Critics make much ado about Oscar

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HOLLYWOOD has never been so full of nasty denunciations, agonized hand-wringing and self-important rhetoric.

But if you thought I was talking about the writers strike, you're wrong.

The loudest fussing and feuding is coming from the world of critics and Oscar prognosticators, who have been lobbing H-bombs at each other and various awards groups with alarming frequency.

Just when you think the media's intoxication with Oscar and Golden Globes buzz has finally reached a fever pitch, some new brawl breaks out that takes it to a new level of hysteria.

Current highlights include: A rant by LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas, who wrote off a string of recent best picture winners (including "The Departed," "Crash" and "American Beauty") as "thoroughly undeserving" of real achievement, then went on to dismiss Oscar soothsayers as "pseudo-journalistic white noise" taking up valuable column inches that could be devoted to legitimate film criticism.

This provoked a tart zinger from Oscar blogger Scott Feinberg on his website andthewinneris.blog.com. Feinberg asked, referring to Foundas' account of the LA Film critics' voting, "How do you have the gall to participate in an awards season vote and then criticize those of us who cover it?" That came just days before Feinberg, assessing Thursday's Golden Globe nominations, described the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. as "one of the most corrupt, pathetic, kowtowing groups of awards voters imaginable."

Not to be outdone, New York Daily News critic Jack Mathews blasted the New York Film Critics Circle, saying its voting was "corrupt" and marred by "politically-motivated" balloting.

This was followed by a piece by Time film critic Richard Corliss bemoaning the insularity of critic awards, saying "we're essentially passing notes to one another, admiring our connoisseurship at the risk of ignoring the vast audience that sees movies and the smaller one that reads us."

What on earth is going on?

First off, critics are wrestling with their waning relevance, especially when it comes to the Oscars.

The award announcements make a nice one-day headline, but the reality is that while a chorus of negative reviews can hurt a small film, if a film has a big studio campaign behind it (2001's "A Beautiful Mind" being a good example), it can survive a lot of critical brickbats.

Critic awards have little correlation to Oscar victories. You have to go back to 1993 to find a film ("Schindler's List") that was awarded best picture by both the academy and the LA Film Critics Assn.

There is also a growing tension between critics -- who take film seriously as art and are increasingly scornful of the vituperative blog culture -- and Oscar pundits, who with their wacky statistical analysis come off more like breathless racetrack tipsters than film admirers.

The root of all this evil, of course, is that everyone writes entirely too much about the Oscars (my newspaper included). With all those special issues and Oscar blogs to fill, the occasional astute observations are drowned out by the 24/7 blather.

The awards process has also been undermined by the snobbishness of academy voters, who seem to have forgotten that the Oscars are just as much about craft as high seriousness.

If you work in animation, comedy or the action genre, the most prestigious awards are usually out of reach. When film historians in 2050 look back at this year, they'll be astounded to discover that the year's most deft portrait of an implacable artist ("Ratatouille"), the year's most thrilling example of pure cinema ("The Bourne Ultimatum") and the year's most original and influential comedy ("Knocked Up") were all ignored as best picture entries.

That said, it's time for my annual early betting line on the top best picture candidates. The predictions are largely based on interviews with Oscar watchers far more knowledgeable than myself. (The odds are to win):

Favorites

"Sweeney Todd." 7-1. Amazingly, Tim Burton has never won an Oscar. That could change this year. With Stephen Sondheim's acclaimed musical serving as rich source material, Burton has finally found a meaty match for his gothic imagination. Full of spectacle, the film has a stellar pedigree, strong commercial prospects and loads of admirable craft, all of which should propel it to multiple Oscar nominations. Detractors fret over the film's gore, but considering how many people were shot in the head in "The Departed," last year's winner, I'm guessing Oscar voters aren't as squeamish as we might think.

"Atonement." 8-1. A lush, atmospheric period drama based on an acclaimed Ian McEwan novel, this Joe Wright-directed film is full of accomplished performances and the kind of themes -- romance, betrayal and forgiveness -- the academy has always embraced. It's already been a big favorite at early screenings. Though not as groundbreaking as the other leading contenders, the film is packed with ingredients Oscar voters especially adore, notably period costumes, posh British country homes and a strong literary pedigree. The only question is whether voters will like the cake as much as the recipe.

"No Country For Old Men." 9-1. Also long ignored by the academy -- they've been nominated for best director only once, for "Fargo" -- the Coen brothers look like old masters this time around, delivering an unsettling suspense tale that marries the cool-noir intensity of their best work with the chilly grandeur of novelist Cormac McCarthy's singular story about America's embrace of revenge and violence. With riveting performances and sly Coen-ish wit, this will be there for the long haul, though its lack of sentiment may spook enough voters to deny it the big prize.

Contenders

"Michael Clayton." 12-1. A grown-up movie with academy favorite George Clooney in the lead, this taut suspense tale should get a lift from voters who see it as the kind of movies studios should make more often. Oscar voters rarely reward flops, which is why none of the Iraq war movies are in the race anymore. But "Clayton" has enough style and showy acting to overcome a lackluster box office .

"Juno." 14-1. If there is a "Little Miss Sunshine" slot for exuberant comedies, this is easily the leading candidate, especially since it's a movie that plays well on DVD, meaning voters might take the time to watch it over the holidays.

"There Will Be Blood." 15-1. Beloved by critics, this intense Paul Thomas Anderson drama has vivid performances, formidable filmmaking and a sense of historical sweep that might help it overcome some very dark, disturbing (and yes, bloody) set pieces.

"American Gangster" 18-1. This Ridley Scott crime drama has one big thing going for it, being the only proven hit among the top entries. Its big drawback is that it has few passionate supporters and arrives a year after "The Departed," a similar gangster story, won best picture. It's unlikely lightning will strike twice.

Long shots

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." 25-1. It got money reviews, but it's hard to imagine enough voters will watch this striking tale of a French magazine editor who is left in a life-altered state after a massive stroke. No film in a foreign language has ever won best picture, so odds for a victory are slim.

"The Kite Runner." 26-1. Though it has a compelling story, this adaptation of a popular novel got mixed reviews, has modest box-office potential and has the same foreign-language hurdle as "Diving Bell."

"Into the Wild." 30-1. This Sean Penn-written and -directed adaptation was an early favorite that's been hurt by a mediocre box-office reception and an older academy audience who seem to find the film's hero more foolhardy than footloose.

"The Great Debaters." 35-1. It has a remarkable real-life story and the presence of Denzel Washington (as both actor and director), but it probably comes too late in the season to break into the top tier of contenders.


For the record: Previously listed that Burton had never been nominated for an Oscar. However, Burton was nominated for "Corpse Bride."


"The Big Picture" runs each Tuesday in Calendar. Email questions or criticism to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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