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The Academy Awards: Why the best picture nominees should make Hollywood take note

The Academy Awards are next week, and looking over the list of best picture nominees, I’m surprised I’ve actually seen a majority of the films (Amour, Django Unchained, and Argo being the exceptions.) But I’m also pleasantly surprised that these were, by and large, excellent films that connected with a lot of different audiences.

This crop of thoughtful, challenging, and sometimes controversial films proved that audiences don’t just want mindless summer movie fare. Six out of the nine films have made over 100 million domestically. And out of all of them, Lincoln made the most (about 176 million at current count) which is astounding considering the film is essentially a straight-ahead drama with no action, no obvious special effects, and no sex appeal (though fans of Daniel Day Lewis might disagree.) I love history and historical fiction and drama, so I really enjoyed the film as an historical recreation of the events of that time, but have to admit that I also found myself getting a little antsy through all the debates on the house floor. But I liked that it presented some profund questions about the nature of freedom, courage, and personal conviction in the face of great opposition.

What I took away from Les Miserables was that we all have the power to overcome our past and choose a new path, no matter how others define us. Spirituality and faith was also a major theme throughout.

Zero Dark Thirty was a tough watch, but I think it raises an important question about whether violence as a means to ending violence works, or is a pointless endeavor that will leave us, as a nation, bereft and spiritually wrecked.

And Life of Pi, my favorite film of the year, was essentially a mediation on the meaning of story and belief. Unlike the others, it did have a lot of effects that were amazingly executed and vital to the telling of the story. I want to go into this story, both the movie and the book, in more depth in a future post.

The meaning I take away from these films as a whole is that audiences really do long for stories with depth, and that they are willing to go to the theater to explore the deeper questions of who we are and why we’re here. Often films that are critical darlings and considered more “serious” fare are not big hits at the box office and that’s why studios don’t want to invest in them. But I think those with the power to green-light films have a lot to consider after this year’s Oscars.

Some of the biggest disappointments this year were films whose budgets were huge — John Carter and Battleship being the most publicized examples. There seems to be a belief among the studios that the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. And sometimes the gamble pays off – The Avengers, for example (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way). Every studio would kill to have the next Avengers. But why aren’t studios willing to make more modest budgeted pictures that yield healthy returns on investment?

I believe there is a directive among the studios (which I’ve heard first-hand) to put their main focus on the big tentpole movies, at one extreme, or small, micro-budget movies at the other. They aren’t really interested in mid-sized budget movies (20-70 million) and haven’t been for a while. But all the nominees (minus Django at 100 million) had budgets within that range. Beasts and Amour were below that.

Studios will never do away with the summer tentpole, but I think they are missing a huge opportunity to shepherd stories with a little more depth through the development process.

What were some of your favorite movies of the year? What stories resonated with you?

All my budget figures I took from Box Office Mojo.

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