Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pixar cracks Best Picture

Academy Award nominations were announced this Tuesday morning, and if you're a movie buff like me, then, pardon the Arthur Miller quote, "attention must be paid," whether or not one agrees with the Academy's choices or has been impressed by the quality of the year's films.

This year, the Academy chose to increase the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. Such a large number of nominees is not unprecedented; that number was typical throughout most of the 1930s and on into the early 1940s. More nominations meant more recognition for different types of films, and this should be regarded as a good thing, an acknowledgement of brilliance in a variety of genres, not just limited-release art house fare. The year 1938, for example, saw the following Best Picture nominees: "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (swashbuckler), "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (musical), "Boys Town" (family film), "The Citadel" (adaptation of a highly regarded novel), "Four Daughters" ("woman's picture" -- they weren't called "chick flicks" back then), "Grand Illusion" (foreign-language war film and, along with "Robin Hood," my personal favorite among the nominees), "Jezebel" ("woman's picture" starring Warner Brothers' unstoppable force, Bette Davis), "Pygmalion" (British, art house fare), "Test Pilot" (contemporary adventure), and "You Can't Take It With You" (comedy, and that year's winner). So many different types of films competing for the Big Prize adds spice to the contest; one can never be sure what the Academy will favor. Will it go for the big box-office blockbuster, or will it go for the prestige picture? Or will it stumble, by chance, onto a film that's both?

With ten nominees, what will actually win is even less of a foregone conclusion than usual, and with a blockbuster like "Avatar" among this year's nominees, the Oscarcast is likely to see its largest viewership in recent years (perhaps even since 2003, when blockbuster "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" was a major contender). But for me, the most pleasant surprise among this year's Best Picture nominations is the inclusion of Pixar Studios' latest treasure, "Up."

Like all Pixar films (though to varying degrees), "Up" boasts a screenplay that mixes drama and humor in just the right doses, and interesting characters worth caring about and rooting for. When we shed tears, we don't feel ashamed of ourselves or angry at the movie for manipulating us; rather, we know by instinct that those tears were honestly earned. For the second time in a row, Pixar offers the year's sweetest love story, even though (for most of the film) it's between a cantankerous widower and the wife he has lost. Furthermore, "Up" manages the trick of being smart and sharp without being cynical, and any film that can manage this trick certainly deserves consideration.

This isn't the first time Pixar has come forth with a film deserving of a Best Picture nomination. Single-handedly, that studio is doing all it can to change the notion that American animated features should be geared primarily towards children. "WALL-E," last year's deserving film, painted its love story in subtle, surprisingly mature strokes; in the end, the fact that the central characters were two robots proved incidental. "WALL-E" also boasted a virtually dialogue-free opening half, demanding that its audience pay close attention; not for nothing did some critics liken WALL-E to a robot Charlie Chaplin. 2004's nominee, "The Incredibles," offered a middle-aged protagonist going through the sorts of things middle-aged men often go through, with the brilliantly added burden of superpowers he is not allowed to use; "The Incredibles" is so intriguingly layered in its character development that I've used it several times to my college English students film analysis.

This kind of intricate and empathetic storytelling is the hallmark of the most memorable Best Picture nominees. The trouble is that, for years, the Academy has refused to acknowledge the existence of such things in an animated film, as if the medium of animation itself somehow juvenilizes every story it touches. When the Academy was at last prepared to acknowledge the worth of animated films, it stuck them in a category of its own, Best Animated Feature, rather than allowing them to compete on equal terms with live-action fare. Even though "The Incredibles" and "WALL-E" were among the very best, if not the best, films of their respective years, they had to content themselves with a Best Animated Feature victory. "Up" is at last getting the respect they should have gotten.

Even though "Up" is my favorite among the nominated films I've seen so far (my choice for the year's best film, the sci-fi drama "Moon," failed to be nominated at all), it hasn't a hope of winning. As long as the Best Animated Feature category exists, the Academy is likely to expect superb animated films to be satisfied with a victory there. Yet the nomination itself is a small step in the right direction, perhaps -- dare I be optimistic -- a sign of things to come. Before the decade is over, a Pixar film may actually win Best Picture. I can only hope it's as good as "Up."

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