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Some Oscar hopefuls aren't up to the gold standards of their past

January 30, 2010 |  9:00 am

SherlockHolmes5Story In Sunday's Los Angeles Times Calendar section, freelance writer Stephen Farber compares the quality of this year's Oscar contenders with similar works from the past. Farber is a critic for the Hollywood Reporter and the Daily Beast:

Box office revenues are sky high, and this year's Oscar race is expanding to 10 best picture nominees for the first time since 1943, a move that has stimulated reams of breathless commentary. Some pundits might be tempted to conclude that the movie business is healthier than ever.

Take a closer look. The quality of movies has not kept pace with the soaring grosses, to put it mildly. Many critics have cast a skeptical eye at the releases of 2009. For example, in a recent article lamenting the paltry offerings in the fall awards season, Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern attacked the "compromised, bloated and misshapen" movies of the season.

Even when these new movies are adapted from highbrow literary works, they cry out for better writing. Older movies were smart to employ many novelists and playwrights who honed their craft in other art forms. Perhaps today's producers need to cast a wider net in luring more gifted writers to try their hand at screenwriting. These 21st century film technicians are more wizardly than ever, but the art of graceful, light-fingered storytelling has been lost on the road to a 3-D, digitized Oz.

FilmComparePromo Consider 10 high-profile movies -- all eagerly anticipated, some likely to be in the Oscar race when nominations are announced Tuesday -- that are strikingly reminiscent of better movies from the past. In some instances these new pictures pale in comparison to classics from Hollywood's golden age. But in other cases, today's movies falter when placed against films from just a few years ago.

For an in-depth look at our 10 comparisons, click the photo of "Nine's" Kate Hudson and "Chicago's" Catherine Zeta-Jones on the right.

Photos: Top, Robert Downey Jr., left, and Jude Law in "Sherlock Holmes." Credit: Warner Bros. Bottom, Kate Hudson, left, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Credits: Weinstein Company and AFP.

Comments () | Archives (12)

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Everyone knows that anything made in the past is better than anything in current release. All the new stuff is just derivative. It isn't possible for a more recent day writer, director, or actor to have a new and more interesting take on an old and previously tried subject. Can't be done. Or maybe Ancestor worship and modern disrespect is more common than anyone wants to believe.

Great article, although in some of the choices it's the direction - or lack of it - of the film that most affects the quality of the movie. And with the success of "Avatar", it will only get worse as we get bombarded with mindless 3D films.

No knock on Farber, but this article could be written any year about any movies, if the yardstick is to compare a current offering against the absolute best of its genre.

I think the industry will surivve.

The attitude of contemporary filmmakers seems to be "Why paint with a brush, when a sledgehammer will do?"

Half of your comparisons are apples and oranges. Different time, different intention, different style, different audiences. You don't see to take any of that into consideration and the result is pointless.

The Big Sleep (1946) A Raymond Chandler novel. Directed by Howard Hawks, Screenplay by William Faulkner. Music by Max Steiner, and of course Bogart and Bacall. Hollywood movies of today just don't come close.

I was waiting for the comparison between Avatar and Pocahontas. Its always difficult to make comparisons because the risk profile of the industry has changed. If film was the only game in town (as in the days of the Wizard of Oz), I'm sure you'd see very different stories.

As good a reason as any to bemoan the stupid enlarging of the number of nominated films. The thinking must have been, well, if we list more "good" ones, the people will fall for it.

Great article simply because we all know in our hearts its true. "A good story well told" is a rare event these days. The problem stems from story itself. A good screenwriter has lots of story talent, and, perhaps just a little literary talent. Screenplays are not literary works of art. Screenplays are both visual artworks and must tell a good story. During the Golden Years of Hollywood, the studios used master storytellers who trained wannabees under a apprentice type scheme, and this resulted in people learning their craft as opposed to the scenario we have today where anybody with "A" in English thinks they can write a good story but instead it becomes pages filled with flowery language or worse.

Hollywood should look at Asian filmmakers. They are masters at storytelling and their movies, by and large make modern Hollywood movies look like trash.

Nicholas McNulty.

Stephen Farber got paid for this? Really?

He's picking movies from this year and comparing them to any movie from any year in the past and coming to the conclusion that this year's movies don't measure up.

Nice work if you can get it and Stephen's got it.

Steven, this is brilliant and all too brief-- while it may be way overdue, it is an excellent chronicle of our cultural down-trending to the mediocre, the narcissistic, and the ever-encroaching age of diminishing expectations...

There is a much bigger issue at the heart of this... the Nietzschean examination of Romanticism v Classicism in the Age of Narcissism... while it may be old hat to some of your detractors it can hardly be stressed enough or more relevant.

Kudos to you for nailing it. If you write the book I'll buy it.

Blame in on the corporate take-over of the film business. Does anyone think that "Tender Mercies" was produced because of the calculus of "boffo box office?" Hell no. It was made because it was a compelling story. I worked at a small production company that passed on "Cabin Fever," as did most production companies. Why? The script was idiotic. And yet, some infantile producer thought, "Hey, I can make a buttload of cash on this if I produce it for nothing." Result: the crappy script was produced. It's a slash-and-burn mentality driven by greed with no regard whatsoever for meaningful story telling.


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