This Sunday marks the 83rd annual Academy Awards. And while we doubt members of the Academy vote this way, we couldn't help but take a look at this year's Best Picture nominees through the lens of innovation. Which movie brought plot to new levels of intricacy, which pioneered a novel type of sound design, and which featured performances that subverted what we expect from an actor? And which (you get one guess), featured the founding myth of one of our most innovative companies? And the envelopes go to ...
Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky's first cinematic innovation was a title. His low-budget indie was named simply, with a symbol, π. The film also asked a question dear to business innovators everywhere: Can you predict the stock market through numerology? Later films employed further innovations; for 2006's The Fountain, Aronofsky hired a specialist in macro photography to film microorganisms, using the resulting footage for the movie's trippy visual effects. With Black Swan, Aronovsky has entered the mainstream, deploying his own form of indie dread on a wider audience. As with The Fountain, if there is a filmmaking innovation in Black Swan, it may be in restraint rather than excess. The film's special effects are often extremely subtle--a painting seems to move, just for an instant; a tattoo squirms just a bit more than a muscle movement would account for--causing the audience members to question their own sanity at the same moment that Natalie Portman's character questions hers.
For all its special effect wizardry, Inception admits that its distinctive visual style isn't innovative, strictly speaking. Even the film's signature visual paradox, the infinite staircase, is identified as having come before: It's the Penrose stairs, created by Lionel Penrose and Roger Penrose, and made famous in M.C. Escher's 1960 lithograph Ascending and Descending. Rather, Inception's central innovation was that its writer-director, Christopher Nolan, trusted his audience's intelligence, not shying away from a narrative structure so intricately nested that we here at Fast Company had to sponsor and infographic contest just to untangle the plot.
A case might be made that The Fighter's faux-documentary approach is innovative fare, particularly for a Best Picture contender. But we find that David O. Russell's greatest innovations throughout the director's career have come in the past. In Three Kings, for instance, Russell set out to make a war movie in which you could count every bullet that was fired, and deeply feel the consequences of each one. At one moment, George Clooney's character explains what happens when a bullet enters a body, as we're treated to an inside-the-skin view of organs being torn apart. When a Newsweek reporter asked Russell how he got the shot, the famously short-tempered Russell blurted something out about filming a real cadaver shot through with a bullet with a high-speed camera. That would indeed be innovative. But Russell later said he was only joking: "I was fooling around in the sense like, 'How do you think I did it?' " If his innovation wasn't in cadaverous filmmaking, then it was at least in dealing with a bothersome reporter and challenging Newsweek's fact-checking department.
Forget about 127 Hours, Danny Boyle's best-pic contender about a man who cuts his arm off after being pinned by a boulder. Let's talk for a moment about James Franco, the film's star, who might well be the most innovative leading man in Hollywood history. Franco (who is also co-hosting Sunday's ceremonies with Anne Hathaway, and is also nominated for Best Actor) is involved in so many extra-curricular pursuits of late, that his career as one of Hollywood's leading men possibly takes up the minority of his time. He has studied filmmaking at NYU, creative writing at Columbia and Brooklyn College, and has recently enrolled in an English Ph.D. program at Yale, while also doing coursework at RISD. Gallery openings, a short story in Esquire, an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal--"after which, obviously, he will become president of the United Nations," quips New York Magazine in its entertaining profile, "train a flock of African gray parrots to perform free colonoscopies in the developing world, and launch himself into space in order to explain the human heart to aliens living at the pulsing core of interstellar quasars." Oh, and did we mention that he is playing a murderous installation artist named "Franco" in a 20-episode stint on the daytime soap, General Hospital?
Winter's Bone, like 127 Hours, is perhaps most innovative in its performances. According to an interview in New York with nominee John Hawkes, who plays Teardrop, one of the film's innovations is to allow audiences to read their own meanings into the film. "What’s interesting to me is that people see that as some sort of character arc that doesn’t exist. I think he’s the same person as when you meet him. Character actors, and audiences, are always looking for the epiphany of the characters, the a-ha moment. He’s just trying to protect his family and uses different tactics throughout. I don’t think he has some kind of revelation in the movie and becomes a better person at all. That interests me. I like that the perception of the audience changes."
It includes technology (sperm donation) and ethical business (the Mark Ruffalo character's eat-local restaurant). But The Kids Are All Right's main innovation is by upending traditional notions of family. Decades ago, the premise of a lesbian couple whose marriage is threatened by the intrusion of a hyper-masculine donor dad was not the fodder of multi-plexes; even the cinema of the counterculture-charged New Hollywood had to merely hint at homosexuality. But Lisa Cholodenko's charming script, coupled with strong performances from Annete Bening, Julianne Moore, and others, was likely enough to recenter even a stodgy traditionalist's notions of a normal family.
Let's say this up front: The King's Speech is not an innovative film; it's standard, endearing, slightly schmaltzy Oscar bait. But it does speak to an era in which technology transformed the role of leaders. In an era of radio and mass communication, the role of a king was transformed, as he was presented with a megaphone with more reach than was before imaginable.
What could be less innovative than the trilogy? This pillar of Hollywood franchise-making is all but a confession of a lack of new ideas--why create new characters, when you can rely on the old? Buoyed, nonetheless, by another polished gem of a Pixar script, Toy Story 3 also got a major boost from its sound department. As we reported Wednesday, Toy Story 3 was one of the first films to employ a new form of three-dimensional sound. Dolby Laboratories created a surround-sound system so sophisticated that "you literally feel the cars drive over you," Dolby's Stuart Bowling told Fast Company. "Pixar likes to have their characters move around the room. So now Slinky, the dog, can walk across the screen. He can start talking on the left channel, and then in the center. And then the front of him can disappear off screen [to the right]. You’re hearing him talking on the right wall, while you’re still seeing his legs in front of you." The new system has been deployed to about 1,300 theaters worldwide.
The Western can be among the least innovative of genres, and True Grit is not enough of a revisionist Western to rank among the Unforgivens out there. The lawmen win; the bad guys lose. Sorry: while an enjoyable film by two of Hollywood's most enjoyable filmmakers, the Coens, True Grit doesn't earn any innovation Oscars from Fast Company this year.
A frequent subject of commentary on this site, we hardly need to make the case for why The Social Network was an important film this year trumpeting the cause of business innovation. If anything, we only have to accuse Hollywood of being a bit late to the game on this one; we've been writing about Mark Zuckerberg (who has twice graced our cover) since well before 2010. From David Fincher's deft direction to Aaron Sorkin's engrossing script, everything about The Social Network has exceeded the expectations of skeptics and naysayers. We called it here first: expect to see a slew of copycat films on tech innovation soon.

Read more of our 2011 Academy Awards coverage.

Fast Company's Alternate Oscars of Innovation

Sunday marks the 83rd annual Academy Awards. And while we doubt members of the Academy vote this way, we couldn't help but take a look at this year's Best Picture nominees through the lens of innovation. Which movie brought plot to new levels of intricacy, which pioneered a novel type of sound design, and which featured performances that subverted what we expect from an actor? And which (you get one guess), featured the founding myth of one of our most innovative companies?

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