The lost boys that crowd Oscars 2015 have no real qualities to be leaders or heroes. They are fumbling around trying to avoid failure at all costs. That failure claps through the canyon like a falcon’s cry — who are we now? It’s an important question to ask. The country is more divided than it’s ever been. Hollywood feels the pull of international box office threatening to transfigure domestic product. Liberals put their faith in Obama only to then see their idealism thwarted. Terrorism, mass murder, random and frequent gun violence. Giant masses of trash floating around in our oceans, large percentage of wildlife destroyed in the past 40 years. How could anyone feel hopeful about the future? Is that why our cinematic heroes must either dwell in a past where hope did spring eternal or in the fantasy realm where our imaginations can take over and real life isn’t real at all but an irrelevant point in the workings of the plot? All the while a mishmash of social justice and political correctness working its way through the way we talk, the way we make movies, the way stars are built up then torn down. We are our political beliefs, our well chosen words, our Apple products, our environmental footprint. We’re powerless.
We’re not ready to give up on our ubiquitous male protagonists, however. Because they can’t be heroes, they flail around not being heroes — preserved in the 1970s model of Five Easy Pieces where there is nowhere left to go except inward. The present-day hero is a lost boy, a diminished manchild, incapable of being a leader in what feels like a world gone wrong.
The film of 2014 that lies outside the insular world of critics and pundits, outside the fanboy culture of comic book and superhero movies is the one audiences have been flocking to, talking about, reading about, wondering about, arguing about, breaking up over – and that’s David Fincher’s box office phenomenon, Gone Girl. That pundits aren’t even talking about this film as potential Best Picture winner, or even nominee, shows that we’ve failed in our industry. To second-guess Oscar voters, thinking they won’t nominate a film like that is absurd. And yet, that’s because we live in that world. We have a list of what Oscar voters will like. We have numeric measurements of such – and there are those pesky Academy screenings where a few dismissed the film outright, which does nothing more than prove that they’re the ones who have lost touch with what audiences want to see from a major studio that is aimed at adults. Remember that kind of movie?
What a thrill to watch Gone Girl’s opening scenes – flash cards depicting a decaying world. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross set the mood, Jeff Cronenweth’s camera puts the chilly world on display where something is just not quite right. Finches’ gift as a director is to deliver dual worlds. There is one thing on the surface. There is a whole other thing underneath. His expert collaborative team sends the message that you are in capable hands of a master at the top of his game. The criticisms ranged from men saying the film wasn’t Zodiac-y enough to women uncomfortable with the negative aspects of the female anti-hero. It’s a mistake to trap a filmmaker in what you define as his or her style. Fincher’s range as a director is impressive. Zodiac is a masterpiece, no question, but so is Gone Girl. It may take a woman to know it.
Watch from the first frame to the last a director at the top of his game, with such an assured hand – no one makes films that deliberately anymore, where every note of music, every article of clothing, every reflection in every piece of glass, even the seemingly random sounds have all been specific choices. It is rare to have any film come close to that level of exactness. Flynn’s and Fincher’s Amy Dunne emerges like a monster of that forgotten sex and lays it to waste with the “cool girl” monologue, which is more about what men want from women — what almost every film in the Oscar race has helped perpetuate — the myth that women are only here for men. Amy Dunne had a better idea.
The other definitive modern film about a lost boy is Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which works as both a somewhat fictional account of the DuPont murder, as well as an insightful commentary on how the 1% has screwed the middle-class. In this case, Channing Tatum plays a hopeful protagonist just trying to work hard and succeed within the confines of the American dream. He is usurped and manipulated by the tragic DuPont, who is so cut off from everyday life he has created his own ecosystem. Foxcatcher, like Gone Girl, depicts a haunting of a kind of American life — what once was and never can be again. They speak the truth, however, even if both dwell in the realm of black comedy.
The auteur in the Oscar race still surges. At the top of that list has to be Richard Linklater and Boyhood. Boyhood represents the film that no one hates, and the one that stands apart from all others because it took 12 years to make. The only negative anyone can come up with, and it’s blurted out from time to time by lazy thinkers, is that it’s “only a gimmick.” It isn’t a big moneymaker but it was made on the cheap with a lot of heart and dedication to the craft of filmmaking. It represents a smaller but thriving Hollywood independent film industry, but more than that, it represents the auteur as the singular force that drives cinema. Written by. Directed by. One person’s thorough artistic expression. Boyhood’s success is not simply that it was made by Richard Linklater and is about the passage and the meaning of life, but that it connects on some universal level to those who have grown up, had children, and felt first hand the swiftness of time. Boyhood beautifully illustrates that one of the best special effects can simply be to show how fast time slips away from us and why the memory of a sunset view with a pretty girl at the beginning college might be delicious enough to carry us on through the ravages of time and aging.
The auteur is also alive and well with Dan Gilroy’s sleeper hit Nightcrawler and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. They are both tightly written and directed and neither loses site of its film’s main point. If you went to film school you would recognize these as the kinds of films students are taught to make. They are precise, exacting and never deviate from their goal. They are also satisfying and entertaining films overall. Though it must be noted that even in the world of the modern auteur women are sidelined as supporting characters, though way more colorfully handled in Nightcrawler than in Whiplash. This won’t matter to Oscar voters, as it hasn’t mattered to critics. You can add J.C. Chandor to the auteur list, although his film isn’t as structured as the other two films and will have a harder time being placed neatly into the Oscar race.
The flipside of the precise auteurs would be the freewheelers like Paul Thomas Anderson who quietly made one of the best films of the year with Inherent Vice. No one will know what to make of it but it is one of the most fascinating, brilliantly rendered cinematic experiences of the year. It’s just that there’s no box to put it in for the Oscar race and, like Gone Girl, perhaps it’s better for it.
Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar feels like freewheeling auteurism, just with $165 million to spend. Though Nolan, like Alfonso Cuaron last year, is playing with state-of-the-art visual effects, he has earned the freedom to make exactly the movie he wanted to make. His fans have stuck with him through this, helped to understand his movie by wanting to understand him. To love an auteur’s work is to love the auteur. Thus, Interstellar isn’t just the one movie – it is all of Nolan’s work taken into consideration leading to this. The most divisive of his films and certainly the one the critics have been most harsh with, almost everyone is giving him a major pass for ambition and effort; how many big budget films in Hollywood would have dared to be as convoluted and daring as this? Is it a success? Who’s to say. It will be measured by the money it makes, by the awards it wins but none of those can compete against the fans who got exactly what they wanted.
But convoluted storylines are harder to place than exacting ones, which helps Nightcrawler and Whiplash and hurts Inherent Vice and Interstellar. It could be argued that both protagonists in these films are lost boys who then must be found. They are boys haunted by memories of women. Interstellar represents the oddly old-fashioned view of love — no sex. While Inherent Vice is one of the few films in 2014’s race to have any sort of sexuality present. That is because Paul Thomas Anderson’s world view includes sex, thank god. It is absent almost every other drama this year.
Wes Anderson has invented his own genre and it is built entirely on auteurism. The Wes Anderson oeuvre has reached its apex with The Grand Budapest Hotel – a delightful, odd romp that could only have come from the mind of Anderson. But as with all auteurs, to love the work it’s important to first to love the auteur — and many do. Just not many Academy members so far. That is neither here nor there. Though this film dwells in the past where finding heroes was much easier.
Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman is the critics darling of the year so far, and it’s no wonder. A perfect movie from start to finish, Michael Keaton’s Birdman is about a lost boy too. A fading actor whose only success that can be measured was his turn as a superhero. He really can’t move forward because he has nowhere to go except back to playing a superhero (he’d rather die) or reproducing a once in a lifetime stunt that goes viral on the internet. It’s a lose-lose. Probably too many film critics (save for dearly departed Roger Ebert) see film’s future as a lose-lose. No one wants to be stuck writing about superhero movies either. In Birdman they see their martyr for the cause, standing up for the roots of drama and organics of filmmaking. Only a few critics were insulted by the portrayal of the film critic. But that one bit in the film will have professionals in Hollywood cheering.
It is bravura filmmaking by an unrewarded director. The funny thing about Birman is that its so-called “gimmick” is the least memorable thing. Sure, the film seemingly shot in one take with the solo drumbeat score is kind of cool, but what you remember about Birdman is Michael Keaton’s face. His face and the dialogue so vividly rendered is equal to the camera work making for one of the most exciting films to watch this year. But Birdman is the antidote to what many industry professionals are lamenting about modern Hollywood. It is the one tiny protest against the wave of change, the dominance of superhero movies that no one can really stand except fanboys and ticket buyers. Many who work in Hollywood as actors or writers or directors did not get in the business to massage the inner 13 year-old of the American psyche, nor dwell in the realm of masked avengers. That has its own whole industry. Birdman is, therefore, a fist waving rallying cry, even if it seems futile.
But the Oscar race, as defined by pundits in 2014 is based on their recent history, which has rewarded films about heroes that took place in the past, a past we can all understand better. 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech. 2009’s The Hurt Locker was the last film to win that took place in present day. That puts The Imitation Game immediately in the winner’s circle. The People’s Choice winner in Toronto, and the most liked on the festival circuit, the film is being rolled out by the Weinstein co. That means it’s most likely one of your top three contenders this year, along with Birdman and the frontrunner, Boyhood.
In keeping with them is The Theory of Everything, about the life of Stephen Hawking, a surefire Best Picture contender and possibly Best Actor winner. In the same genre — Biopics, old-fashioned and British — you have Mr. Turner. Though this film is about a reluctant hero — a mad genius, in fact — whose painting was inexplicably full of light and hope where his personal life and personality was anything but.
If you take Oscar punditry out of the equation and look at the race for Best Picture of 2014 you are looking at three movies: Boyhood, Birdman and Gone Girl. When you factor in Oscar pundits, however, the Oscar race is still down to Boyhood, The Imitation Game (which hasn’t opened yet) and Birdman. Tonight, American Sniper and Selma will screen. They will either alter the dynamic or they won’t. Unbroken is still being held up by many as a potential frontrunner though it hasn’t yet been seen. A Most Violent Year and The Gambler are films that could have benefited from being seen earlier in the race as it takes time for opinions to be shaped. Out of the gate they aren’t going to get the kinds of reviews they need but sometimes films need the public to help shape their narrative. Though the Oscar race is decided behind closed doors long before the public even sees the films, sometimes audiences can make all the difference, as they maybe have with Gone Girl.
We are headed for darker days — the darker they get, the more Academy members seem to dig their heels in and reach for the films that signify the hero, the guy who can still overcome obstacles and succeed, the guy who makes life seem almost worth it.
Finding directors to make those kinds of movies, however, is getting harder. Most of the best of them are more fascinated by what confounds us and torments us, what makes our present day so hard for heroes to bloom and why those heroes can’t move forward but are thwarted, stuck back in some different time, preserved as boys who can’t ever become men.
3. The Imitation Game
4. Gone Girl
6. The Theory of Everything
7. Mr. Turner
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Haven’t been seen:
Into the Woods
A Most Violent Year
1. Michael Keaton, Birdman
1. Eddie Redmayne, Theory of Everything
1. Benedict Cumberbatch, Imitation Game
4. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
5. Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
6. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
7. Mark Wahlberg, The Gambler
8. Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year
9. Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar
Special mention favorite who won’t be considered: Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice
Unseen: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper, Jack O’Connell, Unbroken, David Oyelowo, Selma
1. Julianne Moore, Still Alice
2. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
3. Reese Witherspoon, Wild
4. Hilary Swank, The Homesman
5. Felicity Jones, Theory of Everything
6. Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars
7. Anne Dorval, Mommy
8. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle
Unseen: Emily Blunt, Into the Woods
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
1. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
2. Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
3. Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
4. Emma Stone, Birdman
5. Laura Dern, Wild
6. Carrie Coon, Gone Girl
7. Jessica Chastain, Interstellar
8. Kristen Stewart, Still Alice
9. Jessica Lange, The Gambler
Unseen: those from Into the Woods, Selma, American Sniper
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
1. JK Simmons, Whiplash
2. Ed Norton, Birdman
3. Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
4. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
5. Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
6. Tyler Perry, Gone Girl
7. Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
8. John Cusack, Maps to the Stars
9. John Goodman, The Gambler
1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
2. Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
3. David Fincher, Gone Girl
4. Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
5. Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
6. Morton Tyldum, The Imitation Game
7. Bennet Miller, Foxcatcher
8. James Marsh, Theory of Everything
9. Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
10. Wes Anderson, Grand Budapest Hotel
Unseen: Angelina Jolie, Unbroken, Ava DuVernay, Selma, Clint Eastwood, American Sniper, Rob Marshall, Into the Woods
Special mention favorite who probably won’t be considered: Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice