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The Oscars look back in languor in 2011

Golden oldies
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 18, 2012

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FORWARD INTO THE PAST! Michelle Williams’s reprisal of a screen goddess’s myth in My Week With Marilyn will get her a Best Actress nomination.

This year, perhaps in hopes of diverting audiences with a different format, the Motion Picture Academy has again changed the number of Best Picture nominees. Instead of the guaranteed 10 of last year, the number can vary anywhere from five to 10 depending on some arcane jiggering of the voting results.

But such novelties won't conceal the fact that the Academy (which announces the nominees January 24 and the winners Feburary 26) has given up on the future and turned resolutely to the past. Not just by resurrecting Billy Crystal as host, but also by honoring movies that are self-conscious celebrations of the way they used to make them. Every year the Oscars are a love fest Hollywood throws for itself. But now its narcissism resembles Norma Desmond's solipsistic seclusion in the decaying world of her own defunct legend.

Case in point, THE ARTIST. No one expected a black-and-white silent film without big stars by an obscure Belgian director to amount to much, but eight months after its triumphant debut in Cannes it has won the hearts of all. It's cute and clever, but there's more to it than that. It's a movie about movies, a tribute to a sentimentalized, nostalgic ideal of what cinema should be. So it will be nominated for Best Picture, Best Director for MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS, Best Actor for JEAN DUJARDIN, Best Supporting Actress for BÉRÉNICE BEJO, probably Best Cinematography, Screenplay, and so on. Heck, they'd nominate Uggie the Jack Russell terrier, the best thing in the movie, if there was a category for him.

Perhaps the success of The Artist indicates a backlash against high-tech in films these days, the tyranny of special effects, CGI, and 3D. However the other film dominating the award season, MARTIN SCORSESE's HUGO, employs effects, CGI, and 3D in its apotheosis of the birth and the spirit of movies. Hypocritical? Nonetheless, add Hugo to the top tier of Best Picture nominees, with Scorsese as Best Director, and maybe the automaton, if not Ben Kingsley, as Best Supporting Actor.

Since the Oscars will be saluting the cinematic warhorses of the past, why not honor STEVEN SPIELBERG's World War I equine epic, WAR HORSE? Some dismiss it as an also-ran because the Directors Guild snubbed Spielberg in its nominations. But they did the same last year to the Coen Brothers and True Grit, another homage to old-fashioned schmaltz and generic conventions. So I'm betting that this flashy thoroughbred, with its allusions to classics like The Searchers and Lawrence of Arabia, will at least show in the Best Picture and Best Director categories.

And surely no filmmaker deserves the warhorse label more than WOODY ALLEN, who should get Best Director and Best Picture nominations for MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. Not only does this film yearn for the past, it returns to it, as Woody indulges in the pleasures of the arty avant-garde in 1920s Paris.

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