And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”
The films that will define Oscar’s Best Picture race will be each member’s five selections for “the highest achievements in film” for 2014. It will be a list made up of a collection of agreed upon films that starts in a few weeks with the critics, runs through the Hollywood Foreign press, then gets filtered through the large industry guilds before finally settling with Academy members.
Christopher Nolan. Darren Aronofsky. David Fincher. Alejandro González Iñárritu. British film about a British hero who overcomes personal torment and helps end the war. Backed by the Weinstein Co. Two films directed by women possibly landing Best Picture nominations? A Birdman instead of a Black Swan. Is it 2010 all over again?
2010 was a battle of three films, really, much like this year, but the opinions of critics and industry voters were sharply divided. The critics went unanimously in ways they never had and never have since for The Social Network while the industry went unanimously for The King’s Speech. They couldn’t have been more opposite films – The Social Network wholly American by one of the country’s best and as yet unrewarded directors, David Fincher, about a self-made millionaire; and a film about a monarch with inherited wealth, British up one side and down the other, a film that could have been made in any decade.
The spoiler was Black Swan, and possibly Inception, both of which likely split the non-King’s Speech vote. But Black Swan, like Birdman, was a show about performers and their delusions, their vanity, their deepest fears – there is even a two-girl love scene in Black Swan, and a two-girl kiss in Birdman.
Interstellar might get into the Best Picture race as the biggest money maker but this time, the David Fincher film is going to own the box office as well. Moneywise, it is going to wipe up the floor with most every other Oscar contender vying for Best Picture, much like the King’s Speech did in 2010. It will even top the King’s Speech, as well as Argo and the Departed.
David Fincher risked much to hire Gillian Flynn to adapt her own novel. No woman has ever been nominated for an Oscar who adapted her own novel. Only Lillian Hellman yawning all the way back to 1941 was nominated for adapting her own play. They took a chance, the movie is a massive hit, with a 90 rating by audience members at Rotten Tomatoes. A film that has inspired lengthy, passionate essays by Maureen Dowd and David Bordwell. It is the most talked about films of 2014. But the one thing Gone Girl isn’t? An “Oscar movie.”
You see, to win Best Picture or to even get nominated, you have to fit into the tiny suitcase that fits into the tiny dollhouse of the sensibilities of this particular demographic. Think: 1930s. Think: Nazis. Think: puffy stuffed animals crowding out the monsters at night.
The two films up for Best Picture again this year, with Birdman being the potential spoiler, also pit an American story by an American director up against a British film by a British director. Boyhood, like The Social Network, has the critics admiration with a near record-breaking score of 100 at Metacritic. The Imitation Game, like The King’s Speech, has a kind of Masterpiece Theater quality that appeals to the old’uns and young’uns alike. Even the two publicity teams behind each movie are the same. Pins and needles.
The Oscar race for Best Picture may come down to three for the win: Boyhood, The Imitation Game and Birdman. As of now, these are the top three predicted by the Gurus of Gold and Gold Derby. Going back as far as I have been recording them, the top three predicted at this time of year has always yielded the winner. But Fandango’s Dave Karger has Unbroken winning. So does Tom O’Neil at Gold Derby. No one has yet seen Unbroken but to them it has a better chance that the three that are standing right in front of them.
Boyhood is too … IFC? The Imitation Game is too … Masterpiece Theater? Birdman is too … obnoxious?
Dave Karger, Kris Tapley, Scott Feinberg and Thelma Adams are all predicting no Best Picture nomination for Gone Girl, which is the only film in the entire race — in the ENTIRE RACE – written or co-written by a woman. It is also the only film singularly about a woman, a gone girl. Voters don’t like it, they say. Voters will like Unbroken and American Sniper better, they say. What perplexes me is that Gone Girl is going to hit $150 million, is directed by one of the most respected and revered directors in Hollywood. It stars one of the most popular actors. And yet — it is not Oscar-y enough, apparently. Only if the other unseen films fail, so the narrative goes, will these pundits predict this film.
Back in 2010, Dave Karger took a lot of heat from people like Jeff Wells and myself for sticking with The King’s Speech when there was such enormous support for the Social Network. “They” didn’t “like” the Fincher film, the echoing narrative went. It was still nominated for Best Picture, however. It’s funny to see the same people siding against the darker Fincher film, and the same people advocating for it (raises hand) and probably the same little birds whispering to their favorite pundits these talking points.
But Gone Girl, Birdman and even Boyhood – the films about right here, right now – are important narratives that look at how American life has changed so dramatically. In 2010, The Social Network was about how the internet was going to shape culture. These films are by artists reacting to those changes. They are prescient, relevant, exciting works by some of the best directors working today.
Gone Girl bravely looks at what our society is becoming. It joins several of the year’s best films that also meditate on our present day and the ways we’re selling ourselves out on the cheap – the way we are cocooned in swaths of narcissism, sacrificing all good things for the chance to be famous for five minutes.
2010 did not have a Boyhood, a film that is trying its best to stay quiet amid premature awards adulation but is earning slow and steady word of mouth. Just last night at dinner the four-top next to us exploded with talk of Boyhood. “Have you SEEN Boyhood?” A man of about 70 asked his fellow diners before leaning in and breathlessly explaining what watching Boyhood is like.
Boyhood also has the distinction of being a film that isn’t dark and twisty but also isn’t British traditional. It’s something new by a dedicated filmmaker who somehow held this whole thing aloft for 12 years.
Boyhood and The Imitation Game are both standing in the dark closet at the party, hoping people don’t notice that they’re not mingling among the guests. They are both waiting until the moment is right and hoping that word of mouth keeps them relevant but they aren’t toppled by hype, as so many films released in the later part of the year do. Though the films are slightly different, the Oscar power teams behind the two films are the same teams behind The Social Network vs. The King’s Speech. What most people don’t know is that Best Picture is often placed in the careful hands of a very select group of people who handle awards. Funnily enough, Fox Searchlight is the third film in the Oscar race so far with Birdman and in 2010 they had Black Swan.
With Intestellar, the Nolans go Inception one bigger. Though it isn’t going to be accepted by the general consensus, one can’t help but noticed the urgency in a film like Interstellar, nor in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Someday people will look back on 2014 and take note of the filmmakers who were paying attention to what was really going on in our world, whether their films were Oscar favorites or not.
The biggest difference between then and now, a difference that allowed Toy Story 3, The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone and Inception all to get nominated was that voters had ten slots for Best Picture. They were free to do crazy things like nominate an animated film for Best Picture and films directed by women and a sci-fi epic. Now things have gone back to five slots and that is going to make all of the difference. Because with five you’re headed deep into “their” kind of movie and far, far away from the films that really define the year.
You see, we can take pills that make us feel happy as our climate is working hard to shrug us off this planet. We can pretend that when we buy cheap stuff at Walmart that we aren’t helping to eradicate what this country was founded upon. We can distract ourselves with stories about missing pregnant women and their villain husbands or Kim Kardashian’s giant, comical boobs and ass or Renee Zellweger’s face while there have been 87 school shootings since the Newtown massacre. The Oscar race continues to exist in a floating orb of manufactured happiness and redemption.
Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher has been exiled to the same island as Gone Girl by the gun-shy pundits who think the Academy and industry voters don’t have the grit to go that dark. We know our middle class is being slowly snuffed out by the ballooning wealth of the 1%, which pulses through Foxcatcher and Gone Girl. These gun-shy pundits have profiled the Academy, talked to members – some of them invested publicists and some of them retirees with way too much time on their hands. The results are – the reflexive need to numb out through uplifting stories that mirror back our better selves.
Voters are going to snuggle up to what’s safe and familiar, much like they did in 2010, when they see The King’s Speech’s smarter cousin, The Imitation Game, emerge in the race. Same bat time, same bat channel.
Pundits amiably co along with it, a co-dependent relationship that keeps the Oscar race stagnated. But to my colleagues the only thing that matters is being the rightest. The critics bend towards Oscar by choosing the select films that “have a chance” to win, even the National Society of Film Critics picked Inside Llewyn Davis once word got out that the film was being shut out by the industry. They didn’t “like” it enough.
We never learn from our mistakes because there is no one keeping score of who’s right and who’s wrong. Like the self-appointed film critics populating Rotten Tomatoes who stumbled onto the internet one day and fancied themselves experts, so do we pundits pretend that what we do isn’t damaging to the film community. When we anticipate a film like Interstellar will be a top contending Best Picture contender without anyone having seen it we set it up for near impossible expectations. We should see the movie and then conclude “what voters will do.” But we don’t and we get away with it because no one would ever take Oscar watching seriously enough to care.
Even I have not learned from 2010. I should have been smacked down and taught the important lesson that the Oscar race is not about great films that define our right here, right now but about films that make us feel good about ourselves. I should have learned and yet here I am, passionately advocating for a Fincher film that the top pundits have deemed not good enough for “them.”
The only way to face down this middling consensus year after year is to lay there and pretend to like it, make the voters feel as though they are part of something bigger than the People’s Choice awards. Tell them how great they are and what big dicks they have. And when the time is right, fake it. Isn’t it romantic?
So pundits who are downgrading Gone Girl and Foxcatcher are doing it to make room for Unbroken and American Sniper, positioning those films for yet more high expectations action so that anyone who goes in to watch those movies are going to be looking, not for a great cinematic experience but a film that might please 6,000 upper-class industry professionals and/or retirees whose contact with the real world and the multiplex is limited to the occasional uptown screening (for free). Most films can’t pass muster when those expectations are that high. Rinse, repeat.
One thing remains constant year after year: there is nothing pretty about the Oscar race, except the way the movie stars twinkle against the blood red carpet that unfurls in front of the Dolby Theater, those shimmering jewels, those chiffon waves of fabric, all of that piled up hair to help perpetuate the romantic illusion of that Hollywood is still Hollywood. It’s all for the cameras, even the cluster of fans packed on the bleachers hoping for a sweaty handshake. By the time the show starts all of the marketing executives, Oscar strategists and pundits start calculating the results.
Important dates coming up:
New York Film Critics (Dec. 1)
National Board of Review (Dec. 2)
AFI’s Top Ten films of the year (Dec. 8)
SAG nominations (Dec. 10)
Golden Globe nominations (Dec. 11)
Current Predictions For Best Picture
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Films that haven’t yet been seen that could overtake:
A Most Violent Year
Dark Horse contenders hovering in the background
The Good Lie
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
Morton Tylden, The Imitation Game
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Directors who have not been seen who may impact the race:
Angelina Jolie, Unbroken
Ava DuVernay, Selma
J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year
Clint Eastwood, American Sniper
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
David Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars
Xavier Dolan, Mommy
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Alejandro Inarritu et al, Birdman
E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher
Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Nick Hornby, Wild
Anthony McCarten, The Thoery of Everything
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game
Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, The Homesman
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Hilary Swank, The Homesman
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
JK Simmons, Whiplash
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Tyler Perry, Gone Girl
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Laura Dern Wild
Jessica Chastain, Interstellar