With 13 opening weekends remaining in the movie year, the Oscar bubble is already alarmingly inflated. Big doings are afoot, people! Brace yourselves for some Shakespearean drama as two popular Brits playing two complicated protagonists, Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, vie for slots in the Best Actor race! That category is so competitive that one Oscar columnist has already suggested that it would be an injustice not to expand it to 10 contenders, since even though none of the movies in question has opened, this is the best acting year in the history of sound film.1 (As Lewis Carroll explained in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Everybody has won and all must have prizes.”) Meanwhile, with her performance as a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, Julianne Moore has turned the Best Actress race upside down — an especially acrobatic feat since there is no Best Actress race yet. Of course, the Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York film festivals changed everything, too — they changed everything, like, half a dozen times! — which has created so much tumult that we might need all of October to sort it out, which we must do because in November, another game changer will enter the race when Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar opens; that film will doubtless rechange everything until Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken changes everything back, or forward, or at least differently, in December. Things are moving faster than they would if Shonda Rhimes snorted a double line of Adderall before dictating a Scandal script onto her iPhone 6. The pivots! The swivels! The plunges, comebacks, backlashes, and reversals! How can anyone keep up?
It’s not. However, the Best Actor race could make history in another way, one that should hearten anyone who thinks the acting branch does too much rubber-stamping of overfamiliar contenders. Based on the performances that have been seen so far, it’s very possible that the entire field could comprise first-time nominees — something that hasn’t happened since 1934.
On the other hand, here’s what’s going on outside the bubble, in the actual Oscar race — the one in which Academy members see movies and assess them and then vote: nothing.
Honest. Nothing much. You haven’t missed a thing. Well, maybe one thing. There is a movie you need to see. And it’s a big one.
David Fincher’s Gone Girl is not the movie I’m talking about, but it is the first film of 2014 to open with the serious Oscar aspirations of a major studio behind it.2 As such, its arrival marks the welcome moment when the Oscar bubble — the self-perpetuating industry of early assessments, predictors’ long lists, PR strategizing, pedigree, and incipient paranoia — finally starts to converge with reality in the form of the public, industry, and critical response that ultimately shapes the Academy Awards. Most predictors this year are taking a relatively coolheaded, wait-and-see approach, and for good reason. Based on what we know so far, 2014 is shaping up to be an Oscar year that is in some ways depressingly typical (big surprise: Best Actor has a deeper bench than Best Actress) and in others interestingly blurry. Unlike last year, when 12 Years a Slave was anointed the Best Picture front-runner before the leaves even started to turn, this year’s late-summer/early-fall festivals have been a wash.
I have seen Gone Girl and, as a longtime colleague and permanent fan of its screenwriter, cannot write about it objectively. But I can say that as an Oscar contender, it is, right now, a fascinating “maybe” for a whole swirl of reasons involving genre, performance, personality, adaptation, and gender politics that we can get into once it starts tilting toward yes or no.
That’s not to say the lineups were disappointing or weak — they weren’t. In fact, they were filled with excellent movies, many of which will wind up nowhere in an awards ecosystem that rewards only some flavors of excellence while ignoring others. But for the most part, the movies that emerged from the fest circuit looking like potential contenders — Birdman, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Gone Girl, Wild — were the ones that went in looking that way. Yes, a few performances got added to the mix, and a few films that looked good on paper turned out not to look good off paper (Jason Reitman, this just isn’t your year). But anyone who tells you that one of these movies came out of the early heats substantially ahead of the others is substituting personal taste or desire for predictive clarity. For the latter, we’ll have to wait until the films open, which is as it should be.
For this first of what will be intermittent check-ins on the Oscar season, I had hoped to offer up something along the lines of “10 Things You Need to Do to Catch Up on This Year’s Academy Awards Race.” However, finding items 2 through 10 proved difficult. I could tell you to see Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which feels like it opened three years ago. Budapest is a contender for a screenplay nomination, but, barring an unexpected series of cave-ins, not much more; people are going to bring up Ralph Fiennes’s performance in sentences that begin “In a fairer world … ” — but that framework must be avoided at all costs when discussing the Oscars. I could also tell you to see Ira Sachs’s mature, wistful Love Is Strange — in fact, I am telling you! See it! — because its subtlety, its intelligence, and the performances of John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Marisa Tomei would, in a fairer world, be … well, there I go. Or I could talk about how the expanded roster of Best Picture nominees still isn’t going to make room for The Lego Movie or Guardians of the Galaxy, but the Academy’s near-complete indifference to ratifying the purchasing power of young men is OK with me.
So, in terms of the 2014 Oscar contest, to get up to speed on what went on between January 1 and September 30, all you need to know is this: Boyhood opened. It’s the only movie that has reached theaters so far that I think is a certain Best Picture nominee. Also, it could win.
A good deal seems to stack up against Boyhood, but the stuff in that stack is statistical, and thus just about meaningless in any analysis of the Academy Awards, which are replete, year after year, with rarities, anomalies, and exceptions. For instance, it’s an official debit-column entry that Boyhood is released by IFC, an indie with no real history of muscling contenders into the race, but that doesn’t matter: For months, consultants who know how to play the long game have been positioning the film as a David among Goliaths, always an Oscar sweet spot. Another debit: Boyhood opened in the summer, whereas most Best Picture nominees open in October, November, or December. But stats with the word “most” in them evaporate in the face of specific movies: “Most” Best Picture nominees aren’t summer releases — except that three years ago, The Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris, and The Help all were. And “most” Best Picture winners don’t open in the summer — except for The Hurt Locker and Crash and Gladiator and Braveheart. In other words, that ironclad rule is broken about every five years, and thus is not a rule at all, just a frequently interrupted trend line.
Also, Boyhood didn’t make much money — as of this writing, its domestic gross is $23 million, making it only the 71st-biggest earner of 2014. That doesn’t matter, either. Best Picture winners don’t have to do big numbers overall; they only have to do well for what they are. If they’re bleak and painful takes on history like 12 Years a Slave, $57 million is fine. If they’re black-and-white silent movies like The Artist, $45 million is just great. If they’re reminders of a war nobody wants to think about like The Hurt Locker, $16 million is good enough. If the Academy were truly the popularity contest that some of its detractors claim, Gravity would have won last year. Has Boyhood done well? All that needs to be said is that it has done well enough.
So much for why the film isn’t necessarily fated to lose. But explaining how it could go all the way connects to more delicate aspects of Hollywood, and Academy, psychology. And here’s where Boyhood becomes a special case: More than almost any movie I can think of, the emotional and fascinating story of how it was made is practically part of its plot; it doesn’t need to be sold as a campaign talking point because it’s manifest in every frame. I imagine that most people who have seen the film can figure out for themselves that its conceiver-writer-director, Richard Linklater, shot it intermittently over 12 years, starting when its star, Ellar Coltrane, was 6 or 7 and reuniting him with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette for a few days every year in Texas until he was 18. One of the most popular and durable of all Oscar narratives is the Passion Project — the story or screenplay or property I toiled away on (or the career choice I stuck with) for years and years in the face of opposition, underminers, or general indifference to my fervent belief that it/I could be something. (Anytime you hear, in an acceptance speech, “What a journey this has been!” you’re hearing that narrative.) Boyhood has completely commandeered that trope this year; it doesn’t matter how long anybody wanted to make Into the Woods (a long time!) or Foxcatcher (a pretty long time!) or Inherent Vice (not that long!), because no other 2014 movie — in fact, no nondocumentary movie in history — has taken “What a journey this has been!” and so visibly literalized it.
Boyhood isn’t a departure for Linklater so much as a vindication of his particular obsession with the passage of time as an underpinning of his work, which lends a useful sense of career summation to the film’s Oscar story. As many critics have pointed out, the Before … films, in which he and we checked in on the romantic coupling of Hawke and Julie Delpy three times over 19 years, constituted a kind of warm-up for this film. That trilogy also won Linklater two Oscar nominations for writing, but he’s not an “it’s his turn” awards candidate in the sense that he’s come close only to miss; instead, honoring Boyhood would represent a chance to reward a filmmaker for sticking with his own idiosyncrasies regardless of fashion. It’s been 23 years since he first came onto the scene with the micro-indie Slacker, and over that time, Linklater has become a quintessential iconoclast — making his movies his way, experimenting with form, keeping his budgets low, dabbling in animation and adaptation, doing occasional studio work without seeming to slum, and tilling his particular patch of turf with unwavering commitment and apparent modesty.
All of that makes Boyhood an extremely strong candidate, and there’s more: It’s a contemporary movie about Americans that isn’t corrective or controversial, it has serious press clout behind it (I’m guessing that countless critics’ groups are going to honor the film, or Linklater, or Arquette), and, perhaps most important, voting for it would not feel like an implicit repudiation of the major studios, or a scolding announcement that this is the kind of movie that Hollywood should make more often. Nobody is going to say there need to be more films like Boyhood, because half the appeal of Boyhood is that it’s not like any other film; it really is the kind of thing you can do only once. In most years, the Oscar race becomes naturally oppositional. Dialectics emerge — the human-scale severity of 12 Years a Slave and the high-tech wow factor of Gravity seem to represent not just two movies but two schools of thought vying for prevalence. Pulp Fiction vs. Forrest Gump, Crash vs. Brokeback Mountain, and The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network were pairings that all but ordered impassioned cinephiles to choose sides.
It’s very hard to look ahead at this year’s field and try to pick the anti-Boyhood; what kind of movie would stand to gain anything by having its fans stake out that position? And it’s also hard to imagine a film that will effectively reach the average Academy voter — a white male empty nester in his early sixties — in a more personal place. The movie, after all, is at least as much about the poignancy of watching a child slip away from you and into adulthood as it is about the boy himself. In the Academy, the Harry Chapin “Cat’s in the Cradle” demographic is big, and a film that hits that demographic in the heart is not to be underestimated.
Inherently and unfairly, timing counts in the Oscars. These days, potential winners try to land in the consciousness of voters sometime between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. A movie that opens in the last couple weeks of December can’t hope to define the race, only to disrupt it, which is probably why no December release since Million Dollar Baby 10 years ago has won the big prize.3 However, a movie that opens as early as Boyhood did (on July 11) has almost as big a challenge. It doesn’t have to just beat every other film, it has to withstand them — and if it does, it then has to withstand complaints from people who will be bored by how long it’s been the front-runner. So it’s safer, and probably more accurate, to consider Boyhood an underdog right now. Just like Crash and The Hurt Locker were at this point in the year. That, too, makes it formidable. In October, a long shot is exactly what an Oscar contender wants to be.
Last year’s December Academy Award contenders included American Hustle, August: Osage County, Her, Saving Mr. Banks, and The Wolf of Wall Street. They won a collective total of one Oscar.