Oscar Season

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

140423084516-people-mag-most-beautiful-cover-horizontal-gallery

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.

Lupita-grass

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

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

Final Oscar Predictions: ‘American Hustle’ Keeps Dreaming, ‘Gravity’ Pulls Ahead

gravity-movie-review-spaceGauging the months of speculation, bickering, championing, and–of course–whipping out your notebook to take notes in the middle of a crowded movie theater, it’s unfathomable to think that it all amounts to a single night.

Tonight, the 86th Annual Academy Awards will make believers out of skeptics, perhaps proving that the Oscar voters we spend so much of our time putting faith in–because maybe they’ll do the right thing this year–won’t let us down. Maybe they didn’t even entertain the idea of placing American Hustle at #1 on their ballots. Maybe they realized how laughably out of place Jennifer Lawrence’s performance looks amidst the competition. Maybe Spike Jonze will tonight win his first screenwriting Oscar for Her‘s marvelous script over David O. Russell’s barely-there skeleton of a screenplay.

We can dream, can’t we?

It’s so peculiar that a film that’s so laughably inferior to the other films in the race relies so heavily on the very idea of lofty expectations and fantasy existence–dreams, if you will. American Hustle is about slimy characters who dream of a better life, whose grandiose expectations yield shifty crimes and short-lived highs, wrapped up in a flashy package, directed by a renowned filmmaker with an astounding Oscar track record (despite not having won a single statue). Russell managed to get his cast nominated in each of the four acting categories two years a in a row. His work represents the often never-realized dreams of the Academy’s largest branch–the actors. But, it also invites its audience to feel superior to its characters in a sense that isn’t endearing or tongue-in-cheek. We see them as scum, without much redemption.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Screen Actors Guild–with large crossover membership with the Academy’s 2o% acting membership–bestowed its top prize upon American Hustle. For so many, it embodies the spirit of the dreamer.

The dream for tonight, then, is that American Hustle goes down without a single win. It belongs nowhere near the Oscar race (save for Amy Adams’ performance, which is justifiably better than one or two of her fellow nominees’). Scantily-clad women. A plot that’s not really a plot so much as a meandering narrative that’s not really about this, sometimes about that, and all the time about shouting, sex, and trying to justify itself as something greater than it actually is. In other words, it’s typical Academy fare.

o-american-hustle-trailer-facebookWhile Academy voters are still overwhelmingly old, white men (93% white, 77% male), that didn’t stop them from listening to the industry around them when they voted Gravity and 12 Years a Slave into the race, with an astounding 10 and 9 nominations respectively.

Gravity is a British-American co-production driven by a middle-aged female performance, directed by a Mexican filmmaker, and 12 Years a Slave is directed by a black man, about “black issues,” starring a predominantly black cast–you know, to them, this is only a “black” movie, and the majority of them have objectified the racial aspect of the film. It’s great that minority representation is finding its way into the Oscar race, but does either film stand a chance in the grand scheme of the race?

If you’re a by-the-book prognosticator, your answer must be yes. Gravity has, perhaps statistically, the strongest chance of winning going into the race. What it has going for it and against it:

– 10 total nominations, with a guarantee on approximately seven (Director, Cinematography, Sound Editing + Mixing, Visual Effects, Score, and Film Editing [If you’re ticking off multiple boxes, logic would only tell you it’s appropriate to notch a #1 vote in the Best Picture box]), two of which are generally claimed by eventual Best Picture winners (Director and Film Editing) – Strong support from guilds with crossover membership (Directors Guild of America win, Producers Guild of America tie with 12 Years a Slave)
– High-profile visibility in the months leading up to the Oscars (huge worldwide box-office, largely positive response from critics and audiences, which indicates general plug-and-play appeal that the Academy tends to go for)
– Lacks a screenplay nomination

12 Years a Slave, however, has sentiment and passion on its side which, as we’ve learned, is sometimes enough to win. 12 Years a Slave‘s awards summary:

-9 total nominations (though only a lock in a single category [Adapted Screenplay]) – Strong support from critics (the best-reviewed film of the year), though underwhelming box-office indicates lesser appeal across many markets
– Huge Golden Globe win for Best Picture – Drama in January, prior to Oscar voting
– Subject matter that turned many Academy members and audiences off (if you read around the trade papers and websites, many “anonymous” Oscar voters share similar sentiments regarding the film, saying that it was “too much” or “torture porn”, in some cases)
– Inevitable racial objectification at the hands of Oscar voters (they see only the race issues, which precede the film’s existence as a cinematic achievement and work of art)

History and logic would tell us that Gravity will win, though 12 Years a Slave seems to be riding along the narrative path Oscar voters are forging. If this is a split year between Best Picture and Best Director, 12 Years a Slave will most likely have upset in some of the lesser categories with stronger-than-expected support across the board from Oscar voters. If the tide turned in 12 Years a Slave‘s favor during the eleven-day voting process, we can expect it to take things like Best Film Editing and Best Supporting Actress away from Gravity and American Hustle respectively.

years3Of all the acting categories, its surprising that the one which isn’t locked-up (Blanchett, Leto, and McConaughey are all too far out front to abdicate) will indicate Academy support across the board. I’ve had a sinking feeling that American Hustle will emerge as the surprise winner in many categories tonight, though Supporting Actress is the most likely. Jennifer Lawrence is a fabulous actress with a huge career ahead of her, though her performance in the film is stilted. The film overwhelms her. She’s wooden, aware of the camera, and has a charismatic ability to have fun while onscreen; none of this, however, translates into a good performance. She’s great fun to be in the presence of, though 30 seconds of Lupita Nyong’o’s work in 12 Years a Slave puts everything Lawrence does in American Hustle to deep shame.

It seems that Oscar voters (and the industry in general) wants to forge a path to superstardom for Jennifer Lawrence, versus letting her find the work and the roles for herself. They want to be there at the beginning of the trajectory, they want to carve her ascension to the stars with gold. Last year was justifiably the right time for her. This year, it’s simply embarrassing that she’s nominated.

Tonight has the potential to be over shortly after it begins, as key categories are often announced early. Supporting Actress and Editing generally come before the halfway mark, and have the potential to set a course for the evening. If 12 Years a Slave is to take Best Picture, look for it to steal these awards away from the current frontrunners. On the technical side, be prepared for a 30-40 minute segment where nothing but Gravity racks up statues. It’ll likely take a large chunk of aesthetic awards, but don’t let that lull you into thinking it will win Best Picture by default.

It’s difficult to imagine a film like Gravity not doing well on a preferential ballot. The race is essentially down to three films: American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave, each with vastly different appeal. Is a voter who puts American Hustle at #1 on their ballot likely to put Gravity at #2 or #3? Is a voter who places films that are likely to be eliminated in the first few rounds–like Philomena or Captain Phillips–likely to put 12 Years a Slave as their #2 or #3? I’m of course making the mistake of assuming that appeal remains the same across each of these films in terms of voter perspective. It’s simply too difficult of a year to accurately predict.

It’s easy to tell if a voter who liked Captain Phillips for the right reasons (it’s critical of American domination) will like 12 Years a Slave, as they’re both critical of and relevant to tensions of inequality with themes applicable to contemporary culture. If an Oscar voter understood Captain Phillips to be a rah-rah America tale of patriotic heroism, it’s extremely difficult to accept that this person would put 12 Years a Slave high on their ballot.

It’s a contentious year with no clear outcome. We can only, as we do every year, put our faith in a system of voting and a crop of voters we never trust, to make a decision that essentially means nothing in the grand scheme of life. After all, Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain did nothing but tarnish the Academy’s image. The Color Purple‘s lack of a single Oscar win only hurt the voters who shunned it, not those of us who enjoy it to this day. Whether Gravity or 12 Years a Slave win the Oscar, their presence as quality films won’t diminish.

Is it so much, though, to ask that the celebration of film be done right? Is there even a right way to do it?

We never lose faith that the Academy has the potential to do just that. It’s enough faith to get us back into the awards season machine in a few months. After all, Toronto, Telluride, and Venice are right around the corner–sort of.

Predictions for the 86th Annual Academy Awards:

Best Picture:
Gravity

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity

Best Actress in a Leading Role:
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Best Actor in a Leading Role:
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Original Screenplay:
Spike Jonze – Her

Best Adapted Screenplay:
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave

Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film:
The Hunt

Best Documentary Feature:
The Act of Killing

Best Documentary Short Subject: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Best Live-Action Short Film:
Helium

Best Animated Short Film:
Get a Horse!

Best Original Score:
Steven Price – Gravity

Best Original Song:
“Happy” by Pharrell Williams – Despicable Me 2

Best Sound Editing:
Glenn Freemantle – Gravity

Best Sound Mixing:
Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro – Gravity

Best Production Design:
Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn – The Great Gatsby

Best Cinematography:
Emmanuel Lubezki – Gravity

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:
Adruitha Lee, Robin Matthews – Dallas Buyers Club

Best Costume Design:
Catherine Martin – The Great Gatsby

Best Film Editing:
Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger – Gravity

Best Visual Effects:
Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould – Gravity

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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.

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.