Some Oscar hopefuls aren’t up to the gold standards of their past

Box office revenues are sky high, and this year’s Oscar race is expanding to 10 best picture nominees for the first time since 1943, a move that has stimulated reams of breathless commentary. Some pundits might be tempted to conclude that the movie business is healthier than ever.

Take a closer look. The quality of movies has not kept pace with the soaring grosses, to put it mildly. Many critics have cast a skeptical eye at the releases of 2009. For example, in a recent article lamenting the paltry offerings in the fall awards season, Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern attacked the “compromised, bloated and misshapen” movies of the season.

Even when these new movies are adapted from highbrow literary works, they cry out for better writing. Older movies were smart to employ many novelists and playwrights who honed their craft in other art forms. Perhaps today’s producers need to cast a wider net in luring more gifted writers to try their hand at screenwriting. These 21st century film technicians are more wizardly than ever, but the art of graceful, light-fingered storytelling has been lost on the road to a 3-D, digitized Oz.

Consider 10 high-profile movies -- all eagerly anticipated, some likely to be in the Oscar race when nominations are announced Tuesday -- that are strikingly reminiscent of better movies from the past. In some instances these new pictures pale in comparison to classics from Hollywood’s golden age. But in other cases, today’s movies falter when placed against films from just a few years ago.

‘Crazy Heart’ vs. ‘Tender Mercies’ (1983)

Jeff Bridges has a good chance to win the Oscar for “Crazy Heart,” and he is long overdue. As a drunken country singer dreaming of a fresh start, Bridges perfectly embodies the bruised, dissolute character. But he’s working his magic on a hackneyed script by first-time director Scott Cooper. Twenty-six years earlier, Robert Duvall (a producer as well as a costar of “Crazy Heart”) won an Oscar for “Tender Mercies,” another story of a washed-up country singer fighting to conquer alcoholism, revive his career and start a new life with a younger woman and her son. That movie was graced with unpredictable, sharp insights into the fragility of family ties. No one is likely to forget Duvall’s piercing line, “I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.” Horton Foote won an Oscar for his lean, eloquent screenplay. Is it fair to compare the efforts of a fledgling screenwriter to the work of a master playwright, novelist and screenwriter? Maybe not, but when two movies are so close in theme and plot, it’s hard to ignore the gap in quality.

‘Nine’ vs. ‘Chicago’ (2002)

“Nine” obviously looks feeble in comparison with the movie that first inspired this musical concoction, Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2 .” But let’s forget Fellini. The new movie doesn’t match director Rob Marshall’s previous musical extravaganza, the Oscar-winning “Chicago” (adapted for the screen by Bill Condon). Both films use the technique of having the musical numbers performed as fantasies bursting from the mind of the protagonist. But whereas the songs in “Chicago” advanced the story and revealed the characters, the production numbers in “Nine” are disconnected set pieces. In addition, “Chicago” had a theme -- the desperate lengths to which people will go to achieve fame -- just as relevant now as it was when Maurine Watkins wrote the original play in 1926. There’s a lot less universal appeal in the spectacle of a rich, philandering movie director awash in self-pity.

‘Sherlock Holmes’ vs.

‘The Seven-Per-Cent Solution’ (1976)

Guy Ritchie’s adrenaline-pumped caper is designed to appeal to teenage boys who have never heard of Arthur Conan Doyle. But anyone who grew up reading the Holmes stories will regard this noisy, action-packed but muddled pastiche as a complete betrayal of the spirit of the master of Baker Street, who solved crimes with brilliant ratiocination rather than karate chops. In 1976, Herbert Ross’ “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” earned an Oscar nomination for screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, who adapted his own novel into a witty, cleverly plotted brainteaser that revitalized the Holmes mystique (by imagining a partnership between the British sleuth, played by Nicol Williamson, and Viennese mind doctor Sigmund Freud, portrayed by Alan Arkin) without distorting the iconic character.

‘A Single Man’ vs. ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)

This year’s prestigious gay-themed movie doesn’t measure up to the three-time Oscar winner from 2005. The arty style of fashion designer-turned-director Tom Ford irritates, but what undoes “A Single Man” is the lack of dramatic tension. Both movies incorporate a similar plot element -- a man trying to adjust to the death of his lover -- but “Brokeback Mountain” had a central character, brilliantly played by the late Heath Ledger, in tortured conflict with himself. That dramatic kernel came from the original writer, Annie Proulx, and her short story was shrewdly embellished by screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and director Ang Lee. Colin Firth does what he can with the more placid character from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, but the film relies on languorous poses instead of compelling confrontations.

‘It’s Complicated’ vs.

‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

The premise of two ex-spouses rekindling their romance has been a mainstay of many screwball comedies, including “The Awful Truth” and “His Girl Friday.” Nancy Meyers’ movie is closest in spirit to “The Philadelphia Story,” which was set in the same upper crust universe that Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin inhabit. The scene in which Streep’s character and her new beau (Martin) get stoned on pot evokes the famous scene of Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart enjoying a drunken poolside dalliance in the earlier movie. What’s missing is the effortlessly witty dialogue and juicy cast of characters that made “The Philadelphia Story” (adapted by Oscar-winning writer Donald Ogden Stewart from Philip Barry’s popular play and directed by George Cukor) sparkle.

‘The Lovely Bones’ vs. ‘Ghost’ (1990)

Although Peter Jackson’s movie is based on a highly praised novel, the basic story is not so different from that of “Ghost,” an enormous mainstream hit about a murder victim caught in an otherworldly limbo, watching over his loved ones and trying to bring his killer to justice before finally ascending to his heavenly reward. Even if you balked at the supernatural trappings, “Ghost” had an ingeniously layered, Oscar-winning screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin, and it also had a light touch, perhaps because it was directed by Jerry Zucker, one of the creators of “Airplane!” If you’re going to try to sell audiences on a candy-colored afterlife, it’s wise to do it with a fast-paced plot and touches of wacky humor, two elements absent from “The Lovely Bones.”

‘Everybody’s Fine’ vs. ‘Everybody’s Fine’ (1991)

Here’s a literal remake of a movie that few people remember, though the original was co-written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, who won an Oscar for foreign language film of 1989, “Cinema Paradiso.” The best thing about the remake, written and directed by Kirk Jones, is the performance of Robert De Niro, who actually warrants comparison to the great Marcello Mastroianni, who played the befuddled father of four grown children in Tornatore’s movie. But the haunting, bittersweet ending of the original has given way to a syrupy, feel-good finale that undermines the biting comments on familial deceptions and delusions that once made the story so poignant.

‘The Road’ vs. ‘The Road Warrior’ (1982)

Australian director John Hillcoat’s rendition of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, futuristic fable is impressively shot, but it’s also a bit parched and monotonous. Almost 30 years ago, another Australian director, George Miller, helped to make a star of Mel Gibson when he cast him as a lone commando battling gangs of marauding bikers in a post-apocalyptic landscape. “The Road Warrior” benefits from energetic pacing and a vivid cast of menacing characters that “The Road” desperately needs.

‘Public Enemies’ vs. ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967)

Michael Mann’s movie about John Dillinger is handsomely designed and the shootouts are excitingly staged, but the film seems soulless in comparison with another true-crime story set during the Depression, Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” from a canny script by Robert Benton and David Newman. “Public Enemies” is probably more factually accurate than “Bonnie and Clyde,” but it’s a lot less emotionally resonant. The earlier film draws its charge from a startling mixture of comedy, action and searing drama, and it boasts characterizations much more richly nuanced than the elegantly costumed stick figures in “Public Enemies.”

‘Where the Wild Things Are’

vs. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)

Does this story sound familiar? A child escapes his stultifying home life and travels to a magical kingdom ruled by wizards, talking animals and trees. Although the kid is stoked by his special status in wonderland, he finally comes to realize that there’s no place like home. Director Spike Jonze’s reworking of Maurice Sendak’s book also echoes L. Frank Baum, even if the pint-sized protagonist has no ruby slippers. Also missing are enchanting songs, a great villain comparable to the Wicked Witch of the West and a full-blooded story. The tiny volume by Sendak, which consisted of just a few hundred words, simply doesn’t have the narrative bounty that a memorable movie needs, no matter how many visual tricks a director has up his sleeve.

Farber is a critic for the Hollywood Reporter and the Daily Beast.