Geez. At least “Brokeback Mountain” won best director.
Oscar voters ensured themselves a spot on a future “when the Academy got it wrong” lists Sunday night by choosing “Birdman” over close rival “Boyhood” for best picture. They also went the extra mile by giving “Birdman” the director and original-screenplay awards and virtually shutting out “Boyhood.”
Nominated for six Oscars, “Boyhood” won a single award, for Patricia Arquette’s undeniably strong performance as mother to a boy (Ellar Coltrane) who ages before our eyes, in a film shot over the course of 12 years by director Richard Linklater.
But as “Birdman” director Alejandro G. Iñárritu remarked so prophetically when accepting his directing award, time is the true test of a film’s worth.
If you look over the list Oscar best-picture winners, voters almost always got it right. I might quibble with two of my all-time favorites, “Jaws” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” losing in the 1976 best picture race. But it’s hard to argue against the merits of the film that won, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
But Oscar voters do miss, and occasionally, miss big. They did so in 2006, by choosing “Crash” – one of those “mosaic” films of the aughts that relied on luminous lighting, an electronic-drumbeat soundtrack and actors grimacing to seem important – over the emotionally authentic, truly ground-breaking “Brokeback Mountain.”
More often, though, the Academy fails by picking the very good over the great. This happened in 1981, when the well-made “Ordinary People” triumphed over the masterful “Raging Bull.” Both movies centered on fascinating, sometimes cruel characters. But Mary Tyler Moore’s fictional, cold WASP mother was easier to take than Robert DeNiro’s incendiary real-life boxer character, Jake LaMotta.
“Ordinary People’s” success rested on America’s Sweetheart Moore playing against type – she was just a few years removed from her TV show – and for entailing many scenes of therapy, which in the early 1980s still was a buzzy concept. It also was directed by an actor, Robert Redford, who won the directing award over Martin Scorsese.
The Academy loves an actor who directs almost as much as it loves self-reflective films about showbiz, from “All About Eve” and “The Artist” to “Birdman.”
“Birdman” shares an inside advantage with “Ordinary People” and also being pretty terrific apart from one thing: its lack of transcendent, one-for-the-ages quality.
While the film’s camera work and score zing, it contains plenty of value beyond aesthetics. The performances are flawless and the story, about the one-time star of comics movies trying to prove himself artistically, captures the current moment of comics’ infiltration of most aspects of pop culture.
But comics might not be of the moment in 20 years. Either comic books will be over by then or Stan Lee will be president. The film will be outdated, despite its visual pizzazz.
“Boyhood,” by contrast, never will be dated. Though it was made over 12 years, starting in 2002, it gets to the heart of the human condition in a timeless fashion. And in transportive fashion, since it returns viewers to that sense of what it was like to be a child.
It took a few years for cinema lovers to recognize that the Academy slighted “Raging Bull.” But it does not always take time to recognize a classic, and especially not if you see movies as often as critics do. You know a true classic when you see it because it moves you in ways that are hard to articulate. It gets to the essential quality of being human that’s much easier to feel than to describe.
In the past decade, only three Oscar-nominated films have had this effect on me – “Brokeback Mountain,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Boyhood.” And only one of them, “12 Years a Slave,” was named best picture, when all three should have been.
But lots of critics recognized “Boyhood” as extraordinary, and that did not translate to a best picture win. So we must rely on time to reveal “Boyhood’s” place among the best films of all time.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.