January 25, 2015

Do Contemporary Movies Suck? The Oscars Say Yes!


Okay, so we all know the Oscars are a cynical, easily-predicted political sham. If an actor in a drama plays a retard, a cripple of some kind, or a famous person, he’s going to win, right? It’s a given. If an elderly actor who’s been around forever but has never won is nominated for some walk-on supporting role, he’s going to win. Simple as pie. If a movie takes itself really, really seriously, doesn’t allow for the tiniest of chuckles, is just oozing with gravitas and earnestness, and better still if it ham-fistedly deals with some kind of Big Important Issue like, oh, poverty or the Holocaust or whatever, it’s pretty much assured to walk away with a few statues. If you could combine all those things into one picture? Maybe the profound and heartbreaking story of a penniless but still famous cripple imprisoned in Dachau with some elderly recognizable actor playing Granddad? Hoo Nellie! You might not make any money, but imagine all that smug prestige!

            Much more interesting than the winners are the nominees. Taken collectively, the nominations show us who got nominated and who got snubbed, and it’s usually not too much of a mindbender to figure out why. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (based on the Pynchon novel) was too long, too complex, and made people’s heads hurt. Plus it had the audacity to be funny on top of it, so that was out, though it’ll get a token screenplay and costume design nomination, just to toss it a bone in recognition of its pedigree. Selma, despite combining so many of the above-mentioned winning traits, only got a best picture nod because every other awards ceremony snubbed it (regardless how self-important it was, it was still a crappy movie) and the masses were starting to get a little uppity given it was about, y’know, MLK and civil rights and shit.

            Beyond that, though, a scan through the nominated films offers a quick and easy snapshot of the state of contemporary filmmaking. Is there still an art to it? Do films still matter, or are they simply nothing more than disposable commodities, ninety-minute parades of pretty faces and explosions to distract a bored and numb populace, tax dodges that serve no other purpose than to justify the existence of so many damn award shows?

            I’ve come up with a simple formula to determine the answer. It goes like this.

            Go back forty years or so, and look at the list of nominated films. At the forty-seventh annual Academy Awards in 1975, for instance, voters had to choose between Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II, Bob Fosse’s serious and arty Lenny Bruce biopic Lenny, the hugely popular all-star disaster movie The Towering Inferno, Roman Polanski’s dark, serpentine, and brilliant Chinatown, and yet another Coppola film, this one his quiet and melancholy meditation on paranoia and loneliness The Conversation. The following year the nominees were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Stanley Kubrick’s historical epoch Barry Lyndon, Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and Sidney Lumet’s darkly comic Dog Day Afternoon. And just to prove this wasn’t some fluke, some freakish turn of events, let’s go one year further. In 1977, the films nominated for Best Picture at the forty-ninth annual Academy Awards were the sharp Watergate film All the Presidents Men, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, John G. Avildsen’s Rocky (which bears almost no resemblance to its cartoon sequels), the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, and thanks to Paddy Chayefsky’s frighteningly prescient script, Lumet’s Network.

            Zowie, huh? Every one of those films is remembered and watched and discussed and referenced to this day. Four decades down the line they’re all considered classic examples of American cinema at it’s finest. (Well okay, maybe not The Towering Inferno so much, but it made half a kajillion dollars and was at least a little better than Earthquake.) Maybe it was all just a fluke, but it was a fluke that had legs, considering the rest of the decade also saw films like The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Annie Hall nominated.

            Now here’s the tricky question. Scan through this year’s nominations, films like Birdman, The Imitation Game, and American Sniper. But don’t stop there, go back a couple of years and take a look at those nominated films, too, every last one of them. Last year we had the likes of Her, Gravity, Dallas Buyer’s Club, and American Hustle. And the year before that there was Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

            Yes, well. I’m not necessarily saying these are bad films, except maybe for that Silver Linings Playbook nonsense. But here’s the question: are any one of these films going to be watched, discussed, or even remembered forty years from now? Hell, I’ve completely forgotten most of them already, and I don’t think I’m alone. Beasts of the Southern Wild? What the fuck was that?

            So do contemporary movies, even the big serious, self-important ones, suck? Maybe the Academy should get out of the recent habit of nominating ten films for Best Picture every year. It just drives the point home that much more.


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