Tomorrow the Oscar nominations are announced, and the countdown to the event where grossly overpaid entertainers perform metaphorical obscene acts on themselves in elaborate clothing for our amusement begins. So we thought we'd sort through and find the different types of movies that are sure to turn up year after year.
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By Dan Seitz
6. The Actor's Showcase
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Examples: Walk The Line, Ray, Monster...they're all like this if the cast is egotistical enough. That's why we put it first.
This Year: In one corner we have Invictus, which is about a respected man (we refer, of course, to Morgan Freeman) who crosses racial divides and unites a fractured country). In the other, Julie and Julie, in which we learn that Amy Adams is hot even when she's supposed to be playing somebody dumpy, while Meryl Streep has given up on the whole "serious acting" thing and is just collecting whatever paychecks she can get to pay off her extensive gambling debts (even if that means doing what amounts to a Monty Python routine for ninety straight minutes).
Sometimes, a movie isn't made because of a sincere belief in the subject material's profitability or artistic achievement. Sometimes it's made because an actor really, really, really wants a little gold man, and they'll do anything to get it. Because isn't ruthless ambition to become a trivia question really what acting is all about?
You can usually spot these one of four ways: the actor is impersonating a famous person, the actor has gotten into a crapload of make-up to look like a famous person, a straight person is playing gay, or they're playing a retarded person. And almost inevitably, it'll either be some social message picture, because great acting doesn't happen if you're not pounding a message into your audience's skull like a railroad spike. Speaking of which...
5. The "Message" Picture
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Examples: Milk, Blood Diamond, Crash...like we said, pretty much all of them.
This Year: Up In The Air, which takes the bold stance that firing people for profit reasons might just be kinda a bad thing, and we're pretty sure is the front-runner to win Best Picture if for no other reason than it's actually funny.
Every year, if Hollywood wants an Oscar, it has to show America that they can convincingly pretend they care about some deep, profound, serious issue. The problem, of course, is that this issue usually needs to be something people can generally agree on so you don't make audiences actually think. That would be bad, especially if it leads to negative reactions on Twitter!
So usually these messages are either something we already knew, or is something that's really obvious. Hollywood seems to love telling us that hating people because they're different is bad, a memo we usually get around the age of five. Or maybe that life really sucks in the Third World, which, again, is pretty easy to figure out by reading the news for three minutes. Yes, Hollywood thinks you need to pay them ten bucks to be lectured like you were in third grade. But, luckily, there's occasionally some violence or nudity. Crash may have been a white guy from the suburbs trying to apologize for racism with Latino gangbangers, black criminals, and rich white people, but that car crash was frickin' sweet.
4. The Serious Biopic
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Examples: A Beautiful Mind, The Pursuit of Happyness
This Year: Amelia, which is a sensitive feminist celebration of a woman who proved that women can fly just as well as men, until that whole "disappeared and likely dead" thing happened, thus spawning the very first jokes about women drivers.
There's nothing Hollywood loves better than the biopic. You get to tell a heartwarming story of fall and redemption, and it's about somebody people have actually heard about.
More often than not real life isn't all that dramatic (watch as Amelia Earhart checks her flight plan and buys fuel!), or there are these pesky things that don't "test well" (in marketing speak). For example, in A Beautiful Mind, you'd never know that John Nash, in addition to being completely crazy and a mathematical genius, cheated on his wife pretty much daily, with both genders, well before he could play the "crazy" card to get out of it. Or, to keep picking on Russell Crowe, in Cinderella Man, the boxer he goes up against is played in the movie as if he's Satan in gloves, when in reality he was actually a really nice guy who spent years trying to atone for accidentally killing a man in the ring.
The problem is, increasingly Hollywood's running out of true stories to turn into movies, or at least uplifting happy ones. Amelia ends with an airplane crash, Milk ends with Harvey Milk getting shot, and last year's Flash of Genius was about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper, and fought nobly to keep his invention from being stolen by car companies.
Yeah, Hollywood expects you to pay to see an uplifting, heartwarming story about patent law.
3. The Nutjob Movie
Source: United Artists
Examples: Shine, Rain Man
This Year: The Soloist, a movie about a paranoid schizophrenic whose life has fallen completely apart, but he sure can play a mean cello!
Crazy people are great for Hollywood, because they can use the crazy people to highlight just how nuts the real world is. Instead of having a brain chemistry imbalance, a neurological problem, or a painful and debilitating emotional trauma, they're just honest people that show us working long hours and dealing with annoying people is crazy instead of something we all have to put up with. We should all go into an institution, like them!
Roger Ebert calls them "Baked Potato People" and Hollywood's been pissing off everybody who actually deals with what we'll sensitively call "nutzoids" for years. As a general rule, we don't put vaguely annoying people into prisons and medicate them. We only do that to people who can't function or who otherwise might wind up hurting themselves, or maybe cleaning out a McDonald's with a shotgun.
But making a movie about people who need constant care and attention would be not just accurate and respectful, but also depressing as hell, and not in that "Gimme my Oscar" way. More in that "There's lots of misery in the world you can't solve" way. Nah, let's break ‘em out of institutions and make them count cards. That's a lot more awesome.
2. The Musical
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Examples: Chicago, Moulin Rouge
This Year: Nine, which is supposed to show what Hollywood supposedly does best: elaborate, carefully designed spectacle, and accidentally shows what Hollywood really does best....taking applauded works of art and making them utterly moronic.
Until recently, as we all know, the musical was a dead genre and we were happy to leave it that way, mainly because the only musicals that were actually awesome involved Gene Kelly. Then Baz Luhrmann came along and created a bizarre pop-culture-drenched acid trip of a movie called Moulin Rouge, which, trust us, is not better stoned.
The lesson Hollywood took away from all this? Let's bring back the traditional, boring musical! This was just reinforced when they took Chicago, one of those musicals that's more beloved for being really nasty and bleak, sprayed a bunch of stars at it, and somehow won awards. Now, we're subjected to at least one of these things a year, as Broadway has a pretty much endless stack of mediocre crap they're only too happy to foist on us since no sane person would pay $100 to see it on stage, and they've got to make their money back somehow.
Stars can't sing? No problem, as anybody who suffered through Mama Mia! and Pierce Brosnan yodeling his way through ABBA hits knows. Almost inevitably, these will be directed by a first-time director who is highly distinguished on a stage and is so functionally ignorant of filmmaking we finally get to see what a $100 million student film looks like.
1. The Serious Literary Adaptation
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Examples: Doubt, The Reader
This Year: Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire. The novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness, first-person style, which the movie decided to reflect by using the style and techniques usually reserved for the films aired on Lifetime.
Adapting an award-winning novel almost always goes wrong in one of two ways: either the movie sounds boring or it deals with something you want to avoid, because they don't generally hand out literary prizes to Mack Bolan novels. For example, Precious is a movie that features a depressed lonely girl who gets repeatedly raped by her dad while her mom watches, and whose life is so crappy she hides in a fantasy world to escape it. Doesn't that just scream "date movie"? Can't you just feel yourself buying a ticket?
People keep showing up to these things because it's the cinematic equivalent of eating your broccoli after snarfing down Twinkies all summer for upper-middle-class types. You get to go to the theater, get a good nap, read up on the plot on Wikipedia, and then talk about it with your friends about how great it was over wine.
These movies don't get Oscars on their quality; They get Oscars because people feel bad about not giving it to them.