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Are American movies broken? Reaction to the Golden Globe nominations

Jeff Simon

Natalie Portman isn't like most actresses. That's for sure.

She's a Harvard University graduate who once said – and seemed to mean – "I'd rather be smart than a movie star." That, of course, didn't stop her from winning – and probably deserving – an Oscar for "Black Swan."

So there she was, a prestigious figure nabbed to announce the best director nominees for the Golden Globe awards. As she did, she delivered her part with an artful sneer that, no doubt, mirrored the feelings of half the room. Now, she announced with sarcastic cheer, "The all-male nominees for best director ... "

Wham. Score that one for the brainy Oscar winner. It's hard not to love an actress getting feisty at the exact moment she's supposed to be "respectable" living hype.

The absence of a female nominee for best director was one of two occasions for major howls at snubs by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globe nominees. The other was the notably bizarre exclusion of Robert De Niro from the slate of best actor nominees for his Martin Scorsese valedictory crime film "The Irishman."

So all right, said the HFPA defenders, you've only got five spots. Whom do you leave out of the five who were nominated: Sam Mendes for the "1917?" Todd Phillips for "Joker?" Martin Scorsese for "The Irishman?" Quentin Tarantino for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (who had already won the year-end prize for that film in the slate of the New York-centric National Board of Review)?

No. It was unnecessary to tamper with those four. The obvious drop from the Globe five would be the extraordinary Bong-Joon Ho, the superb and brilliant director of "Parasite," a terrific film, but one the Hollywood Foreign Press nominated for best motion picture – foreign language and not best motion picture – drama. It's a subtitled film, in no way American.

Whom do you pick as a female replacement? Also easy. Greta Gerwig, director of "Little Women," whose cast includes Saoirse Ronan (whom they did nominate) and Meryl Streep. Ever since she started directing after her estimable career in ultra-indie "mumblecore" movies, Gerwig has been universally considered a serious contender. Why not her among the anointed five?

The key thing to understand about the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is not it's supposed influence on the Oscar nominations that will be announced Jan. 22. It's that the organization is very foreign indeed. They often do quite well in their assigned job of relaying Hollywood folkways to the folks back home, but then they clearly don't care a whit about how deeply America wanted honor for "The Irishman." Ignoring De Niro was a classic example of cultural deafness. That, no doubt, is how it managed to cough up a best actor nomination for Christian Bale, Jonathan Pryce and Antonio Banderas and not De Niro for his career milestone performance in "The Irishman."

The real howler among the 66 Globe nominations, though, was still to come. That's Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" being nominated for best motion picture – musical or comedy. There is indeed award-ability in Tarantino's film, but the film is, at heart, as vehemently unfunny as "The Irishman" (and just as nostalgic in its music soundtrack).

Don't try to make common sense out of the Oscar nominations when they come, either. They will, no doubt, resemble the Screen Actors Guild nominations more than the Golden Globes, which is fitting. It makes lot more sense to trust people doing a job to know others in the profession doing it well.

If you imagine that critic associations are immune to blatant idiocy, think again. The LA critics decided their best actress award should go to Mary Kay Place for "Diana." As deserving as she no doubt is, the movie is not one with any national prominence. It was even more surprising than the Golden Globes somehow forgetting to nominate Lupita Nyong'o for her unanimously praised and nominated role in "Us." It seems particularly foolish to me she was excluded, but Renee Zellweger was included for her game, but second-rate try at being Judy Garland.

If you think LA critics can set records for willfulness, consider the New York-centric National Board of Review, who not only gave their best actor prize to Adam Sandler for his role in "Uncut Gems," but their screenplay prize to that movie's Safdie brothers.

As is almost always the case, the SAG award nominees will make the most common sense when trotted out in the cold light of day.

What has been obvious in the past 15 years is that public perception of American movies has come to be as broken as our politics.

What happened, though, to our movies and politics couldn't be more different.

What began with the '90s indie film revolution paced by Harvey Weinstein's Miramax films was finished off by the huge investments of Netflix entering the film and TV production business.

They were the ones who gave Scorsese the money for the incredible cast of "The Irishman" when no one else would. They are the force behind terrific movies the way Miramax once was.

What is broken about American movies isn't the quality of film production, not by a long shot. It's the film perception that is broken – the trustworthy commentary by increasingly vanishing critics, the sensible awards by those who give them out, the shrinking audience size for superb movies that deserve so much better than their feeble hype can deliver.

Once upon a time, award students like me watched the Oscars with our middle fingers discreetly raised during the whole show. We always knew the Motion Picture Academy was itching to give a best picture Oscar to the likes of "Ben-Hur" and "The Greatest Show on Earth" or "Rocky" (which, incredibly, beat out "Taxi Driver," "Bound for Glory," "All the President's Men" and "Network" for best film of 1976).

But then the Oscars increasingly started to recognize small serious films with little or no obvious box office appeal. It had the contours of integrity, if not the essence. What wound up happening was the best film victories of movies like "The Artist," "Moonlighting" and "The Green Book" (a decent movie, but the best 1965 Stanley Kramer movie seen in the 21st century.)

The quantity of quality films now being made is too large and too various in origin for any media and award quality control. All of it can't be gracefully handled in a single year.

If professionals regularly complain about not being able to keep up, how can ordinary movie lovers? Add indie film production to film streaming and strong, pure movies seem to be coming from everywhere.

We can't watch the Oscars anymore the way we used to. How many of us will ever say the phrase "the Oscar-winning film 'Moonlight' " or "the Oscar-winning 'The Artist,' " as if the phrase meant the same thing as "the Oscar-winning 'The Best Years of Our Lives.' "

The irony of movies in 2019 is that it was a terrific year for them, but so far nowhere has it been scored that way in any of the places where it ought to be.

When a movie as dark as "Joker" can make hundreds of millions of dollars and a movie as empathetic as "Marriage Story" can almost seem everyday to some people, an amazing thing has happened to movies.

Is it possible the worst thing possible has happened to them – that they are now better than their current audience deserves?

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