2013

Year of the Survivor: Top 25 Films of 2013 + My Personal Awards

blue-is-the-warmest-color 1We’re all in the game to survive.

Film is often our societal mirror, an artistic outlet that serves as a sort of catharsis for those who make it as well as those who view it. Our own survival removes itself from the forefront of our momentary occupation in those dark hours spent in a movie theater. We transfer love, hope, and resilience to those onscreen.

The characters are us, and we are them.

We hope that they survive, and our happiness becomes theirs. There’s a powerful balance between reality and fiction, and that’s where the power of film lies.

2013 gave us a multitude of characters concerned with the art of preserving the current, restoring that which was lost, or pushing beyond their means to something greater than their life’s trajectory would have ever encompassed otherwise. 2013 was the year of the survivor.

12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Fruitvale Station tell us of the will to survive in a society that deems you unworthy. At a time when the bigger war of racial equality has long since died, small battles of minority injustice wage across our nation. Black teenagers are shot for playing “thug” music too loud. Homosexuals are subjected to religiously-fueled hatred and ignorance, some of which has crept its way into potential laws in states like Arizona and Kansas. Survival is not the same for each of us. Normalcy is not universally objective.

2013’s films, however, put a face on so many minority issues.

12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Fruitvale Station are not films merely directed by black men, rather they’re stories that connect to the American culture as told through black characters and black filmmakers. They’re not “white” stories directed by black men, nor are they “black” stories directed by white men, as we’re so used to seeing. There’s an authenticity here that works within and outside of Oscar season, that gives validity to the voice as it pours forth from the source of inequality in an industry where for every black man that directs a film, twenty white men are directing others.

The thing about 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station is that they both are both based on actual events, yet bear cultural relevance to the society around them. 12 Years a Slave forces us to see slavery not as a black-and-white photo collection in a textbook, but as a tangible precursor to what we must deal with at a time where racial injustice is still a very real part of our culture (Fruitvale Station radiates a similar sentiment).

Survival for Dr. Ryan Stone in in Gravity takes the form of physical preservation and spiritual rebirth. In the film, we see a woman, lost in space, fighting for her physical existence while coming face to face with the spiritual turmoil brought on by the loss of her daughter years ago. By the film’s end, she is reborn both physically and emotionally after being violently cradled, in a sense, by her astronomical surroundings, ready to take on the world as a toddler taking its first steps when she finally reaches earth.

The Broken Circle Breakdown echoes the pains of loss and redemption that Gravity unearths, exploring the relationship between a man, woman, and their terminally ill daughter, all strung together by their affinity for music. The film forces its characters to weigh the importance of personal conviction versus love for another, powerfully pitting them against their desire to give their lover what they want, but failing to secure what they need. Feeling helpless, hopeless, and beyond repair is something we’re all familiar with, and The Broken Circle Breakdown makes the fragility of life and the burden of survival a beautiful disaster to see unfold.

Still, 2013 gave us films where characters succeed and prosper. Philomena, Short Term 12, and Stories We Tell weave intricate portraits of people broken down by their past and a failure to feel secure with “belonging” any place or with anyone, but who find strength through discovery of themselves through the eyes of others. The impact of one life on another is never more powerfully represented than it is in these films, and survival with peace of mind becomes essential to their subjects.

storieswetell13900x506Then, of course, we have the documentaries which hold a mirror to us as an audience. As we watch a daring filmmaker, Sarah Polley, unearth the secrets of her family’s history, we bathe in the fruits of her intensely personal labor that is Stories We Tell. With painstaking precision and care, Polley digs through her past to unearth a new reality for herself, one which essentially severed blood ties with the people she grew up with, as she discovers that the man who raised her is not biologically her father.

Blackfish taps into our innate desires to watch, to indulge in the visual, and to be entertained, but also brings us to question the basic human desire to conquer that which is bigger than us (in this case, SeaWorld’s enslavement of aquatic mammals). The Act of Killing examines the cruelty of humans unto each other, and how we can at once be so concerned with the preservation of security–as we define it for ourselves–that we let darkness consume our very being.

Chances are that these films will cement themselves in popular, critical, and scholarly culture for years to come. However, the most important films of 2013 are those which tap into film’s inherent nature as an art that discriminates against no one, as the power of storytelling is not specific to any one race, culture, or voice.

While 12 Years a Slave is an important film capping off a monumental year for black filmmakers in the industry, the importance of a film like Blue is thWarmest Color–by far the year’s best–cannot be ignored. While the LGBT faces discrimination around the world, the film is a welcome celebration of the highs, lows, ugly, and beautiful bits of unabashed love that knows only passion and sincerity, not gender.

It’s a film that doesn’t so much as challenge us, but invites us to indulge in its splendor, plunging us into the depths of the relationship between a young woman, Adele, on the road to maturation (Adele Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Lea Seydoux) an artist with a budding career.

We go along for the ride as Adele’s sexual and spiritual awakening unfolds. The film brilliantly frames her at once as a child–eating sloppily from plates her mother has prepared, bickering with classmates–and as a sexually-adventurous, fully-developed woman engaged in explicit sexual acts.

It’s a highly visual film with complex cinematography, riding on the strengths of the lushness of its stars, its images, and emotional affect. It isn’t afraid to be a film that you want to drink, to tempt you through feeling versus wordiness and intellect. It’s a film you must surrender yourself to, and fall into its warm (sometimes painful) embrace to experience the journey of its characters.

While the film contains explicit sexual content, its treatment at the hands of American audiences speaks volumes about things our culture needs to change. Prudish conservative mentalities will see only the sex and not the passion. They will see only the gender and not the love. They will see only the faults of the characters, and not the foolish, charming power of becoming lost in another person, unable to control our desires or pull ourselves out of the depths even as we drown.

Blue is the Warmest Color is, at once, an uninhibited portrayal of a type of love and attraction which transcends gender, though it is an important film for the increasing presence of the LGBT community in all aspects of life, and it must be regarded and defined by its pure representation of its characters’ relationship, as it’s a film that doesn’t insist upon defining itself by their gender.

An NC-17 rating (which it received in the United States) suggests that there’s something evil within its three-hour runtime, that there’s something unnaturally burdensome that the film carries and seeks to spread, but the only evil here is to let superficial factors (rating, lengthy runtime) dissuade you from enveloping yourself in the warm embrace of the finest film of the year.

Though Adele embarks on a journey to find clarity amidst a life of confusion, intense passion, regret, love lost, and emotional expenditure, the film cuts us loose from her without a clear resolution so much as reassurance that she’s grasped the experience of it all, which finally sees her becoming an adult by the film’s end. No more messy spaghetti curled around her lips. No more chewing with her mouth open. No more grappling with her insecurities as a child traversing the uneven terrain of maturity.

We gather that Adele, as she walks away from the frame after accepting that her lost lover has moved on, is on an uncertain path. Where she’s going is anyone’s guess, but we are certain that, unlike a stubborn child, she has learned something. But, most of all, she’s recognized and (somewhat) acquired the tools she needs to keep on surviving, even if a small part of her heart was lost in the battle.

Top 25 Best Films of 2013:
25 – 20 Feet From Stardom
24 – All Is Lost
23 – Spring Breakers
22 – Enough Said
21 – Captain Phillips
20 – Dallas Buyers Club
19 – Blackfish
18 – Fruitvale Station
17 – Prisoners
16 – The Place Beyond the Pines
15 – Frances Ha
14 – Stoker
13 – Blue Jasmine
12 – 12 Years a Slave
11 – The Hunt
10 – Stories We Tell
9 – Nebraska
8 – The Wolf of Wall Street
7 – The Act of Killing
6 – Her
5 – Inside Llewyn Davis
4 – Gravity
3 – Short Term 12
2 – The Broken Circle Breakdown
1 – Blue is the Warmest Color

gravity-alfonso-cuaron-george-clooney-set-imageBest Director:
1) Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
2) Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street
3) Sarah Polley – Stories We Tell
4) Joel & Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis
5) Felix Van Groeningen – The Broken Circle Breakdown
6) Harmony Korine – Spring Breakers

ht_leonardo_dicaprio_wolf_of_wall_street_ll_130617_wblogBest Actor:
1) Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
2) Johan Heldenbergh – The Broken Circle Breakdown
3) Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
4) Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
5) Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
6) Hugh Jackman – Prisoners

cate_blanchett_blue_jasmine bannerBest Actress:
1) Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
2) Adele Exarchopoulos – Blue is the Warmest Color
3) Veerle Baetens – The Broken Circle Breakdown
4) Meryl Streep – August: Osage County
5) Julia Louis Dreyfus – Enough Said
6) Lauren Ambrose – About Sunny

Screen-Shot-2013-07-16-at-12.32.57-AM-600x369Best Supporting Actor:
1) Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
2) Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
3) Keith Stanfield – Short Term 12
4) Casey Affleck – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
5) Bruce Dern – Nebraska
6) Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street

Still-5Best Supporting Actress:
1) Lea Seydoux – Blue is the Warmest Color
2) Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
3) Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
4) Kristin Scott Thomas – Only God Forgives
5) Oprah Winfrey – Lee Daniels’ The Butler
6) Scarlett Johansson – Don Jon

HERBest Screenplay:
1)
Her
2) The Wolf of Wall Street
3) Inside Llewyn Davis
4) Frances Ha
5) Blue Jasmine
6) Nebraska

gravity1Best Cinematography:
1) Gravity
2) Stoker
3) Blue is the Warmest Color
4) Inside Llewyn Davis
5) To the Wonder
6) The Grandmaster
7) Upstream Color

The-Wolf-of-Wall-Street-Trailer7aBest Film Editing:
1) The Wolf of Wall Street
2) 12 Years a Slave
3) Inside Llewyn Davis
4) Stoker
5) All Is Lost
6) Gravity

blue-is-the-warmest-color-movieBest Foreign Film:
1) Blue is the Warmest Color
2) The Broken Circle Breakdown
3) The Act of Killing
4) The Hunt
5) The Grandmaster
6) Bastards

343330995_640Best Documentary Feature:
1) The Act of Killing
2) Stories We Tell
3) Blackfish
4) 20 Feet From Stardom

GravitySpaceStationExplodeShottsr4Best Visual Effects:
1)
Gravity
2) Pacific Rim
3) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
4) Man of Steel
5) This Is The End

rs_560x415-130824183357-1024.Grandmaster6.mh.082413Best Costume Design:
1) The Grandmaster
2) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
3) 12 Years a Slave
4) Her
5) American Hustle

pic_article_story_mainBest Production Design:
1) The Grandmaster
2) Gravity
3) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
4) Her
5) The Great Gatsby
6) Pacific Rim

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The Evils of Passivity; “Blackfish” and Viewer Duty

blackfish

We’re so very good at viewing.

It’s in our nature. Our eyes desire motion for consumption, drawn to kinetic energy in a magnetic bond too powerful to describe. It’s an ugly truth that what fascinates us is most often something elusive to our grasp. Mystery equals wonder, and wonder equals desire.  As humans, it’s also in our nature to actively seek out that which beckons our interest, even if it’s dangerous. Killer whales, like the ones at the heart of the rousing Blackfish, fit into a dangerous mold; they are a combination of spectacle and overwhelming power we cannot–and were never meant to–control.

The recently-released documentary by Gabriela Cowperhwaite, Blackfish, shows us how SeaWorld parks around the country have removed an essential part of the equation of spectacle. They’ve made it easy for us to view these animals as nothing more than 12,000-pound toys, ripping them from their homes in the wild to display them for our sense of bewonderment. SeaWorld marketing has conditioned us to accept them as larger-than-life plush dolls living happily ever after in the dream that is by all means simply a concrete jail cell for our entertainment.

But, we live for the spectacle of their performance. To consume spectacle is to be human, and harnessing the power of spectacle inflates our egos that much more. It’s not like they were modestly-sized in the first place. To assume that, as we see in the first twenty minutes of Blackfish, we are entitled so much as to pluck these beautiful creatures from their homes in the wild in the first place is a moral sin in itself. We see grown men, hardened from years of regret, crying onscreen as they recount the sounds of wild Orca wailing for their young. Regret is a testament to evil, and SeaWorld has a lot of explaining to do for their despicable actions.

Blackfish does its best to remain a barrage of facts and firsthand testimony versus a sledgehammering of an angled agenda. We’re given the facts. We’re spoken to as straightforward as possible. We’re presented evidence to refute our pre-conceived ideas about happiness as as synonym for SeaWorld and its various parks. If you can think for yourself, you’ll see that there are two villains at the conclusion of Blackfish; One is obviously SeaWorld management. Park officials covered up the bloody track-record of Tilikum, a massive breeder Orca, before he killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010 during a routine performance. He’d killed two other people prior to Brancheau’s death, yet SeaWorld management sees it beneficial to keep him around, literally milking him for sperm to produce countless offspring for their other parks. They fudge facts, feeding their visitors bullshit about Orcas living longer in captivity than in the wild; that dorsal fin collapse is normal; They even strip young whales away from their parents, though Orcas are known to be some of the (if not the most) socially-dependant creatures on earth. In fact, if there ever was a scene that has the potential to haunt those who see it for the rest of their lives, it comes about halfway through Blackfish when a mother whale’s cries for its daughter, whom SeaWorld management chose to move to another park thousands of miles away. There’s no skimping around what SeaWorld is doing. It’s cornering the market on abuse, and we’re eating it up all so Jimmy and Susie can be entertained for ten minutes while on vacation.

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It then becomes clear that our inactivity–the world’s inactivity, at that–is largely responsible for filling villain slot #2. I’ve never felt more uncomfortable watching a film, because as rousing as it is, Blackfish is a disturbing chronicle of the world’s ignorance, and it must be massively-consumed. It’s the exact opposite of the picture-perfect paradise SeaWorld wants you to believe in.

When a film like Blackfish comes along, it begs us as heralds of film to do something about the subjects it depicts. There’s a different edge to a film like this. We’re coming to it because we want to be educated about things going on in our world. It’s not entertainment. It’s not about making us comfortable as viewers in our cozy little theater chairs shoveling our faces with popcorn. It’s a shared experience of pain, made for us to look back at ourselves for letting this kind of irresponsible behavior go on.

We must champion these films that inspire action, because that’s where the power of the medium of film shines, and essentially transcends merely being about whatever it is we’re watching onscreen. A movie is a movie, but a movie can also be an agent of change. To inspire emotion and escapism is one thing, and fiction is a powerful tool for that. Narrative fiction is beautiful, but when a lens becomes a sword, the topic tangible, and the subjects implicating, is when film becomes more than just a popcorn experience. Emotion is a powerful thing that film can inspire, but something like Blackfish becomes more than just a movie for the causes it sheds light on. It inspires what movies can and so rarely do outside of the individual; collective action to right a wrong. As consumers, we have the power to eradicate the evils we see in Blackfish, and it’s here that the importance of film shines. Films which beg us for–or almost require–activism MUST be pushed forward. So I beg you: See this film. Because, while we’re experts at viewing, we’ve come to forget that action is a far more important duty than our own self-service.

Blackfish shows us how our hungry eye can lead to unimaginable evil; how a corporation can manipulate our desire to learn about the world around us–to become closer to the nature we’ve continuously grown further away from–and turn it into a virtual monopoly on cruelty. SeaWorld has removed a sense of accomplishment that comes from viewing an animal in the wild. The final shots of Blackfish show us a typical pod as it swims peacefully. We’re transfixed by the natural beauty, of being so privileged to see something so naturally complete. Film so often wants to indulge our yearning for this type spectacle by festering as a desire to passively consume. Blackfish is that idea’s antithesis; let us actively create a spectacle of change that exists far beyond the borders of a movie theater.

Oscar Season Diary #1: Punditry and Responsibility

Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender

Is it appropriate to use the word “responsiblity,” in this case?

After all, it’s film we’re talking about. Not international tension or foreign policy, right?

In a way, though, is Oscar punditry not unlike a sort of international operation? Filtering the chaos of Toronto, Telluride, and all the guilds and critics’ circles to come into a streamlined, easy-to-digest pill for those non-endowed with the knowledge of such a particular competition? I think of HitFix, IndieWire, Awards Daily; each reports in a personable manner, speaking to readers versus at them. It’s all stuffed with pretension here and there, but we’re used to that. This is Oscar Season, after all.

Awards Season blogging/punditry discourse is, for the most part, a way for the knowledgeable to be at-bat with the rest of their team at the same time, fighting for the same chance to strike the Academy’s pitch. No one asks them to, but that doesn’t stop the sensationalized coverage of this year’s September festivals from forcing their way into casual Oscar discourse.

I think immediately of Alonso Duralde (film critic at The Wrap) and Adam B. Vary (film reporter for Buzzfeed) and their Twitter spat this weekend after the former expressed his distaste with press oversensationalizing the quality of films for the sake of self-starting awards season buzz. Vary insisted the praise–specifically, that for 12 Years a Slave–was genuine, while Mark Harris (writer at Entertainment Weekly) chimed in, adding that those insisting the Best Picture race is already over aren’t doing the film any favors.

I see the side to each point. It seems that though as power and sway is taken away from critics during awards season (did we have the amount of guild awards, SAG awards, and online buzz 20 years ago? I think not) as anyone with access to the internet now wields the power of broadcast. The onslaught of praise for 12 Years a Slave coming out of Telluride and Toronto is almost knowingly self-fulfilling. What Duralde is getting at, I assume, is that the praise seems more like a wank to their individual ability to find the diamond in the rough and pat themselves on the back for doing so. The awards race has transcended mere quality. It’s about buzz, marketing, studio pushes, and (most importantly) making a splash at these game-changing early-season festivals. Voluminous praise spreads like a virus, and soon everyone is on the bandwagon, an individual part of the machine that turns appeal into gold (Blue is the Warmest Color swept Cannes like wildfire in a similar fashion).

Dallas_Buyers_Club_39335

Perhaps the praise is merely that: praise. It’s ridiculous to judge someone’s enthusiasm for a film, especially in an age where art takes a backseat to blockbuster. I’m all for championing films that break the mold of what studios deem marketable, and 12 Years a Slave certainly looks to live up to the hype. But hype can often kill a film’s chances at the Oscars. Jumping the gun and declaring the race over when Toronto hasn’t completed is ludicrous. There were those who latched on to Argo at this point last year, but that did little good. The film, after all, was left out of the Best Director category, and only then did it become the clear frontrunner (or, colossal sympathy vote) for Best Picture. I don’t doubt the quality of Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated followup to Shame, I just hope its chances aren’t killed thanks to foam-mouthed bloggers expending its welcome too soon.

It was almost as if the desire to love 12 Years a Slave preceded it. Like a shaken bottle waiting to be uncapped. The desire to praise something different, something from a filmmaker widely ignored for superior work two years ago. That’s why the praise for films like Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club coming out of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto seems more legitimate, at least in my eyes. Both seem unexpectedly fantastic, and the reviews truly reflected that. You can tell that critics were stunned by their impact. That’s not to say that quality wasn’t expected, it just didn’t have nearly as much chatter surrounding it as the buzzier flicks did. For one, they weren’t shown at Cannes, and Cuaron’s track record has been 0 for 0 for the past seven years. Surprise passion trumps informed expectation.

Alas, Toronto is nearly over, and we still have other contenders (arguably) to sift through (August reviews should begin pouring in shortly, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street have yet to screen anywhere, Saving Mr. Banks and Captain Phillips are making leaps and bounds to the forefront of Oscar discussion), and all of that only leads to the conclusion that we still have three months until nominations are announced. Sensation and accessibility to underqualified, over-shared opinions only leads one of two ways, neither favorable: building buzz (The Artist) or dying a slow death thanks to over-sharing and over-saturation of “it’s a guarantee, so lets talk about something else” (Lincoln).

Though no one asks for their opinion, bloggers an informed voice is often the best candlelight to follow in a sea of darkness. But, for once, it’d be nice to find the footing on my own.

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Current Big 4 predictions after Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and pre-screening buzz:

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Gravity
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Butler
Captain Phillips
Nebraska
August: Osage County
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Director
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Lee Daniels (The Butler)

Best Actor
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Robert Redford (All is Lost)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) – If she remains Lead, which apparently she is
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Kate Winslet (Labor Day)
Brie Larson (Short Term 12)

Black Cinema and the Oscars; “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station” as Game-Changers?

oprah-the-butler

Will 2013 be the Oscar year for black cinema? We can attempt to sift the answer out of the Academy’s track record for failing to recognize influential black cinema; it’s an issue that comes up a few times every Oscar season, and for good reason.

Just ask Spike Lee.

I detest the word “minority” not for its inherent definition, but for its becoming a socially-coded word synonymous with “outcast” or “inferior.”

Minority is small. Minority is defeated. And in a system such as the Academy’s voting process—which sees a membership that’s 94% Caucasian cast ballots to determine the best films of the year—the majority often has unchallenged control of the status quo.

Is this not how democracy works, you say? Sure. But when such a high percentage of one race, age group, and gender (old white men) determines what qualifies as great cinema within an industry in which so many “minorities” have given themselves an independent voice, we often question what is presented to us and deemed worthy. It’s good fun predicting the outcome but, at the end of the day, the system becomes all too predictable thanks to the consistent complexion of the voting base year after year.

The last time the Academy wholeheartedly accepted a film by black filmmakers, about black people, for black audiences, was 2009’s Precious. That’s four calendar years. 2011’s The Help, which received numerous nominations, was crafted primarily by white hands and told from the perspective of a white protagonist. It detailed black issues, albeit coming off more as a product of white guilt (a white woman almost single-handedly combats racism in a small Mississippi town) than a beacon of the black voice that is so often stifled in mainstream Hollywood cinema.

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And then we look at calendar year 1985, when The Color Purple received 11 nominations without notching a single win. Also directed by a white male (Steven Spielberg) The Color Purple was—more distinctly than The Help—a film with a black cast dealing with, for the sake of this argument, “black” issues. Marred by controversy on both sides (NAACP protests against the film’s portrayal of black males, industry backlash when Spielberg was snubbed for a Best Director nomination), The Color Purple stands as a reminder of the inability for the film industry, as progressive a medium it often tends to be, to agree on issues of race and presentation.

Precious was unique in the sense that Mo’Nique, giving one of the most emotionally-arresting performances in any film, was awarded a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a role in a black film. Her costars are primarily black, her director is black, and the film’s narrative is told from a black perspective—and it’s not pretty. It can’t be glossed over with Jessica Tandy in a Sunday hat. Quite simply, it’s something white Oscar voters tend to shy away from recognizing. Of course other black actors and actresses have won Oscars, but the films which birthed their performances aren’t necessarily “cultural” cinema in the way that Precious featured a black cast, a black director, and a black narrative perspective.

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The Butler, helmed by Precious director Lee Daniels, chronicles the life of a White House butler who served several presidents during his tenure. It comes as an almost accidental metaphor for the Academy itself. An industry built on “alternatives” from the very start and throughout its history (“film is fad, film is not art,” countercultural independent and art films, subculture film movements, etc.), its flagship product is still determined by a gathering of old white men. The film is building immense buzz, especially for Oprah Winfrey’s supporting performance—for which it seems poised to win if things continue as they are. The Butler, however, might come as the first film to be widely recognized by Oscar to feature a black perspective commenting on a white status quo (whether historical or contemporary is irrelevant).

And then we have Fruitvale Station, which falls in-step far more comfortably with a film like Precious, though dealing with contemporary issues of race and power with real-world implications as its protagonist, Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan, sure to earn a Lead Actor nomination here), existed outside the confines of a fictional text. The film continues to resonate with audiences and critics alike, and will likely be a contender in a few major categories at this year’s Oscars.

That gives us two products of black cinema building Oscar momentum. I don’t think either film has a serious shot to threaten the likes of American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street’s chances at winning Best Picture. In a way, I don’t think they were ever in a position to, as films like The Color Purple or Do The Right Thing were crowning achievements of racial discourse within their respective calendar years. Sure, films deemed as the best picture of the year often fade into obscurity not even a year after their crowning (I’m looking at you, Argo), but there’s something so momentarily important—urgent, even—about the importance of what the Oscar ceremony says about our culture and film industry as a whole, and our society is long overdue. Argo was, in the simplest terms, the safest choice out of last year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. It was topical enough (conflict in the Middle East) to be relevant, but a social statue of limitations, if you will, (it chronicles events which took place decades ago), kept it from veering too far into controversial territory. If it’s one thing the Academy has been consistently afraid of over the years, it’s controversy (just ask Kathryn Bigelow). Safe bets prevail over artistic or social radicals. David Lynch was nominated for Best Director for Blue Velvet and Best Picture was only a fraction away from Brokeback Mountain’s grasp, but they were present, no? Inclusion is recognition, but the prize is reserved for films that everyone can sit back and feel comfortable about, and while The Butler and Fruitvale Station are far away from changing the game entirely, the fact that they are even in the Oscar race at all is vital for continued presence of a racial dialogue in mainstream cinema. Oscar winners often fail to capture the immediacy and cultural spirit of their respective years, favoring “safe” or “default” winners over anything slightly controversial—even if that controversy (say, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty or Do The Right Thing) preserves the climate of the society and point in history the film came from.

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If 2013 has taught us anything it’s that the industry is shifting towards more specific audiences than big-budgeted, broadly-appealing blockbusters. Where male-driven-and-targeted pictures like The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D., White House Down, and Pacific Rim failed to make even close to their supersized budgets back in ticket sales (each cost well over $100 million to produce), films with unique appeal (The Purge, The Conjuring, Now You See Me), a built-in commentary on race or culture (The Butler and Fruitvale Station will earn their budgets back by the end of their runs) or the female-driven “Bridesmaids Effect” (The Heat) surged with audiences. We’re consistently shown that things which challenge the heteronormative standard are popular with audiences; why, then, are we consistently reminded of the opposite when it comes to championing the best films of the year at the Academy Awards?

As the Academy welcomes its first black female president (as well as a diverse range of women and minorities joining its ranks, from Jennifer Lopez to Ava Duvernay), we’re still not at a point where we can call the playing field even. It’s easy to view wins for films such as In the Heat of the Night (white director) or Driving Miss Daisy (white director) as mere apologies for cinematic inequality. We can only hope that, with renewed vision and a healthy dose of time, we will see the type of change that Do The Right Thing could have brought if only it had been so lucky all those years ago.