Karen Heller: Academy nods mostly same old, same old

George Clooney is nominated for his role in a film actually set in the here and now. (ALASTAIR GRANT / AP)

The movie industry is hooked on the insistent now, but the Oscars are an exercise in sepia-drenched nostalgia, an undying love for bygone eras.

How else to explain the success of The Artist, the Oscar front-runner celebrating silent cinema in a time of constant chatter? The movie is an homage to old Hollywood, a patchwork quilt of several classics, notably Singing in the Rain, A Star Is Born, and Sunset Boulevard, laundered by the French.

Technically exquisite, The Artist has a simple, dull plot that - let's be honest - begins to bore after 20 minutes. Valentin's life goes bad, then it gets worse. Voilà! The movie has made less than $29 million, a reflection that there's more acclaim for the silent treatment than an actual audience.

The majority of this year's nine best-picture nominees and many nominated performances harken back to an idealized past, much the way the Republicans do. This past tends to get a soft-focus treatment, even when it involves trench warfare or separate bathrooms for the help. The big love for days gone by is due, in large part, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that is extremely white and incredibly old - only 14 percent of voters are under age 50 - and profoundly male.

The academy's one consistent tip toward youth occurs with actress nominations, sometimes with choices that are barely postpubescent, possibly because members confuse the exercise with selecting trophy wives.

But in most other Oscar realms, old tends to trump youth. In 2011, the academy rewarded The King's Speech - a nice movie with a superb Colin Firth that few people will watch a second time - over David Fincher's smart, cool, dark The Social Network.

This year, two movies are love letters to early cinema (The Artist, Hugo), narcissism being the pervasive industry condition. There's a sweeping, romantic, Spielbergian meditation on World War I that focuses on a horse, Woody Allen's golden billet-doux to Paris between the wars, and the revelation that black women were poorly treated in 1960s Mississippi.

Despite massive advances in cinematic technology, these movies could have been made 10 or 20 years ago. Only Hugo and Tree of Life dare to be something new, advancing technique and narrative.

Except for the wonderful best-picture run of 2006-09 with The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker, the Oscars tend to reward palliative treacle or sweeping epics that could be shown on airplanes and offend no one. In that regard, it's shocking Tree of Life was even nominated. Am I alone in thinking that, in 2012, it's hardly progress that the wondrous Viola Davis is portraying a subservient Southern maid?

Alexander Payne's The Descendants is the sole best-picture nominee set entirely in the present year, an engaging grown-up movie teeming with terrific performances, and nary a single false note.

The only problem with The Descendants is that it's such a singular achievement. The same thing happened in 2004 when there was such a fuss over Payne's Sideways.

In a better world, and a business less hooked on the global market, teenage boys, and car crashes, we would have a dozen Descendants every year. There's more creativity evident on television, which attracts a more passionate audience.

As with every other year, Meryl Streep is nominated. I will watch Streep in almost any movie, even reading the phone book (that is, if they still make them), but The Iron Lady is not one of them. (Then again, if The Iron Man and Iron Lady teamed up, that might make an interesting production.) If you didn't care for Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, why pay to watch Streep impersonate her, especially with dementia?

On the great debate of our time, George Clooney vs. Brad Pitt, there is no contest. On Clooney, I remain slightly irrational. He is the very model of a movie star, clever, handsome, talented, and private, while putting his talents to great philanthropic use. And he makes smart choices about movies. Clooney and The Descendants deserve to win.

Plus in his movie, he actually speaks.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at kheller@phillynews.com or 215-854-2586. Follow her at @kheller on Twitter.