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Storming the castle

Director nominees — once thought of as outsiders — are becoming the establishment

This year’s best director nominees include Darren Aronofsky (pictured, with Natalie Portman on the set of “Black Swan’’). This year’s best director nominees include Darren Aronofsky (pictured, with Natalie Portman on the set of “Black Swan’’). (Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / February 27, 2011

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As in national politics, the Oscars occasionally experience a change election. When 1954’s “On the Waterfront’’ won best picture, it rang the first death knell for the classic Hollywood factory system. “Midnight Cowboy’’ (1969) marked the full acceptance of the counterculture. “Platoon’’ (1986) said it was finally OK to talk about the Vietnam War on film. Movies reflect the ways we see the world, and the world continually evolves. A year often cycles around in which established cultural conventions are swept away by a thirst for new energy, different voices, fresh perspectives.

This is not one of those years.

It could have been, and in some ways it is. Many of the nominees for best picture of 2010 were made by filmmakers who until lately were considered barbarians at the gate. The directing category makes an even blunter generational statement. Five of the six nominated — Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan’’), David O. Russell (“The Fighter’’), David Fincher (“The Social Network’’), and Joel and Ethan Coen (“True Grit’’) — began their careers as maverick storytellers either working outside the system or burrowing from within. Aronofsky’s 1998 debut, “Pi,’’ was a $60,000 production about a paranoid mathematician; Russell’s 1994 “Spanking the Monkey’’ was a dark farce about incest. Fincher jumped from music videos to the fiasco of “Alien 3’’ (1992) before fine-tuning his pitch-black commercial sensibilities with “Se7en’’ (1995) and “Fight Club’’ (1999). The Coens have been playing cruel mind-games with Hollywood and mainstream audiences for years.

That all of these filmmakers have made their peace with the mainstream is almost beside the point. “The Fighter’’ fits squarely within a long tradition of boxing movies where the hero has a harder time going up against his family than anyone in the ring. The psycho- melodrama of “Black Swan’’ is familiar to anyone who has seen Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion’’ and similar upscale horror fare. The Coens remade a John Wayne western with fidelity to the original novel and honor to the genre. The brothers won Oscars for “No Country for Old Men’’ in 2008, but the 83d Academy Awards are in theory the moment when the other directors finally claim their place in the sun. That includes Fincher, whose “Social Network’’ is the most structurally daring of the bunch, and Christopher Nolan (“Inception’’), who arguably should have received a directorial nomination for ambition alone. This is the new establishment. It’s about time.

But it’s still not quite their time, because the best picture winner of 2010 will almost surely be “The King’s Speech,’’ a beloved work of cinematic comfort food that plays by older rules than even the mavericks’ new movies. The Academy Awards are only sometimes about quality; more often, they’re about perceptions of quality, a status-conscious Hollywood saying to the world “This is what we do best.’’ “Speech’’ pushes so many classic Oscar-voter buttons that it could easily qualify for best picture of 1937, 1963, or 1994.

For one thing, it’s British, which our all-American insecurity complex translates into instant class, if not lasting art. The accents, the decorum, the repression — these are all evidence of finer things and subtler sensibilities than Yankee brashness. Even better, it’s a period film, richly situated in the safe house of the past with its classic architectural lines and sumptuous costumes. To enjoy “The King’s Speech’’ is, even the tiniest bit, to congratulate oneself on one’s good taste.

Best of all, the film is about the private lives of British royalty, a subject of which certain moviegoers, the producers who cater to them, and the awards system that assigns cultural value simply cannot get enough. This is especially true of the last 15 years, a period in which the larger Miramaxing of the Oscars has given us “Shakespeare in Love,’’ “Elizabeth’’ and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,’’ “The Queen,’’ “The Madness of King George,’’ “The Young Victoria,’’ “The Duchess,’’ and so on, down to the ripe pap of unnominated bodice-rippers like “The Other Boleyn Girl.’’

Yet the genre goes back at least to Sarah Bernhardt over-emoting her way through 1912’s “Queen Elizabeth’’ and doubtless earlier. Monarchy movies cater to our highest and lowest impulses — the urge to gawk at crowned heads while reminding ourselves that they’re human, that their foibles and troubles are much like our own. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it’s good to be king unless you occasionally go bonkers like George III, or you’re a serial husband like Henry VIII, or you stammer like George VI. Royalist films offer both the pomp of ritual — who doesn’t love a good coronation scene? — and a gentle, democratic debunking of hidebound institutions. No wonder American audiences love these movies. They flatter us with glimpses of a system we simultaneously envy and scorn.

Yet another reason “The King’s Speech’’ will probably win best picture tonight: It’s good enough. My personal feelings about the film are that it’s solid, well-made, and reasonably affecting; that Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are more than excellent in the lead roles of George VI and his speech therapist Lionel Logue; that the further out you move from that central duo, the worse the performances get; and that there isn’t a moment or emotional beat in the film some of us can’t see coming at least three scenes off.

That predictability may even be part of the film’s remarkable success. For a lot of people, “The King’s Speech’’ isn’t just good enough, it’s a profoundly moving, richly satisfying experience — an inspirational tale about a class-leveling friendship, the power of language, and a man overcoming obstacles to take his place on history’s stage. It matters very much that both Firth’s Bertie and Rush’s Lionel are decent men, and that their wives are strong and decent, too. (The villains in “Speech’’ are mere abstractions: Michael Gambon’s rarely-seen George V, Bertie’s recalcitrant tongue, Hitler.)

And it matters, too, that we know George VI made a good king in the end, that Hitler was vanquished, and that Bertie’s little Elizabeth herself ascended to the throne, corgis and all. In a year in which movies and the greater society reflected endless nagging uncertainties — in which even “Toy Story 3’’ led audiences to the brink of annihilation — “The King’s Speech’’ glowed with an almost cosmic sense of reassurance. Chaos is subdued. The words come out at last. Civilization carries on.

The irony, of course, is that the movie’s maker, Tom Hooper, is the youngest of the directorial nominees at 38. Perhaps the filmmaking bad boys of the 1990s are coming to power just in time to see a retrenchment into storytelling conservatism. More likely, “The King’s Speech’’ is a movie that made audiences and the Academy feel really good in a year that otherwise felt pretty bad.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/tyburr

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