I love the Academy Awards. I always have. Well, maybe not so much when I was younger. Though I did make a point of noting who won Best Picture every year, I doubt I was following the awards closely when I was a teenager or college student, unless there was a particular film I was passionate about.
However, as my love of movies grew and my appreciation for the entire medium (especially from a creative and critical standpoint) deepened, the Oscars became increasingly important to me. My pop culture tastes expanding and my circle of close friends becoming more insular surely also had something to do with that. Throwing Oscar parties was fun, but over the years, the show has been more enjoyable for me when watching with a few — or even just one — whose sensibilities are similar.
The advent of the internet and social media has naturally changed how such things are discussed too. I might not talk about movies and the Oscars as much with friends, classmates or co-workers. Yet I can always find a conversation with like-minded people online (even if I’m just reading an article or tweet).
But I just haven’t been feeling it for the Oscars this year. Maybe it’s because there wasn’t one movie that truly grabbed me among the 2015 nominees. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy any of them. I’ve seen all eight of the Best Picture candidates and generally enjoyed each of them. I don’t believe The Theory of Everything belongs among the bunch — my favorite film of 2014, Nightcrawler, would’ve been a better choice — but I get why it was selected.
I think I also feel like this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees isn’t as good as last year’s. To me, Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave (which won the big prize) were all superior to what we were offered this year. (And as a viewing experience, Gravity was most definitely memorable.) But that’s going to happen. Some years are just better than others when it comes to movies.
Whiplash had me leaning forward in my seat as it progressed. Birdman‘s cinematography and score were fascinating, and its commentary on criticism was satisfying in a very meta way. The Grand Budapest Hotel felt like reading a comic book to me because I lingered on so many shots like I would comic book panels, drinking in the work that went into creating that piece of art. And Boyhood was an intriguing experiment with time that no other medium could emulate.
Then there’s Selma. It was the last of the Best Picture nominees I watched, and after seeing it, I was in disbelief that David Oyelowo hadn’t been nominated for Best Actor, nor Ava DuVernay for Best Director. (To make room for them, I would have bumped Steve Carell from the Best Actor category and Bennett Miller from Best Director. Sorry, Foxcatcher.)
How could the Academy Awards have virtually ignored such a meaningful film? Maybe there was resentment over Selma being perceived as important. In past years, the Oscars have made the wrong decision in that direction, such as when Crash won Best Picture in 2006 (over a film that was truly important, Brokeback Mountain).
There have been grumblings that the movie’s producers didn’t play “the game” correctly. Screeners weren’t sent out to voters in a timely fashion. DuVernay wasn’t “in the club,” as far as having connections in the filmmaking community. Her vision for the film didn’t pander to the widest possible audience. And there was controversy from historians over how President Lyndon Johnson was portrayed in the film.
Perhaps the sentiment against Selma was best summed up by an anonymous Academy member who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg about the thought process that went into her ballot.
“What no one wants to say out loud is that Selma is a well-crafted movie, but there’s no art to it,” the voter said to Feinberg. “If the movie had been directed by a 60-year-old white male, I don’t think that people would have been carrying on about it to the level that they were.
“I’ve got to tell you, having the cast show up in T-shirts saying “I can’t breathe” — I thought that stuff was offensive. Did they want to be known for making the best movie of the year or for stirring up shit?”
“There’s no art to it” is a head-slapper of a remark to me, but as much as it chaps me, it’s a subjective view and that’s what we’re dealing with when it comes to the task of judging movies. No, DuVernay didn’t employ long, extended takes or film her actors actually aging as the story progressed, but “no art”? She made no choices in how the story of the Selma to Montgomery march and the events leading up to it were depicted? What about Oyelowo’s performance, in which he becomes another person on screen?
The voter’s opinion just seems remarkably dismissive of the work and craft that went into this film. Not to mention that her views on the cast and filmmakers wearing “I can’t breathe” t-shirts to comment upon current events came off as thinly veiled racism. They’re not allowed to talk about what’s going on in the world, especially when their film has a correlation to what happened in Ferguson and New York recently? That’s absurd.
There’s other ridiculous stuff in that Hollywood Reporter transcript, such as the voter saying Patricia Arquette deserves Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood because the movie demonstrates her brave choice in not having any work done on her face over the past 12 years. But what she says about Selma truly makes my teeth grind.
Reading stuff like that makes me question why I care so much about the Oscars. Obviously, that member doesn’t represent the entire Academy voting body, but it’s not difficult to imagine that equally irrelevant or ignorant thinking influences the choices on many other ballots. And I’m really not surprised. I suppose this just confirms my worst fears, along with many other critics and observers.
Those of us who love the Oscars ultimately do so because we love movies. This is the one day of the year when the medium is truly appreciated, when those involved in making some of the best films receive their just due. Ideally, these movies and the people who help make them are rewarded purely on the merits of their work.
Sometimes, I think the winners of the Academy Awards reflect that. But as this Academy voter makes so blatantly clear, artistic merit very often doesn’t matter as much as it presumably should. Or at the very least, what constitutes “merit” is truly in the eye of the ballot-holding beholder.
I still intend to watch the 2015 Academy Awards. And I’ll write some form of a recap for Monday here at The AP Party. While watching, I know I’ll rediscover some appreciation for this year’s nominated films and the people who worked to create them. I’ll be interested to see what the winners say about movies, their place in our culture and how the craft is viewed in the industry.
If Boyhood wins, it will presumably reward Richard Linklater pushing the possibilities of what’s possible in moviemaking. If Birdman wins, it’s a celebration of what can be done with the camera, the resurgence of a popular actor, and a rebuke against both criticism and how franchises have taken over Hollywood. If American Sniper wins, well, that’s an acknowledgment of a film which has tapped into a particular cultural zeitgeist.
Each would be an interesting choice. Though I like to view Oscar winners through the prism of time and history. What will we be saying about these movies 10 and 20 years from now? To me, Boyhood is the film that could hold up over the decades to come and represent something meaningful about filmmaking.
But that’s just my opinion, one which I’ll care about just a little bit less this year. I hope that changes in the future. I suspect it will.