The best picture race is always a sign of the times, as the films reflect the hopes, fears and mindset of filmmakers and audiences.
Many of the 2014 contenders indicate that a lot of people in the film biz are evidently concerned about health — and specifically mental health.
This year features a lot of best picture contenders centered on psychotic manipulation — “Foxcatcher,” “Gone Girl,” “Unbroken” and “Whiplash” — or people who have gone loco (“The Homesman”). There are also a lot of psychos in “Big Eyes,” “Nightcrawler” and “Rosewater,” Oscar contenders in several key categories. “Rosewater,” like “Unbroken,” features protagonists dealing with crazed captors. In most of the other films, the behavior is scary in a different way, because it’s presented in everyday circumstances.
There are several films about characters who are obsessive and lack social graces, including “American Sniper,” “Birdman,” “The Imitation Game” and “Mr. Turner.” (As a nice counter-balance, Ralph Fiennes in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” exhibits calm under pressure and emphasizes the importance of good manners.)
The race is also crowded with films that remind us not to take health for granted since our bodies can be alarmingly fragile: “Still Alice,” “The Theory of Everything,” “St. Vincent” and “The Fault in Our Stars.”
What is the reason for all this? Could it be all the talk about Obamacare? More likely, it’s the fact that everybody is feeling more stressed than ever, thanks to constant concerns over the economy and constantly changing technology. Wacko behavior seems to be on the rise, which is apparently fascinating to artists, studio executives who greenlight films and money people who back them.
Several films have taken these pressures in a completely different direction. In the midst of all our global headaches, “Boyhood,” “Interstellar” and “Into the Woods” are asking basic questions about the meaning of life. Is it little moments, or is there a grand scheme, and do all of our priorities still make sense?
The roster of Oscar contenders also contains several two-by-two matchups.
There are two films about British geniuses (“The Theory of Everything,” “Imitation Game”); two biblical epics (“Noah,” “Exodus: Gods and Men”); two movies about women coping with Mother Nature (“Wild,” “The Homesman”); and two movies about race relations (“Black or White,” “Selma”). There are even two films with drum-heavy scores (“Birdman,” “Whiplash”).
Reps from some of these films get nervous about being linked with the other, as if Oscar only has room for one film on any given topic. They can relax. In 1999, the Oscar best picture race included three World War II films (“Life Is Beautiful,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Thin Red Line”) and two works set in the Elizabethan era (“Elizabeth,” “Shakespeare in Love”). Academy members don’t vote as if ordering from a menu, with one from Column A, one from Column B. They just vote for films they like, and don’t worry about definitions.
And speaking of definitions, some best pic possibilities defy easy categories, including “A Most Violent Year” and “Selma.” Yes, there are some crazy people in subsidiary roles, but these films don’t follow any pattern. And then there is “Inherent Vice,” which defies any definition.
But then, maybe it’s a sign of mental instability to try to find patterns in awards.