E: Here’s the thing. By this time of the year, the best picture Oscar is usually all sewn up. That may sound weird if you don’t follow awards, but it’s true. When you follow the awards leading up to Oscar, you know. Occasionally there’s a dominant film like Schindler’s List or Return of the King which everyone knows is going to win almost before it’s released in theaters. Some years, you think something’s the favorite with the critics awards (think The Social Network), but the guilds identify a more audience-friendly winner (The King’s Speech). Either way, once both the critics award groups and then the Producers Guild and the Director’s Guild and the Actor’s Guild all have their say, we know. Or at least, every other year we’ve known. By now, the only major awards giving bodies that haven’t weighed in are the Director’s Guild and the British Academy (BAFTA), and there is still no consensus. There remain not merely two but actually three films fighting for frontrunner status.
Now, before you ask, it’s possible for the frontrunner to lose. Sometimes we think we know and we don’t. Shakespeare in Love beats Saving Private Ryan; Crash beats Brokeback Mountain. But in order for the favorite to lose, you have to have a favorite to begin with. And in 2014? You don’t. Let’s review the evidence.
If you watched the Golden Globes, you might remember that the Hollywood Foreign Press gave best director to Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuaron, and Best Picture to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave; American Hustle won Best Musical/Comedy. Despite last year’s confusion with Ben Affleck losing out on the directing nomination, most years the Globes and the Academy bestows both of those awards on the same film; the Globes quite often pick a different winner from the Academy, but the lack of internal consistency signals an odd confusion. The last big critics awards come from the Broadcast Film Critics – the Critic’s Choice – and here things get even more dicey, due to the large number of awards they hand out. Gravity wins best director and best sci fi/horror movie. American Hustle wins best comedy. And 12 Years a Slave wins the over all Best Picture.
When you add to this SAG’s embrace of ensemble comedy American Hustle, you have yet another wrench thrown in the works. Generally SAG hews more closely to Oscar than the Golden Globes, but their mandate is a little different – acting, not simply the film itself – and so they sometimes embrace films (Sideways) the Academy overlooks for something with a bigger theme or less quirky packaging (Million Dollar Baby). They did help solidify the likely acting winners – McConaughey, Blanchett, Leto and probably Nyong’o who took both the SAG and the Critics Choice over Lawrence – but if Hustle really was to be the film singled out, other groups will have to fall in line and support it as well. Voters have very different reasons to embrace these three films; the clever plotting and acting sizzle of American Hustle, the technological wonder (and deep emotional journey) of Gravity, and the devastating historical impact of 12 Years A Slave.
But the biggest puzzle of all comes from the Producer’s Guild. Ah, all the pundits said. Over the last six years, the PGA has matched up perfectly with the Oscar winner – anointed it, you might even say. That’s how we knew for sure last year that Ben Affleck’s snub had indeed rallied the Hollywood community around him and his entertaining movie. PGA will sort it out for us, everyone said. Here’s where the consensus will form, BAFTA will fall in line, and we’ll be all set. In the 25 years they’ve been handing out awards, however, they’ve never had a year like this one: 2014 brought us a tie between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.
A tie! Nobody ties for these kind of awards! 4,700 producers, 10 films to choose from, and they come up with a tie? What are the chances of that?
And so instead of clearing up the mess, the Producer’s Guild added to it. And you know what? I think that’s pretty great, actually. I’m glad there’s still a little mystery left in the world. We’re not even a week out from the nomination announcement, after all. And when there so many beloved options for Best Picutre, what it means is that the real winner is the audience.