Thursday, February 27, 2014

The 2013 Oscar Race

I haven’t written that much about the Oscar race this year – other than my nominee and winner predictions. I started several times to write about “Oscar Bloggers”, but always stopped because I really didn’t know what to say (for the record, I read In Contention by Kris Tapley and his excellent contributors and Mark Harris over at Grantland, and that’s about it - and little in the recent Vulture about Oscar bloggers, which barely mentions those two, makes me feel I’m missing anything special by anyone else). I don’t know if Oscar bloggers hurt the race (I don’t think they help much) – but on a certain level I’m glad they’re there. They do ensure that a spotlight is shined on films that aren’t $200 million behemoths about superheroes and fighting robots. I just don’t really feel the need to subject myself to 6 months of (mostly) meaningless blather and predictions – where a different film is anointed each week as a Best Picture contender. The good ones – and Tapley and Harris are both very good – know that they don’t really have an impact on the race, and don’t try to have one. They’re more about tracking the season rather than shaping it – and it helps that both are great writers. (By the way, if you haven’t read Harris’ Picture at a Revolution about the five films nominated for Best Picture in 1967 - Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Doctor Doolittle and the winner In the Heat of the Night – do it now. It’s a great read – and I cannot wait to get my hands on his latest book – Five Came Back – about five Hollywood filmmakers and their lives and careers after WWII.)

Anyway, the reason I haven’t written much about the race this year is simple – unless something about the race really fascinates me, I really don’t feel I have much to say. Last year was fascinating for example – the momentum that Argo built from the moment the nominations came out, and Ben Affleck was snubbed for Director, truly was interesting. Going by Oscar history, Argo shouldn’t have had a chance to win – no director nominated, fourth in total nominations; it wasn’t going to win an Acting Oscar, etc. Also, it was mainly a thriller – a con job movie not unlike The Sting from 1973, which won the Best Picture Oscar, but unlike pretty much every other winner. Last year was also an ugly season – with Zero Dark Thirty being swift boated before the race really started, and some ugly things being said about Lincoln. Again, what was fascinating is how questions of “historical accuracy” killed Zero Dark Thirty, hurt Lincoln, but didn’t affect Argo – which had more issues with historical accuracy than either of the other films. I was also fascinated how people could call Argo and Silver Linings Playbook – the “obvious crowd pleasers”, while dismissing Lincoln as a movie people respected but didn’t love – even though it made significantly more money at the American box office than either of the other two. In short, last year was a fascinating year, and as such I wrote about it more often. This year, not so much.

On the surface that may seem somewhat odd. After all, for the first time really since 2005, when Crash beat Brokeback Mountain, I think there is a legitimate question as to what is going to win Best Picture this year. Will the Academy go with 12 Years a Slave or Gravity? Does American Hustle still have a chance? Will these films split the vote and a dark horse come in for the victory (this, by the way, never actually happens but gets trotted out every year as a “possibility”).

Personally, I think it’s 12 Years a Slave or Gravity – American Hustle peaked too early, and despite the love from the actors, I just don’t see it as a real threat anymore. And that in itself is odd, because American Hustle fits better with the last three Oscar winners than either 12 Years a Slave or Gravity does. It is a feel good movie, full of great performances. It may be meaningless, but it makes you leave the theater feeling good. It also has the advantage of being written and directed by someone they feel is “overdue” and has at least one (Adams) and perhaps two (Cooper) nominees they also wouldn’t mind giving Oscars to – and stars one of the most beloved stars in movies today in Jennifer Lawrence. Out of all the nominees, American Hustle seems more like a film like Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, The Artist or Argo than anything else – and they all won with ease in the last five years. So why does it feel like American Hustle is already an also ran – and faces the real possibility of being one of those films (like The Color Purple or Gangs of New York) nominated for 10 Oscars that goes home completely empty handed? I would love to think that the Academy agrees with me – and thinks American Hustle is little more than an entertaining mess (those previous winners mentioned are all much better than American Hustle in my opinion, even if none of them made my top 10 list at the end of the year). But I’m not that naïve – the Academy and I have overlapping tastes to be sure – 5 of the 9 Best Picture nominees are in fact on my top 10 list this year – but we haven’t agreed on a Best Picture winner since The Departed in 2006 – and before that Schindler’s List in 1993. Winning an Oscar for Best Picture is about sustaining buzz through the long haul, not making a huge splash, and then dying out – which is what American Hustle did this year. At this point there have been so many “American Hustle is overrated” think pieces written that I don’t think it’s possible to still call the film over rated – divisive may be a better word. And divisive films don’t win Best Picture.

This leaves us with 12 Years a Slave and Gravity duking it out for the top prize. Due respect to the other 6 nominees, but they don’t really have a chance. The Wolf of Wall Street is too controversial, Nebraska too slate grey, both visually and emotionally, Dallas Buyers Club too much of an indie actors showcase, Philomena too much of a British indie actors showcase, Her skews too young for the big prize, and Captain Phillips too much of a straight ahead thriller. Films like them get nominated every year, and lose. In the era of 9 and 10 Picture nominees – which comes with the preferential ballot - winning means building a consensus and not being hated by too many people. These films – as great as they are (and for me Nebraska and The Wolf of Wall Street are the two best of the nominees) – just don’t have that level of support.

What is strange however is how I think no matter what wins between 12 Years a Slave or Gravity that it’s going to mark a departure from the type of films the Academy historically gives Best Picture Oscars to – not just in the last few years, but throughout their 85 year history. This is easier to see with Gravity – which is short for a Best Picture winner – at 91 minutes, it would tie Marty (1955) for the shortest best picture winner ever – and when you factor in the end credits for Gravity are far longer, the actual movie itself would be shortest. Along with Marty, only Annie Hall (93 minutes) and Driving Miss Daisy (99 minutes) are Best Picture winners that run under 100 minutes. The film only has two real cast members – a smaller cast than any other Best Picture winner ever had. It’s also in 3-D – and while Avatar broke down the barriers for 3-D movies getting nominated – and since then Hugo, Life of Pi have won many Oscars for 3-D movies, none has won the Big Prize yet. And the film is set in space – and no film has ever won that was before. If you consider the movie sci-fi (which is a real debate), then none of those have won either. On the surface, Gravity feels like a movie akin to Life or Pi, Hugo, Inception or Avatar – one that walks away with a lot of technical Oscars – and perhaps can squeak out a director win – but doesn’t win the big prize. But it’s got a very real chance of doing so on Sunday night.

12 Years a Slave was dubbed a “typical Oscar movie” but it really isn’t one – and race is only one that determines that. Yes, it’s true that no black filmmaker has ever won the Best Director Oscar, nor ever directed a Best Picture winner. Go a little deeper, and you’ll see that only two films have won the Best Picture Oscar with a black lead – In the Heat of the Night in 1967 and Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 – and both of those films had a white co-lead (the white co-leads by the way both won Acting Oscars, and black leads did not – in fact, Sidney Poitier wasn’t even nominated for In the Heat of the Night). One could throw in Crash if you want to – Don Cheadle is, I believe, top billed – but no one in that film is a legitimate lead character. In fact, as far as I can tell the only three films without a white leading character to ever win the Best Picture Oscar are Gandhi, The Last Emperor and Slumdog Millionaire (and again, Crash I guess, since it has no lead). 12 Years a Slave may have taken some shots in recent weeks for their “It’s Time” campaign – which I am also no fan of – but the campaign wasn’t exactly wrong. The only film even partly about slavery to ever win the Best Picture Oscar is Gone with the Wind after all.

But I’m talking more about the film itself than its racial makeup when I say it’s not a typical Oscar film. As a director, Steve McQueen is much more Stanley Kubrick than Steven Spielberg. 12 Years a Slave is many things, but sentimental it isn’t. McQueen is more analytical – more interested in examining the characters, their pain, how they survive and the mechanisms of slavery rather than giving the audience any sort of emotional payoff. This has led some – my wife for example – to admit that the film left them rather cold. That’s by design by McQueen, and not a flaw – at least not for me. In fact, it makes 12 Years a Slave an even better film than it otherwise may have been. Despite some people (loudly) proclaiming it to be, 12 Years a Slave is far from a “white guilt” movie. But all one has to do is look at all the Best Picture and Director Oscars Kubrick racked up (zero) to figure out how the Academy feels about films like this. This is exactly the type of film that is more “admired than loved” when it first comes out, and gives the Academy room to pick something else – even if they look somewhat silly in retrospect.

Regardless of who wins the Best Picture Oscar – and if we’re reduced to being on “Team 12 Years a Slave” or “Team Gravity”, than I’m clearly the former – I do think we’ll get a much stronger Best Picture winner than anything since The Hurt Locker in 2009 – perhaps even since No Country for Old Men in 2007. That means very little. I had somewhat convinced myself that the Academy going with darker movies like The Departed, No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker in three out of four years from 2006-2009 (with Slumdog in between) that perhaps they were more willing to embrace darker, less conventional winners. The last three years put an end to that notion - but I still think a win for 12 Years a Slave or Gravity would be a good thing - an oppurtunity for the Academy to embrace the type of film they typically do not - even if they run for safety again next year.

But having said all that, I’m more than ready for this Oscar season to be over – in fact I’ve been ready for more than a month now. My favorite time in Oscar season is December and January – where we get new prizes from different groups nearly daily, when the critics announce their top 10 lists, and we have a real debate not just about who is going to win Oscars – which ultimately doesn’t matter – but rather on the quality of the films themselves. That’s what I enjoy most – the debate, the conversation about what we value in film. Who actually wins the Oscars is ultimately irrelevant. We all cheer for our favorites – that’s natural – but in the end, movies either last or don’t last on the basis of their merit, not on what wins Oscars. I think both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity – not to mention Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her – and any number of non-nominated films (in particular, Inside Llewyn Davis) are going to be films that last, no matter who wins on Sunday. My advice on Oscar season is always the same – relax and enjoy the show.



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