Oscar the Grouch Maker

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! As we commemorate the life of a great American and humanitarian I find myself angered once more about something of lesser importance than the struggle for civil rights and equality for all. As you’ve probably heard, the Oscar Nominations were released last week, and while there are some very good films being rightfully praised there are also some that I, and I’m sure others, feel are equally or more deserving, yet they are nowhere to be seen on the list. Way to go Academy; you’ve pissed me off royally once again. Year after year, I revere you and your golden naked god as some omniscient force tasked with establishing the cinematic hierarchy – and in some ways you do set that standard – yet you always manage to scrape your fingernails against the chalkboard of my soul and leave me wondering why it is I offer you any respect. Sure, nobody’s perfect, and your governing body is hardly the greatest judge of ensuring the “best” are presented when that is such an arbitrary distinction that varies based upon whom you ask, and yeah, more often than not you present a pretty damn good final list of worthy contenders and even sometimes get the right winner. Nevertheless, your annual exclusion of some of the best, the true best, pictures of the year from your choices for films nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award – easily the most coveted award in film-making – is too much for me to stand sometimes. Good thing I’ve got the perfect medium to bitch about it with!

No matter what level of film connoisseur you are, you have probably heard of the Academy Awards, better (and now officially) known as The Oscars. Put on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a collection of over 5700 movie makers who fall into one of these branches who vote on their favorites from the year. That narrows it down to up to five of the “best” of each film category each year. The members of the Academy vote again to decide the winners who are presented the famous golden award (which is actually quite heftily constructed: the award itself is made of britannium, a pewter alloy, that is gold-plated) at the increasingly more televised and commercialized ceremony every winter, usually late February or early March. There are many categories that are awarded, from short subject documentary (which is your easiest course to win an Oscar according to these guys) to the well known big ones they save for the end of the show that always runs over its allotted time, forcing them to rush through these selections you’ve waited all night and already planned to skip your morning shower for more sleep-in time before work to see. Chances are, the one you think is going to win will. The top five most desired awards are Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Original/Adapted Screenplay (these are separate, but a film can obviously win just one or the other), and the top of the top: Best Picture. (Winning all five is called a “Grand Slam” and only three films have ever done it: It Happened One Night (1934); One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).)

Back in the very early days of the Academy Awards, there were 10 movies nominated for this premier prize, but they did away with that in 1944 and began narrowing the selection to five. This tradition held until 2009 when the number of films eligible for the award went back up to 10. The Academy cited an interest in opening the Best Picture award to more films, including those that received more commercial success and were, you know, actually heard of before they were nominated for the award. What they didn’t directly acknowledge is that it was a long time coming with more and more films (and quality ones at that) being made, and the that the incredible response to 2008’s The Dark Knight from audiences and critics alike was a major reason for them to expand the selection. Unfortunately, they haven’t made the most of those extra spots. For the most part, there has simply been more of more-of-the-same movies being nominated for Best Picture; it’s just being filled with other limited release art pieces and high dramas that are more driven by concepts the Academy likes and/or wishes to seem hip with: the brutality of war; racial tensions; current events; and especially anything that deals with working in the entertainment business (it’s a movie about a movie!), or they’ll go for more visceral components like favorite actors (cough cough, Meryl Streep), directors (ever heard of Spielberg?), and production companies (I’m looking at you Weinsteins!). Last year, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote an accurate assessment of this situation:

It’s a commonplace that the Oscars reflect not the state of the industry, certainly not that of the art, but, rather, the way that Hollywood’s notables want the industry to be seen.

They even have a separate awards show for all the technical awards because the main awards show is already too long with awards people don’t care about that Hollywood does, so the nerds get kicked out to their own party a few days earlier so they won’t harsh the buzz of the cool kids of Hollywood.

Interestingly enough, after a full 10 nominees for Best Picture in each of the first two re-expanded years (2009 and 2010), the next three years only had nine, and this year’s selection has just eight. Does that mean that the Academy values these almost-10 movies over all others released that year? Obviously the final selection, regardless of the maximum count, is esteemed beyond the rest of the movies from that year, but not filling that maximum count only adds a perceived gap between those that were nominated and those that were not, furthering the insult to all the other films from that Oscar year.

If you’re interested in seeing what films are causing the most Oscar buzz, the latest group of Best Picture nominees are as follows:

  • American Sniper
  • Birdman
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Selma
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash

Thus far I have seen six: American Sniper, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation GameThe Theory of Everything, and Whiplash. Ironically, I haven’t yet seen Selma, the biography of Martin Luther King Jr., nor have I seen Boyhood, which I’ve already experienced.

Many of these are fine choices that I approve of and recommend to prospective viewers. Were it up to me, I would nominate Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation GameThe Theory of Everything, and Whiplash. I enjoyed American Sniper which demolished the box office this past weekend, but it didn’t elevate to the top shelf level that I hold for nominees of Best Picture. It was predictable and contained elements that have been touched upon more expertly in recent films like The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). I don’t mean to place Clint Eastwood below Kathryn Bigelow, but his latest film is not touching upon anything new and is more riding the tide of fanfare for war movies and support for America’s troops. Nonetheless, even if I don’t think it’s Best Picture quality it is still a solid biopic, telling the story of great American patriot Captain Chris Kyle, who has more recorded kills than any other military sniper in U.S. history.

The other films I’ve seen are worthy nominees in my book, and in case you haven’t seen them yet I’ll lay down some sick summaries without spoilers.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – A former star of a blockbuster superhero franchise attempts to make his comeback by doing a Broadway production of a play by one of his idols. It’s no easy task as he has to deal with his strained family relationships, a nasty critic out to get him, a brilliant but crazy supporting actor, and most of all, his constant doubts in himself, temptations to return to his comfort zone, and hallucinations? maybe? It gets a little abstract here and there, but it’s always fun and excellently acted. Filmed in a continuous take style that pulls us right backstage with the cast. The magnificent drumming musical score is a tremendous snub for Best Music.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – My favorite of the nominees that I’ve seen, The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t actually take place in Budapest, or really any Europe you’ll find a map of today or any day. It’s more like Wes Anderson’s quirky take on the golden age of fine hotels in a Europe on the brink of World War II. It’s easy to forget this film is told as a flashback inside a flashback inside a flashback (no Leonardo DiCaprio though), but you’ll never forget the signature wacky cast of characters and whimsical action sequences. Wes Anderson may finally get his overdue Oscar, but Ralph Fiennes won’t get any love for Best Actor this year.

The Imitation Game – Benedict Cumberbatch shines as introverted, pragmatic mathematician Alan Turing as he gradually bonds with other humans while he builds the first computer in order to crack the seemingly uncrackable Nazi Enigma Code. Since this film occurs during wartime where intrigue is magnified, not everything is as it appears, and even Alan has some secrets that he struggles to keep hidden. I liked this very much despite it being a very formulaic film crafted to win Oscars and feeling very similar to The King’s Speech (2010) which was made by the same people. You can even hear the real-life climactic speech from that film at the beginning of this one.

The Theory of Everything – A very faithful biography of cosmologist Stephen Hawking that does not shy away from the hardships of his life and its effect on those close to him. Focusing on his romance with his first wife, Jane, the film shows their blossoming love that flowered at the same time Hawking’s body began to lose motor control. Despite his deteriorating condition, Jane only grows more dedicated to Stephen and helps him live his daily life and communicate his findings from his study on black holes and the beginnings of time to his fellow members of the scientific community. Yet as time passes and Hawking’s condition becomes harder to manage, Jane is strained more and more, and their great love is truly tested. I haven’t read as much on Chris Kyle or Alan Turing, but this is the most accurate biopic of this year’s Oscar class based upon what I know. Eddie Redmayne is the front-runner for Best Actor for his incredible portrayal of Hawking.

Whiplash – If you like the drumming in Birdman then you’re gonna love Whiplash. It focuses on a first-year jazz drummer at the top school for music in New York City. He excels under the brutal tutelage of the most revered and intimidating professor at the school who is more of a drill instructor than anything else. Wildly dynamic and fresh, Whiplash asks how much one is willing to give and endure to become the best. J.K. Simmons (aka, J. Jonah Jameson; the guy from the Farmer’s Insurance commercials) is fantastically frightening as the teacher whose methods are extreme to say the least.

I would be happy seeing Oscars given out to these films for many things, but if you’ve read any of my previous blogs you know that I have a certain admiration for one particular movie from last year, and it’s exclusion from most of the major categories are snubs of the most astronomical proportions. Interstellar was nothing short of the best movie of the year and deserves far more than its few nominations for musical score and sound (all of which it fully deserves). Specifically missing are nominations for Best Director for Christopher Nolan (Omitted yet again – at least DiCaprio gets nominated. Seriously, Nolan only has three Oscar nods to his credit: two writing and one producing. Wtf?); Best Actor for Matthew McConaughey; Best Cinematography for Hoyt Van Hoytema; Best Original Screenplay for Nolan and his brother Jonathan; and of course, Best Picture. If Interstellar is only nominated for sound and score then I don’t want to live in this planet anymore. Detach! Gotta leave something behind….

This isn’t the first time this has happened, but I had hoped Interstellar would prove to be an exception. The problem oftentimes is history, especially recent history. This applies for many an Oscar year, but I’ll stick with this current one as an example. Insterstellar’s chances for anything outside of the much more blessedly pragmatic technical awards are hurt by the great popularity of Gravity from the previous year. Gravity was my favorite movie from 2013, but respectfully I declare that Interstellar blows it out of orbit in every single way save for the necessity to see it in 3D (Gravity is the only movie I not only endorse but encourage seeing in 3D). This is all meaningless for the Academy though as a space movie got a lot of attention in 2013, so another space movie in 2014 can’t be given the same or greater praise lest it become a trend. Going by the same logic in another facet of film-making, seeing as Matthew McConaughey won an acting Oscar last year for Dallas Buyers Club his chances of a repeat are automatically knocked down a few pegs now matter how good he portrayed anything in 2014. And then there’s the issue of the prejudice against science-fiction films. The Oscars have rarely recognized sci-fi films and given them an invite to the big party. A Clockwork Orange (1971), Star Wars (1977), E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982), Avatar (2009), District 9 (2009), Nolan’s own Inception (2010), and Gravity (2013) are the only science fiction films to have ever been nominated for Best Picture and none of them won (although one should have – we’ll talk about that in a future post). Now I’m not saying that a sci-fi film is due, (although it is), but that science fiction has been overlooked altogether too often and it angers me that the best sci-fi film in decades isn’t considered one of the 10 best of this Oscar year. Well, maybe it is, but since there are only eight nominees for Best Picture it doesn’t matter! While the yellow rose of Texas that is Matthew McConaughey and his space story that is my favorite film of this Oscar year won’t be blasting off with the big one this year, at least I can be happy that my favorite team took home some hardware last week.

Okay, enough about my fury over Interstellar’s snubs and my constant reminders that I like Ohio State’s football team (but c’mon, what a season they had!), let’s talk about my second favorite movie from last year: The LEGO Movie. Shit. Fuck you Oscars! The LEGO Movie was the most original (animated) movie in years and you don’t even put it on the list for Best Animated Film?! It was good enough to merit inclusion with the Best Picture nominees like Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010) before it. It was a Pixar quality film that kids and their parents and overgrown kids who are neither, like myself, could and did enjoy this past summer and for many seasons to come. Did you even pay attention to who voiced the main character? I did. The only reason I can think of for the lack of Oscar love is due to a technicality. Perhaps the brief yet critical live action scene disqualified it from Best Animated Film, in which case that’s bullshit and that’s not enough to take it away from a Best Picture nomination.

I will still watch the Oscars on February 22 with great anticipation, but there will be moments when I boo. Plenty of films and the people who make them happen don’t get enough credit from the Academy or me, and to those I couldn’t praise or fight for I apologize. I will continue to fight for your cause for the sake of you and future films that will inevitably be overlooked come Oscar season. We should all fight for our favorites. I will not go gentle into that black night… and neither should you. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Thanks for reading, and to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, you’re welcome for the free publicity. I know most of what I said was bitter, but good news is no news, right?  Anyway, your name gets out there. I’ll expect my check in the mail. If you, the reader, wish to vent your frustrations with the Academy for snubbing your favorite film, or with me for putting them down, or if you just want to, you know, chat sometime, then be sure to leave a comment or write me a message and send it to monotrememadness@gmail.com. I will happily accept ideas for subject matter for future topics as I can’t always be expected to think of something topical to whine about. Come calling round here again next week for the last post of January! In the meantime, enjoy the brief reprieve from winter.

Stay frosty, my friends,

Alex

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