Oh hai, readers. It’s that time again. Tuxedos are being rented, fashion designers are rubbing their hands together with glee and retailers of gold polish in Hollywood are experiencing their annual upturn in sales. In just a few short hours, two dozen individuals or groups of people will be in receipt of a bronze paperweight plated with gold, and will then forever be referred to as “Academy Award Winner” in any future publicity material. I’ve long since given up on sitting up for the Oscars while they’re on – this year I have further mitigation in the fact that I’m at paid work tomorrow, for the first time in nearly a year – but I can never manage the disappointment that comes with films that I’ve formed a personal attachment to coming away empty-handed.
This well-dressed parade of injustice used to cause me to dislike the Academy Awards and their ilk for quite a few years, but I’m rather more at peace with it now, not least because I see the benefits of a box office boost to a film’s time in cinemas. Since my reason for starting this blog was to encourage people to see more films in cinemas, anything that can achieve this end can’t be all bad in my book. But I can’t help but feel that, this year more than many in recent years, the best film is likely to miss out, despite being a favourite of many more lauded and respected critics than yours truly.
But we’ll get to that. First, a gentle reminder of how the biggest film prize of the year is whittled down. Any motion picture, of more than forty minutes in length, shown for seven consecutive days at least three times a day (including one evening showing) in Los Angeles County, and advertised to the public by normal processes, between January 1st and December 31st 2017 can be considered as the best film for 2017. This year that’s given us 341 motion pictures that have to fight it out for the title of Best, and those competing can be a little confusing to British cinema fans. Not just for the fact that films like Lady Bird have only just arrived in cinemas, but for the fact that Paddington 2 won’t be eligible until next year, and David Brent: Life On The Road is one of the eligible films, despite being in UK cinemas eighteen months ago.
Anyway, I’ve been through the list, and I can tell you that of that 341, I’ve managed to see over 140 of them, with a handful more due in British cinemas in the next couple of weeks. One year I’d love to be able to say I’d seen them all, and could pass a truly informed opinion on what the Best Picture is, but given that this year I’ve seen My Little Pony: The Movie (eligible), I’m prepared to take a pass on the other 200 and assume that the cream of the crop can be found in what I’ve managed to view already.
So, firstly here is the breakdown of the films that would have been on my longlist had I been putting together a Best Picture rundown:
Baby Driver; Call Me By Your Name; Coco; Dunkirk; Foxtrot; Lady Bird; Phantom Thread; The Killing Of A Sacred Deer; The Shape Of Water
Blade Runner 2049; Brawl In Cell Block 99; Chasing Coral; Dawson City: Frozen Time; A Fantastic Woman; Lady Macbeth; Loveless; Okja; Personal Shopper; Raw; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Thelma; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Cast me away on a desert island with that lot and I’d be a happy man for quite a while. But we’re in the business of finding the top 1, not the top 22, so you need to know what would have made my list.
So if I’d had to make a nomination list of nine to match the Academy’s, then my 10/10 choices would have filled it out quite nicely. The personal disappointment starts here, in that the Academy and I could only agree on five out of the nine: of those that didn’t make it in, I can only presume that Coco was too animated, Foxtrot too obscure (Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Language got only to the top nine of that category, not to the final five), The Killing Of A Sacred Deer too wilfully odd and Baby Driver too general entertainment (and also too lacking in a major supporting role for Christopher Plummer, if you get my drift).
But five out of nine is not bad, and for me represents the strongest year since the 2010 awards, the last time I would have given five of the nominees a 10/10 rating. Here though, for the avoidance of any doubt, is my official ranking for this year’s awards in reverse order of appreciation.
The Least Best Picture is Darkest Hour
It might be about to give Gary Oldman a first Best Actor award – which, as so often, is richly deserved but probably not for this role – but this generic biopic is all bluster and little subtlety, and this comes from someone who’s a founder member of the Joe Wright Appreciation Society, for his work on the likes of Hanna and Anna Karenina which I am willing to bet money I liked more than you did. This, though, feels the most awards-baiting entry of the nine nominees available.
Which Is Not As Good As The Post
It’s good, solid, reliable Spielberg delivering yet another good, solid, reliable Oscar contender, but one that falls slightly short in the drama stakes compared to its journalistic relatives such as All The President’s Men and Spotlight. Nice to see Thanx and Meep (as I would hope she would sign herself on Twitter) sharing a screen though.
Which Is Not As Good As Get Out
Controversial opinion of the year: I think Get Out is a great film, I think it’s the most important film of the year in many ways, I would instantly list Jordan Peele as someone whose next film I would watch with no prior knowledge of content or talent involved – but, despite a satisfying ending that deviates from expectation, I did find that the film lost its way in the last half hour or so, and there’s just occasionally a lack of subtlety that I think will come in Peele’s next films.
Which Is Not As Good As Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Now that the go-to way to hammer home your message appears to have become renting three billboards, decking them out with similar posters, and driving them to the location of a tragedy, it’s no wonder that Three Billboards is at the top of public consciousness right now. Given that Martin McDonagh is still using Peter Dinklage to make short people jokes, nearly a decade after In Bruges, I’m still now quite sure how this walked off so easily with the Golden Globe and the BAFTA. I don’t think we need to have our film characters held to the same moral standard as the people who act in them or who hold political office, but I can also understand why that moral ambivalence has made a few people uncomfortable.
Which Is Not As Good As The Shape Of Water
It might just be Pan’s Labyrinth 2: Electric Merman Boogaloo, but that doesn’t stop The Shape Of Water being an utter delight. Sally Hawkins should immediately be given a damehood, the freedom of anywhere she likes and free ice cream for a year for her magnificent performance, and the cast around her are equally impressive. It’s just the occasional feeling that more could have been done with Michael Shannon’s grotesque baddie that keeps this further from my top spot.
Which Is Not As Good As Dunkirk
If I’m a Joe Wright fan, then I’m practically at the level of stalker for Christopher Nolan. Putting aside the disappointment of Interstellar, he eschews movie stars and manages an intimate focus on three different aspects of war. He’s also convincingly selling us a war film about a retreat and a relative defeat, but finding the spirit without being jingoistic. I do wish I hadn’t enjoyed watching the dogfight sequence in 4DX quite so much, though. (Wheeeee!)
Which Is Not As Good As Lady Bird
I believe that Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig’s partner, offered to direct this when Gerwig was developing it, but Gerwig decided to make it herself. Based on this, she should offer to direct his next ten films, as she’s much, MUCH better at it. Its greatest trick is the quick cut montages which offer all of the detail and emotion of major events in short bursts, but I wouldn’t want to sell short the performances or the magnificent script, where not a single word feels superfluous.
Which Is Not As Good As Phantom Thread
I keep a spreadsheet which records every film I’ve seen in the past ten years, and that also enables me to track the record of any director over that period. Paul Thomas Anderson has now become the first director in that decade to deliver four bona fide masterpieces (There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice being the preceding three). This might just be the best of all of them, and it’s as immaculately constructed and utterly beguiling as any of its lead character’s creations. Vicky Krieps was properly robbed of a Best Actress nomination, though – hurry up and retire, will you Meryl?
This, of course, means that…
The Best Picture Of 2017 is Call Me By Your Name
I don’t think this is going to win Best Picture. If I get up for work in eight hours to discover it has, it will be a moment as beautiful as a Michael Stuhlbarg monologue at the end of a gorgeous Italian summer. I’ve seen this twice in a cinema and found myself even more mesmerised by the film’s beauty the second time, and I do believe that Luca Guadagnino’s work as director is one of the film’s most underappreciated assets, Best Director nomination notwithstanding. (The blocking and placement in the fountain scene alone gives me goosebumps.) I just hope talk of a sequel is unfounded, some perfect moments can’t and shouldn’t be replicated.
So that’s it, my list of the nine nominees in order for another year. To finish, please find my increasingly squashed scorecard of the decade so far, since the nominations expanded, to see how this year’s ratings compare to years past. And if you’re watching the awards, just remember that it’s only an awards show. Have fun.
It’s that time again. The carpet is reddened, the bald heads are polished, the seat fillers are preparing to do their thing and the finest fashion houses on the West Coast are delighting at the sound of cash tills ringing or whatever noise 21st century cash registers actually make. Awards season reaches a climax on Sunday with the somethingth annual Academy Awards (the number’s not important, look it up if you’re really bothered, it’s eighty-something, they’re all basically the same anyway). There’s more reason than most this year to actually watch the awards, because Doogie Howser M.D. / Barney Stinson himself, Neil Patrick Harris, is hosting and I think it’s fair to say if he does it to the standard of the other awards shows he’s hosted, it should be a job for life if he wants it. Not convinced? Then try watching his opening number for the 2013 Tony Awards. If the opening to the Oscars is half as good as this, it’ll be the best thing to happen to the ceremony in years.
But it’s not just an excuse to have some song and dance and to see quite how poorly John Travolta can pronounce somebody’s name. (Am I the only one hoping he gets Best Foreign Language Film to present this year?) There are also some awards to be given out, and one film will get to stand alongside the other eighty-ish greatest films of all time already accorded the honour of Best Picture, including Crash, Chicago, The Greatest Show On Earth, Driving Miss Daisy and Titanic. Yep, I don’t even need to tell you that this awards ceremony is to justice and fairness what John Travolta is to public speaking, you already know it, but that doesn’t stop us all from some harmless speculation on who’s going to fare the best come the early hours of Monday morning.
I do wonder if the choice of host is in some way to compensate for what’s a fairly middling selection of films this year. At the end of the post you can see a breakdown of all of my ratings for films nominated for Best Picture since the award increased from five films, but even those at the top end of the chart aren’t the most inspiring films ever made. I weep just a tiny bit that the likes of Mr. Turner, Nightcrawler, Calvary, Under The Skin, Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice and Gone Girl haven’t picked up more recognition, but I won’t claim to be the slightest bit surprised. Equally inevitably, I can say that the three Foreign Language film nominations that I have seen – Ida, Leviathan and Timbuktu – are all comfortably better than at least half of the Best Picture nominations this year.
So as Oscar and his chums will get the final decisions wrong as inevitably as Transformers and Alvin And The Chipmunks sequels will continue to be inflicted upon us because we keep paying to watch the damn things, I’ve managed to see all eight Best Picture nominations so once again present For Your Consideration: the only ranking that really matters, my own view on the films that could walk off with the big one from least best to best. (Disclaimer: as far as I know, all of the Oscars are the same size, it’s just a figure of speech.)
The Least Best Picture Is The Imitation Game
Oh dear. The Imitation Game feels like it occupied a screen in my local cinemas for ever, but I fear they may have been the only one as Morten Tyldum’s film actually took slightly less money than Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie in the UK last year. Rapturous public acclaim from those who have seen it can only indicate that many of those people don’t actually watch many films, for there’s only really two good things about The Imitation Game. Those two things are named Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley and both deserve the nominations in this year’s acting categories they’ve won themselves, although the fact that neither is likely to actually scoop the award is also a fair assessment.
Where to start with the problems, then? First off is the direction, which is flat, lifeless and rarely does anything above pointing a camera in the direction of the nearest stationary actor. Then there’s the script, which botches almost every aspect of Turing’s life and is a structural mess. Most of the remaining background characters are well-acted but one dimensional cyphers, Turing is made out to be somewhere between a sympathiser to the opposition and a traitor (which is all swept under the carpet late on anyway) and the title cards over the final shot are so condescending as to be deeply insulting to anyone with an IQ more than their shoe size.
But it’s the general contempt for its audience that rankles most about this year’s Weinstein Company vehicle for awards success. I’ve visited Bletchley Park and the National Museum Of Computing, and it’s a deeply enthralling place that’s awash with momentous history. Here it’s reduced to man builds magic box, man turns on magic box, magic box works, the end, which is a narrative non-event of the highest order. Good performances will only go so far, and good luck to The Imitation Game for fleecing the British public of over $20 million, but this is a desperately average film at best and a Turing travesty at worst.
Which Is Not As Good As American Sniper
Speaking of contempt for your audience, there’s nothing like showing you simply don’t give a stuff about the quality of your end product when one of the most discussed facets of your film is the incredibly fake baby that’s unconvincingly passed around to comedic effect in the second half of the film. It’s an insult to just about everyone when you can’t even be bothered to put that right, but sadly it’s also indicative of the slightly sloppy notes creeping into Clint Eastwood’s last few films.
There’s a problem with what American Sniper is, which is an unbalanced, flag waving action movie. That’s set the American box office alight but box office success and critical quality make poor bedfellows. There’s also a problem with what it isn’t, which is true to Chris Kyle’s story if the book is any judge; the film gives Bradley Cooper moral uncertainty and a sense of self-righteousness that aren’t exactly a reflection of Kyle’s own telling of his story, and you can’t help but feel that the more interesting film – and the one which the Eastwood of ten years ago might actually have made – would be one which steers closer to Kyle’s own public record of his motivations and experiences.
I would also like to go on record as being mystified that Bradley Cooper has been nominated for Best Actor or Supporting Actor three years in a row, which puts him in an exclusive club along with Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, William Hurt and Russell Crowe. I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke (and he’s also impressively bilingual), but not one of his three nominations has really been in the best of the year. Sorry Bradley.
Which Is Not As Good As Birdman
Hopefully I made my feelings about Birdman pretty clear with my review. I understand that many people enjoyed this but I can’t help but feel it’s been rewarded for technical achievement rather than artistic endeavour. Actually, maybe that’s the way forward – a combination of two sets of scores, one for technical and one for artistic, in the same way as ice dancing. It couldn’t be any more convoluted than the current voting process.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Birdman, and I love almost everyone associated with it, but even thinking about it now, six weeks after having seen it, leaves me feeling slightly exhausted. I will be a grumpy Gus if this picks up the big award, but I have a horrible feeling it might because it’s packed full of Actors with a capital A and we’ve seen much worse Actors films (*cough* Crash *cough*) walk off with the main award in the past.
Which Is Not As Good As The Theory Of Everything
The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything have a lot in common: they’re two British films that have two high-flying British actors in significant roles, where the man has a role which features a requirement for an increasing level of acting tics and mannerisms. Both the lead actor and actress in each case have picked up an Oscar nomination of their own and both films were nominated for both best British film and best film at the BAFTAs. And in both cases, the two main performances are by some distance the two best things about the film.
The Theory Of Everything isn’t by any stretch of the imagination as frustratingly poor as The Imitation Game, but neither is it up to the standard of director James Marsh’s previous work, including Project Nim, Man On Wire and the excellent and overlooked Shadow Dancer. It’s a pretty standard narrative set in a chocolate box Cambridge that doesn’t pan out in the way that you expect such stories to – although many going in will already know the outcome – but it’s told in a conventional, straightforward fashion and it’s both showy and understated in a rather conflicted manner.
Then there’s rather a significant step-up in quality…
Which is Nowhere Near As Good As Selma
I don’t believe that the acting has been overlooked in Selma for reasons of race or colour, but I do believe that the nominated actors all have the attention-grabbing, theatrical roles that normally get nominated and it becomes that much harder for those whose work is less clip-worthy to nudge their way into the nominations. Selma has been all but excluded from the final breakdown. You have to go all the way back to Decision Before Dawn in 1951 to find a film with a Best Picture nomination and only one other nomination in a minor category, and that really doesn’t reflect well on the Academy’s voters who had plenty of opportunities to recognise the work done here.
There have been a few reports that the tension between LBJ and Dr. King have been overplayed, but this would hardly be the first film to adjust the truth slightly for narrative purposes (yes, that is a reference to you, The Imitation Game), but there’s still enough well placed fact here to pack the punch that the story needs to. From a gut wrenching opening explosion to scenes of focused tension when the gathered masses attempt to march out from Selma, director Ava DuVernay has a strong handle on the material and isn’t afraid to shock a little to get your attention. The song over the closing credits makes a contemporary reference to what’s happened in Ferguson over the past year and it serves as a direct reminder that the issues here haven’t gone away in the intervening fifty years; in fact, Selma could scarcely have been released at a more relevant time.
I do hope this will give career impetus to David Oyelowo, in a film littered with top draw performances from British actors such as Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth. Maybe the moral of the story is that if you’re a British, you need to be putting on an accent as posh as Keira Knightley’s plummy Imitation Game Brit-warble, rather than flawlessly mimicking the accents from across the Atlantic.
Which Is Not As Good As Boyhood
Yes, other films have watched children grow up, but never over the course of a single film to such remarkable effect as Richard Linklater’s latest towering achievement in direction: one that will, if there’s a shred of natural justice left in this overly glamorous farrago, see him pick up an award for direction that his career has long since justified. The Before trilogy may have inadvertently charted the evolution of a relationship over a quarter of a lifetime, but Boyhood is a timelapse on adolescence quite unlike anything that’s ever been attempted before.
And we shouldn’t just applaud the fact that twelve years is an insanely long time period over which to be producing a film, with no guarantee that the end product would have ended up even useful (or that the actors would have made it to the end of the process they started). Having to pick someone at the age of six and to hope he’ll still be interesting in a dozen years is an unenviable task, but Linklater gets round this somewhat by using Ellar Coltrane as the prism through which to examine the transition from childhood to adulthood, rather than the focal point.
Absolutely greater than the sum of its parts, the lead actors are all still magnificent – and Hawke and Arquette would probably both have one in a slightly quieter year, although Arquette hopefully still will – but the real power of Boyhood is in absorbing it, ideally in a single sitting, and allowing the repetition and the rhythms to wash over you.
Which Is Not As Good As Whiplash
I’ve seen a few reviews which take issue with a number of aspects of Whiplash. They can be broken down into two main categories: firstly, that the events of Whiplash are somewhat lacking in realism. Your average hospital drama does a fairly appalling job at accurately portraying the finer points of medicine, so I don’t believe we should get too hung up on the mechanics of music school. However, this also applies to some of the story structure (one character being explicitly and repeatedly told not to do something at all costs, before doing that in less than thirty seconds in a manner that’s then never explained or referred to again). While I can see where that’s coming from, I believe that Whiplash – almost perversely for a film based around jazz drumming – operates at the level of an opera, with two main characters going to extraordinary lengths to win the approval of their audience and their peers and as such, any plot manoeuvres are best not dwelt on for too long.
The other criticism, and one which carries a little more weight, is the idea that Whiplash is at best ignoring the perils of bullying, and at worst justifying that as a means to an end for artistic greatness, almost as if genius cannot be attained without suffering. I have a different take: J.K. Simmons’ Terence is modelling Miles Teller’s Andrew into his own image, even if he’s not doing so intentionally, and this is a classic power struggle, a battle for dominance between two alpha males at the cost of their very souls, and neither can reflect on their actions with any sense of pride by the end.
In between theatrical plot twists and enhanced egos there lies Whiplash, a film oozing confidence and doing a much better job of its jazz drumming soundtrack than Birdman managed to. For the first two-thirds it’s a compelling character study, but then as the plot moves up a tempo or two we reach a breathtaking climax that had my heart almost beating out of my chest. Whiplash is darkly enticing, thrilling without the promise of evolution or redemption and it does so with a jazz soundtrack that might even win a few converts. If nothing else, it elevates J.K. Simmons to the level of recognition he’s long since deserved.
The Best Picture Of 2014 Is The Grand Budapest Hotel
There’s probably around a dozen or so directors who, if marooned on a desert island, I would be content if nothing else but the products of their career’s labours washed up beside me. (Ideally a giant TV to plug in next to the palm tree would be nice). While Wes Anderson continues to make films that flirt with the deep sadness of the human condition but yet in which every single element is lovingly crafted, his last pair of films – this and Moonrise Kingdom – have been not only as good as anything else in his career, but are as deep, meaningful and hysterically enjoyable as anything else being made anywhere today.
If you want to know which film brought me more pleasure than any other last year, then look no further. But The Grand Budapest Hotel ups the ante by setting itself across four eras, each of which comes shot in its own typically relevant and period friendly aspect ratio and which emphasise the evaporation of time that comes to the best of us before we can even come to terms with it. Anderson might just have perfected the formula he’s been honing since Bottle Rocket and before.
The cast is astonishing, even those in barely a couple of scenes able to walk off with entire films elsewhere, but the pairing of Anderson with Ralph Fiennes is a masterstroke that I hope history will look back on and regard with greater significance. (Admittedly I only placed Fiennes eleventh on my performances of the year last year, but I think I was maybe being a tad harsh.) You can see why Anderson migrated entirely to stop-motion for The Fantastic Mr Fox for his films have a love, a care and an attention to detail that’s rarely seen outside the world of physical animation. It’s that unbelievable attention to detail and the total delight of the script, the direction and the performances that cause me to rate this film top of the Oscar pile for 2015. Expect the Academy voters to have totally ignored me.
And finally, as promised, my rankings out of 10 for all the Best Picture nominees in the six years since the category expanded. Sorry I’ve missed five of them, but I still think that’s a pretty good record. It doers hopefully show that this isn’t a great year, but I will keep my fingers crossed that one or two decent films will pick up something before the Oscars are over for another year.
You might think it’s odd that someone who professes to like the Oscars so little tends to write so much about them. It’s not that I’m opposed to recognising greatness – you only have to take a look at the list-based awesomeness that is my end of year review each year, which can be found by clicking on any of those “Review Of…” links just up above – it’s just that Oscar and his 7,000 Hollywood mates get these decisions completely right about as often as Halley’s Comet passes.
I don’t stay up for it these days, not least because I tend to use my annual leave either for seeing Mrs Evangelist or for spending my time in film festivals, but for those who do it can be a somewhat tortuous endurance event, with four hours of occasionally handing out an award to someone you’ve never heard of for a film that you might not have seen broken up by the host – this year it’s Ellen DeGeneres but frankly it could be your mum for all the difference it makes – desperately trying to be funny while not offending anyone and for UK viewers, some Z-list celebs giving hollow opinions to whoever’s hosting on Sky Movies this year (I can’t be bothered to look it up).
Anyway, if you’d like something to pass the time between now and stupid o’clock GMT when the awards start, here’s my annual Oscar Scorecard Of Discontent. You can see what I’ve gone for, then I’ve made a blank one for you. Just print it off, fill it out, and then tick it off as the awards come round. If you’ve then mostly circled “Must Not Win Or I Will Sulk All Day Monday” in about eight hours, then you have my deepest sympathies.
If you are staying up or having a party, good luck, we’re all counting on you, have a great time and I’ll see you in the morning, nice and refreshed for either elation or bitter disappointment. Or, as is usual, a fair old mix of both.
It’s nearly over. The extended farrago over who’s better than who and the flood of yet more pointless platitudes from the supposedly great and good of Hollywood comes to an end for another year in the early hours of Monday morning UK time, with the 497th Academy Awards (probably). It’s not been a bad year for films, and the awards voters in Hollywood have got a lot more right than wrong this year. Gradually, the large field of contenders has been whittled down to just nine, through a process of expensive advertising and devious marketing, and the times when The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, The Monuments Men, Saving Mr. Banks or The Counselor were being considered seriously for awards greatness – in other words, before people actually saw them – have long since passed, and we’re now firmly at the business end. In just over two days, Hollywood will allow a select band of people to upgrade to “Academy Award Winner” when they’re mentioned in trailers for serious films, while a host of others will have to remain content with “Academy Award Nominee” or, somewhat inexplicably the best he can yet do, “BAFTA Award Nominee / SAG Award Nominee / Independent Spirit Award Winner Paul Dano”.
For the third time in the four years that the blog has been running, I’ve managed to see all of the nominees in all of the big eight categories (picture, director, acting, writing) by the time the awards happen, compared to the two occasions I could claim that before I started blogging. However, this has led me occasionally to be sat in front of a film simply so I could claim a full house on my Oscar bingo card – mainly because I like to feel informed when I criticise the Academy for its poor decision making – but this year my only real regret was seeing The Butler about two days before it seemed to lose all of its awards momentum. At least I got to claim a full house at BAFTA as well, and I could answer the question as to whether Oprah Winfrey deserved a nod ahead of June Squibb. (Answer: no. I’m sure Oprah will be crying herself to sleep on a giant bed made of money and success at my decision.)
The process has, inevitably, thrown up a few films that should have got more love, but were inhibited either by their very nature or by the resistance of their distributors to spend flipping great wodges of cash taking out ten page ads in Variety asking voters to please, please, pretty please remember their film when casting their vote for Best Art Direction or Sound Editing. In a different year, with a slightly different sensibility, or if the Academy actually understood what people in general mean by “Best”, we might have seen Short Term 12 (too indie), Frozen (too animated), Prisoners (it looked too generic from the trailer – it wasn’t), The Great Beauty and The Hunt (too subtitled, even when one stars an actual person famous to Americans in Mads Mikkelsen), Iron Man 3 (too mainstream), The Act Of Killing (documentaries should know their place, apparently), Inside Llewyn Davis (too miserable without being melodromatic) or Before Midnight (too sequel-y). All of them are better than the first three on this list, Before Midnight better than most, but we should at least be grateful the list we do have doesn’t have any real stinkers in it.
So, for the third time in four years, here’s my ordering of the nominees for Best Picture, from least best to most best.
The Least Best Picture is Dallas Buyers Club
We should all be duly relieved when something of the quality of Dallas Buyers Club is the least of the nominees in a given year. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to enjoy about Dallas Buyers Club: the performances of both Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey are excellent and I wouldn’t begrudge either the awards they’re nominated for (although they’re not necessarily the best). Details of Ron Woodroff’s real life may have been somewhat sketchy, leading to this being a little more myth-making than accurate reporting, but it’s the kind of story that needs a little myth-making when all’s said and done.
There are three main problems with Dallas Buyers Club. First is the lack of other characters: Jennifer Garner – who, apropos of nothing, looks amazing for 41 and being married to Ben Affleck – only develops into a living, breathing character around the halfway mark, and no-one else gets a look in; the lack of character development for Ron’s fellow club worker Denise, for example, is almost breathtaking. Secondly, it’s a story in need of a better ending, saddled with a feeling of anticlimax. And thirdly, although it has no bearing on the quality of the finished product, there really should be an apostrophe in that title.
Which is not as good as American Hustle
American Hustle is the movie equivalent of a decent Chinese takeaway: satisfying and enjoyable while you’re consuming it, but for some reason leaves you unfulfilled not long after. Much of what there is to enjoy is down to the performances, from Bradley Cooper’s tightly wound FBI agent to Christian Bale’s sleazy conman. While Jennifer Lawrence might be a little miscast, it would take a genuine curmudgeon to take too much offence with her stroppy headbanging, but the real highlight is Amy Adams once again twisting any man in a five mile radius round her little finger.
But beyond the quality of the acting, the rest feels as threadbare as Christian Bale’s wig / comb-over combo. There feels little new about the story or its handful of twists, and David O. Russell’s direction lacks the narrative drive or visual flair of many of his contemporaries. It’s undoubtedly in awards contention thanks to the quality of the performances and the large voting bloc that the actors make up in the Academy, but whether or not that support will carry Hustle to the big prize remains to be seen. It won’t quite be a Crash-level shock if it does, but it will be almost as unjustified.
Which is not as good as Philomena
I have to confess that I was checking my watch around an hour into Philomena. It wasn’t for any lack of enjoyment, as Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script was doing an efficient job of pitching up the cultural differences between Coogan’s journalist Martin Sixsmith and Judi Dench as the titular Catholic mother looking for the son taken from her decades earlier, but it had never quite caught fire. Treading a tricky line between serious issue drama and gentle Brit comedy, it wasn’t so much that it couldn’t decide which to settle on, more that it was content to be a reasonable example of both.
But the power of Philomena comes in the last third, when the true nature of events has unfolded and the gentle events of the first two acts actually work to blind side you to what’s coming. Dench is, unsurprisingly, outstanding but Coogan also proves his dramatic chops and shown that he can be more than just Alan Partridge. It was a good year for Coogan, with Partridge’s big screen foray also being well received, and stranger things have happened than Philomena picking up a screenplay award in the big shakedown.
Which is not as good as Nebraska
Alexander Payne is becoming a reassuring brand of quality, but after the slight dip of The Descendants – hamstrung by too much repetition of scenes of explaining that someone had died – Payne has once again found his groove with a slice of family life in the American Midwest. Pulling in a wide variety of family members, it’s a slightly skewed road trip led by Bruce Dern’s befuddled father insisting that he’s come up trumps in the lottery. While Dern has drawn the lion’s share of the acting plaudits, June Squibb also has an Oscar nomination for her efforts and Will Forte has redeemed himself for a fair chunk of over-the-top comedy performances with his restrained showing.
But it’s not just the director that’s pulled his weight. Bob Nelson’s script feels so in tune with Payne’s sympathies I did a double take when seeing Payne didn’t write it as the end credits scrolled. Phedon Papamichael’s black and white cinematography also avoids cliché and justifies the decision for monochrome shooting, and Nebraska is beautifully paced and allows you to fall in love with its characters despite their flaws. It looks as if nominations are the best that Nebraska can hope for, but against the quality of the opposition, there’s no shame in that.
Which is not as good as Captain Phillips
It wouldn’t be the Oscars if there wasn’t a huge and unfair omission from the list, and probably the person most justifiably allowed to bear a grudge – even though he already has two shiny gold man-shaped bookends at home – would be Tom Hanks. Stoic and restrained for the majority, his performance in the denouement is gripping and fearlessly honest, and to not even take a nomination is a shame. Paul Greengrass also does his usual bang-up job with the direction, and if that award wasn’t filled with so many strong contenders he would have also been worth a nomination.
Captain Phillips is taut and compelling in all the ways that Greengrass’s earlier features, from United 93 to the Bourne films, were and that his previous film Green Zone wasn’t, so if nothing else it’s just a relief to see Greengrass back on top form. He’s also pulled some great performances from his Somali novices, and Barkhad Abdi is a standard bearer for that part of the cast. Captain Phillips avoids any feelings of exploitation and gives a balanced view of the story, as is so often the case with Paul Greengrass, but it’s not quite at the level of those earlier classics.
Which is not as good as Her
Observation 1: Joaquim Phoenix and Amy Adams should always make films together, if The Master and Her are the benchmark of the quality of their collaborations. They get a lot more screen time together, and while Scarlett Johansson’s OS is the object of Phoenix’s affections, it’s Adams that gives him a warm, balanced human interaction. Observation 2: Spike Jonze, we’ve missed you. Only one film since Adaptation in 2002, let’s hope that Jonze can find more stories that inspire him, especially as Her shows that the quality of his writing is easily the equal of his directing and feels in tune with his earlier work from other writers.
Observation 3: Even five years ago, it’s difficult to imagine a film like this working as well as it does, but Jonze’s timing is impeccable, our acceptance of technology now enabling us to accept such a concept so readily. Despite being saddled with the most unlikely name in the history of movies and facial hair that verges on comedic, Theodore Twimbly draws in your sympathies and you find yourself rooting for his and Samantha’s relationship to work. Observation 4: What keeps this from true greatness is the slightly fudged ending, which while being brave enough doesn’t quite feel as fully formed as the rest of the film.
Observation 5: Any film that can actually make me start to like Arcade Fire is doing something clearly right.
Which is not as good as The Wolf Of Wall Street
It’s three hours, Matthew McConaughey is relegated to an extended cameo and it’s been accused of not being sympathetic enough to the victims while its misogyny poorly serves the female characters. Does that stop it being one of Martin Scorcese’s top tier films? Not in my view. The length works in its favour, giving true scope to the true excess that defined Jordan Belfort’s era of ultimate debauchery. It would have been lovely to have more of McConaughey, but there’s enough in the other characters, from DiCaprio’s physical comedy to Johan Hill’s cheesy grin and a whole array of entertaining supporting turns.
The sympathy for the victims is trickier, as we only see one person being sucked into the scheme, but whereas the comparisons to Goodfellas are well founded, that was an indictment of a lifestyle on the fringes of society. The Wolf Of Wall Street is more of a condemnation of the culture that arose, and where the desperate needs of so many allowed them to be so easily exploited by Belfort and his cronies. As for the treatment of female characters, this is a realisation of Belfort’s view, and to attempt to give a politically correct balance to the characters would have undermined the callousness of Belfort’s world. It isn’t quite Goodfellas, but frankly, what is? When Scorcese’s legacy comes to be written, this should deserve a decent paragraph.
Which is not as good as Gravity
Watching the making of videos for Gravity serves to underline quite what a technical achievement Alfonso Cuaron’s film is. The sheer level of new techniques, melded with established practices pushed to their very limits, creates a cinematic experience unlike any which have gone before and despite the success of space-based epics such as Avatar and 3D improvements like Life Of Pi, Gravity is immersive and impressive in ways that truly haven’t been seen before, and as much as I’m about to rave about 12 Years A Slave in the next section, I can’t help but feel for his breadth of vision and the clarity of his purpose, Cuaron deserves the best director award this year.
The story is painted with broad strokes but deals in metaphor and has slightly alienated some; there are no shortage of character moments, and Sandra Bullock has overcome the technical challenges imposed by the role to deliver a sympathetic study in loneliness. It will be remembered for what’s seen – and to a certain extent, what’s heard, as the music and sound design complement the visuals perfectly – but the quality of the other departments, in both writing and acting, doesn’t in any way let the side down. Gravity is one of a number of films touring cinemas as part of awards season, so if you haven’t seen it on the big screen yet, don’t let the chance pass you by, and make sure to see it in 3D.
The Best Picture Of 2013 is 12 Years A Slave
I’ve been a fan of Steve McQueen’s cinematic work since his first film, Hunger, and I rated Shame as my film of the year in 2012. You can understand that I then approached 12 Years A Slave with a little trepidation: as McQueen edges ever closer to the mainstream, would his vision be compromised? Could his third film possibly live up to the hype? Such questions seem almost trivial once you’ve seen the film, and McQueen has once again delivered a near perfect blend of his own direction, coupled with an acting masterclass and a script that judges just the right moments to deliver a searing portrayal of life in the slave trade.
I’ve been known to cry in the cinema before, from the heartbreak of the final meal in Of Gods And Men to the tragedy of a life told in montage in Up. It is fair to say that I am in touch with all of my emotions once I’m in the darkened environs of a cinema. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that 12 Years A Slave completely destroyed me. Rather than sobbing, tears just streamed down my face at regular intervals, I had to sit in the car for best part of half an hour while I composed myself afterwards and required a beer at the hotel I was staying at for work afterwards to enable me to sleep.
McQueen’s shot composition is from the man of a mind that grew out of art galleries but is now equally comfortable in cinemas. Here he proves beyond any doubt that he’s equally invested in his characters, portrayed as they are so devastatingly by the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. John Ridley’s script has a wonderful ear for the dialogue of the era, and 12 Years A Slave is supremely dramatic and heartbreaking without ever feeling overwrought. The only misstep might be the inclusion of producer Brad Pitt in a small role, but that’s easily forgivable given the offscreen influence he’s likely to have been able to bring to getting this made. If 12 Years A Slave wins big, then McQueen shouldn’t have any difficulty attracting whoever he wants for his next project.
12 Years A Slave is an aspect of slavery rather than a complete picture, as last year’s Django Unchained and Lincoln also explored different facets. But it exceeds either of those films in its insight into both human suffering and ultimately compassion, tinged with hope as much as it is burdened by suffering and anger. In my view, Steve McQueen has now made the two most compelling films I’ve seen this decade, and I can only hope that Hollywood shares this feeling and duly rewards it tonight.
Oscar time again, and the seemingly never ending procession of women in expensive frocks and men in generally indistinguishable dinner jackets all hoping to go home clutching a shiny bauble or two is nearly over for another year. Thankfully sanity has been restored and the Razzies have returned to their traditional date of Oscar Eve, so they and the Independent Spirit Awards get dished out today, before we get to the main event on Sunday night. While the nominations get revealed before most of Hollywood is sipping their first skinny latte of the day, meaning that we get to watch them in Blighty during the day, the same consideration isn’t given to us Brits for the awards themselves so most of us, myself included, will be tucked up in bed by the time Seth MacFarlane strides out to face his audience.
It’s the most tempted I’ve been for a few years to stay up and watch the awards, given the participation of the intermittently reliable MacFarlane and the fact that I’ve seen every film or performance in all nine of the major categories, for I think the first time ever. (I’m referring to Picture, Director, the four acting and two screenplay categories and best animated, in case you were wondering.) It’s only the fourth time I’ve managed to claim a full set on Best Picture before the awards themselves, so 2012 will go down in history with 1997, 2005 and 2010 as years I’ve claimed a full house and can pass a fully qualified opinion on how wrong Oscar’s voters have got it this year.
But I won’t be staying up, because Oscar will get it wrong. Oscar gets it wrong about 19 years out of each twenty, as I scientifically worked out last year, and I don’t believe this year will be any different. So here again, as I did two years ago, I present my guide to What’s Actually The Best Picture (of those nominated) 2012. Feel free to tell me how wrong I’m getting it in the comments section, but remember kids: this is just an opinion, no more or less valid than that of 6,000 people who actually do this for a living. Probably.
The Least Best Picture is Silver Linings Playbook
It has great performances from Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and especially Jennifer Lawrence, but Silver Linings Playbook is muddled at best, grafting a confused look at various misdiagnosed mental illnesses to an enjoyable but cheesy and predictable romance. It’s not hard to see how it got a nomination, as it ticks pretty much every one of the Academy’s boxes, and the achievement of picking up nominations in every major category is a significant one, but if there’s any justice then that’s the most that Silver Linings will be remembered for. While Jennifer Lawrence isn’t the best performance, either nominated or not, she’s the one win that wouldn’t be begrudged.
Which is not as good as Beasts Of The Southern Wild
To describe Beasts as interesting almost feels to be damning it with faint praise, but that’s about the best I can say. Many have been beguiled by its supposed charms, with a mix of admittedly impressive performances from non-actors and a fantastical story set among the aftermath of Katrina, but for my money the realism and fantasy never quite gel to any level of satisfaction. That shouldn’t diminish the achievement of the more realistic parts of the storytelling, but for me this marks out Benh Zeitlin, Quevenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry as talents to watch, rather than the fully formed articles.
Which is not as good as Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty has one of the best performances of the year in the form of Jessica Chastain. She put together a fantastic run last year as well, from a scene-stealing turn in The Help to the supportive, desperate wife in Take Shelter, and if anything her simmering, nuanced performance here is better than any of them. This discussion isn’t Best Actress, though, it’s Best Picture, and Zero Dark Thirty has managed to rule itself out with its slightly iffy political stance and controversy. I still feel that Zero does look the other way a little too much and doesn’t deal with consequence as much as it should; while the impartiality is commendable, just a shade too much agreement with the methodologies of the CIA slips through the net. (Also, as much as I love him I think the world may end if John Barrowman’s ever in a Best Picture winner.)
Which is not as good as Les Misérables
Take one hot director coming off the back of his own award winning film, a variety of top Hollywood talent with a marked difference in their singing styles which probably won’t gel together particularly well and a grand total of two camera positions, and throw them into the mix with one of the most beloved musicals of the last thirty years, and what do you get? A crowd pleaser, to be sure, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t on the verge of shedding a tear by the end, but Les Miz is too reverential with its source material to make any attempt to address the structural issues with both stage musical and novel to truly satisfy as a narrative. Mind you, I think I’ll still be humming “Do You Hear The People Sing?” this time next year. Maybe by then I’ll have learned more of the words, too.
Which is not as good as Argo
I’m not greedy. I know that several thousand Hollywood types will never manage to agree on the sensible choice (indeed, you’ll notice that the film at the end of this list was only fifth on my best of the year last year), so if the Best Picture award does go to a film ranked 9/10 or better in my book, I’ll take that as a reasonable success. That means that I’ll be happy if anything from this point on the list onwards wins, I’ll be reasonably satisfied, but none of that will make up for the ridiculousness of not nominating Ben Affleck for Best Director. I didn’t rate The Town hugely, but certainly Argo and Gone Baby Gone show a man who’s found his true home behind the camera, and I think nomination and win are both well within his capability in future years. But for my money, they may as well start engraving the gold baldie now, for I can’t see past Argo to win the real award tomorrow night.
Which is not as good as Lincoln
It’s in danger of becoming a cliché, and it’s maybe why I’ve struggled to come up with a review for this one as of yet, but it’s absolutely true: Daniel Day-Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln. If you invented time travel and plucked the real man out of history, I doubt anyone would find him more convincing than this supreme performance from the man who is the finest actor of our, and arguably any, generation. It’s not a one performance film, and it has possibly the finest array of beards ever committed to cinema, but what holds Lincoln back from true greatness is an incredibly talky, expository first hour which stifles any forward momentum before Spielberg manages to balance his elements and deliver a rousing finale. It also has the problems with endings which have blighted the Berg’s films for the last twenty years, but that should come as no surprise.
Which is not as good as Amour
I still feel I’m doing Amour something of a disservice, but I just can’t escape the feeling that Amour isn’t providing radical new insight into the pain and suffering endured by watching a loved one slowly disintegrate before your eyes, while you stand helpless on the sidelines. It is the first film to truly expose that raw nerve and capture that experience in unflinching detail, with superb performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, and it might be the best chance Michael Haneke has to ever win the Best Director Oscar, an award which would be suitable recognition for the compelling body of work he’s assembled in his career. (Would also be worth it to see what the fake Twitter Haneke comes up with next lol.)
Which is not as good as Django Unchained
Prior to this, I believe that Quentin Tarantino had made two cast iron classics that will endure well past our lifetimes, in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Vol. 1. This is the hat-trick film, perfectly blending a set of performances that could have filled the Best Supporting Actor category in a weaker year with Tarantino’s rich and joyous dialogue. That the slave narrative, which could have sat ill at ease with the more exploitative elements of the revenge fantasy, actually serves to enhance the overall ensemble is testament to how good a film maker Tarantino has become, and he finally proves that he can weave gold with a straight line narrative without needing to jump back and forth or rely on extraneous subplots. He’s even seemingly accepted his own limitations as an actor, cheekily making his own role even more ridiculous, but the sad omission from Oscar night of a Best Horse award means that Tony and Fritz will go home empty handed. Criminal. Which means that… (fumbles with envelope)…
The Best Picture Of 2012 is Life Of Pi
Filming a supposedly unfilmable novel, and reaping massive box office success around the world? Check. Combining superb acting with huge effects work? Check. Asking fundamental questions about the nature of our existence and our beliefs? Check. A director who’s had one of the most diverse careers in Hollywood showing that he’s as good, if not better, when filming in three dimensions as he is in two? Check. Never more convincing performances from CGI and fake creatures interacting at close quarters with humans? Check. Not going to win Best Picture because the Academy is as clueless as usual? Check. Life Of Pi is my favourite of the nine nominated films this year, but if it wins Best Picture I’ll eat an actual tiger.
Well, just a quick note to wish anyone staying up to watch the Oscars tonight good luck; I have a horrible feeling you’re going to need it, as I said last night. But let’s not forget that the Academy Awards are just that: a bunch of awards picked by people who make the films, or who at least used to, and consequently who should know better. But if the general public had their say, and by that I mean those committed enough to log their votes on The Internet Movie Database, then this is how the top nine films of the year would look:
Those sitting up tonight will be cheering Drive to the big prize. Forget Picture, Director (Nicolas Winding Refn), Actor (Ryan Gosling), Actress (Carey Mulligan) or Supporting Actor (Albert Brooks) – Drive could walk away with Best Achievement in Sound Editing (Lon Bender / Victor Ray Ennis). Surely some consolation?
Four nominations for this one: as well as Best Piccy, Viola Davis, Octavia Spenser and Jessica Chastain are all up for acting statues and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if at least one, if not two, of them, picked up those statues before the night’s out.
Eleven nominations, but chances are that Scorcese has the best outside shot of a win, being the most likely person to upset Michael
Hava Havinac that French bloke. Sadly I’ve still not seen it, thanks to sold out showings in December.
Five nods for the American remake of the Swedish film that still felt the need to put on Swedish accents. Rooney Mara is the biggest name to get a shout, but both Fincher and the film itself missed out on the big prize. It’s not as good as the original – there, I’ve said it.
No Lord Of The Rings-style love-in for the end of Potter, which rattled off with eleven awards. Sadly Potter will have to be content with making Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling filthy stinking rich.
Hitting UK screens in March, this Turkish effort was one of over five dozen films submitted on the one per country basis for Best Foreign Language Oscar. Sadly the committee didn’t even put it on their nine film longlist – I look forward to see what Oscar overlooked.
Nolte got a nod, but will likely lose out to Christopher Plummer in the career sympathy award. Sadly Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and the film, a totally unexpected crowd-pleaser with dramatic weight, didn’t charm the Academy.
Lots of awards, cute dog, French winner, black and white, blah, blah, blah. Next!
(Yes, it’s extremely good and the most deserving nominated film. But…)
If the American Academy could overcome its foreign bias (only eight foreign language films have ever been nominated for Best Picture, and the last of those was directed by Clint Eastwood), then A Separation should be celebrating success. Hopefully it can pick up some glory in the condescending foreign appeasement category.
There you have it – all that’s left is to wish everyone concerned the best of American luck. I’m off to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream of Drive or Shame winning Best Picture…
In a little over 24 hours, the eyes of the world will be on the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles for the handing out of this year’s two dozen tiny shiny bald gold men. Once upon a time, I would take the day off work the Monday after the Oscars so that I could be up all night, often in those days being glued to a tiny stream off the internet with a picture four inches wide, which was all my primitive internet connection could deal with, and watching with expectation and fascination while the awards were handed out. Then about four years ago I actually began watching enough films to have seen the majority of nominees, and quickly came to realise that a group of donkeys with pins tied to their hooves could do a better job of picking the best films and performances of the year than the Academy.
This article clearly breaks down the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences (AMPAS) membership: the overall vote for Best Picture is voted for by the whole Academy, which if you’ve not clicked on the link is made up of a membership that’s 94% white, 77% male and 54% over 60 (and a crippling 98% over 40). I’m white, male and much too close to being over 40 for my liking, but my typical movie choices couldn’t be further from the conservative choices typically favoured by Academy voters. Consequently, looking back at the twenty years since I left school and went to university and started to get bitten by the film bug, I’ve been disappointed more often than not by the Academy’s picks. Take Best Picture for example.
Three columns. The first is the film which won Best Picture that year; the second column is, of the five or ten nominated films, the one I’d call my favourite, and the last column is my actual favourite film of that year, regardless of whether it’s in the nominated films or not. As you can see, there are only eight years of the last 20 when my favourite film has even made the nomination list, and only five when the film I enjoyed most of the nominees picked up the top award. Only in one year, 2007, did my top film of the year actually pick up the top prize of the year. One year in twenty, and that year There Will Be Blood lost out, so as many people will have disagreed with me as will have agreed.
Now, I’m not saying that I should be replacing Oscar as the definitive authority on what’s good and who’s worthy, although I probably couldn’t do any worse. No, the issue here is that there are three possible sources of enjoyment from watching the Oscar ceremony itself: to enjoy the ceremony itself, to marvel in the frippery of red carpets, fashion choices and Ryan Seacrests and to see what’s won. The last of these is undoubtedly the main purpose, the awards themselves being the Christmas cake to the icing of the ceremony and the strange marzipan that no-one ever eats on anything other than a Christmas cake that’s the red carpet. So if you’re not feeling the love for what actually wins the awards, is there any point in watching the Oscars, or at the very least sitting up all night to watch them?
Consequently Oscar night is more than likely to be a crushing disappointment for me, and this year is no exception. No Drive, Shame, Tinker Tailor or Take Shelter in Best Picture, no Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling or Tom Hardy in Best Actor or Olivia Coleman, Tilda Swinton or Kirsten Dunst in Best Actress, and the four big acting awards – which should go to the big names of George Clooney and Meryl Streep, and the talents of Jessica Chastain and Nick Nolte if justice is to be done – could well end up in the hands of Jean Dujardin and Viola Davis, Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all four of those latter performances – even if the film I saw two of them in occasionally made me want to throw things at the screen – but for me they’re not the right choices, and the odds of all four prizes going to the names I’d like are about as high as Jack Nicholson turning feral and chasing the rest of the front row out of the auditorium. When all the awards ceremony itself can offer up is rehashing Billy Crystal and excluding the performances of Best Original Song (“I’m a maaaan, I’m a MUPPEEEEEETTTTT!”), I’ll be heading for my bed at a normal time and picking out the bones from the latest fine mess in the morning. If you are staying up, best of luck, but I just hope you’re not in it for the winners; trust me, you’re going to be disappointed somewhere.
OK, maybe I should qualify that a bit. This weekend has been a fascinating series of contests, fought by competitors at the top of their respective fields, producing some scintillating viewing and some incredibly close, and unpredictable calls. Then after that, we had the Oscars. Yes, for anyone who loves their sport almost as much as their film, and is as English as The King’s Speech is British (i.e. very), then this has been a great weekend: England earning a hard fought victory over France in the Six Nations rugby, and an even harder fought tie at the World Cup cricket against India. Thrown in Luke Donald’s triumph over Martin Kaymer at the WGC Match Play golf, and the Carling Cup final’s amazing comedy ending between Arsenal and Birmingham, and this weekend of sport has had it all.
The theme throughout all of that is that the best person or team won. In the final case, it came down to an extraordinary piece of bad luck, but live television means that we can see every stage of the competitive process, almost feel the sweat dripping from the pores of the exhausted competitors as they struggle for one last ounce of effort. Of course, justice isn’t always done in sporting contests, but by and large this weekend the right results came out, and watching them was tense, very dramatic and ultimately worthwhile.
It’s been a while since you can say the same about the Oscars, which have now become pretty much the antithesis of a sporting contest. Already the poor reviews for James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s hosting gig are turning up in large numbers; if you’re going to have a three hour awards ceremony, you think you would at least want to make the watching of it in some way enjoyable, but all that’s left is to watch who carries off the awards, and most of them have been entirely predictable. For the second year in a row, Best Actor and Actress have been nailed-on certainties for weeks prior to the awards, and the only acting Oscar where there there was any doubt was Supporting Actress. As it turns out, even a disastrous self-funded ad campaign didn’t dent Melissa Leo’s chances.
But every year, hoping against hope, I still cling to the increasingly naive belief that some sense of justice will be meted out at the awards, and not in a Jeff Bridges going round and offing the poorer nominees while wearing an eye-patch kind of way. The majority of people this year seemed to be predicting a split of the top two nominees, for Best Picture and Director, and that’s what BAFTA had done only a few short weeks ago, giving Director to David Fincher for The Social Network but The King’s Speech picking up Best Picture. It wouldn’t have been the first time Oscar did that, though, with Ang Lee (for Brokeback Mountain) and Steven Spielberg (for Saving Private Ryan) as examples where the seeming favourite picked up the Director statue, only for another, less critically acclaimed film to steal in and take Best Picture (Crash and Shakespeare In Love, in case you’d successfully wiped that horror from your memory).
But no, this year a man who cut his teeth on Byker Grove and who just turned down Iron Man 3 has taken the award, at the same time his film got Best Picture. Given its capturing of the time it was made in so perfectly, it is somewhere between disheartening and heartbreaking that The Social Network’s only real love was for Best Adapted Screenplay, a deserving Aaron Sorkin picking up that one. But the injustice goes deeper than that.
If you look at the Best Director category, and then consider the directorial effort and achievement, separated from the film itself, then it’s a hard job to argue that the best five got the nominations. Within his fellow nominees, I can’t help but feel that both Fincher and Aronofsky were more deserving of the award. When looking at the other five Best Picture nominees who missed out, then Danny Boyle, Debra Granik, Lee Unkrich and especially Christopher Nolan all probably deserved slots more than David O. Russell or the Coen brothers, or even Tom Hooper, but their films weren’t serious contenders for the top award, so they missed out. Others who excelled in direction in overlooked films, such as Mike Leigh or David Michod, also didn’t get a look in.
Unfortunately Fincher, who is now 0 from 2 for nominations, is in good company. (Spare a thought for Christopher Nolan, who’s yet to even get a nomination.) While Mike Nichols, Warren Beatty, Ron Howard and Barry Levinson all have a shiny gold man to put on their mantlepiece, the directing efforts of Quentin Tarantino, Alan Parker and Mike Leigh (2 nominations each), Ridley Scott, David Lynch, James Ivory, Ingmar Bergman (3 each), Peter Weir, Sidney Lumet, Federico Fellini and Stanley Kubrick (4 each) and Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock (5 nominations each) have never been directly rewarded by their peers for their efforts in a particular year, although Mr Oscar has occasionally put his hand in his pocket and given out a special award for those who’ve been snubbed a little too often.
And this is why I no longer make the effort to stay up for the Oscars. Despite the fact that it’s in the exact middle of the night for us, thus rendering staying up late or getting up very early as impractical options on their own, and that the accompanying awards show has all the charisma of an elderly dentist with halitosis half the time, it might still be worth it if the awards themselves generally found their way into the hands of the most talented individuals in each case. As long as the Tom Hoopers of this world continue to win, then I’ll be sleeping soundly in my bed come Oscar night.
There are two events that booked February in the worldwide calendar, and there is a striking similarity between both. At the beginning of February each year, over 150 million viewers tune in to watch one of the most viewed events in the sporting calendar, the Super Bowl, in which two teams fight for the title of world champion. Except all of the teams involved come from America, of course, so it’s not much of a “world” championship. But it would be hard to argue that there’s a team better at the sport anywhere else in the world, although it would also be hard to argue that there’s much interest elsewhere in the world, when that audience is composed over 100 million people in America watching, and barely half that across the rest of the planet.
At the end of February, there’s an event that’s a different story. Typically getting a US audience in only the 30-40 million range (still enough to beat top rated shows like American Idol), but getting a worldwide audience higher than the shoulder-pad wearing ball-throwers, the Academy Awards have a much bigger reach, with audiences genuinely around the world tuning in. But sadly, there’s not much more chance of something non-American winning than there is at the Super Bowl.