Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 Oscars: Final Thoughts

And so it ends. After what I felt was one of the most impressive years for film in recent history, after all the analysis, after all the speculation, after all the predictions, the 87th Annual Academy Awards are complete. And here I share my final thoughts on the ceremony. Feel free to read and comment with your own thoughts of how it all went.

I like how in the end it seemed like a montage of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu just winning a bunch of awards.

I didn't do amazingly in terms of my predictions. I got 16 out of 24, which isn't terrible, but is a step down from how I usually do. But, in fairness to myself, I expected not to do well this year. There were so many unpredictable awards. And so while there was nothing that came entirely out of left field, there were plenty of awards that had me on the edge of my seat. Even though, considering how many other awards it won, Birdman's Best Picture award shouldn't have seemed surprising, I still was wondering if Boyhood would eke out a sentimental win. In my own predictions, I discussed that I was torn over whether Birdman (my favorite film of the year) should win, or if it would be Boyhood (which I think has a broader appeal and makes a stronger case for its own longevity), but ultimately I'm really glad the award went to Birdman. I obviously think it's an incredible film, but more than that, it's a remarkably well-made film. Every component of this film is so beautifully done. I've spoken to a few people who did not like it, but their complaints have always come down to problems with thematic elements. It's impossible to deny how technically incredible this film is--from the cinematography, the score, the use of sound and light and space is just beautiful. Piece by piece, Birdman is not just my favorite film of the year, I believe it truly is the best film of the year. And the Academy honored it rightly.

But it is an unconventional Best Picture winner. It's message is more introspective than momentous, and it feels incredibly experimental and unOscary, and I kind of love that. It's also the first film to win Best Picture without a Best Editing nomination since Ordinary People way back in 1980. I'm not sure what that means, but it's something. That's not the only thing that's momentous. Last year, Alfonso Cuaron became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Director. Now, just one year later, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu becomes the second, and bodes well for more international films to gain recognition. It's also why Sean Penn's green card "joke" before presenting the Best Picture film was really in poor taste. That unnecessary comment kind of soured the moment for me.

Here are some other awards that stood out. Ida became the first ever film from Poland to win Best Foreign Language Film, which is great. Composer Alexandre Desplat, who is probably my favorite film scorer working today and always creates quirky and fun scores, won his first ever Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel after eight nominations. Whiplash did really well--a relatively low budget film won deserved awards for sound mixing and for editing (the famous nine-minute drum solo at the end of the film was cut together from, reportedly, 23 hours of footage, and yet works as a seamless piece. That's all due to the editing and the sound). A lot of people had been calling the editing award for Boyhood, and while I think Boyhood arguably deserved more than the one Oscar it received, that would have been wrong. Its champions pointed out "They had to edit a movie down from twelve years of footage!" No they didn't. It was not twelve continuous years of footage--it was the same footage as any other film, and while it was certainly put together well, Whiplash was a much more impressive feat. While we're on the subject of sound, American Sniper won the sound editing award which I'm okay with. After the film performed surprisingly well in terms of nominations, and had been gaining momentum due to its impressive box office haul, some had been calling it as a potential upset to win more major awards like Best Actor and Best Picture. Given my less-than-impressed thoughts on the film as a whole, that it took home only one award, and that was for sound editing, is perfectly fine by me. I was also very pleased with Big Hero 6 taking home the award for Best Animated Feature, in a bit of an upset over How to Train Your Dragon 2. I loved that film and it absolutely deserved its win. I was also glad to see The Phone Call triumph in the Best Live Action Short category. Even though I predicted it would win, it was not a sure thing at all, so seeing such a deserving film win was very satisfying. Featuring an amazing performance by Sally Hawkins (who gave one of the best performances of the year--if short films were eligible for acting awards she should have been nominated) it is one of the most emotional 20 minutes I've ever experienced. Which is why it was so funny to see how quirky, aloof, and seemingly unserious the filmmakers were in their acceptance speech.

I was less pleased with Feast's win for Best Animated Short. Of the nominees, it's the one the most people saw since it was before Big Hero 6, and it certainly is cute and I know it has a lot of fans. But, when seen side by side with the other nominees, for me it was pretty clearly the least impressive. The others tell much more complex stories and feature much more impressive and evocative animation. It didn't win because of its quality, it won because it's a Disney film and was the only nominee with brand recognition. Considering that last year, the more deserving film, Mr. Hublot, beat out the Disney nominee everyone expected to win, Get a Horse!, I was sad to see that pattern not repeated this year. Another award I wasn't thrilled about was the win for The Grand Budapest Hotel in the makeup and hairstyling category. A lot of people thought it would win, and yes, the old age makeup on Tilda Swinton was good, but Guardians of the Galaxy certainly achieved a lot more with its makeup on a wide number of characters. In terms of design, execution, and sheer scope, it should have run away with this award hands down, and its failure to do so demonstrates the Oscar's unfortunate aversion to comic book films--even those which were critically acclaimed. But, that being said, no other award really left a bad taste in my mouth. The ones I didn't agree with were not entirely unexpected, and there was no great injustice. If Interstellar had won for sound mixing, for instance, I was ready to swear I'd never watch a movie again, so I'm glad that never happened. Looking over the awards themselves there is very little to complain about.

And the speeches were pretty great. It's common amongst acceptance speeches to mention fellow nominees, and say how they are just as deserving of the award, but I thought Inarritu's directing acceptance speech said this more concisely than any other speech I've ever heard. He didn't just say "you all deserve this," he made the point to say that it is impossible to compare the work of him and the fellow nominees. And it's true. Inarritu's directing in Birdman was absolutely incredible, and he won due to his signature technical achievement, story-weaving, and style. But he lacked the ambition and audacity of Richard Linklater, the sheer distinct vision of Wes Anderson, the emotional intimacy of Bennett Miller, or the high-fastening pants of Morten Tyldum. It's not that they all deserved to win, it's that they all deserved to win for different reasons. And Inarritu expressed that in a way I've never heard in an acceptance speech before. Well done. There were really no speeches that stood out to me in a bad way, as there often are in other years. Acceptance speeches can lead to awkward moments, but everyone was very gracious and charming and wonderful (although, Julianne Moore's seemed a bit rehearsed--I have a feeling she started writing that speech four nominations ago). And it was nice to see an emphasis on social justice. It used to be the trend that Oscar winners would mention a certain cause in their speech, and while that still happens, it's not as common as it used to be. But this time, many worthy causes were championed. Inarritu also implored America to show immigrants more respect during his speech when Birdman won best picture (his third speech of the night). From the winners of Best Documentary Short Subject imploring us to talk about suicide, to Patricia Arquette calling for us to pay more attention to women's rights, it was a politically charged Oscars to be sure. The best speech of the night was, by far, the one given by John Legend and Common when they won for their song "Glory" in the film Selma. It was the frontrunner going into the ceremony, but after the live performance, it would have been criminal for it not to win. It blew the other nominees (and it was a good batch of songs this year) out of the water with its sheer power and importance. The tears-inducing reception it received was a wonderful reminder of how the arts can affect us on such a personal level. It also made me consider Selma as a whole, and what its place in history will be. Many felt it was snubbed by the Oscars, and it was. But, remember, Selma is still a Best Picture nominee. And that is a pretty big deal. You know what other film was a Best Picture nominee but didn't get any nominations in other major categories like acting, directing, or screenwriting? The Wizard of Oz. And that film is doing okay. Who knows how history will judge this current batch of films. Looking through old Best Picture nominees is a fascinating experiment--some films have stood the test of time, and some have not. They may have taken home the same number of awards tonight, but I cannot help but feel that people will be talking about Selma long after they've stopped talking about American Sniper. Sure, it would have been nice for Ava DuVernay to have been the first woman of color nominated for Best Director. And the Academy definitely has some major problems with diversity. But Selma is going to be okay. And, I can't help but mention that Birdman's awards dominance meant that many awards went to Latinos, so the award-winners were surprisingly non-white, all things considered.

Of the acceptance speeches, there was only one that left me a little bit annoyed. And that was Graham Moore's speech after he won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game. As many people loved that speech, please hear me out. The speech on its own was fantastic. It was another speech that brought in a political cause, specifically LGBTQ rights. Moore mentioned how, when he was young and depressed, he contemplated suicide because he felt "weird and different" and that he "did not belong." His speech called out to everyone who felt weird or different, and encouraged them to hang on, because one day they might make it where he is. It's a beautiful and important sentiment, and a powerful one. He prefaced all of this by pointing out that Alan Turing, The Imitation Game's subject, never got to stand on such a stage, and he did. Turing was, infamously, unrecognized for his accomplishments and that is forever a stain on our historical record, considering this man's contribution towards winning the war (and, you know, basically inventing the computer), and that the reason he was unrecognized for so long was because he was persecuted for his sexuality is simply despicable. Moore's speech was powerful, and it was timely, and it pointed out how Turing's story related to the present, and why it's important that his story be told, because honoring and remembering Turing can actually save lives. And THAT is why his speech annoyed me: because it did everything that the screenplay for The Imitation Game did not. The film shows how instrumental Turing was in winning the war, yes, but it glosses over his sexuality. We never actually see him engaged in any sexual activity, or any relation with a man whatsoever. The takeaway from the film is that Turing was not recognized for his work during his lifetime, but it never makes it clear just how much his accomplishments were buried SPECIFICALLY because of his sexuality. At the end of Turing's life, his health had deteriorated rapidly due to dangerous medication and treatment he was forced to take to cure him of his homosexuality. This is shown in exactly one scene, and the actual symptoms he demonstrates are much softer than what Turing actually went through. In the film, it seems as if Turing has just come down with a bit of a cold. In reality, it was much worse. His persecution--the very thing that makes Turing so tragic and what makes it especially important that we celebrate his accomplishments now that we are aware of them--is basically glossed over and tampered down. And that is the fault of director Morten Tyldum, that is the fault of the producers, and it is very much the fault of Moore. It's possible that more of this existed in Moore's earlier drafts, I don't know. But regardless, his speech showed the potential of how great The Imitation Game could have been and simply wasn't. I loved Graham Moore's speech. But it reminded me of how absolutely lackluster and disappointing the film that he won the award for truly was.

The other thing that really rubbed me the wrong was was the exclusion of Joan Rivers in the In Memoriam montage. Overall, I liked the montage--the decision to cut out the live sound feed was a great one. It always bothers me when people applaud during this section. Not only does it feel like people are going "Gee, I'm glad HE'S dead," but the loudness of the applause tends to place an uncomfortable imbalance on the weight of those who died. In previous years, the more recognizable names get thunderous applause, but the death of a prolific cinematographer, for example, would not. It always feels like "Yeah, we're honoring those we lost, but these are the people who are REALLY important." And so having the audience's sound cut out during the broadcast pleased me. But to not include Rivers? Shameful. She is a controversial figure, to be sure, but was incredibly influential in the entertainment industry as a whole. Although best known for her stand-up and for her work on television, her wikipedia page credits her with involvement in 27 films (more than some of the other actors nominated, such as Misty Upham, who died tragically young last year) including the fantastic documentary about her life from a few years ago. Anyone who doesn't think Rivers is deserving of respect should watch this film, which certainly does not paint her as a saint, but showcases the truly groundbreaking work she did. More than that, though, Rivers' red carpet presence connected her very personally with the Oscars themselves. Rivers is widely credited with making the red carpet ceremony so popular, and while the red carpet feels increasingly inane year after year, to not honor someone who so significantly impacted the ceremony's telecast is truly baffling. She absolutely deserved mention. Excluding her was a clear slap in the face.

I also didn't love the Sound of Music tribute. I know a lot of people loved it, so again, hear me out. I thought Lady Gaga was great--she admirably left her signature weirdness at home and demonstrated what those who pay attention already know: that she is an incredible singer. When Julie Andrews came out, visibly overcome with emotion, it was a pretty magical moment. So, why did I not love this? Because the entire time I was thinking "This is great, but why am I watching this?!" Considering the ceremony ended after midnight, a random medley of songs from The Sound of Music came completely out of nowhere. Sure, it's a great film, but we don't honor every classic film on its 50th anniversary with a speech, a movie montage, and a rather long musical performance. What was it doing there? The segment itself was great, but this was really not the place.

Last but not least, we have the host. Neil Patrick Harris has, by hosting the Oscars for the first time, seemingly hosted every single awards show ever now. And he proved once again that it's a role he's really good at. He's a man of many talents and infinite affability. It's just hard not to like him (and only he could have made the Witherspoon with-her-spoon joke work). The opening number was strong and a great way to start off the show (although I wish that instead of talking about movies in general, more focus had been paid to the actual nominees that night, which felt very much lost in the shuffle). Harris popped up from time to time and while some of his jokes hit harder than other, many landed really strongly. The writing overall was good, and Harris' performance was great. He had less to do as the ceremony went on, as is often the case, but what he did he did well. That being said, he didn't really make his mark on the ceremony the way last year's host Ellen DeGeneres did. With taking selfies and ordering pizzas, DeGeneres really made the show feel like hers, which Harris didn't. He was very game (loved the Birdman reference where he presented in his underwear) and competent, but not extraordinary. The closest he came to really putting his individuality into the ceremony was with the briefcase containing his predictions. This was, of course, a magic trick, where when he opened the briefcase, he could display detailed predictions about the proceedings (like the Ida director getting played off, only to keep talking, and having to get played off AGAIN). Harris has always been a magic enthusiast, and is a more than competent magician in his own right, and it was clear that this moment was meant to be the big reveal-- a magic trick where the untouched briefcase contained impossible predictions! Versions of this trick have been done before, and always gets a great reaction at magic shows. But...this was not a magic show. We were not an audience who were there to be amazed, we were an audience that wanted to hear who had won awards. So, that Harris' "big reveal" came at the very end of an already too-long ceremony, with just one award left to give out, rather than being amazed, I just felt impatient. About halfway through the ceremony I had predicted that something like this was going to happen, but I was really hoping that all of Harris' predictions which go through everything that happened in the ceremony were going to be in song or rap form. For those who don't know, Harris has closed the Tony's the past few times he has hosted with a song composed throughout the ceremony which goes over everything that happened. If the briefcase had contained lyrics to such a song and Harris had sung it. When he's done that at the Tony's it has always been incredible, and is a signature thing of his which could have been carried over to this ceremony and made the whole thing much more incredible. Instead, it was a nice effort that just kind of fell flat. That being said, it's impossible not to like Harris. His hosting was not as outstanding as it could have been, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. All in all, I left the Oscars feeling happy and contended. This awards ceremony that I love so much--a ceremony that continues to honor achievement in the arts, and which continues to inspire those future Oscar nominees and winners out there, had a really great showing tonight. And I couldn't be more pleased.

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