My Fair Lady or Dr. Strangelove? Rocky or Taxi Driver? Kramer vs. Kramer or Apocalypse Now? Dances with Wolves or Goodfellas? Forrest Gump or Pulp Fiction? Shakespeare in Love or Saving Private Ryan? The King’s Speech or The Social Network? Birdman or Boyhood? Spotlight or Mad Max: Fury Road? 2016’s Winner or…?
Time and time again, the Academy Award Best Picture race ends in an upset. Based on the list above, you would think that at least Saving Private Ryan would have walked away with a trophy, right? Nope. Shakespeare in Love. But where does that film fall within the history of cinema? Really, I only think of it as the film that wrongfully won best picture over one of the greatest war films of all time. Upsets at the Oscars are nothing new, and at the very least they spark great debate. But it hurts to watch a masterpiece like Apocalypse Now lose to Kramer vs. Kramer, which is great, but nowhere near as groundbreaking. This shows us that The Academy prefers to play it safe, often ignoring daring feats of genre filmmaking in the process. 2015 is a perfect example: Spotlight – a well-written and terrifically paced drama that never quite pushes past feeling like a really really good TV movie – beat Mad Max: Fury Road – the culmination of almost 20 years of planning and perhaps the greatest action movie ever made. A year has passed and I had to search to make sure Spotlight actually won… honestly, I forgot it even existed.
This year it seems as though we are in for another upset. Look, I loved La La Land and was completely swept up in the music, nostalgia and charm, Damien Chazelle is one of the most exciting directors to break out in quite some time, and I can’t get enough of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. But, La La Land shouldn’t win because it doesn’t break any new ground. Sure, it updates the classic movie musical for modern audiences, but it does so by staying true to what made those classics work in the first place. I would much rather see something like Arrival take the prize for its daring use of editing as a storytelling device and the way it’s script has coincidentally come to define a political era in such a beautiful, much needed way.
If La La Land wins tonight it will be well deserved, because it’s a great film and a much better choice than Spotlight last year or Birdman the year before. However, it would be another instance of The Academy playing it safe, avoiding daring films (Moonlight, Arrival) that break boundaries and open our minds by asking us to reflect on what it’s like to be human. The good thing is that time will tell us what film(s) will rise above the rest to inspire the next generation of filmmakers. And that is a truly wonderful thing.