Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mourning The Social Network in advance

The Social Network
will not win best picture this weekend.

Why? Because a nice little period piece about overcoming adversity is going to come in and swipe away the Oscar.

When I say "swipe away the Oscar" I might as well be saying "sweep the Oscars." If the 12 Oscar nominations for The King's Speech did not stagger you, the fact that it could win half of them should.

Mind you, this isn't one of those years where I have serious misgivings about the eventual best picture winner. That's happened a bunch in recent years, where I've had minor to major problems with the movie that won. Even in the six years I've known my wife I can think of four examples of movies I thought had too many flaws to win: Million Dollar Baby, Crash, No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker. When The King's Speech wins, it will have my unambiguous support as a worthy contender.

It's just nowhere near as worthy as The Social Network.

I don't talk a lot about The Social Network on this blog. I've spent considerably more time heaping praise on the other four of my top five films of the year -- 127 Hours, Tangled, Agora and Winter's Bone -- than on The Social Network. In part that's probably because I thought each of those films, in their own way, required some kind of help from me, while the chorus of love for The Social Network was deafening already. For me to construct an entire piece on why David Fincher's film was so great would be just to repeat what numerous others have already written on the film blogosphere.

Now I'm wondering if we took The Social Network for granted. All of us.

I read an interesting take just now on why The King's Speech will win. You may already be aware of it, but I was not. While the praise for The Social Network was inescapable about two months ago, that's because that was when all the critics groups were releasing their accolades. But critics don't vote on the Oscars -- Academy members do. And so when the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild all awarded their top honors to The King's Speech, the writing for The Social Network was on the wall.

But why? Why do critics have such a different outlook on this year's best picture race than the people who actually make the movies?

If I were being cynical/uncharitable, I'd say it's because the people who make movies are not as smart as we are. On the whole, that is. Any large body, like the Academy, tends to have a very populist undercurrent, just because it is comprised of so many damn people (upwards of 4,000, right?). And if you're an intellectual snob, populism = stupidity.

The thing is, I thought that The Social Network was stupidity-proof. I thought it was so damn good that it was going to walk away with the Oscar, unchallenged. And that's me trying to be unbiased. It's not even my favorite best picture nominee -- that honor goes to 127 Hours. But it was the best picture nominee I thought "we all" (both critics and Academy members) could get behind.

Speaking of 127 Hours, I'm still trying to get over the fact that Colin Firth will take the best actor Oscar over James Franco, even though I conceded that long ago. In fact, Franco is probably not even the #2 contender for the award, which you could argue would be either Jesse Eisenberg or Jeff Bridges (despite his win last year, people seem to love Bridges in True Grit). Franco probably sealed his fate as a non-contender when he agreed to host the ceremony. (We just watched the Dana Carvey SNL last night, which featured Paul Brittain as Franco, doing every job on the set -- as well as discussing all the other jobs he's doing, such as rabbi and cab driver.)

But I really didn't think I would have to concede best picture to The King's Speech as well.

Look, The King's Speech is good. I'm not saying it isn't. I was the first person I knew who saw it, several weeks before Christmas. When I came out, I thought, "That was a very solid movie." It actually held more interest for me as a study of the difficulty of a life of royalty, than as an "overcoming adversity" movie. There's no doubt that the movie has an excellent build toward the climactic speech, which is indeed quite tense. But I was much more fascinated by the way ordinary people rise or fail to rise to the occasion of being royalty -- because even though they have the bloodline they do, these royals are just human beings, at their core, who want and need ordinary human things, things that don't necessarily jibe with a life in the public eye. I liked the cinematography, set design and art direction, I thought Firth's was probably the second- or third-best performance of the year, and I was with it the whole way.

But best picture? Nah.

In The Social Network, you have a movie that defines our times. A director at the height of his powers has fully realized a complicated, layered script from one of the greater writers of our age, and gotten a performance of lacerating unlikeability from Jesse Eisenberg in the lead. The Social Network is so interesting because it takes something that seems so frivolous -- an addictive networking website -- and makes it stand in for a host of ways we define modern discourse and psychology, such that our very humanity is what's being studied. I'll leave it at that, because as I said, others have gone into this in great depth.

And now, it may not win any Oscars.

How could this happen?

For one, I guess The Social Network is, at its heart, cold. We forget that the Oscars often shy away from emotional coldness. One of the reasons Slumdog Millionaire won best picture was that it was emotionally warm. The fact that it happened to be the best nominated film that year was just a bonus, making for a perfect Oscar winner (even if the film has suffered backlash since then).

The thing is, "cold" movies win all the time. No Country for Old Men was as icy as the crypt.

Then there's the possibility that The Social Network came out too early. Its October 1st release date meant that audiences had months to fawn over it, and to get over that fawning. In fact, perhaps The Social Network crammed in a period of fawning followed by a period of backlash, all before Oscar voters even cast their votes. Meanwhile, The King's Speech had two months' less opportunity for that cycle to complete itself.

The thing is, movies released early in the season win all the time. The Hurt Locker came out in July. Maybe even June.

Who knows. Maybe one too many person in the Academy decided that The Social Network was too progressive -- too young for their tastes, even though the Academy has stated a desire to appeal to younger viewers. Along those same lines, maybe one too many person couldn't stomach giving best picture to a movie in which Justin Timberlake appears. (Let's hope that's not the case, because Timberlake always does good work.) Or maybe too many of them had worked with Fincher, who is supposed to be very difficult.

In any case, it looks like an advanced mourning of The Social Network is definitely warranted. It's a shame.

Here's hoping it wins at least one award. I won't say which one, but when/if it does happen, check back here for a post on the subject next week.

Until then ... enjoy the Oscars. At least there's no truly inferior film to Crash the party this year.


Mike Lippert said...

Also, the Oscars just always seem to prefer British above all else so I agree that Social Network is going to walk away dissapointed.

Simon said...

I think the Academy just really, really likes British accents.

Vancetastic said...

It's funny that you both cite an Academy bias toward British films, because there hasn't been a movie featuring primarily British people that's won best picture since Shakespeare in Love in 1998. I'm not saying you're wrong, just that the market corrected itself, and maybe it's correcting itself again back in the other direction. Maybe Cary Joji Fukuyama's Jane Eyre will get nominated and win next year?

Vancetastic said...

Sorry, that would be "Fukunaga," not "Fukuyama."

Simon said...

Slumdog Millionaire was technically a British film.

You know what? If The King's Speech wins, Guy Pearce will have had minor parts in Oscar winners two years in a row.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

Not to sound cynical, but the Oscars rarely award the best picture Best Picture.

Sadly, I haven't seen KING'S SPEECH yet so I cannot compare.

Vancetastic said...

Simon - Yeah, that's why I was careful in my phrasing: "a movie featuring primarily British people." ;-) Love the Guy Pearce observation -- that's the kind of thing I tend to notice, but didn't this time.

DGB - True, but does that mean we shouldn't have the naive, child-like hope that THIS will be the year that it happens?

Mark said...

Nice post, though I have to admit I don't agree. I've seen both The Social Network and The King's Speech multiple times now (those are the only BP nominees I've seen multiple times), and I think The King's Speech is by far the better picture, so much so that it isn't even close. Funnily, this issue came up at my lunch table today, and all present thought that Speech should, and will win. I have a sneaky suspicion there may be an age-line in play somewhere here, with those on either side of forty having differing opinions. Not to worry though, The Social Network is a screenplay winner for sure.

As for the Academy Awards themselves, I've always found that they are much more enjoyable when one doesn't worry too much about who wins, and instead simply regards the awards as the film industry's night to celebrate itself. The means by which they makes decisions are too dynamic, from year to year and even category to category. Sometimes they recognize a performer's body of work (Pacino, and soon to be Firth), sometimes they go with momentum and get it wrong (The Hurt Locker). Sometimes they just get it wrong (Crash) and piss everyone off, while sometimes they even get it right and piss everyone off (Shakespeare in Love). You'll have a hard time finding anyone who actually thinks Titanic was a better picture than LA Confidential, but everyone understood why the big boat won the award, and nobody got too upset about it -- sometimes they follow the money for the good of the business.

There's plenty of room for smart folks to disagree about who should and shouldn't win, and I've found many times throughout the years that I'll reasess old opinions as the times, and my perspective, evolve. It took me a decade or two, but I really do think now that the Academy got it right when they named Rocky the best picture, and I'm even starting to warm up to From Here to Eternity. Gigi? never.

Vancetastic said...


I love the broad perspective - thanks! It's funny you should mention 40 being a line of demarcation between King Speechers and Social Networkers, because my wife just turned 40 over the weekend, and about two hours ago she weighed in on the debate in favor of King's Speech. Prior to that I would have sworn she was in the other camp. Maybe she switched on Saturday.

I think one thing that's undeniable (of course, deny it all you want, because I don't have any numbers to back it up) is that The Social Network was on more critics' top ten lists, and certainly found itself in the #1 position more often. In fact, I'm not sure I know a single critic who ranked King's Speech #1. I'm not sure what this means, if anything, but it's interesting to note. Whereas last year, The Hurt Locker was certainly ranked #1 by many critics (though not by me, to be sure).

In terms of your Titanic-LA Confidential example, well, I'll admit to liking Titanic better. What can I say, I was enthralled. And I won't throw it under the bus now, just because it's very uncool to say you liked Titanic. (I hereby dub myself "uncool.")

Mark said...

No, preach on, that's my point — maybe in a few years I'll jump ship for … Titanic. Just don't tell me you're a Gump fan.

It's sad that Hurt Locker was so highly regarded, I think more than anything else it speaks to where Hollywood has been headed for some time now. But, it's also probably a fair axiom that the older you get, the more you dislike newer films, which may have something to do with the King's Speech / Social Network divide. The King's Speech is essentially a 'classic film,' in terms of its narrative construction and period subject, whereas The Social Network is obviously more contemporary. The King's Speech, which is a marvelous film by any measure, won't win because of that - it will win for the same reason Gladiator did: nostalgia, it's a throwback to old Hollywood.

Like Speilberg did, Fincher will certainly eventually get his due, as will Aronofsky, but they have to make the right film first — though I'd bet on Aronofsky first.

BTW, I forgot to point out in my previous comment that The Silence of the Lambs came out in January, but that was a juggernaut of a trend-setting movie if ever there was one.

LadySuffragette said...

I love Colin Firth. I love period pieces. I'm an anglophile. I wuold have gone to see this movie had it stayed two days in the cinema. I liked the Social Network except for lack of female characters that weren't teenage fantasy bimbos with good SAT scores, BUT I have to agree with you. But this movie benefitted from savvy marketing.. PUSH PUSH PUSH In the North America...and a N A media that has just realized, since last year, That Colin Firth gives great interview. Always has, but now everyone knows.

Firth has bent over backwards for this movie; he worked hard for the last, but alas it was too gay for most, especially his randy menopausal fans.

Firth has had a very very successful career, but no movie 'he carries' has done anything,despite on occasion deserving it.

I don't like the fact that in interviews Firth and Hooper act as if this story has NEVER been told before. It has, many times, and some older Canadians can remember it first hand.

That point of view is specifically for Americans..

Vancetastic said...

@Mark - No, Forrest Gump made me mad, especially since 1994 ended up producing three of my favorite movies of all time, all of which were actually nominated for the Oscar: Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Heck, you can even throw in Quiz Show. It was a great year for movies that ended up truly enduring ... and the one that finished first in the voting should have finished fifth. Incidentally, at the time it came out, who could have predicted that The Shawshank Redemption would have turned into a sort of "cult" behemoth?

My main problems with The Hurt Locker were that it had a) no real narrative and b) no real protagonist. Or that the protagonist shifted to the guy who was originally in the role of "other." I appreciated it a bit better upon second viewing. But still.

@Lady - Yeah, even though I don't really think he's "deserving" compared to James Franco in 127 Hours, I have come to the point where I can fully support a best actor Oscar for Firth, just because he's been so good in so many films. If they're going to do it for Bridges last year in a very inferior movie, why not do it for Firth in a movie that is actually quite good? (Just not as good as maybe half the other nominees, IMHO.)