Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Notes On This Year's Best Picture Race

This past year was an excellent one for movies and this year's Academy Awards nominees are a pretty decent reflection of the best 2014 had to offer. From a personal standpoint, five of this year's eight nominated films for Best Picture were in my top 10.

Now, most people who watch a lot of movies and write about them do not consider the Oscars a particularly reliable barometer for representing any given year in cinema. My favorite film of the year has only aligned 14 times with the Best Picture winner in the 86 years of the Academy Awards. And my own opinions on what makes a film the best of the year is, of course, only a reliable barometer for myself.

But back to this year's nominees - of the eight films up for the big prize, four are true stories ("Selma," "American Sniper," "The Theory of Everything" and "The Imitation Game," the latter two, although good, being the type of British-centric Oscar bait that the Academy typically eats up), one auteurist entry (Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), two movies about the artistic process ("Birdman" and "Whiplash") and "Boyhood," which takes a documentary approach to a fictional story and marks the first nomination for critically lauded filmmaker Richard Linklater.

During the numerous awards shows leading up to the Oscars, a narrative has emerged pitting "Boyhood" and "Birdman" as the two leading contenders. To the surprise of many, the former became the awards season frontrunner early on due to its across-the-board critical praise and the incredible process involved in getting the film made - a 12-year shoot that enables viewers to watch the aging process of its characters/actors. The latter's ascension to the front of the pack has also taken some by surprise, considering that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film has not particularly been a huge box office success (nor has "Boyhood," although it is distributor IFC Film's biggest hit to date) and it dabbles in the surreal, which tends to be a surefire way for a film not to garner awards.

But "Birdman" has now taken the lead - at least, if you listen to the numerous Oscar pundits who get paid to write about this stuff in the weeks - scratch that, months - leading up to the Academy Awards. And yet, in many respects, "Birdman" becoming the frontrunner should not come as much of a surprise, especially upon viewing how Academy voters have been casting their ballots during the past few years.

Let me start by saying, I think "Birdman" is a great movie. In fact, it's my number two of the year behind "Boyhood." In any other year, "Birdman" may well have been my favorite and I'd very likely make the argument for it deserving the Best Picture award. Its quality, in my opinion, would not in any way be a deterrent from taking the academy's top prize.

But here's the thing - since the beginning of this decade, the academy has primarily been rewarding films about making movies, ones with characters involved in "the industry," as they like to call it, or pictures that are arguably about the creative process. With the exception of last year's must deserved win for "12 Years a Slave," the other winners in the 2010s have been "The King's Speech," a movie about a famous man who must learn to correct his speech patterns (hence, improving his "performance") to enable him to speak to the public, the silent era Hollywood comedy "The Artist" and "Argo," in which a group of Hollywood producers join forces with a Washington D.C. operative to create a fake movie and sneak American captives out of Iran. This year's expected winner is about a former Hollywood star who specialized in comic book movies and is now attempting to reinvent himself on Broadway.

In other words, the academy's recent consistency in choosing films about their line of work is becoming, to put it mildly, a bit self congratulatory. And it seems especially so when you view this year's two top contenders - one about a movie star looking for a comeback and another about how many of the rest of us live. Ironically, the nominated film that has most struck a chord with the American public is "American Sniper," a very good war drama that has been willfully misunderstood by both sides of the political spectrum and embraced for all the wrong reasons.

There are two reasons why I believe "Boyhood" should win Best Picture (and Best Director too, for that matter). First and foremost, I believe it's a better film, not only due to the laborious process it took to make that spanned more than a decade, but also in how it takes the quotidian parts of everyday life and makes the sum total of these experiences seem extraordinary.

Secondly, "Boyhood" is a movie about recognizable lifestyles and is, therefore, more universal and reflective of shared experiences. If you look at the Best Picture winners since the beginning of the century, you'll find films about hobbits, gladiators, royals, a Hollywood star and a brilliant mathematician - but not too many about the types of lives that most of us experience. Also, it's funny that the one film with "Hollywood" as subject matter that deserved to win Best Picture - David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," which ranked at the top of numerous critical polls of the Aughts - wasn't even nominated. It bears mentioning that Lynch's film did not take a particularly sunny view of Tinseltown - although, to be fair, "Birdman" includes critiques of Hollywood as well, especially its reliance on comic book blockbusters.

So, it bears repeating: I'm arguing in favor of "Boyhood," not against "Birdman." And my issue isn't so much with the latter winning Best Picture, but rather the reason why the academy will pick it over Linklater's film. Inarritu's movie is excellent and, in fact, universal in its own right by depicting a character trying to overcome failure and finding success in doing something he cares about. The movie is a career high for the director and, deservedly, one of the most lauded of 2014. In fact, I'd argue that "Boyhood" and "Birdman" are the two best Oscar frontrunners since 2007's "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood."

In other words, whichever film wins - assuming it's either of the two discussed here - on Feb. 22, it will be deserved. I'm hoping that Linklater's film gets the recognition it deserves as a movie unique to film history. Regardless, both films will likely still be watched many years from now - with or without the Oscars - as are the numerous classics that were not recognized in their respective years.

And in case anyone's interested, here are my personal picks (who I'd like to see win) for several categories:

Picture: Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Actor: Michael Keaton, Birdman
Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Supporting Actor: Edward Norton, Birdman
Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Foreign Film: Ida
Adapted Screenplay: Inherent Vice
Original Screenplay: Birdman
Editing: Boyhood
Cinematography: Birdman

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