Friday, March 4, 2011

The Critics Are All Wrong: Oscar, The Social Network & The King's Speech

As I had predicted, the critics' widespread whining that The Social Network was a better, more deserving winner than The King's Speech that we've been hearing for the last month has continued well after the Oscars gave The King's Speech the big prizes.

Even if you don't believe as I do that the guilds and the Academy got it right, it's still childish, petty and frankly unprofessional to heap scorn on another movie just because it defeated your favourite. But it turns out that many critics aren't all that different from fanboys and fangirls after all. When their choice doesn't come out ahead, they sulk like children. Sadly, I cannot help but lose respect for them as a result of their lack of objectivity and perspective.

Some blamed the poor ratings of the Oscar telecast on The King's Speech (Were low Oscar ratings the fault of Anne Hathaway and James Franco or 'The King's Speech'?) which is absurd because the ratings started out the same as last year before dropping steadily. If The Social Network were so popular and The King's Speech so hated, then the ratings should have risen for the first 2 hours and 40 minutes when The Social Network led with 3 awards to 1. The King's Speech had the bigger box office though ($114 million and counting vs. $96 million, despite a later release), so if anything the decline as The Social Network accumulated more early awards would reflect dissatisfaction with that result.

Many suggested that the Academy were suckers for British period pieces about royalty. None of them bothered to notice that none of the Best Picture winners from the last decade were set in England (the last one was Shakespeare in Love twelve years ago). They were also contradicted by one of their own -- The Hollywood Reporter which lobbied shamelessly for The Social Network had portrayed The King's Speech as doomed by pointing out that no film with a British royal in the lead has ever won a Best Picture Oscar.

Indeed, the griping about it being British reeked of Anglophobia and patriotic small-mindedness, as if it's somehow criminal to award a film that wasn't American. The Academy weren't being suckers for British film; rather the critics were mindlessly dismissive of something just because it wasn't American or contemporary. It's not enough that all the other countries have to fight over just five spots in the Foreign Language category. English-speaking foreigners are to be kept out too.

They continued to tout The Social Network as the innovative, cutting-edge, relevant, daring film without being able to point out anything that was so innovative about it. Conversely, they continued to deride The King's Speech as middle-brow, milquetoast, safe and formulaic. This only showed that they either watched the trailer only, or couldn't be bothered to give it a fair shake.

Far from following an "Oscar-formula," The King's Speech was a small $15 million indie film that was rejected by all the studios and had trouble finding financial backers. If there is such a formula, why was everyone blind to the inevitable Oscars for The King's Speech? Why doesn't everyone follow this formula with every movie?

Many other nonsense explications have proliferated: for example, the Academy made their choice because they're old. Let's put aside the fact that a great many critics are also very old; the guilds have much younger members and they still voted for The King's Speech. Another claim is that The Social Network will stand the test of time, whereas The King's Speech will not. But who can say? Star Wars fans said that about Annie Hall, but time has not been so kind to the "young and hip" Lucas work while Annie Hall endures.

It's amusing to see that the critics really do seem to crave the approval of the Academy as well. That approval would come in the form of agreement in the selection of what is "best." Not getting their way, they've sniped back and ridiculed the Academy and their choice for Best Picture.

Awards Daily received a comment from someone purporting to be Aaron Sorkin (plausible, as he's been known to troll the blogs and debate readers), who graciously stated "Finally, I think everyone here understands that movies aren’t race horses. There’s no such thing as the best. I could make an argument why any of the 10 nominated films should have won (and 10 more that weren’t nominated). Don’t worry if your horse didn’t win." Stone agreed. But shortly afterward, the site posted a photo of Tom Hooper having his Oscar engraved and invited mocking captions to be posted.

What follows is a selection of some of the bitterness and snark that flowed in the days following the 83rd Academy Awards. These remarks evince an increasingly desperate and irrelevant group realizing that they have no influence either on the general public or on the artists they alternately idolize or treat with contempt.

In a year in which younger viewers were aggressively courted, the Oscars rewarded what could be considered the most traditional of traditional Academy bait: a period British drama, set during World War II. The best picture win for “The King’s Speech,” and the corresponding win for Tom Hooper as best director over “The Social Network” and David Fincher, will be fussed over by critics and bloggers as a return to the Academy’s staid tastes.

This is the humiliating morning after, in which I confess that the wires of my natural pessimism and my considered reflections got crossed—as, for instance, where I suspected, in my Oscars prediction post last week, that Natalie Portman’s extraordinary performance would be overshadowed by Annette Bening’s sentimental one, and where I imagined that no reasonable person, even one who chose “The King’s Speech” for Best Picture, could consider its director’s work superior to that of David Fincher on “The Social Network.” (I picked the winner in ten of the twenty-four categories.) Well, the Hollywood gerontocracy has spoken, and we can count on seeing many more movies in which royals act cute.

The Academy may lay claim to the title, Best Picture of the Year – but I have to take issue with that.  The other awards count just as much, maybe even more – especially this year.  Why?  Because they picked the best film of the year not based on anything other than the film’s excellence.  Take out The Social Network and maybe the King’s Speech still wins, but one can’t help but see this race as one-against-the-other type of thing – old vs. young, new vs. old, emotional ambiguity vs. emotional clarity, feelgoodism vs. thoughtful reflection.  Two movies, two wildly different reactions to them — two Best Picture winners.  Sorry Academy, you don’t get the final word this time.

By awarding The King’s Speech the top honours of the night, the Academy stuck with a safe, perfectly charming but not particularly (i.e. at all) groundbreaking film about an insecure heir who has to overcome a speech impediment. ... The Social Network is an edgy, snappy, expertly directed romp of a film about one of the most timely topics of the present moment.

So you don’t think much of the Academy. That’s okay. A lot of us don’t. And after the outcome of last night’s awards — in which capping an inevitable Best Picture Oscar for the safe, stolid stylings of “The King’s Speech” with that extraneous Best Director win for a worried-looking Tom Hooper was roughly akin to dipping Wonderbread in milk for maximum squishiness — I suspect even a lot of movie buffs who don’t make a year-round sport of henpecking the Academy’s choices are on your side.

WAS it good for you — the Academy Awards that is, which last Sunday continued its long tradition of getting it wrong? It was for me, even if the Academy’s habit of rewarding mediocrity, especially if it comes with a British accent, remains intact. ... The results seemed preordained. “The King’s Speech” is a pudding of a movie, easy in, easy out, and its lack of chew is ideal for those porcelain veneers twinkling in the dark at the Kodak. “The Social Network,” by contrast, requires you to listen, watch, think, which isn’t often demanded of movie viewers.

Remember Pulp Fiction vs. Forrest Gump? That upstart-indie–vs.–the-establishment battle has become THE Oscar paradigm. We’ve seen it repeated, over and over, most recently last year, with The Hurt Locker vs. Avatar. The irony is that this year, the traditional middlebrow heart-tugging establishment favorite was The King’s Speech, distributed by the independent Weinstein Company, led by Harvey Weinstein (who had originally changed the game with Pulp Fiction), whereas the edgy, hip, dark, more-brainy-than-heartwarming “indie” drama was The Social Network, which was a pure studio film. 

Awarding "King's Speech" the best-picture prize was at least predictable; giving Tom Hooper the directing award, in a category that included Darren Aronofsky, the Coen brothers, David Fincher and David O. Russell, feels more like criminal pandering.

Is anyone still wondering why “The King’s Speech” took the top prize? Perhaps because, as one awards-watcher put it, it made you feel smart for getting the jokes, just like “Shakespeare in Love” did, while “The Social Network” made you feel comparatively lazy and unambitious.


  1. King's speech is the best movie I have seen so far.

  2. Well, The King's Speech is by far the better movie, not sure how any critics can not see that, and I normally agree with them on topics such as how much Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen sucked. Only correction I'd like to add is that Star Wars has darn well stood the test of time. Not that Annie Hall isn't a classic as well, but Star Wars is one of the greatest films of all time.