Elitism, as a characteristic, is marked by narrow-mindedness, even as it purports to be inclusive of only “the best.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (now coming into its eighty-eighth year) has for decades made a regular show of toting the “best” films in an annual ceremony of prize-giving – a ceremony which has come to serve as a central American ideal of prestige and superiority, and which has established the Academy as our ultimate champion of artistic credibility. Such exclusivity may hardly sound democratic, but it is very much in line with this country’s industrious mindset, which relishes competition and abides by a strict vocational hierarchy, wherein there is always someone on top.
But competitiveness is another quality that is limited by assurances of self-righteousness, blind to the motions of a time, the spirit of a moment. This year’s list of nominees should only compound one’s understanding that the Oscar stands more as a symbol of specialized appeal than of true quality, or relevance – and should hopefully encourage attentive onlookers to more closely dissect the Academy’s alleged status as an upholder of high cinematic standards.
Consider, for instance, the Academy’s ongoing infatuation with the United Kingdom; ever since Hamlet won the awards for Picture and Actor in 1949, and especially since the success of The King’s Speech in 2011, the nominations committee has tended to extend its hand across the Atlantic in its effort to pool together “worthy” candidates. This is not to say that The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are unworthy films (although that argument could certainly be made) – it simply seems trite that an American film organization should so easily fall back upon the alleged cultural sophistication of Brits, over the innovations of its own country’s cinema. It says something for Americans’ perception of quality, that we should so often turn to the very culture and history our forefathers rejected (one which spells antiquity and tradition) in order to build our own (one built on independence, freshness, and progress).
But innovation has never been the Academy’s game – it was founded in the late 1920s as an attempt to appease certain political and religious groups which were concerned about the morality of the art form, and its potential danger to audiences. The awards sought to quickly eliminate those fears by establishing the very language of complacent idolatry that continues to define the ceremony – yet how tempting that idea sounds today: was there once a time when movies were potentially “dangerous?” Do they any longer have that potential? The real fear is that institutions like the Academy came along far too early, establishing a code of approval which has in many ways limited the growth of film in this country over the last eighty-seven years. Behold the list of nominees from this past year, and you may well see my point.
Nevertheless, here is my personal selection – and I’ve made a point of highlighting the few films which may be plausibly identified as being “innovative.” Of course, these innovations are more gimmicks than anything else (even if they are successful ones), and the films themselves remain tied to concrete standards of narrative storytelling. The greatest asset to both the best picture and director selections, however, may be the fact that they engage in a sort of ambivalence towards perceptions of fiction and reality, or of fabrication and documentation. It seems a mistake that we should continue to have a separate category for documentary films – Citizenfour may be one of the most important movies of this decade, making films like Selma look like the weak whispers of cultural and political change that they are. The real path forward in film is through this employment of its immediacy, its power in the moment. My bet is that Citizenfour will lose the award, and go down in history for being history – rather than a clean, uncomplicated representation of it, such as the Academy might celebrate.
Best Picture – Boyhood
A choice I’ve made more out of necessity than good faith, Boyhood is perhaps the only nominated film in its category which might remotely fulfill that lofty designation of, “movie of the year.” It certainly topped many critics’ best-of lists, and has developed a strong following among hip young cinephiles who cherish its familiar and uncomplicated pop cultural rhetoric. However, this doesn’t change the fact that it is in many ways a failure of a film; it may well prove to be one of those “movies-of-the-moment” that loses its potency when looked at in retrospect, once the allure of hype and awards’ season has faded away.
As a work of art, it is severely lacking; its inconsistency of focus over the course of a twelve-year shooting schedule might be construed as an effective representation of life’s evolutionary nature, but in the end it makes for a weak depiction of what is supposed to be an encapsulating portrayal of childhood in America. Also, let us note the fact that this specific representation of “boyhood” is limited to a very narrow window of experience: it shows us the process of growing up, yes, but only as it is known by middle-class white boys. There are surely equally if not more pressing tales of young adulthood to be found in the lives of children who are non-white, female, or of other economic backgrounds. Perhaps if the film had ventured into such seldom-explored terrain in addition to its chosen subject, it might have taken on greater dimensions, and become more resonant as an expression of time and generation.
It seems obvious to me that if this same movie had been filmed over the course of a few months with different child actors for each respective age, the critical response would not have been nearly as exultant as it is. Are we to allow gimmick to get in the way of our more discerning attitudes as filmgoers? There is no doubt that Boyhood is charming on a moment-to-moment basis, but it is hardly a masterpiece, especially when compared to the other work that writer/director Richard Linklater has turned out over the same period of time. School of Rock (2003), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) are three true accomplishments that deserve to be remembered long after Boyhood is forgotten, no matter that this latest effort is the most epic, or sensational.
Director – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
One of my greater misgivings with the Academy is its tendency to honor flashier, more conspicuous films over quieter, more intimate and revealing efforts. Boyhood falls into the former category (in spite of its status as an “independent,” the film is very pop in appeal and focus), as does Birdman. However, if the directing award is one geared to represent a key exposition of directorial creative integrity, then you can hardly deny Birdman, etc. as one of the more electrifying and uniquely-minded films of this still-young decade.
With this tour de force project, Mr. Iñárritu has done a few things: one, he has generated a film which operates as an exultant celebration of acting and performance. To me, it is the happiest integration of the New York theater (and its world) and movies since All About Eve (1950). Second, he has employed a stylistic ploy (filming the entire work so that it appears to be an unedited, two-hour-long tracking shot) that harkens back to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, which used the same strategy. He pulls the trick off beautifully, so that the camerawork triumphs on its own terms and seems to vindicate Hitchcock’s earlier efforts.
Finally, the idea of structuring his film so that it plays out as one long take is indicative of early directors like Georges Méliès and their use of the cinema as a realm of magic and illusion. It’s not often that you see directors having as much fun with the medium as Iñárritu does here (one might think of Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011) as a suitable comparison). That is what makes Birdman such a special and invigorating film; Mr. Iñárritu has given us a solid, impressive drama, a fascinating oddball of serious entertainment – and that is why he should win.
Actor – Michael Keaton, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
In my elucidation on why director Alejandro G. Iñárritu should win in his category for Birdman, I alluded to the film’s similarity to All About Eve – another intelligent, human film driven by conversation and the backstage goings-on of a Broadway production and its wayward star. The star in that film was played by Bette Davis, who at the time was coming out of a career slump; Eve earned her one last triumph (she was praised by the critics, and the film was a big hit), along with an Oscar nomination. She lost, but the performance has come to be recognized as her finest and most celebrated; no doubt the role’s similarity to Davis’ own personal life and character has added to its enduring potency.
By comparison, Michael Keaton hasn’t had a major role in a film for over a decade, and Birdman does little to discourage the widely-held assumption that the character of Riggan Thomson is meant to be a direct representation of Keaton – at least in that he’s a washed-up star of superhero movies looking to make a comeback. There is something brilliant about Keaton, and not just here, but in all of his work; he possesses a kind of light freneticism, a mercurial disposition that invites strong empathy just as it encourages the onlooker to question the man’s psychosomatic grounding. There is something of the genius about him – but genius is a temperamental virtue that can escape its possessors, leading to self-abuse and decline, just as easily as it can bless them and lift them into the ether.
Keaton takes full advantage of his capabilities here, as well as of the humility of the role, and thus the performance becomes something of an admission of weakness that ironically ends up lending itself a pungent air of strength. It’s not often that we see this sort of vulnerability displayed in male stars, this admittance of failure and mortality; yet themes of aging and creative despotism have made for some of the most illuminating works of art we have, likely because those are such relevant themes within the world of the arts. Riggan Thomson adds to that tradition, and that is why Keaton stands out as a worthy victor in this year’s list of male actor nominees.
Actress – Reese Witherspoon, Wild
One of the most alarming trends one notices with each new year in the movie industry is the typically lackluster quality of roles offered to women; not only is the female half of the Hollywood pool frequently relegated to supporting or secondary roles, but individual actresses hold very little power in the way of claiming new professional territory. The business remains almost exclusively male-centric, leaving scant space for women to express themselves, or to seek out new opportunities to fully display their talents.
The only way an actress can find suitable work, it seems, is to personally spearhead a project and maintain a firm level of control throughout the film’s production. Of course, in order to perform such a feat, it helps to have a name like Reese Witherspoon – but that shouldn’t deter us from extolling her great accomplishment with Wild. Not only has she here brought together a truly gripping and powerful piece of dramatic entertainment, but she has given us one of the great female character-oriented Hollywood films in recent years.
Cheryl Strayed is a great American heroine, worthy of being included among such names as Mildred Pierce and Anne Sullivan. The role embodies a profound, searching expression of spirituality and resolve on the part of Ms. Witherspoon that adds a richer note of sublimity to her often entertaining, yet frequently disappointing repertoire. It makes one realize how much potential we must be missing among the myriad actresses asked to play despairing damsels on the sideline; it reveals the mistake of having granted Witherspoon the award ten years ago for her work in Walk the Line (2005), just as it confirms that the Academy’s overzealousness was not without good reason – intuitive, one might say, of greater things to come from this pert, pretty, purposeful and powerful woman.
Supporting Actor – Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
When it comes to support, we often look for figures of steadfast commitment, levelheadedness, and familiarity. We turn to spouses, friends, community, parents; we look for reassurance, guidance, and wisdom to help us combat our personal demons on the way to something brighter. In the movies, there are certain faces which lend us that sense of security, constancy – and Ethan Hawke is one of the best examples.
In Boyhood, he gives us a portrait of fatherhood which in a very real way serves as a portrait of one actor’s personal evolution: he began the project in 2002, the same year he was last Oscar-nominated for his role in Training Day (2001), and thus instigated a record of growth which saw him begin as a restless, centerless young man and mature into a soulful, easygoing adult. With its release last year, the film gave us a track record for the man that none of us knew was being kept; it is an impressive, moving display of talent, skill and spirit – one which deserves warm adulation, and adoration.
Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Fewer words in recent movies have been as heartbreaking, as discomfortingly honest as the ones uttered by a single mother sending her son off to college, reflecting on the transience of her own life: “I just thought there’d be more.” Thankfully, there has been more for Ms. Arquette – but with her role in Boyhood, the established television actress has given cinema a rich and devastating portrait of uncertainty and frustration permeating the life of an average, yet exceptional middle-class American female. Limited by social position (the duties of daughterhood, motherhood and aging), Arquette’s Olivia represents all hardworking adults who have ever felt shortchanged, displaced in the ebb and flow of life – yet who commit themselves to family, no matter how shaky the process of raising children proves to be.
She is expected to win, and I’ll be happy when she does; in many ways, she is the heart and soul of the film, simultaneously offering a foil and mold with which her growing son might grapple, and granting us all a memorializing idea of just what personal sacrifice and resolve might look like on an intimate, contemporary scale.
And finally, for your consideration… Here we have a second list, a dream scenario where all of what might be called the most relevant or pertinent work of 2014 is honored in a fashion that I believe is balanced, and cohesive. It’s a tough compromise, judging between personal identification and historical necessity – it’s a question of head versus heart, legacy versus instinct. Is it that we must put aside personal preference for the sake of an ideal? Or do we serve that ideal best by going with what feels most fulfilling, most authentic? Either way, this is my best effort; hopefully it means something to someone somewhere, at some time.
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Actor: Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year
Actress: Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant
Supporting Actor: Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Supporting Actress: Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Adapted Screenplay: Wild, by Nick Hornby; from the book by Cheryl Strayed
Original Screenplay: Dear White People, by Justin Simien