SURVEYING THIS YEAR’S CONTENDERS

The 88th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 28, 130 days from today.

Whose year is it?

Every Best Picture is situated in a specific moment in time. The reason it resonates with us is because it can, in some way, capture the spirit of the country, or at least the spirit of Hollywood, in that particular year. This is why the dark, bleak and violent No Country For Old Men could win in the hopelessness of 2007 while Slumdog Millionaire, a buoyantly optimistic love story with a Bollywood dance number at the end, won in 2008, the year of “Yes We Can.”

When I first read about Spotlight exploding out of Telluride, I had an idea: this was the year of standing up against corruption and fighting against the Man. To start, you have Spotlight, which describes journalists taking down corruption in the Catholic Church. Truth, its more controversial cousin, features journalists going up against the Bush administration and Trumbo, which seems to have disappeared from the race, is about McCarthyism.  Suffragette and The Danish Girl seek acceptance for other marginalized members of society. The Big Short, which is gaining momentum after announcing a December release, attacks those on Wall Street responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis. (Reviews are strong, as are perceived chances in the Best Picture and Best Actor races; Steve Carell is “jaw-droppingly good” and the film is “smart, funny, frustrating and full of righteous anger.”) Straight Outta Compton actually shouts “Fuck tha Police,” maybe the biggest tie in to the overall frustration with authority that seems to be driving Democrats to increased criticism of law enforcement and criminal justice and driving Republicans to outsider candidates like Trump, Carson and Fiorina.

But that’s not really true, I realized. This is the resurgence of traditional film-making, of old-fashioned movies that resonate with the public. Steven Spielberg, whose last two films scored Best Picture nominations, has with Bridge of Spies a well-regarded, political film that critics expect will please an older demographic. (The Los Angeles Times report that people called it “low-key” and “unassuming,” Scott Feinberg said it’s the sort of “solid, well-made, entertaining film of the sort that could have been made 50 years ago” and Vox ran an article called “Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg’s ultimate dad movie.”) Brooklyn, a “rich, romantic period drama about a young Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) coming of age in America,” has been described as “something of a throwback in its reserved tone and measured storytelling, making it a good bet to connect with the academy’s predominately older membership.” (The film wowed at Cannes and again at the New York Film Festival, a testament to fans who found it beautiful and timeless.) Add in Carol, another well-shot 1950s romance, and The Martian, a crowd-pleaser full of nice characters, and you have a group of films that hearken back to simper times and, according to Sasha Stone, “resonate because they are about American life now, as it tries to shed the oppressive tendencies we still carry with us, all of these decades later.”

But then how do you explain Steve Jobs, an Aaron-Sorkin-penned, three-act-structured portrait of the Apple CEO (and, to a far lesser extent, his “work wife” Joanna Hoffman)? Or the David O. Russell-directed, Jennifer Lawrence-starring Joy, another biopic gaining massive amounts of Oscar buzz after one reviewer nearly wet his pants over a test screening? Or Beasts of No Nation, probably the most original of all — a Netflix movie about an African civil war so difficult to watch it apparently “makes 12 Years A Slave look like a Wes Anderson movie by comparison”? (The film is being promoted by Ben Affleck and John Legend to boost its credibility, and Vulture notes that the dipping reviews for True Detective’s second season may mean that voters look upon Beasts director Cary Fukunaga, who helmed season one, more favorably as well.)

I decided that I do not have any idea what this is the year of, other than of movies that I am excited to see. The Wrap examined the chances of 33 potential Oscar films; add in The Hunger Games and Sicario and more and you have a thrilling list of films already released or coming soon. Right now, there are countless reasons to go to the movies, and that’s an exciting prospect.

Spotlight on Supporting Actor and Actress
One thing that this may be the year of is category fraud. There are many cases this year where actors who gave (potentially) leading performances are being campaigned as supporting to better their chances at winning. In the supporting categories, it’s easier to reward someone with more screen time and a greater range of emotions to play, though occasional winners like Anne Hathaway (in Les Miserables) break through for about 15 minutes of screen time. Particularly notable are Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) and Jacob Tremblay (Room), from whose perspective their respective movies take place; Rooney Mara (Carol), who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes; and Harvey Keitel (Youth) and Paul Dano (Love and Mercy), who are co-leads knocked down a category by more famous co-stars. For more info read this, this or this — props to the last one for teaching me that apparently Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same performance in 1944, which is hilarious.

Spotlight on the Hollywood Film Awards

Now in their 19th year, the Hollywood Film Awards are one of the earliest events of the Oscar season, taking place this November 1. I had no idea they existed until this year. Apparently, last year they broadcast the show on TV, but the ratings were so poor that they are not doing it again. Looking over the past few years, it seems like the Hollywood Film Awards try to give out as many awards as possible to actors and actresses with reasonable chances at Oscar nominations:

2014
Hollywood Career Achievement Award: Michael Keaton (Academy Awards nominee)
Hollywood Film Award: Gone Girl
Hollywood Director Award: Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game (Academy Awards nominee)
Hollywood Actor Award: Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game (Academy Awards nominee)
Hollywood Actress Award: Julianne Moore for Still Alice (Academy Awards winner)
Hollywood Supporting Actor Award: Robert Duvall for The Judge (Academy Awards nominee)
Hollywood Supporting Actress Award: Keira Knightley for The Imitation Game (Academy Awards nominee)
Hollywood Ensemble Award: Foxcatcher
Hollywood Breakout Performance Actress Award: Shailene Woodley for The Fault in Our Stars
Hollywood Breakout Performance Actor Award: Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything (Academy Awards winner)

2013
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club (Academy Awards winner)
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock – Gravity (Academy Awards nominee)
Best Supporting Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal – Prisoners
Best Supporting Actress: Julia Roberts – August: Osage County (Academy Awards nominee)
Breakout Performance: Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club (Academy Awards winner)
New Hollywood Award: Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave (Academy Awards winner)
Breakout Director: Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave (Academy Awards nominee)
Best Director: Lee Daniels – The Butler
Best Producer: Michael De Luca – Captain Phillips (Academy Awards nominee)
Best Ensemble: August: Osage County
Best Film: Star Trek Into Darkness

This year seems to be following the same trend, with the producer award going to Ridley Scott and The Martian, the director award going to Tom Hooper for The Danish Girl, and acting awards going to Carey Mulligan (Suffragette), Benicio Del Toro (Sicario), Joel Edgerton (Black Mass), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) and the cast of Straight Outta Compton. Some big awards are still to be announced, such as best film, actor and supporting actress, but I find the Hollywood Film Awards of waning interest.

Spotlight on the Suffragette scandal
The most recent Academy Awards scandal involves Meryl Streep and t-shirts. Streep, as well as Carey Mulligan and their Suffragette co-stars, was recently photographed wearing a shirt saying “I would rather be a rebel than a slave.” Clearly, this means that they and the movie they are in are racist. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “the line is taken from a 1913 speech by British women’s rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst (whom Streep portrays in the film). The full passage reads: ‘I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave.'” Many people are very angry at the t-shirt, which they think is insensitive toward slavery, and their anger has also touched upon the British suffragettes, who they say were racist for not pushing for black suffrage as well.

I have a lot of feelings about this. As Sasha Stone wrote, we are experiencing “Oscarwatching in the era of outrage.” Every year, there is another movie tanked by critics for some PR flaw or perceived moral infraction. Often, these movies are the most well-intentioned of the bunch. Look at Selma last year, which LBJ fans derided, or American Sniper, which was too conservative, or Zero Dark Thirty, which promoted torture, or Saving Mr. Banks, which was about an anti-Semite … and the list goes on and on. Should the Suffragette women have worn the shirts? Well, no, because it has driven the conversation away from how good the movie is (80% on Rotten Tomatoes) and toward whether Meryl Streep is a racist.
Other News

  • Jennifer Lawrence writes about equal pay: In a short essay “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co‑Stars?” on a vaguely Lena Dunham website, JLaw spoke out about the feminism as it related to pay in Hollywood. For those of you who don’t remember, the Sony hack revealed that for American Hustle, Lawrence and Amy Adams each made less than the movie’s three male stars (Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner). Lawrence’s main point is that when she found out, she was mad at herself for not negotiating more and for not wanting to sound like a “brat.” It seems like the essay has sparked a lot of positive responses, including Cooper vowing to negotiate with his female co-stars in future movies. (In other news, JLaw has been hanging out with Amy Schumer, Chris Pratt and Aziz Ansari and I want to be their friends).
  • Is Hillary Clinton more like Joy or The Martian? Yes, Scott Feinberg and Stephen Galloway talked about this.
  • Subtlety: This really good Vulture article examines the recent epidemic of movies over-explaining concepts. The author singles out The Walk and Tomorrowland especially, but I think it’s really interesting to consider the fine line between losing your audience and treating them like morons.
  • Future Oscars – Coen Brothers: The trailer for the 2016 Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar! was recently released, and it looks great.
  • Future Oscars – Jane Austen: The trailer for the 2016 film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was recently released, and it also looks great.
  • Future Oscars – Best Actor: Three-time Oscar acting nominee Bradley Cooper will voice a dog in a new movie. I learned about this from the Vulture headline “Bradley Cooper to Voice a Dog Because He’s a Good Boy, He’s a Good Boy, Yes He Is, Yes He Is.”
  • Transgender Oscars: Variety reports that the producers and distributors behind Tangerine are launching a Best Actress campaign for Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Best Supporting Actress campaign for Mya Taylor. The film, about “two transgender prostitutes on a Christmas Eve jaunt through Los Angeles,” is not standard Oscar fare, but this is apparently the first Academy Awards campaigning ever for transgender actresses, which is pretty big.
  • Women film critics: Meryl Streep doesn’t think there are enough and she counted Rotten Tomato reviewers to prove it. According to Streep, of those allowed to rate on the Tomatometer, there are 168 women and 760 men.
  • But Mason, what about Best Adapted Screenplay? Funny you should ask. Apparently, it’s a very competitive year, though in the adapted and original categories there may be room for up to four female writers. (Compare this to zero last year.) Sasha Stone goes through what to expect and lists the large amount of “celebrity” screenwriters this year.
  • Good Guy Tom Hanks: You can read more about “Tom Hanks Finds Student’s ID, Launches Twitter Campaign To Return It” here.
  • He definitely needs more awards: John Williams has been nominated for 49 Academy Awards, winning 5. To the surprise of no one, he is receiving the AFI Life Achievement Award. This is the first time in the award’s history that a composer has won the honor, to which Williams responded, “Do you know who I am, I wrote the Jaws score.” In other news, I am distantly related to John Williams.
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