commerce needs to be the exclusive winner. Art and entertainment aren’t mutually exclusive, and the internet, rather than the Academy, may be the place for film makers to prove it.
So this morning I’m pleased for the nominees, especially those for whom I root. I’m happy for the New Zealand connection with Avatar, even as I hope that this technological marvel isn’t the only future for film. I’m glad that District 9, for all that I liked Alive in Joburg better, received recognition. But I’m not surprised by the Top Ten, and I hope to see a little more variety in the selections next year. In the meantime, I’ll head to the cinema on the weekend, but I’ll look even closer online for the next not-so-big thing.