Tempted though I might be to end an Oscar season I began so long ago quoting Into the Woods’s Witch by dropping another choice lyric from “Last Midnight” (namely the one that would allow me to blithely shrug off the Academy’s fickle tastes with the dismissal, “Oh, why bother? You’ll just do what you do!”), there’s a legitimate three-way race to call this year. Make it four if you naïvely believe the monstrous box-office success of American Sniper is enough to overcome the same partisan resistance that stymied Zero Dark Thirty two years ago. Which means that figuring out exactly what the Academy will do is an even trickier errand than collecting a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.
Or is it? Though Boyhood had the critics in its corner, and The Grand Budapest Hotel performed well above expectation at the Globes and BAFTAs to underline its status as the year’s most nominated movie along with Birdman, it’s Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Broadway blitz that’s had its way with the major guild awards. Over at Grantland, Mark Harris has already calmly and mercilessly picked apart the clear navel-gazing trend that’s developed among recent Oscar winners: “Like Time magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year, the Best Picture winner is now always ’You.’ Or, as the Academy thinks of itself, ’Us.’”
As appealing as it would be to note that the welcome side effect of this shift in priorities means the conclusive demotion (The King’s Speech aside) of the Oscar-bait potency of routine “Great Men” cinema like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, this year the trend also swallowed up one of the most vibrant and urgent pieces of populist political filmmaking in recent memory. If the upside to the unforgivable savaging of Selma is that it arguably helped cast Harvey Weinstein’s galling “Honor the Man, Honor the Film” campaign on behalf of the far more factually spurious Imitation Game that much further into the realm of poor taste, that’s cold comfort indeed. Selma was not a perfect film, and it might not even be the best film in this lineup. But in real-world terms, and in its understanding of the correspondence between the past, the present, and the (hopeful) future, it was in every sense the movie of the moment.
That said, it’s not that Birdman—as Harris pointed out, essentially a paean to the enduring spirit of creative ambition within a marketplace that increasingly seems to have little use for it—doesn’t speak on behalf of contemporary matters in a fashion befitting a best picture winner. It does to a far more fully realized extent than most typical Oscar winners (or, at least compared to Crash, with at least a degree more eloquence). Does Birdman truly represent the best Hollywood can do? Some may look at its technical wizardry and heightened sense of self-awareness and conclude that, yes, it does. But maybe more importantly, in reducing show business into a stark dichotomy between art and commerce, and in setting up the latter as a morally bankrupt CGI-overloaded straw man, it will have everyone in the business nodding their grizzled heads in unison about what sort of entertainment represents the worst Hollywood can do.
Will Win: Birdman
Could Win: Boyhood
Should Win: Selma