Oscars: Are We Taking Things Too Seriously?

This week brings something unusual to the 2014 awards race: A trippy, lively contender.

The New York Film Festival closes Saturday with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman,” which opens in theaters next week. It’s not exactly a feel-good movie, but it’s playful — toying with the characters, with film conventions and with the audience.

It’s good to see a film that’s frisky, as opposed to most 2014 Oscar contenders, which are Serious with a capital S. They are terrific. Even brilliant. But the race for gold this year is shrouded in darkness, with somber themes and subject matter.

Consider the lead characters in upcoming movies like “Foxcatcher,” “The Imitation Game,” “Still Alice” and “Mr. Turner.” They’re admirable films, but would you want to sit next to any of those characters at a dinner party?

Coming up are “Big Eyes,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Selma” and “Unbroken.” All look great. None looks like a lot of laughs. And if you want a change of pace, like some song and dance, you’re out of luck. “Into the Woods” is a musical, but definitely sobering.

So this might be a good year for Oscar voters to think outside the box, and consider fare that audiences may have already seen, like “Gone Girl,” “The Lego Movie” and (gasp) “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Or perhaps a big, yet-to-be-released sci-fi tentpole like Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” It may sound heretical, but don’t forget that over the years, best-picture nominations included films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Full Monty” and “Toy Story 3.” Everyone loves a crowd-pleaser (take note, “Whiplash”), even the Academy. “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech,” for example, defeated their gravitas-laden competitors.

There’s no law that says Academy voters need to nominate a wide range of styles. In fact, it’s always more interesting when the race is diverse, and there are certainly films like “Boyhood,” “Wild” and “The Theory of Everything” that are serious without being solemn.

The odds are good that it’s going to be an awards heavyweight, with the emphasis on “heavy.” But that makes sense. For better or worse, movies reflect the times. And the 2014 news is full of ebola, Gaza, Syria and beheadings, not to mention global warming, world hunger and the economy.

It also makes sense that filmmakers (and probably voters) are thinking about weighty matters. In 1854, Thoreau wrote “Our life is frittered away with detail.” That’s more true than ever in a 24/7 digital world, so creative people are exploring whether life consists of anything BEYOND details.

Whoa, did we just get too serious there?

Maybe we should all take a deep breath and go watch “Neighbors” again. Seriously.

 

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