2013 awards season

Who Defines Film Culture: The Oscars or the MTV Movie Awards?

Host Conan O'Brien closes the show after Sam Claflin and Josh Hutcherson accepted the award for Best Movie of the Year for "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards in Los AngelesThe burden of guidance is so often placed upon the shoulders of the most youthful generation. After all, they are the future.

But, they’re also the first group we criticize when examining the state of things, and the last we feel safe putting our faith in. According to the old and wise, they’re either setting sail in the wrong direction or dragging the vessel down; the youth of the nation can’t catch a break.

And so enters MTV, which has served as perhaps the most reflective mirror of youth culture for over four decades. What began as an outlet for the naturally-countercultural voice of the young has become a mold that defines the youth mentality instead of complimenting and accenting its evolution. Creativity and music videos gave way to reality television and cheap trash, which only makes sense; the defining media source for the culture of youth must mimic the devolution of the younger generation from a pre-adult, naïve mass into a noisy, pots-and-pans banger of endlessly empty product and consumption. Regardless of the network’s level of quality, it’s timelessly synonymous with the demographic that anchors itself at the forefront of popular culture.

When MTV first began airing its now-annual Movie Awards in 1992, they offered an alternative to the adult-oriented culture of the Oscars. The 1990s saw a resurgence of the adult film, what with the likes of Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction and The Piano washing the bad taste of Chariots of Fire and Rocky out of the public’s mouth. Not since the 1970s had the film industry seen such a desire to release and market films to the older crowd. The public was hungry for maturity once again, so it only makes sense that MTV would step in with a youth-fueled alternative to the stuffy, graying status quo.

The MTV Movie Awards offered a timely chance for the general crowd-pleasers to find their stride and spotlight where the Oscars offered no shelter. The Oscars have always been more inclined to recognize adult-oriented fare,  and the MTV Movie Awards have always been there to crown things like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Wedding Crashers, or Napoleon Dynamite as the best film of the year.

The type of voter choosing the respective winners has always defined the gap between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards. The Academy is comprised predominantly of older white men who are professionals in the field, while the general public chooses the recipients of the MTV Movie Awards. Perhaps it’s here that lies the key to understanding the recent melding of the adult niche and popular appeal, only it’s not the MTV Movie Awards that are changing.

As a matter of fact, it’s the Academy that’s come to conform to the standards of the general public.

The MTV Movie Awards have very little changed their format over the years. There’s a Best Film category that shows little to no discrimination against any particular genre (films from The Matrix, Scream and The Ring to There’s Something About Mary, Bridesmaids, and JFK have each found nominations and/or wins here), whereas the Academy generally sticks to its dramatic guns when it comes to Best Picture. What does this tell us about the Oscars’ standing in American culture? That the Academy is often out of touch with popular mainstream culture—that is until you get to 2009, when the decision was made to expand the Best Picture category from five nominees to a maximum of ten. Five more slots meant five more chances for something like Avatar—2009’s James Cameron blockbuster—to partake in a race it normally would have only entered in the technical categories, as did MTV Best Pictures like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Matrix.

Generally, the MTV Movie Awards’ Best Picture category shares around 1-3 nominees with the Oscar Best Picture race, and often the MTV Movie Award winner isn’t even nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture (nor are the other nominees) and vice-versa. On three occasions a film has won top honors at both ceremonies in the same year. It began in 1997 with James Cameron’s Titanic, followed by Ridley Scott’s 2000 smash Gladiator, and then again with Peter Jackson’s 2003 epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Each of these films had an immense budget and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars internationally. They were perfect examples of when spectacle of screen and gross become far too big to ignore. The tide of Oscar voting was shifting to favor the crowd-pleaser over the artist.

mtv-movie-awardsThe rise of the blockbuster indicated a key turning point in the film industry; the disappearance of the adult-oriented film in favor of a big-budget spectacle. The blockbuster became par for the course instead of a singular event that came two or three times a year. The melding of the popular moneymakers with traditional Academy fare became ever more apparent when the Oscars—declining in viewership over the years—saw more and more big-budget films that would have normally only found traction with the MTV Movie Awards (District 9, The Blind Side, Avatar) began creeping into the Best Picture race.

The Oscars began their quest for all-inclusivity, which ultimately resulted in easy-to-swallow, non-polarizing, universal films like The Artist, Argo, and The King’s Speech to take Best Picture.

The streamlining of film culture into an amalgam of crowd-pleasers that resonate with adults and youth alike led to the increasing relevance of the MTV Movie Awards, which were once considered a useless appendage as a celebration of everything that was already gratuitous about Hollywood; cheap laughs, violence, spectacle, big stars, hot sex, and superficiality (what else can you expect from an awards show that contains a “Best Shirtless Performance” category?). With the rise of the $100-million grosser as the studio norm and the Oscars’ increasing pandering to a more generalized audience, the MTV Movie Awards complimented the industry’s shift toward flashiness over sophistication without evolving at all.

The MTV Movie Awards remain the one facet of the network that inserts its audience into mainstream culture instead of shaping their tastes for them; MTV executives seem to nominate films and performers that the target demographic has responded to in other ways (whether it be big box-office or social media interactions), and then lets the public vote to determine the winners. The MTV Movie Awards largely reflect the true general consensus of the average American moviegoer, where the Oscars now find themselves as the potential outcast caught between championing the adult film and appealing to the masses by recognizing popular films and performers.

It used to be that the rift between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards represented the split tastes of the American public. Today, the tentpoles that define summer and the crowd-pleasers that permeate the Oscar race often share recognition at both awards shows. There’s no need for the MTV Movie Awards to champion films that wouldn’t have a shot in the Oscar race; now there’s more room for everyone everywhere, and the culture at large is far more inclined to watch and tweet about three hours of bubblegum stars winning bubblegum awards at a bubblegum awards show that offers the same films up for grabs as the much-stuffier Oscar race.

Even recently, the Oscars are still a place where the adult film can flourish. Challenging pieces like Amour, The Tree of Life, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have proven that the Academy’s taste has not completely gone soft—and that this affinity can even propel little-seen, mature films to actually win Best Picture, like 2009’s The Hurt Locker. The problem is that the studio-shaped landscape is shifting so greatly that space for these films to grow and find an audience is shrinking by the day to the point where the Oscars are becoming the only place for films like this to succeed. For every Grand Budapest Hotel we get six of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though The Academy is likely to recognize both in categories with varying levels of esteem attached to them.

So, then, the MTV Movie Awards have separated themselves from the serious-minded awards groups without doing a single thing different over the course of their 22 years. They’ve become reflective of why our culture both works (the voice of the people, what with social media, has never been stronger) and what’s wrong with it (taste is far too often defined by the powers at large pushing dreck like superhero movies and big-budget blockbusters on a weekly basis so that they’re no longer event pictures but the standard). The MTV Movie Awards reflect the reality of our star-obsessed, instant-gratification culture far better than the Oscars do, and that’s evident by the way the Oscars have shifted their own categorical structuring since 2009 to include a wider range of films. The public demands more inclusivity as their wallets get bigger and their dollars more attracted to larger spectacles.

The people who watch the MTV Movie Awards are probably not the same ones who highly regard film awards in general. They’re the same people shelling out dollar after dollar to see blockbuster after blockbuster in quick succession; the audiences might be throwing their money at the same thing over and over, but it seems that MTV and their target demographic know which way to point the sails.

Their most recent Best Film winner (Catching Fire) also happens to be the top-grossing domestic film of the year, so it’s about time we start paying attention; they seem to know where the ships are docking.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Rayon, Ja’mie, and the Transitioning Face of Oscar?

27LETO1_SPAN-articleLarge-v2We’re conditioned to assume that identity and labels go hand in hand.

As consumers we pick at endless rows of grocery store displays, weaving in and out of a sea of familiarity in dozens of uniform rows across the immediate horizon.

Everything is there, and everything is convenient.

The way we digest movies largely follows the same pattern all the way through to awards season. Films are produced, they’re released, and they’re marketed to specific audiences. They succeed or they fail.

It’s funny that studios seem to process us the way we gobble up their films. We fall into demographics, clusters of numbers, ages, attendance figures and statistics; labels placed upon us so they can determine which standards of beauty to uphold and which norms to re-enforce. Anything to make a buck on the status quo.

Oscar campaigns seek to funnel those we see onscreen (and those who craft the fantasy from behind the lens) into their respective categories, to be voted on by the Academy, which bestows a prestigious label on one member from each category: victor.

One thing that hasn’t been a luxury of convenience is the avenue of expression the minority voice has at its immediate disposal. In 2014, teenagers in Florida are being murdered for being black and listening to loud music; in Texas, those who oppose the state’s ban on same-sex marriage face majority opposition to the tune of 57% percent (according to a survey by Public Policy Polling).

As much as movie studios and television networks treat their demographics like guaranteed, sliced-and-served morsels, people are not wonderbread slapped onto a shelf or saccharine pudding fudged into tiny plastic squares.

Labels have become a tool for both sides of the debate. For the oppressed, labels identify their “other”-ness and embrace it; for the oppressor, they’re used to alienate.

It seems that the very industry within which minorities often find their voice also comes under the most scrutiny for upholding societal standards. Big-budget films and the studios which release them generally funnel their products into four affective categories, films that:

a) Ignore minority existence, whether intentionally or unintentionally

b) Bolster traditional gender, race, and identity roles because that’s what the dominant majority is used to

or

c) Both

2013 saw the release (and triumph) of three prominent black-themed, black-created films that bucked the system: Lee Daniels’ The Butler proved that “black” subject matter has commercial staying power; Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station won the hearts of audiences and critics alike, storming critics circle awards at the end of the year; Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is on the verge of potentially becoming the first black-themed film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The clout is undeniable, and the tide seems to be turning in the favor of a “New Black Cinema” movement of sorts.

The voice of the LGBT community is one that shares the spotlight of inequality, yet is often misunderstood by the dominant majority far more than racial minorities. For every The Butler, there are twelve Blue is the Warmest Color controversies; sexual stigma follows simply follows gay-themed films, and we as consumers and critics have ourselves to blame.

The Oscars aren’t innocent on this front, either. So blatantly was the tide of 2005’s awards season turned against Brokeback Mountain when Crash took the Academy’s top honor out from under it. Is the Academy ready to hear the LGBT voice beyond decorating heterosexual actors taking on the “ever-courageous” task of playing *gasp* a gay character?

Dallas Buyers Club, a 2013 film nominated for six awards at the upcoming Oscars, seems like the perfect transitional film for a still all-white, still prominently-heterosexual, still predominantly-male voting base not unlike the one which upset Brokeback Mountain at a time when history could have been made.

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic, bigoted man in Texas who contracts AIDS as a result of his promiscuous, drug-using ways.

Using Ron’s homophobia as a base, the film then systematically deconstructs his fear of the LGBT community as he copes with his diagnosis. His struggle with AIDS is closely mirrored by that of Rayon’s (Jared Leto), a transwoman he met while at the hospital. Initially hostile toward her, Ron’s relationship with Rayon is further founded on the prospect of business (he eventually uses her to sell non-approved treatments for AIDS-related ailments on the street), and the hostility he feels toward the gay community lessens to the point where he actively campaigns against the FDA and its regulations.

The film sort of passed with the Academy because of the general “safeness” of its plot. In their eyes, it’s ok for old white men to like this film, seeing as its protagonist is a heterosexual male who “enters” the gay community for personal gain, using a transgender woman as a tool for business instead of, say, enjoying her company. The gay community is seen as an impenetrable barrier or obstacle for Ron. He doesn’t want to associate with it, but bites the bullet for a quick buck.

His tune changes, though, and he quickly forms a friendly bond with Rayon. In one powerful scene that takes place as the pair shop at a grocery store, surrounded by uniform displays and generic products soldiered next to each other in perfectly-aligned fashion, Ron forces a bigoted former-friend to shake Rayon’s hand. It’s a beautiful scene which cements the equal-plane understanding of each character. Rayon shows Ron a side of himself he didn’t think existed, and Ron shows her an equal ally in the battle against discrimination, as he now knows what it’s like to be discriminated against.

It’s not merely the presence of a trans character that makes Dallas Buyers Club such a revolutionary film. Rather, it’s the screenplay’s unwillingness to let Rayon become defined by her status as a transwoman that allows the film to thrive.

Whereas a film like The Crying Game (an Oscar favorite in its respective year) toys with gender identity as a thematic device to give the film some edge, Dallas Buyers Club‘s screenplay never bullshits Rayon’s existence, doesn’t shove her into any boxes, and certainly doesn’t confine her to heroic status because of her identity. She is not a object of LGBT championing, nor is she an “other”: she’s simply a character.

Rayon is defined by her attitude, her assholish (if you will) demeanor, and the fact that she’s allowed to be herself, which is an imperfect person not merely defined by her sexuality. The fact that she’s allowed to be flawed beyond what the hetero-normative perspective would immediately label a “flaw” (her transsexuality) is where the character succeeds as a positive presence for the LGBT community in film.

While Ron’s’s relationship with her deepens as the film goes on, it’s never motivated by anything more than the bond of friendship.

While Ron is doing a service to gay community, Rayon is never seen as needing a straight man to save or defend her. She’s secure in herself enough to maintain a grasp on equality within their relationship. Issues of “queerness” aren’t at the forefront of her character. She sees Ron as a friend, doesn’t let his sexuality (or what his demeanor and dress would suggest about his “straightness” to a stereotypical mind) precede him, and initially approaches him out of kindness without fear as they both lay in hospital beds, for disease knows no socially-coded bounds.

Rayon’s eventual death is deeply disturbing. We spend so much time with Rayon, absorbing her flaws, watching her paint her face and create the reality she desires that the world won’t let her have without burden. In her dying moments, she remains true to herself. We see quick, abstract shots of her reaching for a mirror and makeup; not as a means to put on a fake face, but to cement her life’s purpose with the identity she embraced, even in death.

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Another unlikely face that (sort of) destigmatized the LGBT community in 2013 was Australian writer-director-actor Chris Lilley and his brilliant mockumentary series “Ja’mie: Private School Girl.” 

The series follows Ja’mie King (Lilley), a 16-year old private school student and her attempts to garner her institution’s most prestigious award, the Hilford Medal. Of course, Ja’mie’s pursuit is offset by her miserably evil ways. The show comes off at once as commentary on the ever-increasing superficiality of the world’s youth, but never emphasizes the fact that its title character is played by a 40-year old man.

Most American critics bashed the series, labeling it a transphobic assault of sorts, insisting that it prompted viewers to see Ja’mie as a monstrous other simply because a male actor happened to play her part.

First of all, the American media and entertainment industry hardly carry the torch for the LGBT community in a way that gives them the right to suddenly defend what they perceive to be unfair representation. Second, the genius of the series lies within Lilly’s abilities as an actor, not his creative decision to don women’s clothing.

There’s a brilliant believability in his mannerisms as he encapsulates and transforms into a 16-year old girl. From the way he maintains childish aura to the attitude, the dialect, the cultural understanding of a younger generation gone sour is embodied in the character. It’s not drag for the sake of poking fun at a man in women’s clothing, it’s simply appealing for Lilley’s ability to become a character he’s created. It’s acting in its finest form. 

The show insists on not placing Ja’mie in situations where the gender-bending would be an easy joke. Instead of seeing a person of trans identity, we’re forced to see Ja’mie as the terrible, manipulative, angry, evil, juvenile, judgmental person that she is. Her actions transcend her physicality. The show doesn’t rely on its lazy, would-be crutch to succeed. 

Whereas Rayon represents the progressive face of transpeople in cinema, Ja’mie’s appeal lies more in how the character is digested by audiences versus the content of the show. The de-emphasis on the fact that it’s “drag” has audiences focusing on more important aspects of her character: how she treats people, how she manipulates every dynamic of her life, and the pure comedic wit of Lilley’s writing.

Australian audiences adore the series, as their audiences are generally able to understand the appeal versus identifying its most superficial parts and ripping them apart because it’s easy to. American audiences–especially those watching movies–could benefit from adopting this mindset.

So, does Jared Leto’s status as a frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actor category speak more to the Academy’s diversifying tastes, or does it speak more to the Academy’s long-standing view of straight men playing queer characters as heroic or stepping beyond their bounds?

I think it’s easier to gauge the Academy’s stance by looking at the Best Actor category, where Matthew McConaughey is currently predicted to win by nearly every major Oscar pundit. In a sense, Ron is the Academy. He represents the old-fashioned, traditional way of thinking that’s made the Oscars a confluence of the same opinion for the past 85 ceremonies.

Dallas Buyers Club represents a point of reference for these members. They can reject his transformation, or accept the minority voice the diversifying Academy around them is attempting to amplify.

Until the envelopes are opened, let’s hope they inspect the mirror as carefully as Rayon and Ja’mie do, or force audiences to do.

No one likes the old white boys’ club label anymore, anyway.

Tomorrow: DGA Decides Who Lives and Who Dies in the Race – 6 Directors to Watch

ryan-coogler-2-fruitvale-stationAll eyes are on the Directors Guild of America to sift through the murky depths of the 2013 awards season and bring some much-needed clarity.

Sitting firmly at the tail-end of the major precursor nomination timeline, the DGA is usually the wisest of the group. I get the sense that they vote with their hearts a great deal of the time, favoring grand, difficult, complex works which reflect the best of their faction–at least they have for the past 10 years or so.

While clarity is the last thing the DGA brought us last year–they actually broke a 9-year streak of agreeing with the Oscar winner by giving Ben Affleck (who wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar) their top prize for feature film–their nominations will help whittle the current race down to a solid crop of contenders.

Things to look out for tomorrow, when the DGA announces its annual nominees:

1) Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis has had a rough week. Days ago, they missed out on any love from the Producers Guild. Shortly thereafter, though, they nearly swept the National Society of Film Crtics’ awards. The film is polarizing audiences and industry figures alike, as the critics seem to love it, but the guilds are hesitant to reward such a peculiar, subtle film.

The highs and lows the film has seen over the last month don’t bode well for its once-promising position as a prime Oscar contender. The DGA aren’t fond of the Coens. They’ve won once for 2007’s No Country for Old Men, and Joel was nominated for Fargo in 1996. True Grit missed out on a nomination entirely, as did A Single Man, both of which were Best Picture contenders within their respective years. If Inside Llewyn Davis misses a nomination here, the film’s Oscar chances will drop drastically.

2) Ryan Coogler and 3) Lee Daniels

Along with Steve McQueen, both Coogler and Daniels have helped make 2013 a historic year for black filmmakers. Each has directed a film that was highly influential. Coogler’s Fruitvale Station riled overwhelming critical and precursor support (its name has consistently shown up everywhere from honorary critics’ awards to the Independent Spirit nominations).

Daniels’ The Butler might not be on the same trajectory to Oscar greatness as McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it has solidified itself as a legitimate hit with audiences worldwide, grossing $116 million domestically and another $45 million around the globe. Daniels has also established himself as perhaps the most prominent black filmmaker of the modern age, what with his 2009 film Precious also garnering intense awards season love. Both Coogler and Daniels represent the shifting landscape of American cinema, where black films and filmmakers are no longer voices the American public are afraid to hear, but rather ones they are willing to shell out money to see on more than just a fluke basis.

Daniels’ film is an epic of vast proportions, encompassing a huge ensemble cast (that was nominated over with the SAG, mind you), and shows the director’s ability to effectively helm material with a gargantuan scope. Coogler’s film is a bit small for the DGA’s taste, but Daniels could very well prove to squeak a nomination out of a guild that favors drama and spectacle not unlike that which he gave us with The Butler.

4) Alfonso Cuaron and 5) Steve McQueen

Both filmmakers have dominated the Best Director discussion since their respective films wowed festivalgoers at Telluride, Toronto, and Venice late last year. Both helmed fantastic films, and will become first-time DGA nominees tomorrow morning. The only problem is that their films are vastly different.

Gravity is a showy spectacle for the most part (not to discount its thematic and visual metaphors running throughout the film), while 12 Years a Slave is a challenging, gritty masterwork that remains firmly rooted in an emotional tone that lacks the grandiose, loud, overwhelming visual presence of Gravity. My money is on Cuaron for the win, but McQueen’s story would fit nicely into the narrative the Academy would like to weave (McQueen would be the first black director to win at the DGA or the Oscars, or both) what with their evolving image, membership, and taste.

Gravity fits within a narrative as well. In a year where, for the first time since 1997, a film with a female-driven performance rules yearly U.S. box-office (Catching Fire today surpassed Iron Man 3 as the year’s top-grosser), the Sandra Bullock-driven, one-woman show that is Gravity would be a welcome Best Picture winner for the Academy’s diversifying image. The DGA nominations for both men will tomorrow cement their positions as leaders within the race.

6) David O. Russell

Only nominated here once before (for The Fighter), even Russell’s heyday failed to impress the DGA. Even as Silver Linings Playbook swept the early awards discussion in 2012, his name was left off of DGA ballots in favor of Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, and Ben Affleck (Lee and Spielberg had been locks for quite some time). This year, his monumental achievement American Hustle is far too big for the DGA to ignore. He’s played the Oscar game so well, crafting three drastically different films over the course of four years, showing range, dynamism, and an ability to get three Oscar-winning performances out of his casts (along with another four acting nominations for other cast members). His on-set antics undoubtedly rub many directors the wrong way, but his achievements are no less significant. A nomination here will further fuel American Hustle‘s position as one of the top three contenders for Best Picture.

Though the DGA has little clout over Oscar nominations with the recent date changes (their announcement comes only one day before Oscar ballots are due), their crossover membership with the Academy is generally good for influencing winners once Oscar nominees are announced.

The Directors branch of the Academy tends to favor more independent, smaller films than the DGA, most likely because the guild itself is for the advancement of their craft, and showy films like Avatar or Argo encompass vast sources from all reaches of the industry, and people can easily see the spectacle a showy director creates. This is how you explain Tom Hooper getting in for Les Miserables last year over the likes of eventual Oscar nominees Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke.

The issue of Martin Scorsese has come up a lot, as well, and I just don’t see him making it into the race this year. His film is polarizing, and the film was released far too late in the year to have been a legitimate awards contender. Recognition for the film will come for the picture as a whole  when the Academy nominates it for Best Picture, a broad inclusion that doesn’t pinpoint anything specific is the least controversial route to go. Honoring Marty with a nomination implies that they agree with the film and its trajectory as a thematic vehicle, not just as a spectacle of superb film direction.

My predictions for tomorrow’s DGA nominations, ranked in order of potential:
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National Board of Review Announces Winners: ‘Gravity’ Hurts, ‘Her’ Soars Into the Race

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The National Board of review has announced its annual list of year-end bests, moving in a drastically different direction than yesterday’s New York Film Critics Circle Awards, crowning Spike Jonze and his film Her with its top two honors.

The NBR generally tends to favor showy titles, big names, big budgets, and audience-friendly fare, which makes it entirely surprising that Gravity–a film right up the NBR alley–walks away with only a special achievement award here. If Gravity‘s finds little success with the LAFCC later this week, its chances at its previously-expected Oscar glory might plummet, though I have faith that the HFPA will eat the film up in its dramatic categories.

Gravity could also prove to have been a mid-season fluke. Its existence as a massive box-office success helmed almost entirely by an Oscar-winning actress (one of the most powerful in Hollywood, mind you) might have bogged the film down with unrealistic expectations that were entirely ahead of themselves just before awards season.

Gravity is, compared to other films in the race, a crowd-pleasing stroke of surface entertainment. It delves beyond the surface if you’re willing to look, but seeing through to its thematic/metaphorical structure isn’t necessary to enjoy the film. It’s still a lock in key technical categories.

The one thing that’s remained consistent throughout the precursor awards is an outpouring of love for Ryan Coogler and his Fruitvale Station. Though it seems to be sweeping minor categories (directorial debuts, breakthrough performances), it’s becoming clear that there’s a passionate push behind the film that extends into other areas, as Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer have been recognized by the Film Independent Spirit Awards and NBR, respectively.

So far, Coogler’s film has received honors and nominations from Sundance, Cannes, the Gotham Awards, the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the NYFCC, the Satellite Awards, and now from the NBR. It would be a huge mistake to discount Fruitvale Station‘s chances in the Oscar category for Best Picture.

Sarah Polley adds another win to the ongoing tally for her documentary Stories We Tell, which is now poised as the frontrunner in the Best Documentary Feature category.

Last year, the National Board of Review honored Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty with multiple awards (including for her Direction and Jessica Chastain’s lead performance), though it fell just short of Oscar glory thanks to an ugly political agenda aiming for its demise. Whereas the critics circles tend to exist in their own world (somewhat exemplified by the NYFCC’s love for American Hustle), the NBR usually takes a few steps further, throwing in random mass-appealers (Lone Survivor this year) year after year, or pushing an unexpected film to the forefront of the discussion.

Will the NBR’s push for Her extend the film’s reach into big categories at the Oscars? Maybe. We’ve only just witnessed the opening of the gates, and Her is now positioned for a healthy run.

Top 10 Films (in alphabetical order):

12 Years a Slave

Fruitvale Station

Gravity

Inside Llewyn Davis

Lone Survivor

Nebraska

Prisoners

Saving Mr. Banks

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Wolf of Wall Street

Best FilmHer

Best Director: Spike Jonze, Her

Best Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Best Actress: Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Supporting Actor: Will Forte, Nebraska

Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station

Best Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Adapted Screenplay: Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises

Breakthrough Performance: Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station

Breakthrough Performance: Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color

Best Directorial Debut: Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station

Best Foreign Language Film: The Past

Best Documentary: Stories We Tell

Best Ensemble: Prisoners

Oscar Season Diary #4: When Will the Fantasy End? “Captain Phillips” and the New American Dream

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For the better half of the last decade, The Academy has gone soft.

Argo ends as we gaze upon the quintessential American family embracing amidst the backdrop of a glistening sun and oversized American flag. The Artist concludes with a pair of beaming smiles, aimed like saccharine arrows poised to pierce our helpless hearts with undying hope.

Both films are fantasies, and both reaffirm what only cinema can; that painful reality is pitifully easy to forget, even when it surrounds us each and every day.

Zero Dark Thirty’s final shot shows a dead-tired woman unraveling before our very eyes, crushed by the lack of relief she feels after pouring years of her life into finding and killing the most-wanted man in the world. In its final moments, Captain Phillips dares to toy with the idea that American heroism is a mirage bolstered only by ignorance and virus-like corporate domination of the international economy. While the former’s chance at Oscar’s top prize were dashed thanks to the irresponsibly harsh political campaign against it, the latter seems similarly destined to find itself among Oscar’s forgotten contenders when envelopes are opened early next year. Both films challenge us in places where Best Picture winners like The Artist and Argo dared not to tread.

With hard-hitting dramas like 12 Years a Slave garnering the overwhelming majority of Oscar buzz, it’s clear that The Academy might finally (for the first time since 2009) be obligated to choose a film that represents a relevant sense of reality versus the abnormally glossy one they’ve favored for years, and the conclusion can’t be drawn merely at the Best Picture line.

Where Argo celebrates American triumph, Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips embody a much darker, tangible pessimism in their refusal to herald classical American heroism. Zero Dark Thirty failed to receive its deserved share of Oscar attention. Will the story be different for Captain Phillips? Perhaps, though it is a far more challenging film that reflects a mentality the Oscars will have to deal with at one point or another.

These films—Captain Phillips, in particular—usher in the New American Dream, one that’s wrangled itself free from the grasp of US hands and into those whose existence lingers far outside the casual American’s radar. Somali pirates (like the ones in Captain Phillips) are a prime example of this.

We’re introduced to Muse, Bilal, and Najee, a trio of fishermen living in poverty on the beaches of Somalia. The waters before them teem with international trade routes, largely controlled by the United States’ almost tyrannical presence. These fishermen don’t let this domination keep them down, however, as they set out to overtake US ships and reap the bounties of their cargo.

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These men see America as not only an intrusive presence, but as something to be conquered. Filtered through this foreign perspective, the New American Dream evolves beyond merely being a goal-oriented journey to better opportunity. For Bilal, Muse, and Najee, it is a challenge; a plague; a virus; something that can be contained and conquered, as Muse reminds us that he “can handle America,” speaking of it as a single entity, brushing off a gargantuan presence as if it were a pesky housefly.

Once aboard Phillips’ ship, these men demand two things: money and honesty. “No games,” Muse, a stern-faced and determined leader with little inclination to cause bodily harm, consistently reminds Phillips. These men are here to do business, to bring back a portion of wealth that traverses their home waters on a daily basis, and to assert themselves as a minority of the world population that refuse to disappear under the boot of America.

While the three pirates come to represent various aspects of the anti-American worldview (rage, yearning for national prosperity, and those lost in the struggle between the two positions) the film as a whole represents the underlying fear Americans have but rarely have to confront in their everyday lives: that those we deem “weak,” that we fancy ourselves “untouchable” to, harness a primal power which threatens the footing upon which we stand. In contrast, we see that Americans are willing to do less work for more, as Phillips’ men refuse to defend the ship because they’re “in the union” and “didn’t sign up for this,” as poor Somali men scale their vessel–without shoes.

It’s interesting that in such a short amount of time, now nearly a year after Kathryn Bigelow’s sophomore effort opened to #1 at the box-office (well on its way to nearly $100 million domestically), that the American public seems to be embracing challenging alternatives to the male-dominated, male-marketed norm. Despite typical hits like Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2, American audiences have proven that a yearning for alternative films is ever-present. We saw success stories for women (The Heat, Gravity, The Conjuring—nearly every “original” title to open to over $34 million in weekend receipts was female-oriented or driven by a female star [or stars]) and watched adult-oriented dramas climb their way to box-office success (Prisoners peaked at $60 million, Now You See Me quietly made over $100 million).

Captain Phillips seems poised to break $100 million within the next few weeks, and 12 Years a Slave has enough awards push behind it to cross into healthy $50 or $60 million territory by the time the Oscars roll around.

My only problem continues to be audience reception of these films. I can remember audiences clapping at the end of Zero Dark Thirty and, again, at my screening of Captain Phillips. I continue to be disturbed by this behavior, as both films position America as an almost evil entity that’s to be feared for its ruthless manipulation of so many outlets and people.

The Americans in Captain Phillips ignore the pirates’ willingness to cooperate by playing games and manipulating, which directly opposes Muse’s only condition for complying in the first place. After heading the operation to successfully kill Osama bin Laden, Maya sits on an airplane, alone, and weeps to herself after the pilot asks her where she’d like to go. Her tears stand for the anxieties about America’s position in the world. Where do we go from here? How do we face life when the evils of America’s reach become personal? We see the effects of America’s domination in Captain Phillips. “There’s got to be some other way to solve this,” Phillips says to Muse. “Maybe in America,” he responds, for once acknowledging the fantasyland that the nation has become.

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The Academy rarely plays with challenge. Their voting base seems, to me, like the kind of people who would clap at the end of Captain Phillips because an American “hero” survives. I’m the kind of person who sees the last shots of the film for what they are. I can’t watch as a close-up on the tiny lifeboat where the pirates lost their lives becomes an extreme long shot that positions three large American vessels on all sides, cementing US domination as an unrelenting, soulless presence on the world stage.

It’s scary and unnerving. I hope The Academy will learn to see through the veil of American entitlement if it chooses to award Captain Phillips with anything.

Awards for heroism it does not deserve; recognition for lifting the wool Argo seeks to pull down, however, would be most appropriate.