Now that the Oscar votes are in, there is nothing to do but wait. Well, wait … and speculate.
Much of that speculation revolves around the best picture category, a journey that has been filled with its share of twists and turns. Most pundits will agree that it’s come down to two films, Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making “Boyhood” and Alejandro G. Inarritu’s filmed-in-continuous-shots “Birdman.” And depending on how you feel about each film, they are either: 1) Truly original works by auteurs to be celebrated, or 2) Overrated Oscar bait pictures heavy on the gimmicks.
It’s the inevitable dark side of every Oscar season, when films end up pitted against each other for the nebulous title of “best.” In my opinion, “Birdman” and “Boyhood” are both wonderful movies from singular voices and the fact they’ve garnered so much attention is reason enough to have some faith in the Academy. Though I have my personal favorites, I can’t understand how anyone could begrudge either director for taking home an Oscar – they are two of the most exciting filmmakers working today and their movies were clearly crafted with love and passion.
I can only be amused by claims that either movie was somehow engineered in a laboratory to win awards. These are films whose plot descriptions wouldn’t spark interest among any focus group. They aren’t based on a true story (like four of the other best picture nominees.) They don’t have A-list movie stars. They aren’t based on books or TV shows or even a board game.
I seriously doubt that when Linklater set off 13 years ago to shoot a movie starring an unknown 6-year-old boy, his master plan was to score Oscar gold. Likewise, Inarritu probably didn’t think a niche comedy about a bunch of theater actors was going to burn up the box office. Neither one is a marketing department’s dream; both had to deliver the goods in order to get where they are today.
In fact, when “Boyhood” premiered last year at Sundance, my highest hopes were that it would score nods for Patricia Arquette and Linklater’s script. The fact it has gone on to sweep critics groups and was anointed the frontrunner for a time was thrilling to see.
The first time I saw “Birdman,” I was exhilarated. It felt like someone had made the movie of my dreams (or, as a lifelong theater geek, my nightmares.) I knew it would be an arthouse hit, but figured it would be too inside, too odd for the Academy’s tastes. How wonderful to be proven wrong, as “Birdman” began to sweep the guild awards. Sure, there were early signs – by November of last year, it was the one movie I was hearing spoken about with great enthusiasm by Academy voters. Still, even I didn’t see the PGA win coming, which was the first step in “Birdman” usurping “Boyhood” as the presumed frontrunner.
But now we are at that odd point in the race, where the films that were once beloved become easy targets. One Oscar voter recently told me he had come to hate “Birdman,” since he didn’t believe it deserved all the recent kudos. When I reminded him how much he had liked it three months ago, his revised response was along the lines of “Okay, it’s good, but not that good.”
In addition, there is a growing mentality that in order to truly love “Boyhood,” you have to disparage “Birdman,” or vice versa. This is particularly true among those who pundit and predict the Oscar race.
And so “Boyhood’s” 12-year arc and “Birdman’s” continuous, unbroken takes are either hailed as revolutionary or dismissed as contrivances, depending on who’s side you’re on. There have been whole movies made in a single take that barely made a blip on the radar (“Time Code,” anyone?) because the film itself failed to hold up beyond the experiment.
Looking at the two films that appear to be closest to grabbing the top prize, it’s really kind of a marvel. This year isn’t “The Hurt Locker” versus “Avatar” or even “12 Years a Slave” versus “Gravity.” These two movies are more alike than different. Neither is the typical “Oscar” picture — of the nominated films, that would be “The Imitation Game” or “American Sniper.” That’s not a criticism of either film; there’s nothing wrong with well-made, popular, successful entertainment. But when the frontrunners come down to two movies made on small budgets with visionary directors and stories where the viewer genuinely isn’t sure what will happen next … that’s a good year for movies. And that means everyone wins.