Why the Best Picture of 2014 doesn’t stand a chance.

As award season in the film industry barrels down upon us once again, as do the requisite predictions and, inevitably, the soberingly inconsequential yet still remarkably bitter declarations of travesty and injustice after the fact. While most born on this side of World War II recognize the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Golden Globes as little more than a punchline, the Academy Awards still maintain a semblance of gravity through tradition, like triple crown statistics in a post-sabermetric world of content consumption and analysis. While my thinly-veiled irreverence should indicate that I am not easily moved by an arbitrary distribution of miniature golden RoboCops, I find myself this year anticipating an intensely frustrating slight weeks ahead of time, namely with regard to the Best Picture category.

Since up to ten films can be nominated, and most predictive lists provide some spillover, I have compiled for the sake of discussion the complete collection of movies that appear anywhere in the top fifteen Best Picture candidates of any publication with a relatively high search engine presence, loosely ordered based on a non-scientific composite of provided rankings. Accompanying each title are four pieces of data recorded as of December 24 from the two most popular film criticism aggregators, rottentomatoes.com (denoted here by RT) and metacritic.com, presented as follows:

[RT perecentage (number of reviews on RT), RT average rating, Metacritic score]

 A dictionary for the data is provided below, followed by the list itself:

RT percentage: This is the percentage of all the reviews found and vetted by rottentomatoes.com that are perceived as positive reviews. In the event that the reviewer provides a quantitative rating for the film (e.g. 3/5 stars), this “thumbs up/thumbs down” determination is made based on whether that rating normalizes to at least 6/10.

RT average rating: This is the average of all quantitative ratings provided by critics found and vetted by rottentomatoes.com, with all scores normalized out of 10 (e.g. 3/4 stars is normalized to 7.5/10).

Metacritic score: This is the average of all quantitative ratings provided by critics found and vetted by metacritic.com, with all scores normalized out of 100. Note that the Metacritic score and ten times the RT average rating are, in principle, completely equivalent metrics, but metacritic.com pulls from a narrower collection of film critics.

Potential Best Picture Nominees

  1. Boyhood [99% (213), 9.3, 100]
  2. Birdman [93% (174), 8.5, 89]
  3. Selma [100% (54), 9, 100]
  4. The Imitation Game [89% (158), 7.9, 72]
  5. The Theory of Everything [81% (154), 7.4, 72]
  6. The Grand Budapest Hotel [92% (228), 8.4, 88]
  7. Unbroken [49% (105), 6.1, 60]
  8. Foxcatcher [86% (158), 7.8, 83]
  9. Whiplash [96% (183), 8.6, 87]
  10. A Most Violent Year [95% (21), 8.3, 86]
  11. Into the Woods [72% (96), 6.7, 70]
  12. Gone Girl [88% (249), 8, 79]
  13. Nightcrawler [95% (192), 8.2 , 76]
  14. Interstellar [73% (258), 7.1, 74]
  15. Wild [93% (150), 7.6, 75]
  16. American Sniper [69% (52), 6.7, 71]
  17. Mr. Turner [97% (105), 8.5, 93]

Upon even a brief skimming of the numbers, a few things jump out. For example, based purely on critical reaction, Unbroken appears to have no place on this list. What’s the deal with that, is Angelina Jolie sitting on DNA evidence that Cheryl Boone Isaacs killed Hae Min Lee in Baltimore in 1999? (No, I did not know the name of the president of the Academy; I looked it up, because I was committed to the bit.)

For a more positive outlier, Boyhood is, by any number of reasonable metrics, the best-reviewed film of the last 70 years, and one of the best of all time (on RT, only the Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane have the narrowest of edges in average rating, but with a much smaller sample size). I saw it, rather fittingly with my father, and it was undeniably tremendous. I was floored by the sheer thoroughness and enormity of the project, the realism with which the writing captured familial relationships, and the subtlety and poignancy of the acting performances. It was about three hours long, and it felt even longer, which would typically serve as an indictment but in this case felt quite appropriate. As great as Boyhood was, I thought Birdman, Whiplash, Grand Budapest, and Nightcrawler were as good if not better. Gone Girl and Interstellar were really good too, and while I did not find them to be on the same tier as the aforementioned group, there were a few unlisted movies this year (to be discussed later) that I did, and I look forward to seeing nearly all of the other films on this list. It was a great year for movies, which is good for me, because I go to the movies a lot, occasionally without much discrimination regarding the quality of the offering.

However, despite all of the historically significant artistic merit splattered all over the list above, my brain is refusing to allow me to digest this consensus in tacit agreement. I scroll up and down this powerhouse roster of cinematic brilliance, but can only hear an echo of Cate Blanchett’s dulcet tone as Lady Galadriel reminding us of the ring of power:

There was another…

Indeed, there was, a sparkling oasis way back in February, smack in the harsh, arid center of the traditionally barren wasteland of first quarter theatrical releases. This film captures the viewer with jaw-droppingly stunning and immersive visual effects, as well as intense and compelling plot and character development. Its most distinguishing characteristic, however, is transcendently brilliant, well-executed comedy. The movie is a 100 minute non-stop barrage of uproarious haymakers, with a jokes-per-minute rate for the ages and an almost unfathomable comedic batting average. In fact, to extend the time-honored baseball analogy, the comedic production level of this film would put Barry Bonds’ four year chemically-enhanced peak, revered by stat nerds as an unattainable standard, to shame. In addition, this tour de force is accomplished without resorting to any perceptible level of inappropriateness for any age group, and the film straddles the line between complete universal appeal and razor sharp, ultra-high IQ screenwriting as well as any movie I have ever seen.

My initial reaction to the film was passionate and unequivocal, but perhaps there was an element of relativity at work; it was February after all, there was likely a month-long buffer on either side without a noteworthy release. Over the next ten months, however, the idea did not fade. It grew, as if it had been implanted in a dream within a dream within a dream by Leo DiCaprio and company (friends know I am more of a Tom Hardy man, myself). The other previously discussed masterpieces came and went, and that potentially subversive thought, initially dismissed as temporary, was nourished by time, discourse, and repeated viewings, and it evolved into a Lovecraftian beast of an opinion that I now perceive as bordering on objective fact:

The LEGO Movie is the best movie of the year.

In my recent conversational experience, reactions to this opinion have been mixed. Those who haven’t seen the movie usually think I’m joking, and those that have seen it typically echo my adoration, but fall just short of accepting my assertion entirely. I have already outlined why I like the movie so much, but before entering into any further qualitative discussion, let’s begin with a pure face-value analysis of the aggregate criticism data. If it were to be appended to the above list as the eighteenth film (full disclosure: that is exactly how it was ranked by awardscircuit.com, so it has not been ignored entirely), The LEGO Movie [96% (201),  8.1, 82] would rank third in RT percentage and ninth in both RT average rating and Metacritic score. This discrepancy in ranking based on choice of metric may be a bit jarring at first glance, but it is actually quite easily anticipated for reasons to be discussed later. It suffices to say for now that The LEGO Movie ranks either near the middle or the top of the pack when compared quantitatively to the other potential nominees, and it is  intensely and almost universally beloved by those lucky enough to have seen it.

Of course, despite my fervor, I maintain realistic expectations. I fully recognize and respect that no matter how strongly I state the case, especially given the quality of the competition, most will ultimately disagree with the full strength of my thesis here, that The LEGO Movie should WIN Best Picture. After all, splitting hairs between genuinely terrific and impactful works of art will always boil down to some degree of taste, and the choice is certainly nontraditional.  But why shouldn’t it at least get nominated? Better yet, why, if the prognosticators are to believed, does it not even have a genuine chance? There is a short answer to the latter question, the one I recently provided my friend’s son when presenting him with The LEGO Movie on blu-ray for his ninth birthday:

The people that vote for the Oscars are old and lame.

I could probably stop there and go back to watching all five Christmas day NBA games, but while we’re here, let’s dig a little deeper and investigate a pair of institutional biases working against The LEGO Movie, plaguing the Best Picture category and beyond.

The first is rather simple, and that is the bias against animated films. In the previous 86 Academy Awards, only three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture: Beauty and the Beast (1991) [93% (103), 8.4, N/A], Up (2009) [98% (280), 8.7, 88], and Toy Story 3 (2010) [99% (279), 8.9, 92]. Since 2001, there is a readily available and exceptionally lazy explanation for this disparity: Best Animated Feature is its own category. This is essentially identical to the sentiment that pitchers should not receive the Most Valuable Player award in baseball because of the existence of the Cy Young award for each league’s top pitcher (only Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw have broken that barrier since 1986). This could potentially make some sense, except for the blindingly obvious issue that in each case, one of the awards maintains the title and prestige of being a completely open category (i.e. they didn’t change Best Picture to Best Live Action Picture), so the de facto exclusions remain completely absurd. I submit that an objective, unclouded analysis finds that animated films account for much of the best story writing, character development, and visual effects of the two decades since Pixar began producing feature-length films, and as a result it is rather short work to come up with recent animated films that probably deserved a Best Picture nomination. Here are a few:

  • Toy Story (1995) [100% (78), 9, 92]
  • Toy Story 2 (1999) [100% (163), 8.6, 88] (the most RT reviews of any film with a 100% RT percentage)
  • Finding Nemo (2003) [99% (238), 8.6, 90]
  • Ratatouille (2007) [96% (231), 8.4, 96]
  • How to Train Your Dragon (2010) [98% (200), 7.9, 74]

Now seems like a good time to revisit the previously observed phenomenon exhibited by The LEGO Movie, in which the film ranked significantly higher with respect to RT percentage  as opposed to the other metrics, as How to Train Your Dragon is another prime example of what one could call “depolarization”. For the purpose of exposition, let’s compare How to Train Your Dragon with The Dark Knight (2008) [94% (316), 8.6, 82]. The gap in RT percentages may seem slim, but consider that the number of negative reviews for The Dark Knight outnumber those for How to Train Your Dragon twenty to four. If you genuinely dislike The Dark Knight, you could be perceived as a snob or a contrarion, but if you genuinely dislike How to Train Your Dragon, you are perceived as a monster. Since they often are geared toward children and feature cute, lovable characters, critics seem unwilling to be especially harsh on animated films, even the bad ones.

On the flip side, the gaps between the films in the other two metrics, considering these are both beloved films with large critic sample sizes, are  relatively cavernous, and they are going in the opposite direction as the first gap. This could partially be explained by an unwillingness of some critics to entertain the possibility that an animated film could possess the same level of artistic merit as a live action classic, making them willing to rate the film highly, but not TOO highly, like a gymnastics routine with a less than maximum start value. The combined effect of these two forces is a massive accumulation of scores in the third quartile, above the middle but away from the top, leading to ultra-high RT percentages but relatively tame RT average ratings and Metacritic scores. One could interpret this phenomenon as a patronization of the animated films, patting them on the back while simultaneously denying them access to rarefied artistic air, and one can only assume that the phenomenon extends to award voters. A lifting of depolarization through total objectivity would undoubtedly drop the RT percentage of the more mediocre animated films, but would vault the elite into their rightful place amongst the masterworks.

Intuition might suggest that much of the outlined bias against animated films could also apply to live action films perceived as geared primarily toward children, and on a long term scale this appears to largely check out. A perusing of Best Picture nominees from the last few decades finds only two counterexamples: Hugo (2011) [94% [203], 8.3, 83] and Babe (1995) [97% (68), 8.3, 83]. These well-deserving, critical darling exceptions make one potential oncoming anomaly that much more perplexing: Why in the world is Into the Woods on the proverbial bubble of these projection rankings despite a decidedly lukewarm critical response? Any number of explanations are possible, and they segue nicely into the second bias to be explored. Into the Woods biggest draws are a legendary actress, an award-winning director, and beloved source material, all of which have huge pull with older voters, whereas The LEGO Movie’s biggest draws are its visual effects and, more to the point, that it is utterly freaking hilarious, and the latter just doesn’t seem to pull its weight in the awards world.

To that end, let me pose a question: In the last half century (and probably further, I stop recognizing the titles at a certain point), how many Best Picture winners, if you were forced to assign them to one film genre, would be classified as comedies?

Of course, film classification is more akin to a continuous, high-dimensional Euclidean space than it is a small, discrete collection of pigeonholes, so the answer is up to a certain degree of interpretation, but I submit that the most likely arrived at answer is ONE: Annie Hall (1977) [98% (60), 8.9, 82], with reasonable pivots in American Beauty (1999) [88% (168), 8.1, 86] and The Artist (2011) [98% (229), 8.8, 89], and super long stretches to Terms of Endearment (1983) [88% (41), 7.6, 79], Driving Miss Daisy (1989) [81% (52), 7.1, 81], Forrest Gump (1994) [71% (80), 7.1, 82], and Chicago (2002) [87% (226), 7.9, 82].

Using a very liberal interpretation of this same standard, I could reluctantly talk myself into identifying about twenty more “comedies” that were nominated for Best Picture since Annie Hall took home the Oscar. Amongst this collection, films like Little Miss Sunshine (2006) [91\% (208), 7.1, 80] and Juno (2007) [94\% (205), 8.1, 81], nestled relatively close to the positive comedy coordinate axis, are by far the exception rather than the rule. Almost all, in fact would be more readily classified as a “comedic drama”, or a “black comedy thriller”, or a “science fiction romantic comedy-drama” (that last one is straight off of the Wikipedia page for Her (2013) [94\% (229), 8.5, 90]). To summarize, in very few cases was a film nominated for Best Picture when its comedic value was its primary offering. One might observe that, according to the Academy, a film must possess some form of “substance” to serve as a nutritious protein to feature opposite the comedic dessert in order to be Oscar-worthy. The implicit message there is, of course, the root of the problem: despite its rich history, its powerful emotional impact, and its unequaled degree of difficulty, comedy, to many critics and voters, is not substance.

Just for fun, here is a cross-section of eight somewhat “purer” comedies spanning a few decades and comedy styles which have achieved some degree of legendary status, rank amongst my personal all-time favorites, and were deprived of a deserved nomination for Best Picture. There was effectively no upper bound as to how long I could have made this list – I kept digging and finding more – but I erred on the side of brevity:

  • Harold and Maude (1971) [86% (42), 7.6, N/A]
  • This is Spinal Tap (1984) [95% (61), 8.6, 85]
  • The Princess Bride (1987) [97% (63), 8.3, 77]
  • Defending Your Life (1990) [96% (28), 7.5, N/A]
  • The Big Lebowski (1998) [80% (86), 7.2, 69]
  • Office Space (1999) [79% (95), 6.8, 68]
  • Best in Show (2000) [95% (110), 7.5, 78]
  • The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) [80% (201), 7.5, 75]

Granted, some of these films took years to permeate the zeitgeist and establish the almost religious degree of reverence and popularity that they now enjoy, but for many other brilliant comedies this was not the case.

For example, the fact that the Grand Budapest Hotel appears primed for a nomination may appear to be a strike against my stipulated conclusions, but I would counter that it serves as an exception that proves the rule. More specifically, how is it that Wes Anderson has never had a film nominated for Best Picture before? While the real-time critical reception of The Royal Tenenbaums (which WAS nominated for Best Original Screenplay) was not that of typical Oscar bait, the same cannot be said for Rushmore (1999) [89% (102), 8.1, 86], Moonrise Kingdom (2012) [94% (224), 8.2, 84] (also nominated for Best Original Screenplay), and the uniquely pleasure-inducing Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) [92% (225), 7.9, 83], which was nominated for Best Animated Feature, was definitely worthy of a place in the previous segment on animated films, and is perhaps the best approximation and precedent we have for The LEGO Movie. In recent years, Anderson has been the target of some backlash, with frequent contention that his films recycle a somewhat uniform cadence and aesthetic, and a smug, overt intellectualism. Each of these observations has a degree of validity, but it is a point of contention as to whether they should serve as criticisms or appreciated common threads. While the argument can  be made that Anderson has been overly deified by a certain segment of hipster culture, he is undoubtedly amongst the most gifted and influential filmmakers to ever live, and the fact that he has yet to have a film nominated for Best Picture feels a bit criminal.

But I digress, and it is worth noting that The LEGO Movie is not the only casualty of these and similar biases this award season (remember I promised more top-tier unlisted movies earlier). Specifically,  Guardians of the Galaxy [90% (251), 7.7, 76], Frank [93% (128), 7.5, 75], and The Skeleton Twins [87% (141), 7, 74] all belong on the short list of potential nominees. While each film has substantial drama and/or fantasy elements, they are each distinguished from their respective peer groups and springboarded into the year’s elite by how thoroughly and astonishingly funny they are. To distill the message down, when voters and critics literally or figuratively “score” these films in their minds, they are apparently not adding nearly enough points for the quantity and quality of Ph. D. level comedic elements, because if they were, there is simply no way these would all be miles clear of the Best Picture radar screen.

So what are some potential solutions here? For one, while I previously lamented the relegation of animated films to their own minor league category, I suppose the addition of a Best Comedy category to the Academy Awards would be better than the status quo. Better still  would be the division of the Best Picture category into Best Comedy and Best Drama, not dissimilar to the Golden Globes, but perhaps the ideal scenario would be genre specific categories in addition to culminating the event with a completely open, objective, unbiased Best Picture category. Anything would be better than nothing, though, because in the current state of affairs, with regard to mainstream recognition for cinematic achievement, comedies are getting royally screwed.

But maybe it’s too much to ask for the Academy Awards to change. They are bound by tradition and set in their ways (you know, the things you say to dismiss all the bizarre, racist stuff your great-great aunt Ruth says at Thanksgiving). Maybe it’s better to recognize that the determination of “the best movie of the year” and the determination of “Best Picture at the Academy Awards” are distinct, unrelated endeavors, each with their own rules and criteria: “That’s a great movie, but it’s just not an Oscar movie.” Similar sentiments have been echoed for years about MVP awards and most notably the Heisman trophy: “Oh, c’mon, the Heisman isn’t the best player in college football, it’s the best upperclassman quarterback or running back on a national championship contender, everyone knows that.” Except, not everyone does know that. That’s not what the Downtown Athletic Club says it is, and that’s not what an overwhelming supermajority of Americans think it is. Somehow, despite all the peculiar trends, the Heisman carries nearly as much weight in the popular culture at large as it always has, and the same is true for Best Picture. When someone wants to browse through the history of cinema, or get a snapshot of what the film landscape looked like in a particular year, they are probably going to start by looking at the Best Picture nominees, so it would be nice if the movement to ignore them could gain some traction, or better yet, if the Academy could try a little harder to get them right.

Ok, time to get off my high horse, lighten up, and remember what this was all supposed to be about: The LEGO Movie! I would be remiss if I didn’t give the credit where it’s due, in case anyone doesn’t know. The LEGO Movie was written and directed by superduo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Their first movie, and first huge success, was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) [87% (139), 7.3, 66], which they followed up by defying widespread skepticism and knocking  21 Jump Street (2012) [85% (209), 7.2, 69] out of the stadium. And if making an animated comedy about plastic toys that may very well be better than Richard Linklater’s twelve-year-in-the-making life’s work isn’t impressive enough, they recently pulled off something potentially rarer: a genuinely original and thoroughly successful comedy sequel, 22 Jump Steet (2014) [84% (197), 7, 71]. We’ll see if they can pull it off again; they are writing The LEGO Movie 2 to be released in 2018. Everything they’ve touched so far has turned to solid gold, so moving forward I’ll assume whatever they do is spectacular, mandatory viewing until proven otherwise.

If you haven’t seen The LEGO Movie, see it! If you’ve seen it, see it again! You might not agree with me that it’s the best movie of 2014, but if you agree with my core message, then spread the word. Tell people how funny it is, how beautiful it is, how great the characters and the story are. Shout from the rooftops that The LEGO Movie is a great movie – not a great kids movie, not a great animated movie, not a great comedy – a great movie. Better yet, tell them the whole truth about the film in three words:

EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!!

(I’m sorry, I had to.)