A quick note from the writer before I launch into the year in movies: awards shows have become hopelessly outdated, mundane practices in faux appreciation of a bye-gone era. I can’t stand to watch them. Rather than watching the ridiculously monotonous and overly cathartic Golden Globes awards this season I simply live-tweeted the event (Thank you Brian Koppelman for doing that voodoo that you do!) Of all the awards shows in Hollywood the Oscars are the most self-indulgent, over-the-top practice of self-love that reminds the huddled masses around America why they, just that one time in what seemed like a totally inconsequential election, voted Republican. That’s right, folks. The Oscars should be our reminder of that permanent stain on our flag that will take generations to remove: the Bush administration.
On that note, let’s talk about the few things Hollywood got right this year! A curious decision was made by the Academy a few years back – and I would argue that it was largely nostalgic – to expand the best picture category from five to nine films. Not since the 1990’s has Hollywood produced nine movies that actually warranted the consideration of best picture. Let’s not forget what the 1970’s and ‘80’s did to the film industry either, creating lopsided dramas with little to no production value and placing them with “mainstream” Hollywood films, but alas we cannot deal with the transgressions of the entire history of an industry so let us simply scold the industry as it exists now for it’s hopeless exercise in excess.
The films nominated for Best Picture this year are: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street. Note that of these films only five really deserve to be nominated. 12 Years a Slave was clearly the best film to come out of 2013 and is probably the greatest film ever made about slavery in America. There were other films that were entertaining and have legitimate bona fides as well. American Hustle was (next to Walter Mitty) the single most enjoyable film experience I had this year. Dallas Buyers Club was disturbing on many levels, Gravity was truly thought-provoking, the Wolf of Wall Street was hilarious, and Her was one of the most well-thought out visions of the future I’ve seen.
There are only a few films that should be nominated for Best Picture however: 12 Years a Slave, Her, Frozen and Saving Mr. Banks. Yes, my choices are not in the mainstream of Hollywood critical consensus, but if you think about what the Academy Awards are supposed to be celebrating: great achievements in filmmaking and not what they’re actually celebrating: how wonderful of an industry they are then my picks make perfect sense and are totally in line with the pre-2000s view of what the Oscars are supposed to be. In the 1990’s, when Disney made a great children’s movie like Frozen (which was fucking spectacular and I say that as an adult) the film got nominated for Best Picture. The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin were all nominated for Best Picture. The last animated film nominated for Best Picture was 2009’s “Up” in what was a terrible year for cinema.
What Hollywood is actually putting forth with these nominees is what it as an industry is most proud of creating. Hollywood is the most vain place on the face of the Earth and they prove it to us every year with just one over-the-top awards show that makes everyone hate them for another 364 days. Consider last year’s winner: Argo. Argo was a film celebrating the ingenuity of the film industry. It was made by someone who had a clear understanding of what Hollywood wanted and delivered something that made the Academy feel good about themselves. This year they will do one of two things. They will either award Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave based on actual merit (it was the best film of the year) and since Hollywood likes to think of itself as this great little progressive machine that is constantly making up for society’s failures all the while patting itself on the back in the process this would make sense. The alternative that is looking more and more likely after the SAG awards Saturday night is that the Academy will, in a desperate attempt to remain relevant, give the Best Picture award to the only film nominated for the award that any regular person has seen: American Hustle. American Hustle is not the best film made this year though it is entertaining. One does not win an Academy award based on merit however; they win by playing to their audience. It’s what every good performer does and it is something that American Hustle’s director David O. Russell is becoming a master at.
The Year in Screenwriting
2012 was an incredible year for screenwriting. Life of Pi was a masterpiece, Argo captured the beauty of what people can do when they work together, Zero Dark Thirty was a love poem to the human spirit. 2013 had a lot to live up to. The year was kicked off, for me at least, by the wonderful little rom-com that could Pitch Perfect. I can’t say enough good things about this film so I’m not even going to attempt to. It was the John Hughes movie that my generation so desperately needed. The year continued with strong writing in Lee Daniel’s The Butler. This year could arguably be summed up by what two exceptional films did that had proved so difficult to do previously: talk about race relations in a way that every American should be able to understand.
The disaster that was 2011’s the Help can now fade into the dark annals of wherever it is that digital films recede to. If The Butler was not enough to make you think about our incredibly disturbing past of not only racial discrimination and prejudice but sadomasochistic behavior with regard to African-Americans then hopefully 12 Years a Slave was able to turn the light on for you. John Ridley’s brilliant script deserves more than an Oscar because 12 Years a Slave is more than just a film. 12 Years a Slave is a raw, chilling look at a past that to this day people continue to defend as not only non-discriminatory but an institution that “wasn’t that bad” for the African and African-American men and women held in bondage. The film doesn’t show the slave hunting that occurred in Africa, where white prison ships filled with glorified missionaries were sent to abduct Africans from their homeland and force them into a system of racial prejudiced genocide that we have still yet to come to terms with.
There were some great moments in writing across the board from Gravity to Her to American Hustle there were phenomenal ideas that were shared with audiences around the country that filled us with new hopes, new dreams, and a new sense of identity. Gravity lifted us up to a world most of us have never seen before: outer space and did so in a way that was both compelling and thought-provoking. American Hustle was my favorite film of the film of the year from a pure entertainment perspective. The Wolf of Wall Street is a close second, but what David O. Russell has accomplished over the last two years with Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle is nothing short of remarkable. We have so many things to be excited about when it comes to the future of filmmaking.
Not only did American Hustle tell an interesting story it did so with gusto and with a sense of style that has come to dominate storytelling this year. What I’m talking about is the way that writers and directors are interspersing different elements of time into continuous running storylines. This is a process that had been used more often in television than in cinema, but what American Hustle did in the beginning of the film setting us up in the room with people who clearly knew each other, but we the audience had no idea how or why, and then to continue that narrative flow throughout the film blending storylines together like a painter mixing colors was something that few filmmakers would have the guts to try let alone pull off and Russell deserves praise for the way he told the story of American Hustle just as much as he does for executing a flawless production of the script.
I saved two of my favorite conceptual scripts for last. Saving Mr. Banks and Her were audacious films that were truly revolutionary both in the way that they approached their topic and the manner in which they captured the essence of what lies at the depths of our souls as human beings. In Saving Mr. Banks we follow the writer PL Travers as she fights not only her own fears about the adaptation of her book Mary Poppins but her own demons from her childhood that give us a glimpse inside both Travers and the man who understood the necessity of capturing Travers’s story on film. The film is remarkable for its performances but also for its smooth writing style and ability to, like American Hustle, incorporate multiple storylines into one flowing stream of consciousness narrative that tugs us in so many different ways that it is difficult to know how to feel at the end of the film. By the end of the film we have seen so many things, experienced so many emotions, and been on so many journeys that the lesson cannot be easily disseminated from the viewing experience. This is what great art is; it’s ambiguous and I can hardly think of a better word to describe Spike Jonze’s masterful tale: Her.
Her is a love story…well kinda. It’s a story about love as experienced between people, within ourselves and our love of our own consumer culture. The brilliant part about Her is that by the end of the film we realize that the main character has seen, done, and felt all of the normal human emotions that one feels in a relationship, but all of it seems fake because he didn’t experience these things with someone else. Her is the kind of film that makes us hopeful for humanity and gives us a slightly dystopic vision of who we will become, but does so in a way that reassures us that as long as we remember what is important we can come through it alright. Her not only drags us through the emotional turmoil of a complicated relationship and the heartache of a break-up that is as complex as any normal breakup of relations between people but Her forces us to face the fact that the entire relationship only existed with one person. It would have been simple for this film to leave us with a false hope for the future, that is what most Hollywood film set in the near future are designed to be; cautionary tales, but Jonze has the foresight and the wisdom both as a writer and as a filmmaker to understand that there is something deeper and more meaningful here.
Jonze shows us that love is a complex that we create, define, and destroy all according to both societies’ expectation of what a relationship should entail and our own personal feelings of what we should get out of a relationship. Part of the beauty of Her is the knowledge that in the main characters mind he really went through a relationship. He went through all the stages, felt all the emotions, and fell in love. He knew it couldn’t last, but how many of us haven’t been in that place? Her is a film that film students will write about in the future as giving them a new sense of purpose and hope for the future of filmmaking and just as Ridley deserves all the praise in the world for bringing 12 Years a Slave to life Jonze deserves the same accolades for creating a world that we, the audience, had the privilege of being a part of.
A case for (or against?) Saving Mr. Banks.
Saving Mr. Banks was one of those films that went in a bunch of different directions. It was tangential at times and many parts felt miscast. That being said, it’s actually a very good film. The Academy did not nominate the film beyond the acting categories because it would have been seen as too biased in doing so. This was a film about how great Hollywood was and still is which is why I’m a little surprised to see it not get nominated despite the fact that no one saw it. The film is not without its faults but overall it’s a very good film. If ever there were a case for a three hour film this year I think Saving Mr. Banks had the story that deserved that kind of in depth treatment. This was a film that struggled in the marketing game though. If I’m making this movie I’m constantly asking myself: “who is my audience?” It appears as though no one involved in the making of this film ever asked themselves this question. This isn’t all that surprising seeing as how this came from the studio that brought you epic flops like John Carter and the Lone Ranger; both films cost in excess of $250 million to make and brought in less than $100 million in ticket sales.
It feels like the film was marketed exclusively to the Academy with the belief that the clear bias of the Academy would propel the film to a bigger audience. That did not happen and the film has not done what it was supposed to do as a result. Even had the Academy bought into the film however I think it’s doubtful that the film would have caught on with audiences. The film tries so hard to cover everything that it fails to adequately cover what it needs to cover in order to beat audiences over the head with its message. Come to think of it: what was the message of that film? That we have to let go? You could derive many meanings from the film and that’s a problem. The story arcs either weren’t developed enough or the writers tried to take on too many different things at once. Because so much of the film took place in the past it is difficult to ever truly feel sorry for the main character despite the fact that she clearly lived a very hard life. The question you keep asking yourself though is: why does she keep taking out her anger on these people? The folks at Disney didn’t make her father an alcoholic (or did they?) When you have so many moving parts it’s difficult to maintain a steady message to your audience. There were also myriad emotions that you were supposed to feel at different stages in the film’s development and that leaves an uneasy feeling among audiences.
The film also felt miscast. I don’t think I’ve ever thought that Tom Hanks was miscast in a role before but I just wasn’t feeling his Walt Disney character. Through most of the film it just seemed like Hanks was trying too hard. Another miscast role was Colin Farrell who was way in over his head as the alcoholic father of the film’s protagonist. This was a role that was clearly written for Johnny Depp but was given to Colin Farrell for reasons passing understanding. I also wondered about the actual Mary Poppins character in the film’s back story. I wanted to know what that character did to make the main character feel so strongly about her. This could have been easily explained by having this character show the main character the importance of her father or why he wasn’t a bad guy. That would have tied the story together in a much clearer way than it was. The Mary Poppins character in the back story sees maybe fifteen minutes of screen time, which makes one wonder why she was even in it at all.
Saving Mr. Banks did have its redeeming qualities and that’s why despite the reasons I’ve outlined above I’m a little surprised that it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. It certainly had its flaws but are you going to sit here and tell me that Dallas Buyers Club didn’t? The Wolf of Wall Street with its excessive run time and lack of a cogent message was perfect? American Hustle was just as deep as the film’s producers wanted you to believe? Gravity was completely plausible? The only film that you can say was done flawlessly was 12 years a slave. As I’ve said that’s probably the best film ever made about slavery in America and it really deserves to win Best Picture, but my gut tells me that the honor goes to the film that pleased audiences the most and that apparently was American Hustle.
A Case of Indifference
I want to talk about the three films that were nominated for Best Picture that no one has seen or will see for that matter. Nebraska, Philomena, and Dallas Buyers Club are all good films, but they’re not films that anyone is going to enjoy sitting through. In short, they’re not entertainment, they’re art and what’s worse is that they are art that was made for art’s sake. You don’t nominate that stuff and subject audiences to things they know nothing about. That’s just dumb marketing. The Academy should know better at this point and simply nominate a more deserving film (like Saving Mr. Banks) or slim the Best Picture category down to three or four films. I know the thinking behind nominating nine films is that audiences will go and see more movies if more are nominated, but you can’t find a theatre that’s showing half of the movies that are nominated this year.
It’s absolutely absurd and it makes the Academy seem elitist and out of touch to think that an audience would want to sit through another Judi Dench performance or in depth Bruce Dern interpretation because they just love acting that much. I mean, just think about that for a second, even I had a tough time sitting through those films and movies are everything to me. I would have liked to see 42 get some love from the Academy as well. It was a fantastic sports film. Sports films are tough to make because people have such strong feelings about them, but 42 is one of the best I’ve seen probably since Seabiscuit. Fruitvale Station was an interesting concept movie that could have seen some acting nominations. I think the whole August: Osage County film got way too many award nominations for an otherwise mediocre film. I’m also having a difficult time with the fact that The Butler got no nominations. That was a really good film and if it had come out later in the year probably could have contended, it’s just sad to see a movie like that come up short because of its release date. My guilty pleasure movie this year was hands down: Mud. What a great story and compelling coming of age tale. I put it right up there with the Spectacular Now in terms of rejuvenating that genre. I wish Mud had gotten more attention but like The Butler, Mud suffered from an early release date (April) and outside of a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, not a whole lot else in terms of accolades. Salinger should have got a nomination for best documentary. See it; it’s a really interesting story with some compelling theories about J.D. Salinger who wrote probably the greatest book about being misunderstood: The Catcher in the Rye.
The Forgotten Man
I’d like to comment on the category that seems to be the forgotten man this year and that is the original score category. Because it’s become completely farcical in terms of the awards process (and because there aren’t any other awards that go to composers or main categories that composers compete in outside of original song) it’s tough to take this category seriously anymore. Serious film music enthusiasts certainly don’t take the nominations seriously and many haven’t for a decade or longer. The Academy simply doesn’t know anything about music and it shows. Year after year they parade the forgotten casts of Cats and Les Miserables on stage to deliver performances that no one cared about in the first place. All of this leaves a bit of an Admiral Stockdale feeling amongst audiences around the world as they watch these performances that are as self-indulgent as the academy is vain in putting them up there to begin with.
Thomas Newman wrote an incredible score for Saving Mr. Banks and in my mind – at least out of these nominees – has to win this award. There were so many other great scores that weren’t even considered however and how Abel Korzenioski managed to get shut out after two brilliant scores (20ll’s W.E. and this years’ Romeo & Juliet) is beyond me. Also, why do we still have a best original song category? “Happy” from Despicable Me 2 and “The Moon Song” were the only songs that had any place in their films. The rest of the nominated songs were just window dressing. While I’m on the subject of ridiculous things that are still a part of the awards show I want to tackle short films. Shorts are very important when it comes to developing a young filmmaker but I can guarantee you that save these people’s parents absolutely no one at home cares about these things. As I’ve said, they’re critical to the development of young filmmakers, but they take up a lot of time that could be saved for acceptance speeches.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
I like the fact that we give out awards for excellence, but I cannot stand awards shows. They’re so outdated. The only event that gets more viewers than the Oscars is the Super Bowl. Why do people watch though? It’s a bit of a cultural thing for one and it’s because we don’t generally have anything better to do on a Sunday night since the football season is over. But I have begun recently to seriously question the efficacy of awards shows given where we are as a culture and as a people. At the turn of the twentieth century for instance, Barnum & Baileys Circus was hailed as “the greatest show on Earth.” We do not continue to go to the circus today because clowns kill people. We do however still watch awards shows. Awards shows are interesting to see what people are wearing, how celebrities interact with one another, and to recognize what people have accomplished in the film industry over the past year, but does the awards show format need to stay the same?
It’s always a mix of comedy that isn’t funny, presenters performing well-rehearsed but poorly conceived jokes, and the Hollywood self-love fest where Hollywood talks about how great they are. Why not change it up a little? It can still be three hours long or whatever but why not try something different for a change? You don’t even have to hold my attention just don’t make me cringe. That shouldn’t be a high bar to overcome, but given the dismal and apoplectic nature of the jokes as well as the performances by trained actors, someone should be thinking up a way to make awards show more entertaining and less dreadful for the audience as opposed to what Hollywood is currently doing: trying to find a way to make awards shows more self-indulgent.
Perhaps Kanye West needs to get involved. Throw in a Kardashian or two or seven. Maybe Richard Sherman can make an appearance and talk to us about sportsmanship (in all seriousness though, he wrote an awesome piece this week that really is must-read.) I’m sure you could get a rather diverse audience if you had The Bachelor and the Duck Dynasty folks on to talk about gay rights; that and I’m pretty sure Twitter would explode. My point is that there are lots of ways to draw an audience and you don’t necessarily have to be clever to do it. I mean, Justin Bieber egged someone house and it was all over the news. I’m pretty sure that guy is at least eighteen and has more money than my entire readership combined yet he keeps crawling down Charlie Sheen Way toward the intersection of Britney Spears Ave and Lindsay Lohan Lane.
Anyone who knows anything about entertainment can tell you tales of the golden eras. These were times when industries were supposedly booming and had reached their fever pitch. Of course, we only realize when an industry is booming once it has declined, but because of the way we choose to look at the world we like to believe that the convenient context that we have for things that happened in the past was also present when these enterprises were still flourishing. It’s a strange mix of nostalgia and our constant longing for a bygone era. We tend to remember the past as better than it was and the future as less resolved than it will be. This is why Depression is the number one killer of adults 18-44. Not Heart Disease, Cancer, HIV/AIDS or any other horrific ailment. Depression: the silent killer winds up killing the most. Depression isn’t just killing young adults though, it’s also killing Hollywood. Though I would never mean to suggest that Hollywood is suffering from self-esteem issues, I do think that Hollywood longs and has always longed for the days of yesteryear when the masses packed the movie house and audiences couldn’t wait to see the next picture show. The only problem was that there was no time like this in American history.
The days of huge, elegantly decorated movie houses that we would look at today and guess were actually opera houses were actually a relatively short-lived phenomenon much like Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. Did you know that Barnum & Bailey’s ran for less than ten years? The two men; James Bailey and P.T. Barnum only worked together from 1882 until Barnum’s death in 1891. Yet, if you were to go to the circus museum in Delevan, WI (a place I’ve been to more than once) you will see the saddest displays of trinkets, ticket stubs, and memorabilia. Nothing there is of any real consequence, it exists purely to remind us that such a thing happened and that such an industry once flourished. This is what Award’s shows are going to look like years from now because television won’t always be the dominant medium for everything. Eventually we won’t need to watch things on a sedentary device, sitting in one place, while thinking our own thoughts and wandering through our own dreams. Someday it will all be gone and we’ll remember it as better than it was because that’s the way it always turns out and that happens because that’s the way it’s always been.