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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

Academy Chooses for the Future: ’12 Years a Slave’ Takes Best Picture

downloadLast night, the Academy thought forward and, at long last, chose a Best Picture winner for the long-haul. Below is a full list of Oscar winners (American Hustle went 0-10! Holla!). My in-depth recap will follow later this week.

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’0 – 12 Years a Slave
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze – Her 
Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave
Best Film Editing: Gravity
Best Cinematography: Gravity
Best Costume Design: The Great Gatsby
Best Production Design: The Great Gatsby
Best Original Song: “Let It Go” from Frozen
Best Original Score: Gravity
Best Visual Effects: Gravity
Best Sound Mixing: Gravity
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club
Best Sound Editing: Gravity
Best Animated Feature: Frozen
Best Documentary Feature: 20 Feet From Stardom
Best Foreign-Language Film: The Great Beauty
Best Live-Action Short: Helium
Best Documentary Short: The Lady in Number 6
Best Animated Short: Mr. Hublot

I Thought Oscar Nominee ’20 Feet From Stardom’ Was Down With Sisterhood, Until…

53966_38e5f603f4085f24d4a0b82934869943_194c0351f9aae66208af9dd312dc3458One of the finest documentaries released last year, Morgan Neville’s Oscar-nominated 20 Feet From Stardom, quickly establishes itself as a celebration of song, passion, and sisterhood.

It’s a film that, like most great documentaries, takes us beyond the veneer of something we so often take for granted. Background artists (whether in film or music), by all means (given their proper name), are relegated to second-tier status during any major performance. Extras create a believable scene around the star, and backing vocalists bolster the solo performance.

20 Feet From Stardom takes us on an almost fantastical journey through the lives of several vocalists who’ve made a living making as the building blocks of performance. Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, and Judith Hill have shared the stage with the likes of Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, and Sting. Their names aren’t synonymous with solo success but, through 20 Feet From Stardom‘s lens, their stories are beautiful, their presence justified to an audience who, in any other context, would’ve let them blend into the shadows of the stage.

While the film is a marvelous exercise in allowing us to glimpse into another facet of the minority voice, it’s also a celebration of the unity–an almost subcultural family–that these singers formed. They share experience, talent, and an adoration of the craft they’ve perfected over the years. We’re watching artists who’ve overcome the same racial, social, and industry biases as those who receive top billing on the marquee.

Neville makes it clear–like a great documentary filmmaker should–through the juxtaposition of images and patient observation, that these women are, in many cases, more talented vocalists than the singers they stand behind. We don’t need to be told much of anything, as a great documentarian establishes his status quo without words, rather through the overall establishment of a quiet narrative ideology within his work.

Neville, for the most part, allows his subjects’ stories to speak for them. No words exist that could possibly match the tragedy of an seeing artists such as Claudia Lennear and Lisa Fischer teaching Spanish and standing in line at the DMV. Our judgments aside, however, the artistry is what’s important to them, and there’s a sisterhood, a companionship, and a yearning for comfort and validation that unites these women in their shared struggle for fulfillment across different avenues–musically or otherwise.

Neville’s camera is present, yet never prodding. We feel as if these stories are unfolding with us along for the ride, like a child curled up at the lap of a grandparent, drinking in the history, the experience, and years’ worth of pride layed out before us.

There’s a scene, however, which nearly derails the entirety of Neville’s work, that removes the camera’s appreciation for its subjects and replaces it with a sharp, judgmental tone that doesn’t jive with the rest of the work.

A large portion of the film is spent so lovingly engaged–like a hapless soul love-drunk in the presence of a voluptuous other–in his subjects’ work, that there’s little judgment that seeps through the cracks, until Neville takes a very noticeable jab at a contemporary artist.

Toward the end of the film, we’re introduced to Hill, a backup singer who was prepping for Michael Jackson’s This Is It tour shortly before he passed. After Jackson’s death, Hill performed at his funeral and found momentary attention from the media. Her image was defined by association with a superstar. She was a backup singer famous for being a backup singer, though she values her individuality as an artist. Her desire to go solo is made clear, and she consistently notes that she rejected every touring or stage background singing gig she was offered so as not to become pigeonholed by the industry.

Shortly thereafter, we’re shown a clip of Jay Leno introducing Kylie Minogue as a performer on his show, with Hill singing backup. Hill claims countless people dismissed her for lowering herself to such a position, and that she even tried to drastically alter her appearance (with a wig and heavy makeup) in hopes of not being recognized.

It was undoubtedly a move that would pay Hill’s bills, and Minogue clearly shares a different career and artistic trajectory than Hill, though Neville’s inclusion of it begs the audience to compare both women’s talents, and ultimate come to the conclusion that Hill is superior to another.

A film which seems to value and explore the alternative to the norm, the diss is surprisingly off-key, demeaning whatever path Minogue took to achieve her success.

UntitledThe jab not only upsets the tone of companionship and celebration of artistry the film seeks to establish, but is also unfair to Hill, as it forces the audience to consider the legitimacy of what she’s saying about desiring to be a true artist instead of a check-hungry star. This forces us to then carry judgments over to other aspects of Hill’s career. She appeared on NBC’s “The Voice” just last year, though Neville wisely does not include any mention of it in 20 Feet From Stardom. Is that not, from the perspective of the filmmaker who chose to diss Kylie Minogue, similarly deplorable for a true “artist”?

It’s here that the technical seams begin to show. When a documentarian’s hand is evident, the world we’re soaking up onscreen starts to unravel. Neville’s opinion on artists and their genre is irrelevant, and the focus is momentarily distracted from the well-made points he established earlier in the film.

It opens the film and its subjects up to unnecessary criticism. It’s a dark cloud of negativity and personal opinion that momentarily takes the film from celebrating artistic value and struggle to elevating itself above an alternate facet of the art form we’ve spent the last 90 minutes celebrating.

Individuality, on the other hand, is something Hill should by all means strive to savor. The film hits upon so many meaningful topics of survival. Bills need to be paid, but singularity in any form is natural to human existence. Whether hearing their voices on radio hits without shared credit with the main artists or watching solo projects circle countless drains, that’s where the beauty of the film shines; the persistence of art and individuality comes at a price, though happiness doesn’t have to go down with the ship.

2013 was a strong year for documentaries. Affect turned to action for many who viewed the staggering amount of quality documentaries released last year. Blackfish stirred a sleeping public to action, while films like Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing inspired intense introspection as they deeply explored their subject matter.

Tomorrow’s Academy Awards will likely tip the balance of a heavily-competitive year for documentary films in the favor of one. 20 Feet From Stardom and The Act of Killing are the likeliest contenders to win the Oscar. Experts predict The Act of Killing, though the broad appeal of 20 Feet From Stardom fits nicely within the narrative of the season. 20 Feet From Stardom puts minority voices put on display, much the way 12 Years a Slave amplifies the racial tensions we still endure in our society to this day.

The accessibility of 20 Feet From Stardom works in its favor. Its editing and technical construction are brilliant but, like a fictional narrative, however, its constructed nature seeps through the cracks and reveals various inconsistencies, and for that it’ll likely be singing backup for The Act of Killing  come Sunday evening.

Accessible Oscar: 2013’s Nominated Films You Easily Can Watch Before Sunday

The-Broken-Circle-BreakdownYou know Gravity. You know 12 Years a Slave. You’re (most likely) sick of American Hustle by now (and if you’re not, you don’t belong in a serious Oscar conversation, anyway).

2013’s crop of Oscar-nominated films contains some remarkably high-profile pictures, yet the most unoriginal commentary plebians use to describe the Academy Awards still resonates with grating ignorance as it carries over year after year.

Common man, you’re still not cool for saying “They only nominate movies that, like, no one has ever heard of.”

It’s more fair to say that the films which run the yearly awards gamut are easy prey for the burnout machine. With countless articles, podcasts, tv shows, and magazines covering the standard awards season contenders, we often grow tired of the mere sight of the frontrunners’ names, let alone are we able to force ourselves to sit through them more than once.

With the potential for 10 Best Picture nominees each year, the Academy has—in this instance only—wisely expanded the podium for smaller films to be seen by wider audiences. Without Best Picture support and the pre-nomination buzz the potential for an extra five titles brings, the likes of Philomena, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club, or even Her might not have found the (still relatively small) audiences–or place within awards season–that they eventually did.

It was especially evident in 2013 that studios wanted Oscar voters and audiences alike to see their films. Screeners were sent out in droves to Academy members, and multiple re-releases occurred from December through February (12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and Dallas Buyers Club each received late-run expansions in the midst of Oscar season).

Frankly, there’s no excuse for not having seen the Best Picture nominees by Sunday. All nine are currently playing in theaters. All but one are playing at over 175 locations, which means they’re more than likely playing at a theater near you. Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, and Nebraska each are on DVD as of this posting. While its DVD release date isn’t expected until March 4, you can also catch 12 Years a Slave on iTunes for an inflated ($14.99 to own) price.

Seeing each of the Best Picture nominees also checks a great deal of have-seen boxes in the acting and technical categories as well, as the only films from the other major categories (acting, direction, and screenplay) not represented in the Best Picture race are August: Osage County, Blue Jasmine, and Before Midnight.

We’re experiencing an age where the film industry is more accessible than ever. In particular, accessibility to Oscar-nominated films is practically forced upon you. Studios want you to see their awards season contenders, mainly because the critics and guilds which usually determine the trajectory of awards season are growing increasingly rogue, throwing their weight behind whichever film makes them look like the sexiest group of thinkers.

Audiences have more power than ever before, considering the Academy tends to take a few key factors into consideration when voting, one of which being a group consensus of their peers and the public. Audiences loved Argo, The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Slumdog Millionaire, and each of those films boasts a crowd-pleasing aesthetic in all departments.

It’s easy to see how this logic would make Gravity a near lock for Best Picture by this point in the race. 12 Years a Slave is divisive, and that’s usually the last thing you want when heading into a showdown with a weighted ballot, as the Academy uses to determine Best Picture.

On a scale ranked from 1-9 this year Oscar voters will place their favorite films in order. A film needs to secure a certain number of #1 votes in order to pass the first round. Gravity is universally-appealing, secured high-profile awards from two guilds that share crossover membership with the Academy (DGA and PGA), stars two Hollywood heavyweights, has a socially-relevant narrative on its side (visibility for women! minority director!), and racked up nearly $300 million domestically (over $700 million worldwide), meaning its ascension to the number-one spot on most voters’ lists won’t be filled with many obstacles. 12 Years a Slave will easily take a percentage of #1 votes (passionate support for the film is strong), but its strengths are counterbalanced by its divisive nature, meaning it could rank far lower on many voters’ lists.

Why does placement matter? If a film like Captain Phillips receives the least amount of #1 votes in the first round of voting, its votes are then redistributed amongst the remaining titles and it is eliminated from contention. So, #2 and #3 votes then become important. This means that the film that wins Best Picture then needs to secure a decent amount of #2, #3, etc. votes so that enough are redistributed on to its pile when the other films are eliminated, until only one is left as the Best Picture winner.

Whether 12 Years a Slave wins or not, its importance lies within its mere existence, and you should see it. At a time when minority directors sparingly find work, Steve McQueen’s film has inserted itself as relevant in a society where the minority voice is threatened in all aspects of American life. It would be undoubtedly exciting to see a film about slavery win the Best Picture prize for the first time (though it would be playing into a white man’s tastes, as the Academy is overwhelmingly white and male), but its accessibility on a multitude of platforms (VOD, theaters, and DVD within the coming weeks) is key for the success and profitability of these types of films in the long run. If they’re consumed across all platforms, they’ll get made.

People will (and need to) watch it. After all, isn’t the point of making a movie to get people to do just that?

I’ve already told you where you can see the most popular of 2013’s nominees, but a great deal of smaller films from last year that were nominated for Oscars are readily-available as well. If you don’t live near a big city, you can easily find many films that populate the “lesser” categories of the Oscars on services like Netflix, iTunes, and on DVD or VOD. They are:

THE FEATURE DOCUMENTARIES (NETFLIX, ITUNES)

The Act of KillingThe Square, Dirty Wars, The Act of Killing, and Cute and the Boxer are each available to stream on Netflix for free with a subscription. You can easily make a night of indulging in these Oscar-nominated films, as they’re not very long and require a small amount of patience, as they’re all quality films with engaging subjects. 20 Feet From Stardom, however, is available to rent on iTunes for a mere $0.99.

If you only watch one, watch: The Act of Killing, as it will likely be the winner.

FOREIGN NOMINEES THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN, THE GREAT BEAUTY, AND THE HUNT (ITUNES)

the-hunt2A powerful crop of nominees in the this year’s Foreign Language category, three of the five nominees are available to watch for rent on iTunes. The Broken Circle Breakdown is one of the most devastatingly beautiful films in recent memory, as is The HuntThe Great Beauty won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, while Omar and The Missing Picture are expected to release sometime soon.

If you only watch one, watch: The Hunt or The Great Beauty if you’d like to watch the winner. Watch The Broken Circle Breakdown if you want to watch the best of the nominees. It’s reminiscent of 2010’s Blue Valentine, but bites much harder. If every Oscar voter saw The Broken Circle Breakdown, we’d be looking at a very different Best Picture race altogether. Some of the finest performances of the year are housed within its two-hour running time.

SCREENPLAY NOMINEES BEFORE MIDNIGHT AND BLUE JASMINE (ITUNES, DVD)

Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen's Blue JasmineRepresenting both the Adapted and Original Screenplay categories, respectively, both Before Midnight and Blue Jasmine are available on iTunes and DVD. While not as high-profile or as widely-seen as the other nominees in their categories (American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Captain Phillips are their competition, mind you), these films are easy to sit through and pay off quite nicely. Both are from established, legendary auteurs, and they shouldn’t be missed in the grand scheme of movies, let alone in this year’s Oscar race.

If you only watch one, watch: Blue Jasmine, as it’s a standalone piece (whereas Before Midnight is part of a series), and it’s nominated in two other categories, likely to win one for Cate Blanchett in the Lead Actress category (she gives one of the finest performances of all time as the titular character).

DOCUMENTARY, LIVE-ACTION, AND ANIMATED SHORTS (SELECT THEATERS, ITUNES)

Slider-Home-1Probably everyone’s least-favorite categories to predict (I admit, even I stumble when it comes to seeing these things), the shorts are often the most difficult to fit into your need-to-see schedule before the Oscar telecast. This year, they’ve played at over 400 theaters across the country since January 31st thanks to Shorts HD and Magnolia. It might take some digging, but find a local theater that’s playing them and show these little guys some love. They’re also available on iTunes as of today.

So, there you have it. You’ve just been given a wonderful insight into where and how you can watch a majority of the Oscar-nominated films. You might have procrastinated up to this point, but just know that more accessibility to more Oscar-nominated films means you’ll have no excuse for having “not heard” of or “not seen” next year’s batch.

‘Gravity’ Wins Best British Film: ‘Philomena’ on Track for Oscar and BAFTA Glory?

Judi Dence and Steve Coogan in PhilomenaThe greatest joys of Oscar season come most unexpectedly.

Oscar Bloggers and audiences alike love to think their opinion matters; that their collective desire to see any given film or performer triumph over the others will result in a win; that their prognostication skills means something in the grand scheme of the race.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts has, for the past 5 years, merely reaffirmed the course set by the rest of the Oscar precursors. Prior to that, their taste seemed to differ largely from the Academy’s. Films like Brokeback Mountain, The Queen, The Aviator, The Pianist, and Atonement rose above eventual Oscar Best Pictures Crash, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby (which wasn’t even nominated for the BAFTA Best Film award), Chicago, and No Country for Old Men, respectively.

When did a defined split in taste somehow result in a streamlined confluence of opinion between the BAFTA and AMPAS? The BAFTAs have gone from quirky outsider to meaningful forecaster.

Their opinion matters.

It’s not enough to merely say that the British will vote for the British. Many of those films which won over the eventual Academy Best Picture winners were American, directed not by British or American people, about un-British topics, set in locations that weren’t, well, Britain.

It seems logical to attribute this to the increasing number of British members in the AMPAS, given that crossover membership between BAFTA and the AMPAS, the DGA and the AMPAS, the PGA and the AMPAS, the SAG and the AMPAS, is so huge (and has grown so much over the years) that the Oscars generally end up being feeling like a late-to-the-party whimper that merely nods at what the others have already brought to the table.

What does this mean for this year’s race, then? That, in the short voting frame of Oscar voting (which began on Friday and lasts throughout the coming week), pictures with British ties such as Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity will likely all receive a boost in votes from the Academy.

In terms of Best Picture, It’s safe to say that American Hustle is essentially out of the race, and will most likely go 0-10 at the Oscars. They paid David O. Russell and Silver Linings Playbook little attention last year (remember Jennifer Lawrence’s petty reaction to Emmannuelle Riva taking top honors in the Best Actress category?), and the tide of awards season took a strong turn toward two films with British ties—Gravity and 12 Years a Slave—earlier this year. Gravity now has a PGA and DGA award under its belt, while 12 Years a Slave boasts two major awards from the PGA (tied with Gravity) and the Golden Globes.

grav-1Philomena, on the other hand, is also nominated in both the Outstanding British Film category and the Best Film category, a distinction shared only by Gravity (12 Years a Slave missed out on the former as it’s an American production). In essence, Philomena is a much stronger contender in the overall race that no one seems to be throwing a credible bone.

If we look at the things Philomena has going for it, its odds for taking top prizes in both major categories at the BAFTAs tonight are much greater than Gravity’s. Gravity was directed by a Mexican (Alfonso Cuaron), whereas Philomena is helmed by one of the most respected British directors working today (Stephen Frears). Gravity was written by Cuaron and his son, while Philomena’s screenwriters are British, and tell a tale that’s set in the region, chronicles the lives of regional characters, and is acted out by British actors.

Gravity’s appeal is more international, given that its plug-and-play plot can be enjoyed by anyone in any part of the That’s not to say that Philomena’s appeal is only palpable in Britain, it’s just that Philomena is a film which better represents UK talent, subject matter, and all-around visibility in the industry.

In essence, that likely means that Philomena is poised for Best Film over Best British film. Why? Let’s take a look at Stephen Frears’ last major contender in the BAFTA race. The Queen posed an interesting split in both major categories within which it was nominated. Up for both Outstanding British Film and Best Film, it managed to both beat (for Best Film) and lose to (for Best British Film) The Last King of Scotland, also nominated in both categories. If anything, this proves the existence of groupthink mentalities that seek to spread the wealth across a variety of different films in any given awards race. It’s statistical nonsense. If The Queen won Best Film, is it not also, then, the best British film?

The split generally happens more often than not:

2006: The Queen wins Oscar, wins Best Film, loses Best British Film – The Last King of Scotland wins Best British Film, loses Best Film

2007: Atonement loses Best British Film, wins Best Film, loses Oscar – This is England wins Best British Film, isn’t even nominated for Best Film

2008: Slumdog Millionaire wins Best Film, loses Best British film, wins Oscar – Man on Wire wins Best British Film, isn’t even nominated for Best Film

2010: The King’s Speech wins Best British Film, Best Film, and Oscar

Essentially, the cross-winning and cross-losing cancel each other out. If a film loses Best British Film to a picture that’s not even nominated in the Best Film category, is it truly the Best Film?

The key year to remember, then, is 2010, when The King’s Speech won both Best Film and Outstanding British Film. As Gravity has already take the Best British Film award, it’s likely that Philomena will take the Best Film prize, as a split generally always happens between the two categories, as evidenced above, though it’s not entirely unlikely that the split doesn’t happen this year.

Could this be Philomena’s late entry into the frontrunning lines? We’ve seen crazier things happen this Oscar season. It’s never a bad thing to head into Oscar voting with a prominent industry awards ceremony backing you as Academy voters are busy ticking off their ballots. If Academy members are genuinely paying attention to the industry around them, they’d have wisely set their ballot aside on Friday. Tonight’s BAFTA Awards ceremony is the last, most visible precursor they have to steer them along their course.

Philomena as Best Film this evening could, for about the 9,874th time this awards race, shift the tide. Stats are on its side, as Best Film at the BAFTAs has, recently, won Best Picture at the Oscars.

After all, they’ve got the last five years of matching tastes to uphold and continue. No one wants to deviate from the course—especially these “new” BAFTAs.

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

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

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

Everything is there, and everything is convenient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a) Ignore minority existence, whether intentionally or unintentionally

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

or

c) Both

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.