Once again, it’s Oscar time.
This year’s race is gearing up to be one of the least predictable in recent memory. For every race that has an all-but-guaranteed winner (Julianne Moore, Best Actress; J.K. Simmons, Best Supporting Actor), there are as many that are truly up in the air — some with not only two possible winners, but several. Best Actor? It’s anybody’s guess whether it goes to Eddie Redmayne or Michael Keaton, and an upset by Bradley Cooper isn’t out of the question. Will the Academy reward Richard Linklater’s assured hand at shepherding Boyhood, a 12-year-in-the-making indie that’s full of genuine emotion and about as naturalistic as film can be, or Alejandro Inarritu’s brash, attention-grabbing stylings in the seemingly editless celebration of artistic ego Birdman? We’ll have to wait and see.
It was a very good year at the movies… but a weird one. Reversing the trend of recent years, the summer blockbuster fare offered a surprising amount of good taste, from the goofy-fun Guardians Of The Galaxy to the surprisingly clever Edge Of Tomorrow. Even sequels like Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and unnecessary reboots like Godzilla offered something in the way of quality.
I saw many films I liked over the course of the year, and not too many that I didn’t. 2014 was not a year of masterpieces, save one or two, but a year when more movies than average were better than you’d think.
Some films are great.
Some films are Important.
Some are both, some are neither. Many are one, attempting to be the other.
This time of year always unleashes at least one major release about a historical event we’re all familiar with, usually a true story, often centered around a major war or some other national or global watershed moment. Is it something about the onset of winter that makes us want to watch such stories?
No. It’s the Oscars.
You don’t make a movie about Wall Street in 2011 unless you’re saying something about what’s going down in America. J.C. Chandor did that with the gripping drama Margin Call, taking us inside the offices of a fictional investment bank on the literal eve of the financial collapse that (temporarily?) crippled the United States in this new millennium.
Chandor’s next film, Deepwater Horizon, due later this year, will explore the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It’s obvious that the man has a bone to pick with capitalism, a fact also apparent in his third and, to date, best film, A Most Violent Year.
It happens every year. That handsomely produced movie, often British, usually a period piece. It’s a perfectly fine film — unchallenging, uncomplicated, more or less forgettable. It has the right stars, the right tone, the right credentials, the right subject matter, and most importantly, the right budget for an awards campaign. (It helps if the Weinsteins are involved.)
Every year, one or two of these titles sneak their way into the Oscar race. Occasionally, they gain such steam that they actually win the big prizes. The most notable example in recent years? The King’s Speech, which won Best Picture shortly before no one ever spoke of it again. Seriously, when was the last time you heard someone mention The King’s Speech in conversation? Does it stick out in your mind as one of the strongest films of the past decade? The King’s Speech defeated Black Swan, Toy Story 3, Inception, and most shamefully, The Social Network, all movies I’ve heard people talk about over the past few years.
The King’s Speech is fine. But it didn’t deserve an Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s just that sometimes, the safest choice is the choice that takes home the big prize.
Art is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A picture is worth a thousand words. And everybody — I mean everybody — is a critic.
Paul Thomas Anderson is considered one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. By some, one of the greatest filmmakers of any time. Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood are held up, almost unanimously, as some of the finest films of the last quarter-century; some would add Magnolia and The Master to that list. (A few might even include Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love.)
If you live in or around Hollywood, you’re likely to see open-top buses filled with tourists, taking a tour of your home like it’s Disneyland. I happen to live near a lot of the attractions on these tours — places that are pretty ordinary to me, but can still be sold as part of the Tinseltown mythos. The lookie-loos in these buses and vans want to see where the stars live — or, stranger still, used to live — because, as legend has it, such figures are larger than life, gods amongst men, living out their fabulous, unimaginable lives on a plane of existence we mere mortals can only dream of.
The truth is a far cry from that — and if you live here, you know it. But you’ll still see those buses full of people, their eyes glancing briefly at you, just in case you might be a celebrity, and then darting quickly away when they realize you’re just another person. Like animals in cages at a zoo, we don’t pay much mind to these tourists invading our natural habitat — which is not, in fact, our natural habitat, but an enclosure built up to vaguely resemble our former way of life. Our unnatural habitat. In Los Angeles, it’s a constant reminder that people are fascinated by our way of life here, even if that way of life loses its luster to those who actually live here. At some point, even glitz and glamor begin to look ordinary. I look at those tourists sometimes and try to remember what it’s like to be just thrilled by all this.
David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars is a lot like those “star tours,” except in addition to showing you gaudy homes, celeb hotspots, and a glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous, it will also show you incest, prescription drug abuse, the ghosts of multiple children, self-immolation, and at least one dead pet.
Welcome to Hollywood, folks!