“They keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone’s genuinely exceptional…”
– Mr. Incredible, The Incredibles (2004).
Some movies are born great, some become great and others have greatness thrust upon them – usually through a Harvey Weinstein marketing campaign.
But what makes The Great American Movie in 2015? Can The Great Movie even exist in the current economic climate, or is it hobbled by opening weekend requirements, socio-political agendas, the SM swarm and the rise of the Hollywood executive powers-that-be?
The last great movie to win the Best Picture Oscar was American Beauty in 1999. This year, there’s only one American Beauty nominated, and if it wins I’ll eat my hat, gloves, scarf, pants etc.
By all rights, Whiplash should win Best Picture, but it won’t. Whiplash is this year’s The Social Network, and the rest of the category is filled-up with King’s Speeches. It’s a film about ideas, and ideas are Oscar poison. It’s a ‘good film’ that dares to be great, and the Academy (in its current form, at least) is there to honour ‘great films’ that are merely good.
A ‘good movie’ is a movie that tells a small story well, whilst tackling big ideological issues without letting you know its doing it. A ‘great movie’ is a movie that is upfront about how hard you’re supposed to be thinking about it, and how much you’re supposed to be frowning while you watch it.
Over the last decade or so, it seems that any movie that intends to be ‘great’ will usually end up being merely good, whilst good movies that should by all rights be ‘merely good’ are – increasingly – proving themselves to be great, but are denied recognition by virtue of their inherent ‘just good’-ness.
So, which are this year’s good ‘great films’ and what makes them good-not-great? Let’s break this shit down.
Glossy biopics The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything have benefited so far from the transatlantic swoon over anything with a plummy accent and a starched shirt, plus there’s a real precedent for films about one posh man’s triumph over adversity (see: The King’s Speech) and films in which A Very Smart Man Has Other Problem (A Beautiful Mind, Rain Man, Amadeus, 12 Years a Slave (?)). On top of all that, the Academy tends to prefer impressions over original performances – perhaps because they provide an objective metric for success.
By this virtue, Selma would be a decent shout, but it’s a little easy and obvious, and the Academy already threw a bone to that pesky Civil Rights lobby last year. Boyhood and Birdman are both showy pictures that are technically interesting but narratively/characterly dull, and I don’t need to have seen American Sniper to know that I don’t want it to win (which also appears to be the Academy’s policy on Leo DiCaprio movies). ‘American Sniper’ – two horrible words made infinitely worse by their proximity to each other.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a uniquely tolerable film from the Dark Lord of Jazz Hands, Wes Anderson – but one jolly romp across pre-war Europe does not make up for the fact that he’s probably our most irksome living stylist and his particularly insidious brand of low-impact puff should not be encouraged – not when we are only now beginning to see the true consequence of his asininity on a generation of sensitive creative types with YouTube channels and Tumblr accounts.
Of all the omissions this year, the Nightcrawler snub is disappointing but not surprising – I mean, this ain’t the 70s, there are rules. Foxcatcher is a fake nose and a bunch of vistas, and has been recognized thusly. Last year’s Behind the Candelabra did this story with a lot less portent and a lot more fun. Gone Girl is too narratively pulpy and too ideologically confrontational; same with Maps To The Stars, but even more so.
I’d wager the year is either Boyhood’s or American Sniper’s, two Great American Movies in very different modes – the gooey and the gruey; the heart-warmer and the chest-thumper.
But you know which flick this year did both – and better – and isn’t even represented? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. That shit is the literal fucking apex of Hollywood’s powers in 2014. It does everything Hollywood does best to a higher standard than we’ve seen since… I want to say the golden age of Spielberg. But naturally, it’s not nominated for anything other than visual effects and I reckon that’s got more to do with its politics than its inclusion of monkey driving a tank.
Whiplash also suffers because of this – it’s critical of the socio-political status quo at a time when everyone wants their social commentary either non-existent or basically reinforcing a pre-agreed mainstream point-of-view (Civil Rights good, prejudice bad etc.) Plus, it’s a small film. A ‘good movie’. And ‘good movies’ don’t get big Oscar wins, even if they’re great – not when there are so many ‘great movies’ contending for the title (even if they’re only, at best, good).
The thing is, ‘good movies’ generally reveal themselves to be great only after you’ve seen then, digested them, lived with them for a few hours, or days, or years. ‘Great movies’, on the other hand, tend to exist entirely within their running time, and therefore usually have to pull something fucking mental out of the bag – completely blindside you in the third act – to achieve true greatness. In both instances, there has to be risk involved – something at stake, not just in terms of narrative, but also production.
This is why Selma is a good movie and Whiplash is a great one. Because Whiplash has an entirely unfashionable polemic – namely that people are not ‘fine as they are’, that the Western world encourages mediocrity whilst stifling the exceptional, that – as JK Simmons states – “there are no two words more poisonous than ‘good job’.” When he says it, he’s talking about musicianship, but he might as well be talking about the Oscars themselves.
This goes some way to explaining why we’ve seen the Best Picture category double in size over the last few years, and the integrity of the top prize plummet. These days, you get a nomination just for showing up with a nicely mounted film over two-hours-ten.
People say that the Oscars is little more than an industry backslapping event, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s more like a parent-teacher conference at a regional comprehensive, where the staff announce that they’ve once again achieved 52% A-to-C grades at GCSE and that, whilst isolated incidents persist, they’re still taking a hard line on any behavior that might prove disruptive to the smooth running of the curriculum.
I went to a school like that, and the most successful person to ever attend my school is John Oliver. He made his feature film debut in Mike Myers’ The Love Guru, and has since played Vanity Smurf in both The Smurfs and The Smurfs 2. So, make of that what you will.
Posted by Tom McInnes