- I've seen all nine of this year's best picture nominees, which makes me sort of a freak
- There's a disconnect this year between Oscar media hype and the public's movie interest
- Most nominees have long since disappeared from theaters; audiences have moved on
- Right or wrong, the Oscars still offer a starting point for talking about the year's best movies
One night earlier this month, I found myself alone at a remote suburban movie theater, miles from my home, seeing "War Horse." I admire Steven Spielberg's movies, and I'd heard raves about the play, but that's not really why I went.
I went because it was the only place left in Atlanta where "War Horse" was playing. And "War Horse" was the last of the nine Best Picture Oscar nominees I hadn't seen.
It's kind of a tradition for me. I saw all 10 nominated films last year, and all 10 the year before that. I keep lists of such things -- geek alert! -- and I've figured out that of the 139 movies nominated for best picture over the past 25 years, I've seen all but two -- not in some Netflix retrospective binge years later, but when they first hit theaters.
So for almost as long as I can remember, I've sat down to watch the Academy Awards having seen all the year's top contenders. And this makes me kind of a freak.
That's because most people just don't care that much about the Oscars anymore. Sure, they might watch the show to make catty comments about the stars' dresses or catch wacko unscripted moments like Jack Palance doing one-armed pushups. But they're not all that invested in the movies themselves, many of which tend to be somber and struggle to find audiences. "Winter's Bone," anybody?
This year, there's an even bigger disconnect between the usual media hype over the Oscars and the public's interest in the top movies. Of the nine best picture nominees, only one, "The Help," has reached the $100-million mark at the box office. Compare that to 2009 and 2010, which each produced five $100-million earners among the Best Picture contenders, including such blockbusters as "Avatar," "Inception" and "Toy Story 3."
This year's favorite for best picture, "The Artist," has earned just $28 million and is on track to be the second-least-popular best picture winner, behind only "The Hurt Locker." Days before the Oscars, most of the nominees have long since disappeared from theaters, and audiences have moved on to "Safe House" and "The Vow."
I can't blame them. You have to be in the right mood to travel to a theater and sit through a silent, black-and-white movie about a fading film star or an emotionally taxing epic about a horse drafted into World War I or a quiet, meditative and largely plotless look at the origins and meaning of life on Earth. (At least, I think that's what "The Tree of Life" was about.)
And I'm not sure anyone is ever in the mood for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," about a heartbroken boy after the death of his father on 9/11. It was even tough for me, Mr. Oscar Obsessive, to drag myself to that one.
The Oscars still reign supreme as the grand dame of awards shows. But their relevance is fading. Years ago, people followed Oscar nods as endorsements for which movies to see. Now, thanks to the Internet, everyone's a critic. Who cares that "Hugo" is nominated for 11 Oscars -- your friends on Facebook say it's boring!
January and February are so saturated with movie awards now that by the time the Oscars finally roll around they feel like an afterthought. No wonder ratings for the show are down. By late February we feel like we've seen it already, and thanks to the glut of Oscar prognosticators we pretty much know who's going to win. Hmm, I wonder what George Clooney will say in his "Descendants" acceptance speech this time?
Plus many times the Oscars just plain get it wrong. The Academy has a long, notorious history of honoring safe or "serious" movies over comedies, edgier films and mass-appeal entertainments: "My Fair Lady" over "Dr. Strangelove," "Forrest Gump" over "Pulp Fiction" or "The Reader" (nominated, didn't win) over "The Dark Knight" (not nominated) just for starters. There may not have been a better time at the movies in 2011 than "Bridesmaids," but food-poisoning jokes aren't Best Picture material, apparently.
So yes, I know the Oscars aren't perfect. I know the stodgy ol' Academy would rather honor Morgan Freeman for driving Miss Daisy than Spike Lee for throwing a trash can through his white boss's storefront window. I know the Oscars telecast is usually a bloated mess.
Yet there I was the other night at "War Horse," checking the last box on my Oscar list. The Oscars may have lost a little luster -- witness the Academy's desperate tinkering with the show to boost interest -- but they still provide a valuable service. Right or wrong, they offer a starting point for talking about the year's best movies. And they still inspire people in timid, profit-obsessed Hollywood to make artful, important films.
So on Sunday night I'll be planted in front of our TV, duking it out with my wife in our annual Oscar pool and actually caring (a little) who wins best art direction. The Oscar show, bless its narcissistic heart, is like an annual family reunion with charming, photogenic and long-winded relatives. You know it'll go on too long, you know you'll get bored and you know somebody will cry. But you look forward to it anyway.
At least I do.