Pop Goes the Culture: No clear standout for Best Picture Oscar
Pop Goes the Culture: No clear standout for Best Picture Oscar

Hey everybody! It’s that magical time of year when Hollywood descends into a self-important and ultimately pointless orgy of competition, campaigning, and self-adulation. It’s Oscar season and I can’t get enough of it! Hooray!

OK, so I’ll cool it on the feigned enthusiasm and overuse of exclamation points, but I do love Oscar night. Sure it’s silly and subjective to declare a “best” movie or “best” actor when they are merely matters of opinion, but I always enjoy the Academy Awards, a sort of movie yearbook where we get to reflect on the films that stirred our hearts or ticked us off in 2011.

Plus we’re Americans and there are few things we like better than crowning winners and losers. So now I gladly do my duty as a movie critic and offer this preview of what to expect on Oscar night (which also features the triumphant return of Billy Crystal, arguably the show’s best host of the past 30 years). Let’s hit it.

There is little intrigue in the acting categories this year as Best Supporting Actor will most assuredly go to Christopher Plummer for playing a gay man who waits until he is 75 to come out of the closet in “Beginners.” This is essentially a lifetime achievement award.

Momentum has built for Octavia Spencer as the scene-stealing maid in “The Help” and she should walk away with the Best Supporting Actress award as the rest of the nominees boast roles that are too lightweight or too understated.

George Clooney is about as close to a lock as you can get for Best Actor for his emotionally vulnerable turn in “The Descendants.” For everyone else, it was just an honor to be nominated.

The only question is in the Best Actress category where Viola Davis’s put-upon maid in “The Help” holds the slightest of leads over heavyweight Meryl Streep’s turn as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Both women give strong performances in flawed films and neither would be a surprise to walk away with the award, but Davis is more heartbreaking, and when in doubt in the Oscars always go with emotion.

As for Best Picture, the waters are a little muddier as 2011 will likely be remembered (or perhaps forgotten) as a year with a lot of good movies, just no great ones.

I’ll run down the list of nominees from least likely to most likely to win. There are nine movies in contention this year. Why nine? The answer is too complicated and too boring, just go with it.

No Chance: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “The Tree of Life.”

Both of these movies were very well made and very divisive, the former for playing off the emotions of 9/11 and the latter for being too artsy-fartsy. Too many haters in both cases. Still, when it’s all said and done “The Tree of Life” may wind up being the most remembered and ambitious movie of 2011 and will get the consolation prize of Best Cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki.

Good Movies With No Support: “War Horse” and “Moneyball.”

I’m still not entirely sure why these movies don’t have better buzz as they are both really solid flicks, but both will be bringing up the rear on Oscar night. I guess “War Horse” is getting the shaft because it was directed by Steven Spielberg and the Academy loves to shaft Spielberg for any movie he makes that is not set during World War II. They really got him this year by not even nominating his “The Adventures of Tin Tin” for the best-animated film. Take that for delivering 30 years of beloved, quality films, Steve!

As for “Moneyball,” I guess it was a little too inside baseball to resonate with voters. It will likely have to settle for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

Average Movies With A Surprising Amount of Support: “Midnight in Paris” and “The Help.”

Both of these movies have their flaws yet both still have a puncher’s chance at stealing the Oscar. “Midnight in Paris” is light and fluffy, but gets a boost from being Woody Allen’s biggest box office hit and Allen still gets a lot of love from the Academy, even if he won’t show up for the show. “The Help” is elevated for tackling the weighty subject of racial tension in the segregated South and for being the highest-grossing movie of the lot but loses points for being just a little too cutesy and stereotypical. It is likely the movie’s wins in the acting categories will let voters off the hook for passing it by for Best Picture.

The Contenders: “Hugo” and “The Descendants.”

Each of these films won the top prize in some preliminary awards and either could easily snag the Oscar. However, both have their shortcomings. “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s love letter to the primordial days of filmmaking was aimed at a family audience, but moves a little too slow for kids and was a little too out there for adults.

“The Descendants” has to struggle against being a bit of a downer and a little too self-aware for its own good. These are minor quibbles in both cases as either would be a solid choice in this year of diminished expectations.

The (Slight) Favorite: “The Artist.”

This movie has a lot going for it: it is charming, lively, and brilliantly pulls off the gimmick of being a silent film. The problem is that it has struggled to find an audience (grossing a measly $24 million at the box office) and is, at its core, a featherweight love story. I still would like it to come out on top, but nothing would surprise me this year.

As much as I hate to say it, 2011 was just not a great year for movies and this crop of Best Picture contenders reflects that. That said, there will actually be some legitimate drama at the end of the show meaning it might just be worth staying awake for all 17 hours of the Oscars telecast. In Hollywood, every cloud has a silver lining.

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