Talkin' Oscars: The Best Picture Race


Welcome to Talkin' Oscars, the first in an open-ended three-part series in which our two writers discuss the recently announced nominations for the 86th Academy Awards. We begin our discussion with a look at the biggest award of them all, the Best Picture. Steve Cimino: Dear Mr. Johnson,

It's that time of year again. The Golden Globes are gone and forgotten; all that's left is the Oscars.

As a senior in college, I wrote a column for the school newspaper about how irrelevant the Academy Awards had become. And while I feel just as strongly about that today, if not more so, they're still the gold standard. You write, direct, produce and star in movies to win them. Oh, and also to make a lot of money, which can go hand in hand. So, as film bloggers, no matter the opinions swelling up in our hearts, we have an obligation to at least discuss them.

Wolf-Leo-250Speaking of money, most of the Best Picture nominees haven't made any. Gravity's raked in over $250 million, Captain Phillips is at $105 million and American Hustle just broke $100 million as well. But The Wolf of Wall Street is looking like a minor disappointment at only $80 million in three weeks, and nothing else has broken $40 million. Not that I'm against commercially unsuccessful films being nominated; far from it. I'm just surprised that so many little movies snuck in.

Unfortunately, a few of the low-grossers that did make the list turned out to be the bad kind of surprises. Dallas Buyers ClubPhilomena? Even Nebraska came as a mild shock. At the very least, I certainly did not expect all three of those to beat out Inside Llewyn Davis, which was roundly panned by the Academy (two measly nominations, one for cinematography and one for sound mixing) despite glowing reviews from practically everyone elseDBC seemed like a lock for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor noms, but Best Picture and Best Screenplay? Over the Coens? Pish posh.

I didn't expect Fruitvale StationMud or Frances Ha to sneak in, but we're looking at a pretty boring, bland list of nominees. You're usually Mr. Optimistic; can you put a positive spin on this one?

Andrew Johnson: Given that Inside Llewyn Davis was my favorite film of the entire year and it was essentially shut out, it's going to be difficult for me to be too positive.

Allow me to try anyway.

Start with this: while I am bitterly disappointed by ILD's exclusion from the Best Picture nominees, I do not find it easy to criticize the nine nominees. I don't think Philomena is one of the nine best films of the year. I presume I'll have similar issues with Dallas Buyers Club when I finally get around to seeing it. But these aren't terrible films. In fact, they're quite good. Two years ago, War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close scored nominations. I'm not claiming that the Academy is making progress, but I am saying there's no egregious travesty of a nomination this year. Try as we might we can't bend the voting body to our will ...

It's interesting you bring up money, because that really continues a trend for the Best Picture nominees. 2012 was an anomaly in this regard; it featured a lot of prestige films that also happened to make a lot of money. This year is a return to (little) business as usual for the nominees. I think that will continue as the divide between commercially successful movie franchises and actual films is further cleaved.

I'm not sure I buy the notion that in toto this is a "bland" list of nominees. Any list with Her, 12 Years a SlaveGravity and The Wolf of Wall Street has some life. Yes, I would have rounded it out with less bland choices, but maybe we should be relieved something as quirky and different as Spike Jonze's Her did get a nod. This is the positive part (see, I'm doing it!) of having up to 10 nominees -- recognition for films that aren't as stodgy and staid as the Academy would go for reflexively with a shorter list of nominees.

Her-Phoenix-250Look, the Academy is basically your parents. They aren't cool. As a body, they don't "get" films like Inside Llewyn Davis, generally speaking. (Again, Her being nominated feels miraculous.) At least with the extra slots for nominees, they seem to recognize their uncoolness and guard against it in some measure. It could be worse. We know this because, well, just look at history.

I don't want to linger on the big award for too long, but it feels worthy of a little bit more discussion, so here goes. Allow me to posit that your assertion that this is a "bland" list of nominees may also have something to do with the fact that this was a quantity-not-quality year, insofar as the best films discussion goes. I continue to recoil at the notion that 2013 was one of the best in recent memory. It does feel like I saw a lot that I liked. I didn't see a ton that I truly loved, though. Perhaps therein lies some of your malaise.

One last note: I refuse to acknowledge the irrelevancy of the Oscars. It gets casual fans talking about movies, seeing great movies, and so on. It may not be a good bellwether for what the actual best film of the last year was, but that's just one way to look at the value of the shiny gold statue.

Anyway, back to you ...

SC: Thank you for bringing up War Horse, if only so I could look up this tremendous Rob Delaney tweet.

We may have different definitions of bland: I'm glad to see Her get a Best Picture nomination because yes, it's not the type of film that the Academy typically honors. But I also think a critically praised Spike Jonze movie (who's already got a Best Director nomination under his belt, albeit 14 years ago) starring Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams is going to get awards attention no matter what. They don't deserve a gold star and a plaque for making that one of the nine nominees. They deserve a "yeah, duh."

Basically, it's annoying to see well-meaning and "controversial" but ultimately bland projects like Dallas Buyers Club scoop up a bunch of (in my opinion) undeserved nominations. I admittedly haven't seen Philomena, but it doesn't exactly sound like groundbreaking material either. I know movies are a business and it's all about timing, money, who produced what, etc. But I hate that Fruitvale Station (which came out a few months ago and doesn't feature any huge names) falls by the wayside for largely circumstantial reasons while late releases that star Judi Dench rack up praise for aspects that are not the Dame's (presumably excellent) performance. And we haven't even gotten to American Hustle yet!

DBC-Leto-Mccounaghey-250Allow me to rant for a moment. I think all five leads in American Hustle (Christian Bale, Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner) are terrific. I would've preferred to see Renner get the Best Supporting Actor nomination over Cooper -- because, you know, he was the best part of the entire movie -- but ultimately I understand why it went to Cooper. If there was an Oscar for Best Ensemble Cast, I'd give it to Hustle in a heartbeat.

But it's not. It is Best Picture, and in no way was American Hustle the Best Picture of 2013. It was a meandering Goodfellas ripoff with a largely irrelevant conclusion, with nary a theme or substantial idea behind it. It was fun, the characters were interesting, and some of the dialogue made me laugh out loud. But the script felt half-baked and unfinished, and I still don't know what the point was. But most of the world disagrees with me; it seems David O. Russell has figured out how to mix his cadre of wonderful actors with a decent script to produce above-average entertainment that succeeds both commercially and critically. He's got everyone under his spell.

This is not entirely a bad thing; I would rather see a dozen American Hustles than another blah big-budget sequel. I just don't get what all the fuss is about, and it's negatively impacted my feelings on the movie ever since I saw it. I know that's not how it's supposed to go, but I'm helpless to resist. Like the movies I like, award shows.

AJ: I think the difference in our interpretation of "bland" is down to our expectations of the Academy more than anything else.

Anyway ... about American Hustle ...

I think we're on the same page as far as it being fairly wildly overrated. The over-the-top adoration for it doesn't drive me crazy enough to call the screenplay half-baked and unfinished (hello, department of redundancy department), but I do think it is The Master of this year -- a film which parts are greater than its sum.

That said, I'm going to fucking lose it if it wins Best Picture, and as it stands today that seems like a very distinct possibility. Even if you narrow the race down to the three likely winners (12 Years a Slave and Gravity being the other two), American Hustle is a vapid impostor. There would be an elegant irony to a film about con artists managing to con the entire Academy, I suppose (just like there's a twisted irony to Inside Llewyn Davis being ignored almost entirely in the nominations). But mostly, I'll just be furious.

American-Hustle-250I guess that puts me on #TeamNotAmericanHustle more than directly supporting a nominee. Oh well. The Academy probably merits that kind of realpolitik approach. If you want to have a go at them, I think the potential victor moreso than the list of nominees is the place to do it. A win for Hustle would neatly package all of the voters' worst tendencies -- their proclivity to focus on the superficial in place of a film's actual substance, the way they often hand out awards as a recognition of cumulative achievement rather than singular brilliance. Just thinking about it annoys me, so I'll stop.

Anything more to say on this subject, partner, before we move on to the other big categories?

SC: I think you're 100 percent right about this being a three-film race: American HustleGravity12 Years a Slave. I'm firmly on Team 12 Years (sounds so much more appropriate than Team Slave) but as someone who would've been OK with Avatar beating The Hurt Locker back in the day, I'd have no issue with Gravity winning. I know it's not the exact same situation (Gravity is much better than Avatar, for starters) but I think the Academy should serve as sort of a historical society, documenting the year in cinema.

With that in mind, to me Best Picture means something like "finest culturally relevant film," and I think that's probably Gravity. A lot of people saw it, it was extremely fancy with the special effects, you could easily put together a thinkpiece on how it relates to loneliness and the lack of human connection in modern society. There's no set checklist in place, but those are three major points in its favor.

Then again, as you so aptly put it, I'm mostly on #TeamNotAmericanHustle. Let's go, Philomena!

Return on Wednesday for Part 2 of the series, a look at the Best Actor and Best Actress races.