There is an enduring story about the Academy Awards Best Picture race that goes like this: The best picture never wins. Every year, Oscar voters have enough temerity/foresight/integrity/discernment to nominate at least one movie on which the verdict of history would smile favorably if it were to take the prize. And every year, collective shortsightedness, envy, or a failure of appreciation turns that movie into an also-ran. This way of framing the Oscars is still embraced by some critics, whose astonishment that an organization of industry professionals does not share their taste blooms afresh every year. And it’s almost as old as the awards themselves — it dates back at least as far as 1941, when How Green Was My Valley (a great movie) beat Citizen Kane (a greater movie) for top honors. But in the last 20 years — otherwise known as the Internet era, during which discussion and contention about movies has gotten faster, younger, and more belligerent — this narrative has gotten bound up in bizarre notions having to do with, of all odd things, courage. It is the Balls Argument: If Academy voters had any balls, they would give the Best Picture Oscar to “X.” However, Academy voters have no balls. Therefore, they will give Best Picture to “Y.”
“Y” — as in, “Why, God, why?” — is a symbol of mediocrity, compromise, and injustice. And that is a terrible thing to be anywhere, including in contemporary movie culture. There are Best Picture winners that seem to make people cringe almost as soon as the envelope is unsealed: for instance, Braveheart. But Braveheart is not a “Y,” because for a “Y” to exist, there has to be an “X” — the slighted masterpiece that time will vindicate. The year Braveheart won, there was no “X” — no Monday-morning quarterback shook his fist and railed against the movie having beaten Il Postino or Sense and Sensibility. The presence of an “X” is what causes an undeserving Best Picture winner to be demonized for years to come. Robert Redford’s Ordinary People was a “Y” because it beat Raging Bull, possibly the “X”-iest “X” since Kane, in 1980, sparking a “Scorsese is owed” narrative of grievance that took a full quarter-century to play out. During those decades, Ordinary People, which is actually a superbly put-together, beautifully acted, only slightly dated movie, was dismissed by generations of knowing critics as (roughly) bourgie complacent smug privileged middlebrow white-bread pandering suburban horseshit.1 But many of them hadn’t really been looking at the movie; they’d been glowering at the voting body that had decided it was better than Raging Bull, and working backward from their contempt. That view turned Ordinary People into nothing more than comfort food cooked up by the collective unconscious of blind fools with lifetime memberships.
Ordinary People didn’t even get to start reputation rehab until 1999, when American Beauty won and people had a new place to put that particular flavor of hatred.
That’s not a great way to understand the Oscars, a contest in which not one voter has ever hovered over his ballot thinking, How I wish I were bold enough to choose differently! It’s also a bad way to think about the movies themselves. When people decide that a piece of culture — a film, a popular novel, a song — is The Enemy because those whose tastes differ from theirs enjoy it, they tend toward bullying condemnations that don’t age well.2 Still, there’s no avoiding it: Once a film gets rated “Y” and tagged as the repository of everything that is false or weak about establishment moviemaking, it can do nothing but ride out the years until someone attempts a spirited critical reevaluation. Or, as is more often the case, until a new “Y” comes along.
Remember the infamous “Disco Demolition Night,” in which thousands of disco albums were blown up at Comiskey Park in 1979? Aside from the implicit and sometimes overt racism and homophobia behind it, there’s the ugly reality that those people then went home and listened to Styx or Boston.
The first “Y” of the Internet era was Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump; it beat that year’s “X,” Pulp Fiction, and as a result, it served as the official What’s Wrong With Hollywood whipping boy for a full decade, from 1994 to 2005. That year, Gump ceded its “Y” crown to Paul Haggis’s Crash, which beat the putative If the Academy Had Balls choice, Brokeback Mountain, a movie for which an Oscar win would have been viewed by some as a kind of mea culpa for decades of Hollywood misdeeds. Crash was the “Y” for five years (and, like Gump, is still a long way from critical rehabilitation). Then, in early 2011, the Academy gave us a new “Y,” one that still reigns: Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, which beat the last true “X,” David Fincher’s The Social Network.
For the record: Yeah, sure, if I were a voter, I would’ve done things differently, as would have many of you. I believe Pulp Fiction is more interesting than Forrest Gump and I was more challenged and excited by what The Social Network had to say about our world than I was by what The King’s Speech had to say about somebody else’s. But in the case of lesser movies, it’s probably only fair to acknowledge that “X” over “Y” often represents nothing more than a taste hierarchy that’s particular to a certain breed of young or youngish, primarily male, perpetually impassioned and infuriated moviegoer. They are, right now, the loudest voices in the conversation; they make the most categorical claims; they personalize every dispute. For “X” aficionados, “Y” movies — the apparently ball-less, soft-centered, complacent choices of past-it, anti-art AMPAS voters — embody a set of values that they find especially repellent: They’re seen as bromidic, blandly messagey, or hopelessly anodyne (there’s potential in all of us; you never know what might happen; everyone has something to overcome) — and when they’re not telling you that everything will be OK, they’re addressing important subjects with noncontroversial philosophical shrugs (racism is bad; if you repress emotions, they’ll come back to hurt you; we’re all connected). “Y” movies tend to be more written than directed, more interested in content than in form, humanist, sincere, “relatable,” emotional, often optimistic. Those qualities are not, in themselves, inferior, lazy, or weak.
“X” movies, by contrast, tend to be dark, cynical, existential or nihilist, physically or emotionally violent, R-rated, and somewhat savage in outlook. They are often by, about, and for the alienated, the skeptical, and the enraged. The Dark Knight was an “X” movie (the Academy didn’t even have the balls to nominate it!). Most of what David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson do counts as “X”; in this cosmology, Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac are so “X” they couldn’t even get into the Best Picture contest, and There Will Be Blood would have been the ultimate Balls choice if it had lost to, say, Juno; instead, it lost to No Country for Old Men, an “X”-ish enough choice by the “X”-ish enough Coens so that at least we were spared a year of Internet rage. Steven Soderbergh, Darren Aronofsky, and Kathryn Bigelow are “X” filmmakers; Danny Boyle, because of Trainspotting, is such a lifetime “X” director that even when he makes a happy “Y” movie like Slumdog Millionaire, complaints tend to be muted. “X” movies are more to my personal taste than “Y” movies — but the least of them still reassure and flatter their target audience by congratulating it for its worldview in exactly the same way that “Y” movies do.
In the next few weeks, we are going to enter the Balls Argument phase of the Best Picture contest. As of this writing, five movies with at least some hope of a nomination — Birdman, Boyhood, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Whiplash — have opened. In November, four more will join them: Bennett Miller’s pitch-dark money/madness/murder drama Foxcatcher, Christopher Nolan’s big swing Interstellar, and two movies about real-life British geniuses who strive to overcome adversity so they can do super-difficult things: The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch as WWII code breaker Alan Turing, and The Theory of Everything, with Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking.
It’s thanks to a movie that opened four years ago that those last two may be about to get roughed up. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything both launched at fall film festivals, where Oscar prognosticators promptly put them on their short lists for both Picture and Actor. They are both audience pleasers driven by their stories and their stars more than by their efficient directors, and they both face the phenomenal misfortune of entering the race at a time when The King’s Speech is still seen as the emblem of the Academy’s propensity to reward the wrong movie. Technically, this shouldn’t hurt them with voters: The Academy, after all, is still largely the same membership that gave Hooper’s movie Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Original Screenplay. But The King’s Speech had a depth of critical support that these two contenders may lack: On the aggregation site Metacritic, The King’s Speech received a weighted-average score of 88 out of 100; The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything currently stand at a considerably less impressive 67 and 68, respectively.
The simplest explanation for that gap is that critics don’t think either of these movies is nearly up to The King’s Speech. The Imitation Game has been criticized as an overly tidy, tucked-in portrait of a complex and troubled man, and some are tagging The Theory of Everything as a conventional feel-good biopic that doesn’t come close to living up to its subject.3
The New York Times’s “Science” section has already played host to a what-this-movie-gets-wrong-about-quantum-physics piece; I look forward to the eventual takedown of Into the Woods in which it’s explained that a wolf cannot actually swallow a little girl whole.
But I think both movies could also be caught in a backlash not of their making. I recently reread the reviews for The King’s Speech. When it opened, a handful of critics, like New York’s David Edelstein, complained that it “trivializes history for the sake of bogus scenarios of self-realization … a sleight-of-hand that wins Oscars.” But many more took a different approach; they argued that the specific virtues of the movie overcame their reservations about the luxe Masterpiece Theatre vibe of its genre (and its PR campaign). Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote that he was “completely prepared to dig in and resist … a British period piece, suffused with noble nostalgia” but instead found the film “a warm, richly funny and highly enjoyable human story that takes an intriguing sideways glance at a crucial period.” Stephanie Zacharek opened her review by asking if the word “middlebrow” always had to be a pejorative, even when it suited “a direct and heartfelt piece of work … conventional, maybe, in its sense of filmmaking decorum, but extraordinary in the way it cuts to the core of human frustration.” Even J. Hoberman, as tough a customer as the profession has yielded, called it “a well-wrought, enjoyably amusing inspirational drama that successfully humanizes, even as it pokes fun at, the House of Windsor.”
In other words, plenty of critics who liked The King’s Speech made thoughtful cases that concerned the specific ways in which it was good rather than the theoretical ways in which it might be objectionable. They may not have liked that kind of movie, but they liked that movie. However, in “X” vs. “Y” Oscar talk, an undeserving winner is always, and only, a kind of movie, never anything more. When The King’s Speech took the prize away from The Social Network, its particular merits receded; in this way of thinking, if the wrong film in the wrong genre won, it must have won with support from the wrong people who had the wrong reasons, and what was good about it therefore no longer mattered in the larger argument.
Few things hurt a movie’s Oscar chances more than when the entire subgenre it belongs to is dismissed. Pulitzer or not, when August: Osage County opened, so many reviews described it with the phrase “dysfunctional family comedy” (or drama) that it felt like the title had already bypassed theaters and moved on to a Netflix-recommendation queue; the campaign was over before it started. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are both swiftly categorizable as King’s Speech offshoots, and that is, in some ways, the playbook its distributors have chosen: After all, The King’s Speech opened at exactly this time of year after exactly this kind of festival launch and made a ton of money. But in Oscar terms, the association could backfire. The awards cases these new films make are almost too identically pitched to voters: They’re both efficient, well-made, fact-based British imports that announce their tragic and/or inspirational themes explicitly and repeatedly while relying on compelling central performances by London-born leading men in their thirties whom you’ve liked in other stuff and who seem about due for their first nominations.
But unlike The King’s Speech — in fact, because of The King’s Speech — these movies will have to overcome a perception that the genre they represent has recently been over-rewarded. And in addition to that hurdle, each film has to wrench itself apart from the other; if they’re treated as conjoined twins in the campaign conversation, it could be fatal to their chances. (Last year American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street amassed a combined total of 15 nominations, only to end up in a kind of undercard bout to determine which was the better movie about greed culture; both went home empty-handed.) That would probably be fine with the portion of the Internet that drives the Oscar conversation via blogs and social media, because both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are potential “Y” movies to their marrow; I’ve already heard private grumbling about how “safe” they are, and I can’t imagine it won’t get louder.
But even if they’re the target of attempted takedowns — as every Best Picture contender is sooner or later — that won’t do much to clarify this year’s field, because the Balls Argument has not yet found a 2014 movie on which to land. The mellow, reflective Boyhood is insufficiently bleak or angry to placate those who think an AMPAS voter’s job is to summon up the personal courage to read Twitter and accordingly reward the grimmest and/or most technically audacious movie in the field. Birdman has “most technically audacious” honors all sewn up, just as Gravity did last year, but the Balls-driven crowd is still mad at Alejandro G. Iñárritu because he made Babel, which they dismiss as “pretentious” (a word that the critic Sam Adams has noted is, in movie discourse, the current equivalent of the nuclear option) — meaning, too much like Crash.
Christopher Nolan, as mentioned above, is a Balls Argument All-Star, but Interstellar is not only not dark, it’s about feelings and dads and spirituality and hopefulness and stuff. Therefore, the Balls Argument for it will have to rest entirely on “If the Academy only had the balls to recognize sci-fi,” and a mere year after the same Academy gave seven Oscars to Gravity isn’t the moment to make that case. What about Gone Girl? Fincher is also on the Owed list, but the movie is written by a smart woman about a scary woman, which makes it a painfully difficult proposition for Balls advocates; it’s a Balls constrictor. Whiplash is all Balls all the time, but so far, not nearly enough box office to start the groundswell it would need. The Grand Budapest Hotel is neither friend nor foe: Wes Anderson, respected and remote, cannot be placed anywhere on the big-balls-to-no-balls spectrum (unless there is a spot for carefully chosen, symmetrically photographed, handcrafted vintage balls). Into the Woods is a musical, so don’t even ask. And Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, sight unseen, loses points for being about World War II and thus appealing to older voters who, in the Balls Argument universe, are always considered the problem.
What does that leave? Foxcatcher just unveiled a new poster that name-checks Citizen Kane, There Will Be Blood, and The Social Network, so it certainly knows what game it’s playing. Paul Thomas Anderson’s shaggy-drug story Inherent Vice is not likely to rouse the same kind of Balls fervor as The Master did: “X”-philes may sense that this isn’t the year to go to the mat for PTA. Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a civil-rights drama about 1965’s voting-rights marches in Alabama, has not yet been shown, and may, for reasons too depressing to make explicit by typing them, be slightly hobbled by 12 Years a Slave’s win last year. As for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, a Navy SEALs story is a Balls subject, and Eastwood, even in his career late-autumn, is a Balls guy — even though he has not really made an If the Academy Had Balls movie since Letters From Iwo Jima and he needs to pray that voters are not sent any material that might remind them that he made Jersey Boys this year.
So no matter how tempting some may find it to cast every Oscar race as a Manichaean struggle between courage and cowardice, 2014 is not likely to be an “X” versus “Y” year. The passion of the Internet may, this year, flare more brightly in other categories; brace yourself for a lot of righteous fist-pounding and chest-thumping from all sides about probable Best Documentary contender Citizenfour, which would be a Balls Hall of Famer if it somehow sneaked into the Best Picture race. But when it comes to the top prize, there is, right now, no Integrity candidate, no overt Statement choice, no win that would right a wrong or insult people who should be insulted. Instead, Academy voters are, as usual, going to vote with some combination of their heads and their hearts. And either is a better way to go than trying to solve for “X.”