Monday, January 12, 2015

How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Oscar and Remembered to Just Love Movies in General

People need to calm down and relax.  Movie lovers, I mean.  This is that time of year when Top 10 Lists are floating around everyone, all the critics groups are chiming in, the various guilds start bestowing their awards, and the Two Big Shows (The Golden Globes and the Academy Awards) are right around the corner.  But for anyone with a serious love for world cinema, all of these insipid statue giveaways are meaningless and inconsequential.  People shouldn’t be as obsessed about what gets nominated for Oscars, but rather, when exploring the “best” that cinema has to offer, they should be obsessed with the idea of seeing challenging works that have something new to say.  But instead, many people get caught up in the hysteria and the excitement.  Listen, I won't lie – I enjoy watching the Oscars as much as the next person.  The glitz and the glamour and the dresses and the (sometimes) fantastic speeches are all exciting to watch.  But I never take them to heart, or at least, over the years, I've learned to stop taking them to heart.  Right around 1994/1995 is when I became a budding Cinefile, and when Pulp Fiction lost the big trophy to Forrest Gump, I was pretty much in tears.  But over the years, I’ve realized that it’s silly to take that much stock into awards shows.  There's no concrete way to discern what the "best" movie of any given year actually was/is.  Movies connect with people for all the right (and wrong) reasons, and they are personal experiences which are collectively shared with strangers in a darkened theater.  People project themselves into the stories they’re watching which makes the process of experiencing a movie a uniquely personal one.  There are plenty of reasons why people love certain movies while those specific films are hated by many others.  So to reduce one of our greatest art forms to a series of contests seems a little disingenuous; it chips away at the foundation of what great cinema is supposed to represent.

It's useless to even remotely dissect the Golden Globes.  It's a night for celebs to get loaded for free, to have a good time, but nobody cares and nobody remotely takes the awards seriously.  The Globes have no impact on Oscar voting.  None.  People need to stop trying to make correlations between the two.  There are thousands of voters in the Academy.  Who are these 75 people in the "Hollywood Foreign Press" and what credentials do they have to tell us what the "Best" of something is?  It's a charade done for advertising dollars, nothing more, nothing less.  Now, the Oscars are clearly more prestigious based on the name and history, but they are no less irrelevant when it comes to distilling what the most important works of filmed entertainment are from any given year. The Oscars are a joke in terms of their ability to shine a light on the true greatness of cinema.  Sure, they get it right sometimes (recent winners No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker come to mind) but too often, the selections made for Best Picture are tired and lazy and done so out of knee-jerk reactions that stem from political attitudes and old-school cronyism, rather than true artistic merit.  The King's Speech over The Social Network?  Argo?  Crash?  Chicago?  The Lord of the Rings?  Shakespeare in Love?  The English Patient?  Dances with Wolves?  Driving Miss Daisy?  I bring these good if sometimes ordinary titles up because all of these movies have won Best Picture, but how many times since their year of release have you actually re-watched them?  Fine, Argo was pretty damn good.  But for me, in my mind and heart, if the Academy cared about what "Great Cinema" truly is, they'd honor a film with their top prize like The Tree of Life or Enter the Void or Blue is the Warmest Color or City of God or The New World or Children of Men or The Fall or Synechdoche, NY or Holy Motors or dozens and dozens of other films that transcend the medium and become something else entirely: form pushing works that are worthy of repeated study and discussion.  If we're supposed to be looking to the Oscars as the end all be all of cinema, I'd hate to think that what the Academy feels are the most important is all that the majority of the populace seeks out.
In terms of 2014, my favorite movies will hardly get any Academy recognition.  This happens almost every year - the stuff that makes the biggest impact on me are the movies that tend to be a little different or challenging and not up to the Academy’s standards of greatness.  I'm always down for a good historical drama (Selma) or a whiz-bang action flick (The Raid 2) or a nice piece of Oscar-bait (Unbroken) just like the rest of us, but what sets my cinema soul ablaze is the idea that I'm going to experience something unique and something powerful in ways that I don't upfront expect.  Which is why, for this year's Oscars, I'm hoping that Boyhood pulls a sweep in all categories.  Now, mind you, Boyhood is not my absolute #1 film from 2014 (it's certainly top 10 material), but what Boyhood represents is something that cannot be denied: It's a one of a kind movie, a one of a kind experience, not likely to be attempted again, completed almost by miracle, made by a filmmaker who has done consistently good to great work for 20 years without getting any acclaim or notice.  What Richard Linklater was able to accomplish with Boyhood is something special and something that advances the notion of what cinema is capable of.  Which is why it needs (and deserves) to win any award that it's nominated for – if – and only if – we have to reduce our greatest art form to a series of contests. Birdman (which will find some love, I think, from the Academy) and Under the Skin (destined to be blanked, except possible for Original Score) are two of the other transcendent, medium-pushing works from 2014, and for me, represent two of the boldest cinematic visions in years.  These are the movies I'll be re-watching for years to come rather than solid but unspectacular works such as The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything or Unbroken, films that are likely to resonate more with the Academy than with someone like myself.

Top 10 lists from critics can be a great resource, because, if you're smart, you'll keep your Netflix queue minimized while looking through everyone's list and you can add movies you've never heard of immediately to your lineup of films to see.  Over the years, I've come to trust a few key critics (Ebert when he was with us, Manohla Dargis , Andrew O'Hehir, A.O. Scott to a certain degree, Todd McCarthy, Scott Foundas, Justin Chang) and I look to those people to see what's moved them or made them excited about cinema.  Some of my favorite films are movies that have terrible Rottentomatoes scores, and as dangerous as I think Rottentomatoes can be to genuine critical analysis in certain ways, there's no doubt that without it, we wouldn't be exposed to numerous voices that have added something interesting to the discussion of world cinema.  What I choose to see has more to do with how I perceive the overall quality of a film to be, whether it's the subject matter, the cast, or the filmmaker behind the camera.  Too often, people become discouraged to see something genuinely brave or different because of a low Rottentomaotes or Metacritic score.  You need to go with your gut before being swayed to see something or not by someone you've never met.  If the trailer looks interesting and there's an element to the film you're interested in, see that movie in question, because you might be missing out if you don’t.
Which brings me to the ultimate point of all of this:  When it comes to movies, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and there's no "correct" or "incorrect" feeling that you can have with a film.  Movies hit us in certain and often times inexplicable ways that are unexplainable; we all invest a different amount of ourselves in the things we watch depending on the other circumstances that surround our lives.  Movies provide an escape, but most importantly, a glimpse into worlds we’ll never explore in person, and often times we find ourselves sucked into stories that showcase something that we'll never be able to do or experience in the real world.  The idea that movies act as a transportation device for the mind is not something new, but it’s something that constantly reinforces itself to me as each year passes.
So, in closing, watch The Big Show in February, have a fun night, place your Oscar bets, and fill out your at-home ballots.  Just don't take it too seriously and always remember that you're not wrong for loving a movie (or 10) that gets no Oscar love.  There are so many great movies from all over the world that come out every year that it does a disservice to only use the various award shows as a barometer of what's out there and available to experience.  The true film lover should constantly be seeking to broaden their horizons, ready to explore unfamiliar genres, and submit themselves to challenging viewing experiences that seek to disrupt the idea of traditional, A-to-B-to-C cinema.  I'm not saying that every single viewing has to be Cloud Atlas or a Michael Haneke or some buried treasure from Estonia.  I just want people to remember that there’s more than 31 flavors in the ice-cream parlor of cinema, and what's great about today's distribution outlets (Netflix, On Demand, Amazon, Hulu, Roku, Redbox, etc) is that there are more ways than ever to constantly expand upon your cinematic horizons.

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