“THE OSCARS GOT IT WRONG!” – everybody, every fucking year.
That statement, while incredibly simple and selfish, is always true. Whether the Oscars get it right or wrong is just, like, a matter of opinion, man. It’s different to argue that the awards were objectively correct, because there’s no foolproof way to argue that. The loudest people are currently espousing their view that Boyhood was better than Birdman. I happen to share that view, but it’s only true to you if you believe it. I’m sure most every living soul enjoyed Boyhood more than Let’s Be Cops (I’ve seen both!), but there’s some infinitesimal slice of humanity out there somewhere that drew the opposite conclusion, proclaiming to no one in particular “THE OSCARS DON’T RECOGNIZE COMEDY.” That statement is true, too, but not for purely subjective reasons, and is the subject for another screed. But on the whole, a “wrong” Oscar choice isn’t as clearly wrong as awarding Gold Gloves to Derek Jeter. We can measure defense now!
This isn’t to stop me from saying that, with the benefit of hindsight, I would prefer that some movies and actors received accolades or others. The shine of the Oscars awarded Sunday hasn’t begun to fade, and we don’t have as clear an idea of what movies’ critical consensus will hold, build or diminish with time. Boyhood‘s probably will remain, if I’m allowed to wager, but maybe Birdman‘s will increase. Some people—people I like and trust!—liked Birdman more! I myself liked Birdman quite a bit. So yes, I’m disappointed Boyhood (and The Grand Budapest Hotel) didn’t garner some of those Major Awards (costume design, supporting actress, who gives a shit) that Birdman won. But that’s not to say Birdman shouldn’t have won any nor that, while it’s okay to have an opinion now, I can expect my opinion to change a little or deepen with time.
Five years is an arbitrary marker for me to say “I’m comfortable saying this movie or actor should’ve won,” but it’s better than one year or one day and it’s the timeframe I used when I ran through this exercise a year ago. THEY GOT IT WRONG IN 2008.
Anyway, let’s run through the Oscars handed out and five years ago and see if we think, well, maybe time has looked a little more favorably on some than others. It’s not (really) objective at all.
Best Picture (winner in bold):
The Blind Side
The Hurt Locker
Precious: Based on Lee Daniel’s The Butler as Adapted into the Earlier Novel Push by Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
Who I would’ve picked: I would’ve picked The Hurt Locker here, so BRAVO, ACADEMY. (In fact, it was my number-one rated film of that year.) When watching American Sniper earlier this month, I kept returning to The Hurt Locker. Both films tread similar themes, most prominently PTSD and a veteran’s inability to completely reintegrate after returning from a war zone. I much preferred The Hurt Locker‘s concise treatment of this troubling phenomenon, containing the homecoming and isolation of its bomb-defusing protagonists to one extended, near-wordless segment in a way that spoke to the movies’ ability to use images to convey quiet power.
Runner-up: Speaking of quiet power and near-wordless scenes, that opening montage from Up is my favorite from any Pixar movie and among the most heartbreaking few minutes in any film of recent vintage. Contrary to its tone (and my girlfriend’s eye rolling when I say this) I’m pretty boisterous in letting people know that this is my favorite Pixar movie (featuring dogs with talking collars helps). I’ve heard claims that Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man are the finest outings of their respective directors, but I’d disagree. Both are true to Tarantino’s and the Coens’ style but are rather digressive and, for me, lack a commitment to story (though not to characterization) when their best films are direct and blunt, if still creative. I suppose I’m “that guy” with Up, but it’s what stands out most to me, here.
What should’ve been nominated: The only year under the new rules when all ten slots were used, I should technically knock one of these from the list of nominees, but in honor of Parks & Recreation ending its run today, I don’t want to be all that mean. Please note I haven’t seen The Blind Side or Precious, and God I have no interest in ever seeing Precious unless I turn suicidal. I could argue for the addition of a film I’ll write in more detail about in the supporting actor and adapted screenplay sections, but it’s a bit idiosyncratic. Remember that the Best Picture field expanded to ten in part to capture movies that had success with the broader public. No doubt Up‘s and probably The Blind Side‘s inclusion helped satisfy that goal, but there is a glaring absence considering its omnipotence in 2009: The Hangover. I have purposefully avoided watching either sequel, so perhaps The Hangover still holds more cache for me than for any other living human. I still laugh when I watch it! Guys being dicks, played for laughs, has the potential to get old fast, and for many it probably has (again, not watching the sequels here), but The Hangover benefits most from yes, Bradley Cooper, who straddles the line between asshole and annoying magnificently. Many have tried but no other film in its subgenre has matched The Hangover, and honestly it seems like a perfect “Tenth Nominee,” especially after winning the Golden Globe for Best Comedy / Musical.
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Who I would’ve picked: It’s hard to argue with Jeff Bridges winning an Oscar for any role. I bet a bunch of Oscar voters figured this would be their last chance to give him some recognition for his long career. Only of course, none of them had the foresight to peer forward just one year, when he’d be nominated for True Grit (a more enjoyable performance in my view). Many often play the “they’re just playing themselves” card with Bridges (and Clooney and Freeman), but that evades highlighting the charisma of Bridges’ naturalism. I feel uncomfortable weighing in here because I’ve heard that Firth gives a particularly strong performance in A Single Man, I just haven’t seen the film. Maybe after that I’d posit that we should begin recognizing Firth’s Oscar (also given a year later) for that film and Bridges’ for True Grit. Of the performances I’ve seen, my pick would be Renner, as much for his stoicism as anything else.
Who should’ve been nominated: Again, avoiding meanness here. I’d add Michael Sheen in The Damned United as a sixth nominee. For some odd reason, Sheen’s best performances (or at least his most prominent ones) are those in which he inhabits famous people (or at least famous British people). That’s a particularly hard gig and us stateside folk surely benefit from lesser familiarity with Tony Blair or Brian Clough, a prickly soccer coach taking over and clashing with a new team in The Damned United. Part of Sheen’s gift for playing public figures stems from his aversion to being too showy; he does most of his work through subtext and facial clues. Because I’m in a good mood, I’d also add Matt Damon in The Informant!(!!!!) as a seventh nominee here (or we could do what critics do and combine it with his Invictus nomination below). A weird and layered performance in a weird and layered movie that I’d like to revisit soon.
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the…fuck it
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Who I would’ve picked: Five minutes after running through Best Picture, I still haven’t seen The Blind Side or Precious, but of the three I’ve seen I’d pick Meryl. I am no fan of Julie (Amy Adams could not have been playing a more selfish character) but I was a fan of Juliaand Meryl hit all the ticks and comedy, intentional or not, needed to play Julia Child, in a physical yet tender performance.
Who should’ve been nominated: Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces (Abrazos rotos). Look, it’s Penélope Cruz in a Pedro Almodóvar movie. That pairing bats about as close to 1.000 as you can get. Unlike with Damon, I feel no need to consolidate her totally fake nomination in my book with her actual one for Nine, much as I have affection for Penélope Cruz.
Best Supporting Actor:
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Who I would’ve picked: No hiding my love for Woody Harrelson, one of our most underappreciated actors, here. The Messenger is not funny in the slightest (Harrelson plays one of the soldiers who shows up to the doors of a KIA soldier’s family to inform them of his or her death) but captures what makes Woody unique: the below-surface, seething anger he plays so well and his characters’ commitment to principles, however far-fetched (here, not as far-fetched). It’s hard to pick against Waltz, who was LITERALLY born to act for Quentin Tarantino, but I think Woody’s brooding is hard to match here. With the benefit of hindsight, we know Waltz is back here in a couple years (for a role that’s perhaps a little less complicated)—I just like to be a bit different.
Who should’ve been nominated: This one’s easy, given the Oscars’ predilection for nominating ornery male characters who get all the good lines. Too bad they only made room for one following 2009, because Peter Capaldi should be up here for In the Loop. Playing a British political spinmaster who works at Downing Street, I will only be the five millionth person to say that the man takes swearing to an art form. And given the idiots he works with, you can tell he’s had plenty of practice.
Honorable mention goes to Niels Arestrup in A Prophet (Un prophete) as the leader of a Corsican prison mob.
Best Supporting Actress:
Penélope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Who I would’ve picked: Well, let Mo’Nique be the first to tell you that it shouldn’t have been Mo’Nique! This is a tough call as I’m no huge fan of any of these movies, but Anna Kendrick made the best impression on me here. Her youthfulness and outward vulnerability helped make Up in the Air relatable and bearable for me. I felt her wounds more deeply than Farmiga’s or Clooney’s.
Who should’ve been nominated: Not that I expected Emma Stone to pick up her first nomination for Zombieland but I would’ve thrown a nomination her way. Stone, like Jesse Eisenberg and yes, Woody Harrelson, imbue an appropriately minimalist story with humor and chemistry. It often takes special actors to make silliness this entertaining and complete.
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Who I would’ve picked: Yeah, no surprise here, I’m going with Bigelow, a director whose approach to war movies I find both provocative and engaging, engaging intimately and uncomfortably with the day-to-day in a war zone. In some critics’ eyes, this served her for ill in Zero Dark Thirty, but I’d argue exactly the opposite; Bigelow maintains less an intellectual distance than a verbal distance from the action. A good maxim to follow with filmmaking: show or do, not say. Bigelow applied this in both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, just with less controversial subject matter in the former. Think of the above-mentioned homefront scenes in The Hurt Locker along with any scene where Renner’s character is taking apart a bomb. The drunken fight between the three members of Renner’s crew is yet another example. True, The Hurt Locker didn’t cost nearly as much as Avatar, but I think it condenses more story and more of the essence of a time and place than Cameron’s broad but rather shallow exercise in world-building. (Cameron was seen as her competition for this award.)
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9
Nick Hornby, An Education
Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche, In the Loop
Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
What I would’ve picked: Without knowing for sure what’s improvised and what’s not, I’m content in my view that Iannucci and his writing team behind In the Loop are geniuses. It’s refreshing and disturbing to see their disdain for government officials’ two-facedness and unmasked (and unprincipled) ambition play out so amusingly on screen. In the Loop is so funny because it doesn’t demand disbelief that low-level politicians could be so dumb, rather implying bemusement at their always being dumb. That shit never changes, whether in the UK or the US—these are the acerbic guys behind Veep.
What should’ve been nominated: Gonna go a bit foreign on you here with The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos), a classical Argentine crime film that weaves in examination of the country’s all-to-recent tortured past and decades-spanning romance. This film did receive the foreign language Oscar this year (in a very strong year, beating out A Prophet and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon), but it’s not unheard of for foreign films to score a screenplay nomination in addition (see Amour and A Separation for two recent examples). The Secret in Their Eyes plays like a beautiful little pulp detective novel come to life and benefits from the strong, assured presence of Ricardo Darin (who is likely the most recognizable Argentine actor to US audiences).
Best Original Screenplay:
Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman, The Messenger
Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Tom McCarthy, Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, Up in the Air
What I would’ve picked: Probably no surprise here that I’d have selected The Hurt Locker here, too. This despite my affinity for all things Tarantino, as I intimated earlier I find his Inglourious Basterds script his least focused, though I grant that it’s worth revisiting soon. I never go too long without rewatching Tarantino movies. Same goes for the Coens, A Serious Man was bleak and funny, but felt more like an exercise than other work (a good contrast might be True Grit, which might read on the page as an exercise in remaking a John Wayne movie but succeeds as a standalone film because it develops the relationships between the characters as much as the characters themselves). The Messenger was enjoyable but stands out more due to Woody Harrelson than its story. I’ll close by adding that I did not care for Up in the Air, mostly because of his stupid backpack.
What should’ve been nominated: Diving back into the foreign well to champion A Prophet. An epic film that touches on French history and their own difficulty in reconciling their past as a colonizer, as played out in a harsh prison setting. My mom LOVED it (she will never see it). A mob movie that’s stripped of all charm and stereotype (the foreign setting helps), it features strong acting from Tahar Rahim as a young Muslim inmate and Niels Arestrup (That French Guy).
Now, looking back over all of this, see how right I am? There’s probably plenty I’m forgetting, plenty I still haven’t even seen, and most importantly, plenty with which you disagree. Let me know and we’ll have a nice long chat.