Have you noticed how simple it is to explain the films tipped for Oscar and BAFTA glory this year? Your description will probably start ‘you know King George VI’, ‘you know that guy who invented Facebook’ or ‘you know that guy who cut his own arm off’. The fact most people already know about the real events these films are based on doesn’t detract from the pleasure of watching them. It can, however, enhance their potential for winning awards since knowing where a film is going means an audience can focus on how it gets there, increasing their awareness of cinematography, editing, acting, etc.
I’m not accusing the studios of a conspiracy to market worn stories. The King’s Speech (2010), The Social Network (2010) and 127 Hours (2010) all take intriguing perspectives on their subjects, and are mostly very entertaining (although I’m not convinced that The Social Network defines our generation, and it certainly isn’t the new Citizen Kane (1941)). It’s not a new phenomenon either – the last few decades have seen Best Picture winners such as Titanic (1997) and A Beautiful Mind (2001) grounded, to an extent, in real events. However, the films adapted from fact leading this year’s nominations are generally enjoying certain benefits.
The King’s Speech and The Social Network are, of course, the favourites. The King’s Speech has especially thrived in Britain, persistently packing out cinemas with people of all ages. Key to the appeal is whisking British cinema away from gritty, modern council estates and into an esteemed past, yet doing so without seeming stuffy or overtly promoting royalism. This is achieved through its humorous, humane tone and a potent central theme of overcoming adversity through friendship. This broad appeal, with a decidedly British flavour, is sure to see The King’s Speech crowned Best Film at the BAFTAs.
The Social Network should stand a much stronger chance at the Oscars, aided considerably by its critical hailing, and the fact its subject is still surfing the zeitgeist. Adapting a book about events still unfolding is a move proved ingenious every time Facebook hits the news and the film receives free publicity. Having the real Mark Zuckerberg very much in vogue also allows for more creative publicity. The power to draw on multiple audiences is also apparent, with Facebook’s 500 million users all having an instant interest, while David Fincher’s cynical exploration of Facebook’s creation will appeal to those who find it all a bit creepy. Despite The King’s Speech’s momentum, it’s exactly the type of prestigious film the Academy usually favours, and as such they could well opt for an edgier, contemporarily relevant image by honouring The Social Network with their Best Picture award.
127 Hours has no chance of winning Best Picture. What with Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) cleaning up two years ago, another victory so soon is forbidden by unwritten law. However, James Franco’s intense and emotive performance, central to this one man show of man vs. rock, could give Colin Firth some competition for Best Actor. Sadly, in this case foreknowledge of the film’s events is actually damaging its audience drawing potential. Numerous people I know have been deterred by the notorious amputation scene. Yes, it’s grisly, but it’s not horrific or dwelled upon, and while there was considerable squirming in the cinema when I saw it I’m sure most people walked away astonished by just how exhilarating and engrossing the film is.
Of the other films clamouring for Best Picture, only a few offer narrative surprises. The Fighter (2010) is based on fact, True Grit (2010) is an adaptation/remake and anybody with knowledge of Darren Aronofsky’s previous films will know how the excessive, deranged but very fun Black Swan (2010) pans out. Toy Story 3 (2010) plays brilliantly with expectations, and if there was a prize for most tightly structured film it would surely be the only contender. However, it will likely have to be content with Best Animated Feature. Meanwhile, The Kids Are All Right (2010) and the beautifully evocative Winter’s Bone (2010) are the obligatory indie nods. Finally, we have Christopher Nolan’s mindboggling Inception (2010) which, despite its box office success, doesn’t seem to fit the bill. Dazzling and inventive as it may be, you’d be forgiven if you’ve watched it repeatedly and still can’t explain the ending.