This week's guest writer is someone special. I have known Lane Lubell his entire life — his parents, Larry and Ilene, are longtime family friends; my wife went to high school with Larry. I've watched Lane, a little younger than my older son, grow into that rarest of individuals: someone you can have an intelligent conversation with. We talk about books. I recently read a fascinating Harlem renaissance detective novel, Rudolph Fisher's 1932 "The Conjure-Man Dies," based on his recommendation. We talk about the arts, particularly movies. He studied film at Northwestern, knows of what he speaks, and as a teacher, also knows how to convey it. With the Academy Awards Sunday, I invited him to write something to share here, and he did not disappoint. Take it away, Lane:
Thanks for the invite, Neil. I’m honored to contribute. For clarity’s sake, I have decided to split my thoughts into three sections.
Part I: Predicting the Oscars
I love predicting the Oscars, but that doesn’t mean I care about them. I couldn’t care less about what designer Ana de Armas may be wearing or whether some talented hunk brings his mom as his date. I have never paid any attention to the red carpet and I never will. Similarly, every ceremony has been disappointing since Seth MacFarlane’s controversial hosting duty. Moreover, I regularly disagree with two-thirds of the Academy’s decisions. And that’s okay.
For me, predicting the Academy awards has the appeal of tracking on-base averages. Like baseball stats or March Madness brackets, the fun is in predicting — looking at results from the cavalcade of previous local awards & fests and their respective correlation percentages to prior ceremonies, tracking Academy membership, averaging the predictions of others (GoldDerby serving wonderfully to this end), and determining the impact of box office numbers and a movies’ mass appeal. It’s a nearly scientific endeavor. Last year, I managed a rare perfect score at the ceremony, (a victory overshadowed by ”The Slap”).
However, I’m not going to talk about my predictions. (If Neil is feeling generous, he’ll link you to them here). Instead, I’m going to tell you the good news.
Part II: The Academy Sells Out…in a Good Way
Back in August and September, Sarah Polley’s "Women Talking" was the mathematical front runner for the top prize. I hadn’t seen it yet, so I went along with the stats. Now, I have.
For those of you who haven’t seen it (which you probably haven’t because Orion, the film’s distributor, is clearly at a loss as to its promotion), the film is effectively a Socratic dialogue in a barn with sad Mennonite women debating whether they should or should not leave their sexually-assaultive community; Polley puts theme and message before character in this “should-have-been-play” tale. However, I know why people believed it would win. It’s “important.”
For the past 25 years or so, the Academy has been … pretentious. Movies that fill seats get passed over like they have lamb’s blood above their doors. Anything without systemic social injustice and grit get hidden under the bed before mom comes in to check on you. Sometimes, you need to put your toys away, but other times, you want to see the toys on the floor; it means your kid is having fun. Instead, they’re reading with Dostoevsky and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of the work, but we go to the movies to have fun.
Oscar viewership is down significantly. Many blamed the rise of the cable-cutters and media diversification for these woes; others point the finger at a generation less interested in the pomp of celebrity, while some argue that they just haven’t had the right hosts. While I agree that all of those factors could affect tune-ins (certainly, Kimmel’s return will not help), these pundits miss King Kong in the room. People aren’t watching the ceremony because they don’t have a vested interest. They have had little to root for. There was a time, not long ago, when nominated films were widely seen. Look at ‘94. "The Shawshank Redemption," "Forrest Gump," "Quiz Show," "Four Weddings and a Funeral," and "Pulp Fiction." Now, we have Andrea Riseborough (an actress you’ve seen many times but can’t quite place) nominated for "To Leslie," a film with a box office gross less than a private school tuition. How can you root for or against Riseborough? You haven’t seen her performance. No one has!
By only calling self-serious indies the industry’s best, voters alienate their viewers. Only a select few try to see all the nominees. “You love Marvel movies. Is it Black Panther related? No? Then it’s crap that we will never give a major nomination.” (To date, "Joker" and "Black Panther" are the only superhero films nominated for best picture, while "Joker" and "Logan" are the only two to receive writing nominations (which "Logan" should have won). Last year’s humiliating attempt to let Twitter choose the film of the year (the four hour reedited garbage fire, Zack Snyder’s "Justice League") to pacify these criticisms only made matters worse.
But here’s the good news. This year, things have changed. For once, the front runner is a box office success, making over $100 million. "Everything Everywhere All at Once' is one of the most imaginative and inventive films ever made, but it’s also a lot of fun. If it wins, it will be the first ever action comedy to do so, despite it being the most popular genre of the 21st century. It would also become only the third ever fantasy film to claim the title following "Lord of the Rings Return of King' (2003) and the hybrid period romance, "The Shape of Water" (2017).
Moreover, in what is likely the 3rd spot flies "Top Gun: Maverick," 2022’s highest grosser and arguably the best straight action movie since "Mad Max: Fury Road." Even James Cameron’s just fine "Avatar" sequel (which somehow grossed $2 billion) made it in. This year, it seems the Academy is starting to remember why people love movies in the first place.
Part III: Screw you, F#¢%
Finally, I want to congratulate the Academy for saying “screw you” to F#¢%. And yes, the grawlix (the use of non-alphabetical characters in place of letters in profanity) have a purpose.
For the first time in a decade, the majority of the best picture nominees are not rated R. Only "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Everything Everywhere All at Once," "The Banshees of Inisherin," and "Triangle of Sadness" have R ratings. And best of all, each of them deserve their ratings. "Banshees" desperately needs its profanity, "Triangle" needs its nudity, "All Quiet" needs its brutality, and "Everything "needs its … I’m a middle school teacher so let’s just say, paraphernalia. Meanwhile, Polley and Tár’s Todd Field have been able to tell difficult stories of sexual misconduct with PG-13s, proving that you don’t need to pack your movie with graphic violence or frontal nudity to be taken seriously or tackle difficult subjects.
Indeed, over the past five years, 64% of best picture nominees were rated R, with 36% receiving a lower rating. Moreover, an R rated film won every year between 2006-2017 save 2011’s pick, "The Artist." This year, 60% are rated PG-13. These numbers represent a marked improvement that I hope to see continue. But, let’s add some G and PG to that list.
Thanks, Neil. Back to you!