I happened to hear in passing someone who’d seen Unbroken in Australia. Or, rather, someone who knew someone I knew had seen it. When I asked him to ask his friend what he thought the answer was sort of useless. I appreciated the effort of my friend to get me the information and of course, of his friend to extend his thoughts but what he ended up telling me was something that has become an all too familiar refrain these days with regard to film. I got a professional estimation of how this person thought the movie would do rather than his own feelings about the film. What I wanted to know: what did you think? What I got was: it will play this way with audiences and this way with critics and this way with Oscar voters. The thing about that, though? Nobody has any clue how it will play.
The Oscar race on the one hand exists like an island in a sea of tentpoles, keeping “adult cinema” alive. The Oscar race is one of the few places no one is going to ask, “but will it play in China?” The Oscars are a much bigger industry than just the Academy. They are the last stop of a long Snowpiercer-like train of marketing, that includes other awards shows like the Golden Globes and the SAG awards. For the chosen few, it can be a life changer. On the other hand? It sucks the life out of every good thing.
Every so often I remind myself what the Oscar race is and what it isn’t — one thing it isn’t? A good way to find out what the best films in any given year are. What it is? The opposite of every reason you should be going to the movies.
Take Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, one of the best films of 2014 without a doubt. When people tell me it’s a weak year for Oscar movies and that somehow that means it’s been a weak year for film my mind bounces to movies that aren’t “in play,” but are noteworthy and memorable. Because I’m no film critic nor film historian you could go to any respectable film critic’s site and read up on their wealth of knowledge about all kinds of films both available in the mainstream and unavailable. You could read Guy Lodge at Variety, Manohla Dargis at the Times, Richard Brody at the New Yorker – you get the idea. My knowledge of film is thimble sized compared to theirs. Lucky for me my job is to cover the Oscars. But unlucky for me that often means my range of focus is too narrow.
When I saw Inherent Vice I thought, wow. That was a great film. It couldn’t fit into any box – even The Master seemed more “appropriate” for Oscar voters than Inherent Vice. When it played at the New York Film Fest there was this idea that it wasn’t an Oscar movie so people stopped talking about – at least in the narrow focus of film discussion I engage in or come in contact with in an average day during Oscar season. We put our Oscar movies in a little pile and we pick our favorites. We know it’s exhausting to try to push any movie into the race, especially if we already know there’s no chance in hell it gets in. But there are several movies this year that I keep coming back to, even though they are kind of hovering on the fringe.
Inherent Vice is weird, funny, poetic, challenging but ultimately full of life, made by a guy who knows a thing or two about cinema. Like Tarantino, he grew up on cinema and in Southern California. Like Tarantino he has a huge following of fans. But unlike Tarantino, Anderson is not uncomfortable with sentimentality. There Will Be Blood was such a huge success with fans, critics and ultimately Oscar voters that in many ways he would have to get close to that kind of film to earn a spot in the Oscar race. Hopefully he’ll never want to and will have the opportunity to continue making movies that he wants to make because even his worst films are better than almost everything else out there.
I don’t even know how to explain Inherent Vice to people — except that from start to finish I drank it in. California in the 1970s, feeling the squeeze of the silent majority and the Orange County Republicans closing in feels an awful lot like today, with the Tea Party and radical Republicans talking crazy shit all over again. I had to laugh when Charles Manson dropped back in the news – his weird presence haunts Inherent Vice because really, it all ended with Manson. Time to shut out the lights and end the psychedelic 60s. I was a kid during the Manson murders, growing up in Topanga, which was practically ground zero for hippie culture. Manson sprayed everybody off like a cold, wet, powerful hose. Inherent Vice vibes that bizarre kind of smackdown, while also ruminating in an ache, a longing for lost love. It’s just a splendid film and yet — there is no typical Oscar slot for it – maybe Screenplay, maybe Josh Brolin for Supporting. Maybe costume?
Jon Stewart’s Rosewater is also caught in the loop of films that maybe were intended for the Oscar race but didn’t quite get there for whatever reason. The critics did not approve of Stewart’s first attempt at directing but to me, it was one of the most powerful films I saw this year. Okay, so it’s not Citizen Kane, but it was reaching for something, communicating something much bigger than the petty squabbling of our individual opinions. I don’t see how you go in to a film like Rosewater and recognize the humor and artfulness in the storytelling, the lovely kind of way Stewart portrays sincere love, and mostly as a reminder that we as individuals still have a voice. We’re lucky to have that. We should use it. And not just to talk about Kim Kardashian’s giant ass. Rosewater made me think differently about our democracy — that can’t be taken lightly. Is it an Oscar movie? I guess not.
Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner might be an Oscar movie, by most accounts, but it’s also being taken for granted. Many believe that the BAFTAs will revive it, that they will launch it headlong into the Oscar race. I don’t know about that but what I do know is that it has to be one of Mike Leigh’s major triumphs. It is a film about art and the artist – of course, Mr. Turner himself but really how he chased the light and became obsessed with capturing it. An odd and grunting Timothy Spall captures the painter perfectly. Still, seeing the film at Cannes we all busily ticked off our Oscar boxes, filing it away for another time. It’s quite possible it will remain quietly in the background, only to be uncovered many years from now, especially in the context of Leigh’s entire career. It is a film too good for the Oscar race – its success or failure, like those mentioned above (and any movie, for that matter) should not be measured by its ability to wow a consensus vote. To the filmmakers and the studio the Oscar race only means extra money and the occasionally boosted profile. They must do so much publicity just to get that kind of attention — and sometimes it never arrives.
Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is another one out of Cannes that has been hit with the Oscar paint gun. While it was praised out of Cannes, it’s starting to look like a film “they” might not like. Foxcatcher is a creepy but important film about that crazy kind of disconnect between real people and the super rich. We live in a country where it’s absurd to have people THAT rich and yet they are controlling our government unabated, worse than they ever have been. Films like Foxcatcher drive the point home while also presenting a film about three interesting characters. In many ways, Foxcatcher is a chilling character study, though it’s based on a true story. It’s hard to think about Foxcatcher as being a movie voters will peg as one of their five favorites but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. You see, there I go again, talking about the movie’s Oscar chances instead of telling you how great it is and how much I loved it. It’s just great. I loved it.
David Cronenberg’s extraordinary Maps to the Stars is one that really has no business needing to be judged by film critics today. When I first discovered Cronenberg I didn’t need critics to get me there. I discussed his work with people I knew who loved his movies. I was so glad to have discovered Dead Ringers and The Fly and Scanners without needing the Oscar framing to tell me whether they were good or not. Maps to the Stars is not getting any of the sort of attention it deserves, mostly because it pokes fun at Hollywood with a very sharp stick. Those of us watching the race thought, well, it will never fly with voters so off it goes, exiled off of Oscar Island. Bruce Wagner’s astute, brilliant screenplay probably will never get anywhere near the WGA voters – even though it is among the best scripts of the year. John Cusack delivers a fantastic and creepy supporting performance, alongside Olivia Williams. Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska play youngish lovers, and Evan Bird plays a child prodigy who has become a monster. It is so sick, so cynical about the trappings of fame – yet it is a story that could have been told in almost any industry. Because it isn’t an Oscar movie it isn’t even being talked about – and what a shame. The only good news about Maps to the Stars being in the background of the Oscar race is that I don’t have to pay attention to what critics think about it.
I miss the days when I would see a movie because I wanted to see a movie. I miss talking about it without having to think about film awards. So if you see me coming and you want to tell me about a movie you just saw? Do me a favor and don’t tell me what critics are going to do, or how it will do in the race. None of that matters half as much as telling me how much you loved a film, or even how much you hated it (but it better not be a movie I like because you don’t want to know what happens next). Fine coming from me, since I helped invent this industry of awards watching. I know, I know. I feel lucky to be able to see as many movies as I get to see in a given year. I hope I never lose my lifelong love for them. I hope you never do either.