What Makes a Best Picture?

Warning: This is not a travel post. While I could have spun it into an #armchairtravels blog about the transportive qualities of these films, I didn’t. We haven’t gone anywhere in a long time, and the posts I’ve been wanting to write about our upcoming travel plans are still in my head. This popped out so I thought what the heck. Our “anywhere” is HOME for the moment, it’s Oscar season, and we’re spending a lot of our time using our Movie Pass. 


 

Coming out of The Post last night left me asking myself a question I’ve asked a lot in the last several weeks. What is a Best Picture?

The Post was a great film. It’s a well-crafted movie by a legendary director, full of great performances by legendary actors (and a few scene stealers who should be legends themselves). It has a great soundtrack by a legendary composer, and tells a great story in an urgent and eerily timely manner.

But.

Is it Best Picture?

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An agreed-upon list of best picture qualities does not seem to exist (though there are technical qualifications and there is a specific voting process). No checklist of necessary elements (like an Olympic figure skating routine) or a rating grid (like teacher evaluations). And with only 7000ish (mostly homogenous) members listing their preferred movies in order, with no requirement for qualifying their choices, the nominees are always bound to be a bit biased or out of whack.

2009 was a turning point in Oscar history, allowing movies with more mass appeal than your typical awards-fare to have a shot at claiming a golden statue. This change allowed recognition for movies that meant something to more people, as opposed to just old white rich voters. And I love how broad (though often predictable) the selection of movies has become over the years.

Just look at this year’s choices:

  1. A quiet, indie, queer coming of age romance.
  2. A character study disguised as a WWII story.
  3. An experiment in film and story disguised as a WWII story.
  4. A hard-to-swallow message about racism presented as a horror comedy (just what?!)
  5. A character-driven mother-daughter relationship dramedy period piece.
  6. An examination of what genius can do to others in the pursuit of making art.
  7. A not-so-subtle and urgent defense of the free press.
  8. A monster movie fairy tale with elements of a spy thriller that looks like French love story.
  9. A black comedy about a mother’s wrath that asks what a person must do for redemption.

 

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(Side note: Out of all of the movies we’ve seen so far, there’s one that I’m disappointed and surprised didn’t get a best pic nod: I, Tonya. What a wild ride of a film. Sharp, creative editing. Dynamo performances by its leading women (hell, everyone in that movie kicked ass). Some beautiful CG replacing Margot Robbie’s face on her stunt doubles. A witty, biting script that pulled no punches yet somehow redeems its main character. And it took risks that paid off – like breaking the 4th wall, switching tone so fast you might get whiplash, mixing in documentary-interview-style footage, and filling a movie with unlikeable would-be villains. And every single bit of it worked, coming together into one of the wildest and weirdest movies you’ll see this year. So why wasn’t I, Tonya nominated for Best Picture?)

We’re seeing more diversity in story, in character, in nominations. (Not as much as we COULD be seeing, mind you, but it’s a start.) But how do you begin to compare a quiet drama to a big-budget IMAX movie? How do you judge a dark comedy that ends in major (just brutal) bloodshed against the Pentagon Papers? How can debut directors compete against legends?

These are the question that, every year, Justin and I try to answer as we view as many Oscar nominated movies as possible. This year, we’ve seen 7 of the 9 Best Pictures and a few others, with a few more to go before March 4. And after every single viewing we ask that question.

Is it Best Picture?

Most years we end up predicting the winners even when we disagree with the choice. Last year, we didn’t get a chance to see most of the nominees and out of the ones we did see, didn’t have any favorites. Moonlight was a pleasant surprise though. In 2016, we were both disappointed when Spotlight won; it was a great film, similar to The Post, full of great performances telling a great story, but it wasn’t best picture. The Big Short was more ambitious, telling a crazy, hard-to-understand socially-relevant tale of math and fraud in a hilarious, creative, 4th-wall-breaking way; the editing alone in that movie deserved recognition. But alas. In 2009, the first year they allowed more than five best picture nominees, Hurt Locker won over several other far more interesting films, namely District 9, which seared South Africa’s history of apartheid and provided a socially relevant message in a brilliant way: through the mockumentary lens of an alien “invasion”, all done with clever practical and efficient CG effects with a budget of only $39 million. Genius!!

I’ve come to realize that what I want out of a best picture isn’t necessarily what the Academy wants. I want more than a compelling story. I want to be wowed. I want to see something I’ve never seen before. This is why I love when movies such as Birdman and the Artist and Chicago win, and why I wish films like Crash, and Spotlight, and the King’s Speech hadn’t. I want excellent writing, solid performances, and innovation in direction or cinematography or editing. I want someone involved in the filmmaking process to step outside of their comfort zones, to take risks in telling the story; if it’s good enough to put on celluloid then don’t half ass it. Full ass it. I guess that’s the crux of it: I want everyone involved to FULL ASS the making of their movie giving audiences something fresh and exciting but also meaningful.

I want something amazing, I guess.

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So which movie is BEST PICTURE?

We can go ahead and eliminate The Darkest Hour. It was a fine movie, with a powerhouse performance by Gary Oldman. But nothing else about that movie stood out to me. It should win for Best Makeup (just look at those closeups!! Where is the line of his prosthetics?! Great work there.) and I believe Oldman should win Best Actor. But that movie wasn’t anything special.

I also think we can eliminate the two we haven’t yet seen just based on their competition (Phantom Thread and Call Me By Your Name). Three Billboards has done well at other awards shows but I would honestly be shocked if it won; it was tonally discordant (and not in a fun, roller coaster way like I, Tonya was), and not as nuanced as it could have been with some forced dialogue. While Sam Rockwell killed his performance, this unredeemable unabashedly racist and generally terrible person earned redemption through very little work of his own. The main character’s plight hit me emotionally, made me cry my eyes out in a couple spots, and took some major risks in how it presents the story, but overall, to me, it doesn’t deserve best picture.

SOWBefore the three (3!!!) plagiarism allegations came in against The Shape of Water, I would have put my bets on it winning. Its gorgeous multi-layered story shocks and soothes through a sumptuous visual feast. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as moving or amazing as I’d hoped. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. However, it’s a story we’ve seen before (two outcasts falling in love; the monster with a heart; a power hungry official going to any lengths to make his mark; executives not listening to scientists; the good guys helping the ‘beast’ escape; Beauty and the Beast meets ET meets Free Willy meets decades of French cinema). It’s a message we’ve heard before (though still need). The visuals, while stunning, reminded me so much of Amelie that it was almost distracting. One thing in its favor, though, is how seamlessly it blended genres, which was fresh and fun to watch. In the end, so much of it felt too borrowed (and apparently copied!) for it to rise to the top, for me. If it can push back against the plagiarism accusations, however, I still think it could triumph.

That leaves The Post, Ladybird, Get Out, and Dunkirk.

As I said before, The Post was fantastic. I loved it, learned a ton, loved the feminist slant, and would recommend it to a lot of people. But very little about it felt fresh or innovative. It was a bunch of award winners doing what they do best — though not necessarily at their best. Streep and Hanks were both excellent, as per usual, but neither gave their best performance. The film celebrates risk-takers yet takes no risks of its own. Spielberg, a masterful storyteller, didn’t even tiptoe outside his comfort zone; he delivered what audiences expect from him, and not much more. John Williams? COME ON. Give someone else a chance to score a flick now and then. And yes, this movie told a riveting story, but without the historical source material, what’s left? Talented filmmakers doing their jobs well without risk or innovation.

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Ladybird surprised the heck out of me and I was thrilled to see a first-time female director nominated for such a plot-light character-heavy movie. And a comedy no less. Starring a teenager. In the early 2000s. I mean… what? This feels like the equivalent o a YA novel getting nominated for the Pulitzer or something. I graduated the same year Ladybird did, so the period details and authenticity of this movie drew me in. And I was already sucked in by the mere presence of Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. I don’t think this will win, but if it did I’d be glad. It banked heavily on the emotional pull of its characters and actors, hoping you didn’t notice the lack of plot, and it totally worked. That’s a risk that paid off — and by a debut director! I can’t wait to see her next film.

This brings us to the two movies I think are actually the best of the year – and one of my favorite movies of 2017. (Note: I must distinguish between what’s “best” and what I liked best. One of my favorite movies of all time is Independence Day, clearly not an award winner (though I could argue in its favor!), so the things I like are not always things that are great, and things that are great, like world renowned guitarist Jimi Hendrix or Romeo and Juliet or the Mona Lisa, are not always things that I like).

It’s difficult to compare Get Out and Dunkirk. One is a dark (darrrrk) comedy about the horrors of racism that morphs from a “meet the parents” romcom into a terrifying psychological thriller, made by one half of a sketch comedy duo. The other movie is a narrowly focused World War II history lesson directed by a guy who makes big budget sci fi movies and regularly damages IMAX cameras. Yet to me, they’re so similar in that both took bold risks in story telling and filmmaking that paid off!

(It’s hard to overlook a movie’s budget and production process when considering its greatness. This is one reason that, to me, District 9 was much more “best picture” deserving than Avatar; both were sci fi movies features CG aliens. One had a $300 million budget and big name actors. The other had a budget of $39 million and no actors anyone’s ever heard of. They both reached the same goal (telling a great story, getting nominated, creating convincing CG aliens). So which one was more successful or deserving of praise?)

getout.gifJordan Peele created an unprecedented movie experience with less than $5 million.  You laugh, you scream, you gasp. Get Out punches in the gut when you realize what’s going on and how much it ties into current race relations. You get another punch in the gut when you realize how masterfully he sucked you in to this bizarre genre-blending flick. The first time I heard about this movie, I knew I wanted to see it. And it sat with me for days, keeping me up at night thinking about it from different angles. It’s so good it makes you angry, and then amazed, and then makes you want to watch it again and pick up all of the things you missed the first time. I’m dying to watch it again. I hope this guy continues to make movies and continues to take risks. They won’t all pay off like this but he has enough imagination to surprise us for years.

Christopher Nolan, with $100 million (still kind of modest for this type of movie), created an unprecedented movie experience with Dunkirk. It’s loud, it’s brutal, it’s incredibly stressful. There’s very little dialogue, leaving the camera, props and sets to do the heavy lifting. The acting never feels like acting. History explodes to life in ways that the other WWII movie tried and failed to do (and with far less scenery-chewing). The sheer technicality and practicality of filmmaking deserves recognition; you have to respect a guy who goes for the practical effect over CG, who wants his movies to feel as real as possible. Nolan doesn’t just direct, he leads; he holds the camera, drives the boats, gets in the water, arranges props. His hands are all over that movie in a way that I hope/wish more bosses and leaders would work with their teams. Technical risks aside (he did damage another IMAX camera after all), the movie took big risks in its storytelling. The sparse dialogue gave us little in way of character development, and balancing three disparate timelines edited to reach the same climax at the same time could have backfired — yet both worked. I gasped, I cried, I panicked, I cheered. As someone who actively avoids war movies, doesn’t care for violence on screen, and did not particularly enjoy the tense experience of watching Dunkirk, I have to say I think it’s the best crafted film I’ve seen in a very long time. Though I will not be rewatching it any time soon.

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So which movie(s) most deserve our praise this year?

My favorites in terms of how much I enjoyed the experience of watching the movie (asterisks denote a non-Best Picture nominee):

Get Out
I, Tonya*
Coco*
Ladybird
The Big Sick*
The Post
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
3 Billboards
Darkest Hour

If I were in the academy, voting for Best Picture, my votes in order of preference would be:

  • Get Out (because I know it won’t win but think it’s the best movie I’ve seen in 2017)
  • Dunkirk (because it created technically outstanding visceral experience through unique storytelling and clever practical filmmaking)
  • Ladybird (because its character-driven story took risks in plotting, or lack thereof, that somehow paid off)
  • The Shape of Water (because though it felt a bit recycled, it was beautiful, technically masterful, and had a powerful message)
  • The Post (because it is the movie we need right now)

 

But so what?

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Mona Lisa. Meh.

Ultimately, does any of this actually matter? We’re talking about art. Art should make us think, feel, talk, argue. Does it actually matter what awards art has if it makes you think or feel deeply? Do we walk into a museum and pit Degas against Monet, DaVinci against Michelangelo? Do we select a handful of paintings from the Louvre, each in a radically different style with a radically different format made by radically different artists, and say “THIS ONE IS THE BEST PAINTING IN THE LOUVRE”? I mean, we could. That would actually probably be pretty fun (if any of you vote for the Mona Lisa, I will fight you). But the greatness of The Raft of Medusa doesn’t overshadow the greatness of The Wedding at Cana, nor should it. And it’s the same thing with these movies.

I recognize that these awards do mean something to the people who win them and the studios who finance them, so they do matter. When awards go to movies like Moonlight and actors like Dev Patel or Ruth Negga, and when female directors and Middle Eastern writers get recognized for their talent, we all win by getting exposed to more diverse stories told by diverse people. We open doors for a future of different types of art, and different types of stories. So despite (or in spite of) the glittering dresses and glad-handing, the nominations and winners do matter in some ways.

But in the long run, in the grand scheme of human history and storytelling, what you or I or the Academy thinks about a movie doesn’t matter. Who cares if it has two or eleven nominations if it still inspires future directors or actors or writers? Who cares if a movie wins or loses Best Cinematography if it launches the career of a talented artist? Who cares if a movie wins awards if it resonates with a person? The accolades, or lack thereof, don’t change how a movie makes you FEEL.

Each nominated film is a piece of art, created by hundreds of people, trying to make something bigger than themselves, and we should appreciate the individual aspects of each movie. All of these movies made us feel something, got us thinking, and have inspired discussions — about how art is made, about quality of storytelling, about race and gender and fake news and the -isms that plague modern society, about tough people making tough decisions, and about the possibilities that lie ahead.

So maybe that’s why I get worked up every year in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards. It’s not just about correctly predicting the highest number of winners at an Oscar party, but celebrating this beloved art form, so full of potential and possibility, about lifting up storytellers and artists, and feeling something amazing.

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So what are YOUR Oscar picks? Do your favorites line up with what you think was best? Who do you hope wins? Which movie worked the best for you? The least? What are some of your favorite winners from past years?