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Big Wins for Small Budgets at the 2015 Academy Awards

The 87th Academy Awards were, on a whole, a night that championed artistry over prestige, with a unique proportion of nominees being relatively low budget features compared to recent years.  The average budget of the eight best picture nominees, according to numbers posted on the Internet Movie Database, was around $20.3 million dollars.  This figure is almost half as much as the average budget of the nine 2014 nominations, which was $40.7 million.  Independent films such as Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman (Best Picture), Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood enjoyed an awards season ripe with nominations and wins. 

 

There has been a subtle shift away from decorating large budget, Oscar favorites such as Argo, 2012’s Best Picture winner with a $44.5 million dollar budget.  It is possible to say, when looking at these statistics, that the Academy has begun to look outside the Hollywood norm and recognize films that are pushing the medium forward in new and exciting ways.  The statement can certainly be made for Birdman, whose unique cinematography and editing techniques give the illusion that the film is shot in one long, uninterrupted take.  The Academy rewarded dynamic performances from as well in the four acting categories.  In fact, Julianne Moore (Best Actress for Still Alice), Patricia Arquette (Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood) and J.K. Simmons (Best Supporting Actor for Whiplash) all won their categories with performances from films budgeted at $5 million or less, a distinct rarity in Hollywood.

 

With all this being said, there is one upsetting trend over the past four years that continued in the 2015 Academy Awards.  Three of the past four Best Picture winners, The Artist (2011), Argo (2012) and now Birdman have all been centered around the movie making business.  While it is true that each film was impressive in its own right, this navel-gazing trend is problematic especially in the midst of an industry so often criticized for being self-important.  In a world where media consumption has become more central than ever before, it is the duty of the film industry to tell stories of everyday tragedy or triumph of the human spirit, rather than rewarding itself time and again. 

While much could be argued about the Oscars on a whole, it is most valuable to consider the category of Best Picture to illustrate this point.  The category should have been won this year by forerunner Boyhood.  In this awards season, the Academy had the unique opportunity to award a truly unprecedented piece of art.  Richard Linklater’s twelve year epic followed young Mason from age seven until he left for college, filming for a few days at a time every year. A work of this scope has never been attempted before, nor will it likely be attempted again.  The filmmaker took a distinct risk with almost no financial promise, simply because he felt this story needed to be told.  In a media climate saturated with either decadence or destitution, Linklater took his lense to the middle class, telling the simple yet universal story of a single mother doing her best to raise her children, go to school, and find self fulfilment.  While the film is not glamorous by any means, its importance is twofold.  Narratively, the film is unique in its simplicity- there is no climax, no resolution.  It is the story of an American adolescence that reflects the lives of an entire generation.  Yet, along with this narrative simplicity the film is a technical masterpiece, edited seamlessly to create a celluloid memory of over a decade of Americana.  This combination of factors makes the film a standout in American cinema, one that will be studied and viewed for generations to come.

 

This year, the Academy continued the history of rewarding show business rather than depictions of true life.  Birdman is the story of a movie star trying to create authentic art in the world of New York City theater.  In this regard, Birdman reflects the story of many Academy members, seeking to contribute a singular artistic voice in today’s loud media environment.  Rather than respecting the true piece of art that is Boyhood, the Academy chose to reward their own egos, giving the title of Best Picture to a film that mirrored not the American public or even art itself, but mirrored the Academy and its increasingly self-important conglomerate. 

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