‘Gravity’ walks away with 7 Oscars, not best picture

by Varun Bhuchar | 3/2/14 7:35pm

One of the closest Oscar races in history concluded last night with “Gravity” (2013) as the overall winner with seven total awards, including best director and best visual effects. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) garnered three prizes and nabbed the most coveted best picture award.

The Academy’s choices bucked a trend of good but forgettable films taking home its top prizes. Perhaps most demonstrative of this fact, “American Hustle” (2013) was completely shut out of the awards.

What makes a film best picture material? Personally, I think the award should have lasting cultural value, the kind of movie we’ll talk about years from now regardless of how many awards it received. The Oscars are important for the same reason that money has value — people put stock into it. In the short term, an Oscar win gives a giant boost to a recipient’s reputation. For the best picture winner, the award guarantees a spot in the annals of history.

Recently, however, the Academy has chosen to fill the annals with mediocre films — “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and “Crash” (2004). The last three years have been especially disappointing, including “The King’s Speech” (2010), “The Artist” (2011) and “Argo” (2012), films that disappeared from public conversation shortly after their wins.

None of these films sparked ongoing debate about heated social and political topics or the art of filmmaking. Rather, they are beneficiaries of Hollywood hype machines and prey on Oscar tropes for “quality” films: the British drama, nostalgia and good old-fashioned American values (whatever those may be?).

This year, thankfully, was different.

A few months ago, when the Producers Guild of America distributed its awards, two films — “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” — tied for the top prize for the first time in the organization’s history. At the British Academy Film Awards and the Golden Globe Awards, “12 Years a Slave” walked away with both best picture prizes, and “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuarón won both best director awards. At the Oscars, the films split along these same lines again.

The awards aren’t usually so predictable. The reason for this can be traced back to the Byzantine voting process that the Academy uses to select best picture winners. Unlike every other category where the winner takes all, The Academy asks its voters to rank the best picture nominees. When the votes are in, all the number one votes are tabulated and the ballots supporting the film with the least amount of votes are discarded. Next, the number two votes on the remaining ballots are counted the same way, and the process continues until a movie receives the majority of votes.

Make no mistake, “Gravity” would have been an excellent choice. It reminds us why we tell stories through film, as no words could have communicated the drama and awe-inspiring largeness of outer space in the same way as “Gravity.” Though Steve McQueen masterfully helmed “12 Years a Slave,” there was never any doubt Cuarón would win best director, as he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won the best cinematography Oscar, created and executed their vision from scratch.

Choosing “12 Years a Slave” for best picture, the Academy picked the more important film — a choice that reflects good politics. In another year, “Gravity” may have been the clear frontrunner, but “12 Years a Slave” is a historical epic. It is intense and profound in all the right ways without being condescending about a subject that is so easy to mess up. This is exactly the kind of film to start conversations that need to happen.

Regardless of who walked away with the trophies, we will remember “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” for their amazing contributions to cinema.

The rest of the categories confirm that 2013 was a banner year. While my heart wanted Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, the men of “12 Years a Slave,” to win best actor and best supporting actor, I can’t fault the Academy’s choices of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto from “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013). Though Leto’s commendable performance as a transgender prostitute with AIDS hints at Oscar-baiting, any of the nominees, save for Christian Bale, would have made great choices.

On the women’s side, Cate Blanchett picked up an inevitable Oscar for her role in “Blue Jasmine” (2013), a portrayal of Blanche DuBois worthy of comparison to its predecessor, while Lupita Nyong’o beat out Hollywood golden girl Jennifer Lawrence to pick up the best supporting actress award for her role in “12 Years a Slave.” If we lived in a perfect world, June Squibb would have walked away with the trophy for her scene-stealing part in “Nebraska” (2013), but Nyong’o is a worthy choice, especially compared to Lawrence’s performance in “David O. Russell’s Happy-Time Improv Hour.” I mean, “American Hustle.”

Spike Jonze’s best original screenplay win for “Her” (2013) demonstrates that quality film is alive and well in Los Angeles, while the complete shutout of “American Hustle” may be the best sign that the Academy has finally acquired some taste. Let’s hope 2014 is just as good.