The Academy Awards: Why the best picture nominees should make Hollywood take note

The Academy Awards are next week, and looking over the list of best picture nominees, I’m surprised I’ve actually seen a majority of the films (Amour, Django Unchained, and Argo being the exceptions.) But I’m also pleasantly surprised that these were, by and large, excellent films that connected with a lot of different audiences.

This crop of thoughtful, challenging, and sometimes controversial films proved that audiences don’t just want mindless summer movie fare. Six out of the nine films have made over 100 million domestically. And out of all of them, Lincoln made the most (about 176 million at current count) which is astounding considering the film is essentially a straight-ahead drama with no action, no obvious special effects, and no sex appeal (though fans of Daniel Day Lewis might disagree.) I love history and historical fiction and drama, so I really enjoyed the film as an historical recreation of the events of that time, but have to admit that I also found myself getting a little antsy through all the debates on the house floor. But I liked that it presented some profund questions about the nature of freedom, courage, and personal conviction in the face of great opposition.

What I took away from Les Miserables was that we all have the power to overcome our past and choose a new path, no matter how others define us. Spirituality and faith was also a major theme throughout.

Zero Dark Thirty was a tough watch, but I think it raises an important question about whether violence as a means to ending violence works, or is a pointless endeavor that will leave us, as a nation, bereft and spiritually wrecked.

And Life of Pi, my favorite film of the year, was essentially a mediation on the meaning of story and belief. Unlike the others, it did have a lot of effects that were amazingly executed and vital to the telling of the story. I want to go into this story, both the movie and the book, in more depth in a future post.

The meaning I take away from these films as a whole is that audiences really do long for stories with depth, and that they are willing to go to the theater to explore the deeper questions of who we are and why we’re here. Often films that are critical darlings and considered more “serious” fare are not big hits at the box office and that’s why studios don’t want to invest in them. But I think those with the power to green-light films have a lot to consider after this year’s Oscars.

Some of the biggest disappointments this year were films whose budgets were huge — John Carter and Battleship being the most publicized examples. There seems to be a belief among the studios that the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. And sometimes the gamble pays off – The Avengers, for example (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way). Every studio would kill to have the next Avengers. But why aren’t studios willing to make more modest budgeted pictures that yield healthy returns on investment?

I believe there is a directive among the studios (which I’ve heard first-hand) to put their main focus on the big tentpole movies, at one extreme, or small, micro-budget movies at the other. They aren’t really interested in mid-sized budget movies (20-70 million) and haven’t been for a while. But all the nominees (minus Django at 100 million) had budgets within that range. Beasts and Amour were below that.

Studios will never do away with the summer tentpole, but I think they are missing a huge opportunity to shepherd stories with a little more depth through the development process.

What were some of your favorite movies of the year? What stories resonated with you?

All my budget figures I took from Box Office Mojo.


25 thoughts on “The Academy Awards: Why the best picture nominees should make Hollywood take note

  1. Beasts of the Southern Wild was really the movie that really got to me out of all of them. I have my own reasons for disliking a good majority of the nominees, but Beasts was just so beautifully done. Not to mention the life that Quvenzhané Wallis brought to the screen.

  2. Great posts. I’m loving this blog. And I thought Frankenweenie was a fantastic film that came out recently. 🙂 A story that I’ll always have a strong personal connection with.

  3. I’m always a fan of the animated films, and I was pretty impressed by this year’s crop of animation, especially Wreck-it-Ralph and ParaNorman. I would dearly, dearly love for ParaNorman to win the Best Animated Oscar this year, as I think it deserves the recognition for a surprisingly subtle story and simply awe-inspiring animated effects. Brave was solid if not Pixar’s best work, and I liked Rise of the Guardians too, if not for the story it presented (the pacing and plot was definitely weak at times) then for the potential it had in its characters. And the Avengers was just pure fun, basically exactly what I want from a comic book movie, while still featuring impressive character dynamics and growth.

    But I’ve enjoyed the more serious films this year as well. I’m still waiting to see ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’, but I’ve seen most of the other Best Picture nominees and I was really impressed by Lincoln. I think that one may very well take Best Picture, and certainly it’ll get a bunch of awards in the other categories it’s nominated for. The others were all very solid films, but Lincoln is the one that’s really wowed me so far, which is interesting as it’s such an understated film. Mostly, it made me want to go and read all about the history of the times, so I could properly understand who all the people were.

    One small detail– the Oscars aren’t until Sunday the 24th, so unless you have a time machine, surely they’re not starting in only ‘a few hours’?

  4. I really enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises and was kind if disappointed that it did not make the oscars. Tom Hardy was very expressive even through a mask in my opinion and really procured strong emotions within me. Cloud Atlas was also a great watch this year, I was not expecting the ride that it took me on and in my opinion was one of the best films I have watched in recent memory.

  5. Django Unchained was the first Tarantino film I’ve ever seen (I don’t know how that’s possible, either) and I really enjoyed it. I thought both Django and Dr. Schultz were such unique, unconvential heroes. I love the kind of stories where you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next. Building off what you said, I think it would be awesome if Hollywood started embracing more original screenplays like Django or Inception. Sequels and remakes have become more run-of-the-mill in recent years (, which is unfortunate because I know a lot of moviegoers would much prefer be exposed to new kinds of stories.

  6. Awesome simplistic breakdown of what make these films work. When they announced the nominees, I was really disheartened to see Cloud Atlas non-existent. The film was ambitious, weaving several different narratives together and actors playing a variety of roles. The overall structure of Cloud Atlas as a screenplay is really phenomenal. I love film history and to see each narrative shot in a cinematic style from different decades of the 20th century was a real delight. All this aside, the films nominated for best screenplay are fantastic and totally deserve that spot.

    The wardrobe, makeup and special effects in Cloud Atlas are really astounding and unbelievably ambitious. The three nominees for Hair/Makeup went to The Hobbit, Hitchcock and Les Mis. I haven’t seen Hitchcock, but I was really disappointed that Cloud Atlas was shoved out for period piece wardrobe.

    With that disappoint aside, I think this has been one of the better years for the Oscars all around and I’m eager to see the show.

  7. I totally agree with you Tay. Frankenweenie was a big surprise for me this year. Such a perfect movie. It’s sad it didn’t do well at the box office… I wish it wins the oscar for best animated feature film. Brave was beautiful to watch but the story wasn’t very original… How about you Mike ? Which animated feature film would you think deserves the oscar ?

  8. I hugely enjoyed Django Unchained. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how much depth Tarantino’s movies have, for having been advertised as sort of gimmicky, overly stylized gore films. On the surface, Django is about a slave getting revenge on oppressive whites, but there’s one scene that really reveals Tarantino’s genius. (And no worries, no real spoilers.)

    DiCaprio’s character Candy questions why the slaves don’t just rise up, why they don’t rebel. And this isn’t the question of a man who owns slaves because he hates them. Candy’s character spends his time on scientific experiments to do with eugenics (however crude and inaccurate) to justify the white man owning slaves. His question is not, “Why don’t they rise up?” but rather (even without his knowing), “Why do whites own blacks? Why don’t we just stop?”

    It’s a brilliant scene and commentary on the trappings of power and systematic learning, because the person who asks the question is not the outsider (Waltz’s character, the German dentist), but the mouthpiece of the system itself, a wealthy plantation owner with dozens of slaves. Why don’t they just rise up? Because the system taught them not to; and same with why Candy owns slaves. He doesn’t own them because he hates them, as I’m sure many slave owners did not hate their slaves, but because the system taught them that they were lesser beings. He questions this, and it’s just the most brilliant moment of introspection. How would we justify ourselves owning slaves in that time, despite how much we try to convince ourselves we would be the “good” ones from our standpoint now? A system that questions itself makes for absolutely brilliant film material.

    The best part is how subtle this moment creeps up on the viewer during the entirety of the film. It’s sandwiched between carnage and crass humor, but is completely ingenious. And yet what gets “thoughtfully” discussed or criticized is how many times the word “nigger” is used and if Quentin himself thought it was excessive (to which he responded perfectly: “Too much, in comparison to how much it was used then?”).

      1. Ahh thanks so very much, I’m very humbled. And hooray RISD! I attended to your and Bryan’s lecture a few years ago during my freshman year. It was fantastic; I absolutely love the work you and the rest of the team have done.

  9. Definitely ‘Life of Pi’. It felt as if an old soul/friend was telling me a story and that instead of me having to visualize it, I felt like I was experiencing it. What I liked very much was that is was a very open story. You could give answers yourself or leave it the way it was. It also didn’t force you to believe or like anything. I like stories where you don’t have to choose between right or wrong. There is so much to say about this movie but I can’t think of anything that I disliked about it. I’m just glad I have seen it.

  10. “The meaning I take away from these films as a whole is that audiences really do long for stories with depth, and that they are willing to go to the theater to explore the deeper questions of who we are and why we’re here.”

    Yes! This, exactly. And movies aren’t the only medium where this is happening — the video game industry is slowly but surely realizing this, too. The success of works like TellTales’ ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Journey’ also show that there IS a paying, interested audience in works that aren’t just about big budget, flashy action. The game industry is kind of eating itself alive trying to replicate the ‘Call of Duty’ effect, which is too bad, since not everything needs to be or should be like that.

    The Avengers also proved that audiences want multi-faceted stories. There is audience that WANTS continuity, and expecting more thought from audiences isn’t inherently a bad thing. I think part of this trend is because our generation has pretty much been brought up on a constant stream of multimedia, and today it’s bombardment. That can have negative effects, but I think for many people it’s also making us more intelligent in how we perceive stories — everything doesn’t need to be spelled out for us all of the time, and more complex subject material can be explored without everyone jumping the gun and labeling it ‘offensive.’

    It sounds like I will have to watch ‘Life of Pi’ at some point.

  11. I can’t compare to other films because I didn’t watch most of them, but I find that Cloud Atlas was very grand and touching, and am very disheartened that many people (including critics) are divided over it. Either they feel it is gimmicky, or very wonderful. The story itself divided into 6 parts are comprised of simple stories (much simpler than in the book) but it is the parallelization of humanity and its goodness as the overarching theme that brings it together and makes it such a good film. People who miss that or feel that the execution was gimmicky failed to appreciate a film emphasizing on delivery rather than content, which I feel is a pity. It’s like saying a song is bad because it is poor poetry with tricks to sound better. (Also, I like the Cloud Atlas soundtrack was fabulous but I can’t compare to the nominees because I haven’t heard them.)

    I chanced upon Adam and Dog on Vimeo and felt that it was very deserving of a nomination. It was also a delivery-not-content piece, and again I feel disappointment that Cloud Atlas took risks in delivery but was not well accepted, while traditional delivery styles that Adam and Dog use, as beautiful as they may be, are safer and more accepted. It is understandable, but a pity.

    On the commentary by LadyViridis, I agree on many aspects. Brave is good, but falls below expectations from Pixar. Wreck-it-Ralph is well-crafted, and the major point of friendship, selflessness and loyalty is highly relatable. Rise of the Guardians is the one that I had hoped could have expanded more on Pitch, which I had felt more pity than anything else. He was a creature of fear, and was lonely, as was Jack, and their most honest exchange was at Antarctica when he reveals that he just wanted acceptance but did not know how to go about gaining that other than through domination. (Writing this I suddenly have a realization: it mirrors Azula’s plight at the party.)

  12. I fell in love with ParaNorman this year. I loved the stop motion animation, the twists, and the overall message of the movie. I loved it so much I now have the movie poster hanging over my desk. I know it won’t win the Academy Award, that’s going to be no nail-biter with Wreck-It Ralph nominated as well, but I thoroughly believe it deserves as much recognition.

  13. My favorite film of the year was Wreck-it Ralph. It had a really strong cast of characters and I liked the plot. I saw lots of clever writing in the film.

    Brave was nice too, but not Pixar’s best. It was beautifully animated but the story was a bit weak. It had a very promising set up, but the latter half kind of disappointed. However, I really enjoyed the back story of the 4 brothers and the parallels between the eldest brother and Merida. I would have liked to see more of Scotland as the animation in the forest scenes looked stunning.

    I’m loving your blog, Mike! It’s definitely making me think about how stories affect our everyday life.

  14. I haven’t seen most live-action movies due to a small budget, but I was particularly impressed with Wreck-it-Ralph. The “I should like me even if no one else does” and the “I should do the right thing even to people who have been unfair to me” morals felt very good. That and it’s nice to finally see a good video game movie! They really utilized the source material.

  15. Well, the Writer’s Guild Award’s results are out and Zero Dark Thirty and Argo won original/adapted screenplay. Since I haven’t seen them, I can’t talk about them, but I did see the documentary that won the award (documentary screenplay): Looking for Sugarman.

    That brings out the question of real stories and how they affect people. I guess such stories can have a stronger effect on you than fiction, once you realize they happened for real. But, as said before in the post/comments: writers are more free when writing fiction (or adaptations, like Argo and a bit ZDT).

    Back to Looking for Sugarman: it is a touching and thrilling search for an American singer who is incredibly popular in South Africa, but totally unknown in the rest of the world (including America). I won’t tell you more, but you should consider watching it 🙂

  16. Rise of the Guardians was honestly one of the better movies I’ve seen in a long time. Not only was it a gorgeous film (look at that detail!), it also had a lot of depth and thought that went into it, too. I thought it was interesting that there was a parallel between Jack Frost and Pitch Black. What I got from their similar paths and feelings was that for Jack, he tried to find a positive outlet and Pitch found a negative one. Though two people might have almost identical pasts and treatment, they can still choose who they want to be.
    It also outlined how much we need a little fun and hope in our lives. Seeing the children after the Easter Bunny and Jack were sort of ‘downplayed’ in the story was a little chilling. The only one who was like a light was the kid who’d seen Jack.
    Yet another scene that was done incredibly well. When Jack gives James a little hope and James is able to see him, it’s pure magic. You can really relate to Jack’s elation that someone can finally see him, which means he’s believed in. All 700 plus years of abandonment just kind of melt away in that one moment when someone finally notices him.
    And Hugh Jackman as a bunny rabbit. Come on. How much better can it get?

  17. My parents and I are trying to marathon the Oscar noms to have more educated opinions. Flight was pretty good, although from a storytelling pov, formulaic. I haven’t greatly enjoyed any of the nominees this year, although I am looking forward to Silver Linings Playlist.

    Skyfall, I thought, was alright, but aside from that theme song (which is incredible), the movie did not jump out at me. Still eager to see who wins the Screenplay/Adapted Screenplay titles.

  18. Video Games are suffering from the mega/micro budget polarity as well. The saying I heard is “You know what’s in the middle of the road? Road Kill.”

    These are strange times in the media world.

    2012 highlights were The Avengers and Django Unchained, but I haven’t seen a lot of the Oscar Nominated films yet.

  19. I haven’t seen a movie in a while, but the ones that resonate the most with me are aimed at kids (since I still feel like one when I watch tv and movies and because about two years ago I couldn’t vote). The only non-horror movie over PG I really like is The Shawshank Redemption. I like when people are cleansed of things they did or sometimes didn’t do. And Andy’s plan blows my mind every time I watch it unfold.

  20. I had some problems with Life of Pi myself. The ending, specifically. To get into SPOILER territory, it’s odd to me that the “realistic” story only bothers to explain the very beginning of the “fantastic” story, which really wasn’t that ridiculous to begin with, without giving explanations for the really out-there stuff later on in the story. By leaving the “realistic” story (which given its turn-out would still be a miracle) incomplete, the only real advantage one can see in the “fantastic” story over the “realistic” one is that it relieves Pi of responsibility for his actions, and really, as a metaphor for faith, that’s kind of reductive and even offensive to believers (and in the way it romanticizes escaping responsibility, I imagine it’d be reductive and offensive to atheists too). A shame, since I was loving the movie up until that ending.

    As for the other nominees, Beasts of the Southern Wild was my favorite. Loved Django Unchained too. Argo was solid entertainment. Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln were both interesting and important but I didn’t love either (now, if we could get a movie with the excitement of ZDT’s direction and the intelligent characterization of Lincoln’s script, that would be fantastic. Didn’t like Les Miz. Biggest snubs are Cloud Atlas, Looper, Cabin in the Woods (not a likely Oscar nominee in a thousand years, but still brilliant), and The Dark Knight Rises (yeah, I liked it; come at me, haters!).

  21. Argo. The fact that this was based on a declassified true story and dealt with Hollywood as being the hero just said it all for me in the trailer. I hope it wins! I liked Les Miz, and I thought Silver Linings Playbook was a little unrealistic in terms of a romantic comedy (more so than usual, anyway.)

    This year, I put a lot of initiative into watching the Shorts. For the first time ever, I saw the Documentary, Live Action, and Animated shorts, and it’s incredible how people can craft a story in half (sometimes an eighth) of the time of a major feature film.
    One of the Animated Shorts really stood out to me: “Adam and Dog” It added a certain twist to the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve, because you see the developing timeless companionship between Man and Man’s Best Friend before Eve shows up. Very creative, and very character driven. I loved the Shorts, and I honestly recommend that any true movie buff go cheer for the little guys when they can before awards night!

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