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It’s a wonderful night for Oscar! Or at least it should be on February 28th. As the 88th Annual Academy Awards approach, it’s time for me to look over the various categories and offer Vincent’s View on the nominees and likely winners.
I decline to arrogantly presume that I know best and say what the Academy got wrong. I don’t necessarily agree with the nominees and, were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I would have voted differently. I had my own favourites last year but that’s simply my view – the assembled results of nearly 7000 people do not pale in comparison to my almighty judgement, or indeed anyone’s. What interests me is what the particular nominees say about tastes and trends about Oscar nominees, now and historically.
Beginning with the nominees for Best Picture, they are a rather surprising bunch. I have written before on the kind of film that tends to win Best Picture and the commonalities among nominees. The cliché is that biopics win Oscars, but more broadly historical films win Oscars. Historical films attract awards, presumably because the AMPAS members (not to mention other institutions) respond to the apparent gravitas of “history.” Furthermore, films “based on a true story” do well, as few things offer more “importance” than “truth.”
With that in mind, consider the eight nominees for Best Picture:
If the nominees were still restricted to five, I believe that the nominated films would be Bridge of Spies (based on real events), Brooklyn (literary adaptation), The Revenant (literary adaptation, based on real events), Spotlight (based on real events) and either Room (literary adaptation) or The Big Short (literary adaptation, based on real events). In addition, all of them are concerned with ideas of “America,” a common theme of Best Picture winners from Wings (1928) to Patton (1970) to Unforgiven (1992). The six films here are concerned with, respectively, the Cold War, the immigrant experience, frontierism, church and community, family, financial disaster. All of the key nominees present aspects of America in relief and highlight them to the world. Cinema has long been an important form of US propaganda, so it is unsurprising that the Academy reward films that effectively advertise the USA. And if the advertisements are about less than savoury events, like Spotlight and The Big Short, this shows a degree of self-reflection and introspection somewhat lacking in US foreign policy and election campaigning.
Two of the nominees are, however, anomalous: The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw both films and enjoyed them very much, but to see them nominated for Best Picture is actually staggering. Both are science fiction films (space travel, post-apocalyptic), which makes them part of a very rare group. The only other sci-fi films to be nominated for Best Picture are Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), Inception (2010) and Gravity (2013), so to have two such films nominated in one year is quite extraordinary. Furthermore, Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie and a sequel, only the fifth to ever be nominated after The Godfather Parts II and III, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King. So for the first time, a sci-fi sequel is up for Best Picture! This is actually radical and groundbreaking for the Academy, and perhaps signals a possible shift in its members’ typically conservative tastes.
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.
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).
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.
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”.
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.
No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.
The third film in my countdown of top five transportive sci-fi movies gives the most overt attention to transporting the viewer (although it is not necessarily the most successful). Avatar creates a tangible, tactile environment that immerses and surrounds the viewer, an environment that took me far beyond the cinema in which I first saw it and continues to do so across repeat viewings. It is a literally awesome film in the sense that it fills me with awe with its extraordinarily rich and compelling vision of an alien planet and the experience of exploring it along with the protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Nor is this experience of Avatar simply down to the 3D, as I find the film immersive and absorbing on 2D home viewings as well. This effect is partially due to the remarkable production design that details the geography, flora and fauna of Pandora, as well as the film’s vibrant visual style that thrusts the viewer through these gorgeous but also dangerous environments. James Cameron has always been an intensely visceral director, from the relentless pursuit of The Terminator to the collapsing environment of Titanic. In Avatar, the director’s visceral and absorbing style takes the viewer into a world that is both alien and familiar, showing us what we know in a new light and creating greater appreciation of our surroundings beyond the filmic world itself.
I always like to see the positive in movies. Whereas others bemoan the death of narrative cinema (which is nonsense) and complain about overreliance on CGI (which is overly simplistic) or whinge that sequels and remakes have squashed originality, I find plenty to enjoy in mainstream cinema and rarely leave the movie theatre disappointed. But I confess that Michael Bay’s latest entry in the Transformers franchise did that rarest of things – left me bored.
I’ve been a fan of Transformers since I was a child (although I was a bigger fan of M.A.S.K. and Centurions – can we get a big screen adaptation of one of those please), and this has made me sympathetic to the current film franchise. In fact, I loved 2007’s Transformers, which combined 80s nostalgia with contemporary aesthetics and delivered some of the most blistering action sequences of that year (which also included The Bourne Ultimatum, Spider-Man 3, Die Hard 4.0, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). Since then, the franchise dipped with Revenge of the Fallen (2009) that not only featured racist stereotypes but pointless mysticism and a story that went all over the place before collapsing into incoherent noise (even the director described it as “crap”). Things got slightly better with Dark of the Moon (2011) that was at least more coherent but still suffered from too much in its final (hour long!) battle sequence. Age of Extinction continues the trend of ever-longer films (respectively, the four movies have lasted 144 minutes, 150 minutes, 154 minutes, 165 minutes), and demonstrates the law of diminishing returns as more proves to be less.
I went into Age of Extinction with low expectations because of poor to mediocre reviews, and often find that low expectations are surpassed. I wanted to enjoy the film and it certainly delivers on scale, with huge spaceships looming over Earth and the return of favourites Optimus Prime (voiced again by Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee. These are combined with some decent new Transformers including Hound (John Goodman) and Lockdown (Mark Ryan), although I could have done without the horrible Japanese stereotype Drift (Ken Watanabe). An alien robot with a personality out of human samurai culture, including swords and helmet, that speaks in haikus and calls his leader “Sensei”? Really? If anything, this was more offensive that Skids and Mudflaps in Revenge of the Fallen. The much-touted appearance of the Dinobots was pleasing when it arrived, but they only turned up in the last half hour by which time I’d stopped caring.
This was the main problem with Age of Extinction, as, despite my goodwill, the film failed to maintain my engagement. My attention wandered over its 165 minute running time, my reactions reduced to “Uh-huh”, “Uh-huh”, “Yes”, “Um-hum”, “How long have we been here?”, “Why did you do that?”, “Hmm”, “There’s still half an hour to go?!” There are some nice concepts, but again and again Ehren Kruger’s script and Michael Bay’s direction flog ideas to death, resurrect them and beat them to death again, or just abandon them. Early in the film, the Transformers are presented as illegal immigrants being pursued by nasty government agents, and this demonstrates that you can include political parallels in mainstream entertainment cinema. Similarly, the financial troubles of the Yaeger family, father Cade (Mark Wahlberg) and daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), allow for real world resonance. But these ideas are quickly abandoned in favour of over-designed alien robots that waste your time messing about. The bickering between the Autobots is tedious and serves no purpose, and the number of moving parts on the Transformers quickly becomes distracting. A robot that transforms into a vehicle is fine, but to have every little piece of them in constant motion actually becomes annoying. Worse, there is a bizarre attempt to humanise the robots and make them somehow biological, which includes blinking, breathing and bleeding. I don’t need Optimus Prime to leak green fluid to know he is injured – he has large holes in his body and has difficulty standing. That makes it pretty clear. This excess reaches its apex during the second act aboard Lockdown’s ship, which features some sort of robot guard dog-hyena type creatures. When those appeared all I could think was “Why, why, why?” Minions fair enough, but savage robot beasts is going way too far.
Repeatedly, the film suffers in comparison with 2007’s Transformers, which featured running battles that kept things moving. In Age of Extinction, battles occur, chases occur, and they go on and on and on and on. It is always very easy for a film critic, or indeed viewer, to say what would make the film better. It’s incredibly arrogant and presumptuous to assume that I know better than a professional filmmaker about how to do his job. But there is a glaring moment in Age of Extinction when the film could have moved into its climax. Instead, that is only the end of the second act and we have a torturous extension into China (which comes off as remarkably benevolent, clearly the producers had an eye on the lucrative Chinese market). I will not go so far as to say the film should have ended in Chicago (like the last one did), but I would have been happier if it had. I was already bored by the Chicago act, but that may have been because I knew there was more to come so the stakes were too low to excite me. More can be more – I will happily watch the three-hour cut of Avatar – but Transformers: Age of Extinction can best be described as a tedious, bloated, messy headache of a film.