Both Unbroken and Selma were headed for the box office on Christmas day, along with Into the Woods, Big Eyes and American Sniper. Unbroken just barely edged out Into the Woods (which was in fewer theaters and had a higher per theater average), to become the Christmas day winner.
Source: Box Office Mojo
The box office success of Unbroken will likely put it in the Oscar camp where pundits had preordained its spot long ago. The machine is the machine and no one can really derail it, especially when so many of us don’t really want to derail it. After all, look at all the waving cocks around The Interview story. We see plenty of bad movies do really well every year, so why shouldn’t Angelina’s movie do well too? Unbroken was the movie that was preordained to get in and whether it was good or not hardly matters. It only had to be passable and to be emotionally wrought enough to take that newly minted 9th slot where the emotionally-driven movies that critics don’t like earn the approval of Oscar voters. It’s that awkward moment when the Hollywood Foreign Press will become the only group that didn’t fall for Jolie’s star power. Everyone thought they would and they didn’t. The same cannot be said for the Critics Choice, which gave the movie a low score but nominated it and its director for Best Picture anyway. An Oscar nod for Best Picture seems all but sewn up, per the machine’s request very early on.
It’s never my favorite thing about the Oscars when a not so great movie gets in. That’s because it takes the spot of a better movie, usually, and because I have to write about the fallout in the years to come where people say “how in the hell did that movie ever get in?” Well, this is how. Hype and PR drive the thing, the pundits play along, the Oscar voters comply and a Best Picture nominee is born. The fix is in, as they say.
If I were giving out prizes for great publicity this year I would give it to the team behind Unbroken and behind Interstellar. In both cases, they needed to try, as long as they could, to keep people from talking about it. After Unbroken’s premiere there was a strict embargo in place. They held back people like me and critics from dumping on the movie so that it could open big and make money, which is what you want any Hollywood movie to do. Unbroken took Christmas Day’s box office with $15 million and will likely earn $40 million, only $20 million shy of its costs. Jolie will be successful enough with this, earn a Best Picture nomination and make another movie. Maybe that one will be better. Interstellar had a similar kind of rollout, though the reviews were a smidge better. Its domestic box office did not do what it should have, though internationally, it has more than made up for its domestic take.
I’m all for the Oscar race for Best Picture to honor films that did really well with audiences, even if they don’t fit the sappy Oscar mold. You do have to kind of marvel at that 9th slot film that has gotten in each year since they changed from a solid ten (and even then you had The Blind Side) to the new system of anywhere from 5 to 10 except for last year. You don’t see better Academy taste born out of that system. You see the Ugly Cry exposed.
People ask why aren’t you supportive of a movie directed by a woman? Isn’t this what you’ve fought for for so long? Well, there were other films directed by women that came out this year that will be ignored by voters because they don’t have a movie star directing them and they don’t have a giant PR team behind them. Their reviews are even better than Unbroken’s. Why aren’t they going to get Best Picture nominations? What are we talking about here? Getting in just because you’re a woman or getting in just because you’re Angelina Jolie? I don’t know. Extremely Loud, War Horse and Les Miserables all got in — so why shouldn’t this movie? I don’t have the answer to that.
I have supported the one film directed by a woman that I personally think deserves to be named one of the year’s best, Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay. Unbroken isn’t so terrible that it’s worth the energy expended to hate. It is only mildly offensive in its treatment of “the Japs.” But I didn’t giggle uncomfortably at it or shake my head thinking: this is SO BAD. It’s just that it’s a film that spends the entire time marinating in the scenes of torture – it was like Jolie was fascinated pulling the wings off of flies. If she wants to go that grotesque, by all means, let her unleash her inner David Cronenberg. But why try to make it seem like a conventional Hollywood story of heroism?
It’s a film that has very little story and has erased any possible humor or irony the Coens (or Hildenbrand) may have put in. It is a story without a story, a film that is just kind of goes from A to Z without any conflict in the story other than he is a POW, he gets tortured, the war ends, he devotes his life to God – he’s a great man and clearly Jolie wanted to do him proud. Perhaps she fulfilled that need for herself and for fans of Zamperini. So people will pat Jolie on the back and say “good job.” That faint praise is a house of cards that will one day fall and when it does it will add itself to the rubbish heap of rumor that women can’t make great films – in the tradition of Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers. Maybe their movies made money but no one really took them seriously. But look over here at Selma and you’ll find a great film directed by a woman that does prove that women make GOOD movies, even great movies. If I choose to shine a light there instead of on the “good job” vote (which hardly needs my support at this point) you’ll know the reason why. I’m in it for the long game.
There are a lot of good intentions out there, a lot of love and passion for subject and a lot of dedicated hard work. Why does anyone think that Angelina Jolie should be measured by those things and no one else? If that’s how we’re measuring Best Picture let’s redefine what Best Picture means. I personally did not think Belle was good enough to champion but it’s a far better film, more fully realized, with deeper meaning and a better story than Unbroken. The reviews are better – it is one of only two films released by women of color about women of color. If I were to champion any film I thought deserved it despite my own opinion of it, it would be Belle. But hey, no one really cares what I think, right?
Because there are so few women who get in to the Oscar race, one is put in that awkward position of having to champion THIS film and THIS woman. Most people like me will shut up about it because she’s a woman and I may very well do that – just suck it up and deal when the nominations come out. So the next time a movie like this is sold packaged and ready to pundits who dutifully put it atop their lists because it looks like an Oscar movie and smells like an Oscar movie, the same thing will happen again. It likely won’t change until Oscar goes back to five nominees. And even then…the machine is the machine. It keeps on keeping on. Let’s not kid ourselves that it has anything to do with “best.”