Monday, March 03, 2014

Reflections on the 2014 Oscars

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I live-tweeted the Oscars like mad last night, maybe because I was quite mad myself, but it was a way to get through the 3 1/2-hour slog while trying to retain a sense of humor about the whole damn thing unfolding before us. It's over now, and it hardly matters whether the show itself was any good, but I'll repeat what I wrote last night, namely, that it wasn't, that even more than usual it was a shallow show characterized by the shameless narcissism of self-congratulating Hollywood superstars, even if that's what it always is, that it was a terrible show saved by a generally strong year in film, chanelled into a long list of worthy nominees and winners, from Best Picture on down through the "lesser" categories, and some genuinely likeable stars, young and not-so-young alike, that it was an insular, self-absorbed show that seemed to take place in a vacuum completely cut off from everything else going on in the world, as if Hollywood was content to engage in self-aggrandizement without reference to real life.

But whatever. It was what it was. Ellen was occasionally amusing, but that's about it. She offered up a few biting lines, but she's nothing if not a gleeful cheerleader for Hollywood's glorification, a warm, generally non-threatening enabler of the Cult of Celebrity that characterizes her show and the world of Oscar.

In the end, though, it's the movies that matter, and while the Oscars are never perfect, far from it, it's always something of a relief to see Hollywood reward it's generally better elements rather than offer up the latest stupid sequel as mindless fodder for the multiplex hordes. And while I still have to catch up with all of the nominees, waiting to catch them on video instead of frequenting the silver screen as I once did, I certainly think the Academy got it right this year. That doesn't mean you can't argue over this or that, or that the Oscars truly capture the best in film, as the Academy rarely veers far from the mainstream for any number of reasons, but basically 2013 was a really good year for American film, at least as far as quality mainstream movies are concerned, and a lot of really good films got at least a nod. Honestly, can you argue all that convincingly against 12 Years a Slave, Cuaron, McConaughey, Blanchett, Leto, Nyong'o, and Jonze, not to mention all the other worthy nominees in category after category, or even those films that walked away with nothing but are still excellent examples of what the American film industry can accomplish, movies like Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Nebraska?

Don't get me wrong, the truly best and historic films of 2013 might include any number of foreign films or non-mainstream American films that didn't register at the Oscars, but this year the Oscars proved to be an embarrassment of riches, of sorts, with many great films getting some recognition, statuette or no.

Anyway, the best summary I've read of what went down on Sunday comes from Grantland's Mark Harris, Oscar-watcher extraordinaire:

The show itself was a long, slightly low-energy end to a long, slightly bad-energy season. My very quick verdict: Ellen DeGeneres did just fine, film-clip packages illuminating non-ideas like "heroes" are very close to a preemptive admission of defeat, Twitter is now as overused an Oscar punch line as television was in the Bob Hope days, and as always, it's not the overstaged moments that linger, but the unexpected ones — Bill Murray paying tribute to Harold Ramis, Darlene Love raising the roof, and my DVR suddenly asking "Do you still want to record The Walking Dead?" just as Bette Midler was singing "Wind Beneath My Wings."


Still, the Oscars are a moment when the symbolic and the real briefly touch, and in that sense, winning matters. After several years in which lighthearted or inspirational or nostalgic movies walked off with the top prize, Academy voters turned to a tough, sad, hard film about our own bad past made by a black Englishman and said, "This was the best of the year." And that was, in a way, a relief. An ugly narrative was beginning to build, stoked by the film's partisans and some of its own campaigners, that staid old white voters weren't watching the movie because it was too much of a downer. They were going to snub it. They were going to Brokeback it. They were going to confirm every cynical suspicion people had.

Well, "they" didn't. They gave three Oscars, including the big one, to 12 Years a Slave (was it close? We'll never know, and that's appropriate), and three more to an uneven movie that pokes and prods at the early years of the AIDS crisis, and another to a fine documentary about how the music industry has treated African American women, and two more to a delightful cartoon musical about the whitest people on earth, and seven to an expression of powerhouse Hollywood-studio wizardry that was actually made by a Mexican director in England. They surprised many (and delighted me) by handing Best Original Screenplay to Spike Jonze for the delicate and beautiful Her, and after bestowing a combined 31 nominations on American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Nebraska, Philomena, and The Wolf of Wall Street, they bestowed a total of zero awards on those movies. That's two fewer than The Great Gatsby won. In other words, "they" had good taste, bad taste, and everything in between.

Like every year, of course, which is what makes the Oscars both so compelling and so frustrating, at least when you care about the cinema as opposed to the red carpet, but at least this year there were a lot of worthy films from which to choose.

There was no real statement this year, no message, but that was probably just fine. The show it done and gone, thankfully, but cinema, good cinema, lives on.

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  • Nice overview. I hate to be a nit-picker, but "12 Years a Slave," was primarily a product of the U.K. film industry, not the American film industry. I'm not even sure that the U.S. film industry, on its own, would be capable of making a film like this. The fact is, the American nation still has never really honestly confronted the slavery era. And the American people remain hopelessly ignorant about that era of our history (as well as the oppression of African-Americans that continued long after the slavery era). In fact, the American people, by and large, just don't want to know. This is reflected in the fact that, of this film's worldwide box office of $140 million, only a relatively paltry $50 million came from the U.S. box office. By contrast, the "Rah-Rah, go U.S.A!" jingoistic war-porn film, "Lone Survivor" pulled in $123 million at the U.S. box office. It's clear what types of films the U.S. film-going public prefers these days. If it's a film that glorifies blowing up lots of dark-skinned people in other nations, we eagerly line up for it. But if it's a film that depicts America's own holocaust, then not such much.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:37 AM  

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