With genuinely great Best Picture nominees and some deserved Oscar frontrunners, in 2014 the Academy Awards seem more relevant than ever.
For many years now, Oscar night has been a bit of a joke – no longer the high watermark of cinematic quality, and instead a charade of politics and power-play. One only needs to look back to 2010 for a fine example of this notion, when The King’s Speech – schmaltzy and crowd-pleasing – took home the Best Picture prize ahead of The Social Network, perhaps the most important American film of the last decade.
In 2010, the schmaltzy and crowd-pleasing The King’s Speech took Best Picture ahead of the important The Social Network
When it comes to the Oscars, people tend to pitch-up in one of two camps: the one I mentioned above, and the other one, the one where the Oscars are still believed to be majorly important; the one where that little gold man still means something. There is weight in both arguments, and whilst it’s easy to dismiss the Academy Awards (as I have in the past) it’s also easy to forget that, despite the aforementioned example (and other, similar incidents) many films of recent years have taken home the Oscars they deserved.
One only need look at the likes of No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby and American Beauty to see this, and, to go further back, The English Patient and Schindler’s List to name but two more. Furthermore, actors and actresses such as Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Jennifer Lawrence and Charlize Theron have all left the Kodak Theatre with an Oscar rightfully theirs.
It’s probably fair to say then, that the Oscars these days are a mixed bag – half importance and half farce, as some worthy roses rise to perfume the bullshit. They are what you make them, and film in general will probably still be the same after the awards are handed out. After all, The Artist promised us a revival in silent film that we didn’t get and Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win was supposed to usher in a new era of Academy Award-winning women directors.
Two Best Picture nominees this year – Gravity and 12 Years – can be realistically considered two of the greatest films of all time
So what’s so different about this year and why do the Academy Awards feel important again? To start with, at least five of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees are legitimately great films, with another two – Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club – falling into the ‘very good’ category. I personally didn’t care for The Wolf of Wall Street, but if you leave my opinion aside, there are many who would put it with the five great films I am referring to: Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Her, American Hustle and Nebraska. The fact that over half of the nominees can be deemed ‘great’ feels important in a decade when we’ve seen films such as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Help shoe-horned into the Best Picture category.
To break down that list further, there are two films – Gravity and 12 Years – that can be realistically considered two of the greatest films of all time. They are the frontrunners and it will say a lot about the Academy’s attitudes if they pick either one: if they select 12 Years a Slave, the Academy will be acknowledging history as well as art, giving the Oscar to a film so steeped in poignancy that a win for it will reverberate through film culture as well as culture itself. If they opt instead for Gravity, then science fiction as a genre will, for the first time, prevail at the Oscars – as will 3D, a move that could alter movie-making as we know it.
The directors of each film – Alfonso Cuarón and Steve McQueen – are both hotly tipped, too, and a Best Director win for either man would bring about the first instance of a black or Mexican film-maker taking home the award. Then there’s American Hustle, that delightful 70s romp that could well usurp both and shift the Academy’s tone away from overtly serious fare and into film-making of sheer foot-tappingly infectious anarchy. The fact is that any of these films could win big on Oscar night and it would mean something, other than the chance for self-congratulatory speeches and back-patting, that is.
Indeed, this year’s Academy Awards are cloaked in a quandary, and a good one at that. As a final note here, it’s also worth mentioning that a film like Spike Jonze’s Her, in all its understated splendour and spark, would surely be one of the favourites in any other year. That it isn’t speaks volumes in this banner season for film. And so it is that, this year, the Oscars once again mean something. That’s the allusion anyway, so let’s just hope that the allusion isn’t an illusion; let’s pray that the right films are rewarded and that, this time, the gold on those Oscars is pure and not plated.
Featured image: Entertainment One
Inset images: Paramount Vantage/Miramax; Warner Bros