Jupiter Ascending

 

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The latest sci-fi spectacular from the Wachowskis is one of the few original blockbusters of recent years. It has a troubled history, having been pushed back from its original release date of July 2014 to the studios’ dumping ground of the following February. It is an overblown smorgasbord of plots and plotting, dazzling spaceships and alien technology, weird creatures both humanoid and otherwise, high camp performances and heady themes about one’s place in the universe, duty and loyalty, consumerist greed, immigrant status and gender relations. It combines elements of Star Wars, Stargate, Flash Gordon, The Fifth Element, Soylent Green, Brazil (complete with a cameo from Terry Gilliam) and probably others, yet manages to maintain a distinct identity of its own. It is narratively unwieldy, conceptually confused and rather a lot of fun.

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Overall, Jupiter Ascending is a case of more being less. The film would have benefitted from being more streamlined and having a less complex fictional world, as this would reduce the need for lengthy exposition and plot-necessary kidnappings. Equally, it could have been an hour longer, allowing more time to display and explore the power structures and political infrastructure. And it would have been fascinating as the first instalment of a franchise, focused on a specific event that would have wider ramifications. The film’s financial failure makes this extremely unlikely (although never say never, this is Hollywood after all), but Jupiter Ascending remains an entertaining and remarkable noble failure.

Predictions and Preferences: Perspective on Oscar Nominations Part Three

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The sharp-eyed among you, and possibly the impatient, may have noticed that my previous posts on the Oscars neglected to give any verdict on the actual nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. Now that I’ve actually seen more of them, that will be rectified, just in time too. What I am NOT going to do, however, is declare that I know better than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and that they should obviously have nominated Pride over American Sniper, or that Michael Keaton should win because he is clearly so much better than Eddie Redmayne, and that if Julianne Moore doesn’t win it will be a travesty, etc. I hate it when individuals insist that their own singular opinions are more valid than the democratically voted Academy nominees and winners. You may disagree with the results of these votes, but that does not make you right, better or superior. I therefore offer my prediction of what I believe will win and what I would vote for if I were a member of AMPAS. If I have not seen enough of the nominees, I offer no opinion.

Picture

best-pic_3166072kAmerican Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Based purely on content, the films most likely to win Best Picture are The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. The former is a true story about an important figure of the twentieth century, largely set during World War II. The latter is a true story about an important figure of the twentieth century who overcame great adversity. The adversity is significant here – The Theory of Everything presents Stephen Hawking’s story as one of triumph and the power of love, whereas The Imitation Game balances triumph with tragedy, as Alan Turing may have cracked the Enigma Code but submitted to chemical castration before committing suicide (according to the film). It is a sad fact that the Academy’s conservatism is likely to block The Imitation Game from Best Picture, as it is a film focused upon a homosexual. While such films have previously been nominated, such as Brokeback Mountain, Capote (both 2005) and The Kids are All Right (2010), they are yet to win Best Picture.

American Sniper shares elements with 2009’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker with its attention to the minutiae of combat, and has the added bonus of being a true story. Selma is also a true story, about major events in American history and one of the most significant activists of the 20th century. Both these films have generated controversy, American Sniper for its (according to some) pro-war presentation of the Iraq conflict and Selma for the Academy’s failure to nominate Ava DuVernay for Best Director or David Oyelowo for Best Actor. The Academy rarely rewards controversial films, and it is a sad truth that “black” films are also seldom rewarded, 12 Years A Slave being the first “black film” to win Best Picture.

Of the fictional tales, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a long shot as comedies very rarely win; Whiplash speaks to an artistic sensibility that chimes with the Academy’s love for triumphing over adversity. The admiration for Richard Linklater’s twelve-year labour of love has continued since the Golden Globes and shows no signs of abating. While I was more impressed by Birdman’s visually thrilling attack on contemporary culture, I predict that the Academy will go for the American charm that Boyhood valorises.

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Predicted winner: Boyhood

Preferred winner: Birdman

Director

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Richard Linklater’s extraordinary commitment to Boyhood’s twelve-year production is reason enough for the Academy to reward him. Furthermore, he is a well-established and respected figure in Hollywood (and apparently Ethan Hawke’s best mate) whose films have captivated many over the years. It seems to be his time. However, Alejandro González Iñárritu picked up the Directors’ Guild of America award, which is frequently followed by the Oscar, so it is a very close race. I preferred Iñárritu’s swift, relentless and visceral direction of Birdman, which is a sharp contrast to Linklater’s more fluid, blink-and-you’ll-miss-that-we’ve-jumped-forward-three-years approach. I still think Linklater will win, but I would be over the moon if this award went to Iñárritu.

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Predicted winner: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Preferred winner: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman

Actor

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Physical transformation and playing a historical figure are what the Academy love, and Eddie Redmayne has already picked up multiple awards. While the Academy also loves a comeback like that of Michael Keaton, such performances don’t always win (see John Travolta for Pulp Fiction and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler). I would love Keaton to win, not least because he is never likely to do a better performance, but I think it unlikely.

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Predicted winner: Eddie Redmayne

Preferred winner: Michael Keaton

Actress

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

Reese Witherspoon, Wild

I have only seen two of these nominees, Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones. I enjoyed both films and consider Jones to be the best thing in The Theory of Everything, but of the two I would pick Pike. However, it looks like this will be the year of five-time nominee Julianne Moore. I wish her well, and look forward to seeing Still Alice.

NExfzWhlijhrAB_1_bPredicted winner: Julianne Moore

Supporting Actor

Robert Duvall, The Judge

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Edward Norton, Birdman

Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

J. K. Simmons, Whiplash

Aside from Robert Duvall, I have seen all of these and they are a great bunch (film fans in search of great acting should check out Best Supporting Actor nominees). J K. Simmons has picked up all the awards so far, and will almost certainly pick up the Oscar too. While I was less than enamoured with Whiplash as a whole, I have no problem with his performance.

Whiplash-Jk-Simmons-14Predicted and preferred winner: J. K. Simmons

Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Laura Dern, Wild

Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

Emma Stone, Birdman

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

I was impressed by Patricia Arquette, Keira Knightley and Emma Stone, and am somewhat bemused that Meryl Streep has yet another nomination to add to her collection (I have seen neither Into the Woods nor Wild). As Arquette has won everything so far, there is no reason to suspect she will not continue. And I pick her too, not least because she reminds me of my own mother.

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Predicted and preferred winner: Patricia Arquette

Best Original Screenplay

Birdman

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

I’ve seen all of these other than Nightcrawler, and with Writers Guild Awards as well as a BAFTA, the witty and wacky script of The Grand Budapest Hotel is a safe bet. But as in the Best Picture category, I prefer the scathing, mad energy of Birdman.

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Predicted winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Preferred winner: Birdman

Best Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper

The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

A mixed bag here, one based on a novel, three on biographies and one on a short film. The battle here is between the Writers’ Guild Award winner The Imitation Game and the BAFTA-winning The Theory of Everything. I like both films and it could go either way, but on the night I believe the Academy will follow the practice of the guild. I’m OK with that.

THE IMITATION GAMEPredicted and preferred winner: The Imitation Game

Animated Feature Film

Big Hero 6

The Boxtrolls

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Song of the Sea

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

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Predicted winner: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (the only nominee I’ve seen as well)

Foreign Language Film

Ida

Leviathan

Tangerines

Timbuktu

Wild Tales

Predicted winner: Leviathan (complete guess)

Documentary, Feature

Citizenfour

Finding Vivian Maier

Last Days in Vietnam

The Salt of the Earth

Virunga

What will win: Virunga (not seen any, so a complete guess)

Original Score

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Interstellar

Mr. Turner

The Theory of Everything

I’ve seen all of these but confess I barely remember the scores from all but one, and as a huge fan of Hans Zimmer in general and his score for Interstellar especially, I would like him to win. But Alexandre Desplat is receiving his seventh and eighth nominations simultaneously, and I think it is his time. For which film? Since Desplat picked up the BAFTA for The Grand Budapest Hotel, this seems likely. But then again, Jóhann Jóhannsson won the Golden Globe for his score for The Theory of Everything, so this race has a far from obvious winner.

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Predicted winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Preferred winner: Interstellar

Film Editing

American Sniper

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Whiplash

There’s a simple reason Birdman will not win Best Picture, which is that it is not nominated for Editing. Historically speaking, Editing and Picture frequently go together, at least in terms of nominations. If Best Director and Original Screenplay were certain to go to Boyhood, I would predict differently. But as Birdman could pick up Director and The Grand Budapest Hotel is more likely for Screenplay, as a Best Picture winner Boyhood will also pick up Editing. That said, I found the more intricate cutting of The Imitation Game to be more involving and absorbing.

Predicted winner: Boyhood

Preferred winner: The Imitation Game

Visual Effects

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Guardians of the Galaxy

Interstellar

X-Men: Days of Future Past

What could be known as the blockbuster award, this is the one bone that is regularly thrown to the box office champions, where artists and technicians make wildly popular cinematic marvels, for films that are consistently ignored for other awards. I imagine Interstellar’s spacescapes will be rewarded here, but personally I was even more taken by the extraordinary performance capture and digital rendering of ape armies.

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Predicted winner: Interstellar

Preferred winner: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Sound Editing

American Sniper

Birdman

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Interstellar

Unbroken

War films typically make great use of sound, and American Sniper is no exception. But the brilliant interchanges of sound and silence in Interstellar might just snag it, if I have my way.

Predicted winner: American Sniper

Preferred winner: Interstellar

Sound Mixing

American Sniper

Birdman

Interstellar

Unbroken

Whiplash

Again, I was captivated by the sound of Interstellar, but I cannot help but be impressed by Whiplash’s soundscape of music, voices and more indistinct noises.

Predicted winner: Whiplash

Preferred winner: Interstellar

Production Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Interstellar

Into the Woods

Mr. Turner

The Grand Budapest Hotel is an exquisitely designed film and it seems unlikely that the Academy members will ignore this.

Predicted and preferred winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Cinematography

Birdman

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ida

Mr. Turner

Unbroken

An astonishing level of artistic and technical brilliance is performed by Emmanuel Lubezki in Birdman, making this award a sure thing.

birdman-still-bafta-nominations-michaelkeaton-edwardnortonPredicted and preferred winner: Birdman

Makeup and Hairstyling

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Guardians of the Galaxy

The makeup and hairstyling of The Grand Budapest Hotel is a work of art in itself, and is exactly the type of work that tends to win this award.

Predicted and preferred winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Costume Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Inherent Vice

Into the Woods

Maleficent

Mr. Turner

Much the same as Makeup and Hairstyling.

Predicted and preferred winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

In the other categories, I do not know enough to guess.

Documentary – Short Subject

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Joanna

Our Curse

The Reaper (La Parka)

White Earth

No idea.

Live Action Short Film

Aya

Boogaloo and Graham

Butter Lamp (La Lampe au beurre de yak)

Parvaneh

The Phone Call

No idea.

Animated Short Film

The Bigger Picture

The Dam Keeper

Feast

Me and My Moulton

A Single Life

No idea.

Original Song

“Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie

“Glory” from Selma

“Grateful” from Beyond the Lights

“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me

“Lost Stars” from Begin Again

No idea.

Check back soon for my reactions to the winners and the show as a whole! I predict it will be legen – wait for it – DARY!

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Selma

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What is a “political film”? Is it to have an ideology? If so, a great many films are political in relation to the socio-political context of their production, whether they oppose or endorse it. Or is a political film one that expresses a specific point that is central to the film’s meaning? This more restrictive definition is often applied to filmmakers such as Tim Robbins and Ken Loach, who have been described as expressing political agendas across their respective oeuvres. I suggest a definition somewhere inbetween: a political film is one that dramatizes the practice of politics through a narrative concerned with this practice and characters are involved in the events. Such films can be about political figures, such as Lincoln (2012), or they can be concerned with political movements and events such as Pride (2014). The latter is the case with Selma, which does a superb job of presenting political activism as a dramatic and engaging story.

selma-mv-19The title of Ava DuVernay’s film indicates its remit as, rather than being called King or having a broader title such as Marches, Selma is named for the location of a specific event. In 1965, Selma, Alabama, was the site of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign, for although African Americans had the right to vote institutionalised racism in southern states repeatedly blocked their attempts to register. Selma highlights this racism: Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is humiliated by a voting office clerk who demands absurd information so as to catch her out and deny her registration; Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) as well as Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and Colonel Al Lingo (Stephen Root) are shameless in their prejudice and refusal to change; several scenes depict brutal and shocking racial violence. These attacks provide ample ammunition for Martin Luther King, Jnr.’s (David Oyelewo) non-violent activism, he and his supporters submitting themselves to beatings and arrests in their goal to guarantee all citizens the right to register to vote.

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Selma’s great strength is its willingness to include the activists’ meetings and strategic planning, in favour of breast-beating histrionics. DeVernay wisely keeps her style reserved, while Kim Jennings and Elizabeth Keenan’s production design allows a sense of homes and community. Director of photography Bradford Young lenses much the film with a nostalgic golden light, similar to that found in Oyelowo’s other recent film, A Most Violent Year. But much like J. C. Chandor’s film, Selma is far from a staid historical curio. It is a vibrant and engaging political drama, which demonstrates the nous and understanding of King and his fellow planners and highlights how people working together, wisely and pragmatically, can affect genuine change. Oyelowo is superb as King, a man who wishes to make the world better because he cares for his fellow humans, and cares enough to rise above quick solutions or simplistic moralising. Other performances are also very fine, especially Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, long suffering but still loyal supporter of her husband’s endeavours. And what endeavours, as while Selma focuses on the strategies of political activism, it also provides stirring and inspiring sequences, allowing catharsis from the tension of its earlier scenes. It is a truly political film, both in terms of its subject matter and the manner in which this subject is presented, and all the more engaging and entertaining for it.

11

Ex_Machina

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The question of what is human is a continuous one in science fiction. This philosophical topic has been explored and discussed in such films as Blade Runner (1982), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Never Let Me Go (2010) as well as many others, including the stunning directorial debut of Alex Garland, Ex_Machina. A young coder in a major software company, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a staff lottery to spend a week with the company owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, he learns that Nathan wishes him to test an artificial intelligence that Nathan has built: a female-gendered machine named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb and Ava’s conversations along with Nathan’s observations cause Caleb and indeed the audience to question their own expectations about what constitutes consciousness, personhood and humanity.

EX-MACHINA

Most of the film consists of this three-hander, which could run the risk of making the film overly dependent on dialogue. Garland, however, makes this potentially staid scenario beautifully cinematic, the uncanniness of the situation encapsulated in Mark Digby’s production design that gives the film locations that feel both inhabited and alienating, as multiple reflections and surfaces that are partially transparent force the viewer to look harder at what may be more than it appears. Rob Hardy’s cinematography also conveys an eerie sense that what Caleb encounters is slightly off, as the play of light on “people” and their surroundings obscures as much as it reveals. This is also true of the characters, who steadily reveal more of themselves in a series of genuinely surprising and disturbing interchanges. Much of Ex_Machina is quiet but it is rarely silent, the ambient hum of technology, especially the inner workings of Ava, permeating the fabric of the film much as it penetrates the very beings of Caleb and Nathan. All three performers are mesmerising, as is a mute performance by Sonoya Mizuno as Koyoko, Nathan’s servant. Vikander especially conveys Ava’s curious interest in humanity, herself and the relations between them with a spellbinding appeal, making Caleb’s actions understandable. But just when you think you have the film figured out, it turns in an expected direction than can leave you re-evaluating what may have just happened and, indeed, what you expect to happen. In doing so, Ex_Machina performs philosophy, as the best science fiction does, illuminating our own expectations and encouraging us to question them.

Ava

Wrestling for the Soul and Drumming for What? Foxcatcher and Whiplash

I recently had the pleasure of watching two of this year’s awards contenders in quick succession. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash unfurled before my eyes in the same cinema, the same auditorium and the same seat over the course of a single day. It was rather tiring but very rewarding, although I wish the screenings had been the other way around. Foxcatcher was hugely engaging and rewarding, whereas Whiplash left me wanting more and wondering what all the fuss is about.

foxcatcher_ver7Whiplash-Movie-Images

The two films have much in common. Both are up for multiple awards, and Whiplash’s J. K. Simmons has already won the Golden Globe, Screen Actors’ Guild award and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor. Both feature highly skilled protagonists who seek to be the best at what they do: Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in Foxcatcher is already an Olympic gold medal wrestler and wishes to repeat this accomplishment; Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) in Whiplash wants to be one of the greatest drummers in the world. Both films feature tough trainers for these would-be superstars: John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell) in Foxcatcher and Terry Fletcher (Simmons) in Whiplash, and both these trainers have questionable behaviour. Both films also feature more sympathetic mentor figures: Mark’s older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in Foxcatcher and Andrew’s father Jim (Paul Reiser) in Whiplash, both of whom are more concerned about the well-being of their respective relatives than the professional success.

foxcatcher-channing-tatum-steve-carell-1Whiplash-5547.cr2

Fundamentally, both films are about the struggle over a soul, and it is here that Foxcatcher excels and Whiplash founders. Foxcatcher’s dour cinematography and measured direction, combined with the disturbing events and compressed performances of Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo, express the torment and confusion of its characters. Whiplash has slick editing and gives a striking presentation of obsession, but ultimately that is all it provides, a presentation. Foxcatcher expresses, Whiplash presents, and this difference means that the former has a creeping sense of menace and discomfort while the latter beats its drums in a flashy (not to mention bloody) but ultimately hollow display.

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The most frustrating thing about Whiplash is that it does not appear to know what it is about. What is its attitude towards its protagonist’s obsession? I have no problem with ambiguity, but in order for that to work it must be presented as ambiguity rather than indecisiveness. Whiplash presents Andrew as so obsessed with drumming that he endures Fletcher’s relentless harrying and spurns the people around him, but the film neglects to make any statement about this. Is Andrew ultimately valorised or damned for his obsession? The film does not decide but not in such a way as to leave it open for the viewer, because Andrew’s arc is simultaneously too extreme and too triumphant, while Fletcher’s methods are so harsh as to be both a teacher-devoted-to-greatness and a vindictive bully. The film does not convince as an exercise in ambiguity because its focus is too narrow – the consequences of the characters’ actions are no more than incidental, especially in the perfunctory treatment of Andrew’s momentary girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist). In trying to have its cake and eat it, Whiplash fails to do both.

Foxcatcher, on the other hand, powerfully expresses the dangers of having and pursuing everything. John Du Pont is one of the wealthiest men in America and also one of the loneliest, and sees his wrestling team as a way of obtaining the companionship he has always been denied. Yet so blunted is his personality that when he fails to obtain what he expects the results are damaging for himself and those around him. Dave is well-adjusted and balances his status as an Olympic champion with his role as a husband, father and brother. Mark, however, is a tragic figure wrestling (pun intended) with a sense of inadequacy and irrelevance, chasing the dream that Du Pont offers him regardless of the cost. Foxcatcher brings the viewer into intimate contact with these three men, allowing us to appreciate Du Pont’s skewed view of the world and Mark’s steady descent into loss and confusion. It is a grim and compelling vision of obsession, thanks largely to the sense of oppression that permeates the fabric of the film. As for Whiplash, not quite my tempo.

FOXCATCHER

American Sniper

american-sniper-poster

American Sniper is a film that provokes strong reactions. If a viewer is opposed to machismo and militarism, they are likely to be angered. If a viewer is inclined towards firearms and US patriotism, they may find the film laudable. But the evidence for either reaction is problematic because of the film’s stripped-down, character-centred approach, typical of director Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre.

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American Sniper depicts the life and career of Chris Kyle (played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in US military history. The ethics of Kyle’s actions are never questioned and the conservative upbringing that he received is not problematised. Nor is the viewer treated to a nuanced view of US military action in Iraq. Kyle joins the Navy SEALs to serve what he believes is “the greatest country in the world”; he embraces military ideology, follows orders and protects his fellow soldiers, and he has a ruthless willingness to kill the enemy. However, the film does not present Kyle’s actions as noble or profound, denying any sense of triumph in his military exploits. There are moments in the film, particularly towards the end, that are ripe for patriotic sentimentality, but Eastwood steadfastly avoids manipulative reconstruction in favour of stock footage and utilises silence rather than stirring music. War is hell, but it is not grandiose or Wagnerian, Kyle and his fellow soldiers presented as dedicated professionals doing their (extremely dangerous) job. Whatever value may be ascribed to this job comes from the viewer rather than the film. Kyle is only a hero in the eyes of other characters, and his neglect of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in favour of his “duty to his country” is presented matter-of-factly rather than with an emotional, ethical or political inflection. The film therefore presents Kyle’s life and career, with intricate production design, intense action sequences and powerful performances, often creating a visceral and nerve-wracking experience. The presentation, however, does not offer explicit judgement in either direction.

Combat

It is tempting to see this lack of judgment as an implicit affirmation of the philosophy Kyle lives (and, if taken as a true story, actually lived) by. But the film includes Kyle’s post-traumatic stress, his inability to leave the war behind and his encounters with other veterans who were badly injured. The film therefore depicts the cost of war and the suffering of those who fight, and barely touches on the plight of Iraqi civilians, while Iraqi combatants are largely presented as cyphers, their identities irrelevant because they are simply “the enemy”. Again, this comes back to the film’s focus on its central character – the film is about Chris Kyle, not the Iraq War or American machismo or patriotism. Nor do we necessarily gain an in-depth understanding of our protagonist, as Kyle remains largely impenetrable, only his actions apparent. This inflects the film as a whole, the events of the narrative presented without explanation or commentary. American Sniper therefore treats its audience with great respect, allowing us to decide its meaning without guidance or manipulation, offering itself (successfully) as a topic for debate and discussion.

Some Kind of Film: Perspective on Oscar Nominations Part Two

oscars

Continuing my response to the response to Oscar nominations, it is worth noting that there are certain types of film that are consistently honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This type is determined more by content than anything else. I have seen the accusation that the Academy is more interested in rewarding financial than artistic success. In the case of the current crop of nominees, this is patently nonsense, as the eight films nominated for Best Picture are the lowest earning group of nominees in recent years. The combined box office gross of the eight Best Picture nominees came to $203.1 million before the announcement of the nominees, and there is little time before the ceremony for this to increase significantly (although American Sniper is doing very well). Furthermore, look at the earnings of other films, including nominees in other categories. In an act of remarkable brashness, Paramount submitted one of the year’s highest earners, Transformers: Age of Extinction, for consideration as Best Picture. Shockingly, it was not nominated in that category or indeed any other, but the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects (the category Transformers: Age of Extinction had a chance in) have a combined box office gross of $3.6 billion worldwide. So to say that AMPAS only rewards box office winners is simply untrue.

transformers2

It is typical that the Academy Award for Visual Effects goes to commercially successful films, often along with other post-production categories such as Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. What irritates me about this is the perpetuation of the art/entertainment divide – movies make money and might win an award for their effects; films are “art” and win awards for being “artistic”. It is an utterly nonsensical division that I love to see occasionally challenged, such as when genre films like Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) are nominated for Best Picture (unsurprisingly, neither won that award although both won Best Visual Effects, as well as Cinematography). There are exceptions that straddle the divide, earn vast box office receipts and pick up multiple awards as well, but these are few and far between. The best example is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), a fantasy blockbuster that won all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated. Although they did not win, other unusual nominees include The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), as well as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the occasional animated film such as Toy Story (2010), Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and especially Gravity (2013).

Gravity

Gravity

An interesting comparison can be made between Gravity, which won seven Oscars including Best Director, and Titanic (1997), which tied the record of eleven awards set by Ben-Hur (1959) (a feat later achieved by The Return of the King). Both Gravity and Titanic were commercially successful, and both are disaster movies with very high production values. Yet Titanic was more honoured than Gravity, picking up Best Picture whereas Gravity lost out to 12 Years A Slave. The common factor between 12 Years A Slave and Titanic is the factor that the Academy consistently rewards – history.

Look over these Best Picture winners of the last three decades:

2013 – 12 Years A Slave

2012 – Argo

2011 – The Artist

2010 – The King’s Speech

2009 – The Hurt Locker

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire

2007 – No Country for Old Men

2006 – The Departed

2005 – Crash

2004 – Million Dollar Baby

2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

2002 – Chicago

2001 – A Beautiful Mind

2000 – Gladiator

1999 – American Beauty

1998 – Shakespeare in Love

1997 – Titanic

1996 – The English Patient

1995 – Braveheart

1994 – Forrest Gump

1993 – Schindler’s List

1992 – Unforgiven

1991 – The Silence of the Lambs

1990 – Dances With Wolves

1989 – Driving Miss Daisy

1988 – Rain Man

1987 – The Last Emperor

1986 – Platoon

1985 – Out of Africa

1984 – Amadeus

Only eight (26.6%) of these thirty Best Picture winners have a setting contemporary to the time of their release, whereas twenty-one (70%) have a historical setting, ranging from 18th century Vienna to ancient Rome, 13th century Scotland to various points in the 20th century. Many of the films feature significant historical events, including World War II (four), Vietnam (three), the Middle East (two) and the US Civil Rights Movement (the anomaly is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Ten of these films (33.3%) are based on specific historical events or people, making them “true” stories.

The Academy consistently rewards the depiction of history, both in terms of period setting and significant events. Unsuccessful nominees have the same features – Saving Private Ryan, L. A. Confidential, Quiz Show, The Cider House Rules, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning – demonstrating that a significant proportion of nominees depict historical subjects. One can interpret this historical dimension as adding (in the minds of some) an element of gravitas, a quality that makes the film seem “important”. If we accept that AMPAS is an institution devoted to the development, promotion and cultural significance of motion pictures, then it follows that this institution would reward films that make the effort to engage with significant socio-cultural concerns and events. “History” can be considered a short-hand for this, the Academy honouring films that depict “history” because this subject matter is worthy of reward. Equally, it is rare for a contemporary-set thriller to win Best Picture (only The Silence of the Lambs and The Departed in the last 30 years – Argo and No Country for Old Men have thriller narratives, but both are historical and the former is based on a true story) and unheard of for a science fiction film to win. Gravity came closest and I had hopes for Interstellar this year, but no such luck for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic. Surprise, surprise though, Interstellar is nominated for Visual Effects.

timeinterstellarcover

This goes back to the art/entertainment divide, a form of cultural elitism that goes far beyond the Academy Awards. The Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for literature rarely (if ever) go to science fiction, fantasy or thriller novels, and there remains the nonsensical view that literature and theatre are “art” and therefore somehow superior to cinema which is “only entertainment”. Interestingly, one of this year’s nominees, Birdman, engages with this elitism through its portrayal of a former movie star struggling for credibility in the face of immense cultural prejudice, including a scene where a theatre critic lambasts the entire practice of Hollywood cinema for being too commercial and giving awards for “cartoons and pornography”. The great irony of AMPAS is that it perpetuates this bizarre double standard within its own medium, for the most part ignoring genre films and those with a contemporary or (God forbid) future setting and consistently rewarding historical dramas of “importance”.

Birdman

Birdman

While I am frustrated by this practice of AMPAS, it would be unfair to entirely blame AMPAS, because the cultural attitudes at work here go far beyond a single institution. But I will blame the Academy members for their general conservatism and reluctance to honour films that differ from the typical pattern. Nominees like Gravity and Avatar, and the extraordinary success of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, are especially gratifying because films like these develop the cinematic medium, creating fantasy worlds and taking audiences to new and exciting places. The challenges and innovations of these films are often expensive and the only way they can pay for themselves is through commercial success, therefore by honouring such films the Academy honours and encourages the development and continuance of cinema itself. That is what I would like to see more of in the future, though I am not optimistic as year on year the Academy instead rewards subject matter rather than innovation, perpetuating an unnecessary cultural elitism.

return-of-the-king-oscar-stage

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” Oscar night.

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