The following is a guest post by film critic Max Colmenares on the recent Oscars… enjoy!
The Oscars are a bit of an oddity. Critics abhor their decisions, the general public doesn’t watch the nominated films, they’re widely made fun of for being too long, and yet they never fail to draw a huge audience. Now, in large part, this is because for most people, they are just another night of entertainment, but to a sizeable minority their decisions hold weight and are often gloriously wrong. For this reason, I’m going to first look separately at the ceremony of the 87th Academy Awards, and then the films nominated, as well as what both have to say when viewed together.
As entertainment, the 2015 Academy awards were okay. They weren’t quite an embarrassment, like some would refer to Anne Hatheway and James Franco’s stint in 2011, but other than succeeding in presenting few high points like Lady Gaga’s tribute to the sound of music, Graham Moore’s speech, and a moving rendition of Glory, the ceremony didn’t pack a huge punch.
In contrast, the 2014 Oscars were pretty fantastic. Ellen Degeneres was great at working off the energy of those around her, not surprising considering she’s worked for so long as a talk show host. The ceremony felt like there was a genuine sense of togetherness. The Oscar selfy, gags with multiple celebrities, and jokes that poked fun at, but never quite wounded the academy, combined with the force of several emotional speeches on good causes, made us feel like everyone was having a good time together.
Those Oscars also didn’t have as much to feel embarrassed about. On its own, 12 Years a Slave and its slew of nominations seemed to make the academy feel like it was progressive, before mentioning the success of Dallas Buyer’s Club as well. It’s hard for this years’ Academy to feel equally good with Selma failing to achieve any other nominations aside from Best Original song, along with the least diverse pool of nominees since 1995. This year’s host didn’t help either.
Neil Patrick Harris’ humor goes a bit past poking fun, and into the “Gervais” realm of mockery. Don’t get me wrong, some of his jokes were pretty fantastic, but this brand of humor made Neil Patrick Harris seem more like a commentator than a host, laughing at the crowd rather than with them. Even Seth Macfarlane did a better job of this, going mostly for gag comedy in collaboration with nominated actors, rather than Harris’s one-joke introductions to presenters.
This hits even harder when it’s a year where the Academy really deserves to be laughed at. Jokes like Neil’s “best and whitest” and saying “oh, you like him now” in reference to David Oyelowo deserve laughter, but it’s laughter about something that really isn’t, or shouldn’t be, funny. If the academy really is racist—which I’ll touch more on later—it’s something that can’t be chuckled off. The end result is what feels less like the 2014 happy family celebration, and more like a family meal in American Beauty.
It doesn’t help that all the “lesser” categories were given what seemed like less than 30 seconds to sum up, in some cases, a masterful career spanning several decades. Also, last year, all the major acting wins gave people something to talk about, whereas this year all we came away with was a nervous speech from Patricia Arquette—albeit with good cause. None of the wins were really all that surprising in the major categories either, extending even to best picture.
It’s hard to think of a Best Picture win in a long time that had as little steam behind it as Birdman, and there are many reasons why. For one, there’s not much of a narrative behind its winning best picture. It wasn’t snubbed for Best Director like Argo, it didn’t have the Cinderella story of The King’s Speech, it didn’t have the political relevance of Crash or 12 Years a Slave, it wasn’t anything as drastically abnormal as a silent film made in 2011, and despite Iñárritu’s popularity, it didn’t find its route to gold on the basis of rewarding a long snubbed director. Furthermore, like all the acting categories, it wasn’t really a surprise. It was a pretty much a foregone conclusion that either Birdman or Boyhood would take home the gold, and even that rivalry wasn’t sensationalized, as it has been in recent years.
Birdman also didn’t benefit from being a runaway winner like American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, or Return of the King because there was a ton of love for so many other nominees. Boyhood, Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash, and others had enough love to reduce enthusiasm for Birdman to the point where not everyone was thrilled about it’s victory.
In the end, Birdman was a good movie that no one could be too upset about winning, and yet, few were really excited about that result, be it from lack of surprise or satisfaction. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s trio of speeches were all wonderfully elegant and humorous, with his comment “two Mexican’s in a row, that’s suspicious” being confirmed by prompting some extremely ignorant comments from Donald Trump the following day. But Iñárritu’s comments were in the same vein as Neil’s one liners, ending the show not with a bang, but with a chuckle.
So the Oscars weren’t the best form of entertainment. Oh well, that’s not all they are there for after all. The Academy also stands as our standard for honoring the best in cinema. So how did it do at that?
The wins on Oscar night were, for the most part, pretty on point. While I was still holding out hope for the top prizes going to Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman was a very worthy recipient for Screenplay, Director, and Picture. Grand Budapest did manage to rake in most of the more “artsy” categories with Costume Design, Makeup, Art Direction, and Best Score, most of which one could say it deserved after simply watching the trailer. Whiplash also took home a healthy amount of trophies, with recognition to the sound and editing that made some of its best scenes what they were, as well as a win for J.K. Simmons that was almost as much of a sure thing as Birdman winning best cinematography.
The remainder of the winners also seemed to be in order. I would have preferred to see Michael Keaton win best actor for a performance that tackled such a complex original character with so many subtleties, but Eddie Redmayne’s performance was pretty fantastic, and it’s hard for me to get bent out of shape over his win. There are only two huge offenders to me. I’ll admit I haven’t seen Big Hero 6, but from general opinion I can gather that there exist few who like it more than How To Train your Dragon 2, or the unnominated Lego Movie for that matter, but I suppose that’s an argument to be made by someone who actually saw more than one animated movie this year. Despite Graham Moore’s inspirational speech on being different, the award could have gone to a far less formulaic movie like Whiplash, Inherent Vice, or the not even nominated Gone Girl. The latter, in fact, shows to me where the real atrocities were committed by the Oscars this year: in their nominations.
It was not February 22nd, but January 15th where I was most upset by the academy. The 2015 Academy Awards failed to nominate a host of high-profile films for best picture with levels of quality that were far from shockingly worse than the chosen films.
A Most Violent Year was one such film. It had an ‘A’ list cast, including Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and Albert Brooks, and was directed by JC Chandor, whose 2011 film Margin Call was nominated for best screenplay, and both delivered with good performances, and wonderful direction and a smart script respectively. The movie had every reason to be on the Academy’s radar yet it garnered not one Oscar nomination. While it’s late release date may have hurt it, it may also have been hurt by the fact that it’s a bit of a downer. It’s a film about how it’s hard to become successful without doing things you aren’t proud of, and it’s not the happiest one. It’s also not the only film to leave viewers with that kind of uneasiness.
Nightcrawler, which was cut out of best actor along with Selma for performance as bland as that of Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, is another portrait of success at the cost of sacrificed morals. Dan Gilroy’s script was honored by the academy, and rightfully so. The film takes elements from American Psycho and Drive and has garnered a very loyal following, but it’s another film that unsettles rather than inspires, and, as with A Most Violent Year, that formula didn’t translate into a chance at numerous gold statuettes.
Then there’s the shocking snub of David Fincher’s Gone Girl for best picture, and everyone involved in the production for everything but Best Actress. David Fincher is far from outside the Academy’s radar, and Gillian Flynn’s script received a great amount of accolades. The film is well acted to the point of characters in the background showing off ticks that could go completely unnoticed. It’s entertaining as all hell, and it even has a strong message that doesn’t deserve to be cast off by those who call it mindless entertainment. Unfortunately, again, those messages aren’t inspiring ones. It’s not a movie an academy member can walk out of feeling better about humanity.
Then there’s Wild, which was made by a Jean-Marc Vallée, whose film Dallas Buyers Club was just nominated for Best Picture last year, stars someone on the ‘A’ list, and is even based on a true story, and failed to receive a nomination in any area other than best Actress. It managed to convey some very complex inner conflicts. It’s a story about learning not only to become your best self, but also about not allowing your failings to prevent you from being your best self. It’s an understated journey movie that doesn’t go into the realm of what the Academy might call dull, and it actually is kind of uplifting. Unfortunately this one’s unsettling for a bit of a different reason.
There’s a tendency to see a trailer for something like Wild and label it as a “female discovery” movie, when one would most likely not label a movie of nearly-identical plot as “male discovery” movie were it to star a man. Now this isn’t hateful and rabid sexism, but it is a problem. It’s something that many do subconsciously, that has quite the effect. In a world where gender equality is an issue that’s in the center of culture, it’s possible the academy, especially given its demographics, shied away from a movie that got a lot of its praise from being widely championed as “feminist.” It changes it into a movie that only gets considered for Best Actress and not a Best Picture. I should say, as with all four of these movies, the problem lies with the Academy and not with the movie or how it was marketed.
Of course, this all says nothing of all the movies that do not come to the Academy’s attention for lack of a popular director, or lack of a certain amount of economic success. That’s an issue that could fill it’s own article.
The question now is; what was nominated in place of these films? In the opinion of this commentator, four biopics with quality ranging from pretty good to decent at best.
American Sniper is….a movie about American Soldiers. Now I understand it’s easy to pull the whole Ad Hominem “You oppose the war, therefore you oppose this film because of a political agenda” thing, but regardless of what I think of the movie from a political standpoint, as a film it’s painfully “okay.” Everything is functional, but nothing stands out as above average. Bradley Cooper fits his character: a tough, yet conflicted protagonist that you’ve seen a million times even though the character may have worn a different uniform. The effects aren’t hilariously bad, aside from the fake baby that was all over the internet, but they don’t come close to a Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan. The film’s message is almost non-existent, which is fine since the point is to portray things honestly, but that honest portrayal isn’t all that good. Cooper’s squadmates, his relationship with his wife, and the film’s portrayal of PTSD follow this same trend of passable. Nothing sticks out enough to be called fantastic, but nothing is really enough of a blemish to disable one from projecting emotions onto the film if one is already attached to the subject matter.
The Imitation Game is a slightly better effort, though I feel I must give a similar disclaimer when saying that I don’t find it to be all that fantastic. I do think that Alan Turing’s story deserves to be told and remembered, but that doesn’t mean I think a decent movie is fantastic. The acting is pretty good in this one, however it’s not free from being affected by the amount of cheese present in the rest of the film. I’m in a weird place where I now have to say that I think the weakest aspect of the film was it’s script.
Graham Moore’s speech was fantastic when viewed on it’s own, and if it has it’s intended effect, the world will likely be a better place, however I found the film in all to be very generic. It continuously travels down avenues that have been time and time again proven to make Academy members go “Aww”, and changes history to do so. A struggling social outcast winning the support of his friends, said friends standing up for said outcast, odds stacked against said outcast even by those presumed to be on his side, and a machine named after a loved one all might jerk tears for some, but they’re tropes that have been so done to death that it’s hard to take them seriously. In a sense it’s a movie that doesn’t actually do things to be weird as a movie, and the sad part is that there are hundreds of movies made with more daring decisions every year that are destined to live in the shadows of movies like this. It’s a fine movie, but hardly the peak of what the cinematic medium is capable of.
The Theory of Everything is certainly well acted, especially by Eddie Redmayne, who manages to keep alive the spirit of a dashing young man inside a man trapped in a less able body, but as a film it’s sort of all over the place. It’s a movie about a genius trying to innovate while struggling against disease, it’s a film about falling in love, and it’s a film about caring for a loved one, but it’s all of those things at different times, and by the end when it’s come full circle no individual aspect really got enough time to hit its intended mark. Oscar nominee Emily Watson appears for a total of one speaking scene in which she advises Jane Hawking to join the church choir, starting a completely new storyline that accounts for a great deal of screentime. Nothing going on with this storyline is bad, but its such a jarring new turn taken by the movie that’s indicative of its overall focus problem.
All these movies allow you to feel good when exiting the theater, though. American Sniper makes one feel admiration for America’s soldiers, Theory of Everything is a triumphant story of overcoming impossible odds, and even if The Imitation Game exhibits a failure to recognize one of the world’s heroes, the film itself recognizes said hero’s success, and is released in the wake of what is easy to perceive as large leaps and bounds for the LGBTQ rights. Which may be why, despite becoming part of the club for showing the triumphs of another American hero, Selma was left out of several major categories for being released at a time where racism in America is once again in the national eye.
Selma, even in its Oscar winning song, calls attention to America’s failing to properly overcome racism even lack of a nomination in best actor, director, and screenplay can also be accounted for, similarly to Wild, wherein it’s seen as a black rights movie, rather than a movie that applies to everyone, and there’s certainly close-mindedness in that thought process. It should also be noted that I don’t find Selma to be good enough to be nominated for any of those awards. It is a film that I find better than the three I previously mentioned, though I would not put in my personal top five for most oscar categories, save maybe best actor. when you nominate Morten Tyldum for best director, Bradley Cooper for best actor, and Theory of Everything for best screenplay, however, it’s hard for me to wonder if Selma was not in some way left out due to the Academy’s demographic.
But Selma did make the cut, as did four other films that despite all being original ideas that didn’t depend on the grandeur of the true story they were based on (something that equally accounts for the success of those previously mentioned biopics), all allowed the viewer to walk away feeling uplifted. Birdman is about working hard to find relevance (in a much less negative light than last years snub, Inside Llewyn Davis), Whiplash has all the exhibition of hard-work-paying-off of a sports movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel pays tribute to the delightful antics of old Hollywood, and every good thing to be said about Boyhood already has been. The point is that these movie are set apart from the rest, not by their quality necessarily, but by the way one feels after walking out of the theater.
This leaves out the movies that scare the Academy. The portrait of America that says you might have to do bad things to get ahead, the story that disturbs with psychopaths and manipulations, or the story promotes a movement highlighting an endemic problem of today’s society. And so, we look again to the ceremony.
This year’s awkward Oscars, and the failure to recognize several movies for their excellence can be traced to a similar root. The Academy has a problem with facing things that feel uncomfortable to them; not an easy thing to fix. While it may be possible for a continuously evolving Academy to begin to embrace less uplifting fair, fixing problems with diversity will require changes not just to the Academy, but what movies are produced, and the way society functions in general. But in the case of the possible aversion to films like Wild and Selma, through nominating movies despite your personal perception of them, or the message expressly present in a film’s end credits, small steps can be made, that may lead to more steps in the right direction, not just for the Academy, but human beings.
But as far as the Oscars are concerned, I could do with a more meaningful waste of time.
Snobby Film Critic