But first, a few caveats. The Oscars does a reasonably competent job, good enough to muster a bit of cheap credibility. While they may routinely snub your favorite small-budget, ensemble-cast, Cannes Film Festival darling, the Academy rarely misses on nominating each year’s widely adored films. Yes, they love big-name directors and sweeping, period films, but like grandpa’s loud snoring or Aunt Marge’s pungent perfume, these flaws are excusable, if not endearing.
Instead, the problem concerns memory. Before the big night, healthy debate swirls pleasantly. We develop theories predicting which of the nominees will win, citing stand-out performances, switchblade plots, and bold directorial moves. With five (and now as many as ten!) movies to compare, each film takes its turn commanding our attention. (Does Amour have a shot to win this year? Maybe so! What about Beasts of the Southern Wild?)
Then the winner is announced and we forget all of this. The film with the Oscar swallows up all the post-award praise, while the pitiful, dejected candidates slink away into ignominy. If anything, we remember the other nominees for why they didn’t win. Black Swan? Too extreme. Inception? Not profound enough. Winter’s Bone? Too slow.
This won’t change anytime soon, and I’m not advocating that we do something brash like award multiple winners or do away with the Academy Awards. Instead, we simply have to get the winner right. And in 2010, the Oscars got it wrong. [Editor's note: Technically, the award show itself was held in 2011.] How do I know? Because The King’s Speech wasn’t the most memorable film that year. At its core, the Best Picture Oscar tells us which movie to remember and which ones to forget. In 2008, I preferred Frost/Nixon, but Slumdog Millionaire was the right choice. I’m entitled to my favorite, but the latter left a bigger mark on cinema that year. The more memorable, more important film should win.
In 2010, The Social Network would have been the correct choice. Written by Aaron Sorkin (feisty, ruthless), and directed by David Fincher (precise, unrelenting), Network rips through its two-hour runtime faster than Verizon Online DSL. Jesse Eisenberg delivers a career performance in Mark Zuckerberg, who schemes with a doggedness as fierce as it is fragile. Even as Zuckerberg disparages his peers, Eisenberg’s subtle stiffness betrays a slowly breaking heart.
Meanwhile, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) spar to win Mark’s approval. Their performances clash satisfyingly. Timberlake glides from scene to scene with a hypnotic charm, while Garfield’s desperate earnestness (almost) breaks the spell. In a twist of irony, the brilliant Eduardo—who divines Mark’s genius, and flaws, well before anyone else—makes the film’s most foolish decision. As he recounts the story from the deposition room, Garfield stares at the wall, eyes glassy and empty. The scene will haunt you a week after you’ve seen it.
Compare this to The King’s Speech, a fine theatrical outing, if safe and predictable. Colin Firth plays King George as marvelously as one would expect, capturing every stutter, hesitation, and royal step with a pleasurable nuance. The film’s lovely piano stylings (composed by Alexander Desplat) instill the proceedings with a classically-minded, playful ambiance. Danny Cohen (cinematography) adds a deft and skillful hand as well. We observe King George in therapy (zoomed out, off-center) before witnessing an uncomfortably close, whispered conversation in the elevator (up-close, cramped). It’s all quite charming and cuddly. Next time you watch, bring your teddy bear.
Beyond the pleasant mood, however, the film fails to leave a lasting impression. Helena Bonham Carter (Queen Elizabeth) checks the boxes she needs to (by turns, supportive, concerned, celebratory), though never steals a scene the way, for example, Sally Field does in Lincoln. Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue smiles and bumbles as a benign caricature: he’s the early 20th century therapist who’s underappreciated and mildly clairvoyant (“Please don't smoke. I believe sucking cigarette smoke into your lungs will kill you.”). Yawn. Be sure not to look for any character flaws with Lionel: he doesn’t have any.
The King’s Speech opens with promise, with some clever shots and the first lines of Desplat’s wonderful score, but might also be said to close with the same promise, as though it almost (but not quite) found within its cautious script some sort of lasting significance. As the triumphant King George walks from his soundproof speech room, director Tom Hooper sees fit to cut to Lionel half a dozen times, whereupon Geoffrey Rush dutifully and repeatedly inclines his head and smiles. It’s as if Hooper himself wants reassurance that yes, in fact, he’s made a fine film, and of course, he deserves the Oscar for Best Picture.
So we have one film that did everything right but nothing risky, that had one great performance and several acceptable sides, that told a simple, happy tale well. And we have another that turns a series of dull legal depositions—impossibly—into a swirl of deceit, lost-loyalties, and poisonous charm.
And the Oscar goes to….