Sunday, March 2, 2014

Thoughts on the 86th Academy Award Winners, and one final, emotional defense of Gravity

Two articles for the price of one tonight, as I briefly go over my thoughts on who and what won the big prizes at tonight's 86th Academy Awards ceremony, and then offer one final, passionate analysis of the film that meant most to me in 2013, and just narrowly missed out on the Best Picture prize. This is likely my last article about the films of 2013, and if you read through to the end, it has one of my favorite bits of writing from that year, something I had not previously released to the public. 

Continue reading after the jump...

While I wound up watching much more of Sunday night’s Oscar telecast than I meant to – I find the awards mildly interesting, but boy oh boy do I hate the telecast shenanigans every year – I’m only here to talk briefly about the winners, as a follow-up to my Predictions piece from Friday, and I must say I am pleasantly impressed by how it all shook out this year. While very few of the awards were a surprise to me – of the feature film categories, I successfully predicted 17 out of 21, and the ones I missed went to those I believed were the runners-up – this was a year where they didn’t need to be. 2013 was an embarrassment of cinematic riches, and while there are films I would have liked to see stronger pushes for, or even basic inclusion (Short Term 12, Inside Llewyn Davis, etc.), for the most part, the nominations were nicely representative, and so were the awards. Would I have personally picked different winners in some of these categories? Sure, and part of why I wrote my predictions piece was to share those thoughts. But at the end of the day, does it bother me that Blanchett and McConaughey took Best Actress and Actor over performances I preferred ever-so-slightly? Not at all. They did awesome work, both gave amazing speeches, and absolutely deserve the trophies they just won.

And at the end of the day, the same goes for Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. It bothers me a little bit that Gravity didn’t win, not only because I truly think Gravity is the better movie, but because I find it a bit confusing and off-putting when one movie (Gravity) wins the majority of the night’s awards, including Best Director, only to lose the big award to something else. It’s weird, when you think of the awards as cumulative, and maybe that’s just a case of faulty perception on my end. But when a film is decreed by the Academy to have the best Cinematography, Direction, Visual Effects, Editing, and Sound Design of any film in 2013(*), but is somehow not chosen as the best movie overall, I find that confusing. It even bothers me a bit when two different films win Best Director and Best Picture. 12 Years a Slave is absolutely an achievement in Direction, every bit as much as Gravity. If you thought it was the Best Picture, then I don’t truly understand the thought process behind Steve McQueen not being Best Director. It’s just odd, and I know that’s to be expected when these things are voted on by a massive number of people, but strikes me as strange, and I think it sends a slightly weird message when what the Oscars declare the best film of the year is only considered best in two other fields (Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay). 

(*) And before anyone makes the idiotic comment that those are mostly ‘minor’ technical awards, allow me to politely request you go f*** yourself. Technical awards are NOT minor. In any way. The crafts work done behind the scenes is just as important if not more than the actors and directors who get all the glory and media recognition, and the awards Gravity won tonight represent nearly all facets of successful filmmaking, which is in fact a visual and technical medium. So yes, I do think they should, cumulatively, mean something in terms of what the Academy declares to be 'the best.' It bothers me just as much when these awards are treated as throwaways to big blockbuster successes the Academy doesn't treat seriously (which is what some people will sadly and inevitably now consider Gravity). 

Oh well. These are the Oscars, and the Oscars are inherently silly, but tonight, the Oscars awarded a lot of really great work, including 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, and Blue Jasmine and Dallas Buyers Club, and perhaps most pleasing to me, Her, which very deservingly won Best Original Screenplay. And The Great Gatsby won two Oscars, which is completely ludicrous (the logic for its Costume and Production Design wins basically boils down to ‘My God, Look at the colors!’), but I can push that to the back of my mind (at least it wasn’t The Lone Ranger). The only award I’m truly disappointed at, honestly, is Best Animated Feature, which went to Frozen over Hayao Miyazaki’s masterful The Wind Rises. I understand completely – Frozen has a billion dollars and the love of children and adults everywhere, while The Wind Rises is a relatively obscure Japanese film that has courted its share of political controversy – but I found Frozen to be pretty massively disappointing, and a re-watch of The Wind Rises today reinforced what an impossibly high level that film operates at. At the very least, The Wind Rises may be the most breathtakingly gorgeous film in the history of animation, and its loss seems like a major miscalculation.

Oh well. These things happen, and again, the Oscars do not have the inherent importance or meaning so many people seem to believe they do. At the end of the day, it’s a silly awards show; on this day, it happened to reward some movies I genuinely loved, and really, that’s all I can ask for (this was miles better than seeing Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Argo, The Artist, Life of Pi, or a million other generic, overrated movies take home buckets of trophies, certainly).

But before I sign off with what will likely be my last article about the films of 2013, I want to say one final thing about Gravity. I’ve seen a lot of cynicism lately, tonight and over the past few weeks, from a vocal minority trying to bring the film down a peg, dismissing it as nothing more than a technical achievement. People are entitled to their opinions, and if Gravity didn’t hit you, there’s nothing wrong with that, but this is one of those movies that really meant something to me this year, and I want to try explaining, one last time, in my own words, why I very much believe the emotional and thematic side of this movie is not something people should take lightly.

When I wrote my Top 10 list for the year last December, I spent a lot of time deliberating over what would go at number one. It was always between Gravity and Her, and those are insanely tough films to compare. I ultimately went with Her because I was, in the moment, more impressed with the absolute wealth of fully executed themes and concepts it presented and explored, because I felt that, in a year full of cinematic riches, it was the richest individual film. While I do not regret that choice, I have come to think that, if I could do the article over again, I would probably swap Gravity in for number one. Gravity is a simpler movie, exploring a much smaller number of themes revolving around what it means to be alive, but that core is so insanely strong, so beautifully observed and executed, that when all is said and done, I honestly do believe that it may, for many people, have the most to offer among the films of 2013.

When preparing the Top 10 List, I wrote two versions, one with Her at the top, and one with Gravity at the top. For the final list, with Gravity at number two, I published a completely different blurb for the film than what I wrote for the alternate list. That alternate, and much longer version, explains in greater depth what I mean when I say Gravity hit me, and how and why it did so; these are thoughts I haven’t shared with anyone else yet, actually, and part of why I finally went with the Her version of the list was because these emotions still felt too raw to put out in public back in December. But now, it seems, is as good a time as any to let them loose.

Here’s what I had originally prepared:

When I wrote, in my original review of the film, that “Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity hit me about as hard as any film ever has,” I wasn’t being even remotely hyperbolic. Gravity is one of the great technical accomplishments in film history, with Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki doing nothing less than to throw out and rework basic cinematic grammar, and the spectacle and intensity of it all is paced so perfectly that the film is undeniably one of the most gripping movies I’ve seen in years. And why the movie hit me as hard as it did is because every last one of those aesthetic accomplishments, and every last second of the film’s relentless pace, is devoted to realizing a particular emotional state, and empowering a simple, yet extraordinarily profound, message.

I thought for a while it was that message that left me feeling so emotionally raw when the movie ended, and indeed, that is a big part of it. Gravity is among the purest and most powerful affirmations of life’s significance I have ever seen, arguing that, while it may be hard to consider ourselves significant in an existence where we are so utterly dwarfed by the scale of the cosmos – and by the scale of the tragedies we endure as living, emotional beings – life matters, and life is big. It is the biggest thing there is, in truth, because without it, we would be nothing, and have nothing, and experience nothing. I am an atheist, and do not believe in any Gods, but that is my core belief system right there, and it is absolutely the arc of the film for Sandra Bullock’s character. I find life big and mysterious and terrifying, but also beautiful and empowering, and when the weight of that realization hits Bullock’s character, it breaks me, utterly, every single time. There are many movies and stories out there about various religions, and different philosophies, but very, very few films that so perfectly capture and project what I feel about this existence in my heart of hearts, and Gravity absolutely accomplishes that.

But subsequent viewings have also further revealed an atmospheric side to the film I was not fully cognizant of before. It hit me subconsciously, absolutely, but it wasn’t until I started to dig in deeper that I realized just how much the film and its setting are one giant allegory for the space a person exists in after they experience loss. Like outer space, the time after losing a loved one can feel cold and barren and confusing and immensely challenging, and planting one’s feet back on earth – literally and figuratively, in the case of Gravity – is a journey, an emotional tear-down and reconstruction, and I think Gravity lands as hard as it does because, if that is a journey the viewer has had to take before, they will have full and total identification with Ryan Stone’s struggles. What she is going through happens on a much, much bigger canvas than typical emotional rehabilitation, obviously, but that is precisely what makes the film a masterpiece – the scale of it is expressive, illustrative of a turbulent inner state, and that has the simultaneous effect of making the action several times more exciting (the more emotionally connected we are to the ideas behind the action, the more thrilling it becomes) and amplifying the film’s themes so their impact is absolute.

Few films, this or any other year, are so purely, uniformly constructed to bring a central set of ideas like this to life, but absolutely everything in Gravity is working towards that end, from the awe-inspiring and immersive 3D (this movie will lose something on home video, and that is in no way an insult), to Steven Price’s stirring musical score, to Sandra Bullock’s once-in-a-lifetime performance. When I saw the film the first time, I was unprepared for it, even in spite of the growing critical hype, and I won’t the time the credits rolled, I was broken, fighting back tears on the walk back to the car, and feeling forced to let those tears flows the moment I was in private. 2013, for me, was the first full year I spent recovering from the death of my father, and Gravity truly was one of the most important and cathartic parts of my grieving process. It helped me understand the beliefs I have developed since his passing better, and it clarified and released some of my dormant emotions in ways I could never have anticipated. That film can do that to a person is nothing short of miraculous. There are many movies I would call masterpieces, many movies I love and cherish and always will, but there are a select few I consider to be outright miracles. Gravity is one of them.

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