Oscar is in a funk this year, and we’re not talking about the writers’ strike.
Of the films nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards, four are patently dark, depressing tales — Atonement, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. The remaining film, Juno, gets its comedy from the dark subject of teen pregnancy.
But then, Oscar has never been little Mr. Sunshine. You have to go back 10 years, to Shakespeare in Love, to find a best picture that was pure sweetness and light, and it was a surprise winner over Saving Private Ryan.
No, having a roster of downer films gunning — and in the case of No Country, we do mean gunning — for best picture doesn’t set 2008 apart. The surprise is that judging from the hype last fall, these aren’t the grim tales we thought we’d be celebrating.
Last year was supposed to be the year filmmakers finally started dealing with the real-life events of this decade.
Movies such as Rendition, Lions for Lambs and In the Valley of Elah, loaded with Oscar-winning writers, actors and directors, were going to bring the realities of our current struggles with the Iraq War and global terrorism to the big screen and awards season.
Instead, they and other films like them have been soundly shut out at the box office and on award ballots.
Rendition, with Reese Witherspoon as a woman trying to find out what happened to her Egyptian-born husband when he was nabbed in an anti-terrorism operation, has grossed less than $10 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo, and it has received no major award nominations.
Lions for Lambs, with Tom Cruise as a congressman trying to sell the war on terror to reporter Meryl Streep, has made less than $15 million, and again, no awards or nominations.
In the Valley of Elah, the story of a small-town sheriff trying to find out what happened to his son after returning from Iraq, came with the cachet of being written and directed by Oscar darling Paul Haggis. But it has earned less than $7 million at the box office and nabbed only one major award nomination: Tommy Lee Jones for a best-actor Oscar (Photo, right, with Susan Sarandon, courtesy Warner Independent Pictures).
Other films that were supposed to be heralded for bringing our real world predicaments to the big screen included A Mighty Heart, about the vigil for Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and executed by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan, and Charlie Wilson’s War, about a Texas congressman’s efforts to finance the fight against the USSR by Afghanistan insurgents, who eventually became the Taliban.
Charlie fared better at the Golden Globes, with the all-star cast of Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman getting nominated for acting in a comedy or musical and a nomination for best motion picture-musical or comedy. But Hoffman is its sole Oscar nominee. And A Mighty Heart’s Angelina Jolie, who did get a Globe nomination, was snubbed in Oscar’s best-actress race.
What does it all say?
Well, maybe moviegoers and even award-givers look at filmmakers as storytellers, not op-ed page editors.
That’s not to say there wasn’t some good storytelling among these films. But when you start telling viewers that your movie is about the evil things the government is doing or a war that is still being waged, many people are going to pass on the sermon.
There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men and Michael Clayton reflect a mood more than a position. Some people have tried to apply contemporary attitudes about oil to Blood. But it is heralded for the way it tells its story of a ruthless oilman in the 1920s, and for Daniel Day Lewis’ awesome performance. Michael Clayton will reaffirm every negative thought you’ve ever had about corporations and their lawyers. But again, it has great story, great acting and a lack of specificity that lets you stand back from it. And a lot of critics who normally decry violence have been willing to overlook the bloodshed for Joel and Ethan Coen’s storytelling and another collection of great performances in No Country.
We’re willing to get down at the movie theaters. But maybe, this year at least, we get enough of the real world from the news.