“The process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?” Margaret Thatcher
In a year with so many good films, narrowing it down to just nine or ten seems impossible. For me it started all the way in May at Cannes, where we all sat in the Grand Lumiere awash in the thick silence of wrapped attention, the only sounds were the wind and the sea. It was a unique meditation on the metaphysical, something you never see in movies anymore. I waited in the rain for two hours just to sit up and on the side to catch the first screening of Inside Llewyn Davis. Alexander Payne, Bruce Dern and June Squibb brought Nebraska to Cannes — such a splendid portrait of the America the corporations forgot. Then, to be there in Telluride when 12 Years a Slave was first screened. Nobody knows anything and that first screening could have gone terribly wrong. But it moved everyone — some were moved to tears, others couldn’t bear it, some were moved by the sheer artistry of it. It would take a while for the whispering that it wasn’t a movie voters would like to seep through the collective. Back then, this was just the thrill of seeing something new, before the awards race got its greasy fingers on it.
I’d already heard the buzz out of Venice that Gravity was exceptional. Out there on the outskirts of Telluride, bundled up to stay out of the rain in the brand new Werner Herzog theater — what an experience to see Gravity and walk out feeling like you’d just climbed Everest. It would be a while before the whispers about this or that about accuracy, this or that about Sandra Bullock, would seep through. Lucky me, I got to see it before all of that happened, back when it was still a wonder.
And even now, watching The Wolf of Wall Street on a tiny screen at the Landmark with many bloggers and critics in attendance and walking out of it dazzled, dumbfounded and enthralled. Not ten minutes later the chatter in the party afterwards was whether “they” would like it, Academy members who apparently have traded their artistic courage in for a visit from Dr. Feelgood. “They” were going to be a problem for The Wolf of Wall Street and forever for great films everywhere. But were they the problem or were we? We’re so worried about whether it’s going to rain we can’t stop and enjoy the sunshine.
Now that we’re at the point where some last minute entries that bypassed the festival circuit are making a strong showing here in the 11th hour — American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, we’re now coming close to our Best Picture consensus, the films most people can agree upon as being the best of the year. All of these contenders have their reasons for being here – they touch on a personal narrative many can relate to, they achieve such a high level of excellence overall they can’t be ignored, or they dare to go places none of us ever could and perhaps they drag us kicking and screaming along the way.
Inevitably films fall away for whatever reason. Sometimes they just can’t break through the stronger films — they like this movie a lot but not better than that movie. Sometimes they don’t even bother watching a movie they know is going to be a bummer. The question isn’t whether they will watch it or not, but whether they will vote for it without having watched it at all, simply based on what others have been saying about how good it is. I can’t get anyone to watch Blackfish, despite the urgency of the situation at Sea World right now — a predicament for intelligent whales only a consensus of protesters can fix. No one will watch it and thus, it isn’t really doing much in the documentary race.
JC Chandor took up the task of daring to make a film that is poetry on screen. It is something most of are uncomfortable with, especially now in the modern world where you can’t even fill up your gas tank without an advertisement blaring at you. Half the time, these ads play automatically when we visit a website. It’s then a panicky five minutes as you try to find the silence button – all the while an advertiser’s message is embedding itself in your brain to buy yet one more thing. In the great expanse of blue contrasted with Robert Redford’s sandy red hair, and in all of that silence where our great big watery sea is churning — there is a meditation on life, a study on the metaphysical. Chandor’s vision was helped along by Redford’s agreement to do the film. And yet, no one wants to watch a film about a man in a boat with no dialogue. Actors thrive on two things: their face and their dialogue. Most people have no problem with Scarlett Johansson’s vivid voice performance of Samantha in Her, but can’t seem to relate to Redford’s silent one, where only his face reveals what he’s going through.
In a better awards race, voters would not want to massage the same shaft again and again to same damned result each time — to find that movie that suits their sensibilities rather than expands the rules of cinema, even just a little bit. The only thing that can support a film like All is Lost is support from the awards community and yet…
That is one of the bummers of Awards2013, along with complaints that Saving Mr. Banks is sexist and Frozen isn’t politically correct enough. Sure, these things are worth discussing but how many years in a row are we going to throw the baby out with the bathwater because we forgot we were looking at art and instead feel involved in some political process?
The awards watching community, myself included, needs to calm the fuck down. These awards are shoved into the month of voting way too early now – the rush to judgment has people scrambling each time a name is left off the list – even the National Board of Review and the Golden Globes are being credited with leading the awards race the morning they’re announced. And it’s true, Oscar voters are just days from the beginning of their voting. Is it any wonder they usually end up sticking to those films that came out much earlier? The reliable horses rather than the loose canons? Who knows when one of them will crack open a Pandora’s box of politically correct hysteria.
There are so many good films this year that once you get through the top tier — Steve McQueen, Martin Scorsese, Alexander Payne, Joel and Ethan Coen, David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, Alfonso Cuaron, and Paul Greengrass. You also have newish directors like Jean-Marc Valle, John Lee Hancock and John Wells pushing through. There is Woody Allen, Jason Reitman, Richard Linklater, Stephen Frears — and brand new directors like Ryan Coogler, or Chandor. What to do when you have just nine slots for Best Picture and five slots for Best Director? You start weeding out by paying attention to the consensus.
The consensus builds as the season progresses and soon it can’t be messed with. It has snowballed into a definite shape, with very little to slow it down or alter it.
To my mind, the best indicator for Best Picture comes not from the Golden Globes, nor from the Screen Actors Guild, nor any of the major critics who have announced thus far but simply to the American Film Institute, who have provided a working blueprint of the Best Picture consensus, give or take a film or two.
The American Film Institute has listed the following:
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis Nebraska Saving Mr. Banks The Wolf of Wall Street
But so far, Saving Mr. Banks seems to be missing necessary attention. Therefore, I am willing to bet that the consensus really is:
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Wolf of Wall Street
That’s nine, which is very likely the number we’ll see this year. Ten seems unlikely, math-wise, but you’ll have to ask Steve Pond to explain it.
That takes away:
Saving Mr. Banks
For either of those to get in, they’d have to bump either The Butler or Wolf of Wall Street.
The SAG added support (which counts for more than the Golden Globes)
Dallas Buyers Club
August: Osage County
The other film to watch out for is Philomena, which just earned Picture and Screenplay at the Globes. It is a crowd-pleaser that will very likely have its advocates in the Academy.
Your wild cards predictions would then be:
Dallas Buyers Club
Saving Mr. Banks
I think The Butler gets in because of its SAG support, its box office and it being one of the two films by an African American director this year, and one that has made $115 million at the box office. But I really think any of the above could get in, especially Philomena.
Best Picture is decided not by the film most people agree is best – but by the film most people agree is good. To pick a consensus winner now you have to find one with the least amount of flaws. That’s a tall order in the world of art where perfection really has no place. If the artist seeks perfection, that is his or her cross to bear. But we who are lucky enough to enjoy these films have no business deciding best if that means finding the one with the least amount of flaws. A consensus in large numbers can’t really be built on the positives so it has to rely on the least amount of negatives.
Time really sorts it all out, however, and we here reporting on it are left to explain why things went down the way they did because in ten years no one is really going to understand it. They rarely do, unless the film being feted is unequivocal – like The Godfather films. Usually, though, your winners are a result of momentary fancy and contagious enthusiasm. Voters just need an incentive, a good Oscar story or to fall in love with a film that so transports them for a time they can’t see anything else, like Slumdog Millionaire or The Artist. Without that, movies can be dismissed as winners because of silly things like box office or the scandal du jour — trumped up outrage that serves as smoke and mirrors, temporarily taking it out of competition.
As a screenwriting teacher once told me, there are only two genres. Good movies and bad movies. You know them when you see them. As movies have become more sanitized to fit into the PG-mold, here comes Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, a hard R movie made by a master of the form at a time when most filmmakers have lost their touch. You hear awards chatter coming out of this morning’s announcements saying that the Golden Globe and SAG nominations were “bad for Th Wolf of Wall Street.” Well isn’t that just too bad for the Globes? Failing to recognize visionary filmmaking isn’t on the film. It’s on the people who vote for the films. It is their record we analyze years later to see if THEY got it right. We never stop to question whether the movie was good or not. We know it was.
Just at a time when tent poles have taken over Hollywood, where films are more and more delivering to us a fantasy world that costs millions, here comes All is Lost, with one man, a boat, and all of the human experience tangled up in it. At a time when most films are in 3D here comes Alexander Payne’s Nebraska — stark black and white, plain spoken and quirky — and again, the American dream defined, rendering us powerless against it. Life is compromise. At a time when almost every film is about a singular male experience along comes Gravity and puts a woman in there instead. The target demo has had a hard time adjusting to this. Women are there to mother, fuck, help or make fun of. But this woman’s own experience is what the film is actually about. At a time when we’ve sacrificed much of our time for this tiny electronic cyberworld, along comes Spike Jonze’s Her to remind us that what we humans can do best is be brave enough to love, in all of its sloppy imperfection. American Hustle takes us back to the 1970s, Inside Llewyn Davis took us to Greenwich Village before Dylan showed up. August: Osage County is an entire film about a dysfunctional family of cruel and domineering women.
And then there’s Steve McQueen — a filmmaker who marches to the beat of his own drum and certainly isn’t going to start kissing ass to win awards. He made a film that is maybe even not a film for the people to understand slavery, but it is wiping clean of Hollywood — and the Oscars — treatment of slavery, which has been shameful. The only movie to ever win Best Picture that had to do with slavery was Gone with the Wind in 1939. No black director has ever won an Oscar. Hell, only one black actress has ever won lead. Sooner or later Oscar voters, and the predominantly white male film critics are going to have to decide if they’re only going to support one kind of film — one that speaks to the white experience, the comfortable narrative. We live in multicultural country and yet, year after year, our film awards to one specific culture — give or take a Slumdog Millionaire or two.
I would trade any of the films I’ve been moved by this year for anything. None of them were easy to get made, marketing them even harder, and now, the awards race makes assholes of us all.
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Wolf of Wall Street
Best Director — DGA
David O. Russell
Alt. Joel and Ethan Coen
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Forest Whitaker, The Butler
Robert Redford, All is Lost
Alt. Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Judi Dench, Philomena
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Alt: Daniel Bruhl, Rush, James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Oprah Winfrey, The Butler
June Squibb, Nebraska
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
Alt. Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station
Eric Singer, David O. Russell, American Hustle
Spike Jonze, Her
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Bob Nelson, Nebraska*
Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
Alt. Danny Strong, The Butler, Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Terrence Winter, Wolf of Wall Street
Steve Coogan, Philomena
Billy Ray, Captain Phillips
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Before Midnight Alt. Jennifer Lee, Frozen