By Johnny Pomatto
It’s that time of year again. The time when movie studios trot out their awards hopefuls that they know low attention span voters will be sure to remember come voting time. But something feels different this year. Though I’ve seen nearly every high profile release to come out this year, I’m having a really hard time picking out frontrunners for awards. Is it a bad year for movies? Possibly, though the problem runs much deeper than that. The screening and voting process is letting the system down, and while it’s easier than ever to craft a narrative that will appeal to Oscar voters, the films are solely relying on their hooks more an more, without anyone feeling the need to make a good movie that surrounds them. And why should they? After all, there’s a good chance the voters aren’t going to watch their films anyways.
Last spring the Academy Awards named “12 Years a Slave” the Best Picture of the year. It wasn’t my personal favorite, but I did like it a lot and I couldn’t find much argument for why it wasn’t worthy of the recognition. Mere weeks after this year’s Oscars, numerous voters began admitting that they hadn’t even bothered to see “12 Years a Slave,” but voted for it anyways. After all, it’s a critically acclaimed movie about slavery, how could they NOT vote for it? A tragic story involving wrongful enslavement and the abuse and torture of human beings doesn’t sound like a fun watch, and voters trusted others to do their work for them. Hearing that it was a great film was enough for them to vote for it in good conscious, without having to subject themselves to a bummer of a night watching the slave movie. One of the reasons this problem is emerging more and more is because nobody goes to the movies anymore, especially Oscar voters. Now anyone in SAG or the Academy simply gets screener DVD’s mailed to them, so they can watch the newest and best movies without ever leaving their living room. This sadly means that even the films that voters do watch might be watched while playing solitaire on an iPad, reading a magazine, or perhaps in fits and starts during multiple viewing sessions, some that might never be completed. How many people began “12 Years a Slave” only to turn it off when the whips started to come out? Did voters just say to themselves “I think I got the gist of it,” and start watching their “Frozen” screener again? One can’t imagine voters actually going to a theatrical screening and just walking out halfway through when they get bored or depressed, but it’s all too easy to do that when sitting at home.
Other categories suffer from the convenience of screeners. There was a time when the most popular films nominated for Best Documentary or Best Foreign Film would never be the winners, because the awards were for the best films, not the ones that were seen by the most people. To even be eligible to vote in these categories, voters would have to attend special screenings and be able to claim that they had seen all five films nominated. Now these categories are open to all voters, and many of these films don’t appeal to the casual filmgoer. Even if you have access to screeners for all the documentaries, which would you want to sit down and watch first, the documentary about genocide in Indonesia (“The Act of Killing”) or the one about backup singers getting another chance at fame? I believe this is why the entertaining but perfectly adequate doc “20 Feet From Stardom” was such a shoo-in this year. People voted for what they saw, and most people didn’t want to sit down for a heavy downer when they could watch something lightweight and frothy instead. Sometimes current events and politics win out over something more uplifting though, which is why I’m predicting this year the trend will be bucked by the Edward Snowden doc CITIZENFOUR, which should have no trouble overshadowing more enjoyable but less important films like LIFE ITSELF and FINDING VIVIAN MAIER, though don’t totally write off the Quincy Jones produced KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON. People love their music docs.
Forgive me for boring you with talk of documentaries and such, because I know the real reason we watch awards shows is for the actors and actresses, and sadly, to see what they’re wearing. This year has given us some fine performances and I could easily fill out the four acting categories right now with some great actors, but very few of them will likely be recognized when the nominations come out. Perhaps my favorite performance I’ve seen all year is Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s MR. TURNER, and although Mr. Spall was just named Best Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle, I don’t expect him to be a frontrunner for an Oscar, as Leigh’s films tend to be a bit too quiet and British for the American voters. Other worthy performances that may have a hard time getting recognized include Ralph Fiennes in THE HOTEL GRAND BUDAPEST, Brendan Gleeson in CALVARY, Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix in THE IMMIGRANT, Scarlett Johansson in UNDER THE SKIN, Nicolas Cage in JOE, Elizabeth Moss in THE ONE I LOVE, Hilary Swank in THE HOMESMAN, and Jenny Slate in OBVIOUS CHILD. I know, I know. This isn’t the Independent Spirit Awards here, and that’s the problem. These are all great performances but they don’t follow the narrative that the Academy typically likes to honor. There are a few different types of actors and performances that the Academy voters are drawn to. One is the high profile, well-established movie star who gets rewarded for a lifetime of quality work, such as Michael Keaton in BIRDMAN or Julianne Moore in STILL ALICE. Keaton has the added bonus of being a former mega star that hasn’t had a role this flashy in years. It’s a great reminder to the voters who had forgotten that he was a serious actor and they might be eager to reward him for his past work while giving him another shot at future roles. Moore on the other hand is an actress who has been so good for so long, people have forgotten that she’s never actually won an Oscar. In a year when the best actress category doesn’t have a lot of obvious choices, Moore’s portrayal of a woman struggling with early onset Alzheimer’s might finally get her the award, for a film that’s pretty decent, but primarily serves as a showcase for her talents. Though the Alzheimer’s movie is also just the kind of film that voters might be reluctant to pop in a screener for, but perhaps they’ll be willing to pretend they watched it and vote for her anyways.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous column, the film FOXCATCHER seems perfectly designed for an awards springboard for the talent involved. Steve Carell proves his worth as a dramatic actor and wears ugly prosthetics to prove his commitment to the craft, but at the end of the day, FOXCATCHER has a really lackluster script that couldn’t allow me to embrace the film, and that’s been a problem with a lot of the Oscar bait films of the season. Sometimes a good film can become great due to a noteworthy performance, but even a truly incredible performance can rarely elevate a mediocre film in my memory and this season has brought us too many of those. There’s a lot of love for Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal as Stephen Hawking in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, and his impressive physical performance is quite good, but I found the film to be paper-thin, with most of my biggest questions about Hawking’s life going unanswered. It treats the audience like a bunch of dummies and doesn’t attempt to explain the details of the scientific theories that came so natural to Hawking. Say what you will about Ron Howard’s often maligned “A Beautiful Mind,” but that film was at least able to successfully balance stories of romance, illness, and espionage, all while getting you to be interested in math. Benedict Cumberbatch as code-breaker Alan Turing in THE IMITATION GAME gives his best big screen performance so far, but at 110 minutes the film feels rushed and unfinished. I really enjoyed the first hour, but once the Enigma code is broken the entire remainder of WWII is reduced to a montage and we’re treated to incredibly pat and simplified scenes attempting to wrap up what should feel like a rich and detailed story. Paul Thomas Anderson’s INHERENT VICE, (which I reviewed back in October), opens on Friday, and it boasts a fantastic cast, one that the Independent Spirit Awards honored with their Robert Altman Award for Best Ensemble Cast. While the film does feature a collection of some of the finest actors working today, the film is so scattershot and hazy that one leaves the theater without having any of them make much of an impression, with perhaps the exception of Josh Brolin. Still, it doesn’t surprise me that while the casting of the film is being celebrated, few of the individual performances are being singled out. These are just a few of the examples of some of the recent films that I was disappointed by, but I could have just as easily pointed to others like ROSEWATER, THE JUDGE, FURY, ST. VINCENT, KILL THE MESSENGER, THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU, and a slough of others. What’s important to note is that these are the films that the studios are using as Oscar bait. They represent what the studio feels is the best they have to offer, and this year, more than any other in recent memory, it just isn’t good enough.
There is however one film worth singling out as what I predict will be an awards success story, and an example of the system working. Last year “Dallas Buyer’s Club” opened in early October to decent reviews but minimal hope for a sweep of awards. However, Focus Features was so aggressive in releasing screeners of the film to anyone in a guild that by the time January rolled around there wasn’t a single voter who didn’t have a copy sitting on their coffee table. The film that did modest business theatrically was discovered in the homes of thousands and that provided the momentum for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to win Oscars, as well as the film getting numerous other nominations I don’t believe it ever would have gotten based on its initial reaction. I predict that this year Dan Gilroy’s film NIGHTCRAWLER will have similar success. After opening theatrically in late October playing only to niche audiences, people are still talking about the movie more and more weeks later. Jake Gyllenhaal, who has already been having an outstanding couple of years with fantastic roles in films like “Prisoners” and “Enemy” gives a career best performance as Louis Bloom, a sociopath with an unhealthy drive for success. Everyone who sees Gyllenhaal in this film can’t stop talking about him. It’s like you can see the precise moment in the film when he becomes true movie star. What started out as a mild response to the film, should snowball into raves by January. Whether Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is too creepy and unsavory to headline the best actor category is yet to be seen, as the Academy usually likes to reserve villains for supporting categories and feature heroes in the lead ones, which is why I like J.K. Simmons’ chances for Best Supporting Actor for WHIPLASH. Gyllenhaal’s is one of the only performances I’ve seen all year that I believe has the power to energize filmgoers and stick in their memories. I wish that the algorithm for success in awards season wasn’t so mathematical and precise, and I wish voters didn’t require having their memories jolted, or worse, being flat out told what to vote for, but for the time being it’s the only system we have. I find myself becoming less and less infatuated with the importance and meaning of the Academy Awards with each passing year, but I’ll remain hopeful that some great films and performances will be able to slip through to our consciousness, without them being dangled in front of us like a worm on a hook.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes