Of Boys and Birdmen – Who deserved the win at the Oscars?

It seems as though the Academy Awards came by and departed without much ado this year, but it did see audiences worldwide submit themselves to being let down yet again. This is the time when every social media finds at least a couple hundred mentions of the words synonymous with ‘outrageous’ and ‘travesty’ in relation to every single award, not even to let pass the technical ones.

This year left me particularly conflicted toward the approach of awards season owing to the immense talent that filled the screens last year. The problem was that most, like myself, dived headfirst into 2014 believing in our minds that Interstellar would capture the world in its hand and not let go. And while I enjoyed the theatrical journey that Nolan took us on, I do not feel the need to reason against any post that cries out in outrage against the unfairness of the Oscars in its treatment of this space saga. The conflict that lies is between two others – less known to everyone going into the year, and yet has been the topic of most conversations wherever film buffs have gathered since November – which are Inarritu’s existential masterpiece that is Birdman and Linklater’s own odyssey that spanned twelve years, Boyhood. Mind you, I do not have particular alliances with either one of these, as my personal favors lie in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, although I understand the reason why not as many are shouting out war-cries in support of it. It is not for the everyman, and what it is endowed with in detail and beauty, it loses in universal appeal. There is no complicated drama or introspection to be found here, nothing to make one reflect back on one’s life, rather it is a celebration of a forgotten age, and hence finds favor with those who consider themselves wishful inhabitants of such an era.

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Birdman has made a clean sweep at the Oscars and its fans do not find themselves in the realization of the unexpected virtue of ignorance. Quite ironic too, seeing how the film that won the votes and impressed the most at Hollywood was the same film that trashed all the preconceptions of Hollywood and its critics, and in the process also edging out theater as a higher form of drama. This is not as some claim it to be, an undeserved win that will go down in the books of time to grace lists of mistakes for years to come. Birdman was in fact a creative win and an artistic triumph in bringing the artistic to a more grounded and accessible level. This is something that is lost on most artsy directors today which earns their work the title of ‘pretentious’ by the masses. Under the Skin was one such that lost out on mass appeal but topped my list for the year, as it was exactly the kind of movie that excites me. Deeply philosophical and encrypted in metaphors, Jonathan Glazer pulled surreal art at its seams to get the most provoking experience imaginable. Perhaps the most jarring loss in my mind is in terms of the non-mention of Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin that was almost too perfect for the uncomfortable experience it envisioned. But my cries for this particular one would come off as ignorant whines as the Academy is not exactly known for its historic appreciation of lower-budget independent film-making.

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As we are discussing the overlooks of the Academy as well as turn-downs, it is well worthy to take a closer look at the incredible pieces that were misread by the Oscars but succeeded in its specific audiences. Selma was at the receiving end of immense sympathy and admiration, but such a status was allotted only on declaration of the nominations which evidenced a stark lacking in the colored population. Now there were a more than reasonable number of biopics and adapted stories in the run this last year, and it would not be an exaggeration in any right to say that Selma was the best of all of them. The Theory of Everything was unbearable in its generic plot and cliched turns of tide for the character of Hawking, but what it did present to the world was the invigorating and incredibly touching performance of Eddie Redmayne as he stepped into the wheels of Dr. Hawking. While I do understand that a true story calls into itself a certain amount of routine, was there really a need for a biopic on the man who is still influencing popular culture in all forms from the science of Interstellar to many episodes of The Big Bang Theory? The answer I would give is no, and you would say the same, once you realize that Selma is the first film to take Martin Luther King Jr as its subject. When there is no urgent situation that has called into need homage or forward reverence of a person, and the truth itself has nothing new or interesting to add, there is no such need to create a cinematic event out of a man whose efforts, undeniably ingenious, were left out of the film itself.  Selma definitely demanded way more attention than came its way, but it still would not justify it as worthy of the biggest honor.

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People talk about losses in nominations and the names bounced around are The Lego Movie (which was in fact a travesty, but one I find no need to discuss as it seems to have attained the status of universal truth) and Selma, but another that I deeply feel got handed its unjust desserts is Jake Gyllenhaal and his gaunt and horrific portrayal of a night-time L.A. news hunter in Nightcrawler. There is no doubt in my mind that Gyllenhaal (which is pronounced Yee-len-hall, incidentally) was the best lead performance of the year, going a mile ahead of Keaton and Redmayne. To take from being the earnest college-kid in Day After Tomorrow to send shivers down all our spines as the rattiest scavenger in L.A. is quite a feat, but Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking was easily the next most deserved. My spite lies in that a movie so loved by critics and audiences alike, and even garnered comparisons to the Taxi Driver, all to its own right failed to gather almost any nomination when the fact was it was one of the best of the year. This is further a surprise since Academy history shows a marked affinity toward such movies that tackle issues through satire. Truly tragic.

When it comes to settling the dispute between fans of Birdman and Boyhood, there is no real solution. There is not a single argument that can be made to say Birdman did not objectively have any right over the coveted honor of Best Picture, as excellent in technical design and rich substance as it was. But there is no far reasoning needed to be made to justify a case for Linklater’s magnum opus either. The many who consider the story of Boyhood to be bland and empty in content I think are missing the point of the movie itself. When a director gets the green light for a movie, he has utmost around 3 hours at his disposal in which he needs to cram the entirety of his vision which in an ideal world could run volumes. But he is also required in most films that he would desire to make, to pay enough attention and care to his characters so that by the end of the movie when a conflict situation arises, the audience won’t nod off for lack of emotion. Directors of artsy and minimalist inclinations tend to ignore the development of character but finds reward in a theme that is not so dependent on the human emotion. Box office success is found somewhere midway through this range, where directors such as Spielberg and Scorcese are adept at mixing the finest blends of character and plot. Such a generalization cannot be made against Richard Linklater, as a close look at his filmography shows that he always is one more intent on pouring heart out into his works. Indeed, his most remembered films which are also at present in command of cult following, are Dazed and Confused, the perfect high school movie that paints teen angst and rebellion in a most colorful tone, and the Before trilogy which again is adored by romantics everywhere. It should be in the same light that his latest, or rather one of his oldest ventures should be measured, as this is where Linklater breaks free of all need for a directional plot and devotes himself to its characters. And once you think about it, that is undoubtedly the best formula for a great movie about growing up, except Linklater uses it to showcase life itself, almost in entirety from boyhood to adulthood, fatherhood and motherhood, and even a shade of sisterhood that fades away through the years.

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Linklater and Inarritu is a comparison I never thought I’d see myself making, both belonging to markedly if not completely different schools of direction – where Inarritu is an artist who feeds on human devastation and the psyche, with Linklater being one of the most feel-good and emotional directors who dwells on the simpler human sentiments with an overarching thought. And for that very reason, Boyhood and Birdman are not movies that can be compared and the better declared, as both dip their hands in very different pools. Boyhood is more about the journey of life, the people we meet, and how it all shapes some character in us in the subtlest of ways. Birdman is like a masterful painting that needs to be looked at and given time to sink in, with discussions to be had about the arts over coffee. The very emotion associated with the two are completely unrelated: I cannot ever see myself saying ‘I feel for Birdman‘, and a more appropriate phrasing would be to admire or respect the work. Boyhood is at the same time all about the feeling, of every moment flowing into the next, with no particular purpose involved. And the creative decision that Linklater takes is to have real people with real dreams and personalities inserted into our own lives softly, that by the end unknowingly, Mason, Samantha, Olivia and Mason Sr. become people we have known for all their life, and a little part of us dies as we exit the theater and leave behind those souls. It is the ultimate emotion that Linklater inspires in every one of us – the emotion of life in its pureness, with no specific endgame or  substantial plot. No matter how different Mason’s life has been from our own, we feel the movie resonating with something that happened, someone we met, some feeling that was felt. I see no substance in the claim that Boyhood is targeted at an all-white, all-American audience, as being an Indian myself, I found every nuanced thought mirrored in my years here. It may be said that Linklater was to a much smaller scope able to fulfill the ambition of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Synecdoche, New York – a depiction of life in its completion, through various characters that come and go.

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Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is on the other hand rich in content, with so many things to say that it finds little time and rushes by. That is not a fault with the movie, as it was never intended to be a parade of characters we are supposed to care for or to invoke sentiment as such. It is more about existence, about what one’s place in the world is, explained through this gripping black comedy of fame and prestige. It is the very definition of popularity and art that is tackled here, with every character having their own revered opinion of what it means to be alive, and what the higher art is that requires one’s attention and praise. In a way, Birdman found its answer in itself, as the very provocative rant on the machine that is Hollywood, churning out superhero flicks and endless franchises, turned out to hooked their attention the most. I do not think it was void of character as many such poetic films are, and it would have been a failure otherwise, being a study of Riggan’s character at bare. It does deal with and explore the driving spirit of the characters involved, though it tunnels out only the most specific ones that it requires to make its point. And that is the very essence of it, Inarritu’s craft is about the point, while Boyhood completely ignores the point as it does not exist.

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I can never arrive at a decision on which film was better in an objective manner, although personally Birdman is more my thing. The two strive towards very different goals, both remarkable in its own sense, and takes completely striking methods to take us there. It is possible to include, or I would propose, considering the lack of debate around it, that Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is also well-deserving of the Best Picture, and would have been a personal win for me who at heart loves everything that the man creates. There is certain delight and springy adventure to be found in an Anderson film, something that you can never find anyplace else. The sweet tragedy of it all is that such a distinctive artistic style would die with Anderson, as it is just too rare and special a thing to replicate. I can see myself finding Inarritu’s inspiration and copycats in the future, as can I with Linklater, but the romantic and sharp comedy that Anderson achieves is something that only he can own. Similar to Boyhood and to a much greater degree, there is little thought-provocations to be found at the Grand Budapest, but there was never otherwise a more meticulous director, so devoted to detail and symmetry that every frame could be a painting. In fact I tested this, and the three hundred and eleven times I paused the screen of The Grand Budapest Hotel, never did I come across an image that wasn’t the most delectable in composition and with the richest of palettes. I can truly stare at them all day. The Grand Budapest takes us back to fond memories of reading books in bed, somehow capturing the charm that I thought was limited to the pleasure of reading. It takes a much smaller subject, and tells us a closer story limited to its characters, a concierge and his lobby boy, and the most outrageous adventure that unites them in spirit. It is the movie that made me laugh the most while maintaining a beaming smile throughout. It is smooth, cultured and poignant in comedy. This is why I feel compelled to put this argument out there, that there were three films that deserved the Best Picture in three very different ways, and three different reasons. I understand if people feel this to be an entirely subjective addition when I say that Anderson, Inarritu and Linklater all equally deserved the win, and perhaps would have, if each had their own year.

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Whiplash was also an impressive debut by Chazelle, the unwavering tempo and intense drama of which marks its presence among the highest-ranked. If you ask me which one of the many characters in this year’s movies would survive the ages and be remembered for a long time, if you keep aside the Marvel characters who will be playing them for years, it would easily be J K Simmons in his devious and calculating turn as Terrence Fletcher.  And that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? I cannot say enough how good 2014 was for films, with incredible feats achieved in very different routes and to very different ends, none the lesser than others. Movies are not to be judged in objective light, as then there can never be a clear winner. Awards and lists are always made on subjective enjoyment of a select number of people, and by definition, there would be many to speak against such choices. There is no inherent fault with the Academy or its voters, as neither absolute claim of Birdman not deserving the honor it received nor Boyhood deserving it more than Birdman can be made; as to each their own. It is high time the rant comes to stop, to blame any choice made by any number of people on films, a form of art so diverse and open to approach that almost never can two genres be compared. A particular film may excel in the nature it adopts and the direction it takes for itself, but there is always another making an equal effort in another direction. Unless the very point or goal of either work can be compared, there can be no absolute better decided between the two. That is the very reason why I cannot put the Academy to blame for its decision, as it is not even in question whether Birdman deserved the honor. Did Boyhood deserve it? Of course it did, but that cannot take away from the former choice.

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