Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Post-Oscar Thoughts: A Recap of 2013 at the Movies, Part I

Well, another Oscar night has come and gone and one word summed it up: PRE-DICT-AB-LE.

I’m not actually referring to the ceremony, which was far less of a chore to sit through than in many previous years.  Ellen Degeneres’ opening monologue was terrific and hit a high point when she yelled at 84-year-old, June Squibb, a joking implication that the supporting actress nominee for Nebraska couldn’t possibly hear her all the way up on stage.  With a number of excursions into the audience (probably a few too many) and the most celebrity filled "tweet" of all time, the cheerful host kept the mood light throughout, which helped the three-and-a-half-hour show feel reasonably fast-paced.  Other highlights included a particularly touching memorial segment and a 75th anniversary tribute to The Wizard of Oz.  Bill Murray went off script in offering a sincere and unexpected shout-out to his longtime collaborator, Harold Ramis.  Sidney Poitier added gravitas late in the evening when he joined Angelina Jolie to present the Best Director Oscar to Alfonso Cuaron.  And Matthew McConaughey made history by repeatedly thanking himself after winning Best Actor for Dallas Buyers Club.  Seriously, is there any way Saturday Night Live doesn’t get a whole show out of that speech? 

Less successful was the Academy's unmotivated heroes theme, which ultimately served no purpose other than to pad the overall running time.  Does the Oscar telecast really need a theme in the first place?  Among the stars in attendance, Harrison Ford looked consistently irritated, as if he’d lost a bet and attending the ceremony was his punishment.  Happier to be there was Vertigo star Kim Novak, whose incoherent onstage rambling caused by friend to inquire, “Who’s this loon?”  Poor Liza Minnelli fared even worse, receiving ample airtime despite a makeup job that made her look like one of the Orcs in Lord of the Rings.  But John Travolta took the cake, confidently turning Idina Menzel into one of the worst name mispronunciations ever.  It’s all over YouTube in case you missed it. 

Entering Sunday night’s festivities, I hadn’t felt as excited as I typically am for the cinematic Super Bowl, as . . . . . nobody calls it.  The main problem was that after an endless winter of televised award shows, countless top 10 lists, and predictions identifying the likely winners ahead of time, there was no longer any room for surprises.  Anyone who wagered on all the favorites cleaned up on Oscar night, and that’s a problem.  I actually feel like I cost myself a fortune by not watching the ceremony live from Vegas.  By mid-February, it had become painfully clear that the field of nine best picture nominees really only included two legitimate contenders for best picture, Cuaron’s Gravity and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which ended up taking the top prize.  Both films were very good for different reasons and have earned critical praise across the board.  But honestly, neither held a place in my top five for 2013 and as it turned out, the majority of worthwhile best picture nominees went home completely empty-handed on Oscar night. 

Note to the Academy: It’s time to admit that the decision to double the list of potential best picture nominees has been a complete failure.  There’s no evidence linking improved box office grosses to the expansion and since the change in 2009, it’s been remarkably easy to guess, each year, where the line would’ve been drawn had you stuck with the time-honored tradition of selecting only five films.  Although nominating fewer may result in the occasional snub, allowing up to 10 severely cheapens the meaning of even being nominated in the first place.  And you aren’t even using all of the available spots anyway, as for the third year in a row, you’ve awkwardly nominated nine films for best picture.  To paraphrase Austin Powers, “Who nominates nine films, honestly?”

Another area that demands a review is Hollywood’s release calendar.  I don’t remember another winter when so many high profile blockbusters and critical favorites were crammed into the final six weeks of the year.  Do they want paying customers to see these movies?  The Christmas field was especially crowded and left a number of casualties that failed to find an audience.  I am fortunate to live in an area that features several smaller, independent theaters where turnover is considerably slower, but even I have been scrambling to play catch up.  Because of the onslaught, a number of major titles were pushed to the dumping grounds of January and February (The Monuments Men, Labor Day), while others were only released in New York and Los Angeles in late December to qualify for the awards (Her, Lone Survivor).  There was even talking of pushing The Wolf of Wall Street to 2014, which would’ve delayed audiences from experiencing arguably the most excessive movie ever made.  That’s a compliment by the way.

Despite these scheduling concerns, however, box office totals continue to rise, as 2013 saw a record 13 different movies exceed $200 million in North America alone.  It was a big year for animation, with three of the top seven spots reserved for the kid-friendly features Frozen, Despicable Me 2, and Monsters University.  The rest of the top 10 was comprised of sequels, prequels, and reboots (Gravity being the lone exception), and as predicted here last May, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire outlasted Iron Man 3 and won bragging rights as the year’s biggest financial smash.  Unfortunately, the untimely death of revered actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (46), who was set to reprise his role as Plutarch Heavensbee in the final two films in the franchise, leaves a cloud over a production that was nearly finished.  Sadly, his tragic passing will probably add a surge of interest and further boost the overall box office totals of Mockingjay – Part’s 1 & 2.  Amazingly, a similar fate probably awaits Fast & Furious 7, the next installment in the hugely successful action series that made the late, Paul Walker (40), a household name.   

In the end though, 2013 was notable for the sheer volume of top directors at work.  In addition to Cuaron and McQueen, we were privy to new films from Alexander Payne (who has yet to make a bad film), Spike Jonze (ditto), Woody Allen, David O’Russell, Paul Greengrass, Neill Blomkamp, Martin Scorsese, J.C. Chandor, Marc Forster, Steven Soderbergh, Baz Luhrmann, Peter Jackson, Lee Daniels, Guillermo del Toro, and The Coen Brothers.  Although their collective output ranged from great to forgettable, any year with that much talent behind the camera must be taken seriously. 

Overall, I saw about 40 movies in 2013, a number sure to shrink substantially with the arrival of Zach Junior in early April.  Because that total is far lower than that of a full-time critic, it’s perhaps a little silly to single out my top 10, which would represent a quarter of the field.  Instead, I’m going to have some fun and offer award winners in categories you won’t find on the Oscar telecast, before concluding with a personal top five in alphabetical order, along with a single honorable mention.  I truly struggled to select the best film of 2013, a dilemma that generally indicates a very strong year.  However, in this case I didn’t feel passionately enough about any single title to grant it the top spot, finding small flaws even among my favorites.  That said, repeat viewings may very well see one emerge victorious at a later date.

Stayed tuned for Part II, honoring the best (and worst) in cinema from 2013.