Oscar Voting Begins on Wednesday. By the time the ballots are in voters hands, most of them will already know what movies they’re voting for and why. They’ve been given time to mull it over, talk about it with others at parties, debate it on Facebook. The Producers Guild and Directors Guild are also voting right now. They, too, will have figured out which films they want to honor and why. Their collective wisdom will settle on one choice, the best-regarded ‘right’ choice, the one almost everyone can agree is the best of the year.
There is a current running through this year’s Oscar race that conflicts with recent history. It’s a current that perhaps lifts us from our usual state of being and into one that is impacted by the upcoming election, by the war on terrorism, by the knowledge that we have to act now or our planetary habitat as we know it, along with countless other species, will not live to see 100 years. The last time there was a major shift in American culture was in 2008, when the first black president took office just as the Academy expanded their Best Picture slate.
Since then, the industry has been all but consumed by the story of the Lost Man. Sure, there are other themes involved. Birdman is about superhero movies strangling art in Hollywood. 12 Years a Slave is about slavery. Argo is about imagining how Hollywood might have helped to free the hostages in Iran, The Artist is about evolving out of the fading silent film industry on the cusp of the sound era and a celebration of old Hollywood, The King’s Speech is about defeating Hitler with a stiff upper lip, and the Hurt Locker is about personal calamities created by the war in Iraq — but each of these films at its core circles a singular male protagonist. This most recent phase in the Academy”s evolution has been a time of making history with the first film directed by a black man to win Best Picture, and the first film directed by a woman to take home six of the top Oscars. How could we witness the inauguration of our country’s first black president and not see some kind of shake up reflected in the Oscar race — and in the identity crisis of the mostly white male patriarchy that rules it?
The Academy itself is dragging members kicking and screaming into the present day by electing their own first black female president. There has been nothing overly confident or ideologically strident in most of the protagonists who’ve driven the past few Best Picture winners since 2008 — if anything, the opposite attitude has taken hold — a kind of self-pitying back-patting that says, “There there now, everything will be all right.” Even Solomon Northrup, a man who could never have been expected to carry the burden of the modern American white male, by dint of his tribulations was never granted authority as a strident hero. Rather, he could barely act within his confines of oppressive enslavement. Even Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, who chooses the numbing madness of war and killing over the equally paralyzed domestic bliss of ordinary life back home, has in him a fair amount of the flawed, lost man.
But all of that could shift quite suddenly this year, an election year that has brought us to the precipice of perhaps the first woman president (“there there, now”) or the first socialist Jew (a hero to many lost citizens, man and woman alike). For the first time since Crash we’re potentially looking at a film that has bigger themes on its mind than a flailing lost man-child protag. Spotlight is not about a man grappling with his own identity or struggling to wrestle free from failure. It’s about heroic determined individuals doing their job, standing up for truth, justice and the American way — which includes holding true to the importance of the Free Press to achieve important things like toppling the corrupt Catholic archdiocese of Boston, for starters.
Even if you move away from the frontrunner to The Big Short — wildly brilliant but altogether too perplexing (probably) for industry voters — you’ll see a theme that is bigger than all of its fumbling, stumbling protagonists put together. In both films, there is a sense of redefining the rules by which we Americans will have to live our lives, no matter who becomes president.
Somehow in our growing realization that we face another phase of upheaval in the upcoming transformation, we’ve become embedded in the 1950s, a time when things weren’t ideal for many people — like gay women in Todd Hayne’s Carol, or suspected KGB agents testing our definitions of human rights in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Perhaps that’s one reason the third film set in the 1950s, with its fresh-faced immigrant finding ways to adapt in John Crowley‘s Brooklyn, isn’t quite resonating the same way; for Eilis Lacey that era feels less oppressive and more a time to remember fondly.
The urgency of our perilous times as a species and a culture is embodied in Alejandro Inarritu’s through-the-past-darkly wilderness epic, The Revenant — which illustrates the corrupt methods through which modern American civilization was launched upon a pristine continent. Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian offer two different paths towards the future — one leads to a horrifying apocalypse and the other shows us how things could go better if we invest in science as a way out. It is hard not to feel the pressing urgency in each one of these films and it’s not surprising when others that don’t feel as urgent are falling away.
Last year, we had two disparate choices in the Best Picture race: Birdman and Boyhood, uncomfortably stuck together for some of us as “Boyman.” We knew it would go one or the other and by the end, the voters opted for the man-child over child-man in a dramatic way. Still, both of those movies were early gets for savvy Awards observers — Sundance and Telluride, way back during the wooing phase where a potential suitor could be met and then properly vetted over the next few months, to outlast the others.
This year is a little less certain. We don’t have two certainties. We really have one quite likely and a whole bunch of maybes. The SAG Awards Ensemble nominations threw everything off because one of the long-proven rules of Oscar stipulates that you can’t win Best Picture without one. That may have stopped many potential favorites in their tracks: The Martian, Room, Brooklyn, The Revenant. It seems to leave Spotlight, The Big Short, Beasts of No Nation, Trumbo and Straight Outta Compton as the 5 films with this essential prerequisite. These weren’t the droids we were looking for. Thus, we pundits must consider the option to throw out everything we know about the Oscar race. Just toss every stat and do what Luke did in the original Star Wars: go on instinct. Let the Force guide us rather than rely on our own knowledge of the stats and the facts.
If we throw everything out that we know, my friend on Facebook who says The Revenant will win could be right. JJ Abrams could be the man of the hour, swoop in with a host of nominations and take the season old school, the way the Oscar race used to go where a film could dive bomb in like Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and take the season like a boss.
If we throw out everything that we know about the Academy, Ridley Scott could finally win the Oscar he didn’t win for Gladiator, Alien or Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down or Thelma and Louise, and the year’s beloved crowdpleaser, The Martian could take the whole thing. If we throw out what we know, George Miller and Mad Max: Fury Road could sweep, leaving the SAG Awards rule in the dust. If we throw out what we know, the first African American director could win with F. Gary Gray conquering the whole thing with Straight Outta Compton. Or Netflix could crash the party and one of the year’s two genuine masterpieces could win Best Picture with beasts of No Nation. If we throw out what we know, Todd Haynes could be the first openly gay director to win an Oscar, and Carol could become the first film with a lead actress nominee to win Best Picture since 2004. Room, for that matter, could win on the crest of its enormous emotional impact.
Beyond all of this there’s a movie that represents a stellar example Hollywood’s biggest shift, though it veers far away from our truth-confronting narratives in the Best Picture race. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has shattered box office records and jolted global culture with all of the right ingredients for trending-topic populist appeal. A female protag, a black hero, warmly kissing the old series goodbye to usher in a fresh start for a durable blockbusting series that should take the top spots at the box office for years to come, just like the first Star Wars did. The good: it reinvents the roles women play in blockbusters. The bad: it depends on branding and pre-awareness to drive this thing, which means more branding and pre-awareness driving all Hollywood product. And less original thinking. The ugly: oh, how easy we are to predict and manipulate, we humans. Give us what we want with fewer choices disguised in more pretty packages. This is true of fast food and it’s true of the Star Wars franchise.
Fandango movie goers were asked to name the best film of 2015, and they answered this way:
1. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
2. “The Martian”*
3. “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2”
4. “Avengers: Age of Ultron”
5. “Furious 7”
6. “Jurassic World’
8. “Trainwreck” *
9. “Inside Out” *
10. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Of these movies — and The Force Awakens won by an overwhelming margin — only three are films that do not come with any kind of branding or pre-awareness (bolded above). This is the popular multiplex climate in which Star Wars is once again changing how we go to the movies, what defines a blockbuster. Its success will lead the way to many more movies just like it moving into the future.
Is it any wonder the voters in awards groups cling to the kinds of dramas that still remind them of who they are, or once were? Lost men grappling with their identity amid a fast changing industry and potentially collapsing world. This year we’ll see the difference illuminated in the Best Picture category as bug guns from all the big studios go up against a traditional independent film that has the best chance to beat them all. At least, for now, unless we throw out everything we know about the Oscar race.
Can Star Wars break through? It didn’t look like it could at first but more and more it’s looking like it might. Somehow, it has to get at least 300 people to choose it as the number one film of the year. It won Fandango’s poll by a big margin.
The Academy has almost always emphatically rejected sequels of any franchise except the Godfather movies and Lord of the Rings — exceptions for obvious reasons. Awards voters across the country are already choosing Mad Max: Fury Road; will they pick Star Wars too and thus, will there be two sequels in the mix? Will they pick Star Wars, The Martian and Mad Max and make this a historic year three sci-fi films in the BP race? The Producers Guild probably will, but I don’t know about Oscar.
If we stick to what we know about the Oscar race, there can be only two winners: Spotlight and The Big Short. To listen even more closely to history and stats only one winner emerges and that’s Spotlight.
That would mean the Best Picture race is over before the nominations have even been announced, and you know, that makes things feel a little quiet. Too quiet. That means there is potential for upset.
Who or what or why or how? That’s what we intrepid Oscarwatchers must find out.
Coming up this week–
The Producers Guild (January 5) (quick spitballed predictions)
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
Straight Outta Compton
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Alt: Beasts of No Nation
The Directors Guild (January 7th) (spitballed predictions)
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Adam McKay, The Big Short or Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies
Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road