It’s 1941. A movie comes out that blasts a character who has an uncanny resemblance to William Randolph Hearst. It is a cold depiction of the American dream, an icy portrait of a man’s rise from poverty to world-famous fortune, who could never find that thing he needed most: love. Hearst did what he could to block the movie’s success. That movie was Citizen Kane and it’s considered one of the best films of all time. Citizen Kane was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (which it won), Actor, Cinematography (Black and White), Art Direction, Sound, Editing and Score.
It’s 1941. A movie about a detective who comes upon a gang of criminal misfits all in search of a valuable falcon. It was written by a pulp novelist who was considered trash at the time but whose literary stature grew as the years wore on. It’s film noir at its absolute best — some say film noir at its very genesis. It features a lot of unlikable characters who will eventually become among the most beloved in film history. That movie was The Maltese Falcon and it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor.
It’s 1950. A movie about a writer who visits an aging movie star and then dies at the end, in fact he’s dead at the beginning. It’s dark and depressing with no relief in sight. It featured mostly unlikable characters whose best days were behind them. It revealed the dark underbelly of Hollywood, the ugly side of being famous and then forgotten. That movie was Sunset Boulevard and it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Art Direction and Screenplay.
It’s 1950 again. A movie about actresses competing for the top spot on Broadway. One of them seems nice at first but eventually reveals herself to be a nasty, cutthroat sociopath who is manipulated by another sociopath and the two of them become the toast of the New York stage community while more deserving actresses are casually and cruelly cast aside. It never lets up and certainly doesn’t punish the sociopath. She is merely replaced by another and soon to be another and another. That movie was All About Eve and it WON six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Costumes, Best Sound and was nominated for two leading Actress Oscars, three Best Supporting Actress Oscars, Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing and Score.
Shall I continue?
Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Bonnie and Clyde
Five Easy Pieces
The Godfather Part II
The Deer Hunter
The Elephant Man
The Silence of the Lambs*
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
The Social Network
The Wolf of Wall Street
These movies either feature extreme violence, border on horror, or else they have dark or downbeat endings. In his Gone Girl piece, Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg asks that question that comes up any time a film challenges the paradigm of redemptive, happy ending films, “Is it an Oscar movie?” This was also bandied about up in Telluride after Birdman screened.
While it’s true that the majority of films that get rewarded at the Oscars (and can we stop saying simply the Oscars since we’re talking about uniform agreement across all guilds now, the PGA, the DGA and SAG – these groups vary in all age groups) tend to be uplifting stories about heroic people that is not exclusively true.
No one should ever ask the question of whether it’s an Oscar movie or not — they should ask whether it’s a great film or not. If it is, then it should qualify as an Oscar movie. That goes for movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild, movies like The Exorcist and Citizen Kane and movies like Gone Girl.
That’s Feinberg’s job, I get that. His job is to try to talk to voters and try to get to know them better than they know themselves. That’s fine. But I’ve been at this game for 16 years and what I usually see them do — though this has changed somewhat since they changed Oscar voting for Best Picture — is reward the films that stand out, regardless of tone, regardless of feel goodness and regardless of whether they depict humanity in the brightest upbeat light.
I am annoyed at people who continually dismiss Gillian Flynn’s book as a “beach book” or chick lit or, in some really shameful cases, “trash.” While they are certainly entitled to their opinions they happen to be wrong. Flynn’s book is a horror novel and should be categorized as such. If it’s a beach book well, honey, so was Jaws, so was The Godfather, and so was The Shawshank Redemption, Misery and any Stephen King you can come up with. Hollywood has a long tradition of turning so-called “beach books” into Best Picture contenders.
Seriously, what’s more offensive, Goodfellas or Around the World in 80 Days? How about The Towering Inferno? Yes, the public used to help drive Best Picture because they turned out and paid money to see popular films. Those films, in turn, would be rewarded by the Academy. But over the years the Academy has selected out the public’s influence because nowadays can you imagine? Transformers 4 for Best Picture?
Feinberg says Gone Girl is most like Fatal Attraction. Because, he says, they both have crazy women in them. Fatal Attraction is a film that cements the bonds of marriage, punishes the infidels, and offers up prurient sex scenes for mass entertainment. Gone Girl is the polar opposite. The only similarity is that they both involve a blonde who torments a man. Gone Girl may in fact be the flip side of Fatal Attraction when you think about it. The main difference for me — and it’s a big big difference — is that Fatal Attraction is told from the side of the man where Gone Girl is told from the side of the woman. One is a dark and despairing ending and one rights the wrongs of infidelity and sends people home feeling like their marriage still can work.
The other big difference is that David Fincher is a renowned visionary, one of America’s most revered and beloved directors. Adrien Lyne was not. Lyne was nominated once for Fatal Attraction and has gone down in history as an interesting but mainstream director interested in the sexuality of women. Fincher has been nominated twice and is known for having directed some of the best films of all time. I love Scott but this comparison is wrong and lazy; he is an Oscar watcher which means he very well knows how connected the Best Picture race is to a prestigious director.
The Silence of the Lambs, No Country for Old Men, the Godfather films — the Scorsese and Tarantino sagas– these bloody epics, these dark examinations of society are rewarded and not shunned by the Academy, yet Feinberg is suggesting that this film is too much for them or too rough for them. Much of that is to do singularly with who directed these films. Directors matter greatly — they drive the Best Picture race. Fincher is so far one of the most important American directors never to win an Oscar. That matters. They nominated The Godfather III. That’s how much they value the prestige of a director.
Feinberg also says the Academy has been cool on Fincher. Well they nominated Benjamin Button in 13 Oscar categories. They nominated The Social Network for 8, 3 of which it won. While Dragon Tattoo missed out on Picture and Director it WON the editing Oscar without winning any other Oscars and having no Best Picture nomination. That hadn’t been done since 1958 with Bullit. That’s how much they like David Fincher.
We’re not talking about whether Gone Girl can win. Since the Academy is run by men and since so much of the kneejerk reaction to Gone Girl has been a parade of misogyny, dismissing chick lit, dismissing Flynn’s work and most of all, not tracking with the preteen movie pube-free warriors who drive part of the box office tracking, it’s probably unlikely an unsentimental non-weepy indictment of the American dream will or can WIN. No, a consensus vote requires people to turn on their heart lights since 2009’s The Hurt Locker won.
Sure, there are extreme cases that might be “too much” for the Academy. Some might have said that about Black Swan, which came close to winning. What voters require is that it’s a good movie more that they get. Treating them like children is not going to get any of us anywhere.
I’m not saying Feinberg is doing that, but the question overall “Is it an Academy movie” always feels like sand in my shoe. And it always makes me want to break plates.
Gone Girl is what it is — the best film of the year (so far), with Boyhood just behind it (in my opinion). I think Boyhood is still the film to beat for the win as we wait for the rest of the Big Oscar movies to open. Anyone who doesn’t choose the best films of the year for Best Picture, regardless of their content, probably shouldn’t be in the business of choosing best of the year.
Still, all of that said, it’s hard to dismiss Feinberg’s questions. He knows the Academy. So let’s just ghettoize Gone Girl and Birdman, the two best films of the year because they are too hard for the softest softies in the Academy.
What Feinberg might have focused his piece on, rather than the delicate sensibilities of the most sensitive voters (shame on them if that’s the case, shame on them) is to talk about what’s coming next because what’s coming next is the only thing that can prevent Gone Girl from getting nominations. It is a crowdpleaser, like The Departed. It is a noir, like The Maltese Falcon. And it is a devilish comedy, wickedly funny like All About Eve.
My picks for the Best Films of the Year so far — by best I mean they are unique, sometimes moving, sometimes informative and sometimes just plain old entertaining:
1. Gone Girl
6. The Imitation Game
7. Maps to the Stars
8. The Homesman
9. Mr. Turner
11. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The top films I think have the best shot to be nominated as of now:
2. The Imitation Game
3. Gone Girl
4. The Theory of Everything (which I have not seen)
9. The Homesman
10. The Grand Budapest Hotel
11. Mr. Turner
But films that are coming down the pike that could derail any of these:
1. American Sniper
6. Into the Woods