In the grand spirit of TV Roundtable and Music Roundtable, welcome to the creatively titled Film Roundtable, where A.V. Club writers discuss movies old and new, or sound off on topics related to cinema. In this inaugural installment, we preview Sunday’s Academy Awards.
A.A. Dowd: By now, complaining that the Oscars “got it wrong” is a tradition as regular as the Oscars themselves. But judging from the plethora of think pieces and 140-character diatribes I read on the morning of January 15, when the 2015 nominees were announced, the Oscars got it really wrong this year. What were those bozos thinking when they failed to recognize The Lego Movie as one of the year’s best animated features? How could they once again diss Steve James, leaving his beloved Life Itself off the Best Documentary ballot, just as they did to Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters before it? And of course there was the tepid response to Selma, whose poor showing—only two nods, despite mountains of acclaim—looks especially egregious given that most of the nominees in the major categories (and all of them in the acting categories) are white people. Those seeking a bone to pick with the Academy have a whole skeleton from which to choose.
So why don’t I feel like joining in the hate fest? I’d love to argue it’s because the Academy Awards are silly, and we shouldn’t ever get worked up about something so meaningless, but no one who’s watched 21 consecutive Oscar telecasts—even, you know, just to laugh at them or whatever—has that leg to stand on. Nor can I really act like I’m now too jaded to even be disappointed in the Oscars, because some of the bad calls do still bug me. (Quick reminder: Michel Hazanavicius has a Best Director statuette and Terrence Malick does not.) Hell, I can’t even blame my lack of outrage on the fact that the films that got snubbed aren’t among my favorites of the year, because the Selma flame-out probably does say something about the Academy’s collective prejudices, the Steve James neglect is a little baffling, and really no one in their right mind should prefer that second dragon movie to the world’s cleverest toy commercial.
No, if my glass is half full right now, it’s for the very simple reason that, as far as I’m concerned, the Oscars mostly got it right this year. Setting aside any individual grievances one might have—like how in the hell Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn got shut out of the screenplay race—isn’t this one of the strongest crop of prospective honorees in recent memory? We’re looking at a year in which a Wes Anderson movie is tied for most nominations, a Richard Linklater movie could win Best Picture and Best Director, and a Dardenne brothers movie is up for an award, any award. Whiplash? Ida? Inherent Vice? All are nominated in major categories. In fact, it’s hard to identify a race without a rooting interest. I sympathize with anyone frustrated by the lack of diversity in this year’s lineup. But when it comes to the movies themselves, it doesn’t get much better than the possibility that the best movie of the year might actually be named the best movie of the year.
What does everyone else think? Is this an especially good or bad year for the Oscars? Do the pleasant surprises outweigh the glaring omissions? Or am I coming at this whole dog-and-pony show the wrong way entirely?
Jesse Hassenger: You’re not alone in thinking this, on average,is a pretty damn respectable crop of movies—as, frankly, it’s been for the past few years (albeit with more genuinely small and idiosyncratic movies ascending to frontrunner positions this year). Some of this has to do with the larger number of Best Picture nominees, which since 2009 has allowed for some mild but satisfying consolation prizes in the form of nominations for movies like Up, A Serious Man, Inception, Her, and Whiplash that probably wouldn’t make the cut in a five-movie field and whose presence makes up for embarrassing inclusions like The Blind Side, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, and this year’s The Theory Of Everything (some of which, I fear, might well have made that five-movie cut). But I think it goes beyond a simple numbers game. I think we’re seeing a gradual, and by no means necessarily permanent, shift in the composition of the filmmaking establishment.
Almost every year, at least one high-profile writer, if not six or seven, makes the case that artistically ambitious movies for adults—basically, movies that cost more than a shoestring indie but less than a summer blockbuster—are disappearing, a casualty of studio obsession with franchises and mega-grosses. This year, it was Mark Harris ringing that bell. Yet, as much as I sympathize with franchise fatigue, I have to say: I’m not sure if we’re in such a precarious place at the moment, and the Oscars reflect that.
This year, longtime cult filmmakers Linklater and Wes Anderson are major players in the awards game, joining Paul Thomas Anderson (in for his Inherent Vice screenplay) and other recent nominees David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky, and Spike Jonze. Many of these filmmakers have also had decent-sized hits in recent years. The Oscars are, as ever, slow to catch up; all of these filmmakers have been making interesting stuff for well over a decade, sometimes two. But imagine guessing in the mid-’90s that Bottle Rocket, Spanking The Monkey, and the “Sabotage” video would produce major awards players. It would have sounded absurd in the era of Forrest Gump and Braveheart. Hell, even Linklater seemed a little marginal circa Before Sunrise and Suburbia.
Obviously not everything is rosy in the world of auteur-driven, adult-targeted American filmmaking. Big studios don’t give Wes Anderson full financing, and probably still won’t, even after Grand Budapest Hotel has become a worldwide hit and Best Picture nominee. Studios are stubborn: Sony’s highest grossing 2013 movie was American Hustle, but they’re not curtailing their flailing big-franchise business to make more of those. Even so, it seems likely that many of my favorite directors will have an easier time making their next movie, not a more trying one. Whether the Oscars are actively helping with that or just falling in line with consensus, I find it hard to complain, even when the Academy indulges their long-standing collective fetish for pasty suffering.
Of course, The Imitation Game could still strike a blow for Weinstein-greased traditionalism and take the big prize. But it seems like the late-breaking challenger to Boyhood isn’t Weinstein’s arsenal of dirty tricks but rather Birdman, which has surprised me by winning a bunch of guild awards.
I like Birdman a lot, but it strikes me as an unusual awards player, even by these revised standards, neither a traditional awards play nor a critical favorite too great for the old folks to ignore (despite its generally strong reviews). It’s a technical feat that nonetheless feels insular, it’s a sorta-comedy that’s more odd and audacious than all-out funny, and it feels a little out of step with the time-skipping poignancy on display in both Boyhood and Grand Budapest—the best choices in many of the big races. So why might it be Birdman for Best Picture and/or Best Director? Do actors really love other actors that damn much?
Josh Modell: Birdman won’t win Best Picture, not a chance. I would bet my reputation and a crisp five-dollar bill on it, because it’s just too unusual: Its strengths, the ones you noted above, Jesse, will sink its chances with the voters who just don’t get it. Imagine that a good chunk of Academy voters as your parents—they might appreciate Birdman, but it’ll be vexing enough to get more of a “That’s interesting” than a “That’s the best film of the year, hands down!” It’s too bad, because it’s a great film. But it’s the Her of this year’s race, and I’m actually surprised that the online oddsmakers have it as only a slightly distant second to Boyhood. (They’ve got The Imitation Game and Selma pretty far back, which also surprises me.)
And at the risk of just agreeing with most of what you two have already stated, this is a solid crop of nominees, as was last year. And we should actually be celebrating the reality that—despite what some people might say—the Oscars are not simply an affirmation of what’s commercially successful in the way that the Grammys tend to be. (Though giving Beck the big award this year doesn’t necessarily support that notion.) But really, we’re looking at eight Best Picture nominees this year, and in the city where I grew up, six of them would have absolutely only played at the arthouse. Even Boyhood had a rather minor theatrical run in Chicago, which as I understand it is a fairly big market. None of them are pandering in that Forrest Gump way. I’ve seen six of eight, and I’d rate those all pretty high. Shouldn’t we be happy that Boyhood’s stiffest competition is the equally risk-taking Birdman, and not The Hobbit or Maleficent, both of which probably raked in as much money as I typed this sentence as those others did in their entire runs?
And let’s celebrate the fact that the front-runner, as Alex noted, is honest-to-God the best movie of the year. When’s the last time that happened? It usually feels like there’s a spoiler waiting around the corner to trump the “real” winner: Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction, Crash over Brokeback Mountain, etc. And actually, looking back over the nominees for the last 20 or so years, there are entire fields that would’ve been massively improved by even the least of this year’s nominees. Just look at 1999, for crying out loud: American Beauty beat The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, and The Sixth Sense, none of which hold a candle to our top two this year. We’ve come a long way (or we’re just having a good year).
Cameron Scheetz: After hearing from you guys, I’m realizing that this is a fairly respectable bunch of nominees, though I’m still not as electrified by the race as I have been in the past (there are others who still count down to Oscar night, right?). I could continue to nitpick the Best Picture field and tell you why The Theory Of Everything, American Sniper, and The Imitation Game left me feeling “meh,” but I’d rather give some time to the other categories, particularly the “celebrity-enhanced” acting fields.
It seemed there was some buzz going into this season that it was going to be a weak year for women, but I’m pretty happy with how the Best Actress race shook out. Wild turned out well, but only because Reese Witherspoon’s performance carried the film and strayed away from just being a bunch of huffing and sighing. And, speaking of carrying a film, Marion Cotillard is a more than worthy candidate for her fragile, heartbreaking work in Two Days, One Night and Rosamund Pike is instantly iconic in Gone Girl. Risky, bonkers, go-for-broke roles like Pike’s (and Michael Keaton’s, but more on that in a little bit) are the kind that the Academy should always be willing to recognize. Weirdly though, I find myself rooting for Julianne Moore. I’m never one to stump for the “it’s-been-a-long-time-coming” candidate, but, man, doesn’t she deserve it by now? In Still Alice, Moore gradually transitions from the bright, upper-class Alice to a helpless ghost, it’s deeply affecting and horrifying—it’s certainly her trophy to lose.
On to the aforementioned Michael Keaton: I’d like to think that he has the statue on lock for his role in Birdman, but many think the Academy is leaning toward Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch. Redmayne pushed himself and gave a remarkable performance, and Cumberbatch’s turn as Turing is “good” and “important,” but I don’t think they earned it the way Keaton does. We all know the Academy loves a showy biopic performance, but those often feel too much like studied imitations. As Riggan Thomson, Michael Keaton has this almost sinister energy about him and it’s incredible.
But to respond to Alex’s question regarding surprises and omissions, I think the most glaring snub is (okay, after The Lego Movie) David Oyelowo’s in the Best Actor race. I usually roll my eyes at preachy biopics, but I found Selma enthralling and Oyelowo is pitch-perfect in the role of MLK Jr. Yes, Dr. King is a highly influential figure in America history, but Oyelowo makes him a flawed, passionate human that fuels Selma’s fire. That Oyelowo and many of the film’s crew missed out on nominations is one of this year’s biggest Oscars controversies. Quite a few people are quick to blame racism, but the Academy always leaves a deserving movie or two inexplicably overlooked (I’m still fuming over Inside Llewyn Davis’ two measly nominations last year).
Best Actor feels like it could go one of two ways at this point, so it’s one of the categories that should hopefully make the show worth watching this year. So many Oscars are prognosticated to death, but which of this year’s winners are still too close to call?
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: Hoo boy, I’m probably not the person to ask this question. Based on my own limited, non-scientific understanding of the tastes and overall group psychology of the Academy, I’d say that Bradley Cooper has a stronger chance at winning Best Actor than has been acknowledged, that Best Actress has no clear-cut frontrunner, and that both Screenplay categories are too close to call. (“The Academy,” by the way, is such canny branding, considering that AMPAS is essentially a trade organization.) And though Boyhood is seen as a shoo-in for Best Picture, I think its biggest chances—aside from a Best Supporting Actress award for Patricia Arquette—are in a Best Director win for Linklater.
Of course, it’s fun to play the snub game and rattle of everyone who could have been nominated. (Ralph Fiennes for The Grand Budapest Hotel, for instance.) I’d like to talk about something else, though—something Jesse brought up, which is that this particular Oscar race sees a couple of directors who were usually seen as cult figures transitioning into the Academy-defined mainstream. This is the actually Linklater’s third time being nominated for an Oscar. He was nominated for Screenplay awards before, for Before Sunset and Before Midnight—a kind of established consolation prize for ambitious, indie-rooted writer-directors. (See: This year’s nomination for Inherent Vice.) The same goes for Wes Anderson, who’s also getting his first Best Director nomination for The Grand Budapest Hotel, and was nominated twice before for Best Original Screenplay.
So, let’s talk about validation, which is the big social function of the Oscars, and the reason we often talk about them as though each category were a kind of career achievement award. For instance, I’ll freely admit that I’d like to see Michael Keaton win, not because I’m all that crazy about Birdman, but because I happen to be a lifelong fan. I want to live in a world where Michael Keaton is an Academy Award winner. I am convinced that it would a better world, because it would mean better, meatier roles for Michael Keaton, a nervy, hard-to-pin-down presence that Hollywood has never really figured out what to do with.
So, fellow roundtablers, how much of your investment in the awards is based on wanting to see good work recognized, and how much of it is about seeing good people validated? I feel like J.K. Simmons straddles that line. He’s a hard-working character actor who’s good or great in everything, doing the kind of work the Academy usually overlooks, so there’s an element of validation in having him be the Best Supporting Actor front-runner. At the same time, his work as Fletcher in Whiplash is a bona fide great performance.
Katie Rife: Of course I’m going to watch the Oscars. I unapologetically love the hype and glamour, and I’m going to watch it no matter who’s nominated. As many of you have already noted, this is a satisfying year, nominees-wise. Yes, the obvious “awards movies” featuring British people nobly struggling against something or other are nominated, but there are no Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close-level fuck-ups.
And maybe more importantly, the expected winners are arguably the best candidates. (Can we all agree that Foxcatcher’s probably not going to win anything, and that’s fine?) As pretty much everyone has noted, Boyhood is a frontrunner for Best Picture, although if history bears itself out, Birdman’s SAG, PGA, and DGA wins make it a serious candidate for the award as well. (If that’s the case, though, Linklater really needs to win Best Director.) The supporting actor and actress categories also have their incumbents with J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette, both deserving candidates.
It’s in the lead actor and actress categories, neither of which really have a clear front-runner, where I think we’re going to see the Academy’s most boring tendencies shine through. His Golden Globe win was a sign that Eddie Redmayne’s performance as a real person in a period piece that was a love story requiring a dramatic physical transformation (that’s four Oscar points) could be a winning formula for Best Actor, but don’t count out Michael Keaton for Birdman because yes, actors do love other actors that much. As far as I’m concerned, the Best Actress race is wide open.
I wasn’t in love with Birdman, but a win for Best Cinematography wouldn’t be undeserved. And in the background of all these races—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography—lurks The Grand Budapest Hotel, waiting to surprise us all like it did at the Globes.
As Ignatiy noted, as usual the mea culpa nominations are found in the screenplay category this year. There’s Dan Gilroy’s nomination in the original category for Nightcrawler, which really should have been a Best Actor nomination for Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth screenplay nomination in the adapted category for Inherent Vice. I’m rooting for Anderson, although I think the fact that Whiplash eventually landed in the adapted category is a sign that it will probably win, clearing the original category for the Big Three of Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson will have to wait for his fifth—or sixth, or seventh—nomination, but that’s okay. Whiplash was a great film, and I personally have no problem with the idea of catch-up Oscars to validate good people who have been ignored. I kind of like them, actually.
Speaking to Ignatiy’s question about validation, though, the one troubling thing about filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson being passed over time and time again is that the validation of an Oscar has real monetary value in terms of an actor or director’s career. That’s one area in which opening up the Best Picture field has undoubtedly been a good thing, because “Academy Award Nominated” sounds pretty sexy too. And I share Jesse’s optimism about the future of “serious adult” films, but that has nothing to do with the studios. Yes, Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater getting nominated for Oscars represents a changing of the guard. But the one we really should be watching is Megan Ellison.
AAD: Oh, Megan Ellison. Cool rich person or the coolest rich person? Much as I’d love to hinge my hopes and dreams for cinema’s future on a single billionaire heiress with impeccable taste, Ellison is just one (amazing) person. So long as she keeps taking risky ventures and funding adventurous master filmmakers, we can probably count on at least one or two daringly adult American dramas every year. (Or comedies! She’s backing that Richard Linklater baseball movie now.) But a true sea change in industry priorities—or at least a viable alternative to the conveyor belt of superhero franchise properties—will require a shift in what’s deemed a solid investment. And here I have to echo Katie’s sentiments, and suggest that if an Oscar nomination (or win) is worth anything, it’s the future projects it buys its makers. This, ultimately, is why so many of us snidely dismiss the Academy Awards while secretly hoping and praying our favorites do well at them. We want to see Boyhood win because we want to see more films like Boyhood.
But will Boyhood win? I’ll put my own wrinkled fiver up against your crisp bill, Josh, and say that a victory for Birdman seems, at this late stage, like the safest bet. As Katie points out, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stylish behind-the-curtain comedy has basically swept the Guilds (minus the WGA, for which it was ineligible) and it’s almost unprecedented for a film to lose Best Picture after picking up those prizes. (Apollo 13 is the only example, to my memory.) Furthermore, actors make up the largest single branch of the Academy; if ever there was a film for them, Birdman is it. Like The Artist and Argo before it—or Shakespeare In Love, whose seriocomic portrait of backstage artistry similarly trounced a summer frontrunner—Birdman looks like an obvious opportunity to satirize and glorify showbiz in one fell swoop. Obviously, I’d love to be wrong on this one.
But to your question, Cameron: I’d say that both Best Picture and Best Director are too close to call; as I’ll reiterate in my larger predictions piece tomorrow, a split seems very possible, with Linklater winning Director and Birdman going all the way. Best Actor is, as several of you pointed out, a real race, and the screenplay categories could go in multiple directions. Conversely, I don’t know what you all are smoking that makes you think Best Actress isn’t all sewn up. Coffee and donuts are on me Monday morning if Julianne Moore isn’t “Academy Award winner Julianne Moore” by that time.
Of course, in playing the prognostication game, we’re all essentially buying into the prevailing idea of the Academy as a unified hive mind with collective tastes and agendas, rather than just an enormous group of people voting individually and anonymously, with their own motives guiding them. That’s heartening, in its own way, as it allows for the possibility that certain films were still being seen by the voting deadline, and that conventional wisdom—like, say, that The Imitation Game will probably win Best Adapted Screenplay—could prove unreliable. On the flip side, however, there’s always the possibility that The Theory Of Everything shocks us all and sweeps the major categories. Should that or something worse happen, you better believe I’ll be ready to join the hate fest after all.