American movies

Oscar Season Diary #11: Will ‘Maleficent’ Shatter Angelina’s ‘Unbroken’ Year?

The Academy is all about patting itself on the back.

Its membership advocates for the individual, whittling down category after category until one soul is left standing in the carnage with a gold weapon and a bloody PR trail behind them. The Academy has its favorites, it has its darlings, and it most certainly values its opinion as the sole Gospel of popular cinema. Time and time again, we see repeat winners in the “lesser” categories (just ask Edith Head, Colleen Atwood, or Leon Shamroy), and even some in the more prominent ones (refer to Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, and Ang Lee). Singularity is recognized. Stars and icons shine through the soupy sameness of everyone else at the Oscars.

The film industry, however, is gradually shifting away from the individual and toward the collective. Franchises and young adult adaptations have replaced movie stars as genuine box-office draws. The business has always been to make money. The masses are the target. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in an over-sharing, over-entitled society, the quality of what it means to truly be a star with massive pull rides on your shareability.

Shareability is an old creature that’s evolved into a full-fledged monster in the contemporary era. Trade publications have always attempted to bring the stars to the people, but it’s only today that the people can take control of stars by more than just speaking through dollars spent at the box-office. It’s undeniable that we’re living in the age of the “darling.” We don’t have movie stars. We have Jennifer Lawrence, whose ability to generate fodder for BuzzFeed articles and user-made, crowd-shared .gifs becomes a more valuable commodity than a powerhouse skill set. The woman is talented, but it’s our consumption of the superficial aspects of her persona that make her a consistent, comfortable, warm personality, not a movie star. The dynamism simply isn’t there.

Angelina Jolie, perhaps the last remaining titan of the box-office, is in a unique position as a star who’s pulled back from her earlier days as a tabloid spectacle yet maintains a high profile. Her latest film, Maleficent, is her first live-action role in nearly four years, and is set for release this Friday. Six months later, her sophomore directorial feature, Unbroken, will hit theaters. She has the rare pleasure of starring in a summer tentpole and directing a historical biopic that’s destined for awards season gold. She is the star and she’s in control of two separate films that have the potential to shape the rest of her career in monumental ways.

She’s proof that the public wants to consume stories by, about, and starring individual women (or maybe just starring her), though she’s built a career for herself based on her physical appeal to men. She’s never been in a Best Picture winner or nominee, though she has one Oscar under her belt (as well as one other nomination), but still her popularity within the industry is difficult to gauge. Despite her titanic star power and popularity with the masses, Angelina Jolie faces a different struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the Academy when it comes time to recognize her work behind the lens; despite her accomplishments, she’ll be held to the standards of a fading movie star whether that’s what she is or not.

On one hand, Maleficent represents everything that’s driving the film industry into the ground. It’s a huge summer blockbuster with a bloated budget riding on the bankability of a star who was unbreakable six or seven years ago, but who’s ability to solely headline a $180 million picture on the contemporary front has yet to be proven.

We’ve watched the likes of Johnny Depp (multiple times), Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Ryan Reynolds, and Channing Tatum crash expensive films into the flop-laden abyss over the course of the past year. It’s nearly impossible for a sole individual to carry a picture these days, yet studios keep pushing the men and their guns to the forefront in the hopes that something sticks.

It seems glaringly obvious that it’s women (like Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock) who can drive a film to box-office gold on name alone. McCarthy and Bullock did it twice in one year (together with The Heat and individually with Identity Thief and Gravity, respectively). The difference with those films is that no one expected them to make as much money as they did; everyone is expecting—even banking the future of female-driven films—on whether or not Angelina Jolie can have her cake and eat it too.

The pressure is certainly on for Jolie, but her bankability isn’t the only thing at stake; her status as dynamic representative of a well-rounded industry force is as well. If Maleficent fails (let’s say by studio standards that means earning less than $40 million in the US in its first weekend), it’ll be attributed solely to her. The recent failures of big-budget films are almost unanimously attributed to their stars, even though these films exist and are pushed as star vehicles when the industry around them simply doesn’t foster a climate where the star is an entity any longer.

It’s easier to sell a franchise based on a young adult novel or a sequel to the latest Spider-Man on familiarity alone. American films capitalize on the pop culture relevance of broader entities (Marvel, DC, Godzilla, family animation, etc.) versus stars. Star personas benefit the individual, not the films as a whole.

Where does that put Angelina Jolie in terms of Oscar season? Let us not forget, box-office matters for women at the Oscars. Bridesmaids would never have found its way into the race without a gross of nearly $200 million domestic. Women have to prove themselves to Oscar voters with a set of gorgeous legs (ripe for the sexualizing) that carry them to box-office gold as well. Disney mounted a healthy campaign behind Maleficent, which crescendoed into a dull roar over the course of a year or so. It’s a film that has a firm, pre-established base of fantasy fans and Disney aficionados alike, and one that can easily rope in families (it’s rated PG) and Jolie fans (she’s the clear focus of the studio’s marketing campaign) together. 

If you’re calculating Unrboken’s potential appeal to Oscar voters, it’s a checkmark in every category. Beautiful, previously-decorated member of The Academy in the director’s chair? Yep. Written by past Oscar winners (and Academy darlings of popular adult cinema) Joel & Ethan Coen? Uh-huh. War drama with a male-driven narrative that’s based on historically-rooted, wartime events? You bet. Much like The Hurt Locker, the film is the kind of picture the Academy wants to see a woman direct; one about men overcoming obstacles in a macho-man setting. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, its appeal is broad and (presumably) free of controversial material that would implicate any aspect of American culture (God forbid).

You simply can’t get any more Oscar-friendly than Unbroken. After the Academy pulled their version of a “radical shift” in tone for Best Picture, they’ll actively seek out something that falls in line with tradition to offset the divisiveness of 12 Years a Slave. The entire industry objectified Steve McQueen’s film as “the one about slavery,” and fixated upon its racial implications versus seeing what was underneath versus acting based on a casual glance. Unbroken is Academy meat and potatoes. It’ll be fantastic, plug-and-play, make truckloads of cash, and establish Jolie as the sole woman in a race dominated by men.

There are whispers here and there about the performances Jolie was able to get out of her cast as well. Miyavi, in particular, who plays the film’s antagonist, is receiving a great deal of pre-release buzz. Films like Unbroken, as of late, have an almost surefire chance of being recognized in the acting categories, especially when there’s a nice, meaty, showy role for an evil male character. Christoph Waltz won for his role as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds, as did Forest Whitaker for playing notoriously vile Ugandan President Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Heath Ledger collected a posthumous Oscar for playing the diabolical Joker in The Dark Knight, and Javier Bardem saw gold on Oscar night for his role as a sinister hitman in No Country for Old Men. Miyavi plays Matsuhiro Watanabe, war criminal and abuser of POWs, which gives him ample opportunity to milk Oscar voters with theatrics and lots and lots of yelling.

If the performances in Unbroken are Oscar-worthy, it will only help Jolie’s case in the Best Director category. It’ll be no surprise if buzz picks up for other members of the film’s cast once the film opens, as Jolie will likely be able to connect with them as an actor herself. The film also has cinematographer Roger Deakins on board, who has an astounding 11 Oscar nominations without a single win. He’s at the point where he’s getting into the race on name alone (hence his nomination for the critically divisive, un Academy-friendly Prisoners just last year), and this could be his year to collect his career Oscar for his work on Unbroken.

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Any way you look at it, Unbroken is a glimmering piece of Oscar bait—and perhaps the smartest thing Angelina Jolie has done in her career—waiting to drop right into the Academy’s lap. The Academy will see an opportunity to help carry Jolie’s career beyond the front of the camera and into a successful one behind it into her later years. They couldn’t give themselves a more self-congratulatory pat on the back than by decorating her for Best Director or her film for Best Picture. What better way to complete their self-made circle than to turn their sexy, objectified, Oscar-winning action star into a sexy, Oscar-winning filmmaker?

It’s poised for success, but if Maleficent bursts, Unbroken will endure the barrage of shrapnel. Jolie’s second directorial effort (the first is the little-seen, poorly-received In the Land of Blood and Honey) comes plated with hater-proof armor. Unbroken is ready for the Oscar battle, but it’s not ready to withstand the stigma around the “Jolie falls short of expectations with Maleficent” type of headlines. The internet machine is waiting to pick at the carcasses of anything that unravels for any reason. Again, box-office and perceived “success” is extremely integral for women in the film industry. They’re taken seriously when they make films about men that make money, or films with broad appeal that make money. Maleficent will carve Jolie’s path to (and through) the Oscars.

It’s unfair that Jolie’s appeal to the white male Oscar voter will be predicated largely by her sex appeal, which she has distinctly tried to de-commodify as she’s deliberately pulled herself out of the spectacle of the tabloid circus; it will either help her or hurt her—especially with the Director’s branch of the Academy and the Directors Guild of America, both of whom are never kind to actors turned directors (just ask Robert Redford).

Jolie will also have to deal with the Kathryn Bigelow effect. The majority of white male Oscar voters will view Jolie’s gender as the defining characteristic of her awards season run. The “been there, done that” mentality will kick in, they’ll remember that Kathryn Bigelow was their posterchild for gender acceptance, and not feel obligated to vote for Angelina because the conquest has already been had.

As usual, Jolie has everything working in her favor at the moment, and she’s heading into the Oscar race with a powerful army of elements working in her favor. Unbroken seems painfully obvious as an early-season frontrunner for an Academy that likes to stroke its own ego. How easily, though, the perfect exterior could tumble down with one fell swoop of the American public and where they choose to place their dollars this weekend.

Whether Maleficent lives or dies and whether Unbroken sustains its potential through to Oscar night is still up in the air, but if her career has shown us anything at all it’s that she’s the star, and the conversation will be—and always been—about Angelina Jolie.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Is There Beauty in the Breakdown of Race at the Oscars?

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While TIME Magazine gears up for its annual 100 Most Influential People issue—one that features politicians, artists, women who made a difference for women, minorities overcoming the plight of inequality—People magazine is sticking to its guns, reporting on stories about “Every Selfie Anna Kendrick Has Ever Taken” to crowning Lupita Nyong’o as the Most Beautiful Person in the World.

It’s an amazing thing to see a woman with dark skin on the cover of a magazine circulating in a predominantly-white culture. Movies are white-obsessed, the very Academy Awards that bestowed an Oscar upon Nyong’o for her role in 12 Years a Slave—the first film “about” slavery to win Best Picture—is white-washed (94%, to be exact), and our collective desire last year was to see this sort of overturning of the status quo become the status quo.

Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to see that 12 Years a Slave is not the sort of groundbreaking film we all so desperately want it to be. It was objectified for its racial components (albeit for a positive cause) and, while still a perfectly acceptable, appropriate choice for the Academy, their decision could impact how future films about black characters fare at the Oscars (i.e., the “been there, done that” mentality might come into play.)

Some might say that Nyong’o, however, is a trailblazer. She’s breaking barriers within an industry that has tipped in the favor of the young, white, male actor. In an age where Pharrell is recontextualizing the image of Marilyn Monroe for his latest single cover and films like 12 Years a Slave are winning Best Picture at the Oscars, it should be obvious that the tide is turning in favor of the minority voice, but it just doesn’t feel that way.

The fact remains that, by awarding 12 Years a Slave Best Picture, the Academy essentially fulfilled a circular, pre-constructed prophecy that was waiting in the wings, bound to be completed whenever it was most appropriate. After films about minorities like The Color Purple and Brokeback Mountain missed out on a gold-laden party, accusations of bigotry within the Academy intensified. It reached a head this year, with outside pressure mounting as the Black New Wave movement saw the release of three high-profile films from black directors (Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in addition to 12 Years a Slave) take the awards race by storm. Timing is everything.

86 years of black filmmakers taking a backseat to the white pictures, directors, and actors resulted in a monumental Best Picture victory for Steve McQueen’s period drama about Solomon Northrup, a free black man from the north who was kidnapped and sold into the southern slave trade. It’s a film with real-world implications for both Hollywood and American society. Racism is not a historical fantasy; it exists in every corner of the nation, and the minority is so often stifled in the film industry.

It’s clear that the Academy never really warms up to films laced with controversy, and 12 Years a Slave forces us to confront these issues and shouldn’t have to apologize for its mere existence because it doesn’t make the whole thing look pretty. Yet, all you’d hear coming out of industry parties was that Academy members weren’t watching 12 Years a Slave because it was difficult to sit through. Its members shy away from controversy and gravitate toward crowd-pleasing fare, and it’s difficult to please the majority when whips, flesh, blood, and the implications of modern racial inequality are looming over Academy members’ shoulders as they vote.

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The Academy heeded the pressure to make a monument out of the past Oscar year; 12 Years a Slave was a headline. It was the first “black” film, directed by a black director, starring a predominantly-black cast, to win the Best Picture Oscar. The white voting majority took it upon themselves to so graciously lower their standards, and they heeded outside pressure to award the film a compensatory win for every Do The Right Thing, Precious, or The Color Purple that slipped through the cracks.

Nyong’o’s arc of success rode similar superficial waves. She was consistently played up as a “fashion icon” on the red carpet. Her dresses became the conversation; the bright colors were the distraction from the brutal situation her character endured. She became an image instead of a person. She was the beautiful red carpet fixture being asked about her dresses versus the preparation she had to do for the role or how difficult it must have been to play the part of a woman who endured the hardships of slavery in real life. The conversation always turned to who she was wearing, her charm, her pizazz, how beautiful she is while the boys discussed the craft. That’s all empty, fading praise, just like the cover of a magazine celebrating exterior beauty. It’s almost as if the film and its cast had to distract the industry from the stigma of being “too difficult to watch” that the film had taken on, and Nyong’o’s People Magazine cover is still a ripple in that pond.

The fact remains that 12 Years a Slave did not succeed based on the votes of an equal Academy voting base. There are far more men than women, far more white voters than there are from any other race, and far more older people than there are younger. 12 Years a Slave found a way to appeal to the white majority. The accomplishment will come when the black filmmakers are able to reap the same benefits that white actors do after winning an Oscar.

This year’s cover of People magazine’s Most Beautiful issue hasn’t entirely missed the mark, however. It does celebrate women and diversity, namely select women who’ve made a difference in the film industry over the course of the past year.

The cover itself also features two women over 40 (Julia Roberts and Juliana Margulies) alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who’s a female movie star proving that:

1) While the age of the true movie star is dying, actresses like Lawrence and Sandra Bullock can still drive box-office and headline films almost single-handedly

and

2) That women can drive a film to the top-earning domestic spot at the yearly box-office (Catching Fire took in over $400 million in the US alone, while Frozen grossed over $1 billion globally)

But, what are the long-lasting implications for a woman like Nyong’o, who can lay claim to such a title bestowed by People, yet go home to a script pile that’s nowhere near as bountiful as the one Jennifer Lawrence gets to pour over?

I’d love to see Nyong’o get as many magazine covers as she can, but “Fashion Icon” and “Most Beautiful Woman” are fading titles. What Nyong’o needs is a casting director willing to take what the rest of the industry would consider being a risk by placing her in a high-profile role originally intended for a white actor (or even a man). What Nyong’o needs is work. She doesn’t need frivolous praise; she endured it enough on the red carpet.

The cover is an accomplishment and a step in the right direction. Visibility is visibility, and that’s key to changing the standard. My gripe is not with the magazine itself, but with the industry at large. Nyong’o is being heralded as the “It” black girl, as if there’s only one to choose from. Bigger changes need to happen before we can find solace and comfort in her presence on the cover.

The awards cycle has turned Nyong’o and 12 Years a Slave into is a flavor of the moment. Flavors fade. The next black film to come along will likely be shunned by Oscar voters because they’ve been there and done that with 12 Years a Slave. So, will the People magazine cover matter after she’s taken the inevitable Halle Berry route post-Oscar? Or will the roles open up to her? Will she get the chance to headline prominent films originally intended for white actresses? Will a studio have the balls to change a script–alter character, race, and gender–to fit her in, to give her a chance, to truly make her Oscar mean something?

Could Lupita Nyong’o be the next Ellen Ripley?

Absolutely: whether the industry around her is ready and willing to foster such a thing remains to be seen.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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

Oscar Season Diary #10: Frontrunning to Instant Death

gravity-bullockAt the heart of divisiveness is passion.

You’re either for something or against it, and dividing love and hate into two binary categories with regards to the appeal of a film is often necessary when talking about it within the context of a race where only one can win. It’s natural to love what you love, push it forward, and let your next-best choice fall off the wagon to the side of the road.

I guess it’s unfair to say that, if you’re an Oscar voter, your #2 choice for Best Picture is one you don’t favor in general. It’s simply one that you don’t favor to win, and is automatically othered as a result. On a preferential ballot, #2 is essentially #9485 on the same scale.

Alas, only Oscar voters have to worry about that. Everyone knows the Academy has a huge task ahead of them after such a magnificent year jam-packed with quality cinema from around the world.

One one hand, the Academy could award the first ever black-made, black-themed film with a Best Picture win; on the other, they could break a 17-year pattern of awarding male-driven films their top honor. The latter seems likely since Alfonso Cuaron–director of Gravity–took home the top prize at the Directors Guild of America Awards last week. 90% of the time, those who win the DGA’s top prize go on to have their film recognized by the Academy as Best Picture of the year. In fact, it has happened a staggering 11 times since 2000. Only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain have the unfortunate honor of being awarded the DGA’s top prize without a follow-up Best Picture win (both films were directed by Ang Lee, funny enough).

Gravity is also poised to win key technical awards, including Best Film Editing (essentially the third-tier Best Picture Oscar).

Still, these statistics are displeasing and unconvincing to some. Pundits are overwhelmingly in favor of a 12 Years a Slave win, as a staggering 18 out of 23 of those surveyed on GoldDerby have it predicted in their #1 slot. If 12 Years a Slave wins, it would be a nearly unprecedented feat, as not only would the Academy defy statistical expectations, but 12 Years a Slave would rank amongst the least-decorated Best Picture winners in Oscar history, as the only other category it has a shot at winning is Best Supporting Actress.

What about the brewing tide making Gravity the statistical frontrunner doesn’t resonate? How can so many look so deeply into the face of such certainty and pick the opposite course? There’s little to no basis for predicting 12 Years a Slave to win other than hope, which is never a bad thing. It would be momentous if Steve McQueen’s film could pull off an upset in the face of Gravity‘s late-game dominance.

The fact remains, however, that we have two fantastic films on our hands, and one cannot be appropriately valued over the other.

As we saw the guilds, critics, and audiences file into their respective, individualized tributaries flowing into the Oscar picture (American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity have each shared the spotlight as frontrunner), certainty seemed to be something each of us lacked as we hunted for a singular film to throw our weight behind.

Once Gravity won the DGA and PGA, the ball finally started rolling in one direction, and the tides turned. From its premiere at Venice to its near unanimous praise from critics, Gravity became one of the most prominent, highly-regarded films of the year. It was praised as a technical revolution, as well as a monumental achievement for actresses, as it is largely a one-woman show that went on to gross nearly $700 million worldwide.

It’s funny, then, that we’re currently witnessing the same things that happened to 12 Years a Slave after the fall festivals and to American Hustle after the critics circles prematurely ejaculated all over it; people are turning against Gravity because its footing is firmly planted at the front of the pack. With Oscar voting beginning in a matter of days, Gravity‘s late-entry status as the Best Picture frontrunner carries a stigma few films escape. When you’re perceived as the best, you’re no longer the sexy choice, even after you win Best Picture. The film will become predicated by what so many will harp on as an unjust triumph over a more “socially important” film like 12 Years a Slave.

It’s also around this time of year that the awards season narrative has an end in sight after bloggers, journalists, and audience wallets started writing it nearly 5 months ago. Early in the season, pundits championed 12 Years a Slave not only as a powerhouse film in itself, but as a beacon for the minority voice to finally reign supreme at the Oscar ceremony.

Generally, black-themed films are either ignored or shoved to the side as honorees in minor categories (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, very rarely in other categories)but 12 Years a Slave entered the season strong, and will likely finish along those lines as well. It’s a film that recalls an ugly part of American history, but an important one–ever more so during times when the first black President leads our country, modern racial issues pervade our society, and when a societal surge for minority equality across all fronts should be represented and recognized in our art.

So, then, which social cause do you chose? Gender or race? Should it even be based on such factors?

Pundits on both sides of the Gravity/12 Years a Slave debate have essentially turned on each other, digging into their respective opponent because it doesn’t fit the awards narrative they desire. According to them, Gravity would undermine the doors that 12 Years a Slave would open for minority filmmakers, and to others 12 Years a Slave would only win because it’s the black movie that rides to victory on white guilt.

They seem to be forgetting one key fact: a film does not change once it wins Best Picture. It does not become any better or any worse. It merely becomes the permanent frontrunner, and this passionate discourse that’s tearing apart two camps representing two of the best films from a monumental cinematic year proves that once you’re first, you’re automatically dead.

Weighing which social narrative you’d like to triumph is poison. If 12 Years a Slave wins, then it makes it a hell of a lot easier for the Black New Wave to begin in full-force. If Gravity wins, it represents the first plot that’s female-driven to win Best Picture since 1997, and the first film driven solely by a female character to ever win.

The Gravity detractors nearly always fall back on the argument that it’s a film about a woman that’s been directed and written by men, and therefore crippled as a vehicle to advance the position of women in the industry. But, these people forget that we’re talking about a visual medium. When discussing any film, you must begin on the most fundamental level, and that’s what’s in front of us. On the basis of familiarity, general audiences often identify with a movie through its actors and what they’re able to see. That’s largely what makes Gravity so wondrous; its visual effects, and its charismatic lead (Sandra Bullock), who proved herself as a box-office pull in the age of fading individual bankability. She transcends the film’s visuals and becomes the one thing–aside from the visual effects–that people associate with the film. The only people arguing about Alfonso Cuaron vs. Steve McQueen are the film nerds who make a living off of fueling the debate.

Gravity’s plot is also a beautifully sustained metaphor throughout, and a Best Picture win for it would be a fitting cap on a year when a female-driven film topped the US box-office for the first time in 17 years (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). Things are changing for women, but pundits would rather pick and choose their social narratives in the hopes that they actually might have a hand in shaping them.

Chiwetel EjioforOne of the most prominent Oscar pundits out there, Sasha Stone, recently downplayed Alfonso Cuaron’s position, implying that he would only be significant as a Mexican director in this year’s Oscar race if he directed something about the Mexican experience, which is absurd and reinforcing of the dominant majority. So, by that logic, the minority is only worth something when he’s talking about the “other” to the white man and playing into the white man’s tastes?

While I tend to agree with the generally fantastic pundits over at Awards Daily, their most recent podcast irked me. Ryan Adams, an Oscar blogger I’ve come to respect, states that white voters and critics were “with” 12 Years a Slave until something more “white” and acceptable came along that they could latch on to, and that a viable “white” option was validated by the New York Film Critics Circle (American Hustle) early enough in the race that white voters were able to default onto it because it is more acceptable to them as a predominantly-white voting base. That makes absolutely no sense. The love for 12 Years a Slave came from a predominantly white voice in the first place. The overwhelmingly white pool of film critics across the country made it the best-reviewed film of the year, and I’m not sure Academy voters think with the same sort of racial bias many pundits have been spouting about all year. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision to switch from a “black” movie to a “white” movie that easily.

It seems that the mere existence of 12 Years a Slave is victory in itself. In a year with black filmmakers taking huge strides into the industry as a whole (in addition to McQueen’s success, Lee Daniels directed a “black” film to over $150 million in world box-office, and Ryan Coogler generated significant critical acclaim and impressive box-office for Fruitvale Station), it would be a fitting Best Picture winner after three prominent black men helmed films that began this important dialogue about race in the industry.

While a Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave would certainly validate the minority voice in a white-dominated industry, the long-term success of the Black New Wave movement has largely already been determined by audiences and their wallets. There’s often a vitriolic backlash against studios for their overarching control of societal norms–that they reenforce unfair standards of beauty for women by casting thin actresses, that they avoid “black” or “minority” subject matter, etc. While studios and executives shape what’s presented to the public, it’s audience preference that dictates where the money goes, and that dictates what the executives put out. If we don’t want to see it, we shouldn’t take ourselves to indulge in the fantasy of what is largely unattainable for so many.

It’s disappointing that most successful films star men, are directed by men, and are marketed to men, but moviegoers are capable of changing that. Perhaps the smartest thing moviegoers did this year was drive box-office sales for female-driven films like Gravity, Frozen, Identity Thief, The Heat, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

It’s undeniable: while the industry isn’t an equal place for women just yet, 2013 was a turning point, and Gravity‘s impending Best Picture win will represent it well.

The divisive bickering, valuing one great film over the other on the basis of a single award, however, is unfair, and puts us right back at the beginning with no end in sight: squabbling about injustices and forgetting to feed our empty stomachs when a full-course meal sits mere inches below on the table.

Oscar Season Diary #9: ’12 Years a Slave,’ the PGA Awards, and the Dangers of Expectation

PGA-tie-618x400So much of the film industry is driven by expectation.

Studios expect box-office returns. Audiences expect to be entertained. Critics expect to be impressed.

Most Oscar bloggers and awards season pundits place themselves outside of these categories. Most of us have no interest in the business side of the industry, nor do we elect to be as willingly passive as those who think going to the multiplex on a Saturday night is an excuse to switch your brain into idle mode.

We chug along on the perimeter of the industry, poking and prodding at the seams of awards season, championing our favorite films of the year and (sometimes) throwing the others under the bus, because we expect the Academy’s taste to coincide with quality, not whichever film happens to press the least amount of buttons to fall in line with a safe consensus.

The most dangerous thing about awards season, however, is the baggage that expectations can place on prognostication. It’s not a particularly important part of the actual awards, but predictions and expectations are often the push that gets the ball rolling.

Usually, by mid-January, all of the guilds and critics circles have announced their annual set of winners, and the consensus generally tends to funnel into a single lane. By this time last year, Argo was set firmly ahead of the pack, and a year before that The Artist was sitting pretty in a similar position.

If this weekend’s Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild ceremonies proved anything, it’s that the immense quality of the films released in the calendar year have interfered with the industry’s ability to come to that dreaded (but necessary) consensus.

The SAG (the largest voting base of any industry guild, with about 120,000 eligible voters) often aligns with the film with the broadest appeal (in essence, the film that’s easiest for its members to come to a consensus on), which, for 2013, is unmistakably American Hustle (Lupita Nyong’o, however, was able to notch a win over Jennifer Lawrence, plunging the predictability of that race further into oblivion once again).

As all prepared to stick a fork in 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the seemingly-impossible happened: the PGA announced its first-ever tie, awarding top honors to both films at its awards ceremony last night. Not only were Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron’s respective films kept alive in a race they’d otherwise fallen behind in, they were actually catapulted ahead of American Hustle just as it was gaining the upper hand.

We’ve got the Directors Guild of America left, and their top honor will likely go to Alfonso Cuaron for his work on Gravity. That would, effectively, place Sandra Bullock’s one-woman show in prime position.

Alas, what have we learned? Expectations are limiting and evil, especially in such an unpredictable Oscar year. Just take a look at the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks, two films largely expected to dominate this year’s race, but only mustered a paltry three Oscar nominations between the two of them–not a single one in a major category. Again, this goes against what our expectations would tell us. Both Emma Thompson and the Coen brothers have excellent Oscar track records–both are winners–and worked on films that were immense critical successes. 2013 taught us not to listen to history, generally a fail-safe way to predict the Oscar mentality.

The tide could very easily shift toward 12 Years a Slave, bringing the narrative of the season back full-circle onto itself. When you think about it, the path is always uncharted, it’s just the critics, guilds, audience wallets, and pundits that determine who lives and who dies in the race. After all, the hype machine is to blame for building up most of our expectations and then violently shooting them down. It happened with Silver Linings Playbook last year, nearly happened to 12 Years a Slave this year, and is (most likely) currently unraveling American Hustle‘s late-race dash for Best Picture.

rs_560x415-140118172006-1024.Lupita-Nyongo-SAG-011814_copyIt’s a constant circle of self-made praise. Each publication–from Variety to Entertainment Weekly to Awards Daily–wants to be there at the start of glory. They want to champion the buzzy film-that-could that comes out of Toronto, Venice, and Telluride. They want to advance the narrative, and gain traction for pin-pointing excellence.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but this essentially kills any genuine reaction from general critics (the “legitimate” ones are usually already at these festivals, and are doing their fair share of feeding the hype monster) and audiences, as they’re either over-hyped to the point where it’s impossible to be impressed, or they’re unable to think for themselves and merely pile on the praise to fit in with the tide that’s been crafted around them. It’s a self-starting, self-destructive bubble.

12 Years a Slave is, on paper, a film that seems a fitting Best Picture for the 2013 calendar year. The Academy appointed its first female black president and made numerous efforts to diversify its voting base by inviting more women and people of color than ever before.

It only makes sense, then, that a film like 12 Years a Slave would be championed as a harbinger of change, as the perfect vessel to carry us through this monumental year for change.

As evidenced yesterday on Twitter as the film was announced as one of two PGA winners, many champion the film because they say it’s a symbol of hope for minorities in the United States. I’ve always had a problem with this, seeing as the film is a triumph in its mere existence, and doesn’t need what is essentially a majority award to justify its presence.

According to the LA Times, the Oscar voting base is overwhelmingly white and male (90% white, 75% male). If 12 Years a Slave were to win with these voters, the only thing it proves is that the film is playing into the majority’s taste, and isn’t really triumphing over the majority, then, anyway. Do not let the film be a symbol of “hope,” as that is a false appropriation of credit. All this means is that the film received the white majority’s approval, and played to their tastes. If it wins, the film will win as a great film, and should not be used as a tool for validation of race or presence. If hope lies in the hands of playing to the majority’s fancy, freedom for the minority voice is a missing part of the equation, as objectification then becomes the issue.

Again, people’s expectations for the film are that it must be the harbinger of hope simply because it was crafted by black hands, stars black actors, and is adapted from a book written by a prominent figure in African-American history. It is a marvelous film that should be championed because it does represent the minority voice, and represents it extremely well.

12 Years a Slave is a moving, powerful work of art that both challenges the majority stylistically and thematically, but to demean its value by validating its greatness at the hands of a white male-dominated is an insult to what it stands for.

The seething, lurking, ever-present tentacles of expectation have no right to impede 12 Years a Slave‘s existence as a cinematic landmark.

The Beauty of Fibbing, Fiction, and ‘Fruitvale Station’

betcom_fruitvale_station_trailer__tmbRyan Coogler understands fiction.

He’s a master of atmosphere, and a composer of visual harmony. He does what only the most skilled of directors can: he simply takes reality and makes it art.

You can re-interpret, re-envision, and re-invent other media. What that does, however, is make you the authority. You must do what we’re told from a very young age is a cardinal social sin: you must become the fibber when taking on projects with real-world roots, as reality doesn’t nicely fall together with cinematic flow. You must embellish, and you must create.

Coogler understands the delicacy of his situation and takes charge of it with his Fruitvale Station, choosing to weave a cinematic retelling of the controversial events surrounding Oscar Grant, a 22-year old black male who was shot to death by police officers in 2009.

The film contains no preceding titles telling us if the film was “inspired by” or “based on” true events. We know it is, and Coogler knows we know it is. After all, as the circumstances that bolster the film still ring in our collective memory all too painfully.

Accusations of police brutality sparked riots across the country after Grant was killed. Some accused Bay Area Railway Transit police of extreme negligence; of racism; of lacking compassion for their fellow man. The face of law was tainted with seemingly innocent blood.

We can never fully understand the motivations of the officers involved, and events of Grant’s life will forever remain a mystery. We were not with him at the time of his death, nor were we at his side as his the final twenty four hours of his life unfolded.

Coogler crafts a daring interpretation of the final day Grant was able to pick his daughter up from school, have sex with his girlfriend, hug his mother, and plead with his ex-boss for a second chance at a job he’d been fired from. Grant’s life as a human ended in tragedy with real-life reverberations, but Coogler understands the power of fictional affect, and Grant as a character becomes a dynamic canvas for us to feel so much more.

We must never forget that Fruitvale Station is fiction, and that fiction sometimes can be just as powerful as the truth. You can feel the real-world implications of Grant’s death (oppression, anger, injustice) coursing through the film’s veins in its atmosphere, as Coogler takes on his role as the God of his own universe. We see Grant how Coogler wants us to see him–not as he was, but how the film requires us to: in beautifully-framed glimpses against the sunlight, in the quiet moments of his personal turmoil, scenes with surreal beauty we can’t experience in real life.

Fruitvale Station is best when it does what it needs to do as a narrative, as a work of art, and as an entity that’s complimentary to the truth, not substituting itself for the truth. The film does not make Oscar Grant out to be a hero. It does, however, mold a character from shreds of his actual existence.

The film feels impressionistic, but it is not aimless. Coogler weaves a tale of a man without direction, but with massive heart. It’s a mistake to take this as a testament of the real person. None of us knew Oscar Grant, but the film’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t place judgment upon him, nor does it elevate him to heroic status. He’s swamped by a million different things. He’s lazy, he’s lost his job by his own error, and boasts a lengthy criminal history, he does drugs, he cheats on his girlfriend, but he’s also a loving father, an indebted son basking in the light and love of his mother, and chugging along the rails of a life that seeks to reject him as a minority. There’s no evil in that. There’s fault in his actions, but only from the perspective of the rest of us in glass houses. We’re all surrounded by panes of glass; Grant’s just happened to be collecting societal grime, easier to see, and easier to shatter.

The film does become important as a testament to contemporary American culture, not merely as a recreation of “true” events. The circumstances surrounding the real Oscar Grant’s death are ambiguous. Was he resisting arrest? Was the officer rightfully fearful of Grant’s behavior? These are questions that seductive fiction–such as the story of Coogler’s Grant–can give us perspective on. Art forces us to question the world around us, not take it for what it is; there’s no reason a film based on true events should be taken as gospel, and there’s never an inkling that this is how Coogler wants us to see his film.

There’s a scene in Fruitvale Station which sees Oscar Grant step onto the BART train that would serve as his dinghy across the River Styx. From the platform, we see the doors open. Grant is pulled into a mass of people already on the train by his girlfriend, the doors shut, and the train whisks them away. We remain fixed, watching each car pass by, and the faces and bodies it contains blend together in a blur of human mass.

The real Oscar Grant was probably like those people on the subway, blending together as we pass them at breakneck speed on a train or casually on the sidewalk. He was probably the flawed character Coogler paints for us in Fruitvale Station. He was probably the adoring father his daughter most likely knew. We’ll never know, but Coogler insists on celebrating the mystery, making it beautiful, and prodding us to want in.

Fiction embellishes truth, creates image, stages scenes of  beauty, and gives us perspective on the burden of our reality waiting on the other side of the credits.

Oscar Season Diary #8: ‘American Hustle,’ ‘Her,’ and the War of the Heart

3022037-slide-her-filmWe’re a fatherless culture heading in an unclear direction.

Can we sense, at this point, anyone at the wheel?

We’re overrun with greed, with corruption, with politics and media; we have little time to ponder the individual, or to see the soul behind the person staring back at us in the mirror. Survival is merely moving on to the next superficial stimulus.

Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle reveal a battle our preoccupation with the media has distracted us from acknowledging: the one within us as individuals. Both films remind us of the power of the heart–listening to it, working to preserve it–and resonate within an Oscar year that champions that very attitude.

The news is cluttered with headlines of a new war every day. From Washington to Syria, we hear about wars of ideals, wars of politics, wars of culture, wars of preference and wars of intellect. Some see bloodshed, and others exist as a momentary annoyance when, for a brief moment, we flip the channel to yet another news story about the deepening split between two roaring factions of our nation’s right and left.

If we’re given a spare moment away from the news tickers, push notifications, blinking lights, emails, and texts, it’s only natural to fall back on our own thoughts, emotions, and affections,  though we seek validation, pleasure, and stimulus from technology, and have grown dependent on it to rile us from the state of simply being able to, well, be.

Simplicity is an increasing rarity: this is the struggle that Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) undergoes on a daily basis in Her.

In the not-so-distant future, he’s a ghostwriter for countless clients who hire him to write personal letters to their loved ones. He spends his days recalling emotions he once knew as a married man, but for other people. He’s now divorced and trudging through the remnants of his soul as the world around him vacuums itself deeper and deeper into an outbreak of isolationist technology separating human from human, soul from soul.

Theodore, swayed by a convincing television ad, purchases a highly advanced operating system to cope with the loneliness. Her name is Samantha, and she’s programmed to adapt to new environments as she experiences them. Theodore is forced to confront his feelings of loneliness as he falls in love with Samantha.

The most intelligent thing about Her‘s script is its consistent urgency propelling Samantha forward as a fully-formed character. She grows, adapts, and forms feelings for herself, but most of all is able to understand that she isn’t human, which perhaps is the most beautiful thing about the film. It’s actually quite tragic in that sense, as Samantha yearns for a human body, but never loses her grip on reality. She knows she will never be human, and never tries to be.

Whereas Samantha can’t attain a sense of humanity, it’s Theo’s that she helps restore. At its core, the interactions between Samantha and Theodore are nothing more than Theodore talking to a version of himself filtered through a complex sequence of data. Samantha can only learn through her interactions with people, and she soon begins to interact with Theodore in a way that subtly holds a mirror to his face. His divorce shattered him, and his feelings of isolation and loneliness forced him into a machine-like state. It’s only thorough his acceptance of his feelings for Samantha that he can be truly happy, and he learns to be a human once again.

The film’s form is highly dependent on its content, and vice versa. There’s a gorgeous visual motif running throughout the film involving Theodore gazing out of enormous windows. Whether he’s on a subway, at work, or at his apartment, his view of the outside world is obscured by a glass shield that he can see the other side of, but can’t quite reach just yet. Without giving anything away, it’s only after he spends time getting to know himself (and Samantha), that he’s able to view what’s on the other side free from obstruction. It’s a beautiful film about the best and worst of technology, how it expands our perspective yet limits it, and how–if you don’t lose touch with your humanity–it can open your eyes instead of distract them from seeing what’s around you.

American Hustle explores these issues in a far less subtle manner. It’s classic David O. Russell spectacle. The film is about everything and it’s about nothing in particular, it’s about sexy people in extravagant costumes and the risky business they get themselves into. But, at its heart, its a story about preserving the all-encompassing, overwhelming impression of love.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) tells us of his childhood, one where he helped his family’s window business thrive by throwing rocks through storefront glass. It becomes clear that passion drives his actions, and that he’s not above taking control of his fate, even if it means involving himself in his own hand-spun circle of success.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a beautiful woman struggling to find herself amidst the hustle and bustle of urban life, and the two become inseparable. Their love spans the duration of the film, and its the glue of their affections that holds the entire film together.

american-hustle-amy-adams-1The pair embark on a scam operation together as a means to profit from what they deem to be the “lesser” men of society. They start a loan scam, where they promise to get people with poor credit loans–for a fee of $5,000. They’re eventually caught by FBI agent Richie Di Masso (Bradley Cooper), who lets them off the hook if they agree to help him bag corrupt politicians by (similar to Irving smashing windows so his family’s business could thrive) constructing a series of set-ups where they will accept bribes in exchange for political favors.

Sydney and Irving’s actions might be deplorable, but they’re motivated by the love they have for each other. They want the successful American life everyone is promised from birth, it’s just that they take an alternate route on the way there. Happiness is at the root of their actions. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want, whether we achieve it morally or by climbing down rungs tinged with grime?

Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), is an essential part of the film’s recipe. Of course Irving is cheating on her with Sydney, and she knows it, though she consistently tries to one-up him instead of laying down and taking her final laps through marriage as a victim. The space she occupies (the home she shares with Irving and her son) becomes a surreal place of mockery, where she has lost her grasp on how to safely parent her child, causing fires, smoking, and regressing to a childlike state herself. The home isn’t a place where happiness lives simply because you paint a smiley face on it by marrying and staying together for the sake of normalcy. A home requires work and, most of all, love. It is not a puzzle that fits together just because you want square A to fit into circle B.

If the fantasy of American life doesn’t fit, you must change it.

American Hustle is a story of selfish people with selfish intentions. Russell’s outlook on the world is that it is simply too self-centered for its own good. Everybody is in the game of life for themselves, and survival becomes a tainted, layered byproduct of manipulation, jealousy, and greed

But, the film celebrates a rebel’s instinctual desire to buck the system of control, to never be confined to a single space, and to never relinquish control of his or her own destiny, and that’s far more “American” than staying inside the lines (or within the confines of your white picket fence dreams). American Hustle celebrates its right to be about so simple an idea in such an intriguing way, that the ambition and pacing of the the film as a whole become synonymous with its characters’ drive to attain freedom on their own terms.

Both Her and American Hustle show the lengths that humans will go to in order to feel something, whether it be success, monetary comfort, love, or otherwise–the desire of the human spirit to regain consciousness of itself so that it can exist in peace is at the root of both films.

Many of the year’s films revolve around these ideas of breaking free from confines. A self-imposed prison (Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis), unjust incarceration (12 Years a Slave, Prisoners), or an emotional cage in the wreckage of heartbreak (Her, Blue is the Warmest Color), screenplays about regaining a sense of self have overwhelmingly dominated the awards season discussion.

GRAVITYIt’s interesting that, in 2013, the Oscar race is so filled with these films that revolve around characters attempting to regain what was once lost. Gravity’s Ryan Stone has lost faith in humanity and in herself after losing her daughter, and the film systematically constructs a beautiful cinematic metaphor for her emotional and spiritual rebirth that carries the film to its conclusion. 

12 Years a Slave sees Solomon Northrupp kidnapped from his life as a free black man in 1800s America to become a slave in the Deep South. He confronts the evils of racism and travels to the brink of his emotional stamina.

2013 ultimately was a year of battles won. When the Academy itself makes huge changes in an attempt to diversify its image, leadership, and voting base, it’s clear the tides of culture are changing, and victory can be seen for those long seen as inferior.

The year saw three black filmmakers’ names soar through the season as legitimate awards contenders. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station was an early season favorite in key categories (Best Actor, namely), while Lee Daniels’ The Butler spat in the face of those who deemed “black cinema” (a  general descriptor, I know, but it’s for the sake of the argument, here) an unmarketable venture (it grossed nearly $150 million worldwide). I can’t remember the last time this happened, if it has ever happened in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards.

This year’s Oscars are once again, thanks to the preferential ballot, going to be driven by passionate support for smaller projects that normally wouldn’t catch Academy voters’ eyes in a year where only five Best Picture nominees were allowed.

It seems that the Academy has been attempting to restore the heart into the race, when massive campaigns and PR brainwashing has driven the awards race into an endless domino entity. Usually, we look to the precursors to definitively outline the trajectory of the Oscars. Critics circles positioned their awards earlier in the season, so they could do things like push films like American Hustle into the race with first-out-of-the-gate praise (NYFCC, here’s looking at you).

There’s a passion for the craft and a passion for a vast array of films, as we’ve seen major precursors deviate from what was expected to push what they think is the strongest film of the year. With only one week to go until Oscar nominations, there’s an entire herd heading into a pen that’s usually, this late in the game, largely less crowded. Passion is power, and people seem to be voting with their hearts.

Ultimately, as Theodore is in Her, we’re left alone to look in the mirror in the wake of these films. At the heart of top box-office draws of the year was escapism, which is equivalent to throwing a blanket over our eyes. If we’re consistently entertained by pure spectacle, how do we accept art as something multi-dimensional?

We must champion the great films from this monumental year in cinema, because they do what pure spectacle can’t—they take our hand and give a reflective clarity through the dark.