When I was a kid, I loved the Oscars. I watched solemnly every year, and what's more, it mattered to me, damn it.
Eventually I got older and realized that the idea of putting individual pieces of art in competition with one another seemed unusual and wrongheaded. A great horror movie may satisfy in a way that’s much different from a great comedy. (And both horror and comedy are more or less invisible to the Oscars.) Does that make one “better” than the other? To be sure, there are basic standards of competency by which any reasonable movie-goer can judge the qualities of a particular film. But to decide that one is better than all of the rest seems unfair.
And what's more, even if we swallow the idea that artistic expressions (and cinematic manifestations of corporate greed) should be judged against one another, the kind of movies that the Oscars tend to celebrate usually aren’t all that great after all. The aforementioned examples of Comedy and Horror are pretty much invisible to the Academy altogether, with “Serious Dramas“ being king. (Sure, there’s the rare “Return of the King” to appease the nerds, but the Lord of the Rings movies were simply too hugely popular and well-made to be ignored). Biopics are good bets, particularly if the subject suffered some sort of physical, mental, or societal abuse. More often than not, your Oscar winner was going to be an “eating your vegetables” movie.
But do those movies last? Let’s look at the Oscar winners for Best Picture for the last ten years.
2013 – 12 Years a Slave
2011 – The Artist
2010- The King’s Speech
2009 – The Hurt Locker
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire
2007 – No Country for Old Men
2006 – The Departed
2005 – Crash
2004 – Million Dollar Baby
Now, of those films, which ones have stood the admittedly truncated test of time? I think 12 Years a Slave is still too new to really judge its staying power, though its grim subject matter and questionable re-watchability (is anyone really dying to sit through it again?) makes me think it will likely be remembered as a good movie, but not an all-time classic. Whether that’s fair or not is up to you to decide.
Argo and The Artist, both fun movies for different reasons, and more excuses for Hollywood to celebrate itself. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (or whatever…I did that from memory and am not looking it up!) like movies about movies, actors and acting almost as much as they like movies about the afflicted. But while there’s nothing inherently wrong about either of those movies, is there any reason to think we’ll still be talking about them 10 or 20 years from now?
The King’s Speech fits into our historical biopic slot, winning the prize based on, I dunno, its Britishness? While there was certainly nothing wrong with the movie, there was also nothing particularly exciting or new about it either. I like Colin Firth just fine, but can you imagine being excited to watch that movie again?
The Hurt Locker, Crash, and Million Dollar Baby are “issues” movies, dealing with war, racism, and euthanasia, respectively. MDB is an ok movie, but not something I see anyone revisiting willingly. The Hurt Locker is a better movie, but another example of “once will do ya”. And Crash? Well Crash is a bad movie, and it still stands as the real head-scratcher of the bunch.
So, that leaves us with Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, and The Departed as the three most original films left in the lineup. And even then I use “original” with hesitation, as Slumdog and No Country are adaptations of books, and The Departed is a remake of the also excellent 2002 Hong Kong flick, Infernal Affairs.
That being said, those are the three movies I’d pick as having staying power, and being examples of times when the Oscars got close to being “right”. Of course, that is entirely subjective, and an example of my being fond of emotionally and existentially complex violent crime movies. Could be that you’d prefer uplifting tales, in which case Slumdog and The King’s Speech may be more your bag. Which is just another example of how singling one out as “Best” just doesn’t work.
Of course, taste is subjective, especially if you have some, so I can’t say the Oscars get it wrong more than they get it right, but….they get it wrong more than they get it right. And really, it doesn’t matter at all.
I don't CARE anymore.
But I do watch, and here's why: I love movies, and will grab any chance to talk about movies, and if the Oscars does nothing else, it at least stimulates conversation about movies. Come Oscar season every person on earth has an opinion about a movie, and is ready to talk about it. And I think that's great.
So, while I won't pretend that the Oscars matter, or that they're even a good idea, I also won't pretend that I don't enjoy talking about them, thus this post.
This year I decided to really make an effort to see all of the Best Picture noms, even the ones that I would normally skip as boring awards bait. Here's how I did, and what I thought.
First, let’s review our Best Picture nominees:
American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
Before we get into handicapping our winner, what did I actually think of them?
Let’s get the aforementioned “eating your veggies” movies out of the way first.
The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Selma, American Sniper
BIG SPOILERS AHOY! BEWARE IF YOU CARE!
FOUR biopics in the running this year, each depicting a real-life person who grappled with adversity. The Theory of Everything = Stephen Hawking, genius afflicted with motor neuron disease. Still alive. The Imitation Game = Alan Turing, genius behind-the-scenes war hero and inventor of the modern computer, persecuted for his homosexuality. Committed suicide after undergoing court-ordered hormone therapy. Dead. Selma = Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., visionary civil rights leader plagued by injustices of institutional racism. Assassinated. Dead. American Sniper = US Military Marksman Chris Kyle. Suffers PTSD, is murdered by another vet after returning home. Dead.
Isn’t it fun?
So how do the movies in the Depressing as Hell and Probably as Boring to Match category shake out?
First, we must grapple with the fact that each of these films, to varying degrees, has been accused of glossing over facts, distorting the truth, or outright making shit up. There are a whole lotta folks with a whole lotta panties all bunched up over what these movies “got wrong”.
But these aren’t documentaries. They’re films. And to me, I’m not concerned about the facts as much as I’m concerned about whether or not the movie is any damn good.
The Theory of Everything is boring tripe and its nomination is confirmed proof of the Oscar Formula at work. Eddie Redmayne is probably going to steal Michael Keaton’s Oscar, and that makes me sad. Enough said.
The Imitation Game is one of those thrillers that isn’t actually thrilling at all. It’s very quiet, it’s very British. It’s not bad, but it’s certainly nothing special. Turing’s story deserves a great movie. This isn’t that movie.
The fact that I can’t be bothered to write much more about those two should tell you what I thought about them.
Selma is carried primarily by the charisma of David Oyelowo in the role of MLK. He gives humanity and relatability to a towering historical figure, and anchors what is an otherwise mediocre production plagued by stunt-casting (Brits Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth slathered in prosthetics and shaky accents as LBJ and George Wallace, respectively, as well as cameos by Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding Jr that do little except yank the viewer out of the experience). The story being told was interesting enough to keep me invested, and I liked the leads, but the whole thing had a TV Movie vibe going on that I could never quite shake.
American Sniper is the biggest movie in the running, an unexpected “America! F#$% Yeah!” blockbuster that has a lot of people cheering, and just as many crying foul. It could be argued that Clint Eastwood’s film about sniper Chris Kyle is factually inaccurate and xenophobic (if not outright racist), a propaganda tool for rallying people around God and Guns; but I think the argument could also be made that American Sniper is actually an anti-war film that attempts to show the harrowing effects of PTSD. Whatever political baggage you bring into the movie is definitely going to color your perception of its message.
But in the end, American Sniper is actually about…30 minutes too long. It’s a snooze, it’s clumsy, and I’m not sure that it really makes its point. Bradley Cooper is remarkably transformed in the role of Chris Kyle, and worthy of praise, but that’s about all I can bother to single out as having made an impression on me. I will probably be in the minority with my apathy, as most people seem to either love or hate this flick. I couldn’t bother to feel much either way, and found myself checking my watch for the last hour or so.
Now, the movies that actually interested me!
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, Birdman, Whiplash
The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s latest obsessive compulsive confection, another picture book film packed with world-building detail. At some point, maybe around The Royal Tenenbaums, I felt that Anderson was getting carried away by whimsicality, but I think he found his heart again with Moonrise Kingdom. GBH manages to keep the heart while doubling down on the humor and OCD-addled set design. It is every bit as heartfelt as it is meticulous, and while it feels too slight to have a serious shot at the big prize, the fact that it tied Birdman for most nominations could indicate a surprise. And I wouldn’t mind that at all. Or it could be a wash. At any rate, I really loved it, and until Birdman is released on Blu Ray, it’s the only of this year’s Best Picture nominees that I actually purchased for the home library.
While it’s true that Oscar loves movies about movies and actors and movie actors, I remain surprised by the acceptance that Birdman has been shown. Alejandro Inarritu’s film is not a conventional one. It tells the story of Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor best known for his portrayal of movie superhero “Birdman”, attempting to stage his adaptation of a Raymond Carver play in order to salvage not just his career, but also his reputation as an actor, and his sense of self.
Birdman is visually dazzling, edited in such a way as to suggest that it was all shot in one continuous take. Just thinking about the effort spent to coordinate the blocking of the actors and the movement of the camera gives me a movie-boner. It really is a feat. It also has a whip-smart script brought to life by a very game cast. It is weird and delightful. Michael Keaton is career-best terrific, and man I really hope he gets that Best Actor Oscar, because it just feels right, you know?
Which brings us to what was once the runaway favorite to win it all, Boyhood.
Is Boyhood a good movie? Yup! But that doesn't prevent it from also being something of an overlong cinematic parlor trick that you're sorta obliged to decorate due to its sheer existence.
The central concept is impressive: every year for 12 years, director Richard Linklater gathered the same group of actors and followed their trajectory in real time. So you really do see the titular boy “Grow up” before you. It’s a dazzling trick. But is it a great movie?
Probably. I liked it, I really did. And I adore Linklater. I think he’s one of the last real risk-takers in American film, and I’m hopeful he is rewarded on Oscar night. His body of work is so quietly impressive and unfairly overlooked.
But that being said, I don’t expect to watch Boyhood again any time soon. When it wrapped up I thought “Huh. That was pretty cool.” And that was the last that I’ve really thought about it.
So, that brings us to the movie that made me actually stand up in my empty basement and clap to no one other than my television, and that movie was Whiplash. That film made me nervous, and it made me cheer. Nothing else managed to pull that off this year. So while it wasn't as showy, it didn't have as many tricks, one movie above all others managed to combine outstanding performances, hypnotic direction, frenetic scoring and good old fashioned grown-ass movie making into something I loved, and that was Whiplash.
But aside for the locked-in win for J.K. Simmons as Best Supporting Actor, it doesn’t have much hope of winning anything else. It’s not as flashy, it’s not as odd, it’s not as “important” or serious. So, it doesn’t have a chance.
As for handicapping the actual winner, the easiest cut is always to take away the movies that weren't also nominated for Best Director. Although 7 flicks were nominated for Best Picture, there are only five Best Director spots, so I always assume that those are the movies that have the actual shot at winning. (And conversely, director Bennett Miller was nominated for Best Director for his film Foxcatcher. However, in a turn of events I can’t recall happening before, the movie itself didn’t land a Best Picture nom, even though they can nominate up to 10 films every year for Best Picture, and they had 3 spots left. It’s a headscratcher. Regardless, he doesn’t have a hope in hell.)
Through most of the season, I would have seen no reason to bet against Boyhood. It swept most of the early critic awards, and while it may be a bit overlong or too ponderous for some voters, it could serve as the sort of Lifetime Achievement award that the Academy likes to bestow upon directors that it has overlooked for too long.
However, although Boyhood had all of the early momentum, the pendulum has swung heavily into Birdman’s favor, as it has swept the PGA, DGA and SAG awards. And as we noted earlier, Birdman is a movie about movie actors, and movie actors make up the largest percentage of the Oscar voting body. Actors like to reward actory things. I see no reason why Birdman’s momentum should crash at this point.
All that being said, our two-horse race is actually a three-horse race now, as it is impossible to deny the blockbuster American Sniper, which has made more money than all of the other Best Picture nominees combined. Although its general vibe may be off-putting to a left-leaning Hollywood crowd, you can’t argue with the fact that it will be the most viewed film in the running. Also, it’s wise to remember that the Academy has a longstanding crush on Director Clint Eastwood. So while I don’t really see American Sniper pulling off the win, I also wouldn’t be surprised at all if it happens.
So for all intents and purposes, those are the three movies actually in the running.
But who would I give it to, from this “real contenders” batch? It's hard to say. I didn’t really care for American Sniper, so that’s an easy cut. I liked Boyhood, I admired Boyhood, but I don't see myself revisiting it, at least not anytime soon. And I loved Birdman, but I think I loved it more for its virtuoso directorial flash than its heart. I look forward to watching it again soon, as I think there is a still a lot about that movie to unpack.
So of the real contenders, my vote goes to Birdman. But if I had my druthers, Whiplash would walk away with it all.
Have fun watching the show, don’t take it too seriously, and make a point to go see some movies that didn’t get anywhere close to an Oscar nomination. At the end of the day it IS a popularity contest, and there are some remarkable movies out there that need your attention more than the cool kids do.
But most of all, watch movies, love movies, and talk about movies. It’s pretty much all the Oscars are really good for.