The Best Picture lineup of 2014 has one more pit stop before it reveals itself. That moment has, for the past ten years, felt obvious. Like George Bailey with hopes of traveling the world and perhaps marrying someone mysterious and exotic, at some point he realizes that the girl of his dreams has been living right there in Bedford Falls the whole time. And so it goes with Best Picture these days.
If you’ve been following along with AwardsDaily you’ll know we talk about the date change a lot and how it’s shaped the Best Picture race. Around 2003 the Academy pushed the date back one month from late March to late February — apparently it was a decision to cash in on ratings for their TV show. Little did they know how it would ultimately shape the Oscar race and probably shape how studios roll out movies overall. That caused a domino effect that ultimately would mean the Oscar race is decided by critics and industry voters long before the public has a chance to see many of the films — their opinion of those films has little to do with the outcome of the race.
The most dramatic change, though, has been that the Best Picture winner has not come from any film seen after October since Million Dollar Baby in 2004. Clint Eastwood was one of the few filmmakers who really could just show up and win the whole game without a lot of kowtowing to tastemakers and critics. But since then, the films that have won have been Mary Baileys — right in front of your eyes the whole time, seen either before Telluride/Toronto or during.
Titanic – no festival, open to public
Shakespeare in Love – no festival, open to public
American Beauty – no festival, open to public
Gladiator – no festival, open to public
A Beautiful Mind – no festival, open to public
Chicago – no festival, open to public
Return of the King – no festival, open to public
Million Dollar Baby – no festival, open to public
Crash – (Toronto)
The Departed – no festival, open to public
No Country for Old Men (Cannes)
Slumdog Millionaire (Telluride)
The Hurt Locker (Toronto)
The King’s Speech (Telluride)
The Artist (Cannes)
12 Years a Slave (Telluride)
The old way: films were rolled out during what we used to think of as Oscar season — from September to December. By year’s end, the box office take was recorded, as were the reviews, and THEN the voters made their decisions. What films were popular with the public (Gladiator, Titanic) mattered more than what the critics and tastemakers thought.
I’ve been here to watch the transformation, and have been part of it, and I remember how it used to be. There didn’t used to be an entire industry devoted to awards watching. Back then, everybody wasn’t an expert. You actually had to have some qualifications to be a film critic (journalist, educated, experienced) and not just anyone could ‘publish.’ But the internet leveled the playing field and, suddenly, anyone could cook. And they did. That has impacted the race, taking it mostly out of the hands of the studios — who were really trying to give the public what it wanted, make money and maintain the status quo, and into the hands of people who think the Oscars should matter more than that — that they should reward the best films.
Voters have resisted the change, especially lately. They do not want things to evolve so fast and, thus, they continue to lean towards those traditional crowdpleasing nuts and bolts films driven by the Big Three: Acting, Directing, Writing. In that order. They are less inclined towards effects-driven films, which explains why they have a single category to honor that genre: Best Visual Effects. Occasionally they crowd into the other tech categories like Sound, Art Direction, Cinematography. But to voters that is mostly where they belong. Alfonso Cuaron winning for Gravity and Ang Lee winning for Life of Pi, signal a tiny shift in that direction. In ten years you might see effects-driven films dominating the Oscar race.
That brings us to this year. Now that Toronto is mostly over, it seems to have delivered one Best Picture contender and maybe firmed up another. Films so far this year seem to be divided into a few key categories. The first, Great British Men Doing Great Things: The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game and Mr. Turner. The second will be the dark reveal of the ugly side of American culture: Foxcatcher, Birdman, and soon to be Gone Girl.
Then there will be true stories of American heroes: Selma (Martin Luther King, Jr.), Unbroken (Louie Zamperini), American Sniper (Chris Kyle), and Fury, a fictional account of the last push to defeat Nazi Germany.
And finally, fantasy — with Interstellar and Into the Woods.
Toronto has delivered The Theory of Everything, which appears headed straight for the major categories, and Whiplash, which Indiewire’s Anne Thompson had on her radar since Sundance. If that film wins Tiff’s Audience Award that gives it even more heft heading into the race.
There is one more game-changer this year, or there could be, and that’s the New York Film Festival unfurling at the end of this month. The two films that will be introduced into the race there will be David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Neither of these directors make movies for Oscar voters. They just don’t think: how can I make a movie that’s going to win Best Picture? The first reason, they don’t need to. Neither of their legacies are going to be defined by the 6 thousand or so Oscar voters whose lives are so comfortable they resent being made Uncomfortable.
Being that Oscar voters tend to be softies, especially lately, you can pretty much count on turning on your heart-light once again as we look towards what will dominate the Best Picture race and why.
Right now, as September comes to a close, one film continues to define 2014 and that’s Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. If you’re looking for a film right now that has the best chance to WIN Best Picture, this is it. Just making that statement, of course, puts it in a vulnerable spot. But the thing about this film, and most recent Best Picture winners, it can take the heat because it isn’t divisive. Right now it’s quietly hovering in the background with the nicest people in Hollywood representing it. If you are underestimating Boyhood right now you are not paying attention.
Its position could shift dramatically as films we have seen roll out — Interstellar, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Fury, and Clint Eastwood showing up once again at the last minute with American Sniper — they are all gambling on end of the year releases to cinch Best Picture, which hasn’t been achieved since 2004. BUT that doesn’t mean this won’t be the year all of that changes.
Again, the public has nothing to do with the race right now except for those who keep coming out to see Boyhood, sometimes twice. In the real world the movie people are talking about is Boyhood. Its challengers so far are films that have become the most talked about at the various festivals so far.
For the record: One thing In Contention’s Kris Tapley said on Twitter was a funny comment that could only have been made by an old school Oscarwatcher. He said that Clint Eastwood could just show up and clear the room with American Sniper. He did it with Unforgiven and did it again with Million Dollar Baby and very nearly did it again with Letters from Iwo Jima.
1. Birdman. Talking about this film is how the whole process gets dumbed down. No one should come out of Telluride saying the film won’t win because it will be too divisive. That might true but they say that like it’s a bad thing. That it’s divisive means it’s doing SOMETHING RIGHT. It’s pushing buttons, challenging its audience. In short: delivering brilliant, groundbreaking, unforgettable CINEMA. Remember cinema? Remember when movies were judged on how great they were rather than their so-called “Oscar potential?” Think about what James Rocchi always says about how little he cares about the Oscar race because of WHO THEY ARE. Remember who the Oscar voters are. Remember how little what they think actually matters. If they huddle up to a film like Birdman (or if they had for Inside Llewyn Davis last year) that makes THEM look GOOD, not the other way around. They need to catch up to the artists, have their own realities shaken a bit, be given something other than a warm blanket and a cuddle and a goodnight kiss from mommy saying it will all be all right. Guess what? It isn’t all right. Nothing about our culture right now is all right. We can continue to look backwards in time and vote for films that reflect those moments we understand OR we can celebrate those sensitive writers and directors who are getting at truths that aren’t so comfortable. Life is a bucket of shit with the handle on the insides. The Oscars aren’t about rewarding that which denies this basic truth about life in 2014. It’s a mixed bag of beauty and shit. Let’s keep our aperture as wide open as possible, shall we?
2. The Imitation Game. Though it isn’t setting the critics on fire yet, critics can’t be measured the same way they used to be. Who they are has shifted too dramatically. Thus, one can’t count on them to give you an accurate reading of films that might appeal to voters since many critics these days get a whiff of “Oscar” and recoil in horror. They judge the film as “Oscar bait” rather than a film meant for actual audiences. And yes, perception is everything in the Oscar race. When the HFPA can make a difference you know perception is everything. The Imitation Game would fare far better if it had the critics on its side the way they’re on Boyhood’s side but it was still the most or the second most talked about film at Telluride. It is a moving, entertaining, heartbreaking crowd pleaser. It’s socially relevant and most importantly, it is backed by Harvey Weinstein and the Weinstein Co.
3. Foxcatcher. See number 1. Add to that: Bennett Miller has made a quiet, disturbing meditation on the secluded, padded, protected life of the 1% — a group of people who think the rules do not apply to them. This movie is about one person but it could be about the Koch brothers or Donald Trump. Sure, the real life guy was psychotic, truly mentally ill. And yes, much of the true story is not included in Miller’s film. It isn’t required to be. This is a film that operates on a gloriously metaphorical level. It is our American story as much as Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is. It is brilliant, expert filmmaking that simply tops almost anything anyone else brought to Cannes. So if you want to dumb things down and worry about what “they” will think, go ahead. In the end all that will mean is that you a mind reader of a group of very predictable people for whom life has become altogether too easy. That isn’t the real world and there is no room for such limited thinking in the vibrant world of American film.
4. The Theory of Everything. Though I’ve not seen the film, it is clear that this was one of the films that moved people attending the Toronto Film Festival. It is about one of the great thinkers of our time who was stricken with ALS. From the looks of it the film is headed for the major categories.
On the Edge
5. Mr Turner
Hovering on the Fringe
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel
9. The Homesman
10. The Judge
Films that should be considered for Best Picture but won’t:
2. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The heavy hitters still to come
Into the Woods
Either way, we are still in the morning fog of Oscar season. We don’t know the outcome yet because we don’t know what’s coming. And so we wait, and we wait.