Monday, March 3, 2014

86th Academy Awards [2014] - A Year of Greater Openness to the (Previously) Marginalized

IMDb listing
Previous/Other years

The 86th Academy Awards [2014], came and went yesterday, and for the first time since beginning my blog in the Fall of 2010, I was pleasantly surprised with the way the Awards came out.  For I had been surprised, but not exactly pleasantly, by the results of the first Academy Awards show that I reviewed here (the 83rd Academy Awards [2011]).

The run-up to that year's Academy Awards proved most similar to this year's: There were some very modern, forward looking films in contention that year (Inception [2010] and The Social Network [2010]) as there were this year (Gravity [2013] and Her [2013]).  There were films nominated that were about re-working past masterpieces and re-evaluating past history (Black Swan [2010] and True Grit [2010]) as there were this year (Blue Jasmine [2013] and 12 Years a Slave [2013]) where often the films' heroes/heroines came for the ranks of the previously marginalized (The Kids are All Right [2010], True Grit [2010] and Blue Valentine [2010] vs The Dallas Buyers' Club [2013] and 12 Years a Slave [2013]).  Finally even the hosts themselves (Anne Hatheway and James Franco in 2011 vs Ellen DeGeneres this year) signaled a "toward the future" orientation of the Academy.

YET as I wrote after the 2011 Oscars, "as the curtain fell ..., the big winner was a movie about a stuttering, long-dead, white, war-time King (where even Churchill, if not John Wayne, was a character in the story), and the two young starry-eyed hosts of the show were widely panned."  Indeed, the high point of the 2011 Oscars ceremony was when previous (and far older) Oscars host Billy Crystal (who was invited back to host the 2012 Oscars the following year) came on stage to introduce an award and even talked to a hologram of a revered (but long deceased) even earlier Oscars host, Bob Hope.

At this year's Oscars, things were different.  In contrast to 2011's hosts Anne Hatheway and James Franco (both young), pretty much by all accounts this year's host Ellen DeGeneres (middle-aged but openly also gay) did a great job.  And the big winners this year were:

12 Years a Slave (the true "Count of Monte Cristo"-like story of African-American citizen Solomon Northrup who was born and had lived all his life in pre-American Civil War free-state New York but when he went down to the Washington D.C., our nation's capital, was drugged, abducted, trafficked South and Sold where he remained as a slave for 12 years);

Gravity (every bit as visually spectacular as Inception was in 2010.  Inception won also various technical awards in its year, but certainly not for directorship, which went this year to Gravity's Mexican born Alfonso Cuarón Orozco).

The Dallas Buyers' Club (about the early, most desperate years of the AIDS crisis).

Even the internet/computer dramedy/romance Her got a screenplay award (as did The Social Network in 2011).

Given that in recent years the Academy has gone for the "middle of the road," and often "feel good" dramas, even when it was _not_ necessarily easy to find something to "feel good" about a particular story (Argo [2012] was the big winner at the Oscars last year), I was more or certain that the middle-of-the-roadish American Hustle was going to win best picture (along with a number of the other big awards) at the Oscars this year.  Instead, despite being nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it was shut-out this year as 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and even The Dallas Buyers' Club "sucked up most of the oxygen" this year.

So actually, I'm both surprised and kinda impressed that the Oscars this year proved to be more than an excerise of handing out of "life time achievement awards" to (previously) deserving performers and film-makers for their work in (current) "okay" but not necessarily spectacular films.

Indeed, there still could have been a little bit of this "let's award the middle of the road" phenomenon in this year's awards: While "near-SciFi" Gravity did win a lot of  "technical awards," the "historical drama" 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture.  And while by all accounts, 2013 was a great year for African American cinema (both popular and more artistic) 12 Years a Slave was the "safer" (by distance) choice to the far more current Fruitvale Sation (which wasn't nominated for any Oscar at all, despite a spectacular performance, among others, by previous Oscar Winner Octavia Spencer).   And, while Matthew McConaughey has certainly given some very edgy and even spectacular performances in recent years (one could think of Bernie [2012], Killer Joe [2012], Magic Mike [2012], The Paper Boy [2012] and Mud [2013]) one could argue that he received his Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role in the current The Dallas Buyers' Club for simply losing the weight to play credibly his role as a mid-1980s HIV-AIDS patient, while Leonardo DiCaprio was robbed again (!), this despite also having a years-long pedigree of often spectacular performances (Romeo + Juliet [1996], Titanic [1997], The Beach [2000], The Aviator [2004], Blood Diamond [2006], Revolutionary Road [2008], Inception [2010]) including two utterly Oscar-worthy performances this year (one for which he was nominated in The Wolf of Wall Street [2013] and the other, IMHO even better in The Great Gatsby [2013] for which he was not).  And where was James Franco's nomination (either this year or perhaps last) for his spectacular performance as "Alien" in Spring Breakers [2012]?  Perhaps Spring Breakers was simply too searing, too damning for the Academy. 

So despite this year being certainly one of an increased circle of awardable experience, in the end, the Oscars were still largely handed out for _safe_  more "middle of the road" films / performances as opposed to the truly spectacular, the truly Best ones of the year.

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