Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why Can't Summer Blockbusters Make it Into the Best Picture Race?

If there is one thing to be said about the quality of films in 2014, it is that we are doing far greater in terms of general output. Whether it is the blockbusters Godzilla or animated films How to Train Your Dragon 2, there is an immediacy and sense of craft that has made the summer season worth investing in again. There may be some duds, but that comes with the territory. However, does all of this quality output stand any chance of making it into the Oscar race next year? It just has to because with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes coming out next week, there is a great chance that we will once again be banging on doors and calling for attention to these blockbusters.

In the general sense of the word, a blockbuster has come to define a huge budgeted film with grandiose action and an enviable scale. It is a general concept that the Academy seems to have grown to ignore. While many could debate Gravity as a blockbuster, it has been even longer since a summer film has been in discussion for a Best Picture race. Many could point to Inception as the last definitive example of this, but maybe it was director Christopher Nolan's reputation and many people's beliefs that he was snubbed for The Dark Knight (so: guilt). Of course, that film went on to become one of the most beloved, iconic sci-fi films of the modern era. By comparison, what summer films have earned their right in the upper echelon of discussion? 

In a sense, the Academy has failed to live up to their diversity goals that lead to the 2009 shift from the formative five to the 10 nominees, and then in 2011 towards a sliding scale of 5-10 nominees. This was done to recognize a wider array of films and genres. It has done so, but also resulted in a gradual decline back into old habits. 2013's Best Picture nominees will likely go down in notoriety for not being a strong representation of the entire year. These films, while great in many respects, overshadowed what a Best Picture is supposed to be: greatness for the entire year. Nobody expected Stoker or Spring Breakers to get their due, but to entirely discredit 9 out of the 12 months is unacceptable.

So why do summer blockbusters get ignored? Maybe it is the reputation that these films are throwaway popcorn flicks not meant to be high art. While this is definitive for say Transformers: Age of Extinction, I do feel that there are some that are representative of higher art. It does take a craft to exhilarate and capture escapism on film. Maybe the advancements of technology may make it harder to distinguish effort from computers, but it should be about execution. 1939's Best Picture winner Gone with the Wind looks flawless in its Technicolor execution, yet numerous shots were transposed and edited together using effects. Film is about tricking audiences into believing the visual, and there's no greater example than blockbusters.

What are some great examples? Based solely on 2014, I would make a strong argument for Godzilla being an above average example. Yes, it borrows a lot of technique that Steven Spielberg is known for, but is that a bad thing? It is a nihilistic blockbuster that captures a visually astounding landscape and features the best sound mixing of the year. It plays like Jaws with more carnage. With reports of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also being something above average, I do believe that we will have at least two contenders on our hands that should be getting their due.

Even then, the big budgeted films that make the Best Picture cut are "prestige" films. Look back at 2013. The biggest budgeted film, The Wolf of Wall Street, looked rightfully excessive, but was done by Oscar winning director Martin Scorsese. It was a character study that surprisingly clicked with the Academy. There were explosions, but not in the way that an action film would. I am not expecting these type of films to win, especially with the Academy choosing hard subject stories over enjoyment, but considering the growing diversity, it appears to be narrow-minded. While Gravity got its share of wins, it hardly counts due to the sense of it falling in prestige season.

It may be a hard call to get the entire year to be recognized. Pre-June season remains an impossible uphill battle. By choosing to throw some focus on summer, we're at least getting further into an equal representation. While it is doubtful that prestige films will be released in this time (though Get On Up may be a big contender come August), there will be those entertainment films where cinema puts aside its pretensions and simply goes for the escapism. Considering the bad films that could come out (see: entire summer of 2013 with emphasis on Man of Steel and Pacific Rim), we should be grateful when a critically acclaimed and commercially successful film comes around. We have had a few so far this year. I think it is time that they get recognition. Not because it betters the Academy's vocabulary to appeal to a wider audience, but to give Best Picture a sense of meaning. If only dramas and biopics make the cut, how is that the best of any given year?

This piece was written in part because of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (which I will be writing another think piece about next week) and the simple idea that with the form of cinema growing, it is important to not become single-minded. The Academy did wonders by amplifying their nomination slots. However, they haven't really done much of value with it yet to discredit naysayers. So what if Godzilla is pure entertainment? Film is a subjective medium that will cause debates. The important thing to recognize is craft and much like films released during prestige season, there has to be something in the summer to capture and inspire audiences. 

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