Oscar losers: us

Have you ever seen a duller Oscarcast? I mean really — ever? I’ve watched every year since I was a kid, but if this keeps up, I may find something better to do next year on Oscar night — and it probably won’t mean going to see an Oscar-bait movie.

And that’s the trouble with Oscar: It’s supposed to honor the “best” performance, cinematography, direction or whatever, and “best” can mean many things, including “most enjoyable.” But Oscar voters seem to interpret it largely as “most depressing, high-minded, serious, dour and grim movie released in December with all the accoutrements of a snob-geared Oscar campaign.” That’s the kind of thinking that’s given us Oscar winners such as The English Patient. This year it gave us a field so mired in misery that I didn’t care which lesser of entertainment evils prevailed. No Country for Old Men? Cool enough — at least it was shot in my home state of Texas, and I love the Coens and their cast. But it was still Oscar bait, and for that, I disrespect it. How about entertaining first, and letting the votes fall where they may? What a concept!

Take Michael Clayton, which just reached DVD. Essentially it’s a routine corporate evil flick where a coherent story isn’t as important as an overheated assembly line of A-list actors indulging in in-your-face emotional extremes. In fact, for a film about business, it’s utterly unbusinesslike. People scream, threaten, cry, rant and rave, but they do very little talking.

Perhaps the distinction should be made that Michael Clayton’s overacting is by good actors, as opposed to overacting by bad actors. But it’s still overacting, as if each scene is designed to be a sound-bite clip on the Oscar telecast. It’s also pathetic that George Clooney, Hollywood’s most well groomed man, couldn’t let his hair down a bit — or muss it up — to play a low-level “bag man” at a high-dollar law firm who’s got a bad gambling habit and awfully dirty hands. Yet there’s George, looking as if he just stepped off Oscar’s red carpet, while his borderline low-life loser of a character gets down and dirty. Riiiight.

Like too many other films, Michael Clayton pretends to be art but is stuck in the utterly wrong-headed mode of catering to conventional Oscar tastes. Who cares that the acting is more showy than an end-zone dance? What’s important is that a film film look good on one night, Oscar night, rather than truly being good throughout its shelf life in theaters, on DVD and on cable.

Again, if we’re talking the “best” movie, instead of the most high-minded, serious and pretentious, wouldn’t pictures like E.T. have won in the past, instead of bloated biographical epics like Ghandi? And wouldn’t more rousing entertainments such as ’07’s 3:10 to Yuma be nominated, instead of snooty Brit fare such as Atonement or horrendous wickedness such as There Will Be Blood?

Oh yes — that’s right. Juno was in the five-film best-picture field, and Juno is  comedic and feel-good and popular and all those things we’d like to celebrate in an Oscar winner while sifting through the ashes of torturers, murderers and scene-chewing extremes. But that’s what’s called tokenism, my friends, and Juno never stood a chance. The winner could only be a film like No Country for Old Men, an “artful” film whose own Oscar-bait clips include the most maddeningly cliched action-movie shot of the past 20 years.

You know what I’m talking about: A man walks toward the camera. Behind him, a horrific explosion erupts. But while everyone else screams and runs, the man never pauses, just keeps walking, without even flinching, even though a real human being probably would jump even if he knew the big bang was coming. But it looks so cool, right, as if the guy is above it all — so on top of his game that even an explosion doesn’t faze him.

One problem, beyond the cliche: The guy in question is normally guilty of the big bang and probably doesn’t want to be found out. So to blend into the crowd and not draw attention to himself, he calmly walks away from an explosion without even looking back? I don’t think so. That happened in The Matador, too, and it just doesn’t make sense. A smart assassin would play it out — act startled, look around, then back away — and wouldn’t calmly keep walking as if he heard no more than a dog barking. But then, that’s the movies — or Cliches R Us, from the inevitable media rabble shoutfest that’s orchestrated for every emerging-from-the-courthouse-or-police-station scene ever filmed, to the actors who spend more time looking at their passenger when driving than the road ahead, and somehow don’t have an accident. (They can do so because their car, in fact, is being towed by a crew, but scenes still need inner truth, and staring sideways isn’t it.)

But enough of that, and my grousing about the most boring Oscar show to date, even if host Jon Stewart had his moments. I’m just weary of movies geared to Oscar’s narrow definition of what constitutes “best.” Sure, sometimes they get it right. The Return of the King, Titanic and the first two Godfather movies were great entertainments and the best of their year — as were smaller winners such as Rocky and Annie Hall. But “best” has been redefined by Oscar to mean “most depressing movie released in December with obvious attempts to lure Oscar votes.” Such films may not be the worst, but I beg to differ that they’re the best.

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