Archive for Academy Awards

2014 in Film: A Redundant, Ranty (Apparently Alliterative) Round-Up

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by drayfish

Lego Movie eyes

Okay, so I’m obviously not the biggest fan of the Oscars.

In a previous post I slagged the entire history of the award, mouthed off about their tragicomic irrelevance, and petulantly whined that a faceless mass of self-proclaimed cinephiles had different opinions to me about what makes a great film – all while somehow restraining myself from mentioning that ‘Dick Poop’ gaffe.* And now that their kitschy lavish spectacle has once again bloomed and withered back into its eleven month irrelevancy, having dragged the otherwise unassailable award show host Neil Patrick Harris down with it, how could I possibly follow up such a mature and objective discussion?

Why, by indulging every bit of my crippling narcissism and going off on a shamelessly subjective rant about the films of the past twelve months that I thought were great, of course. …And apparently by also throwing in a few more petty digs at a completely unnecessary, largely ridiculous award ceremony that has no impact on anything at all.

So… maturity.

Because to my surprise, I thought 2014 was a pretty great year for cinema. And that was particularly true in the realm of ‘popular’ films – the ones the Academy usually ignores as being too far down the ‘shallow end’ of the cinematic pool, only throwing them the occasional patronising special effects or sound design award.** In truth, many of 2014’s major releases were more experimental and daring than the turgid dramas – usually historical, or vaguely sepia-toned character pieces with stilted dialogue – at which the Oscars usually swoon.

Sure, 2014 had the usual slew of laughable, lamentable turkeys…

Saving Christmas

IMAGE: Kicking you in the face …for Jesus (Camfam Studios)

Like some kind of reverse-Christmas miracle, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas was even more cheap and smug than whatever you are conjuring up in your head right now. Playing as an exercise in glib sophistry, Cameron plays the role of that condescending relative you have to be polite to at the holidays who wants to tell you – for an eternal hour and a half – why he knows what’s wrong with society. The result is a Powerpoint presentation about how the shameless commercialisation and mass-marketed kitsch of the season is actually a blessing, and ultimately feels like you’re watching him press Santa and Jesus’ faces together, demanding they kiss.

Men, Women and Children too turned out a feature length sermon – this time about the death of humanity in an age of social media. But rather than actually say anything revealing it played more as the Reefer Madness of facebook and was every bit as tedious, supercilious and ham-fisted as that asinine YouTube poem all your friends insisted you watch last year. You know the one. About how, because you were looking at a smart phone screen that one time, you missed the love of your life, and will now never have a moment of true joy and die alone, unloved, and filled with regret.

So click ‘Like’ and share, guys!

There were Michael Bay’s two attempts to destroy all that is good in the human soul: Transformers 4: Age of Shameless Pandering to the American and Chinese Military and Teenage Mutant Roided-Out-Sex-Pest Turtles. Both of which are literally less enjoyable than watching a five year old smash toys together and go ‘Kerplowsh!” for five hours. At least the five year old is using some imagination.


IMAGE: ‘I love you, so emotionally crippling you is cool, right?’ The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Sony)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is probably best avoided until you’re recovering from some kind of head injury that requires being heavily medicated and bombarded with pretty colours. With zero story coherency, camp and maudlin histrionics colliding randomly, and acting performances that induce tonal whiplash, Peter Parker appears less a conflicted hero and more a self-involved jag weed who spends the majority of the film either stalking or negging his grieving girlfriend. Incomprehensibly, the film is such a mess it makes whatever was going on with emo-Peter in Spiderman 3 look profound.

(And apparently I’m not the only one who would now probably take Jazz-hands Macquire Spiderman over Garfield’s tweaked out hipster wall-crawler, because less than a year after its release Sony has already announced they are rebooting the franchise and handing over partial custody to Marvel.***)

Meanwhile A Million Ways To Die In The West was Seth MacFarlane.

All of him.

There can be no more damning praise than that.****


IMAGE: Ironic Comedy (place inverted commas around whatever you want); A Million Ways To Die In The West (Universal)

But despite these predictable bellyflops, overall the year’s output was a surprising blast. Franchises that had seemed to be drifting into self-satisfied bloat came back lean and slick and audacious. Sequels proved to be far better than they had any reason to be. And fresh intellectual properties emerged with a confident strut.

In the Marvel universe, although its television spin-off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a bland start that seemed to be a warning sign of narrative fatigue, its cinematic siblings seemed reinvigorated, eager to expand and explore something new (even if, to get needlessly picky, they are still sticking with the three act rising climax MacGuffin-heavy narrative spine).

Guardians of the Galaxy made the superhero and sci-fi genres fun again, front-loaded with emotion and character, but driven by comedy and building to epic stakes. It reminded audiences what it was like to go to the cinema and lose yourself in a grand, wildly imaginative adventure, running to catch up with charismatic almost-heroes, rather than getting pummelled by the pretentious mire of a super snuff film like the previous year’s asinine Man of Steel.


IMAGE: Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel)

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier injected as much paranoid social commentary as it did ‘splosions and dynamic action. Suddenly the interrogation of what a symbol like the Cap’n even means anymore in a world of drones and NSA spying, wasn’t just some thematic wrapping paper, but a vital part of the mythos. It was so pointed that it even shook up the status quo of its own metanarrative, tearing down the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. agency, the catch-all clandestine service that has so far played as the connective tissue for this universe (something that may prove to be ultimately perfunctory, but that had great resonance here in a tale about a soldier questioning authority).

Also on the plus column for The Winter Soldier? Giving Scarlett Johansen’s Black Widow more screen time is never a bad idea. (Seriously, where is her stand-alone movie? After stealing every scene in The Avengers and effortlessly transcending the Captain’s buddy foil role to become the best thing in his film, it’s getting silly now.)

X-Men: Days of Future Past used a prequel-sequel time-travel conceit to soft-reboot the series, playing with any and all of the best elements of the previous films – berserk Wolverine; steely Fassbender; rich (if sometimes a little muddled) social justice metaphors laced with explosions – and gleefully obliterating anything Brett Ratner touched from the canon. It was the cinematic definition of having your cake and eating it too: it had comic book fan service out the yang, got to indulge the anything-goes abandon of alternate realities, and was so rich with talent that it had four of the most astonishing actors currently working tag-teaming two roles. And yet, throughout it all, the film somehow never felt as convoluted or indulgent as it had every reason to be, somehow seamlessly threading multiple time frames, juggling a bevy of returning mutant characters and introducing several others, and flirting with real-world history and its own established lore. The fact that it found a legitimate way to hit the do-over button while keeping whatever worked from the previous films turned a contractually mandated gimmick into something inspired.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proved that the reboot/prequel of a few years ago wasn’t a fluke, legitimising the series as a speculative fiction alternate universe in which CGI primates presented some of the most complicated, nuanced acting of the year …only to inevitably have it ignored entirely by the Academy Awards yet again. Oh well, maybe they’ll get a patronising clip reel during the ceremony or something. No? Not even that? Well, they can dream. (Note: they are not allowed to dream.)

How To Train Your Dragon 2

IMAGE: How To Train Your Dragon 2 (Dreamworks)

How To Train Your Dragon 2 showed that sequels to animated films need not just spin their wheels and retread the same tired formulas. It went bigger, and darker, and deeper, and offered a more focussed and moving experience than its predecessor. Considering that the first film was a delightful surprise (a burst of originality and sincerity from Dreamworks, a studio that seemed to have settled into a complacent groove churning out increasingly superfluous Shrek sequels), the second was just straight up astonishing. There were revelations, real stakes, and it refused to talk to its audience like they were malleable idiots to be blasted with toy commercials and Burger King promos. In the end of the first film, the protagonist and his dragon are scarred, but that makes them stronger; by the end of the second they have both been deeply emotionally traumatised, but it makes them know the value of loss, the power of forgiveness, and the ephemeral, precious nature of peace. As far as children’s entertainment goes, it made the Smurf and Chipmunk movies look like they were drawn with crayon on garbage.

In the comedy world, 22 Jump Street likewise had no right to be so good. However, considering that the first film (an adaptation of a cheesy, late-eighties television show that was an unmistakable product of its time) somehow managed to outstrip every expectation, that the sequel was great was less a shock than it was a testament to the entire creative team that brought both films into being. And that final credit sequence of endless faked-up sequels was sublime. I would watch every one of them. You’re telling me we need five Twilight films in this world, and yet the Moonraker-style 2121 Jump Street remains only a punch line? No thank you, reality.

And to my great surprise, I actually enjoyed the first part of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay quite a bit. Yes, it was undeniably a cheap cash-grab of the studio to segment it into two parts. Yes, when you parse out the details of the story very little actually happens. Yes it’s annoying that Katniss is so weirdly hung up on one dude when a nation of people are being slaughtered. And yes, the military seems to have spent all their money on green screen technology and not training their people to be able to spot glaringly obvious doublecrosses. But despite that – sometimes because of it – I thought it was an enormous step up from its predecessors, finally throwing into relief what the series has been primarily about: propaganda.

Hunger Games logo

IMAGE: The Hunger Games Logo (Lionsgate)

In the previous films the groundwork was already laid – there was the oversimplified division of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ that tapped into a slightly on-the-nose post-Occupy Wall Street mentality; television (reality television in particular) was a manipulative opiate for the masses – but in this third film, all those disparate themes of fashion, celebrity, and the cultivation and falsehood of fame, coalesced into a single critique of merchandised ideologies. The promised ‘revolution’ was itself another layer of propaganda designed to exploit their Mockingjay – now more a symbol than a person – as a catalyst for change. And the way that the film actually integrated its own advertising, even employing the font and logos of the film’s own marketing into the ‘news’ reels used to bolster Katniss’ rise to notoriety, was ingenious. A sprawling metatextal franchise exploring the building and exploitation of hype, with Jennifer Lawrence who (as one of the celebrities whose phone was hacked and personal photographs leaked online) had her real world life impacted by a sickening invasion of privacy, convincingly playing the role of a woman trying to hold on to her identity amidst the dehumanising machinations of a relentless, exploitative publicity campaign.

Peter Bloom, a lecturer at the Open University, took a rather less flattering view of the film, but his argument struck me as a little unfair. He criticises the way in which the movies (and presumably the books before them, I’ve not read them) use the narrative expediency of personifying an ideology in the-evil-tyrant-who-must-be-overthrown, saying that this is too simple a good-versus-evil conceit; but he seems to have missed the fairly overt way in which the film presents the rebellion’s actions as being similarly manipulative for their own ends. What I actually like about this third film is that it makes it clear no one is really the ‘good’ guy, and no one is above using manipulation and rhetoric to achieve their ends.

Maleficent, too, had an intriguing conceit. Much like Wicked before it (from which, frankly, it clearly drew a great deal of inspiration), it was designed to reappropriate and realign the back story of a familiar fairytale, Disney’s own version of Sleeping Beauty, redeeming the ‘evil’ villainess by exploring the motivations that led her to appear monstrous. Although the result was a flawed movie (it didn’t seem sure of exactly who it’s central character was meant to be, and try explaining that ripped off wings rape metaphor to whatever kids you took along to the cinema), Angelina Jolie was game, and the premise – exploring some moral complexity abstracted from a cartoon whose strength, arguably, was its oversimplified contrast of virtue and malevolence – is well worth playing out further. Maleficent may not have been an entirely successful experiment, but it was good to see Disney doing something more interesting than the parade of live-action animation remakes they have announced for the foreseeable future: from Cinderella, to Beauty and the Beast, to The Jungle Book to …Tim Burton’s Dumbo?! Why?! Why have you forsaken us Mufasa?!


IMAGE: War of the Worlds – I mean, Oblivion – I mean, Edge of Tomorrow (Warner Bros.)

In the world of new and original concepts, despite what was apparently a less than stellar performance in cinemas (although, with international box office, still profitable), I thought Edge of Tomorrow was fantastic. I may, at some point, write about it further, but for a film that was essentially Groundhog Day meets Aliens, it was a wonderfully fresh take on some familiar tropes. Funny, frenetic and imaginative, the film is based on a book, but actually feels more like the perfect adaptation of some videogame that never existed – with respawning, rage quits, and grinding to level up all essential parts of the narrative. After several less than stellar projects (what the hell was Knight and Day?!) it also managed to remind me why Tom Cruise has been a movie star for so long. His pivot from facile, preening weasel to stoic, embittered hard ass was one of his best, and most self-aware performances to date.

The Lego Movie, a film that had all of the warning signs of being a crass, two-hour commercial for the overpriced (yeah, I said it) exponentially expanding licensing universe of Lego, instead became an earnest, heartfelt ode to unbridled creativity, and the beauty of madcap, unfettered play. Like its eponymous toy bricks, it stuck together the framework of a narrative from disparate pieces – a classic heroic journey, a Matrix alt-reality riff, an anti-utopian totalitarian regime, a convoluted heist, a diabolical villain, a soothsayer, a frantic chase, a band of misfits – shook it up, stuffed it with hilarity, and then, when it was already the most imaginative film of the year, transcended itself with its third act jump to the real world – using tiny yellow dolls with claw hands to flirt with metaphysical questions of predestination and free will.


IMAGE: The Lego Film Movie Picture (Warner Bros.)

It was a film about nostalgia and the promise of the new; it was for all ages and yet felt profoundly intimate; it was absurd and yet deeply heartfelt; a celebration and rejection of commercialism all at once; about play as a space for self-expression, communication, and experimentation.

…So obviously the Academy Awards didn’t even bother nominating it.

Because shut up, that’s why.

Speaking of the Academy Awards embarrassing themselves, at least they managed to throw some love at more experimental cinema for once, with Birdman (although not my favourite Arty, weird and idiosyncratic film of the year) proving an uncharacteristically respectable winner. Thinking it through, it wasn’t exactly a surprise (the Academy liked the story about the aging, supercilious actor who is afraid of encroaching technologies and despairs at the entertainments of the youth? …shocker) but at least it actually did have something to say, contained some career-best performances from actors willing to play on their own public personas, and had an energy all its own.

Personally, I was more impressed with The Grand Budapest Hotel – perhaps Wes Anderson’s most Wes Anderson of movies. A tribute to his obsession with boxes – both his eye for the formal precision and quirky vintage of dioramas, and the breadth and history of the cinematic frame itself – The Grand Budapest Hotel was a layer cake of tales within tales, oral history and facade, and the charming, quirky, inscrutable con man at the centre of any narrative Art form. It may not be my personal favourite of his films (I suspect nothing will manage to shift Rushmore from its lauded place in my heart), but I think it might well be the one that makes the clearest, and most elegant statement about his work. Aesthetically whimsical and yet emotionally tumultuous, fascinated both by an impossible nostalgia, and the poised, charming exteriors that barely conceal depths of dysfunction and self-delusion, it is all about the creative process; a filmic essay on Romanticism, and the malleability of truth in our efforts to transcend time. So of course, I adored it.

Grand Buhapest Hotel

IMAGE: Boxes. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight)

And so, to the actors…

For me, acting MVPs of the year would have to be Chris Pratt and Scarlett Johansonn.

With The Lego Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, his continued work on Parks and Rec., and just about the most charming run of publicity interviews ever, Pratt has become a delight to follow on screen. And with rumours of a forthcoming Indiana Jones casting and his role in the imminent Jurassic World, where he appears to have pet raptors (pet raptors!), his streak will hopefully continue …as long as none of these raptors learn how to talk.

Meanwhile, for the second year running – after last year’s double header of Her and Under The Skin, in which she mined unexpected depths from a computer artificial intelligence and an extraterrestrial sex-predator – Johansonn did it again. As already mentioned, her Black Widow was the best thing in Captain America’s movie, and against all logic she managed to give Luc Besson’s completely bonkers Lucy a legitimacy it frankly didn’t deserve.

Like a number of Besson’s other films (I’m looking at you, Fifth Element), Lucy took a sumptuous, visually stunning romp, and bogged it down in a bunch of incoherent (and yet somehow still utterly pretentious) pseudo-science and glib philosophical rhetoric; and yet Johansson, at the centre of the crazy-storm, managed to imbue the character of Lucy with an emotional range and nuance that (fittingly) transcended the idiocy of the plot she was trapped within. From the terrified woman dragged into a seedy underworld of drug trafficking, to the unstoppable ubermensch, her mind aflame with a torrent of infinite knowledge and cosmological expansion, she seemed to be acting in a different film, one not subject to the silly cartoon logic Besson frequently substitutes for character and plot.


IMAGE: Lucy (Universal)

And that final obnoxious declaration before the credits roll:

‘Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.’

Urgh. I sure do. Because a billion years is too short a time to waste on any more Luc Besson films. At least until he bothers writing a second draft on his scripts.

But my pick of the year? The film that I personally felt outshone all of this other goodness?

Well I haven’t mentioned it yet, and it’s already proving itself the darling of every other critic and award ceremony (aside from the Academy Awards, natch), so it’s not that hard to guess…

Drum roll please…

Actually, you know what? Why not wait and reveal it in my next post?

It’ll be great. A narcissistic, myopic spectacle of self-congratulations that’s all preamble and no payoff. An announcement that’s predictable, tired, and of little to no relevance to anyone.

Just like the Oscars.


So see you then!

…It’s Boyhood.

It’s Boyhood, guys. I loved Boyhood.

I mean, of course I did.


IMAGE: The Best. (IFC Films)

* Oh, and just in case you thought maybe the Oscars voters couldn’t look worse, along comes a series of anonymous interviews with the Academy voters to remind you that people who secret themselves away in a private club with labyrinthine exclusivist rules in order to award themselves chintzy plaudits can sometimes be deplorable, superficial, inward-looking racists that proudly celebrate mediocrity. So that’s nice.

** I mean, if Roger Deakins’s sumptuous cinematography on Skyfall wasn’t enough to pull a statuette, why even pretend that a ‘popular’ film has a chance in future?

*** Give me Donald Glover as Miles Morales! Also, give me Donald Glover in Community again! And more Marshall Lee in Adventure Time! …Basically Donald Glover is the secret sauce for all good things.

****…I mean seriously, humanity. You saw him host the Oscars. You’ve seen him in interviews. You’ve had over a decade of being pummelled by the cumulative onslaught of Family Guys and Cleveland Shows and American Dads. What did you think was going to happen? Oh look: a Back to the Future reference. Yep. That’s a thing I watched once. Now back to ‘How funny is racism?’ and the jokes that go on too long about how jokes often go on to long. Hmmmmthat’sgoodsatire.

The Oscars: Playing Their Own Wind-Up Music

Posted in criticism, movies, stupidity, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2015 by drayfish


IMAGE: The Oscars Broadcast (ABC)

Do you like white guys?

If you said ‘Yes, please!’ then – as the uproar across social media over this past month will attest – the upcoming Academy Awards are for you!

Since this year’s Oscars category nominations were announced few weeks back, much has been made of the seemingly whitewashed sausage party that Hollywood is planning to throw for itself this year, with no nominations for any women or any non-Caucasians in the Best Directing category, and a largely white, Y-chromosomey roster elsewhere else across the board. All 20 nominees in four acting categories are white. And who knows? Daniel Day Lewis is such a remarkable method actor, we still may get a plot-twist revelation when the winner for Best Female Actor steps up to the stage…

But for all of the rightful rage about this gallingly myopic exclusion, I am a little surprised that anyone can still bother being shocked.

Please don’t misinterpret my glib tone: I in no way disagree with the complaints. That the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, should go ignored while Clint Eastwood is seemingly grandfathered into the shortlist on the back of probably his most toothless (and morally ugly) cinematic offering is indefensible. It’s just that to me it seems like less of a snub and more of the Oscars – having made the most token of efforts to shake out of their proverbial slumber by giving Lupita Nyong’o and Kathryn Bigelow awards in the past couple of years – once again slapping the snooze button and happily rolling back to sleep.

Because despite how pivotal it clearly is to address the injustice of repeatedly failing to acknowledge female and non-white artists, it’s not as if this wilful blindness is unique. The Oscars routinely ignore merit, celebrate the pedestrian, and trip over themselves scrambling to play catch-up with audiences that repeatedly show themselves to have more discerning taste. You only have to look at some of the other snubs in this year’s offerings.

To pick one (I think quite telling) example: The Lego Movie was the most playful, impossibly, wildly creative celebration of imagination and narrative in the last twelve months of cinema. It defied all expectation and was charming, audacious and fearless in its storytelling. So the fact that it wasn’t even nominated in the Best Animated Feature category says more than enough…

(And yes, despite expressing surprise that anyone would trouble themselves to complain about the Oscars, clearly I am about to go off on the three-hundred and fifty-seven thousandth* anti-Oscar rant published online in the past month… It’s called being wildly inconsistent and hypocritical – something I apparently share with the institution I am about to ineffectually slag off.)

lego movie group

IMAGE: The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

Because it’s easy to get dazzled by the Oscars.

I mean – what prestige! What class! What impeccable discerning taste!

…No, seriously.

What of those things?

It’s not like they ever really had that stuff, and lost it along the way to become their current glittering, gladhanding grotesquery of gauche. Even the most cursory look back at the films the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have celebrated offers a fairly unflattering portrait for a ceremony that purports to celebrate excellence.

Remember when Citizen Kane won for best picture?

You shouldn’t. Because it didn’t. Neither did It’s A Wonderful Life, or High Noon, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or Roman Holiday, or Shane, or To Kill A Mockingbird, or Vertigo, or Apocalypse Now, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Do The Right Thing, or King Kong (the original!), or Pulp Fiction, or Metropolis. Indeed, most of history’s finest films – those that have transcended their age to delight audiences and profoundly inform generations of moviemakers since – have routinely been overlooked.

And yes, I acknowledge before I even get started that this is all highly unfair – peering back, with the benefit of decades of hindsight, to sneer at a clutch of ultimately meaningless awards.** But it does illustrate how poorly the Academy’s taste seems to date. For all of their posturing, the Oscars seem to have little impact on the shelf-life or reputation of a film. In retrospect they often seem to make those that they venerate look all the more farcical…

When was the last time you (or anyone) watched the mawkish Crash, winner of the 2005 Best Picture? Or that interminably pretentious The English Patient film that won in 1996? (Elaine Benes was right all along, people!) Go back and watch it now and you can see Kevin Costner already exercising all of his worst self-aggrandising, overblown filmmaking urges in 1990’s winner, Dances With Wolves (here’s the elevator pitch for every Costner vanity project: ‘Please save us, uncharismatic white man!’***) Meanwhile, 2001’s A Beautiful Mind , despite some solid acting and direction, plays more like a Lifetime original M. Night Shamalan joint.

And I’m nutty for Shakespeare, so a playful riff on the early years of the bard, penned by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern playwright Tom Stoppard and stuffed full of every living actor and neck ruffle in the British Isles is about as up my alley as it is possible to get, but even I don’t think Shakespeare In Love should have beaten The Truman Show, Rushmore, Out of Sight, or The Big Lebowski (none of which were even nominated) in 1998.

At best, you might call some of these winning films ‘products of their time’ (American Beauty; Chicago), but frequently they are just the most ‘Oscar-baity’ work on the roster that year – spectacle and emotional histrionics dressed up as profundity. It’s cheesy, mythologising pap and period pieces awash with tales of adversity like Forest Gump and Titanic, or bloated mythologising bombast like Braveheart – a rote tale of tragi-heroism so perfectly engineered that it even won a second time when someone slapped on a new coat of CGI paint and resubmitted it under the revised title: Gladiator.


IMAGE: Heroic Protagonist #1, Gladiator (Universal Pictures)

And just in case you think that comparison between Gladiator and Braveheart is undeserved, let me just quote an IMDB plot summary and see if you can guess which film I am talking about:

A supercilious Australian actor in an unconvincing accent, beloved by the perpetually unwashed extras that populate his historical foreign land, is compelled to stand up against a cartoonish, moustache-twirling villain after his wife suffers the most cruel fate of all: murder by plot convenience.

This embittered warrior reluctantly leads an impossible revolution to bring down a corrupt oligarchy; inspires the masses in an improbable revolt; is beloved by the anachronistically hot and arbitrarily sympathetic matriarch of the land (who can do nothing to save him); and ultimately sacrifices himself to become a glaringly asinine Christ-metaphor that conveniently ignores all the putting-swords-through-people’s-faces business that preceded it for two-and-a-half ass-numbing hours.

Did you guess?

That’s right: it was both of them. (Partial credit if you guessed Ben-Hur, an earlier draft of both films that I believe also did quite well at the Oscars in 1959.) If there was a TV Tropes for ‘Hackneyed Historical Epics’ (and there probably is, I haven’t checked) these two films would handily win the ‘Most Expensive Cut and Paste’ award for screenwriting.

Film "Gladiator" In United States In May 2000-

IMAGE: Unique Archytpe #2, Braveheart (20th Century Fox)

Meanwhile, the Academy routinely fails to acknowledge the people who bring the most innovative and influential works to life. Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar. Alfred Hitchcock. Buster Keaton. Robert Altman. Charlie Chapman. Orson Welles. Howard Hawks. None of these figures could (if they ever wanted to) tout themself as an ‘Academy Award Winning Director’. (Even Martin Scorsese finally only won one for The Departed, a perfectly serviceable, idiosyncratic Scorcese work, but hardly, I would argue, his best.) And that is just for directing. Similar examples (far too numerous to get into here) abound in the acting and writing categories.

Mostly the Academy finds itself scrambling for retroactive relevancy, dispensing Lifetime Achievement Awards to filmmakers whose work they have otherwise ignored. It’s here that the names like Hitchcock and Altman and Chaplin finally appear, invited to ascend to the stage to receive an accolade that, by that point in their career, should be retitled the ‘Yeah, No Duh Award’.

And yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Oscars – seemingly by sheer force of will on behalf of the Academy that stages them – somehow continue to be treated as though they inherently possess some relevance or prestige; that they in fact represent the definitive voice of the industry.

But the second that you dig into the specifics of the peculiar voting processes around which this whole ceremony revolves, things become very murky indeed. Because the Oscars are not judged by audiences, or critics, or even a cross-section of peers. In truth, the whole nomination and voting process is carried out by a small, highly secretive club of only around 6000 members.

For more detail on this whole weird secret-best-friends-group-hug of a society, Sean Hutchinson at Mental_Floss has provided a fine overview of their mysterious admissions process, but the short version is this: any hopeful wanting to get in has a brief window, once a year, in which they need to be sponsored by two already-sitting members. This person must also have ‘demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures’ – at least to whatever standard the Academy’s Board of Governors deems appropriate (and it’s not as if those members yearly oversee a gaudy ceremony that directs floodlights of scorn onto their questionable judgement).

And the results speak for themselves!

Because while you might be under the impression that the Oscar voters are all just a cluster of old white men, according to an LA Times report only 94% of them are white, and only 77% are male. Also, their median age is a spritely 62.

…Which, okay, looks bad.

But don’t worry about it. That report was published waaaaaaay back in 2012. They’re probably posting some radically different numbers now. Especially since the memberships are for life.

To anyone still unconvinced, anyone worried that such an insulated process might result in people who aren’t the most illustrious of filmmaking doyens having their say, I say to you:

Steve Guttenberg is a member.

That’s right. The man responsible for this nuanced New Zealand accent is judging others on their acting prowess.****

As is Lorenzo Lamas. Because his parents nominated him. So take that, anyone who dares suspect nepotism in the selection process!

But if you’re still thinking that such a system risks being a little too elitist, and potentially discriminatory, it should be noted that anyone can, of course, also become a member of the Academy if they were nominated for an award in the past year. …So lucky for Selma director Ava DuVernay. She won’t have to expend that mental energy wondering whether she’ll be getting an invite.

In any case, even then, after all those hurdles for membership are cleared and you are deemed as important to the film industry as Meatloaf (yep, he’s a member too), the actual process through which films get nominated are still fairly suspect.

Those who cast their votes don’t have to have seen all (or any) of the films they select. It really is just up to whatever they want to pick, whether they have thoroughly scrutinised the year’s features or not. This is something complicated further by the fact that it therefore often falls to the companies releasing these films to get the screeners into people’s hands – to spruik their product. In fact, in the case of Selma, some have stated that this might be part of the problem: according to David Carr in The New York Times, Paramount was throwing all their weight behind Interstellar before its mixed critical reaction sent them into the fallback Selma position.

So after all this – a clandestine, unrepresentative governing body; suspect members; no oversight on who is nominating what, and why – it’s hard to see why anyone puts so much stock into such an anachronistic spectacle as the Academy Awards.

Even with the Gute on board.


IMAGE: Selma (Paramount)

That is not to dismiss every Oscar win, of course. For what it’s worth, although their process is suspect, their taste questionable, and their authority laughable, many would argue that they do get it ‘right’ sometimes, occasionally picking a winner that stands even the most perfunctory test of time. Usually it’s when the performance or film is undeniable – the first two Godfather films, Casablanca and Unforgiven spring to mind; and Meryl Street isn’t doing nothing out there – but as their terrible average and labyrinthine selection processes show, they clearly have biases, quirks, and are addicted to some pretty cheesy melodrama that does not age particularly well.

So ultimately, rather than see this is as some targeted conspiracy against any specific demographic, I look as this year’s Oscar nominations as just another example of the tunnel vision that has always made them ridiculous. This recent outcry against their exclusionism is not solely about sexism or racism, but a reaction against their whole outdated culture.

Perhaps, now that the film industry is thankfully starting to diversify (at least relative to the status quo that has maintained for generations) audiences are now able to see the stark divide that has always existed between quality, transformative cinema, and those films that the Academy chooses to glorify in its empty, inward-looking pageantry.

Maybe that’s why The Lego Movie was subject to such an egregious snub; perhaps the message of that film cut a little too close to home…

A film about a boring old uninspired white guy, making vapid, cookie-cutter products, who refuses to share his toys with the wildly creative next generation?

Yeah. It’s not hard to see why that one might sting a little.

Lego Movie Emmet

IMAGE: Non-White Guy Emmet, from The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

* We have to take a number like at a deli.

** Also, who cares if I’m being unfair? This is my nitpicky rant, on my tedious, unloved blog, so the gross rhetorical injustice will stand!

*** Although, it’s almost worth sitting though the turgid idiocy of The Postman just for the hysterically self-important scene at the end when a kid holds a letter out for Costner – in the most needlessly melodramatic way possible – to collect. He will post that letter. Because he is a postman. Who posts things. In the post.

**** This is a long shot, but ‘Hi!’ to any Get This listeners out there. I hope this managed to ‘full the yurning void…’

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