Three New Oscar Winners Nobody Will Remember in 10 Years
Let’s play a game: how many of this year’s eight Oscar nominees for Best Picture can you name off the top of your head? If you follow movies, or even if you just watched the Academy Awards this past weekend, you can probably remember most of them. If so, well done. Good for you!
Now, a harder one: how many of last year’s Best Picture nominees can you remember? No cheating now. Don’t look it up. If you’re anything like most people you probably remember that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, and that Gravity was also nominated. But be honest… when was the last time that Captain Phillips came up in a casual conversation? And have you seriously thought about Philomena even once in the last six months?
The sad fact is that most films, good and bad, are destined to be forgotten. It’s the nature of the beast. Around 600 feature films get theatrically released in America every single year, and that’s not including the many foreign films that don’t make it overseas, and the straight to video films that come and go with nary a glance from the world at large. Time, as I have said over and over again, is the only film critic that matters. The best films linger (and sometimes so do the worst), and the mediocre movies – or even the decent yet unremarkable ones – sink into the background of the mind, rarely to be thought about again.
So pick a year, any year, and scope out the Oscar winners and nominees that everyone was talking about for a few short months. You’ll find that at least a handful have left the public consciousness altogether. It’s been a very long time since anyone has brought up the subject of The Cider House Rules at a party, or written a meaningful think piece about Frost/Nixon. Even recent Best Picture winners like The King’s Speech and The Artist seem to be evaporating rapidly from the pop culture mindscape. And make no mistake, many of this year’s Oscar winners will be no exception.
The novelty and sincerity of Boyhood will probably still be relevant ten years from now. So too will the daring and dangerous questions raised by Whiplash. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel will, if nothing else, remain a memorable part of the filmmaker’s oft-discussed canon. But the following three motion pictures (and one more which appears to be “on the bubble”) will, I suspect, soon be remembered best for winning Academy Awards… and not for making an indelible stamp on film history.
The Imitation Game
Morten Tyldum’s mostly well-crafted drama about Alan Turing – the inventor of the computer and the cracker of the Enigma Code, persecuted for his homosexuality – is a reverent drama if ever there was one. And while one could wag fingers at Graham Moore’s Oscar-winning screenplay, singling out its awkward and only partially successful flashback-within-a-flashback structure (if nothing else), there’s nothing terribly “wrong” with it. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a fine leading performance, and the subject matter is dramatic enough to carry the film along from beginning an end with only an occasional, passing glance at one’s wristwatch.
But The Imitation Game is also enormously straightforward, even highly conventional. It contains no quotable dialogue or scenes that stand out as particularly thrilling. The performances, while all perfectly suited to the material, don’t stick out in any particular way. Everyone did their jobs effectively, but no one particularly excelled. The story of Alan Turing will be remembered forever, but this movie is perhaps destined to be viewed as a functional companion piece to the history books, not as a singular achievement in bringing them to life on screen.
Sometimes people win Oscars for, let’s face it, the wrong movie. Kate Winslet didn’t turn in her career best performance in The Reader and Russell Crowe wasn’t as good in Gladiator as he was in The Insider or L.A. Confidential. And while nobody can find any fault in Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice, it’s not going to be the film for which the actress is remembered. It’s probably just going to be remembered as the film for which the Oscars finally deigned to give her an award.
But to give credit where credit is due, Still Alice is not a bad movie. It’s a touching and sincere portrayal of a woman suffering from Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, the difficulty she has accepting her condition, and the troubling decisions her family has to make about her care. Still Alice evokes impressive sympathy… while you’re watching it. But the merely competent direction and narrow scope prevent Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film from ever feeling like more than an impressively acted movie of the week. It places the audience in an uncomfortable real life position and simply lets the events play out, which is a perfectly reasonable way to tell Still Alice’s story, but which doesn’t lend the film much to multiple viewings, closer analysis, or a special, reserved spot in the collective memory bank.
The Theory of Everything
Eddie Redmayne won an arguably deserved Academy Award for The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s lovingly produced ode to Professor Stephen Hawking. Portraying the world-renowned physicist throughout every stage of his degenerative amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Redmayne captures the distinct physicality of Prof. Hawking and ably conveys his complex state of mind, often with little or no opportunity to emote using anything more than his eyes. It’s an impressive performance, no one could possibly argue that.
But as a film, The Theory of Everything is almost astoundingly conventional. The accomplishments and fame of Prof. Hawking are given the short shrift compared to the film’s relatively familiar dramatic study of a family in turmoil. Felicity Jones gives a fine but thankless performance as Hawking’s first wife, Jane, and is often asked to do little more than look worried about Hawking’s health or guilty about her attraction to Hawking’s caretaker, Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox).
The complexities of the Hawkings’ romance as the Professor’s condition deteriorates are reduced to a “will she or won’t she” infidelity subplot, and the film’s attempts to tackle the fullness of Stephen Hawking’s work are used as mere fodder for a limp discussion about science vs. faith that offers only limp conclusions. And the film’s big climactic moment bombs completely, treating the simple and obvious theory that Prof. Stephen Hawking would prefer not to have ALS as though it were a major revelation.
Despite the fine leading performance, The Theory of Everything seems unlikely to continue making an impression on audiences as time goes by. The movie itself is just isn’t as remarkable as Redmayne’s performance.
On the Bubble:
The following film may be the talk of the town now, but it could also very well become a historical footnote after all of the hype dies down.
Clint Eastwood’s biography of prolific Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) became a national box office phenomenon recently, earning over $300 million by catering to a nationalistic mindset that audiences don’t see very much of anymore (but for which many clearly yearned). There is an undeniable intensity to the film’s larger action sequences, and there is at least one scene – heavily promoted in the TV ads – which qualifies as impressive high drama, in which Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) listens in horror as her husband finds himself forced to abandon their phone call after the sudden onset of a firefight.
But although American Sniper has some decent qualities, one wonders whether the groundswell of support for this film will die down as attitudes towards the war change and the film no longer feels like a breath of fresh, patriotic air. When audiences are left with only the film, and not the overpowering zeitgeist that currently surrounds it, they may finally notice that as a drama American Sniper has undeniable defects. For one thing, Eastwood’s film simply moves forward at a steady clip instead of modulating its intensity, injecting occasional energy into the action but leaving the personal story of the Kyles feeling rote and uninteresting.
But more importantly, there’s little denying that this film clumsily sidesteps the conclusion of Chris Kyle’s life, a tragic end that calls into question American Sniper’s main thesis: that the soldiers fighting overseas are of sound mind and are being well taken care of. Instead of saying anything meaningful about the unsettling turn of events at the end of American Sniper, Eastwood’s film merely cuts to a thankful nation waving flags. Whether or not you would be right there waving flags along with them, it may be difficult in the future to ignore the fact that Chris Kyle’s life – particularly its disturbing end – raises questions that American Sniper decides to allude to, and then awkwardly ignore.