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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reflections on the 2014 Oscars:

                Another awards season has come and gone, and now we can finally dive into the long, long waiting period until the really good stuff of 2014 hits theaters.  That’s sarcasm, obviously, since some good stuff has already broken through early; I am eagerly awaiting the German release of The Lego Movie, and The Grand Budapest Hotel won’t be too far behind.  For now, though, let’s take one last opportunity to look back at the past year of film and the ever-controversial awards seasons. 

                Looking back, I’m surprised at how free of vitriol, controversy, and bad choices this year’s Oscars ceremony was.  True, the awards were not spread around as liberally as last year, when 8 of the 9 Best Picture nominees had at least one trophy to take home (granted, the fact that the lone one left out in the cold was the ferociously beautiful Beasts of the Southern Wild was its own special travesty).  Only 4 of the Best Picture nominees won anything at all, and with the exception of the documentaries, shorts, and foreign films (whose ghettoization will one day be another hurdle for the Academy to clear), only Frozen, Blue Jasmine, and the Great Gatsby walked away with anything out of the rest of the nominees.  Also, there were really no surprises to speak of, other than Great Gatsby’s second award for Production Design, which I felt should have been given to 12 Years A Slave to give it a leg up over the significantly less-powerful Dallas Buyers Club

                Before I go further, a breakdown of the winning films:

Gravity- 7 (Visual Effects, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Soundtrack, Cinematography, Director)
12 Years A Slave- 3 (Picture, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay)
Dallas Buyers Club- 3 (Actor, Supporting Actor, Makeup)
Frozen- 2 (Animated Feature, Song)
The Great Gatsby- 2 (Production Design, Costumes)
Her- 1 (Original Screenplay)
Blue Jasmine- 1 (Actress)
20 Feet From Stardom- 1 (Documentary Feature)
The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life- 1 (Documentary Short)
The Great Beauty- 1 (Foreign Language Film)
Mr. Hublot- 1 (Animated Short)
Helium- 1 (Live-Action Short)

                In a way, however, the lack of surprise was a pleasant change this time around, since Oscar-related surprises tend to be of the more disappointing, “they-gave-the-Oscar-to-THAT-instead?” variety.  The Wolf of Wall Street will simply join the ranks of influential, highly-regarded Scorsese fair that also didn’t win (still disappointing, but hardly surprising), Inside Llewyn Davis will become another ahead-of-its-time cult classic for the Coen brothers, and while most of the other films nominated were nearly all deserving of being talked about last night, no others were really so powerfully overwhelming as to absolutely demand getting something, unlike the powerhouse lineup from last year. 

                Before I go into the performances and show itself, as well as the speeches, I will devote one final line to American Hustle.  I do sort of understand why lots of people liked the movie.  But really, it is still baffling to me that two such alright movies, from the same director and involving the same cast, could ever combine for more nominations than Inside Llewyn Davis, Zero Dark Thirty, Her, and The Master combined.  This has been an odd two years, and I sincerely hope this phase of David Russell’s career is over and he can go back to making genuinely great movies like The Fighter.  And that Jennifer Lawrence finally starts to grow as an actress by taking on roles that she can actually play. 

                Now, about the show itself.  There are, supposedly, people who found it boring.  Why, I cannot imagine, because the show was a far, far sight better than the past few telecasts, especially considering the drab jobs of the past few years.  Ellen kept it loose, as always, and while she kept the humor light, she at least found a few ways to literally keep the audience on their toes.  Everything was as mercilessly drawn-out as always, but at least there were more, better performances that were much better spaced this year.  It was a pleasant change to actually hear ALL the songs performed, even in shortened versions.  Shockingly, Idina Menzel was the worst of the bunch.  Why, I can’t fathom, but I couldn’t help but feel that she was a) holding back a cold, or b) really, really nervous about that mike she kept smothering her mouth with.  Why did she even have one?  Pipes like hers, she shouldn’t need to be amplified in a space like that. 

                I really have nothing to offer in regards to the presenters or the montages.  Bill Murray’s shout-out to Harold Ramis was easily one of the night’s most moving moments, the kind of personal, off-script addition that ceremonies like this are always in desperate need of.  More of that would have been appreciated, but as it stood, there were no major issues or hiccups that broke my enjoyment. 

                Looking at the speeches themselves, I would have to select Steve McQueen’s as my favorite, partially because it ended with him pouncing upon his crew like Shere Khan, but largely because he used the historic chance to provide the single-greatest argument for his film winning Best Picture (aside from the fact that it was, you know, one of the year’s best films); not only is American slavery still an indelible and unavoidable part of our society to this very day, the film is also powerfully and viscerally relevant because slavery just as bad (and in many cases, worse) as that depicted in the film still happens to this very day.  And we cannot allow ourselves to forget that, even if we need such stark reminders every so often. 

                Cuaron’s was my second favorite by a close margin (oh Lord, he nearly made ME cry), followed by McConaughey’s (which I found hilarious), Lupita’s (gracious and heart-warming as ever), and Blanchett’s (the world IS round, Fox News).  The word that I can use to describe the night as a whole, really, was pleasant. 

                There is, of course, the usual debate that gets brought up this time of year; are the Oscars really relevant, and is there any value left in holding something up that so, so often, merely reinforces the limited and narrow worldviews of a tiny sliver of the population of a single country in a world of 7 billion people?  This argument is given particular weight when one considers the slew of important, ground-breaking, and damn-bear revolutionary films that are inevitably ignored by nearly all awards ceremonies, not just the Oscars.  The Wolf of Wall Street is no less an incredible cinematic achievement (and is no less relevant and important to our society) than 12 Years A Slave, but only the latter will have any awards attached to its name.  Cloud Atlas, 2001, Citizen Kane, Psycho, and many, many other highly regarded, influential, and ground-breaking fair have no awards attached to their name, and yet their legacy is undeniable. 

                Does such inevitable snobbery make the Oscars irrelevant?  Does it mean they are ultimately worthless, and that any honors they bestow on a movie should be treated, at best, with utter disregard, and at worst, with contempt?  Does the fact that Oscar glory ultimately has no impact on the long-term legacy of a film (other than perhaps being road markers in the careers of particular figures in cinema) make them useless? 

                Those questions have never been more relevant than today, where the number of great movies made outside the traditional studio system  vastly exceed those made within it.  I don’t pretend to have any new, groundbreaking arguments either way up my sleeve.  All I have is my opinion, and in my opinion, no, the Oscars are not irrelevant, nor do I want them to be.  I believe that it is important to at least try to have a regular method of selecting, praising, and formally honoring the best of each year’s crop of films, just as its important to have awards and honors for music, literature, sports, scientific achievements, peace movements, and anything else where good can be done.  What’s crucial, of course, is to remember that all such efforts to laud and applaud the worthiest of human achievements will always fall short in some ways.  There will always be great works that don’t get their due until much, much later.  And while that can be sad, and sometimes heartbreaking, I am of the opinion that our efforts to the contrary are still worthwhile. 

                In a way, the proliferation of film outside traditional, white-male-dominated power structures has also allowed awards systems to break out of said molds as well.  The Oscars no longer stand alone as THE definitive awards of the year.  The Globes, the BAFTAs, and a slew of guild awards and critic’s choice awards of all possible stripes have it more possible than ever for deserving films to be recognized by someone, somewhere.  My beloved Inside Llewyn Davis may have only been tossed handful of Globe and Oscar nods, but it received over 70 nominations from other associated voting groups and awards associations, and won 20 of them, including the Grand Prix award at Cannes. 

                Maybe those awards don’t make the same impact that the Oscars do, since those awards are really the only ones people outside diehard film circles pay the slightest bit of attention to, and that has been and is a problem, but at least it’s something.  I fully admit that the Oscars are problematic, as much now as they have ever been.  But the last 5 years have actually provided me with much more hope that I would have had otherwise for the future of mainstream film.  Since 2009, we have seen the first female (Kathryn Bigelow), Asian (Ang Lee), and Hispanic (Alfonso Cuaron) to take home Best Director, and the first movies to win Best Picture that were directed by a woman (The Hurt Locker) and a black man (12 Years A Slave).  The expansion of the Best Picture category, while allowing some lesser fare to sneak in, has also allowed a broader interpretation of what constitutes a “best movie” and has inspired some great debates, and has allowed the kind of small-budget indie and sci-fi fare to get Best Picture nods that otherwise would have never been allowed near the red carpet (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Her, District 9, and Inception, to name a few). 

                It’s a work in progress, make no mistake.  But then again, we all are, and so are our stories and movies.  I’m just happy to be part of the process, in my own, small way. 

                Here’s to another great year in film.  It’s already looking like a good one. 

-Noah Franc 

1 comment:

  1. I absolutey loved Matthew's speech, I thought it was epic!