The experts say it's coming down to "The King's Speech" vs. "The Social Network" for Best Picture at the Oscars Sunday (8 p.m., WATE, Channel 6).
Fitting, because the face off between the two contenders is a good Hollywood story: traditionalists who celebrate the old-school glory of "The King's Speech" vs. progressives who support the modern relevance of "The Social Network."
Both films are good, but is either really great?
"The King's Speech" is a classic tale, the story of a potentially great man who must overcome an obstacle in his life (in this case, the man is King George VI, who stammers). Audiences can feast on nuanced performances (especially by Best Actor shoo-in Colin Firth), scintillating cinematography, well-timed humor and a rewarding denouement. But there's never any doubt where it's going - and not simply because it's based on a true story - plus the purpose of this carefully executed film seems to be to win awards, not to provoke the mind.
"The Social Network," about the origins of Facebook, is more problematic. Although few films have exploited human insecurities as sharply as this atmospheric, albeit fitfully paced, business story does, Jesse Eisenberg's version of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is an unlikable underdog, the kind of anti-hero you'd like to see fail. Also, Justin Timberlake makes a hammy appearance as Napster co-founder Sean Parker, which is disruptively amusing. More important: How likely is a "Facebook movie" to stand the test of time when it already seems dated?
"The King's Speech" will probably win, if for no other reason than for the fact progressives will be more inclined to throw their votes at other Best Picture nominees and traditionalists only have one real choice in "The King's Speech."
The shame of the showdown is that a case for victory could be made for all eight of the other Best Picture nominees. If anything, "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network" are the two safest, and least-deserving, choices because they so closely follow Oscar-winning formula.
For unconventional storytelling, it's hard to beat the mind-bending tandem of "Black Swan" and "Inception," the former a tale of a ballet dancer's nervous breakdown fiercely portrayed by Best Actress frontrunner Natalie Portman, the latter an ambitious exploration of dream control.
For social relevance, "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter's Bone" capture snapshots of contemporary families, for better and worse. "The Kids Are All Right" deftly handles a lesbian couple's family as any other American family, with the same joys and fears, while "Winter's Bone" is a chilling glimpse at rural drug culture through the eyes of a young woman trying to save her family home.
Other nominees likewise feature families in peril: "The Fighter" sees a working-class family falling apart when the favorite child (played by outstanding Best Supporting Actor nominee Christian Bale) stumbles and his overlooked brother succeeds, and "Toy Story 3" is an improbably emotional quest for meaning by a gang of toys who have overstayed their welcome in a once-idyllic home.
Meanwhile, stammering speech and shady business tactics are nothing compared to the challenges faced in the trippy "127 Hours," where an outdoor adventurer is pinned by a boulder and must saw off his arm to survive, and "True Grit," where a 14-year-old girl hires a ruthless bounty hunter and accompanies him to avenge her father's murder. (Best Supporting Actress nominee Hailee Steinfeld is brilliant as the girl.)
Ultimately, all 10 of the Best Picture nominees are fine films worthy of acclaim, so it's too bad one of them, any of them, will be arbitrarily singled out as the best.
And don't be surprised if 10 years from now we're talking more about "Black Swan" and "Inception" than about "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network."
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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