Tag Archives: Academy Awards

Artistic Stratification

So the Oscars announced a new category. Is it something like Best Stunt, to acknowledge some of the crazy cool things stuntpeople and Tom Cruise do? Could it be Best Choreography for beautiful fights or films where the blocking of camera and actors plays like a dance? Maybe it’s for Best Color Scheme, which sounds totally arbitrary but you’ve movies like (500) Days of Summer and Pacific Rim that use colors masterfully. The correct answer is none of the above, but rather a category that recognizes popular movies. As in what’s the best popular movie.

Like many people who purport to not really care about the Oscars, I have a lot of opinions about them, both the awards awarded and the whole thing as an institution. For starters, recognizing a movie as being ‘the best’ is incredibly difficult, as my own consternation over my annual Top Nine lists serve to remind me every year. There’s also the thing that ‘best’ is incredibly subjective; is a movie deemed better than another by its quality or by how much it entertains you? Isn’t whether or not it entertains you really the ultimate litmus test? Can you like bad movies? (Yes.)

For many recent years, the Oscars has, on a whole, come down on the side that there’s art and then there’s Art. Logan is a good movie, but it’s not a Good Movie like Birdman. So there’s been furor aplenty, especially amongst moviegoers who are more likely to be described as fans rather than critics, about the snubbing of more pulpy fare by the Oscars, with the inference that the Academy only considers ‘serious’ movies’ scripts, direction, and actors to be worthy of recognition. Sure, those visual effects and sound design are neat, but, honestly, The Last Jedi with its magical space knights isn’t really Oscar worthy. That’s the divide between art and Art that the Academy has typically enforced.

Creating a separate category to recognize ‘popular movies’ is really just more of the same. Sure, it looks good that Black Panther actually has a shot of winning an Oscar, but it’d be Best Popular Movie. It’s not Best Picture, it’s a movie that’s really good — for a popular one. It formalizes the notion that there should be different criteria for quality, that we’re willing to accept a movie as being good enough or one of its sort, rather than recognizing the art inherent in even, yes, ‘popular’ movies.

Because why on Earth shouldn’t Logan and Black Panther be viable candidates for Best Picture? There’s masterwork in both of them, not just in technical things like sound editing and effects, but in direction, storytelling, and acting. Both Hugh Jackson’s performance as Logan and Ryan Coogler’s vision of Wakanda and the story of an isolated king deserve recognition by the highest court of cinematic opinion.

No matter how much I don’t want them to, the Oscars do matter. Like it or not, they’re an established institution that have a great deal of import put on them. People care about who wins Best Picture and the decisions and taste of the awards tend to set the trend for the industry as a whole. My fear regarding the creation of a category for ‘popular’ movies is that it creates a ghetto for movies that are good, but thought not serious enough to be considered really good. It means that Black Panther could be nominated (and win!) that category and thus, technically, have all the recognition of an Oscar; there’s a space for blockbusters and offbeat films to be shunted off to so that Best Picture can still be those True Art movies.

I don’t think there should be a divide between one sort of movie and another. A movie that’s really good is really good, period. I lament a category like this, because it reinforces what’s already a current of thought, and rather than the establishment acknowledging pulpy fare as art, it lets those movies go off and play in the yard while keeping all their toys indoors.

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Superheroes Are For The Birds

I’ve said too many times before that awards don’t always mean quality (especially when The Lego Movie gets ignored), but that doesn’t mean I still don’t have opinions. Especially when those opinions are about Birdman.

I really enjoyed Birdman. Its shot-as-if-it’s-one-take-ness got a little obtrusive at times and bordered on being gimmicky, but its strong plotting and performances helped bring it past that. It was interesting and a great movie; can’t really argue with that.

What I can argue with is with is its point-of-view. Birdman’s about a former superhero actor who’s trying to be taken seriously as a theater actor. The dichotomy there is clear: on the one hand you’ve got superhero movies, the ultimate pulpy-popcorn blockbuster, on the other is a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story, about as high the performing arts can get. The genres are opposites, and one is clearly shown as being more artistically valued than the other.

Which makes Birdman’s relationship with the superhero genre so fascinating. It’s a movie about a genre but instead of parodying it, the film takes apart the culture surrounding the genre. There’s a question of why so many actors are in superhero films (even Jeremy Renner), but more importantly being known for a superhero film follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan around, a literal ghost of his past. Birdman could have worked differently — we could have had Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger escaping from being action heroes, for example — and the central plot and theming would remain much the same: the idea here is that if you want to make true art you have to escape from the pulp.

Adding on to this view is that pulp and genre movies are inherently lesser than ‘serious’ ones. Especially when the genre’s a popular one. In discussing the overall critical distaste for superhero films, James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, said “What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films” (x). Way Gunn sees it, people figure that there’s a divide between real art and making money. Birdman, as an artsy movie, was made out of love whereas Guardians, the blockbuster, was made for a quick buck. Gunn vehemently disagrees, arguing that there’s still a great deal of love for the craft and storytelling even in an expensive, pulpy movie.

It’s storytelling, then, that should be paramount to defining art. Without its strong story Birdman would just be a movie about some washup idiosyncratically shot. What makes Guardians such a great movie is its commitment to plot and characters. Storytelling, not genre, should be the ultimate test of a movie.

I think that’s why I love good pulpy movies. Sure, they may not always be serious, but a strong plot goes a long way. Superhero movies too can deal with deeper themes. Iron Man 3 looks at identity, questioning whether you’re defined by who you are or what you’ve done. The Winter Soldier discusses privacy and the relevance of old ideals in a modern world. Guardians is about not having to be particularly special to save the world and the importance of having other people. That we don’t always notice these deeper scenes is part of the beauty, the films aren’t heavy handed; rather they intertwine theme and the story. Pulpiness and a lack of seriousness doesn’t mean a lack of depth.

Point of all this to say, genres are to be used. Though a great film, Birdman perpetuates the annoying trend that real art’s gotta be angsty, that flair has no room for substance. It’s problematic, saying that one way of telling a story is better than another. Because at the end of the day, nobody wants everyone telling the same story the same way.

Writer’s note: I definitely think Birdman earned its Best Picture, but I think Richard Linklater deserved Best Director for Boyhood give how singular that movie is. But eh, who cares, it’s just a statue.

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I’m Complaining About The LEGO Movie Snub Too

I’ve made it clear that I don’t really care for movie awards. Mostly because there’s a level of snobbery and predictability to them and also because, well, mostly because of the snobbery.

So naturally, like many people, I have great opinions on the stuff I don’t care about.

Like how this year’s acting nominations are blindingly whitewashed. Which, sure, happens, but is also incredibly indicative of culture as a whole and why movies like Big Hero 6 are important.

But something I found incredibly glaring – and also feel more qualified to talk about – is The LEGO Movie’s lack of a nomination in the animation department. It got Best Original Song and that’s it. This is a problem.

Now, I like the other nominations that I’ve seen (and have been meaning to find a way to watch Song of the Sea); Big Hero 6 is great, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is important, period, and The Boxtrolls is stop-motion which is always great to see. But The Lego Movie, as I’ll say again and again, is absolutely wonderful.

The LEGO Movie is an odd film to be sure. It’s something that could easily be a toy commercial, what with it being all about LEGO. There was a ready made audience for it, all the crew had to do was crap out a half-decent plot and go home to their paychecks. Only they didn’t. But The LEGO Movie isn’t just an animated with a great story, no they made a great story that plays with not only the fact that it’s a movie about LEGOs, but with the genre of adventure movies as a whole.

But it’s not snobby about it. There’s no mockery from The LEGO Movie. Rather it, very much like The Princess Bride, wholeheartedly embraces it knowing and even poking at its flaws. And also like The Princess Bride, there’s no cynicism to it. The film doesn’t embrace the idea that a deconstruction must be brooding, nor does it laugh at the genre it plays, ruthlessly mocking it. RatherThe LEGO Movie is filled with an unbridled love and passion for not just the toy but the genre the story plays out in. It starts a deep consciousness of what makes adventure stories tick – the call to adventure, the idea of being a chosen one, the quest into the villain’s fortress, and so on — then the film turns it up to eleven. There’s no subtlety to its narrative structure, it know what it is and runs with it.

So there’s a great grasp of storytelling from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, same could be said about the folks behind The Boxtrolls and How To Train Your Dragon 2. What really setsThe LEGO Movie apart is its balance of a breakneck, almost psychedelic pace with its knowing of when to slow down. The film could be all fluff, all a great adventure with nothing deeper to it – and it seems that way with its bright visuals and hyperactivity – but they lay off the gas pedal at the climax. The movie is able to breathe and we’re held in this twist that has us rethinking the entire movie prior, but also lends a new deal of emotional weight to it.Yet it’s a beat that doesn’t feel out of place, it’s not something simply tacked on for the drama.

The LEGO Movie did something different. It’s a movie about originality that, for once, is actually very original. It merges Saturday morning cartoons’ visuals with a mastery of plotting and the ability to throw emotional post-modern curveballs. It’s rare that a movie – animated or not – even tries to do this, let alone pulls it off so spectacularly.

It’s all this that means The LEGO Movie should have gotten an Oscar nomination, it didn’t just tell an (animated) story well, it told it with more heart and gusto than a lot of stories do. But again, what makes this movie so great is that it marries its enthusiasm with impeccable craft. One without the other, or with any less of any of its parts, would be a lesser film. Seriously, everything about this movie is awesome. Would have been nice for there to be some recognition.

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Quality and The Oscars

So it’s Oscar time. Which means award times. And, well, I’m mildly disappointed with some of the nominations. I find that movies, video games, and so on can’t be judged subjectively or comparatively. Least not on a flat scale of quality+writing+cinematography+explosions.

Here’s how I judge stuff: did it accomplish what it set out to do, and did it do it well? It’s an odd scale, yeah, but it’s one that works. Like Lincoln, the movie that snatched a dozen nominations: Spielberg set out to create the definitive cinematic biography of Linocln and the passage of the 13th Amendment. Not only did he accomplish that, he made it look good. So yes, Lincoln was a good movie.

In a similar but different vein, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter presented itself as a biography of Lincoln’s life, only this time vampires were woven in as the primary antagonist. Did it pull it off? Yep. Was it the dramatic/kickass action movie it billed itself as? Oh yes. So yes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was also a good movie. But it would never win an Oscar.

Do I want Lincoln to win Best Picture? No, not really. It’s a great movie, but it’s, well, it’s obvious. I guess Amour is too, though I haven’t seen it and won’t say anything. I’m going to watch Beasts of the Southern Wild sometime before tonight because I want to see it.

And the others? Zero Dark Thirty had the best portrayal of a military raid in cinema that I can think of. Not only did it follow proper procedure, but the whole way it was done gave it the tension and moral ambiguity that it deserved. Les Miserables was a great musical and definitely deserves the nod, but that’s about it.

I read Life of Pi seven years ago on a ship in Norway and enjoyed the book and the movie captured it perfectly. Lastly, Django Unchained is Tarantino being Tarantino, and hey, no complaints there. It’s not as good as Inglorious Basterds, but it’s not crap either.

That leaves Argo and Silver Linings Playbook and they’re my favorites of the nominees. Why?

Argo was different. It was a drama/thriller, but it was also funny. It was intense, but it remained fun without negating any of its intensity. Any idea how hard that is to pull off?

Then Silver Linings is about broken people and I love it because it takes a movie about a romance and gives it weight and worth. But it won’t win because it can be passed over as a romantic comedy and who’d want one of those to win? (Also: Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in that movie was fantastic)

So what movies would I want nominated and why? So glad you asked, dear reader, because you’ll find out.

Right off the bat: Skyfall. Yes, it’s a James Bond movie which means it shouldn’t win, but it’s just too dang good for it to not even be recognized. It’s smart, well made, and, hey, I’ve been over this before. At least we all know it’ll get the Oscar for Best Original Song.

My favorite movies of 2012 will forever be The Avengers (with Silver Linings second). Joss Whedon and crew set out to create an ensemble superhero movie and they pulled it off. At least give the man a writing nomination for being able to balance six main characters without any being terribly overshadowed. It’s simply a well made movie but gets precluded due to its ‘light’ subject matter. So no Oscar.

Beyond those two, Looper should’ve gotten a nod at least for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s makeup and Ted for special effects. The Cabin in the Woods had a wonderfully clever script, but we all knew it wouldn’t be nominated.

At the end of the day, though, doesn’t really matter who’d I want to win. Heck, I’ve never even watched the Oscars before (I will tomorrow, though). All they do is piss me off because the movies I want to win never win. I find them to be so… not predictable but routine. Up or District 9 or True Grit would never win because they were either genre or just too fun. By nature Oscar movies have to be better than other movies. Not The Dark Knight better than Batman and Robin sort of better, but rather the Lincoln better than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter better. Oscar movies need to be serious, maybe inspirational, but certainly dramatic; earnestness, spirit, and heart need not apply. But movies like Silver Linings Playbook and Argo have heart to spare.

Finally: If Paperman doesn’t win Best Animated Short I will strangle a baby narwhal.*

*Writer’s note: I will not strangle a baby narwhal due to a) my lack of access to a baby narwhal and 2) why would anyone want to strangle a baby narwhal (besides Paperman not winning)?

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