Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

In it for the Long Haul: 4 Things We Learned From Sunday’s Oscars

86th Annual Academy Awards - ShowDoubt is such a malicious feeling.

It liquifies, seeps through the tiniest of cracks, and willingly takes hold of our perspective and changes it in a heartbeat, and yet 2013’s awards season seemed to be defined by it.

From September through this past Sunday’s Oscars, it seemed as though the industry never reached a clearing of solace amidst the chaotic journey to the Academy Awards.

While Gravity, American Hustle, and sometimes even The Wolf of Wall Street seemed to lead the race at any given time, critical backlash or a guild surprise reintroduced doubt unto the emerging frontrunner’s wings before they could fully spread.

We had many frontrunners, but we ultimately had none.

12 Years a Slave seemed, on paper, to be the film with Best Picture written all over it, having fallen in line with the Academy’s diversifying image (publicizing increased minority membership while boasting its first black female president), which seemed to spell a clear path to victory for Steve McQueen’s powerful historical drama, though it became a sitting duck for critics, audiences, and Academy members who don’t like to be told what to do.

Instead, they fancy themselves as free-thinkers, seeing in the mirror rebels who buck the system instead of reenforcing it; they are, at times, both. Crash was a rebellious choice for Best Picture in 2004, though it fell in line with a general consensus to avoid the controversial. Films like The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, and Argo reaffirmed the awards season status quo as generally-appealing Best Picture winners.

What, then, inspired Sunday’s change of heart? 12 Years a Slave–a film about black characters, directed by a black man, with a black screenwriter and black stars–won Best Picture, breaking the longstanding streak of white filmmaker dominance.

There are four key things Sunday’s Oscar ceremony teaches us about the new breed of Academy that made what is, for them, an incredibly bold choice:

1) The Academy listens to outside sources, but are not dependent upon them

With Best Picture-sealed closure to complete its narrative, the 2013 awards season arc can certainly be traced across racially-motivated factors. The Academy’s diversifying membership (more women and minorities were invited last year than any other recent year) and changing leadership (Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the first black female president in Academy history) mirrored a shift in the industry. A general push for more diversity onscreen and behind it led many prominent films starring (Gravity, 20 Feet From Stardom) and made by (12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Fruitvale Station) minorities to critical and commercial success.

12 Years a Slave fit the bill at a time when racial tensions are ever-present in a nation that sees the split between rich and poor, black and white, and gay and straight widen across countless social and political battles day after day. People look to film as both a reflection of and comment on the society around them, and a film that deals with issues of race in a historical context is the greatest tool of all to both probe the majority and provoke thought across the board.

The Academy had many choices thrust in their face by critics circles and guilds alike. The NYFCC wanted so desperately to champion American Hustle across the finish line first, while the guilds seemed to back Gravity. Gravity winning Best Picture would have made sense statistically, given that 7 total Oscars (including two key Best Picture indicators–Best Director and Best Film Editing) were awarded to Cuaron’s masterpiece. In a split year (as the sages over at Awards Daily have consistently pointed out), the Best Director Oscar often goes to the more-respected film (in essence, the “better” of the two, for example: Ang Lee with Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi) whereas Best Picture is generally favored to win as a crowd-pleaser that pushes as little buttons as possible. This year, Gravity was the latter, though the typical awards procession was reversed. Steve McQueen went home with a Best Picture Oscar instead of one for his directing.

What prompted this? It’s nearly impossible to tell, aside from the fact that the Academy sought to forge the narrative that had been placed in front of them by audiences and industry tone. They consciously chose it.

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2) The Academy–sometimes–thinks as a singular entity

You hear it all the time when predicting the Oscars: “you can’t make generalizations. They’re not a collective brain with a singular train of thought.” This year, however, the opposite is most likely true.

12 Years a Slave was divisive, yet it was able to win on a preferential ballot, which many believed was impossible given its polarizing nature. To win on a preferential ballot, a film must acquire significant support from Academy members who rank the Best Picture nominees. Not only must it receive a substantial amount of #1 votes, it must also cover a fair share of #2 and #3 votes for the sake of the preferential redistribution process, which many thought was impossible given the film’s nature and general Academy tastes (many, in anonymous interviews with trade publications, labeled it as “torture porn” and “hard to watch.”).

All in all, the film seemed like either a #1 choice or a #9  choice; there was no middle ground. The film triumphed during a split year (which, for the aforementioned reasons, usually ends up following a certain pattern, with certain types of films winning in both the Director and Picture categories). This means that a conscious split in the votes was made by the majority as Gravity, for consistency and statistics’ sake, by all means should have taken Best Picture given its huge wins in other categories.

A majority of Oscar voters made a conscious decision to deviate from the pattern, indicating a more generalized, universal way of thinking for them than is usually assumed.

3) The Academy simply is changing

Recognizing a film like 12 Years a Slave is huge for an Academy that boasts an overwhelmingly white male voting base. 77% of Academy members are men, and 94% of them are white. This essentially means that 12 Years a Slave still had to appeal to a white audience and gain white support, aseven if the entire non-white sect made 12 Years a Slave their #1 choice–6% of the vote is not enough to win Best Picture.

Has the racial and gender majority been reflected in the Academy’s past choices? It’s very difficult to back it up with statistics, but various interviews with Academy members (like Michael Musto’s, published here) seems to indicate that things like the size of an actress’ boobs and how good they looked in a particular dress are key factors of the voting process for some. That would also, if we’re being general, describe why, on average, younger women tend to win acting awards alongside older men. Do they see the award as a prestigious boys’ club that men must work their way into, while throwing sexually-charged votes at young, pretty women in sexualized roles (seriously, look at the characters that have won women Oscars here)?

12 Years a Slave was, undoubtedly, objectified for its racial implications, but its presence in the Best Picture race is justifiable beyond the awards season narrative it perpetuates. It’s a finely-crafted film by a budding auteur, and contains as much aesthetic girth as it does thematically.

The Academy has, for the past few years, awarded the same types of films across the same genre with a very small racial angle. The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and Argo are each dramatic–structurally simple–films with general appeal, universal plug-and-play plots, and push as little buttons as possible. 12 Years a Slave is an artful, graphic examination of American history that shies away from nothing. It forces itself off the page, forces us to consider a small part of the foundation of who we are as a nation, and begs us to see African-American history as more than just an old, flat, black-and-white photo within the pages of a textbook.

The film calls for attention on black filmmakers in an age where white men overwhelmingly dominate control over the camera. The film calls for attention on black stars and, therefore, increases a diverse image at the forefront of the industry. The film winning Best Picture indicates that the still predominantly-white, predominantly-male, predominantly-heterosexual Academy, who’d never awarded a film about slavery or “black” issues its top prize before, who’d only given 4% of total acting awards to black actors, was willing to amend its historical tendency to shy away from films about the minority (Brokeback Mountain, The Color Purple).

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4) The Oscars are still entirely relevant

Argo currently upholds the legacy of Best Picture winners from the bargain bit at most major retailers (don’t believe me? Find the nearest grocery store–you know, one that sells DVDs on that shoddy rack near the checkout–and survey the films offered. I’ve counted Argo on sale at approximately three different ones in the Pittsburgh area). The Artist, in a sad turn of reality mimicking art and the film’s aesthetic, has quietly faded away. Ratings continue to climb for ABC’s telecast, however, though there’s an uneven weight of relevance distributed disproportionately between the ceremony itself and the films winning awards.

Sunday’s show functioned almost entirely as a means to re-insert not only the telecast into contemporary pop culture–both literally (Ellen’s selfie begged for interactivity) and figuratively–but also to cement the Academy’s opinion as aware, timely, and forward-thinking.

Films like The King’s Speech, Crash, The Artist, and Slumdog Millionaire range from mediocre to hugely entertaining and heartfelt. They’re the type of film that’s pleasing and easy to sit through. They’re perfectly enjoyable, though they lack the gravitas and titanic statement that only a true “best of” pick should have. I’m not sure how long even the general public would have continued to take the Academy at least somewhat seriously if films like Argo continued to win Best Picture.

12 Years a Slave is a film with something to say. It doesn’t exist as a fantasy amidst a society plagued with struggle. It will not have the same impact in Norway as it does in the United States. It is specific to our culture and to our history, whereas the last three Best Picture winners are fantasies which either glorify and embellish American culture and heroism (Argo and The Artist) or have little to do with American culture at all (The King’s Speech).

It’s a film that’s both reflective and pensive of history and the present. If anything, it increases the presence of the minority voice and offers an alternative narrative to the ones dominated by white screenwriters and white actors. It’s a film that resonates now as a genuinely fantastic work of art, but will also establish a legacy that legitimizes the Academy’s taste as in-line with contemporary social and political sentiments.

It’s a film that, to put it shortly, is in it for the long haul.

What, then, do the Oscars mean to us as a society, if anything at all? It’s a self-congratulating, self-made cycle of greatness, but it’s become a pedestal of visibility in an industry that’s teetering on the edge of a revolution for greater inclusion of minorities across the board.

Is it ok to doubt the relevance of the Oscars? To doubt the impact they have on American art and culture? To deny that, even on the smallest level, art can help someone envision a platform for themselves they never thought possible?

This year, the Academy looked doubt in the face, harnessed it, and talked all of us into certainty for the future.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Mining for Early Oscar Gold

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Is it smooth, yet? The air?

Just curious, because I’ve had a hell of a time adjusting to the dust cloud that’s been accumulating on Blu-Ray copies of Argo.

Last year’s recipient of the Best Picture Oscar faded from prominence even faster than the previous year’s The Artist, a gimmicky Academy-pleaser in itself, thanks to a sympathy-based vote to accredit director Ben Affleck with some semblance of relevance as his career transitions from notable star to almost-there-but-not-quite-yet filmmaker. Whereas Argo‘s meritless win leaves a sour taste in my mouth, I’m more than happy to shake the Oscar etch-a-sketch and begin afresh with 2013’s crop of awards season contenders.

This year we welcome new talents to compete with industry mainstays. We harken back to the eras of social icons of years past and adapt their lives for a contemporary audience. We relish in a year that Meryl Streep’s potential to win a fourth Oscar increases dramatically. We revisit previously-published material with a fresh cinematic perspective; but, most importantly, we face another year of submission to The Weinstein Company which, if all tentative release dates remain unchanged, will see six of their distributed films as likely contenders at the next Oscar ceremony.

Here’s a look at a few other industry figures bound for greatness during the 2013 awards season.

It’s going to be a good year for:

Anyone involved with Fruitvale Station

The freshman feature effort from USC graduate Ryan Coogler is one of the buzziest films coming out of 2013’s festival circuit.

Having claimed both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for a dramatic feature at Sundance as well as sashaying away from Cannes with Best First Film after screening in the Un Certain Regard section, Fruitvale Station is shaping up to be a major contender in at least three major categories.

Coogler’s film, about the real-life events surrounding the murder of Oscar Grant by an Oakland police officer, joins the ranks of other grim Sundance prizewinners like Winter’s Bone, Precious and Frozen River–which each went on to be recognized by the Academy with major nominations (and a few wins) in key categories.

The film hosts the breakout role for star Michael B. Jordan who, after having had minor roles in television (“Friday Night Lights”) and a few pictures (last year’s Chronicle), finally gets the chance to show his dramatic chops off for a wider audience.

Fruitvale Station seems poised to score nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor coupled with building momentum which could potentially push co-star (and Oscar-winner) Octavia Spencer into the Supporting Actress race, which could easily happen as the Weinsteins have acquired the film for distribution.

Besties Naomi Watts & Nicole Kidman…and dead cultural icons

It’s unfair to pit two actresses against each other for the sake of a gendered contest.

In the case of Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman, however, the challenge will be how to endure the barrage of questions from reporters to the tune of “how does it feel to be nominated against one of your closest friends?” this awards season.

Both actresses are all but sealed into the Lead Actress category for their respective roles in Diana and Grace of Monaco (Watts in the former, Kidman in the latter).

Naomi Watts’ talents have catapulted her far past the point of simply “deserving” an Oscar; she’s one of the most talented and, on the other side of the coin, underrepresented actresses in the industry. Her work in films like Mulholland Drive, Ellie Parker, and The Assasination of Richard Nixon represent just a handful of performances overlooked by the Academy in relatively quiet seasons. She’s gaining status as an underdog, however, as she squeaked into the Lead Actress race last year for her brilliant turn as Maria Bennett in The Impossible, a race within which she was actually being predicted as a potential spoiler after Entertainment Weekly’s annual Oscar issue saw her name mentioned by a majority of anonymous Oscar voters who’d been interviewed a short time before the Oscars.

The Academy favors Lead female performances attached to roles based on real women in positions of political and/or social power; think winners like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, and nominees like Cate Blanchett and her turn as the namesake royal in Elizabeth (and its poorly-received sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age).

Judging from Diana‘s trailer, the film will focus on the softer side of her notorious public identity which, I’m assuming, gives Watts a chance to show off her emotional depth instead of the usual controlled, stoic coldness that generally comes with these types of roles (as a side note, she’s also got a juicy role coming up in this year’s Adore, also starring Robin Wright).

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Kidman, on the other side of the coin, is far from a being a stranger to the Academy Awards. She’s an Oscar winner and a multiple-time nominee. While she had a buzzy-ish film floating around the perimeter of last year’s awards season (she made it into the Globes categories with The Paperboy), the Weinsteins will make sure that she has a spot amongst this year’s nominees for her turn as Grace Kelly.

The Weinsteins have a great track record for getting their actors nominated in major categories (Jacki Weaver’s spot in the Supporting Actress category was surely bought for her through “campaigning,” as she had no other right to be there), so Kidman’s pre-established Oscar identity is coupled nicely here with a Weinstein push.

It’s also interesting that these two roles are seeing the light of day in 2013 what with the incessant talk about social media, quick-fix fame, celebrity (and personal) accessibility, etc.

Both Princess Diana and Grace Kelly are posterchildren for the obsession with fame and its various aspects of decay. Diana of course died a highly-publicized death after the car she was riding in (manned by a drunk driver) crashed after a cat-and-mouse with paparazzi; Grace would die of a stroke/car crash combo after leaving a life of Hollywood luxury behind to marry a royal from Monaco (thereby becoming a princess). After only six years in the film industry (with one Academy Award under her belt), Kelly became one of the most popular stars of classical Hollywood cinema. In an age of post-internet accessibility, the public is growing increasingly bored with the flash-and-gimmick celebrities of the contemporary industry; Diana and Grace represent the mainstay of stardom and the impact of talent, presence, and prominence which takes on new meaning in an age of meaningless objectification, Facebook, selfies, and events that would later go on to inspire films like The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers.

Look for Watts and Kidman to both be nominated in the Lead Actress category.

Documentaries

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

Not many people can go from playing dumbed-down roles in horror films like Splice to directing emotionally-charged documentaries quite like Sarah Polley.

She killed zombies in Dawn of the Dead (2004) and wrote/directed indie dramas like Take This Waltz, and now she’s taking a stab at a scripted-documentary hybrid with Stories We Tell, which chronicles her life as the product of an extramarital affair.

Polley weaves in staged footage recreating her early life with interviews with her family, piecing together her history funneled through a narrative perspective while maintaining the cinematic resonance of an objective documentary. The documentary is garnering the best reviews of Polley’s career, earning a spot on the Toronto International Film Festival’s Top 10 Canadian films list as well as making a few minor splashes at festivals around the world.

Other notable documentaries releasing in 2013 include the polarizing-yet-provocative We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks and 20 Feet From Stardom.

The Coen Brothers

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On the heels of their True Grit remake, the Joel & Ethan Coen return with Inside Llewyn Davis, which took the Grand Prix Award at Cannes and continues to work the festival circuit until its release smack dab in the middle of Oscar season this December.

Earning rave reviews from critics, the Coens take a step back from some of their darker subject matter and instead draw on inspiration from the folk music scene in the 1960s. The film stars a slew of talented actors from John Goodman and Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver.

The Academy generally loves the Coens, as many of their past films have been nominated for screenwriting. It takes a film like No Country For Old Men, however, for nominations and sentiment to lead to ultimate gold; it is, to date, their only picture to have won the top prize at the Oscars. Inside Llewyn Davis will be nominated in major categories ranging from Best Picture to Best Original Screenplay, not garnering enough momentum to match No Country‘s prestige yet scraping up a few more nominations than 2009’s A Serious Man or 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Art Films

Nebraska film still

Before Midnight is currently slaying critics and audiences alike. Nebraska and Only God Forgives are respectively setting festivals and trade papers abuzz with claims of epic quality of script and performance. No, this isn’t the early 90s, it’s 2013, and the art film scene is heating up the pre-awards season circuit already.

While Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are busy predicting the “implosion” of the film industry thanks to big-budget studio productions not just cornering a niche market, but backing the entire market into a corner it can’t escape from (funny Spielberg would say this as a criticism and then proceed to executive produce Transformers 4 set for a 2014 release), a select few art films seem poised for Oscar greatness this year.

Before Midnight seems likely to receive a nomination in the Adapted Screenplay category (Before Sunset received one nine years ago amidst the growing cult status for the series, now three entries in), and Nebraska could sneak into the Lead Actor category (Bruce Dern was named Best Actor at Cannes for this role) while Only God Forgives might afford Kristin Scott Thomas a nomination in the Supporting Actress category if her buzz runs consistent through the end of awards season.

Also circling the Oscars in the art film department is Frances Ha, written by actress Greta Gerwig and filmmaker Noah Baumbach and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck.

2013 will also be good to:

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Anyone associated with The Past (Berenice Bejo, Asgard Farhadi)
Horror films (The Conjuring is getting early rave reviews as it screens at festivals, The Purge is one of the sleeper hits of the summer)
Matthew McConaughey (snubbed for Magic Mike, he’ll be rewarded with recognition for either Mud or The Wolf of Wall Street)

…and, of course, the Weinstein’s wallets.