The Oscars will be doled out again on Sunday (February 27). But why should we watch? This year's nominations demonstrate more clearly than usual the irrelevance of all such industry contests.
Of the 10 nominees for Best Picture, not one is a bad movie, and not one bears any comparable resemblance to another. I think we can eliminate two of these contenders as nods to the indie-film community: Winter's Bone is a small, not overly engrossing picture with a memorable star performance by Jennifer Lawrence. The Kids Are All Right is a warm, funny, well-directed and exceedingly well-written small movie with a career-high performance by Annette Bening. Lawrence and Bening are both nominated in the Best Actress category, which seems a more appropriate acknowledgement of both pictures; and the Kids script, by Stuart Blumberg and director Lisa Cholodenko, has a real chance in the Best Original Screenplay category, in which its strongest competition is David Seidler's script for The King's Speech.
Moving further into the list of Best Picture contenders, we can also probably eliminate 127 Hours, which is essentially a showcase for James Franco, who's nominated in the Best Actor category; Inception, a spectacular visual-effects film with a muddled storyline; and Black Swan, an audaciously directed and gorgeously photographed movie with a story that doesn't entirely add up. Inception is more fittingly nominated in the Best Visual Effects category, where its strongest competition is Tim Burton's oppressively overdone Alice in Wonderland. In the case of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky is more plausibly competitive in the Best Director category (although he's up against The Social Network's David Fincher, True Grit's Joel and Ethan Coen, and King's Speech director Tom Hooper); and Matthew Libatique has at least a shot for Best Cinematography against the great Roger Deakins (for True Grit), Wally Pfister (for Inception), and Jeff Cronenweth (for The Social Network).
This leaves us with five unquestionably deserving nominees for Best Picture, and this is where the obvious pointlessness of picking just one comes in. Is The Social Network – the early front-runner in this category – a better movie than The King's Speech, which has been coming on strong in late innings, having already won top prizes at the British BAFTA awards, the Golden Globes, and in a number of local-critics polls across the country? And on what basis can it be determined that either of these films is better than the remaining three: The Fighter (distinguished by the performances of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, both nominated for best-supporting awards), the wonderful True Grit, or the superb Toy Story 3 (only the third animated film to be nominated for Best Picture)? The point that's driven home here, yet again, is that artistic merit isn't quantifiable. Picking a best movie is like trying to establish whether Jimi Hendrix is a better guitarist than Jim Hall or John Williams, or if Picasso is superior to Vermeer or Chardin. Even if we could somehow determine that one of these artists were supreme, why would it matter?
Further clouding the issue is the way in which Oscar contestants are picked. The tens of millions of movie enthusiasts who'll be talking back to their TVs worldwide on Sunday night will have played no part in the nominee-selection process. This movie-industry competition, as we all know, is controlled by the industry itself – which is to say, the 6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which oddly includes Steve Jobs – for executive-producing the first Toy Story, I guess). I think we can assume that not all of these busy professionals have been able to wade through all of the screeners with which they've been inundated to pick candidates for Oscar consideration. And their reasoning is in any case always opaque, influenced as it must often be by friendships, grudges and business connections. On what basis have they decided that Hailee Steinfeld, inarguably the star of True Grit, should be nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category? And why has Andrew Garfield, who gives the standout performance in The Social Network, not been nominated at all?
We don't really care, of course. The Oscars have the artistic import of a beauty pageant. Their winners and losers are in many cases determined by rushed judgments, ambiguous interconnections, and simple whimsy. I'd be thrilled if Michelle Williams took the Best Actress award for her stunning performance in Blue Valentine, but I won't pout if Natalie Portman deservedly wins for Black Swan, or if Annette Bening – a Hollywood hometown favorite – takes the top honor for The Kids Are All Right. Since Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor award last year for Crazy Heart, I won't be bummed if Colin Firth wins it this year for The King's English – he richly deserves it, too. I may be a little irked if Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—whose electronic compositions for The Social Network are so key to that picture's velvety mood—don't win in the Best Original Music Score category, but I'll get over it. The Oscars, like such less-exalted entertainments as dwarf-tossing and butter-eating contests, are inconsequential fun. They may reflect only the dubious judgments of a self-selected group of movie-biz insiders, but amid the raucous, taunting merriment in our living rooms, we happily ignore that.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.