Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Final Thoughts on This Year's Oscar Season

With that, we say goodbye to another Oscar season. While there has been plenty of wrap-up for this year's program, I have chosen to bring this season to a close with a summary of my thoughts not only on the winners in general, but of the season as a whole. Much like every year, there's a few highs and lows that make awards season so memorable. How did this year stack up to every other one? Well, frankly it wasn't my favorite despite the consistent media conflicts with race and the odd race between Boyhood and Birdman which saw the former only receive one win total. It wasn't the worst year, but considering its options, it did fine enough. Click the jump to read more.

If we're being honest, it is impossible to achieve the same feat that last year had. Not only were the winners more diverse, but the films in general sparked a lot of conversation. People wondered if The Wolf of Wall Street was embracing debauchery. Her saw Spike Jonze getting some deserved Oscar love. Gravity reinvented the blockbuster. These were essentially the losers. People were talking about them, and that's what makes an awards season fun. It's not a matter of who won, but that it allows everyone to open up and embrace their opinions on these select movies. This isn't to discredit any of this year's nominees, but save for American Sniper, nobody spoke of Whiplash, The Imitation Game or even The Grand Budapest Hotel with a specific reverence that reflected a diversity in film. Yes, it was nice to see the selections come from a wider pallet of the year, but who was talking about them?

I am very proud that this year saw indie films become front runners and took the most wins. I am happy that for a moment we all thought that a film that debuted as Sundance could win the Oscars. It was a year for the little guy. This is fine to go different, but I inevitably feel like it made for one of the more lackluster years. Nobody was talking about the films themselves on a qualitative level. American Sniper was shrouded with questionable racism. Selma was shrouded with representing the lack of diversity. Birdman won everything, but it was so divisive yet nobody seemed to be talking about it. It was a miracle that Boyhood even made the finals. 

Still, what makes it particularly uninteresting for this year is how slapdashed the nominations felt. Yes, Birdman is an odd winner considering that it is very sexual and aggressive. However, there was no definitive race going on by November as has been the case in the past few years. Even if 12 Years a Slave was considered the winner a month before its release, it still captivated audiences because the competition was lively and full of personality. Captain Phillips saw Tom Hanks taking on a meaty role. American Hustle raised questions on authenticity. It is all a matter of discussion among the nominees that transcends the actual categories themselves. When the awards season had the chance to go interesting with great films this year like Still Alice or Wild, it chose to go indie and focus on frustrated men. Some acting nominations even seemed egregious, such as Robert Duvall (The Judge) for Best Supporting Actor. There weren't many surprises that people cared about, either.

Also, in the grand scheme of things, Birdman is an interesting winner in its flaws. It reaches for ambitious heights, but still feels a little scatterbrained to be the best. Among the nominees, it makes the most sense, considering the Academy's love of movies about movies. Still, who saw Birdman beyond the critical circles? It was a unique film and definitely had more distinguishing features than the other nominees. However, it still feels more like a career award to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu than anything else, who has been recognized by the Academy since his debut Amores Perros and received a Best Picture nomination for Babel. It is a theory not too many people discussed because nobody thinks of Inarritu's lengthy career in the way that they think of Martin Scorsese winning Best Director for The Departed. At best, he was an outlier. In fact Scorsese's win wasn't only significant because of his multiple decades of masterpieces, but because he was a household name.

It may seem unfair to argue, but what has kept the Oscars interesting has been the presence of "young blood" winners in the past few slots. Ben Affleck (Argo), Michel Hazanvicius (The Artist) and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) are in some respects veterans, but have limited experience directing compared to this year's ceremony. Yes, Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson were welcomed Best Director nominees, but they have lengthy and definitive careers. With these three Best Picture winners, they reflected an artist discovering their voices and - in all three cases - it was only their third film. There's something magical about that, which was sorely missing from this year's ceremony. For the technical feats of Birdman, there's still the sense of a veteran doing what he does best. I'm not saying that the Oscars should recognize younger filmmakers specifically, but as well as having a more diverse pallet between indies and blockbusters, they simply need to find films that speak to a wider echelon. 

I have long held a theory that the recent Oscar trend is about artists who make a difference. The King's Speech in 2010 kicked things off with a story about a radio performance. While only a subplot, 12 Years a Slave featured a protagonist known to play the violin at parties. Birdman is the most explicit example of movies about movies since All About Eve. It name drops everyone that is relevant at the moment while adding subtext about comebacks and franchises. It is a story about relevance in a way that's less subtle and therefore less interesting than All About Eve. It fits the times, but do people really care? It almost feels like the fifth win in a row of a movie about artists mattering makes the Oscars a little redundant and uninspired. This isn't to say that they have bombed horribly as a voting collective, but that it's a bit of an identity crisis.

Those complaining about racial diversity are both important and a nuisance. Yes, this year was poorly diverse, yet the choice to drag things out and even call Boyhood a racist movie felt like a bandwagon of chaos. It will be seen whether next year sees diversity, but it hopefully will get those who complain to support a wider array of talents. After all, there were great films by minorities last year such as Justin Simien's Dear White People or Gia Coppola's Palo Alto. I never saw them as Oscar nominees, but it does reflect that even in diversity conversation, nobody is choosing to be diverse in a progressive way. Focusing on Selma as the literal black sheep was an embarrassing move that reflects how much we want an easy answer instead of providing a multiple choice. However, it will hopefully help to get more diverse talents into next year's conversation.

Also, the biggest issue of the year is that none of the films really felt important in a way that made the ceremony particularly exciting. Yes, Birdman is really good, but it was a little self-involved in ways that reflect poorly on the Academy. Even Boyhood and its impressive technique seemed unlikely because of how niche and unresponsive people would be to an indie epic of that kind, which embraced anti-narrative techniques. Meanwhile Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel are amazing movies that seemed out of place simply because their demographic has rarely been recognized at the Oscars. It was a staggering year, but one that felt made up as things went. Not every year can be 12 Years a Slave relevant, but nobody was really talking about this year's Oscars with any hoopla. To call the ceremony boring is to ignore that the content is only as engaging as the nominees, which weren't. 

If I am handicapping my comparative point too much on last year, it's because it was a whirlwind of a year. Same could be said for 2010-2012. While some of the winners likely scratched heads (The Artist still feels like a lesser known winner), there was consistent discussion of film and culture during awards season that made them matter. It wasn't because Harvey Weinstein shoved it down throats. It's because the subjects spoke to relevance of the moment. 12 Years a Slave embodied both ground breaking narrative techniques as well as addressing how America discusses its unpleasant past. It was more than entertainment like The Artist or Argo could be perceived. I'm not expecting every film to matter, but what Best Picture nominee expressed something relevant and insightful to the modern culture? Maybe Birdman because of its meta discussion of superheroes and theater, but it has been done before. For all of Boyhood's charms, it was too earnest and niche to feel like a significant winner either. In fact, none of the films really did, no matter how popular (American Sniper), how racial (Selma) or how well crafted (The Grand Budapest Hotel) actually were. 

That alone may be the biggest reason why this year may go down as one of the worst Oscar seasons in recent years. It's not because the winner was appallingly awful, but because of how little it felt like anything mattered with the films themselves. In the grand scheme of things, it will be the bitterness of the racial discussions and the "snubbing" of Selma and the huge losing of Boyhood that people will remember and sadly nothing about the films themselves. Even if the films aren't that bad, the lack of discussion itself is a testament to the relevance of the Oscars and what they need to work on to make us care like we did for 12 Years a Slave just last year.

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