Oscar Week at the Smack

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences have their way of picking movie winners; we have ours.

We’re not gonna say Movie Smackdown’s way is necessarily better than its Oscar competition, although clearly, our critics are more diverse. According to a new study by the Los Angeles Times, Oscar voters are 94 percent white and 77 percent male, with only two percent under the age of 40. Movie Smackdown has a much more representative age, race and gender mix.

Both our site and the Academy Awards telecast are seen all over the world, with the Oscars usually pulling in between 35-40 million live viewers, and Movie Smackdown attracting… something less than that. Still, we both soldier on.

The 84th annual Academy Awards will be airing Sunday, February 26, announcing the Academy’s movie winners to the world. We’ve already Smacked all the major Oscar contenders and made our choices—the links to those reviews are currently displayed on the right side of our homepage—but we haven’t yet Smacked them against each other. So here, we do just that.

Making this task slightly difficult (thank you, Academy management!) is that there are nine nominees this year, so there’s no way we can pair them off cleanly. Instead we’ll do the next best thing and choose six films, match them up randomly, and top that off with a three-film battle royale for the final match.

We’ve also Smacked five other top categories—Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, and Best Supporting Actor and Actress. We’ve done these in the same, free-for-all, battle-royale format we used for the final Best Picture entry. In these categories, we’re analyzing and predicting winners, rather than choosing personal favorites.

Smackster Eric Volkman does the honors.

Artist vs War Horse

Round One:
The Artist vs. War Horse

The early decades of the 20th century weren’t happy ones, by and large, particularly for the protagonists of these two films. War Horse‘s title character Joey (played by a stableful of different mounts) is shipped off to combat at the dawn of World War I to the great dismay of his best friend Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Determined to reunite with his buddy, Albert enlists in the military and spends the rest of the war looking for him. Hopefully neither will meet their end in combat.

The Artist‘s George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a suave actor at the top of the Hollywood food chain circa 1927, is also the right animal at the wrong time. Talking pictures are about to render the silent films he stars in obsolete, and when he starts getting turned down for roles, his desperation mounts. Will the misguided, self-destructive George find some way to punch through the darkness and resurrect his career?

Of the two, The Artist has the richer period flavor. It’s also, despite its dark subject matter, presented in a light and breezy manner, as a quick, easily digestible piece of remember-when entertainment. Since War Horse is aimed at kids (it’s adapted from a young adult novel), director Steven Spielberg has to exercise restraint in showing the horrors of a horrendous conflict, so the authenticity suffers. Although the movie is otherwise well directed, it feels draggy here and there and could have used a few more chops in the editing room. So for pacing, period feel and general entertainment value, The Artist wins this bout.

Descendants vs Midnight in Paris

Round Two:
The Descendants vs. Midnight in Paris

It’s a battle of alienated white guys in this mini-Smack. Rich yet aloof Hawaiian Matt King (George Clooney) of The Descendants becomes a single parent to his two daughters after Mrs. King suffers a boating accident that knocks her into a coma. Matt has to simultaneously connect to his daughters, manage his wife’s recovery and, against his nagging conscience, administer the sale of ancestral land belonging to him and a pack of greedy cousins. Good luck to him.

In Midnight in Paris, writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) finds himself in the city of the title. One night while drunkenly wandering the streets, at the stroke of midnight he sees an antique car pull up to the curb. He gets in and voila! he’s suddenly transported back to the early 1920s, where he meets the city’s most celebrated expatriates like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Gil loves the atmosphere of that time and place, so he keeps returning. But before long, he discovers the past isn’t what it used to be.

Both movies are solid entertainment. However, Wilson’s main character, a disheveled, hopeless romantic, is more engaging than his counterpart. Who among us hasn’t suffered such an itch for another time and place? Matt isn’t as interesting a personality, nor is he as deep and as aching. Additionally, the theme of Midnight in Paris (don’t glorify the old days!) is stronger than the fairly standard maturing-through-adversity backdrop of its rival. Lastly, Allen does a good job layering his theme lightly and simply on top of a fun story, without beating the audience over the head about it. Midnight in Paris, then, is our winner.

Round 3:
Hugo
vs. Moneyball

Unlike Gil, we remain in 1920s Paris with Hugo. The film follows the title character, a boy (Asa Butterfield) with under-appreciated talents, meeting an old man who turns out to be under-appreciated cinema pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). Each works a grunt job in different areas of a Paris train station. They are adversaries when they first meet but are soon drawn together after Hugo discovers who the man really is. The boy then begins a Quixotic quest to solicit the recognition he feels Méliès deserves, and to save the old man’s films for posterity.

If Hugo were to somehow catch Midnight in Paris‘s antique car time machine and drive across not only time but space to northern California in the early 2000s, he might just end up as Billy Beane, the general manager of baseball’s Oakland A’s. After all, like Hugo, Beane is a smart, ambitious guy who’s under-appreciated by nearly everyone around him until he implements a new, numbers-based system to staff his team’s roster. Against prevailing sports wisdom, Beane uses his system to find inexpensive, overlooked players. After a bad start, the A’s begin a historic win streak, make the playoffs and earn a chance to advance to the World Series.

The talent arrayed for these two movies is certainly not under-appreciated: director Martin Scorsese collaborates with writer John Logan (working from Brian Selznick’s book) on Hugo, and Capote helmer Bennett Miller, working with ace screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin to give us Moneyball. None of them, however, are at the peak of their abilities here. Hugo is gorgeous to look at, with the best 3D cinematography in movie history; it’s too bad the film is so leaden. The brilliant Scorsese’s somewhat heavy touch weighs down what should be lighter fare, turning it from a childhood discovery story to a piece of Georges Méliès hero worship, and for anyone who doesn’t think the Frenchman was deserving of sainthood it becomes a slog to watch. Moneyball is flat and suffers from the use of tired Hollywood shortcuts, but at least we get to go behind the scenes to watch the business of a pro sports team, which is interesting and different. Neither of these films is the masterpiece it wants to be, but Moneyball is more involving, so it gets the victory.

Round Four:
The Help
vs. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
vs. The Tree of Life

We’ll be scoring this three-in-one bout according to how well each movie did according to the Smackdown refs who originally rated them. In the first corner is reclusive auteur Terrence Malick’s rumination on human existence, God and other frivolous water cooler conversation topics, The Tree of Life. That film’s first opponent is underdog drama The Help, which like most of the other nominees is a period piece, this time set in the segregated South of the 1960s. Unlike its rivals it concerns the struggle for civil rights as experienced by a young white journalist and several African-American women who work in menial household jobs. Finally, there’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a story of a curious young boy who loses his father in the 9/11 attacks. We liked the first two movies, enjoying the vision of the first and the passion of the second. EL&IC fell short, however—we considered it phony, overblown and underwhelming.

Out of the two remaining films, we found The Tree of Life to be thought-provoking and involving. We couldn’t quite drape the same adjectives on The Help; despite the obvious gusto with which it was made and acted, it couldn’t quite escape the old Hollywood underdog-triumphs cliches and as such we thought it predictable. It falls in the end, making The Tree of Life our battle royale champ.


BEST ACTOR

G_OldmanProfileSeveral big-name Anglo-American stars go against a pair of character actors from Elsewhere in this year’s contest. Frequent colleagues Brad Pitt and George Clooney appeared in prestige movies last year, and their celebrity usually ensures them special consideration from the Academy. However, although their films, Moneyball and The Descendants, got good reviews, neither made a lasting impression on moviegoers. The same could be said for their performances, so we don’t expect either man to come to the stage for the prize. Demian Bichir won extraordinary praise for his work in A Better Life, but since few people saw it, he probably won’t take the statue. Although Jean Dujardin is a massive star in his native France, among this pack he’s still a relative unknown. If The Artist goes on a roll, Dujardin could be swept to victory, but we’re going with Gary Oldman, who’s been getting a lot of press not only for his fine, understated performance as the quiet English spymaster George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but for the fact that he’s never taken home an Oscar for any of his roles in numerous popular films.

BEST ACTRESS

Did you know that Meryl Streep holds the record for Academy Award nominations for an actor? Yep, 17 is the grand total for this grand lady of the screen, with only two victories to show for her efforts. The movie she’s nominated for this year, The Iron Lady, doesn’t have the gravitas of a Sophie’s Choice or the popularity of a Kramer vs. Kramer, so in an unusually strong year for women’s leading roles, Meryl will likely come up short again. Glenn Close certainly deserves her first Oscar at some point, but probably won’t get it for Albert Nobbs, which underwhelmed critics and audiences. Michelle Williams did a fine job portraying screen legend Marilyn Monroe, but is unlikely to triumph when Monroe’s work itself is so iconic. Viola Davis is a favored contender for breathing life into The Help’s by-the-numbers story, but we’re guessing castmate Octavia Spencer’s strong work as Supporting Actress, could divert some of Davis’ mojo. Instead, we’ll make an offbeat pick here: fast-rising Rooney Mara, who did a good job playing a high-profile role in a tentpole movie, The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. Mara is young (and the old coots in the Academy love youth), she’s good at her craft, and she has a habit of landing in quality projects, all traits greatly appreciated by the Academy.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

CPlummerProfileIn a way, this is probably the most interesting set of candidates for any award. Save for relatively new arrival Jonah Hill in Moneyball, the men in this category are all well-respected character actors who’ve toiled for decades but have never taken home an Oscar. Hill, a young actor who got his start in comedies, is the odd guy out and 99 percent certain to go home empty-handed. But which of the remaining four veterans—Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, Nick Nolte or Kenneth Branagh—will hoist his first Academy Award in the air? Since all appeared in not very popular movies, we can’t handicap the results according to box office. So we’ll make our pick based solely on longevity and ubiquity in North American productions. In other words, we peg that sturdy and reliable Canadian, Christopher Plummer for the win.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

If we went by pure audience buzz alone, scene-heisting Melissa McCarthy of Bridesmaids would easily win this category. But the Academy is not audience buzz and has a habit of picking away from comedy and comedians—particularly when the competition includes a Big Issue movie, as in this case. The Help tackles, albeit in a rather Hollywood way, the malignant racism of America in the 1960s. This is a slightly more weighty matter than the obstacles and politics encountered in arranging a wedding, or the travails of a fading movie star (The Artist, whose lead actress Bérénice Bejo is nominated here), or even the nature of sexual identity (Albert Nobbs, represented by Janet McTeer). So the winner will probably be a cast member of The Help, and since Hollywood may possibly have felt  some  backlash over Jessica Chastain’s Caucasian character carrying the burden of social injustice for all the long-suffering African Americans of The Help, we expect a little diversity to creep in here. As such, our pick for this one is the well deserving Octavia Spencer.

BEST DIRECTOR

If it were up to us—and somehow, again this year, the Academy hasn’t called—we’d hand Best Director to Woody Allen in a microsecond. Midnight in Paris is the most entertaining, the warmest and the funniest of all the films whose directors earned nominations. But the Academy, as previously noted, does things its own way , and is more likely to go with a director who’s actually in attendance (unlike Allen, who typically shuns these spectacles), and who’s made a well-received film that did good box office. For whatever reason, Malick’s Tree of Life and Scorsese’s Hugo just didn’t connect with audiences, and The Artist’s Hazanavicius is too new and too, well, we’ll say it, foreign, to win his first time out. We don’t consider The Descendants to be Alexander Payne’s best work, but he fits the above criteria, so we’ll put our money on him to grab the Oscar.

1 Comment on Oscar Week at the Smack


  1. This was such a fun read…

    Probably more fun than the Oscars as a telecast will turn out to be. First, Billy Crystal is back for the ninth time. Bound to be lots of surprises there. Second, not since Slumdog Millionaire laid waste to its competition has there been a romp like The Artist is about to go on.

    So the best part of the Oscars is bound to be the Smackdown gang pointing out all the failings!

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