The current Oscar race seems very much like two races in one. Usually, there are two films that dominate and go head-to-head. This year, it feels like there are two pairs of two: two tech-heavy epics with visionary directors attached and intense themes about humanity, versus two smaller character dramas by relatively unknown directors about journalists hunting down corruption in the Catholic Church or Wall Street traders uncovering fraud in the financial system on the eve of the banking collapse of 2008. These four films seem poised to dominate the race and only one of them can win.
The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road lead the Oscar nominations tally. Both are about survival. The Revenant is about the survival of a compassionate white man who tried to live in harmony with the indigenous people of North America at a moment in time when their world was about to be destroyed, along with (eventually) the natural world. Mad Max: Fury Road is about that destroyed world and the small band of humans left battling for limited resources, water being at the top of that list. In a way both films are about these deeper themes, but they are also about their technical achievements and their visionary directors making films that are jaw-dropping in their scope and beauty. Neither was easy to make, neither was easy to sell: both have a B+ Cinemascore, for instance, which shows neither is a particularly easy sit with everyone in the audience. You can’t reach for great art, though, if you want to please the masses. Both Alejandro G. Iñárritu and George Miller have turned in exceptional cinematic works of art and the Academy has rewarded their films with multiple nominations in nearly every category.
They will fight it out for wins for production design, visual effects, costumes, the sound categories, even possibly editing. There will be a question of which visionary director will get the prize to go along with a whole slew of crafts Oscars. The Critics Choice last night said George Miller. The Golden Globes a week ago said Alejandro G. Iñárritu. You have to wonder heading into the Oscar race, though, whether they will cancel each other out and leave open a third possible choice for Best Director, and maybe one who is paired with Best Picture, or maybe not.
With both the last two Director/Picture splits, Ang Lee for Life of Pi and Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, the Oscar was handed over to the director who pulled off the technical achievement of an effects-driven film, but the Academy felt no need to award the same film Best Picture. In Lee’s case, his Oscar would very likely have gone to Ben Affleck, who was not nominated. In Cuarón’s case, it would have gone to Steve McQueen. Cuarón was also the first since 1929 to win Best Director in a split year without his film having a corresponding screenplay nomination. A similar split this year would have to mean that Best Director would either go to Iñárritu or Miller. Since Iñárritu won last year this seems like an easy call.
The Character Dramas
On the flipside, you have Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award, the National Society of Film Critics, and last night, the Critics Choice Award. It has six Oscar nominations, but in the top categories only — and even missed out, inexplicably, on score. The understated, somber, but hard-hitting Spotlight is a movie nobody hates. Nobody. The worst they can say about it is that it’s too much like All the President’s Men.
Spotlight goes up against Adam McKay’s absurdist take on the Wall Street meltdown, The Big Short, which has five Oscar nominations. The Big Short has every nomination necessary to win Best Picture and is the only one in the Oscar race so far that can claim this distinction. But unlike Spotlight, there are some people who were confused by The Big Short and some who outright hated it. Some say you can’t win on a preferential ballot with any divisiveness at all, but that idea did not serve us well last year when the visionary but polarizing Birdman took down the “nobody hates it” Boyhood. It turned out that passion was needed to pull through the win with the bigger guilds.
It’s a tough call between these four movies for best of the year. As we know, the Oscar decision for Best Picture is rarely for the best — it’s just the film most people can agree on as the best. To understand why a certain film won, you have to understand the narrative surrounding that win because otherwise it makes no sense when you look back.
If you take How Green Was My Valley’s Best Picture win out of context, you might wonder how could Citizen Kane, now regarded as the greatest film of all time, not have been named Best Picture of the year? Then you look at the narrative. Not just the movement to take down Citizen Kane for being a little too close to home for publishing titan (and Hollywood bully) William Randolph Hearst, but also John Ford’s own narrative: he had already won two Oscars for directing and had yet to collect a Best Picture win along with it. Ang Lee is now John Ford just before How Green was My Valley.
You also have to understand the Apollo 13 narrative around Ron Howard, which is why he won for A Beautiful Mind in 2001. A Beautiful Mind did not win because it was the best movie. Moulin Rouge and Fellowship of the Ring were both better films by a long way — but they, like this year, were two big tech movies facing down an emotional character drama. In the end, the character drama won out not because they liked the movie more (although that’s certainly possible), but because Ron Howard was the Hollywood son who had finally made good.
Last year, some thought Birdman was the best film. I was not one of those people. The narrative for Birdman that took hold was, as it turned out, bigger than Boyhood’s “It took 12 years to film this movie” narrative. The driving force for Birdman was much bigger because it became about taking on the plethora of superhero movies. It was actually going to beat Boyhood anyway because there was no way the studio-driven Academy was going to give their big win to a micro-budget IFC movie. Hell, not even the Spirit Awards gave their win to Boyhood. Seriously. They gave it to Birdman. No kidding. That’s how strong the Birdman narrative had become.
So herewith, my four narratives offered up for the four potential Best Picture contenders.
- The Revenant – History would be made if Alejandro G. Iñárritu becomes the first Mexican filmmaker to win back-to-back directing Oscars, and the first human being ever to win both Picture and Director in consecutive years, in 88 years of Oscar history. And he would do it without a screenplay nomination as well! Preservation of the environment is one of the most important issues we reckless Earthlings face, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Iñárritu have made an ode to that threatened environment worth our time and attention to preserve. The narrative: the environment, diversity.
- Mad Max: Fury Road – The passionate update to George Miller’s iconic first Mad Max has handed the reins to a woman. Yes, a woman. Consultant Eve Ensler ensured that Mad Max would be a feminist film as Charlize Theron steals the War Rig, rescues the female breeders, and launches a revolution to toss out an oppressive leader. The narrative: feminism, and a message so powerful that China wouldn’t even exhibit this movie. The second narrative: George Miller made an old-school effects movie using practical effects people and not computers. Preserving traditional jobs in Hollywood? That’s a pretty good narrative, just saying.
- Spotlight – It probably has Best Picture sewn up at this point, but it is missing — and has always been missing — a killer narrative. Just being a good movie that everyone likes isn’t usually enough. The narrative here could be that it’s a film to remind us what real journalism used to be like before the Internet and Fox ruined it. The narrative could also be: real actors speaking real lines with no need for visual effects or stylistic flourishes. It could also be about bringing down the Catholic Church for covering up decades of pervasive sex abuse — making it important to the many victims over the many generations, and everyone who cares about them. It’s also got a former actor as the director. Actors tend to like it when one of their own makes the big leap; thus, if more talk about that gets around more it could really work in Spotlight’s favor.
- The Big Short – This one has the best narrative of all because we’re in an election year. You don’t have to feel the Bern to know that the American people got screwed in 2008 when financial speculators bilked the economy, and the federal government refused to bring a single charge against the crooks on Wall Street after their fraudulent behavior led to the loss of $10 trillion in pensions, life savings, and property values — not to mention the way our government bailed out the thieving banks because they had become “too big to fail.” No film in the race right now is more important than The Big Short because no matter which candidate you plan to vote for, nobody but the Democrats are talking about regulation to prevent this from happening all over again — yes, even Hillary, whose financial reform plan has been praised by Elizabeth Warren. The Big Short brings with it a sense of urgency, but it also beautifully depicts the crazy fractured state we all find ourselves tangled in — focusing on hysteria, consumerism and Kim Kardashian instead of looking at what’s happening to our world and our government. “We live in an era of fraud in America,” Mark Baum says at the end of The Big Short. And indeed, we do. This narrative, though, is a tough one because many people refuse to even try to understand what The Big Short is about. They simply see it as “Wall Street bad,” and it can work on that level, too. But really look at it. It’s a story about people — a culture — that want something for nothing. Another interesting narrative it has is how a former comedy director has finally made a serious movie. Sometimes that counts.
It probably doesn’t matter all that much to talk about narratives now. We know the Producers Guild is coming this weekend and whatever they decide usually decides the race. Most of the PGA voters will have already probably decided what they think is the year’s best. The preferential ballot will reflect their number one pick, and ballots assigned to that powerful first-round stack. That’s the one they feel most strongly about. There’s a pretty good chance that their number one won’t be the winner, so their second choice could count as well. There’s a chance that their second choice won’t matter either and their third choice will be counted as their favorite film of the year.
Your job is to put it all together and try to remove your own heart from the process. Whatever you choose, it will have to be a film that ends up high on most ballots, at 1, 2 or 3. So write down a list and pick your top 3. Chances are, whatever you pick as 2 or 3 could be the Best Picture of the Year.