Good directors are everywhere. They populate the awards race this year and every year. They dazzle with their first movie, try to live up to it in their second movie and with each hyped film try to beat back the seduction of Big Hollywood and its long inappropriate affair with superhero movies and films about branded toys. I’m lucky that 2014 turned out to be a year David Fincher released a movie. I don’t think people who cover films are sexist but they don’t have many options this year, not when great filmmakers young and old finds the stories of men so fascinating. They are fascinating. They are not the problem. The problem is the lack of an equally fascinating female characters.
Enter Amazing Amy.
Because Fincher trusted Gillian Flynn to adapt her own novel, stuck to that commitment, we get a retwisted adaptation of Flynn’s book that is a dramatic departure the book’s fans weren’t expecting. The cinematic Amy was far less likable, but far more compelling. The daring and heartstopping ending still confuses people. “It’s got a dumb ending,” at least one guy will tell me on Twitter. They didn’t believe Ben Affleck’s character would stay with Amy. But if you follow the film closely you’ll learn the reason why; you’ll dig deeper into Affleck’s character to find that reason. That’s the beauty of Fincher’s work – he lays out tiny mysteries like breadcrumbs to be uncovered and discovered on multiple viewings. There aren’t many directors like that anymore.
Yet, Fincher is, for some reason, still the “enfant terrible” where the Academy is concerned. His early films were ignored completely, as was Zodiac, a terrifying rumination on obsession. It was, by far, one of the best films of that year yet it was not acknowledged by the Academy. They liked Benjamin Button better. But they really liked The Social Network, which nearly took the Oscars by storm, famously, in 2010. In the end, the Academy and the industry would reject outright Fincher’s film, which still holds the record for most love from the critics. It was also such a final NO to film critics that it left them forever changed. Never again would they unite around a movie the way they did that film, not even this year’s Boyhood. There were two Best Pictures that year, the industry’s choice of the King’s Speech and the critics choice of the Social Network, two films that were polar opposites in every way: sympathetic royal overcomes speech impediment to help win World War II versus a self-made billionaire who changed the world forever but ends the movie unloved and mostly alone.
There is also a story to be told behind the scenes of titans and strategists and publicists and money and rumors and the British Film Council but for our purposes we’re going to ignore all of that – must never shake loose the mirage that the Oscars are a magical night of worthy winners.
To work this job you have to accept the rules of the game. Or at least know them. I know them and most of the time I choose to ignore them. I don’t think the Oscars were ever intended merely to repeat one style of film over and over again. It isn’t that the King’s Speech did not deserve to win – it is like the King himself; it was born to win. The Social Network was kind of accidentally there. It didn’t look like an Oscar movie and nobody liked the people in it.
Gone Girl has remained the year’s biggest question mark where Best Picture is concerned. Most of the top named pundits in the race, like Dave Karger, Scott Feinberg, Kris Tapley and Pete Hammond have all said Gone Girl would not make it in. There were several reasons for this but namely there were too many other movies coming that would knock it out. And, as Kris once said, “there’s that Dragon Tattoo thing.” What is that, you might want to know? Perhaps it’s best if you look at the following chart:
Even with all of that guild support and an AFI nomination, in the end Dragon Tattoo was not deemed serious enough to be nominated. It was too much of a genre picture, too popular, too airport novel-y. Even still, no matter that the entire industry, up to the DGA, thought Dragon Tattoo good enough, the Academy said no. Tapley thinks, and I’m betting he could right, that the same thing is likely to happen to Gone Girl.
By this point, I’m fairly certain the last person who cares about this is Fincher himself. Clearly if he were gunning for Oscar he’d set his movie way in the past, with a script about a man who overcomes obstacles and makes good. The best films THIS year were not tailor-made for Oscar, like the frontrunner, Boyhood. The reason being, if you want to have impact as an artist the last place you’re likely to be recognized is in the Best Picture race. They are very much about the seriousness of good character. They want movies that reflect the goodness in people, that sweet sweet lie we tell ourselves to get through another day. Their lives aren’t miserable so why would they want to dwell in misery? Isn’t it enough, they might think, they have to stock up on antidepressants when confronting the screener pile? Is it too much to ask for a little lightness, a little brightness and a bit with a dog?
Indeed, many Oscar voters are in the twilight of their lives – they’ve seen it all, done it all. Now, they’re more about the comfort of that twilight, the embracing of each day. At that point, and really at every point, just waking up in the morning and standing on two legs is cause to celebrate. So why would they want to dwell, necessarily, in discomfort? No, David Fincher did not set out to make an Oscar movie with Gone Girl but wouldn’t you know he would accidentally make one of the best pictures of the year?
When you look at 2011, and the other years where the race expanded, you’ll see that the Academy punishes success in some ways. Bridesmaids was a silly comedy that would never have gotten nominated but it was also a resounding success that starred and was written by women. The Hangover was successful also and was shut out for the same reasons. Dragon Tattoo was successful and popular in the industry but not deemed ‘important’ or at least MORE important than its competitors, more important than War Horse or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The Oscars are probably never going to change.
2014, though, might force the Oscars to change unless they surprise everyone by picking divisive films like Interstellar and Unbroken. These are much more in keeping with Oscar’s traditional sensibilities than Gone Girl, Nightcrawler or Foxcatcher. There is likely the notion that success is its own reward, even with the drastically altered landscape of the film industry, even with the need to preserve hard R films aimed at adults. Success, Gone Girl style, could be both its own reward ($167 million) and a good example of how the Academy refuses to ever really change.
Even if David Fincher gets a DGA nomination it won’t mean the film is in for Best Picture. It still has to reach enough number one ballots to secure a spot. With our PGA ten one of them has to go – and if you make room for Selma, two have to go:
The Imitation Game
Grand Budapest Hotel
Theory of Everything
There are only two films Gone Girl and The Theory of Everything that have possible Best Actress nominees. If you take out Gone Girl that leaves you with one film that has a lead actress Oscar contender in it. Compare that with all five of the lead actor contenders represented in Birdman, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler, even Ralph Fiennes could squeak in, or Bradley Cooper.
I would have fought for this film anyway – because I can’t stop watching it, because it’s the most visually, emotionally and intellectually satisfying film I’ve seen this year. That it also represents the female voice in the race, perhaps the ONLY ONE in the writing categories who will get in at all, makes me want it to succeed.
If I had to put aside my heart’s desire and be more objective I would say Gone Girl is out for Best Picture. I would say I think Scott Feinberg, Kris Tapley, David Poland and Dave Karger‘s instincts are correct. Nearly everyone else over at Gold Derby has it getting in.