Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunday Top Ten: Pet peeves and highlights of the 2013-14 Oscar season

The big show is coming up on being only a week old, but it feels like ages ago, so I think it's high time for me to finally put the season to bed. 2014 is now here, with its own slate of hotly anticipated Oscar hopefuls in the pipeline, and it's time to get to work on scoping out those, but not before capping off the awards derby that was with my annual list of highs and lows.

Pet Peeves of the 2013-14 Oscar season
5. Woody Allen v. Dylan Farrow
The Oscar campaign trail has always been an arena for ugly politics and questionable media reportage, but especially when invaded by a story that doesn't have anything to do with the Oscars. Thankfully, this grotesque public dispute that dredged up a decades old debate right at the peak of awards season ultimately did no damage to Blue Jasmine's Oscar hopes (although it did put Cate Blanchett in an awkward position that she nevertheless handled with as much class as possible under the circumstances), but even the retrospective misconception that this scandal somehow cost Woody Allen the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay is irritating to entertain. Other examples of ugly politics this year include the whisper campaigns about 12 Years a Slave's unwatchable brutality and the legal dispute surrounding the real Captain Phillips.

4. Alone-Yet-Not-Alone-gate
At first, it looked as though the obscure Best Original Song nomination for this ultra-niche Christian film was simply gonna be another laughable blight on the music branch and the music branch alone -- who certainly aren't ridicule virgins. This is typical music branch behaviour, to be so insular as to be swayed by mass emails from former branch chairman Bruce Broughton into nominating his uncomfortably faith-soaked hymn for an Oscar, but besides from being embarrassing, it's also hilarious. We can all laugh at the music branch together, right? Well some rival studio thought it was no laughing matter, and after a private investigation led to the Board of Governors' divisive decision to actually revoke Broughton's nomination, the whole situation had degenerated from an amusing gaff into a deeply shameful (and precedent-setting) controversy.

3. The Great Beauty
I was eager to see if opening up the Foreign Film category to the entire Academy would start yielding more daring winners than the likes of Departures or The Secret in Their Eyes, and after recent victories for A Separation and Amour, I had every reason to be encouraged. Careful what you wish for, I guess. With no clear frontrunner in the category this year, the publicists smelt a perfect opportunity to capitalize on the film's strategic release date and critical buzz to generate momentum. I'm sorry, I know I'm biased because I hate the film, but I just can't see the bulk of a 6,028-member group collectively preferring this movie to the competition. To my mind, this is clearly a case of The Great Beauty being the Foreign Film nominee that most voters had either seen or simply heard of, thus checking its box on their ballots.

2. Gravity "sci-fi" bullshit
If there's one thing I hate more than genre bias it's misguided genre bias. I won't try and tell someone that they're not allowed to dislike science fiction if that genre just isn't their bag. I understand it's not for everybody. But when people start applying those diminishing genre labels to a film that is not of that genre, it really rankles. And yet it didn't stop many journalists from lumping Gravity in with the likes of Avatar, E.T., Star Wars, and other populist sci-fi hits that lost Best Picture. There is only one scene in the whole of Gravity that dares to lean slightly into the realm of magic realism. Apart from that, there is nothing fantastical about it, and Cuaron even took great pains to ensure an outer space experience that was as realistically visceral as possible. It is not a science fiction!

1. The awards 'race'
It's been the elephant in the room ever since TIFF, although not online and in print. As soon as a number of pundits prematurely called for 12 Years a Slave to win Best Picture (the fact that they turned out to be right is beside the point), much has been written about how if the Academy didn't pick it, it would be a tragic blight on the organization for all time to come; How it would indicate that the deep-seeded racism which the film so artfully depicts hasn't truly ebbed away over these last hundred years; How Academy members would vote for it not because they wanted to, but because they felt they had to. Ellen directly addressed this elephant in the room at the end of her opening monologue, and it was her best joke of the night not because it was particularly funny, but because it pointed out the very lunacy of that notion. 12 Years a Slave is an exemplary piece of filmmaking, one that will likely stand the test of time with or without the awards to verify its mastery. To reduce its victory down to the race card and perceptions of 'importance' does a disservice to its merits as a piece of art with the ability to illuminate, educate, and even entertain.

Highlights of the 2013-14 Oscar season
5. 'The selfie'
This is the point in the show where I felt Ellen's cozy audience-interaction shtick hit its peak. It was all downhill from there, but one can't help but remark at how this planned 'spontaneous' group photo has so quickly become the defining image of the entire Oscar season, and a fascinating cultural snapshot (literally). A picture is worth a thousand words, and it's not hard to imagine future historians analyzing this time capsule for all sorts of hidden meanings. Just take a moment and ponder the dozens of implications captured in this one still: The hierarchy of Hollywood insiders and outsiders (Jared Leto ran across the room just to get half his face in there); Celebrity culture's disinterest in classic film (poor Liza Minnelli, a remnant of old Hollywood, tried so hard to squeeze in but was too short to be seen behind these younger A-listers); Society's obsession with social media (Twitter servers temporarily crashed as this became the most retweeted photo ever); And even the changing face of product placement in pop culture (Samsung is one of the Oscars' major sponsors).

4. The movies / the winners
This might seem a tad superfluous, because obviously the movies are the reason that anyone bothers to follow this awards nonsense at all. But when a year as strong for cinema as this one comes along, you've got to cherish that while it lasts. And the quality of filmmaking that we saw across the board in 2013 was well reflected by the films the Academy chose to honour. Five of the movies that took home hardware on Sunday were in my top ten, and it could've been six if only Captain Phillips could have edged out a win in Best Editing. I've already written about this in my first postmortem but it bears repeating: This is gonna be my favourite list of Oscar winners for a long time to come. And that brings me to my next highlight...

3. Emmanuel Lubezki
The only reason Chivo isn't higher on this list is because this time he was such a stone cold lock to win, that all the excitement was sorta sucked out of it. But certainly not the satisfaction. This man is a genius who should have a two Oscars already, but late is better than never (just ask Roger Deakins), and to see him with an Oscar this time is damn gratifying, and undeniably deserved. More so, this is first time in the last five years when it felt justifiable for the same film to win Cinematography and Visual Effects. Lubezki's brilliant touch is all over this movie, and the years of work he put in before, during, and after the shoot make it clear that he wasn't just showing up to point the camera and let the effects guys takeover (not to accuse Fiore, Pfister, Richardson, or Miranda of that, but Chivo's work is just in a whole other league).

2. Tina and Amy rule the Golden Globes, Pt. 2
Oscar night will always be my New Year's Eve, but the Globes are quickly becoming my favourite show of the season in terms of pure enjoyment. Tina Fey and Amy Poeller proved that their hilarious stint at hosting last year was no fluke (as though there was ever any doubt) by repeating with an equally outstanding gig this year. Their opening monologue killed, firing off dozens of jokes that put Zadan and Meron's writing team to shame, and that bit with Poeller as Fey's estranged son from a previous relationship... priceless. Once again, the fast and loose (and alcohol induced) levity of the Golden Globes has transformed in just two short years following the dark Gervais days into a perennial high point for awards watchers. Let's hope Fey and Poeller keep the ball rolling!

1. The PGA tie
Admittedly, I haven't been following the Oscars for as long as some of the true veterans out there, but this is far and away the most mind-blowing surprise I've ever seen in any awards season. It's true value, however, was not simply that it was unexpected, but that it set the tone for the tightest Oscar race in over a decade. If either 12 Years a Slave or Gravity had received even one extra preference placement from any PGA member, the suspense would have been sucked out of the Best Picture contest for good, but this jaw-dropping development completely changed the complexion of the race for the better. It had pundits wondering right up until the final envelope on Oscar night, and even though my personal preference (and prediction) ended up second, the Picture/Director split was really the only outcome that made sense, both in terms of awarding both directors but also in terms of indicating just how close this battle really was. We may never see a race this neck-in-neck again, and it made this Oscar season one for the ages.

And that's all she wrote. I'm going to into a much needed hibernation, but I'll be back sometime in Spring with early guesses for next year. Remember a year ago when we all thought The Monuments Men would be dominating the Oscars? Don't it go to show ya never know, and thank God for that!

1 comment:

  1. Nice rundown of the highs and lows of the season! I personally consider Alone Yet Not Alone a highlight only because the absurd hilarity of it all was so entertaining! That, and the song itself is a glorious mess.