Andrew Rostan was a film student before he realized that making comics was his horrible destiny, but he’s never shaken his love of cinema. Every two weeks, he’ll opine on either current pictures or important movies from the past.
In an annual tradition, Andrew and Alex commence their Oscar coverage with this preview of how the nominations will work out. Andrew will return solo in two weeks with more in-depth movie reviews.
Alex, this Oscar season is starting to remind me of an ongoing conversation of ours about cinematic merit. On the one hand,no film thus far dominates the awards conversation apart from Boyhood, which just took the New York Film Critics’ Best Picture…though if it can hold on to this early lead remains to be seen.
On the other hand, this is emerging as a year when there are films of varying quality which boast that perpetual catnip for the tabbies of the Academy: outstanding performances.
This is a small bone of contention between us, but I stand by what I wrote in my review of American Hustle last year: a flawed picture (as Hustle definitely was) can be made truly watchable and a good picture pushed to new heights if dedicated actors bring out subtleties, expressions, and layers of tone and meaning, and in doing so fill in the gaps of a workable screenplay, or become the entrancing center of uninspired direction.
This, a bit unfortunately, matters because 2014 has become a year dominated by biopics and such which are well-made, even very good, but nothing special apart from the leading roles. As the man who teaches media and how we react to it for a living, I’m curious to hear why you think the Oscars are eating biopics and performance-driven films up this year.
Because they always do? Not to be glib, but performance-driven films are always catnip for awards bodies. The acting branch is the largest of the academy and star-appeal has long been one of Hollywood’s main appeals for critics and fans. They don’t always lead to wins in big categories, but just look at a year like 2004 when very actor-ly films like Sideways, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, and the drivel that is Finding Neverland got Picture nominations.
Anyway, I feel like I should clarify my point a bit. It’s not that good acting is without value. If all films were performed as woodenly as The Following, then the cinematic world would be far worse. But I don’t think acting alone is reason to go see a movie. A few good performances will never be enough to propel me past mundane storytelling or anger-inducing themes. (Hello, American Hustle! So glad you went 0 for 10 last year.) Film, for me, is a storytelling medium and a film’s quality is thus primarily dependent on its direction, production, and writing. Usually when you have those, the performances are also great.
Anyway, how about this year? You mentioned Boyhood being in the pole position for Best Picture, which I agree with. As I wrote back in September, it’s a lovely film with a spectacular production history. Considering its breakthrough box-office take ($24 million) and that it’s the best-reviewed film of the decade (100% on Metacritic), it will be a hard movie to dislodge.
But there are lurking contenders. Selma just finished its post-production last week, so it’s behind on the buzz game, but preview screenings have raved it and the topic should strike a chord with Hollywood folks watching the news about Ferguson. Its biggest hindrance, cruelly, might be that 12 Years a Slave triumphed last year. It’s awful, but I’m dubious that Oscar voters want to vote for two straight films about the Black history in America.
After that I think Birdman is the next strongest. From what Travis and others have said, it feels like that exact movie I said I wouldn’t watch above. Great acting & messy everything else. Blech. Especially with Alejandro González Iñárritu, a director for whom no hand is too heavy, at the helm I am fully prepared to disparage Birdman sight unseen for months. But it’s flashy, has career-defining performances, and is about the struggle and beauty of artistic endeavor. If Argo taught us anything, it’s that Oscar voters love that shit. (For the record, Argo taught us nothing else.)
Everything else looks like an afterthought for the big prizes to me, so let’s change direction. What will you be rooting for this season?
(Who, for the record, really liked Finding Neverland, too.)
But this is about who I’m rooting for…on January 6, Boyhood comes out on DVD and I’ll be stalking Redboxes to finally see it, and by all accounts I think I’ll end up loving it due to the combination of Linklater and childhood. I agree with you about Selma but for slightly different reasons. The message of Selma is as powerful, important, and timely as 12 Years a Slave…but the latter was also one of the most hauntingly beautiful films I’ve ever seen because of Steve McQueen’s creative genius. If people who put the two side by side decide Ava DuVernay’s artistry doesn’t measure up, Selma will suffer, which is just as unfair.
In my next column I’ll be handling the “British Scientist Biopics” so I’ll save some thoughts for that. I was fascinated by Foxcatcher, which is a very difficult film to enter, but I’m more excited to hear your thoughts on that. The one potential contender thus far that gave me a passionate reaction was The Fault in Our Stars: I watched it again recently and cried even harder, astounded by Shailene Woodley’s natural, non-melodramatic turn as Hazel, her quiet voice commanding the screen with the might of one of Rocket Raccoon’s guns. Woodley missed a well-deserved nomination for The Descendants and I hope this time turns out differently.
But the two pictures I’m currently most excited for are Big Eyes and Still Alice. Arguably (and I will argue), Amy Adams and Julianne Moore are our two greatest living actresses without Oscars. By an increasing number accounts, Adams’s Margaret Keane and Moore’s Alice Howland (A fictional character…and oh does that stand out this year!) are among the best of their careers, if not the best. I couldn’t ask for a better situation for one of them to win a Best Actress statuette that is both merited by the film in question and long overdue. Moore has been sweeping early awards, but when Adams’s film formally premieres at Christmas that could change. Finally, following the theme of “strong women facing major issues,” the first reviews of Wild suggest both a fantastic Reese Witherspoon and a movie that throws most narrative conventions to the wind–to its benefit. The unusual always gets me excited.
Do you have any other majorly-anticipated films apart from Boyhood?
Bean: Honestly, it’s less anticipation of what has yet to premiere and more a need to catch up on what’s already out there for me. Right now the #4 movie on my Top Ten list for 2014 is Winter’s Tale. That’s because I’ve seen 4 movies from 2014. (Angel/dog/horse for Best Supporting Actress all the way, though). Sometime over the course of December and January I will try to see all of the following: Gone Girl, Birdman (maybe), Whiplash, Foxcatcher, Selma, Inherent Vice, Interstellar, and maybe A Most Violent Year and/or Mr. Turner. And that’s not even mentioning the smaller stuff from earlier this year that I missed like Under the Skin or Life Itself.
Despite that glut of acclaimed movies, I think I already know what my biggest rooting interest will be: The Grand Budapest Hotel. I absolutely adored that film when it came out in March and wrote about why in this review. Of course, I adore all Wes Anderson films, but the message of TGBH, that art and entertainment serve to redeem a ceaselessly savage world, really rang true for me as 2014 unfolded with such regular tragedy. So if it can ring up some attention for its impeccable production work, Ralph Fiennes’s career-best performance, or Wes Anderson’s work as writer/director/producer, I will be one happy camper.