The New Face of Awards Season

The big movies of awards season have achieved that rare feat of obtaining both critical and commercial success

In the past decade, the most critically respected directors to win awards come February have been the Coen brothers, Clint Eastwood, Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese. All of these filmmakers have released some (mostly) popular films in the past year, and yet, somehow, it looks very likely that such supposedly great figures are all likely to walk away from any awards ceremonies they attend empty-handed.

Only Boyle and the Coens are getting much press right now, for 127 Hours and the forthcoming True Grit, films which in an ordinary year would be more than good enough to totally dominate the proceedings. But they have two cinematic behemoths to deal with, The King’s Speech and The Social Network: a film that’s taken a higher box office than any other British period drama, and another that’s uniquely managed to capture the zeitgeist without sacrificing its own integrity. Take a look at their ticket sales and it’s plain to see that these movies are getting a lot of love from the public; visit RottenTomatoes.com and you’ll find that journalists are equally enamoured.

Amazingly, other big names in awards season, like Black Swan and The Fighter, have similarly achieved that rare feat of obtaining both critical and commercial success. Two of the best hits of 2010 – Toy Story 3 and Inception – also follow this pattern, with the 1st and 5th biggest box office takings in America last summer, alongside spots on the Academy’s Best Picture shortlist.

This doesn’t necessarily indicate that audience taste has undergone a drastic change. With the exception of The Social Network, it’s still the stars that are bringing in customers. The faces of Colin Firth, Natalie Portman, and Christian Bale are probably more important to the popularity of The King’s Speech, Black Swan and The Fighter than the Golden Globes they’ve won. Instead, a form of stardom is becoming defined by the actor’s craft instead of surface appeal: almost all of the best film nominees both here and stateside are stories driven by performance. If good acting and good directing are in greater harmony than before, then that can only be a good thing.

This creates a picture of remarkable consistency, which in theory should make the results of the BAFTAs and Oscars all the more unpredictable. Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case. Having succeeded at the Globes and the Screen Actors’ Guild awards, it’ll be pretty surprising if Firth, Portman and Bale don’t increase their trophy count in the next month. Meanwhile the best film contest is set to be dominated by The Social Network and The King’s Speech, judging by the minor award ceremonies of the past month.

The odds seem to be more in favour of the latter than the former, but it’s impossible to say for sure how the American Academy’s vote will turn out. The biggest winner at the BAFTAs, however, is surely a foregone conclusion. If The King’s Speech doesn’t win Best Film next week, it’ll be the biggest possible blow for the movie’s Oscar campaign.

Yet it wouldn’t be unjustified, not only because of the great talent competing against it, but also because this consistency between critical and commercial success has translated extremely well to UK cinema. Last year’s token British Best Film was An Education, whose popularity is meagre compared not only to The King’s Speech, but also fellow BAFTA nominees Four Lions and Made in Dagenham.

Easy as it is to get overexcited during the media circus of awards season, it seems reasonable to say that the 2011 BAFTAs and Oscars are genuinely looking like the most exciting of this century. Critics and audiences are largely in agreement this year about the English-language films that we should be celebrating.

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