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Fact or Fiction: Oscar Night Edition

Neil Patrick Harris, host of the 87th Academy Awards (Image  © AMPAS) 

Neil Patrick Harris, host of the 87th Academy Awards (Image © AMPAS) 

FACT or FICTION: The list of nominees for this year’s Academy Awards accurately reflects the best movies, technical achievements, and performances of the past 12 months. 

Gabriel Ricard, Film Editor: I’m closer to FACT than I think I’ve ever been in my life with this question, so I guess that’s the answer I’m going to go with. You can point out the things that are questionable and/or annoying (no nomination for Lego Movie, Ava DuVernay not being nominated for Best Director, while her movie Selma is up for Best Picture, or the fact that every single acting nomination is white), but I look at the movies and performances that are nominated this year, and I’m honestly pretty impressed. It’s a fairly strong, diverse range of movies, and my personal list of movies/performances that were snubbed this year is noticeably shorter than it usually is.

Ryan Roach, Film Critic: In general, FACT—Yes, we all have our personal pet favorites that were “snubbed”, but ultimately, this is a pretty good crop overall. You got artsy fare like Birdman and Boyhood, indie crowd-pleasers like Whiplash, and feel-good biopics like Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Selma. As far as actors go, good cases could be made for two names that must be googled before they are written confidently, David Oyelowo and Jake Gyllenhaal, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable eliminating anyone who got the nod instead. The only egregious bit of bullshit is Meryl Streep’s nomination for Into the Woods, which is clearly the Academy reacting to the name and not the performance.

Matthew Guerruckey, Editor-in-Chief: This is the first year I can remember that this is a FACT. The Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself was on my top ten list, so I definitely feel that it deserved not just a nomination, but a win for Best Documentary, but it’s hard to stay mad at the Academy when they’ve found a way to acknowledge almost all of 2014’s spectacular crop of movies in one way or another.

For instance, I thought NIghtcrawler should have been nominated for Best Picture, and certainly Jake Gyllenhaal deserved a nomination for his career defining performance in that movie. But even though those nominations didn’t come, the film itself is represented with a nomination for Best Original Screenplay--a category it should win.

Even the lack of a nomination for The Lego Movie in the Best Animated Feature category is a wash, because it’s damn sure gonna win Best Song. So cheer up, guys--for one year, at least, everything is awesome over at the Academy.

Taras David Butrej, Film Critic: Considering just how much love so many people have for the films on the list, I would have to say 'mostly.'  There will always be people who felt Movie/Actor/Actress  X was left out in favor of inferior Y, but this year it's easier to argue that the nominations are deserved.  I don't feel we have any sort of Crash situation going on and for that I'm grateful.  For the first time in awhile we may actually be able to focus on the winners rather than bitch about the underserved losers. Besides, I spent most of my wrath last time we discussed the Oscars.

Scott Waldyn, Staff Writer: My reaction is best conveyed via Randy Hickey of My Name Is Earl fame.

FICTION. George Lucas, a month or two back, said it best. The Academy Awards® is all about politics. Politics. Politics. Politics. They could care less about “art.”  

Lawrence Von Haelstrom, Contributing Editor: These are the 2014 movies I saw in the theater:  The Lego Movie, Rio 2, and Boyhood. So, of those three, yes it is a FACT that the nominees represent the best of 2014.

If I count movies on DVD, then I also saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain America 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, three quarters of Godzilla, and a quick skim of the novelization of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Whatever. I loved Boyhood. I would like to see it win. If it doesn't, oh well. It would make no difference in my appreciation of it. I wish I had seen Goodbye to Language when it was showing. That's my loss.

FACT or FICTION: Saving Private Ryan should have beaten out Shakespeare in Love for the Best Picture Oscar in 1999.

Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and Ed Burns in  Saving Private Ryan  (Image  © Dreamworks) 

Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and Ed Burns in Saving Private Ryan (Image © Dreamworks) 

Gabriel Ricard: FACT. If you go back and look at the Oscars in 1999, it was a shitty year across the board. Roberto Benigni beat out Nick Nolte for Affliction? Edward Norton for American History X? What the shit? The Best Picture contenders were an uneven bunch, at best. I’m not the biggest fan ever of Saving Private Ryan. I think its cast and crew and first twenty minutes go a long way towards making people forget how tedious a lot of the film was. Even so, it’s a much better film than the pandering, simpering Shakespeare in Love.

Ryan Roach: And that’s a FACT, jack. I don’t think this is really even debatable at this point. History has vindicated Ryan as clearly the more memorable and better film, giving it a place on the both AFI and Sight and Sound’s top 100 lists, while most people struggle to remember Shakespeare at all. The real mystery is why it was shut out in the first place. A World War II movie starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg? That should be Oscar catnip.  

Matthew Guerruckey: For some reason, this is the go-to example of terrible Oscar choices. Supposedly, Saving Private Ryan is a classic and Shakespeare in Love is garbage. Neither of those things is true.

Saving Private Ryan begins with the most harrowing depiction of modern warfare that has ever been captured onscreen. Even now, almost two decades later, it’s still hard to watch that kid trying to scoop his guts back into his body. Few directors in the history of film have had the power that Steven Spielberg has to bring our deepest emotions and fears to the surface, and this sequence is vintage Spielberg. And Spielberg won, deservedly, the Oscar for Best Director that year.

But the rest of Saving Private Ryan is a slog, filled with bland characters, and boring performances (with the notable exception of Jeremy Davies). It’s overlong and self-important, with a maudlin bookend. Shakespeare in Love is no classic, but it’s entertaining and inventive, and consistent in a way that Saving Private Ryan isn’t.

Did Gwyneth Paltrow deserve her Oscar? Oh, heavens, no. Did the film deserve Best Picture? Looking at the other nominees--the overblown Private Ryan, the silly and gaudy Elizabeth, the obtuse The Thin Red Line, and the well-meaning but possibly ill-advised Life is Beautiful, I say sure, why not?

This is, and always has been, FICTION.

Taras David Butrej: FACT.  Should it be said?  Does anyone anywhere feel differently?  Sure, I enjoyed Shakespeare in Love, but how does that even come close to the near perfection of Saving Private Ryan?  I don't know, man.  I just don't know.

Scott Waldyn: FICTION. You know what the real winner should have been? Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan. It’s unlike any Sam Raimi movie ever made. No goofy angles. No silly banter or cartoonish special effects. Instead, it’s a gloomy psychological thriller that’s sort of like the spirit sequel to Fargo, with a plot centered around some small town friends (Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton to name two) who discover stolen money in the woods.  The cinematography is beautiful. The soundtrack is haunting. And the atmosphere frosts deep within the bones and won’t leave.

A Simple Plan wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, though. It was only nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. But it was the best damn passion project for the 1999 Awards ceremony.

Lawrence Von Haelstrom: In 1999 I still saw a lot of movies. In fact I saw all of the Best Picture nominees except Elizabeth in theaters. And of all of those films, there is a certain World War II drama that still resonates in my imagination and thoughts.  And that would be The Thin Red Line.

But should it have won Best Picture instead of Shakespeare in Love? Maybe. But the thing is the Academy Awards are a snapshot in time. They're an industry award. The Academy member's votes are favors promised and favors repayed.  The list of Best Picture winners is not meant to be a canon of the United State's greatest films. Whims and trends dominate, not lasting achievement. And that's okay. It's the Motion Picture Academy's awards, not ours.

In 1999, Miramax called in some favors, Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture. That's just how these things work.  

FACT or FICTION: Crash is the worst film to ever win Best Picture.

Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in  Crash  (Image  © Lionsgate) 

Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in Crash (Image © Lionsgate) 

Gabriel Ricard: FICTION. For me personally, that honor belongs to The English Patient. Combine that movie with some strong sedatives, and you will legitimately suffer brain damage. As for Crash, it’s an unfortunate case. I don’t think it deserved the scorn some people heaped upon it, but the best movie of its year? A Best Picture winner? Hell no.

Ryan Roach: FICTION. Can we just say that Elaine Benes was right? The English Patient was fucking terrible. Absolutely god-awful shitty unwatchable dreck. Crash was a perfectly cromulent movie with some good performances that didn’t deserve to win, but was certainly not pile of used disposable diapers lit aflame like The English Patient. Other winners not as good as Crash: Driving Miss Daisy, Dances With Wolves, Braveheart, Gladiator, Chicago, and The King’s Speech.

Matthew Guerruckey: It’s important to say that I have to consider this question in the context of the modern era. Because there are terrible winners like 1960’s Gigi, which are absolute garbage, but sort of hard to compare to movies past 1970.

When we think of movies that were the “worst” winners ever, there’s usually emotion attached to the other films that they beat out. Dances with Wolves was never going to lose Best Picture back in 1990, but in retrospect, Goodfellas had much more of a lasting cultural impact than Costner and Two-Socks. The English Patient is soppy, sappy sludge which managed to beat out the bleak, hilarious Fargo. And we’ve already talked about the Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan battle.

But most of the undeserving winners in Oscar history have some redeeming element, whether a performance or an overall aesthetic. Crash, on the other hand, is just completely incompetent filmmaking. It is poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted (by a respectable cast), and worst of all, it’s one of those movies that thinks it’s making really cogent and brilliant points about society. Thankfully, all of the racists in Crash tell everybody else they meet how racist they are, so that they can deliver ridiculous monologues to each other. The worst thing about Crash is how great Crash thinks that Crash is.

Even though we’re in a string of fairly mediocre winners (fuck off, The Artist), Crash still stands out as the worst in recent memory, so I’m willing to call this one a FACT.

Taras David Butrej: I can't comment because I refuse to watch terrible movies.

Scott Waldyn: FACT. Regardless of the quality of a movie, whenever a movie deals with a “hot button” issue, no matter how ham-fisted it feels, the Academy usually deluges it with heaping amounts of praise (one exception deserving of praise is Selma). In the case of Crash, we’re privy to almost two hours of stereotypes co-mingling with other stereotypes and ultimately acting against stereotype, in some way, near the end. There are no characters. There isn’t much of a story. There is only forced commentary that rings hollow at the end.  

Lawrence Von Haelstrom: I never saw Crash. But, as I said above, the list of winners and nominees should not be considered a canon of great film. There's plenty of mediocrity represented throughout the award's history. In fact Crash is just the sort of middle-brow melodrama that dominates the list of past winners. From Wings and Grand Hotel to Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech, mediocre melodrama rules. It takes time for the truly great films to be filtered from the mass of mediocrity surrounding them. Year-to-year, the easy-to-appreciate dramas are the ones that have the best chance of standing out. The great critic of time isn't always as appreciative.

FACT or FICTION: The Oscars are still relevant in 2015, beyond a means of the industry congratulating its own members. 

Gabriel Ricard: I suppose this is very barely FACT. People bitch about the Oscars. People write about them. People argue about them. People dismiss them. A movie that wins Best Picture is generally a movie that has received a ton of hype. For some people, the hype machine in Hollywood and all its evils is best represented by that award. Clearly, this award still has the ability to generate a response. I’ve also noticed that a lot of the people who tell me the Oscars don’t matter do so frequently enough to make me suspect that they care more than they let on. For an award that is supposedly no longer relevant in this day and age, people still talk about it an awful lot. Basically, I think its relevancy is whatever you want it to be. I like to pretend these awards matter, if for no other reason than because it gives me something to argue about with other people. In terms of whether or not these movies actually determine artistic merit, they never have mattered. At least, they haven’t to me.

Ryan Roach: FICTION. The only thing I can do is quote the great Gabriel Ricard and say, “it’s kind of like pro-wrestling. It’s fun to pretend it’s real”. No way I can improve upon that.

Matthew Guerruckey: The Oscars are no more relevant or irrelevant in 2015 than they were in 2014 or 2012 or 1965. But complaining about the irrelevance of the Oscars is even less relevant than the Oscars themselves.

Look, here in the Film Department we talk about movies all year long. But the Oscars gives us a chance to talk, and argue, and bitch about films and filmmakers with the rest of the world. We get to champion our favorites and boo the less deserving. And it’s all wrapped up in a four hour cluster-fuck that will produce at least one WTF moment or genuine laugh.

And even better yet--some kid living on a farm in Kansas will now know what Birdman is, Maybe he’ll get to see Birdman. Maybe Birdman will blow his little Kansas-kid mind. And then maybe that kid will grow up to make movies of his own. And maybe one of those movies will blow our mind, and then the mind of the next little farm kid. And so on.

Or maybe he’ll just jump out of a window trying to fly. Either way, that kid’s existence makes this one a FACT.

Taras David Butrej: If by relevant you mean it boosts industry sales, then FACT.  There's a well recognized Oscar bump that occurs just after the winners are announced but otherwise it's not much more than an incredibly well choreographed circle jerk.

Everyone nominated will get a gift basket worth $125K.  That's one-hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars.  For each nominee.  This includes a vibrator.  No joke, each nominee will get a $250 sex toy. It'll go well on the night stand when they go on their paid for Tuscany vacation.

Scott Waldyn: FICTION. Again, my reaction is as follows: 

Lawrence Von Haelstrom: No. FICTION. They never were.

FACT or FICTION: Billy Crystal is the best Oscar host in history. 

These Oscars are regular size (Image  © AMPAS). 

These Oscars are regular size (Image © AMPAS). 

Gabriel Ricard: FICTION. Bob Hope and Carson were both more entertaining, and Chris Rock is still my absolute favorite host of all time. But I would still put Billy Crystal pretty high on the list. I’m certainly curious about Neil Patrick Harris hosting this year. Anyone but Ellen. I like Ellen. Everyone likes Ellen. Even so, this ain’t her gig, and I hope she never, ever comes back.

Ryan Roach: Well, Jack Palance was a long, long time ago. But…FACT? Sure? I guess? I wasn’t around when Bob Hope was doing it. It’s a pretty thankless job, overall. Let’s hope NPH knocks it out of the park. (Fun fact: when researching this, I discovered Paul Hogan hosted in 1987. Dear God).  

Matthew Guerruckey: There’s no harder gig in entertainment than Oscar host. Nobody’s ever good at it. Jon Stewart and Chris Rock--two of the greatest stand-up comics in history--were both absolutely terrible at it. You know who was very good at hosting the Oscars? David Letterman. Seriously.

Billy Crystal was good at the job, way back when. He made jokes about Jack Palance and other relevant topics of the early 90’s. Then he came back to host a few years ago and was horrible. So, is Billy the best of all-time? Maybe, if only because he was so willing to commit to a gag. But when looking back at the list of Oscar hosts, I found that Donald Duck is on the list. That Donald Duck co-hosted the Oscars back in 1930.

That is some ridiculous bullshit. And so are the Oscars.

Donald Duck is clearly funnier than Billy Crystal. The fact that Donald Duck is listed as an Oscar host is funnier than anything that Billy Crystal ever said about Jack Palance. Sorry, Billy, but this is FICTION.

Taras David Butrej: From a reliability standpoint, FACT. He seems to be the best at balancing the script with genuine enthusiasm and his always-happy persona does a lot more to reduce the dull moments than most anyone else can bring to the table.  It's a shame that Anne Hathaway had to get stuck with a co-host who just couldn't handle it, because I think she's the only person in recent memory who is just as game and effervescent as Mr. Crystal.

Scott Waldyn: FICTION. Billy Crystal is a great Oscar host who didn’t offend anybody with clout at the Academy Awards. He’s a safe bet for safe harbor. The best host in the history of the awards ceremony? Not really. He’s vanilla. He’s comfort food.

Personally, I prefer Jon Stewart. Some of his jokes were both funny and uncomfortable. Why? They carried hidden half-truths about the nature of the show.

Lawrence Von Haelstrom: Christ, I don't know. Sure. If you think Billy Crystal is the best Oscar host in history, who am I to argue? Jeezus.

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