Directors Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater have had a great year. The two are arguably the most visible independent/art-house American directors at this moment, and released huge critical (and in Anderson’s case financial) successes this year. However, their styles are quite different: Anderson is an illusionist, full of showy tricks and puffs of purple smoke, and Linklater an alchemist, attempts to take an “ordinary” hunk of lead and turn it into gold.
Fittingly, Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel(GBH), is a wonderfully constructed layer cake of Dickensian plot complexity, zany costumes, cartoon-like villains, old-world European decadence, and above all, His Excellency, the enigmatic and eccentric hotel manager M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes. In contrast, Linklater’s Boyhood depicts a Texan boy’s adolescence and young adulthood in almost documentary-esque realism by filming over 12 years. The films are both epic in their own ways, and it appeared that even the ficklest and most frustrating critic of them all, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was also won over when they handed GBH nine nominations and Boyhood six. Three of each—best picture, best director, and best original screenplay—were for the directors themselves, neither of whom has won before.
Despite GBH’s wins for costume design, hair and makeup, production design, and original score, as well as Patricia Arquette’s win for best supporting actress for Boyhood, neither one won any of these major awards.
While it’s easy to be cynical about the Oscars, one important issue at stake each February when the red carpet rolls out is validation for filmmakers. Validation matters, because it helps directors get funding for projects or helps catapult actresses and actors into more roles. In some way it helps to determine what is produced, who is mainstream, and what kind of films we in the mainstream see. The Oscars are important because they are judging, and in some ways determining the future of, one of America’s most beloved popular entertainment and art forms: the movies.
So, let’s take a step back and assess.
Birdman was the toast of the night, pulling out best picture, alongside best cinematography, directing, and original screenplay (over Boyhood and GBH). Other major category winners included Whiplash, The Theory of Everything, Still Alice and Selma.
What is a bit sad about the line-up is not that it is composed of bad films, as it has been at some points in the past, but rather that, frustratingly, Boyhood, GBH, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, three of the most inventive and in some ways experimental films this year, failed to pull in wins for their directors. Many of the winners feel unsatisfactorily...small in the grand scheme of things.
Boyhood, like it, love it, or hate it, is at its essence a brash, exciting experiment. An experiment in how films can be made and in what sort of things the camera can capture, it is unique in mainstream cinema, and who doesn’t like new things?
Similarly, Wes Anderson since releasing his indie debut Bottle Rocket with buddy Owen Wilson in 1996, has been crafting films whose style is defiantly new and unique.
In many ways, according to critics and the average moviegoer alike, Anderson reached the very perfect articulation of The Wes Anderson Film with GBH. For some this is a biting criticism, for some the ultimate praise.There is a strange weight to GBH, a strange profundity that comes about when the viewer realizes all the running about, the affectations, and the absurdity are all just a part of the characters’ attempts to deal with the world. Whether you find Anderson’s style grating and faddish or delightful and inspired, it is difficult to argue that it is not “new.” Which makes its losses in the big categories a bit disheartening even for a film-lover ambivalent about his most recent picture.
With Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood, Anderson and Linklater argue that cinema can still be exciting and new and experimental. They assert that cinema can find meaning outside the literal in the symbolic, figurative, and gestural. Or, it can at times question the need for meaning or narrative. Like novels or poems or paintings or sculptures, films can do so much more than tell stories. Linklater and Anderson remind us that films aren’t about the stories they tell, but about the way in which they do so. Films can be more than entertainment. Will we let them be?