Friday, February 20, 2015

One Category at a Time: Best Picture

Ordinarily, any self-respecting Academy Awards prognosticator (is there such a thing?) would be mightily embarrassed to guess Best Picture -- often the most predictable of categories -- incorrectly for two straight years.

But these last two years have been anything but ordinary.

A mere twelve months ago, many pundits, stunned by the unprecedented PGA tie between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, were calling it arguably the closest race in Oscar history. Flash forward and we have another Oscar race that, while perhaps not the closest of all time, is certainly not at a lack of suspense when it comes to the top prize. It's a good thing.

Traditionally, I've broken down the Best Picture contest by analyzing which films have the requisite trifecta of nominations; Best Editing, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. This year, for reasons that will be discussed, I have to throw all that out the window. The preferential ballot has made it possible for a movie to win without being cited in all three of those categories. A film-by-film rundown seems more appropriate.

Let's start by turning the clock back a year, when The Grand Budapest Hotel premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. Spurred on by great reviews, Wes Anderson's sweet-and-sour period caper went on to tear up the specialty box office throughout the early spring months, becoming the idiosyncratic auteur's biggest hit to date. But I never envisioned that the March release would be so beloved and well remembered by awards season that it now stands to win more Academy Awards than any other film from 2014. While its stylized whimsy and sudsy tone will ultimately keep it from topping enough ballots to win, there's no way you could call this anything but a huge Oscar success. Think about it: A March release winning upwards of five Oscars... When are we gonna see this again?

Also making big festival waves about a year ago was Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. The Sundance sensation eventually got a small release in October, but despite wowing crowds everywhere it played, the word-of-mouth was not loud enough for the film to truly take off. That's a shame, really, as it's one of the year's most thrilling achievements. Hopefully it'll find a larger audience in time. For now, every Oscar race needs a scrappy underdog that marches to the beat of its own drum, but even if it gets bumped out of the Best Picture running after the first round of ballot eliminations, at least it'll take a consolation prize in the form of J.K. Simmons' guaranteed win in Best Supporting Actor.

Then the summer came, loaded with blockbusters and tentpoles about which the Academy couldn't care less. But then, in the fertile counter-programming month of August, landed Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Having been crafted and shaped over the course of twelve years, the making of this quiet opus could easily have overpowered the film itself, but critics rightly saw something special in this decade-spanning slice-of-life. By December, it had become the defacto critics' favourite, nearly sweeping regional critics groups including the prestigious New York and L.A. crowds. Victories at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs certainly make it a formidable possibility to win the whole thing, but the industry itself has been less enthusiastic. Is this soft-spoken coming-of-age family drama really the type of movie that can survive the preferential ballot?

Broad appeal within Hollywood is what it takes to stand atop the heap, and this season Hollywood has made it plain which movie appeals to them. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman, the existentialist backstage comedy designed to appear as a single long take, seemed too audacious and daring to hold that kind of appeal when it started creeping into theatres in October. And yet if the entertainment industry can relate to any of this year's Best Pic nominees, this is it: A movie not just about actors (who comprise most of the AMPAS), but about acting. More generically, about making art, which everybody in the Academy knows something about. Despite missing that important nomination for Best Film Editing for obvious reasons, Birdman's triumphs at the SAG, DGA, and (most importantly) the PGA Awards have put it firmly in the driver's seat.

Another competitor that staked its claim in October is The Theory of Everything, documentarian James Marsh's first foray into narrative features, and clearly a successful one. The by-the-numbers biopic of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking was always going to be a pretty easy target for elderly Academy members to hit, especially on the other side of the pond where it played extremely well and earned a slew of BAFTAs. But stateside it hasn't generated nearly the same level of passionate support. I imagine it'll be the first or second nominee eliminated from contention, especially when there's another Brit-pic lurking as an all-too-possible spoiler.

It doesn't take a code breaker to see why The Imitation Game is such a threat in this contest. Morten Tyldum's three-headed chronicle of foundation-laying computer scientist Alan Turing has all the makings of an Oscar movie, from its tidy televisual construction to its easy liberal message ("He was persecuted for being gay! Aren't you mad!") to its distributor. Indeed, the wily Harvey Weinstein has been hard at work in phase 2 to guilt any undecided AMPAS voter into supporting The Imitation Game as a way of honouring Turing himself.
The campaign strategy pictured below (tweeted by Mark Harris earlier this month) is disgusting even by Weinstein standards...
... and the scary thing about it is that it might work. Like The King's Speech before it, the film is just good enough to find high placement on a lot of ballots over top of more critically celebrated yet less accessible works. Here's hoping that Boyhood and Birdman can hold it off.

And then there are the late breakers: A pair of movies that played at Hollywood's AFI Fest in November, banking on heavy Oscar attention to fuel their January box office performance. That evening in Tinseltown was, as it turned out, laced with ironies just waiting to be discovered over the ensuing months...

Of those two pictures, the first one to be screened was Ava DuVernay's Selma,
a stirring interpretation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s marches in Alabama during the heated summer of 1965. Instantly, critics declared it a serious awards player; An artfully made, fact-based docudrama with a progressive political slant and excellent performances. Many thought it might even be the one to beat. But there was trouble in the water. Paramount had already been planning a major push for Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, and with a tight January release planned for Selma, they hadn't enough time to get an adequate campaign together. As it missed guild after guild due to not sending out screeners (exacerbated by a nasty smear campaign targeting its depiction of president Lyndon B. Johnson), it became dreadfully apparent that it was being set up to fail. It's sort of a miracle that it scrounged up this Best Picture nomination at all, one of only two that it received in total. It may be worth considering that industry groups haven't had a chance to vote for Selma at any point this season, and if they've finally gotten around to seeing it, there's a slim chance it could pull off the biggest upset in Oscar history. Let's call it the wild card, but of course the odds are heavily stacked against it.

Where the irony comes in is that the second film to screen that fateful night at AFI Fest, where it was met with a polite but mostly indifferent critical response, was Clint Eastwood's American Sniper. The straight-faced account of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and his lethal tours of duty in Iraq marked a slight improvement over Eastwood's recent output, and a sturdy vehicle for freshly crowned A-lister Bradley Cooper, but no one could have imagined that it would take off with the public the way it did. At $307M and rising, the war drama is on pace to surpass Guardians of the Galaxy as 2014's second highest grossing domestic release, potentially challenging The Hunger Games franchise for top spot. For a non-franchise, non-animated, non-effects-driven film to do that in this day and age is a pretty big deal. While some have squirmed about what its success implies about America as a nation (to think that on MLK day, the top movie wasn't the movie about MLK, but the movie about a sniper....yikes), there are those in the Academy who would feel it should be rewarded. In all likelihood, the steak-and-potatoes crowd will probably be countered by the make-love-not-war crowd. The film's alleged politics are doing it no favours on a preferential ballot, where bottom placements are the kiss of death. Still, the film has momentum on its side.

Here is my mostly arbitrary ranking of who I think will win, in order of probability:

Will win:
1. Birdman
2. Boyhood
3. The Imitation Game
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
5. American Sniper
6. Selma
7. The Theory of Everything
8. Whiplash

Should win: (tune in tomorrow for the Awards-Nazi Award winners!)
Should have been nominated: Foxcatcher

1 comment:

  1. This is a difficult choice, but I am going with the "safe" choice and saying that Boyhood will make it. Though I could see any of 5 or 6 films winning. Holy shit.

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