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The Oscars 2014: What Do They Tell Us?

March 3, 2014

The Oscars are happening! Hooray for the Oscars, especially this year because all of the films are enjoyable on at least some level and none of them are Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, which in a precise display of why the awards and everything about them are empty and stupid – including posts like this – really did get nominated for best picture just two years ago.

The Oscars are happening! Have you seen all the best picture nominees? Probably not, one of them is a black and white film about what it’s like to be confused and old and the average running time is three and half weeks because the Academy regularly conflates length with importance. I have, and since the Oscars is above everything else an interesting way to gauge how Hollywood thinks about itself, here’s a short look at what we might be able to learn from the inclusion of each nominee.

American Hustle

In which we learn: That the Academy still feels bad about Goodfellas missing out on the 1990 best picture award in favour of fucking Dances With Wolves.

Christian Bale;Amy AdamsAlthough of course that’s not entirely true – Hollywood is easily swayed by tales of period glamour and wig-wearing swazz, but American Hustle deserves a spot among the nominees for an extraordinary ensemble performance if nothing else. And, really, there’s not that much else – the film has it’s own sleazy, romance-slanted spin but it’s working very closely to a Scorsese formula of East coast underworld presented with urgent cameras and contextualising voiceover to the pace-shifting rhythms of a pop soundtrack. This is fine filmmaking, but it’s also another O Russell echo of a real classic: just like The Fighter felt like the best boxing film people who’d never watched Raging Bull had ever seen, to my miserable eyes there’s little going on here that Sharon Stone didn’t do already in Casino.

Captain Phillips

In which we learn: That Tom Hanks could probably star in a biscuit and it would still get nominated for an Oscar, although maybe in the short film category.

Tom HanksThis is not a bad film – it makes a serious attempt at balance and is covered in Greengrass’ remarkable and grounding eye for detail in the apparently mundane. At the same time, that balance essentially boils down to “having a bit with subtitles for a minute” rather than any real examination of the lives of the hijackers, and a rolling tank of unsubtlety clears a path three awards cabinets wide through the middle of the movie to give Hanks the space required to be heroic in a middle-aged way that makes the Academy hard and to do a bit of crying.

Dallas Buyers Club

In which we learn: That issues movies and – this year more than any – true-life stories are catnip for Hollywood.

AMF_7277 (341 of 376).NEFPerhaps that’s an unfair thing to pin on Dallas Buyers Club, because aside from getting almost transparently thin Matthew McConaughey is more importantly also charming, desperate and furiously alive, continuing a run of form that seems to be confusing people who remember him mostly from EDtv and all those times he took his top off, which is a lot of fucking times.

Still, it’s mad to ignore the fact that the Academy enjoys watching things that make the movies look important. Second only to movies about the movies are movies about Important True Things. Dallas Buyers Club deals with AIDS, social injustice, abuses of corporate power and homophobia, all with a sprinkle of truth that transforms that pleasure of having watched a good story into a moral affirmation of somehow having been involved in a righteous, moving or momentous event. I can see why this would be an attractive feeling for people who’ve given their lives to the film industry.

Gravity

In which we learn: Hollywood is just fine with women over 40, so long as they’re among the most successful actors of the last 20 years and their film is a technical masterpiece.

GravityI guess what Gravity really shows is that Hollywood is still making a genre of movie recently declared extinct: the adult drama. Gravity has no love interest, no alien creatures, and no antagonist to speak of, barring the enveloping blackness of forever that waits for us all behind autumn clouds. In a field dominated by true stories and the easy significance conferred upon them, Gravity does something I’d argue is more important – it delivers us to an environment and a situation that none of us will ever experience, thrillingly removed from our terrestrial plodding, pinned to meticulous practicalities, and with a sense of scale and spectacle that only cinema can offer.

Her

In which we learn: That Spike Jonze has made the best film of the year and it will not win the Oscar.

HerAnd that’s okay – I don’t even want it to win, even though I like it best. Her pulls into focus the fact that it can be hard to distinguish between the excellence of a film and the significance of its subject matter, which is particularly confusing in a nominee field like this where lots of films about important, contentious, heartbreaking issues also happen to be really fucking good films.

But not, if you are me and live in my brain, as good as Her. It rebels against testimonial storytelling not unlike Gravity – while Cuarón’s film shows us the mercilessness of orbit, Her smartly conjures and then refuses to boringly shout about a near future smartly extrapolated from our own. This future might look like one built on the pop-tech concerns of young affluent men – one of videogames, mobile computers and hipster waistlines – but really it’s one designed to stage a perceptive story about loneliness and the emotional legitimacy of our relationships with things.

It’s really good.

Nebraska

In which we learn :That Alexander Payne has somehow become an auteur of leftfield road movies starring sad men and dysfunctional old people.

NEBRASKAIt’s also better than The Descendants, which was nominated in 2012, although it deals with the same intractables (the flat mundanity of aging, the restlessness of regret) with the same wry, unremarkable eye. His films are sad, in an understated way that suggests everything is sad, but we’ll carry on anyway for the times it seems less so. It refuses to be glib and, as part of an unusual general trend for treating older characters as real people, features two excellent comic actors in Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk but gives all its really funny lines to Bruce Dern and the utterly fucking luminous June Squibb.

Philomena

In which we learn: That Harvey Weinstein could get a biscuit starring Tom Hanks nominated for best picture, if the biscuit was gay, catholic, or had been given an X rating.

philomena05It’s not that Philomena is a bad film, it’s just that it’s one perfectly – if unintentionally – engineered for a Weinstein push: the treasured British thesp, the dash of European intellectualism, the emotive issue underpinning a narrative of warming character growth. Films about the Catholic church, about unlikely friendships, and about charmingly written class clashes have been bread and butter for Weinstein for nearly three decades – he understands the value of these elements to specialist audiences in exactly the same way he understands the value of an Oscar nomination to the same, self-identified-rarefied crowd. That’s why he got this nominated, and why it has no chance of winning.

(You know, probably).

12 Years A Slave

In which we learn: That cinema continues to usefully and vividly recreate the atrocities we often forget in order to carry on feeling human.

12 Years A SlaveWhich is to say that 12 Years A Slave is a terrifically powerful film about a shameful and recent period of history, a period so recent that it’s difficult to pass off as the uncivilised misstep of a prior shape of man and which, in the typical run of things, it’s more comfortable to forget we were ever capable of. I hope it wins.

The Wolf Of Wall Street

In which we learn: That Martin Scorsese never fucking lost it.

Film Fall PreviewI mean, of course he didn’t. But The Wolf Of Wall Street offers lurching, lurid proof, with a subject matter that seems to have piqued Scorsese’s fascination with greed and evil like nothing since Goodfellas (which really should have won that Oscar), and a star in the shape of Leonardo DiCaprio who is no longer standing in for De Niro, but filling the screen and powering the exhausting three-hour tirade in a way that can stand unapologetically alongside the previous efforts of both De Niro and Ray Liotta.

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