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Oscar buzz - or biz

By: 
Jessica Squires

February 25, 2012

Let’s face it: the Oscars are big business.

So it should really be no surprise when the lineup of nominees seems to leave quite a bit to be desired. In fact, that one year—you know the one—when it seemed Hollywood had gone socialist (or at least small-L liberal) was the real surprise.

This year is no exception. The only nominee for best picture that can remotely be considered politically progressive is The Help—and that’s a very, very big stretch, given how the film reproduced stereotypical conceptions about women of colour in the US. The most you can say is it gave some women of colour actors good jobs—and several of them are nominated for acting awards. A mixed bag at best.

Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some excellent films on the list, and in the end there is a lot to be said for good art, as long as it isn’t outright offensive (like this year’s too-bad-to-be-believed Atlas Shrugged, or Mel Gibson’s 2004 Passion of the Christ—one of the worst movies ever made). The Artist, for example, is a very well-made film, using an old medium in ways that are completely new. But don’t look to The Artist for positive depictions of gender relations.

Movies like The Help and Tree of Life, another nominee, are either escapism or nostalgia—both of which, as Marx-influenced playwright Bertolt Brecht observed, act to pacify audiences through promoting cathartic experiences.

Hollywood this year seems bent on distracting people from their problems, not drawing attention to them or promoting action to change them. No Milk this year; the closest thing to a progressive political drama is the cynical Ides of March, and the two most recognizable political figures are two of history’s most conservative figures: J. Edgar Hoover (no nominations) and Margaret Thatcher (for which Meryl Streep is nominated).

It’s a good thing the James Agee Cinema Circle (JACC)—“the first progressive critics organization, [believing] that idealistic perspectives, voices and diverse ideological visions in film criticism that speak with social conviction and consciousness, are sorely lacking”—issues its own annual awards. Their (awesome) blog is at http://politicalfilmcritics.blogspot.com/ . Not everyone will agree with their nominees. But the concept is right on the mark.

Their best picture award is called the Trumbo, after Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, who was imprisoned for his beliefs after refusing to turn informant against other blacklisted Hollywood figures during 1050s McCarthyism. The JACC also have a category reserved for the year’s worst: The Elia Kazan Hall of Shame.

The JACC award for best Anti-capitalist films is the Bound for Glory award; and it’s a bit of relief to see that no fewer than seventeen films made the list. Mostly documentaries; so if the JACC is reliable, that’s where to look for your progressive entertainment from 2011.

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