The old “Merriam-Webster defines such-and-such as” is a trite and lame trick that people use to start their speeches. I’m not sure when or how this trope started, but clearly, it has taken off as pop-culture’s shorthand for saying, “Hey, you, watching this TV show, this is going to be a bad speech.” When someone’s uncle gives a wedding speech in which he begins by defining marriage, does he not realize that we’re all at a wedding, and therefore understand the concept of marriage? Definitions are important when they provide clarity to otherwise vague ideas.
The definition of the Academy Award for Best Picture, according to the Oscars website, is just “the best motion picture of the year.” This does not accomplish the goal of definitions, you’ll notice, as it provides no clarity to an extremely vague idea. What on Earth is the best motion picture? You’d think the definition of the award may say something like: “The Academy Award for Best Picture goes to the film which most captured the attention of critics and filmgoers alike” or “Best Picture is awarded to the motion picture which the Academy deems to be most aesthetically, culturally, or historically significant in a given year.” But no, it just is what it is, the Best Picture. This…is a problem.
If I asked every WFNY writer what their own personal Best Picture is, I’m sure I would be met with many movies of widely-varying genres, critical acclaim, and box office earnings. That’s because people have different opinions on what matters and what doesn’t. I’m a critics guy myself, so I always read the thoughts of specific individuals whom I hand-selected because their tastes often link up with mine. But, I’m not closed-minded enough to think that this is the “proper way;” no, this is just the way that I prefer to live my life. You’re welcome to choose your own method, so long as you choose. The Oscars have refused to do that.
So we’ve established that people weigh certain attributes about movies differently, and that makes sense. Like all art forms, beauty is at the eye of the beholder. So what happens when a giant group of individuals choose from a large sample of “good movies?” Let’s call this the Central Limit Theorem (CLT) of the Oscars because I know that everyone wants to learn some math!
Say I’m a penguin scientist, and I want to learn about the height of male rockhopper penguins. How would I accomplish this? Well, first I’d fly to the Falkland Islands, south of Argentina, and then I’d measure and graph every penguin’s height. When I was done, the graph would look like a bell curve around 20 inches, because that’s the average height of a rockhopper penguin. But obviously not every rockhopper penguin is 20 inches. Some might have lived on part of the island with great sunlight and nutrients and grew 27 inches, and the opposite could just as easily be true.
Each Oscar voter is like one of my rockhopper penguins, and the voting preferences are like 20 inches.1 Except unlike penguins being 20 inches, the most common voting tendency isn’t necessarily the right answer, and sometimes the best movies of the year are on the fringes. A movie with 51% of voters wins Best Picture no matter what, even if the remaining 49% were so repulsed by that same movie that they left the theater early. Is the Academy Award for Best Picture the movie that made people the happiest, or is it the movie that’s the most artfully crafted? Does it portray every culture accurately? The movie that the most people saw?
Nope, it’s none of these things. It’s The “Best Movie,” essentially a compromise. Some may want the woke, artsy film that pushes boundaries, and others may want a popcorn flick that made them feel good for two hours. And that’s not even considering the nomination process, which is more of a political battle than it is an artistic one. For instance, Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You was one of the most notable movies of the year, there’s no question. The first-time filmmaker Riley made an absurdist, dystopian movie with ideas rarely depicted in mainstream cinema. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say the movie goes to some unique places. That kind of artistic boundary pushing is exactly what the Academy should be rewarding. But, it’s not, because according to Riley, no campaigning was done. That’s right, movies are politics now.
The Oscars are interesting, they’re historical, and they’re on the biggest stage. I’m not saying any of that is bad. But maybe we shouldn’t take their choices as seriously as they take it. Don’t compromise, and don’t let Oscar choose your Best Picture, choose it for yourself.
With that in mind, here is an extremely incomplete list of some of my favorite movies of the year that aren’t nominated for Best Picture:
It’s shocking how little awards buzz Damien Chazelle’s third feature flick has attracted, but I think a lot of that has to do with viewer expectations coming into the movie. From the outside, First Man is a space movie and a historical biopic, not exactly covering new ground. But it doesn’t feel like any of the movies that fit those categories. Indeed, this movie doesn’t need to be about Neil Armstrong, or even about astronauts. This is a movie about masculinity and grief, and how a man repressed his feelings of loss and put himself through extreme conditions with no concern for his own mortality. Ryan Gosling plays the role of soft-spoken and masochistic leading man with the kind of subtlety that’s almost never rewarded with trophies, and Claire Foy truly gives a voice to the role of his wife Janet, which is so often a thankless role. The one advantage that First Man carries as a biopic is that we know Neil Armstrong doesn’t die young, so instead of fearing for our protagonist’s doom, the viewer can focus on the sheer intensity of the space flight scenes. And all of that leads up to Neil’s moon landing, a moment s0 visually stunning and emotionally cathartic that…I’ll admit it, I may have been moved to tears.
Oscar noms: 4, for Best Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
A feature film for the TV age, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is at once unlike anything modern day auteurs Joel and Ethan Coen have ever done and also a movie that could only have been created by them. The eponymous singing cowboy, joyfully portrayed by Tim Blake Nelson, is only on screen for ten or so minutes, but that’s no spoiler. It’s just the length of the first of six short stories that comprise the film. In addition to the vociferous and musically-inclined Buster, the Coens bring to life stories of a bank robber, traveling entertainers, a gold miner, and more, all set in the Old West. The cast is too vast and star-studded to list, but Tom Waits2 and Zoe Kazan were the highlights for me personally. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs streams on Netflix, so go ahead, watch it now. I won’t be offended if you stop reading.
Oscar noms: 3, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Song, and if it wins the latter of which, I will personally get Demarious Randall to purchase every reader those Cavs jerseys
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Can You Ever Forgive Me tells the story of Lee Israel, a once-successful biographer down on her luck and starts forging literary letters to make a quick buck. Melissa McCarthy plays the role of Israel, and the comedian-by-trade gives a grounded and realistic performance in her first dramatic role, not exactly what you’d expect from a comic actor so talented at broad comedy. Richard E. Grant also gives a memorable performance as her colorful right-hand man Jack, and the two of them are able to carry this slow-burn story to lofty peaks. Co-penned by talented filmmaker Nicole Holofcener and artfully directed by Marielle Heller, Can You Ever Forgive Me is a low-stakes crime movie whose three-dimensional characters and performances made it one of my favorites of 2018.
Oscar noms: 3, for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay
An Oldie and A Newbie
For this segment, a newbie is something that came out very recently (i.e. in the last several weeks), and an oldie is anything else. So please don’t be angry when I don’t choose The Big Bopper or something as my oldie. I know I’m using the term wrong.
After Ian Curtis’s passing, the band Joy Division picked up the pieces and renamed itself New Order. Age of Consent is the first track off of their 1983 classic, Power, Corruption & Lies. I love how catchy this base-driven track is, and how much it reminds me of the 80s in all the right ways.
Seventeen is the lead single from Sharon Van Etten’s fifth studio release Remind Me Tomorrow, an album that marks a dramatic shift in Van Etten’s sound. Gone is the sad, but lovely indie folk, and replacing it is catchy, synth-driven pop rock.
Happy Friday, everybody! Enjoy your weekend!