By Ken Trainor
Oscar night looms, which means it's time for my Annual Alternative Academy Awards, given to nominated films in categories other than those designated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Movies are the great American art form, and though it makes few claims to artistry, it serves an important function. By telling ourselves stories about who we are — or who we want to be — we sustain our sense of cultural identity. The mirror we hold up to ourselves is sometimes unattractive, sometimes idealized, sometimes unrealistically "realistic," sometimes romantically rose-colored.
Modern life is filled with lots of stress but little adventure. We watch movies, among myriad other reasons, to escape the stress and vicariously share someone's adventure.
So which 2010 film (most of which played at The Lake this past year) best captures the American experience?
Not The King's Speech, though it will likely win the Best Picture Oscar. A well told, engrossing tale, it earns my Most Satisfying Viewing Experience and Most Complete Movie awards, but it's an English story. Despite its appeal to American audiences, it really is not about who we are.
Certain film genres never go out of style for long — westerns, boxing movies, mafia movies, romantic comedies, cartoons, action films (usually involving righteous revenge), class comedies (usually overcoming snooty condescension) and, for some inexplicable reason, vampire flicks (evidently some weird metaphor for sexual repression). I've never understood the allure of boxing either, but it strikes a deep chord in the American psyche — no doubt having to do with rugged individualism, the gladiatorial struggle to overcome great odds and fulfill our dreams of self-respect ("I coulda been somebody!").
The Fighter is much better than I expected, probably because the ring isn't the center of attention. The film is about finding the character to rise above dysfunctional family dynamics and socioeconomic quicksand, core experiences for too many Americans. It's also filled with fascinating characters who make Rocky look like a cartoon by comparison.
Speaking of cartoons, Toy Story 3, may be the best "animated film" ever made. I'm not sure a better film, animated or live action, has ever been made about the transition from childhood to young adulthood. Though it owes its existence to our most advanced computer technology, the film is a paean to low-tech entertainment and the magic of the imagination.
On the other ends of that inversion, The Social Network, is an old-fashioned film about our most advanced computer technology. It focuses on the profound irony of an alienating, awkward individual creating the online network that "connects" the rapidly expanding techno-tribe known as Facebook. It works on the level of character (which always distinguishes the best films from genre also-rans). This is the only nominee, I suspect, with a chance to upstage The King's Speech for Best Picture.
The Black Swan, which ties Inception for Most Absorbing Viewing Experience of 2010, explores the extremes to which competition drives us — in this case the arts (ballet), though it could be sports, business or academics. Many American films celebrate our obsession with becoming "number one." This film examines the cost.
Inception, meanwhile, is way too complicated for most literal-minded Americans.
The Kids Are All Right explores the modern American family as it expands the envelope of "normal." Parents were once portrayed as the calm center, a foil for the insanity of growing up. Here the kids are the sane center. They have to contend with struggling parents (in this case, two moms) and a biological "father" who upsets the fragile equilibrium. Ultimately, the film is a comic celebration of the resilience of the family unit, one of those reassurances we like to give ourselves whenever we go before the cinemagic mirror.
True Grit is a workmanlike western, that most time-honored of American film genres, but this one was made by the Coen brothers. The Coens, undeniably talented, make quality films that usually leave me wanting more. Something's missing — like heart and human warmth.
The focus of 127 Hours is the will to survive, another revered theme in the American experience. I haven't seen the film yet, mostly because my survival instincts just aren't that strong. Neither did I see Winter's Bone, though a young woman's journey to come to terms with her father touches an archetypal American longing.
So who wins my annual award for Most American Movie? I'm going with Toy Story 3, for sentimental reasons. My son and I saw the first installment when he was 11. We didn't see number three together, but we did share his real-life transition to adulthood. He turned 27 on Monday.
OK, I'm sentimental, but sentimentality is a longstanding tradition in American film. We just can't get enough of that lump in the throat.
As for this Sunday, may the best film win — if the best film was nominated.