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The Oscars 2015: What They Tell Us

February 8, 2015

The Oscars are happening! Every year I write a post about the movies nominated for best picture, attempting to catch the quality in each film as well as reaching around the back to grasp at the reason it was nominated by the Academy in the first place. This is, after all, a party Hollywood holds annually to celebrate itself, and the best picture nominees are in this way like the carefully curated top 5 you put on social media to make that person fancy you that time.

The Oscars are happening! Have you seen all the nominees? Probably not – many of them are simply glib fillets of true-life stories presented with a patronizing benevolence, and at least one of them is about cheerfully murdering foreigners. Let’s get started!

The Imitation GameThe Imitation Game

In which we learn: That genius and struggle are still shortcuts to awards contention.

The Imitation Game is the sort of cynically tidy and self-congratulatory drama Harvey Weinstein has been flogging for 30 years, and it’s fine. It tells the story of awkward genius Alan Turing – who mathsed Britain to victory in World War II only to face prosecution for homosexuality – as a neat bundle of flashbacks and payoffs, re-arrangements and dramatic conveniences. While there’s a defence of the film that says it tells a thousand small lies to reach a larger truth about a great man’s contribution and subsequent mistreatment, there’s also a savaging of the film that says these lies are fucking stupid, and needlessly reduce a complex set of characters and circumstances to a pre-chewed Happy Meal of history.

Furthermore, the savaging goes on, why does a film about the mistreatment of a gay man seal him off narratively from his sexuality, pairing him a female lead whose affections he wins ahead of his rivals while relegating his same-sex encounters to off-screen unseens? The Imitation Game is emotionally and dramatically heterosexual, paying lip-service to acceptance while moving all the conventional pieces in the conventional places and (ironically) not showing any gay snogging at all. Sanitised and self-satisfied.

BoyhoodBoyhood

In which we learn: That a dash of ostentatious formalism still goes a long way with the Academy, especially in the service of easy-swallow life lessons.

That’s probably unfair to Richard Linklater, who has made an experimental, independently spirited film with no eye on the bottom line, that must have been precarious in its production until the last year or so of filming. But that film has the misfortune of privileging the male experience – why Boyhood, and not Girlhood, given that Linklater’s own daughter plays the sister role? – in a year when Academy votes have made manifest its lay sexism in a nominee line-up all about guys and the stuff they do and being guys all the time.

There are other problems – for all the talk of how the production ‘lucked out’ the central performance is unextraordinary – although that probably feels extraordinary when 12 years of work are on the line – and really the magic sauce of it all comes down to the passing of time. Patience, rather than a compelling story or performances, is what Boyhood raves are drawing on. I dunno. Did you guys not watch 7 Up? Lifetimes of tragedy poured into a few dense hours of heartbreak. In comparison ‘kid grows up and is awkward for a bit’ feels like the ladybird book of coming-of-age experience.

Birdmanbirdman

In which we learn: That Hollywood really never does get bored of hearing stories about itself.

Although, of course, Birdman is ostensibly about Broadway, and a fading film star’s attempt to mount a performance of Raymond Carver. But all the elaborate staging and theatricality only serve to make it more about cinema, about choices and cuts, and the lasting impression those flashing lights and images leave on us, somewhere not on the eyes but behind them.

What am I going on about? The idea that cinema, and specifically the superhero form currently playing out as its – and therefore the world’s – dominant mythology, is about power and entitlement, action and celebration. It is a promise of our importance and this, being cynical, is what makes Birdman so attractive to the Academy, the aging and retired bank of old Hollywood hands – Michael Keaton being tempted and tormented by his past success. It is a film about ego, the cost of performance, and what happens when the circus leaves town (spoiler: our faces go saggy and then we die).

SelmaSelma

In which we learn: That the Academy itself is due an award for services to tokenism.

Which is to say that Academy voters have identified Selma as one of the eight best films of the year, but haven’t recognised its actors or director for having anything to do with that. The handsome historical drama is nominated, while the individual black people who made it are passed over for a spread of white folks who chipped in to apparently inferior films.

Cool.

It’s a spectacular balls-in-mouth moment that’s able to highlight the startling relevance of the race drama it is fuck-handedly attempting to celebrate. Although, in fairness, that relevance had already been demonstrated by the various staggering what-the-fuck-century-is-this clashes 2014 witnessed between violent white authorities and victimised black communities. In other words, Ferguson shows why Selma is an important film, even if it doesn’t make it a good one – but that doesn’t get you off the hook, Academy, because it’s better than the fucking Imitation Game.

The Theory Of EverythingTTOE_D17_ 05356.NEF

In which we learn: That eight best film nominees is probably too many.

Why? Because this is the same fucking film as The Imitation Game, about a great academic and the delivery of his gift to the universe despite the obstacles the universe places in his way (a fact underlined by the fact Cumberbatch already played Stephen Hawking back in 2004).

It’s good in a meaningless, British-as-an-exportable-commodity way and deadened by an air of inevitability: we know Hawking falls ill, figures out black holes, that the film will cut and paste years and events to present us with a packaged moment of meaning near the end, probably at sunset in a garden or somewhere equally English. The fact Eddie Redmayne clearly spent a long time learning to control his body as if he couldn’t control his body doesn’t really mitigate the Academy’s staggering lack of diversity and imaginationg as evidenced by the fact that two films about Cambridge men doing big sums somehow squeeze onto the same best picture nominee roll.

The Grand Budapest HotelBudapest

In which we learn: Wes Anderson can still endow what seemed a tattered bag of tricks with sincerity and purpose.

Let’s be clear here though – these are the same tricks, a fetishism of fastidiousness and miniaturization, a love of uniform and duty, a sense of dash and ironically unironic adventure. It’s just that here they’re played in the right parts for fun and fury – out with the shoegazing and mistaking the maudlin for meaningful, and in with the construction of a rigid order so that it might be subverted.

This is Anderson’s motif, at his best, a nerd-punk that sees pathetic rebellion as life’s highest calling. He might be right – and certainly, playing as it does like a live-action Tintin movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel can win as many Oscars as it likes (which will be none, as it’s not virtuous or serious enough, just excellent).

American SniperAmerican sniper

In which we learn: That it’s been a long time since The Hurt Locker, and longer still since Unforgiven.

Seriously – what the fuck, America? American Sniper is a crusade movie which unquestioningly celebrates the work of a paid killer in the service of contemporary imperialism. There is no pretence at neutrality here, from a fatherly flashback asserting an outright fascist sorting of humanity into three camps (“Sheep, wolves, and the sheep-dog”), to hero sniper Chris Kyle claiming a clear conscience as his kill-count climbs into scores and scores.

Director Clint Eastwood made a masterpiece in Unforgiven, a stark contemplation of life lived in service to violence, a reckoning with his own legend that made clear the impossibility of killing leaving no mark on the killer. That he should now find himself in a place of greater certainty and infinitely less grace is almost as shameful as the Academy following him there, flags waving.

WhiplashWhiplash-5547.cr2

In which we learn: That I have saved this one until last to cheer me up.

There’s something about the choice of instrument in Whiplash – a movie about ruthless teachers and ambitious students – that makes a clear and ringing sense. It’s about a drummer: a combination of the physical exertion of drumming and the fitful dramatics of the instrument’s rhythm and noise course through a film which – like Birdman, another movie set to the tripping tension of a beat – interrogates the cost of performance.

JK Simmons delivers certainly the best performance I saw in 2014 – intensity given form as forearms and a stare, a mentor intent on squeezing greatness from the gifted. In a nominee field characterised by relentless didacticism – giant spoons of fuckheaded wisdom flown into our toothless minds – he enables Whiplash to explore and embrace a desperately needed ambiguity. There is no right or wrong here, just desire and desperation, sacrifice and bloodied fingers

It’s the best film here by a stretch. It’ll never win.

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