After Oscar Nominations, There’s No Clear Frontrunner

No Front Runner for Oscar Race

Academy voters try to adhere to the organization’s myriad rules during Oscar season — except for the one barring them from talking about their vote. A convivial lot, Academy members (I’ve been one for 30 years) habitually chat about their likes and dislikes, but this year the most frequent topic is the lack of zeal for any specific film.

Indeed, this year’s Oscar race is among the most wide open in many years. I have a theory about why, but the critics won’t like it.

Though film critics contend that 2013 brought forth some exceptional movies, Oscar voters aren’t launching crusades in support of any specific picture — there’s no “Avatar” or even “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The Golden Globes, an event that is usually both surreal and instructive, provides a case in point. Sure, there were winners and ovations from the audience, but there was also an absence of passion. Even inebriated passion.

And, as usual, the categories themselves were bizarre: The comedy list included Meryl Streep for “August: Osage County.” Leonardo DiCaprio had to share a laugh about his supposed comedic talents in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Of course, comedy per se always struggles during awards season, but so do “entertainments” in general. That’s never been truer than 2013, particularly concerning some of the year’s most discussed movies. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” for instance, was effective in its own idiosyncratic way, but was not “entertaining” in the traditional sense of the word. Indeed, the words “entertaining” or “fun” never appeared in critics’ quotes in the film’s fusillade of ads; “exquisitely crafted” and “heartfelt” were more common. Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times termed the Coen brothers’ movie “a downbeat picaresque adventure,” which arguably was a better description. Though nominated for three Golden Globes, including one in the omnibus comedy or musical category, the film won bupkes for the evening. Like “All Is Lost,” Robert Redford’s demanding opus, “Llewyn Davis” also was snubbed in the major Oscar nominations.

In the same vein, many of the Oscar voters I talked to felt “Wolf of Wall Street” was a powerful film, but so dark and strung out that it represented more an assault than an entertainment. “American Hustle,” too, was a brilliantly noirish exercise about bad people doing bad things and getting away with it. Too many voters may have seen the films in too close a proximity, triggering a noir overload.

Arguments about what is or is not entertaining have raged since the beginning of theater. To be sure, westerns constituted pure entertainment for previous filmgoing generations. So did musicals and even gangster films. For a reminder of the diverse menu offered by Hollywood, consider the Oscar nominees of 1939 — “Stagecoach,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and, of course, “Gone with the Wind.”

Several 20th century playwrights, like Pinter and Pirandello, saw to it that comedy became tragicomedy. In today’s Hollywood, the only big laughs seem to come from animated fare like “Despicable Me 2” (though this year’s rare exceptions include “The Heat” and “This Is the End”).

I would argue that filmgoers by and large go to the movies to be entertained. The same applies to Academy voters. The big entertainment offerings today, however, tend to be franchise films aimed at young foreign audiences — movies that don’t get nominated, and probably never will. Indeed, “Gravity” is the only widely nominated film that is earning the kind of money that franchise hits generally do.

A good friend of mine who was a film critic once confided that critics see filmgoing as work, not entertainment. Their reviews (and nominations) seem to support that hypothesis. “12 Years a Slave” (around $40 million since opening Oct. 18) has been the top choice of most critics associations. The National Society of Film Critics picked the aforementioned “Inside Llewyn Davis” (less then $12 million since Dec. 6) as the year’s best film. It’s safe to say the films that critics respond to each year consistently rank higher on technique than on entertainment value. Ever try toget a critic to smile?

All of which helps explain why this year’s awards race continues to be wide open.

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  1. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Back in the good old days, casting was a serious job in filmmaking. But today it’s an arbitrary farce with improv style actors who have no soul or charisma whatsoever. That can’t make for good films when the juvenile style and attitude of all your players strains believability. If you cast wimps, nebbishes and skanks in almost every modern film role, from superhero tent poles to snooze fest chick flicks, you’ve entered a twilight zone where no one ages to silver screen staying power. Case in point. A guy like Leo DiCaprio will finally start to look like a grown man when he is about 65. Until then, what strives to pass for modern cinema quality is filled with young souls who’ll have to be reincarnated for several lifetimes to achieve the screen presence of golden age Hollywood legends and bring back good pictures again.

  2. Scott says:

    “Ever try to get a critic to smile?”

    Yes, I did, many times during my 20 years as a publicist. And it always worked. Simply offer to take a critic out for a drink. Or, better yet, lunch or dinner at an elegant restaurant and, if possible, accompanied by an attractive, intelligent actress or actor. Good fun for everyone involved!

  3. DougW says:

    “American Hustle” is as entertaining as movies get.

    • TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

      Yeah, if you want your cast to look like they all stepped out of student improv theater. Nobody in that movie looks old enough to have experienced enough life to carry a hit film. They look like they belong on children’s public television and represent caricatures without character. When you fail to vary the look of a cast, what you got is a niche film for kids and not a believable feature for general audiences.

  4. LOL says:

    Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle both suck. They were movies that put actors’ needs before our (audience’s) needs with showboating performances vs. shockingly, appallingly, disjoined storytelling.

    Gravity was little more than an elevated B movie, though it was amazing to behold.

    12 Years a Slave was essentially a replay of Mandingo, but without the fun. In fact, its plot is chiefly the same as any slavesploitation flick (http://movies-on-my-mind.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/slavesploitation-genre-that-shocked.html), though, it is too po-faced and pretentious in its tonal meanderings. Also, considering it covers a timeframe of a dozen years, its awkwardly rushed pacing made it feel like 6 Months a Slave.

    • Ken says:

      True…and Ejiofor (after 12 years in supposed “hardship”) hardly looks any worse for wear physically at the end…while his family seems to have aged and matured. Well intentioned, yes, but a mediocre pic nonetheless. GRAVITY was the only eye-opening cutting edge pic to emerge in 2013. But sci-fi flicks never win the Big Kahuna at the Oscars, do they?

  5. Davey says:

    I’ve been an avid movie goer my whole life which is a few decades now and sometimes I go to be entertained. But I also go to be enlightened, moved, shown a new perspective, to cry, to laugh, to see great acting and enjoy good filmmaking. I thought Inside Llewyn Davis was a very well-crafted film. I even saw it twice. But if the Academy was looking for something entertaining,, how in the world did they choose No Country for Old Men as best picture? Compared to that film, Inside Llewyn Davis was a laugh riot. I would like to see Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, or Philomena win best picture. And I do think DiCaprio deserves to win best actor because he gave one of his best performances in The Wolf of Wall Street.

  6. Sam says:

    The only thing that I truly want academy members to do is to reward the best performance of the year and that is Leonardo dicaprio. The country club scene and the resignation speech and his entire performance is more than oscar worthy, it should finally give him what he should have gotten a long time ago.

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