Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015: The battle of two greats with gimmicks



On the eve of the 87th Academy Awards, it seems the race has come down to Boyhood vs Birdman, which is a very difficult but, truth be told, satisfying race.

As a great admirer of both films and the balls it took to make them, I'm not really sure where to put my loyalty, except that my loyalty is completely and entirely with Boyhood, even though I admire Birdman just as much. Confusing? Much. Welcome to Oscar watching.

I really don't know how to feel heading into tonight's ceremony (to clarify, I'm watching it on TV like everyone else. I just mean heading into it in an emotional sense). I mean, obviously it doesn't really matter who wins. It's just the Oscars. But then, it also matters who wins because awards and recognition make careers (they also break them, but mostly only if you're a woman and suddenly you're punished for all the bad scripts you need to say yes to after winning an Oscar because there are only so many good parts going around. But more on that later). Also, it's really hard when the race is teetering between two frontrunners that you actually care about.

I kind of feel bad for not getting behind the Birdman campaign. It's an amazing film, but it just feels like it will live on better as a great film that got fantastic awards coverage rather than as a Best Picture winner. Whereas Boyhood just feels like an enduring classic that will only keep earning it's place in the Best Picture winner lineup more and more as the years go by. Of course, both films have their fans and detractors.

I want to say a few things about all this:

1.  If Boyhood and Birdman split the vote, like Jack Nicholson & Daniel Day Lewis - both worthy contenders - did in 2002, which film will be the Adrien Brody that comes in to scoop up the difference? There are a few interesting contenders: Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game and then there's American Sniper, which will feel like a big let down the moment it happens. Also, it's not gonna happen. If they really believed in the unexpected box office phenom, they would have nominated Clint Eastwood over the guy who made Imitation Game. If anyone gave a damn about Selma at all, I'd be worried for the two frontrunners, but no one does. Long story short, if there's a split the difference situation, let's hope it's Wes Anderson that reaps the benefit. (imagine Beck and Wes Anderson winning twin Grammies & Oscars in the same year - it'll instantly become unhip to be a hipster & jocks will become the new counterculture)

2. Boyhood has Best Drama & Best Director from the Golden Globes, where Birdman lost to Grand Budapest Hotel (but won Best Screenplay, which it also later lost to Grand Budapest Hotel at the BAFTAS) and the same from the BAFTAS. That feels right. At the same time, Birdman won the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award (and why wouldn't it? Every performer is pitch perfect) & the Directors Guild Award (here it is a toss up, but also easy to see why it would win - it's the more flashy of the two remarkable achievements) & most unexpectedly, the Producers Guild Award (clearly no producer, in particular, is more worthy of praise, in years, than Jonathan Sehring, who greenlit the project and financed it, bit by bit, over 12 years, with 7-year contract limitations and surely endless nagging from studio execs wanting to see return on investment. Of course, Sehring was somehow deemed not eligible as a Producer by the Guild, which might explain why the film itself was passed over. It's all very confusing.) Which is all to say that - we have a real race on our hands! What fun.

3. Birdman may be about ego and existential dilemmas in the movie business, but Boyhood is about real, ordinary life. I wonder which one Hollywood will respond to more (uh oh).

4. About the "gimmicks" inherent in both contenders: first off, both films are fantastic & remarkable beyond their gimmicks. Great writing, great performances and razor-sharp, confident directing (the one obviously far more subtle than the other). Secondly, both gimmicks are remarkable & fantastically executed. There's nothing wrong with doing something for the "first time" in cinema. It's to be applauded.

4.1 While Birdman's seemingly single shot trick has been done before (notably by Hitchcock in 1948's Rope), it's never been done well. Rope is pretty bad & the one shot gimmick distracts more than aids the story (the technology & know-how was also markedly less abundant in 1948). Birdman's "single shot" breathes new life into an already exciting film. It captures the breathless rush of Riggan's existential meltdown, the frenetic pace of live performance, and it just creates a damn cool freaking rhythm of a movie, man. And what's wrong with that? It's a breakthrough achievement that deserves to be celebrated many times over. Would Birdman by as good without its "gimmick"? It's hard to imagine it without it, but it has so much else going for it, I have to believe it would be. Would Gravity be as good without it's long take conceits? Let's not go there...

4.2 Boyhood's 12-year semi-documentary experiment is a real first in feature cinema, and something both thrilling and profound to behold. This one is trickier because the passage of time is so integral to Boyhood's stories, and the themes of much of Linklater's career. It's a daring conceit, but also the element that drives home the subtle profundity at the heart of this simple story. Time passes by the mundane and the melodramatic and before you know it, you're all grown up (or your kids are all frown up) and you barely know how it happened. There's so much more to the film and it's tenderly observed world of characters than that, but it's kind of the thing that makes it great. The idea, not the gimmick. The gimmick is just a genius way of expressing it. It's also kind of magical watching Mason / Ellar Coltrane grow up before our eyes in the blink of an eye, much as his mother does... I'm going in circles. There are so many beautiful pieces written about Boyhood (like this one) that I won't bother trying to wax lyrical. Would Boyhood be good without the 12-year gimmick? Honestly, yes. Would it have gotten a fraction of the attention? No. It kind of is what put it on the map. So it's a bit of a catch-22. Because the gimmick is so integral to the storytelling, but it also kind of makes it seem like it's the only significant thing about it. But it's not.

5. So my predictions? Boyhood takes Best Picture. Birdman Director. Because although both are amazing films & incredible directorial achievements, Birdman is the more flashy directing triumph, while Boyhood is the more enduring film, imo. On the other hand, the Indepedent Spirit Awards saw it exactly the other way around last night, and my wife says that makes more sense. So what do I know? At least it's a battle of two truly exciting and refreshingly original giants & both will be remembered for years to come regardless of how tonight turns out.