This is your mission should you choose to accept it. Spend an entire year talking about which films might go to the Oscar race. To go to the Oscar race the movie must be:
1. A feel-good theme
2. Take place in the past
3. Not have any negative reviews or mixed feelings but must appeal unanimously across the board
4. Have an “Oscar story” (tough to get made, rags to riches, little movie that could)
5. Center on a male protagonist who saves the day against most or all odds, and/or triumphs over a disability (preferably both).
6. Earn enough acclaim in our cynical, jaded, seen-it-all film criticism community to be considered “smart”
7. Not have cost too much money – on the cheap with some profit domestically
8. Have “gravitas” to give voters a sense of urgency – that their vote was not wasted
9. Be directed by a white male (usually)
10. Appeal to the BAFTA
11. Extra credit: be about Hollywood, plays or actors
While #9 and #10 were shattered last year, these rules generally apply. Each and every Oscar blogger heading into the season knows this. When our year begins in Cannes you can already hear the rumbling. David Poland and Jeff Wells said the Academy would never go for Foxcatcher. Pete Hammond said the Academy would never vote for Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars. Mommy, Leviathan and Winter’s Sleep out of Cannes were “foreign” and therefore automatically out of a Best Picture race on a preferential ballot with five slots for nominations. Sure, there is always some wiggle room but unless you’ve got The Artist which covers rules 1-10 above? Forget it.
After Cannes, we ambled towards Telluride and Toronto where our Big Oscar Movies were supposed to hail from. Out of Venice launched Birdman – perfect for the edgy pundits and voters who know that occasionally Oscar likes to access his “dark” side. See rule #11.
But out popped The Imitation Game and shortly thereafter, The Theory of Everything. And BOOM! Your Oscar race just took shape. The most exciting festival was the New York Film Fest which was going to showcase Gone Girl and Inherent Vice. Gone Girl was a film that didn’t tell you how you were supposed to feel because Fincher isn’t that guy. Is it supposed to be funny? (yes)? Is it supposed to be so contemptuous? (yes) Is it satire? (yes) Because it couldn’t be put in a box easily by pundits or critics it got good reviews and an iffy reaction from pundits. It doesn’t cover any of the above rules, well #11 if you’re using your noodle. David Fincher would have his highest grossing film of all time because the public, unlike the critics and the pundits, don’t need to put Gone Girl in a box. It’s one of those old fashioned movies that people actually go see to be entertained.
But because of people like me it was being compared vis a vis the “Oscar box.” Did it fit? Square peg, round hole – nope, doesn’t fit. Add to that the supposed reaction by Academy members who didn’t much care for it (see rules #1-11). It’s a weak year, oh it must be because Gone Girl doesn’t fit in the Oscar box. Neither does Inherent Vice, for that matter. Hoards of bloggers, critics, pundits and people who have no business pretending to be experts of box office, the Oscars or Hollywood were all chiming in on its Oscar prospects. Inherent Vice wasn’t judged as a movie. Like Gone Girl, it was judged against its Oscar prospects. Where to fit such a square peg? WHERE?! MY GOD WHERE?!
If it didn’t enliven the diehard PTA fans and it didn’t move the needle in terms of shaking up the Best Picture race it, too, was “selected out” of a race it never had any business being stuffed into in the first place.
Finally, the biggest elephant in the room lands – Interstellar. It looks like a duck (emotional movie), walks like a duck (gravitas, big effects, virtuoso director) but it doesn’t quite stick its landing either. Perhaps it needed not to be put in the Oscar box in the first place so that it somewhere to go from there besides down.
I’m not sure we can blame the movies for this, my friends. I think we all need to take a good long look at ourselves. I was taken aback by the many think pieces on Gone Girl that sprang off the op-ed pages. The real writers were out there doing the job the film critics failed to do: connect a movie opening at the box office with American culture. They did it brilliantly. But why didn’t the critics? Is it because they were measuring it against points #1-11?
Gone Girl sped right past them, past the Oscar bloggers, lighting the box office on fire, drawing adults out of their caves to see the movie everyone couldn’t stop talking about. And yet …
I don’t know yet know what the fate of Inherent Vice is. I certainly don’t know what is to become of the movies we haven’t seen, like Unbroken, A Most Violent Year, Selma, American Sniper, Into the Woods and The Gambler. My 16 years in this business tells me that if I haven’t seen it yet there’s a reason why. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. But one thing I will force myself to do – I will not judge these preordained “Oscar movies” through the prism of what, as Jim Rocchi continually reminds me, 6,000 individuals of a certain kind of demographic might think.
Every year there is the same lament – it’s such a weak year for Oscar movies. 2010 and 2012 are two years where there was much excitement and much talk about the films that were in the race but both of those years eventually wound up, as the consensus is wont to do, rewarding the “safe” easy-to-like, middle of the road movie. The King’s Speech and Argo. When middle of the road and easy-to-like is your end goal, sooner or later the movies that pundits predict to be in the race are going to be middle of the road and easy-to-like.
Mark Harris attempts to answer this, sympathizing with them for simply voting for what they “like” best. I have no problem with this, by the way. My only sticking point is that they call the Oscars the “highest achievements in film.” Such a lofty description demands higher thinking. It demands examination and analysis. It can’t just be like clicking the “like” button on Facebook.
So is the so-called “weak year of film” the fault of the people who make movies or the lack of imaginations of the pundits? Or the lack of courage of industry voters?
I’m going to go with the latter. How many times already have we heard “they” won’t go for it or “it’s TOO much” for “The Academy”?
Purposefully dumbing down the Oscar race for Best Picture is what leads to the so-called “weak” year. Analysis by pundits and critics, and if need be op-ed writers, bring the debate to the voters and enliven the race overall.
The alternative is laying there and pretending to like it as the same old shit goes down year after year. Why would anyone want to be a daring artist under such mind-numbing constrictions? Television exhibits, week after week, daring and brilliant works that people, all over the world, can’t stop talking about. Films made in other countries – like Xavier Dolan’s Mommy – are alive with experimentation, originality, great characters. And yet the only place where we have routinely dumb it down, smooth it out, soften it, lessen it, dampen it, weaken it is in the biggest contest in film history: the Oscar race. Why? Because people like me spend way too much time worrying about what “they” will do.
Is it a weak year for film? Fuck no. I brought my daughter to see Gone Girl – she stood up at the end of it and said, “wow. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a movie where I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel.” That, my friends, is art.
I remain as excited about 2014 as I’ve ever been. I do not look forward to how it’s all going to turn brown in a month or two. Right now, it is alive with color and vibrancy.
My list of the best films I’ve seen this year so far:
Gone Girl, Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, Birdman, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Mommy, Whiplash, The Homesman, Mr. Turner, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Maps to the Stars, Leviathan, Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to name a few. And look at what’s happening in the documentary race, with Life Itself, CitizenFour, Last Days of Vietnam, The Overnighters, Seymour, Look of Silence. And then in animated, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Big Hero 6, Princess Kaguya.
I have not seen everything – I have not seen near enough of what I need to see but these alone have been worth my time. I look forward to the many films that I haven’t seen, like Inherent Vice, Big Five, Dear White People, Selma, Unbroken, American Sniper, The Gambler and A Most Violent Year.