Oscars: Why Mad Max: Fury Road should win Best Picture (and why it won’t)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is facing a bit of an identity crisis these days. Many people see the membership organization that votes upon who takes home Oscar trophies as out-of-touch and lacking in diversity, as evidenced by the recent #oscarssowhite campaign that was all over social media. This led to a recent decision by Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to announce that the Academy would be dramatically overhauling its membership to include more (younger) persons of color.

But the Academy’s lack of diversity extends far beyond race. It also shows itself in the movies that often take home the top prize. The term “Oscar bait” has been used for years to describe the bland, safe, “important” movies (often biopics) that the Academy seems to go nuts over, usually to the detriment of a more worthy Best Picture nominee. Recent examples include the inexplicable victory of Crash over Brokeback Mountain, or The King’s Speech instead of The Social Network.

Then there’s the issue that the winner each year is often a movie few people have seen. The Academy attempted to address this popularity issue in 2009 when it allowed up to 10 movies to be considered in the running for the top prize (up from the previous cutoff at 5). The goal, people seemed to think, was for excellent, overlooked genre fair like The Dark Knight to at least be considered for the major award. Then, people could tune in to see their favorite popular movie lose, but at least with the knowledge that it wasn’t relegated entirely to the technical categories.

This hope proved short-lived. The obvious recent example of why this system has already broken down is The Avengers. Marvel’s smash comic-based hit could have easily snagged the 10th spot for consideration in the 2012 ceremony. And yet, nine films ended up nominated. Why bother with 10 spots if you’re not going to fill them with the very movies that they were created for?

With this troubled history comes the electrifying tale of Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller’s ferocious action masterpiece reinvigorated a franchise we didn’t even know we still wanted, and did it with incredible technical panache. The Academy took notice: Fury Road has a total of 10 nominations, blasting its way out of the technical categories to consideration for awards like Best picture, directing and editing.

Mad Max: Fury Road is richly deserving of Best Picture status, but is probably still a bit too wild for the Academy.

Mad Max: Fury Road is richly deserving of Best Picture status, but is probably still a bit too wild for the Academy.

It’s great that, like everyone else, the Academy has taken notice of the finest action film of this decade. But, while Mad Max has many reasons to take home the top prize, I’m still not convinced it will. Here are three reasons why it should, followed by three reasons why it won’t.

  1. It’s a prestige picture

Fury Road is known first and foremost as a balls-to-the-wall action epic, and it fits that bill nicely. But it’s also the rare action film that was a smash hit with both audiences and critics. It has won numerous best-of-year awards from critics groups, and the consensus is pretty overwhelming. This catapults the film far beyond ever your typically excellent action fare. For both its pedigree and popularity, the Academy would be wise to award it the top prize.

  1. It would be historic

The Academy seems to take its sweet time catching up with history. In 87 years, a straight-up action film has never taken home the top prize (historical epics like Braveheart, war films or genre mashups like The French Connection are the closest we’ve gotten). No science-fiction film has won. Fantasy films got their due when Return of the King won in 2003, but little has been heard from them since. Audiences tend to speak with their wallets, and money talks. Many of the highest grossing movies of all-time are action films. Now, popularity does not always equal quality (a statement that describes the career of Michael Bay perfectly), but that clearly does not apply in this case.

  1. The Academy is getting weird

Fury Road is an undeniably bizarre film. Legendary Aussie auteur George Miller brought his trademark eye for original designs and odd humor (hello, Mr. Doof) to the table, proving that you can make a movie everyone loves without actually caring about what they think. Fury Road is the ultimate middle-finger to the market-researched summer blockbuster. It was made by a passionate group of people committed to a unique vision. How often do $100 million-plus action movies follow that description? In many ways, it seems like the textbook definition of what might turn the Academy off.

But that all changed last year, when the Academy awarded Best Picture to Birdman. That insane, inspired masterwork proved that, perhaps, the Academy was ready to embrace the weird. That same year, beloved indie auteurs like Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater shared space with more traditional Oscar fare like The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. What better way to continue that embrace of diverse voices than to award a gonzo action picture?

And now, why it still won’t win:

  1. It’s an action movie

Yep. Despite the Academy’s embrace of less traditional fare in more recent years, Fury Road is still an action movie. I fear the genre has too much stigma attached to it—it’s generally seen as not “important” enough. The Academy doesn’t often like to award movies without clear “messages.” While Fury Road has a rich and meaningful subtext beneath its non-stop violence, that’s still probably too subtle for the Academy at this point. Will they ever award Best Picture to an action movie? Yes, but I fear it might still be a while.

  1. It’s not the only action movie on the playground

You might have heard of a little flick called The Revenant. Alejandro Inarritu’s grueling survival tale swept the Golden Globes and seems to have some strong momentum going into the Oscars. Admittedly, Fury Road does as well. But The Revenant has the advantage of a prestige director (Inarritu took home the directing trophy last year) and imgrescinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki, gunning for his third straight prize). It’s certainly a non-stop action movie, but it doesn’t advertise itself as such in the same way as Fury Road. It’s artsy, and it very much attempts to say something meaningful. This means the Academy will love it, and it might feel like it can fulfill their obligation to finally award an action movie by giving the gold to The Revenant instead.

  1. It’s not actually the Best Picture

I’m ready and willing to admit that Fury Road is not actually the Best Picture in the running. That would be Spotlight or Room, two films I would be overjoyed to see win. This is less of a complaint and more of a reality check. Perhaps the Academy will award a talky, witty film like The Big Short, also a genre buster for being a comedy. Or perhaps The Martian, a film that, much like Fury Road, expertly balanced the line between critical darling and commercial smash.

Rarely has the Best Picture race felt so wide-open. This is a good thing. The field of contenders is quite strong, which speaks well to the strengths of Fury Road but also probably hurts its chances. Still, I’ll be cheering on Miller and company. Cinema this bold, exhilarating and uncompromising deserves to be celebrated.

Hail Caesar! The Coen brothers’ sensational spiritual fable

The opening shot of Joel and Ethan Coen’s new comedy Hail, Caesar! is a close-up of Christ on the cross. We then get an establishing shot of a Catholic Church, where overworked movie studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has come to take confession. He tells the priest it has been 24 hours since his last confession, before admitting he has lied to his wife about quitting smoking (he’s had three cigarettes in the last day). The scene ends quietly, without the expected punchline.

This scene is one of many in Hail, Caesar! that highlight the fixation the Coen Brothers have on religious faith in many of their films. For a directing duo whose work is so diverse they have their own subgenres (goofy Coen comedy, dark Coen comedy, Coen drama, etc), this seems to be one of the major constants throughout their body of work. Hail, Caesar! is a funny movie, one that occasionally plays religion for laughs, but even the jokes here are probing for something much deeper than we typically see in so-called “religious” fare. Behind the laughs, we find once again that the Coens take religious faith quite seriously—and that, I must say, is pretty damn refreshing.

Hail Caesar! is set during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, where movies were seen as morally degrading work and stars had to maintain a squeaky-clean image in order to be successful. Mannix is a man attempting to live a life of depth while forced to care very much about the artificial image of the stars under his care. Some of these stars include aquatic icon DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), fading western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and vacuous pretty boy Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Each star is facing an image crisis, of course. Moran is expecting a child out of wedlock, a fact which would destroy her career. Doyle (in an uproarious scene) is forced to star in a British costume drama directed by the demanding Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Finnes) for which he is spectacularly unqualified. And Baird is, well…missing. Kidnapped, in fact, by a mysterious organization known only as “The Future,” right in the middle of starring in the lavish period drama Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ (an obvious reference to Ben Hur).

As Mannix deals with these series of PR crises, he considers an offer from Lockheed to move to more “important” work. But even through the chaos, Mannix shows a clear commitment to authenticity. This is driven home in the film’s best scene, where he gathers religious scholars to discuss the accuracy of the portrayal of Christ in the upcoming epic. What starts as an interesting conversation develops into an extended theological back-and-forth on the nature of Christ’s divinity. It’s an extraordinary scene, funny and biting and profound, which makes it quintessentially Coen.

Hail Caesar! is the latest example of the Coen brothers' keen eye for sensitive portrayals of religious faith.

Hail Caesar! is the latest example of the Coen brothers’ keen eye for sensitive portrayals of religious faith.

This spiritual profundity is mixed with a nostalgic eye for the Hollywood classics, which the Coens clearly have great respect for. Musicals, costume dramas and westerns are gently mocked through the course of the film. But the central genre on trial here is the biblical epic, and the timing couldn’t be better. In an era where seemingly every producer is foaming at the mouth to make the next great biblical epic (whether on TV or in theaters), the Coens are reminding us of the frequently vacuous nature of “message” movies, particularly religious ones. Hail Caesar! (the film within the film) is meant to pander to the most base, feel-good, whitewashed version of Christianity (much like the original Ben Hur, in fact). The contrast between such artificial faith and Eddie’s staunch Catholicism is stark, but Eddie is still committed to making it the best representation possible.

The nature of celebrity, religion, consumerism, communism (yes, they take plenty of shots at political philosophy too)–these are heavy themes, and the Coens have often tackled them in a somber way. Here, they take a different route, for which I am quite grateful. The film is, after all, simply a pure delight to watch. The rich period details are given extraordinary pop thanks to Roger Deakins’ always-great cinematography. The performances are all-around phenomenal. And the nostalgic tone is emphasized by joyous moments such as a wonderful old-fashioned musical number (starring the immensely talented Channing Tatum). In the sub-genre of “goofy” Coen comedies, this is thankfully more O Brother, Where Art Thou? than Burn After Reading.

But the film’s silly plot is ultimately pretty inconsequential. Always simmering beneath the fun is the Coens’ most overt and accomplished religious fable besides A Serious Man. That very funny but much more somber film explored Jewish themes through a modern-day examination of the Old Testament book of Job.  Despite its change in style, Hail Caesar! seems to be the Christian response. Both films feature a man at a crossroads in his life, dedicated to his family and his faith even while the rest of the world seems to be crashing in around him. And both are potent allegories for living a life of authenticity in a world obsessed with artifice.

Religion is important to society and deserves to be respected and admired—today. How often do we hear that message from Hollywood? If faith is not outright mocked, it is given the quaint treatment, its importance relegated to a period in time (as in period pieces, wink, wink) but having little relevance to the modern world. The Coens are part of a select few working filmmakers who have deliberately pushed back against that more popular notion. Through the guise of a period piece, they are pointing the finger at their own industry, and maybe even themselves. The fact that said piece is one of the most purely enjoyable movies in ages is simply a welcome bonus.