So, a few thoughts while we wait for the entrance of Jon Stewart into the wondrous world of Oscar hostage:
1. The most interesting thing about the list of nominees this year is that four of the five Best Picture nominees are very low-budget films. Capote, Crash and Good Night and Good Luck cost only about $7 million each, which on a blockbuster movie would be roughly the cost of the catering. Other acclaimed recent movies aren't quite that cheap, but still fairly low-budget; Walk the Line and The 40 Year-Old Virgin both came in at under $30 million at a time when $100 million is considered about average for a Major Motion Picture. There seems to have developed a kind of unofficial rule that if a filmmaker is going to make a "grown-up" movie -- even a comedy for grown-ups like 40 Year-Old Virgin -- it has to be done inexpensively.
That's fine, and has led to more good, relatively inexpensive movies being made with studio gloss and polish -- sort of a combination of the co-opted "indie" movement with the big-studio ethos. But the age of the big-budget grown-up drama or comedy seems to be gone: fourteen years ago, a major studio could sink a fair amount of money into a multi-story drama about race and crime in Los Angeles (Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon) but today, a similar movie, Crash, has to be made on a very tight budget or not at all. There are a lot of good movies being made, but what we're not seeing very often is the combination of a grown-up subject and approach with a big budget to do it justice. Or think of it this way: The Searchers, a dark Western for grown-ups, cost $3.7 million in 1956, which the inflation calculator estimates would be about $29 million today. In truth, with everything rising in cost over the years, to do what The Searchers did would probably cost much, much more than $29 million. And I don't think any studio would sink that kind of money into a movie as dark as The Searchers; they'd make it, but they'd make it on the cheap -- good, dark, uncompromising, but without the epic sweep and splendour that a big budget can bring.
2. Worst crop of nominated movies ever? It's a tough call. The worst era for Academy Award nominations was probably in the mid-'50s through the late '60s, when the Academy would basically nominate whatever bloated blockbuster the big studios were pushing. The nomination of Dr. Dolittle in 1967 may have been straw that broke that particular camel's back; it was such an absurd nomination -- leading Truman Capote, furious that the film version of In Cold Blood had not been nominated, to say something to the effect of "anything that allows a Dolittle to happen is ridiculous" -- that there seems to have been some effort to make sure that the list of nominees made some kind of rational sense.
If I had to choose a worst crop of Best Picture nominees, I think 1956 probably wins the prize:
Around the World in 80 Days
The King and I
The Ten Commandments
We're not talking bad movies here (though 80 Days is more fun than good, and The King and I is uneven and cuts too many good songs to be satisfying), but it's not a very inspiring list of movies overall, and when you take into account the movies that weren't nominated -- The Searchers, Baby Doll, Lust For Life, Written on the Wind and Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- you realize that this is one of those years when the list of nominated best pictures bears no resemblance to the best work that Hollywood was actually doing that year.