Long Read: “The Oscars’ Addiction to Lame Historical Dramas”

Film buff and professional actor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gives his opinions on this year’s Best Picture nominations in Esquire:

There’s a reason Oscar has a sword covering his crotch: It’s to hide the fact that he has no balls. On Sunday, as families gather around the hearth of their TV screens to celebrate the achievements of multi-millionaires, we viewers know we will be bathed in their pathos, bathos, and the rest of the Musketeers. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but when I look at the films nominated for Best Picture, I can’t help but feel disappointed that such a glittery, bloated event, which costs roughly $38 million to produce, doesn’t have more substance to justify its self-congratulatory pride.

This is not an attack on the Oscars or the many fine artists who deserve recognition and praise. We should reward their remarkable and memorable achievements in acting, writing, directing, and all the other categories. This is a questioning of only one category: Best Picture. And why the Academy continues to play it safe in this category, like the young first-timer in prison who tries to be the best buddy to everyone and to not offend anyone.

For me, the Best Picture should display excellence in acting, directing, and all the other elements that go into making a film. But it should also be greater than the sum of those parts. The Best Picture should have emotional impact, yes, but not only emotional impact, or that would be melodrama. The emotional wallop it produces should illuminate some fresh insight into human relationships: personal, social, and political. We should come out of such a film somehow changed by it because we can now see the world and our role in it more clearly — and make that world and our lives better because of it.

This is not to say that this year’s nominees are without power, grace, and artistry…

Do read the whole thing; he’s get interesting things to say about all the nominees, but his eventual choice for Best Picture is not at all what I would’ve guessed.






73 replies
  1. 1
    Mnemosyne says:

    For people who try to skim: his eventual pick is actually in the “update” at the very bottom.

  2. 2
    scuffletuffle says:

    Have not seen most of the films he references, but did see Philomena, mostly for Judy Dench, and was very moved by it. I agree with him that it adds something to our understanding of humanity and institutional thinking towards human frailty.

  3. 3
    FVB says:

    You and Frankie Heck, sittin on the couch, carin about the Oscars.

  4. 4
    DougJ says:

    He’s a surprisingly good critic. Reading through his review of “Girls”, I would have thought it was written by a woman (a lot of reviews men write of that show are a little creepy, but his wasn’t).

  5. 5
    Elizabelle says:

    Lot of good movies this year. I wouldn’t segue past Dallas Buyer’s Club so fast, as Kareem does.

    Still revolting to me: that Argo — effing Argo! — won Best Picture. Not deserving.

  6. 6
    BGinCHI says:

    I can’t believe he chose “Airplane!” for best picture.

    Best special effects, maybe.

  7. 7
    Bubblegum Tate says:

    I think Kareem is one of the most fascinating people around. If he’s speaking, I’m listening.

  8. 8
    DougJ says:

    @BGinCHI:

    I’m sorry, son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdock. I’m the co-pilot.

  9. 9
    Robert says:

    He’s right about the Oscars being stuck in certain genres, but he’s wrong about the Oscars need to recognize a message film above all else. Is this the one guy that thinks Crash was the obvious Best Picture winner because social justice? Or that Babel was robbed because social justice?

    The dismissal of Her for not being socially relevant is strange. It’s literally a film about the shifting status of relationships when anyone can reach anyone else in the world with the click of a button. That’s why Amy Adams’ character is in the film at all. If it was what this writer proposed, the film would focus almost entirely on Joaquin Phoenix and the OS played by Scarlett Johannson.

    That Oscar article is a really interesting read, but it’s from a perspective so strong that the writer refuses to admit anything but his pet preference for Best Picture fits the narrative of what he wants Best Picture to be. I mean, he dismisses The Wolf of Wall Street as social commentary because it doesn’t say anything new about subjects previously covered in documentaries. Neither does Philomena.

    And, for the record, I’m 100% behind Gravity. I prefer it to the other nominees in every other feature category, even if it’s not my pick for the best of the year. That would be Short Term 12. Talk about a socially relevant film with something new to say and excellent production values across the board.

  10. 10
    DougJ says:

    @Robert:

    That Oscar article is a really interesting read, but it’s from a perspective so strong that the writer refuses to admit anything but his pet preference for Best Picture fits the narrative of what he wants Best Picture to be

    That’s what I liked about it. Then again, I worship at the altar of Pauline Kael.

  11. 11
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @DougJ: I think you’re the greatest, but my dad says you don’t work hard enough on defense. And he says lots of times, you don’t even run down court. And that you don’t really try…. Except during the playoffs.

  12. 12
    Cacti says:

    @DougJ:

    I think you’re the greatest, but my Dad says you don’t work hard enough on defense.

    And he says that lots of times, you don’t even run down court. And that you don’t really try…except during the playoffs.

  13. 13
    WereBear says:

    @scuffletuffle: Philomena the book was incredible, I just finished reading it.

    Both she and her son suffered terribly, and so utterly needlessly.

  14. 14
    scav says:

    FYWP repeat echoes have discovered a new trick apparently. . . that or we may be facing down a dissociative WP Personality . . . . FYDWP&MH

  15. 15
    Poopyman says:

    @Bubblegum Tate: I hadn’t read anything by him, but now I want to subscribe to his newsletter.

  16. 16
    Yatsuno says:

    @scav: FYWP eted my comment.

  17. 17
    Bobby Thomson says:

    @Poopyman: His autobiography, Giant Steps, is superb.

  18. 18
    raven says:

    The Wanderer’s, fuck yea! “We joined the fucking marine corps”!

  19. 19
    Poopyman says:

    I find it totally unsurprising that multiple commenters can reel off dialog from “Airplane!”

  20. 20
    Poopyman says:

    @Poopyman: Of course, it looks like cut-and-paste jobs. :^(

  21. 21
    scav says:

    @Yatsuno: Wanted the kidney, must have been feeling a bit peckish . . .

  22. 22
    Bobby Thomson says:

    @Robert:

    I mean, he dismisses The Wolf of Wall Street as social commentary because it doesn’t say anything new about subjects previously covered in documentaries.

    No, he doesn’t. He compares it to a number of fictional movies that have already covered the same subject, usually without taking the side of rapacious criminals.

    he’s wrong about the Oscars need to recognize a message film above all else.

    That’s almost the exact opposite of what he says. He says it’s not enough to have a message or emotional heft if the movie doesn’t give unique insight in some way.

  23. 23
    Fuzzy says:

    Best Picture to what standard? Entertainment, knowledge, talking points, glitz. We go to the movies to be entertained so the most entertaining flick should get the nod.
    How about we take all the money spent and earned around the Oscars and give it to the needy. That would be good thing rather than a self indulgence.

  24. 24
    raven says:

    Speaking of Graham Greene, we watched Travels with My Aunt last week. Maggie Smith is young but made-up to look old, Lou Gossett and CINDY WILLIAMS! Fun movie.

  25. 25
    Joel says:

    Kareem is pretty clearly biased towards the movies of his (relative) youth.

    I don’t expect a lot of depth to movies. They are short stories, not novels. Sure, there are exceptions, but their primary role is to entertain, not edify.

  26. 26
    Gene108 says:

    I disagree with him on 12 Years A Slave. The movie pulls you in and connects the way so few films can do. This is the reason you get emotionally uprooted by it and need time to recover; it is so well done it rips a hole in your psyche about slavery in a way no history book can prepare you.

    I agree with him on Wolf of Wallstreet and Philomena.

    I think best picture is a toss up between 12 Years a Slave and Philomena.

  27. 27
    elm says:

    @Cacti: The hell I don’t! LISTEN, KID! I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.

  28. 28
    Joel says:

    I’m just glad that we weren’t subjected to another long winded explanation as to why Lars Von Trier is the greatest living filmmaker.

  29. 29
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @WereBear:

    Slut needed to be punished.

  30. 30
    beltane says:

    @Joel:

    I’m just glad that we weren’t subjected to another long winded explanation as to why Lars Von Trier is the greatest living filmmaker.

    We have The Guardian for that.

  31. 31
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    “Best Picture”, more often than not, is awarded to the film that most makes Hollywood feel good about itself.

  32. 32
    Paul in KY says:

    @Bobby Thomson: Will second that ‘Giant Steps’ is a very good read.

  33. 33

    Discussions about which movies really deserve to win Best Picture have little meaning in this context. I honestly thought it was common knowledge that internal politics in the entertainment industry have a heavy effect on the Oscars. The higher profile the award, the more likely it will be decided by stuff like ‘He should have won last year, so I’ll vote for him this year even though this performance was only okay’ and ‘We’ll look unserious if a movie for children/women/whatever genre is not the current fad wins.’

  34. 34

    @DougJ: Male reviewers are overly fixated on boobs and that gets creepy in jiffy. Many reviews of American Hustle compare the cleavage of Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Also remember reading a review of Parade’s End, I forget by whom and the reviewer spent one paragraph on Hall’s boobs.

  35. 35
    aimai says:

    @Robert: I don’t think he dismisses Her because its not “socially relevant” I think he thinks its been done before, over and over and over again, because the problems of guys who are unable to connect because they are scared of actual girls, or unable to live with real women, or don’t have contact with real women and who mistake the fake for the real or accept a machine substitute for a real, messy, human relationship has been done to death. Adding “on the internet!!!111” doesn’t make it interesting.

  36. 36
    aimai says:

    What I really wanted to say is that I thoroughly enjoyed the essay and I had no idea that KAJ was such a great critic and movie reviewer. I’m old enough to remember him only as a basketball player. Its a very, very, good essay.

    Myself: I don’t care at all about the Oscars, don’t watch many movies that are all about Oscarness. Perhaps what we should do is get rid of “best picture” entirely since that seems like a weird category–can another film win all the lower down categories and not get best picture? If so, what does that say that the sum of the movie is both greater and lesser than its parts?

    However his suggested pick, Philomena, which I hope to see, seems to hint that he believes that the “best picture” award ought to go to the picture that most improves/educates/motivates the audience. Its not a best picture award, then–is a best audience maker award. That wouldn’t necessarily be something that a team of experts should vote on, of course. The proof would be in the pudding or rather, in the actual effect the movie had on its audience.

  37. 37

    @aimai: Judi Dench is worth watching, in anything. I have only seen Gravity of all the nominees, hoping to catch many of the rest on DVD.

  38. 38
    debbie says:

    I disagree with this about Twelve Years:

    When you leave the film, you’re filled with a rage that you don’t know what to do with because you remember that, oh, yeah, slavery in the U.S. has been over for 150 years — at least technically.

    I think that’s the point. To understand the rage and the powerlessness. Especially when you consider that Solomon later disappeared again and was never seen. The thought that he was kidnapped back into slavery is just too awful to comprehend.

  39. 39
    scuffletuffle says:

    @WereBear: Am going to track it down myself, I always get more out of the film after reading the book.

  40. 40
    Anniecat45 says:

    I agree with him about American Hustle. The movie itself, and every scene in it, were way too long for whatever points they wanted to make.

  41. 41
    KXB says:

    I’ll have to read the whole thing later, but the first line about no balls was first used by Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. Kareem’s version just adds the sword part.

  42. 42
    Paul in KY says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: Most dudes would say that a healthy fixation on boobies is not ‘creepy’.

  43. 43
    Mnemosyne says:

    @aimai:

    If so, what does that say that the sum of the movie is both greater and lesser than its parts?

    To me, it says that a film is a collaborative effort and different parts are more worthy of awards than others. It’s the same thing with stage plays — if someone wins best actor at the Tonys but the play they were in doesn’t win Best Play, does that mean their performance wasn’t really that good?

    My prediction for a while now has been that 12 Years A Slave will win Best Picture, but Alfonso Cuaron will win Best Director. IMO, the Academy will want to reward Cuaron for the enormous technical feat that directing Gravity was, plus they’ll figure that Steve McQueen is young and has already had three acclaimed films, so there will be time to reward him later.

    @Joel:

    I don’t expect a lot of depth to movies. They are short stories, not novels. Sure, there are exceptions, but their primary role is to entertain, not edify.

    I don’t think you meant it this way, but you seem to imply that a short story can never match or surpass a novel. It may be more difficult to do, but I really don’t think you can argue that the work of, say, Raymond Carver is inherently inferior to his contemporaries because he mostly wrote short stories.

  44. 44

    @Paul in KY: I is not a dude, and fixation on boobs while reviewing a movie is most certainly creepy. Check out this review of Parade’s End.

  45. 45
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Paul in KY:

    It’s the fixation on specific boobies that said dude will never, ever be able to touch or even see in real life that becomes creepy.

  46. 46
    catclub says:

    @Mnemosyne: ” plus they’ll figure that Steve McQueen is young and has already had three acclaimed films, so there will be time to reward him later.”

    Anyone else hear the NPR feature on how old and white virtually all members of the Academy are.
    The funny part was that the researchers could not/did not just ask the Academy, because the Academy did not even know. So NOW the Academy will try to expand its vision of who should be members.
    Which is hard because many of the people they want as members simply see the Academy as old and lily white – so don’t bother to join.

  47. 47
    Paul in KY says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: I read the review. There were 2 mentions of a character’s breasts. I would have to see them myself to see if they warranted the 2 mentions. They might have (IMO).

  48. 48
    Paul in KY says:

    @Mnemosyne: Most all reviewers (and movie goers) will never, ever be able to touch them in real life.

    Does that mean that all commentary on breasts in that catagory are ‘creepy’?

  49. 49
    Hawes says:

    Opinionated dude has opinions. Film at 11.

  50. 50
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Paul in KY:

    Does that mean that all commentary on breasts in that catagory are ‘creepy’?

    Pretty much, yeah. The fact that you guys don’t realize how creepy you sound to everyone else doesn’t make it less creepy. In fact, it makes it a little more creepy.

    If you read a review of, say, Monuments Men, and the reviewer dedicated a paragraph to Matt Damon’s ass and how great it looked in all of the uniform pants, would you find that creepy, or just a normal part of reviewing a film?

  51. 51
    Suffern ACE says:

    @aimai: Yeah. I feel that he is wrong about Her. No, it is not Lars and the Real Girl, 2013 version. It isn’t the best picture, I agree, but it does do more than Warm Bodies and Lars. There are questions in there about human free will and suffering, and whether our failed relationships are actually what we want even when we say we don’t want them to. It was actually one of the more interesting films to discuss. It’s not just “the implications of new technology.”

  52. 52
    Culture of Truth says:

    I read the whole thing, and was confused why Philomena’s critique of Catholic church and portrayal of a sadistic nun reveals the human condition in ways 12 Years or Capt Phillips does not. He also ads that Philomena rises above what happened to her, in some sense, but by all his standards it seems like Dallas Buyers Club is a better fit. He calls DBC dated but it’s not like exposing the Catholic church’s abuses is plowing new ground.

  53. 53
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Paul in KY:

    Though I will say, it makes sense that the reviewers talked about the boobies in American Hustle a lot, because the costumes were obviously designed to make them a topic of discussion.

  54. 54
    Culture of Truth says:

    Oh, also I met Kareem in 2013 so I got that going for me.

  55. 55
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Culture of Truth:

    I think a lot of people were pleasantly surprised by Philomena — they went in not expecting much and had this really poignant story open up in front of them. I think people are responding to the idea that you have ordinary people walking around every day (like Philomena) who have had extraordinary experiences in their lives, and you’d never know it by looking at them. Plus, again, they didn’t expect much from the film, while expectations were very high for 12 Years A Slave and American Hustle.

    The chemistry between Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (who can be a very good dramatic actor — see also Tristram Shandy) didn’t hurt, either.

    ETA: I haven’t seen Philomena but I did read the NY Times article about the resolution of the story and if I had seen it in the theater not knowing how it ended, the big reveal would have been like a punch to the gut.

  56. 56
    Paul in KY says:

    @Mnemosyne: I guess it would depend on the context.

  57. 57
    EthylEster says:

    quoted in the post:

    its self-congratulatory pride

    america, fuck yeah!

  58. 58
    Cacti says:

    @debbie:

    I think that’s the point. To understand the rage and the powerlessness. Especially when you consider that Solomon later disappeared again and was never seen. The thought that he was kidnapped back into slavery is just too awful to comprehend.

    Agree with this.

    The “happy” ending of 12 years a slave is still pretty somber. The guy had 12 years of his life stolen, and missed seeing his children grow up. Even though he was restored to his family, the kidnappers and masters who held him in bondage never faced justice of any kind.

    And to top it off, Solomon Northrup eventually disappeared from history. Considering he joined the underground railroad after his liberation, there’s a strong possibility that he met his fate at the hands of slave catchers, but no one really knows. There’s no forced Spielbergian emotional uplift at the end of the story, and that’s why it stays with you.

  59. 59
    TheHalfrican says:

    I love when Kareem reminds us all what a intellectual powerhouse he is. This dude was going Ip Man on fools in Celebrity Jeopardy.

    He said “politics” was the reason he doesn’t have a head coaching job in the NBA when they asked him about it on First Take. He didn’t elaborate. He’s been trying to be a coach for years apparently, to no avail. I can’t believe there isn’t more discussion about this. Jason Kidd has been a joke as the Nets coach. Isiah Thomas can get multiple shots at burning basketball organizations to the ground, but Kareem can’t get ONE?

  60. 60
    PJ says:

    @Gene108: SPOILERS for 12 Years a Slave:

    For me, the weight of the movie (and the book as well) comes not primarily from just showing obscene cruelty and suffering, but the corrosive effect of slavery on everyone, from Benedict Cumberbatch (who would otherwise probably be a good man) to Michael Fassbender (who is bad, but is made far worse by the power granted him by slavery), to the black wife/mistress of a slave owner, who doesn’t see her role in perpetuating the cruelty, only that she has escaped her servitude.

  61. 61
    TheHalfrican says:

    @Cacti:

    I’ll be over here clinging to my hope that an old man is of little interest to slavers and he just decided to dump his wife for a pretty white lady. Or gentleman, who knows.

  62. 62
    Paula says:

    A movie year like this tends to show critics’ biases about the kinds of movies they not only like, but seriously value. I’m going to enjoy digesting all of this year’s movies in 2015, when I’m finished with my graduate program.

    Gravity is a really interesting case. You’ve got a whole lot of people dismissing it as ‘Avatar in SPACE’ (all style no substance), and then you’ve got the class of hyper-formalist film critics who see it as the ultimate vanguard of film-making right now, like J. Hoberman (critic for ArtForum), Kristin Thompson (film scholar), Stephanie Zacharek (critic for Salon), and this guy:

    http://badassdigest.com/2013/1.....f-gravity/

    I haven’t seen it yet, but Cuaron is basically one of my two fave directors.

  63. 63
    Paul in KY says:

    @TheHalfrican: Supposedly, Kareem was thought of as a less-mounthy version of Rick Barry when he played: Tremendously skilled player who doesn’t tolerate fools gladly & has no people skills.

    I think that opinion is wrong about Kareem, at least now.

  64. 64
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Paula:

    Gravity actually has an interesting central character that we care about and want to see survive. Avatar, not so much. They’re both special effects-heavy, so maybe that’s the rationale for the comparison, but Gravity seemed more like Cast Away (the Tom Hanks one) to me.

  65. 65
    ed_finnerty says:

    I am surprised he listed “The Boys in Company C” as a good movie. I thought I was the only one who thought that.

  66. 66
    David Koch says:

    but his eventual choice for Best Picture is not at all what I would’ve guessed.

    Although he’s a Muslim, now, Kareem attended Catholic school as a youth, so he probably has first hand experience with the film’s narrative.

  67. 67
    David Koch says:

    @Paul in KY: The all time great clip, where Kareem answers all his critics

  68. 68
    David Koch says:

    @ed_finnerty: The movie was ahead of it’s time, and I think it didn’t receive the attention or respect that it deserved because it was made by no-names. Where as Full Metal Jacket got automatic attention and respect because it was made by Kubrick.

  69. 69
    Paul in KY says:

    @David Koch: Nobody ever said (that knew anything) that Kareem wasn’t one of the best centers & a great teammate (you always love to play with a great talent, even if he’s surly) & was wonderful on the court.

    It was his off the court persona (interactions with reporters, other people in non-player/coach positions) that got those things said about him (IMO).

  70. 70
    Mnemosyne says:

    @David Koch:

    According to Wikipedia, he was actually raised Catholic (not just Catholic school). A little surprising since he’s from NYC — usually the African-American Catholics I’ve met are from strongly Catholic cities like Chicago, Baltimore or New Orleans.

  71. 71
    David Koch says:

    @Mnemosyne: you make a good argument.

  72. 72
    YellowJournalism says:

    @Mnemosyne: Focusing on an actresses “physical assets” also diminishes her actual acting. It’s insignificant that she pulled off an amazing character compared to how much cleavage she showed. (And, really, if you want to praise the cleavage, then you should be praising the stylists and costume designers.)

  73. 73
    SectarianSofa says:

    @DougJ Cool stuff. When did Bill Ayers start ghostwriting film crit? Some kinda weird conspiracy I tell ya. (Why do the blaahs hate lame historical dramas so much?)

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