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Navigating film's craziest season

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | JANUARY 22, 2015 5:00 AM

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Images of civil rights protests and deadly war are contrasted with pink hotels, washed-up celebrities, and the awkwardness of puberty in this year's varied—and contentious—Academy Awards nominees for Best Picture, announced on Jan. 15.

The Feb. 22 Oscar ceremony will come more than six weeks after the Golden Globes, during which an action comedy with no nominations dominated headlines—and hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey's opening monologue—for generating threats against national security.

Despite the recent movie media circus, very few in the general public have had the chance to see the year's most buzzed-about films. But while The Interview was noticeably absent from local theaters, audiences at FilmScene, 118 E. College, had the opportunity to watch nearly 100 new movies this fall and winter, a handful of which—including Boyhood, Whiplash, and Selma—before the Academy Awards nominations made them famous.

But according to Iowa City cinephiles, the Oscars aren’t the last word in “good” film—though even high-budget action comedies can be worthy of art house attention.

'Challenging' cinema

It is a strange and unique sight to see a film poster for The Interview fixed on a wall alongside advertisements for late-season Oscar contenders, the resolute faces of Seth Rogan and James Franco hauntingly framed by missiles, machine guns, tanks, and Korean text.  

The image is not unfamiliar — it has been flashed across TV news screens and even online rental sites for weeks — but it is rare to encounter one of only 300-some theaters nationwide willing to display the poster after the theatrical release of The Interview, which centers on the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was cancelled by Sony Pictures.

The decision followed a Sony security breach by hackers reportedly based in North Korea, which threatened terrorist action against cinemas that featured the Rogan-directed comedy. 

The Wehrenberg Galaxy 16 Cine in Cedar Rapids — whose management declined to comment for this story— had the distinction of holding Iowa’s only public showing of The Interview, running from Dec. 25 to Jan. 16 and attracting patrons from across the Midwest. 

However, it was not Wehrenberg theaters or any other major cinema company that secured the public — if limited — release of the film, widely considered a victory for free speech. 

“No one wanted to show it until the art houses made an effort,” said Andy Brodie, a cofounder of the nonprofit cinema FilmScene and a member of the Art House Convergence, a national gathering of independent theater owners and operators. “It was the same message sent by the attack on Charlie Hebdo: the idea that if you have certain content, we’re going to suppress, persecute, even come into your office and shoot you.” 

Fighting against this mindset, the Arthouse Convergence — Brodie and FilmScene cofounder Andrew Sherburne included — petitioned Sony to protect “societal and artistic values” by releasing The Interview to their theater. Twenty-four hours and 532 signatures later, Sony agreed to a Christmas release. 

“At the end of the day, it was not a movie art-houses would screen,” Brodie said. “[The petition] was not a comment on the quality of the film but the idea that we shouldn’t be told what we can’t show.” 

Matthew Byrd, a University of Iowa English student and former Daily Iowan film reviewer, watched The Interview through Xbox Live during winter break, expecting it to be the “dumb, “unsophisticated,” and “immature” comedy that it, ultimately, was. 

“If you tell me I can’t watch a film, I have to, even if it means subjecting myself to bad cinema,” he said. “I’m a free-speech absolutist, and so are many of the art houses … it’s about solidarity, not support of the content.” 

Brodie said FilmScene was very close to screening The Interview in its 67-seat theater but had a hard time shifting its scheduled programming and securing enough employees to work during the holidays.  

Despite the largely negative critical response to the Rogan film, Brodie still wishes an Interview screening had worked out, noting that the high-budget flick has at least one thing in common with many of the indie or foreign films, cult classics, and even Academy-Award-nominated blockbusters shown at FilmScene this week. 

“It’s not about reviews, it’s about finding films that are challenging,” he said.

‘Why not see them at FilmScene?’ 

FilmScene’s mission to shed light on socially or artistically challenging works does not always mean its silver screen is occupied by obscure French romances or low-budget indie films, as the Interview incident demonstrates. 

This is especially true during movie-awards season, when film festival darlings such as Boyhood, Whiplash, Foxcatcher, Boxtrolls and CitizenFour — all nominated for Academy Awards, and all screened, or soon to be screened, at FilmScene — garner as much public attention as the latest Marvel installment. 

“We don’t get the luxury often of showing films with TV ads that are worth showing here,” Brodie said. “It’s a time of year people talk about quality cinema and not summer blockbusters.” 

Best Picture nominee Selma, currently playing at FilmScene, has become the cinema’s largest release in its 13 months of operation. Brodie said its single theater sold more Selma tickets than the area’s two multiplex Marcus Theaters in its first weekend.

“One of our Twitter followers said, ‘If you want to see Selma, Foxcatcher, etc., why not see them at FilmScene, with a mission to show films like that every day of the year?’ That was certainly nice to see,” Brodie said. “Committed members come all the time to artier, more challenging films [but] higher profile films bring in a wider audience.”

FilmScene regular Patrick Muller, who sent the tweet Brodie described, said the cinema keeps him updated on “thought-provoking and cutting edge films,” making the Academy Awards feel like not only old news, but an organization that plays to the “lowest common denominator” in film.

That’s not to say FilmScene doesn’t use Oscar buzz for a good cause. As in 2014, Brodie said they will show the 15 “boundary-pushing” short films nominated in the live action, animated, and documentary shorts Oscar categories from Jan. 30 through Feb. 11.

And though awards season has largely worked to FilmScene’s advantage, the staff said feeding Oscar fever is and never will be their prerogative. 

“A friend sent me a list of the 25 most underrated films of the year, and about 20 we had played here,” Brodie said. “If you lived in Iowa City, you had the opportunity to see those films. That makes me more proud than seeing them all get Oscar nominations.”

'The worst awards season in a decade'

Though critics and audiences have praised many of the year’s Oscar contenders, the 87th Academy Awards ceremony, which will be televised on Feb. 22 on ABC, proves to be divisive. 

Kelly Gallagher, an M.F.A. candidate in the UI Cinema Department, said there was a distinct lack of diversity in the nominees, perhaps a reflection of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose membership is 94 percent white and 77 percent male. 

“I love movies,” Gallagher said. “But I think there are so many issues of race, class, and gender tied up with how these awards proceedings go.”  Gallagher and Byrd were particularly upset with the six nominations received by American Sniper, a biographical war drama accused of glorifying murder and Islamophobia (but set the record for most profitable opening weekend for January film releases last weekend) and the relatively few nominations for Selma, a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic following the 1965 civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. 

“Most films about race relations are through the lens of a white protagonist discovering racism. The perspective through black eyes makes the Academy very uncomfortable,” Byrd theorized. “There was also a smear campaign against LBJ’s portrayal in the film as too harsh … [fellow nominees] The Imitation Game, American Sniper, and Theory of Everything had their own inaccuracies, but Selma was held to a different standard.”

Amid controversy and snubs — Byrd found Gone Girl, The Lego Movie, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to be particularly underrated —  Steven Ungar, the head of UI cinema studies, said the Academy distributed at least a handful of well-earned nominations. 

“Clearly, the awards season has a strong commercial basis: People want to sell seats in movie theaters,” Ungar said. “But there are a number of films nominated for Best Picture that I’m encouraged by. They seem to be ambitious and talk to problems of the present … I was especially taken with Boyhood.” 

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood — winner of the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama — was filmed over a 12-year period with the same set of actors, including Oscar-nominated Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. 

Despite his admiration for Boyhood, Ungar said, Selma is perhaps the most “important” film nominated for Best Picture — a quality once considered essential to winning the award. 

“We’re coming on the 50th anniversary of the Selma March and the Voting Rights Act, so it’s an historical reminder in the context of what’s been going on in the United States in recent years with growing tensions among ethnic groups,” Ungar said about Selma. “It speaks to the problems of the day.” 

These themes stand in stark contrast to a fellow Best Picture nominee The Grand Budapest Hotel, a quirky, lavishly designed comedy both Ungar and Brodie said boasts Wes Anderson’s “idiosyncratic” direction. 

"The Grand Budapest Hotel is everything the Academy doesn’t like — it’s comedic and twee to a fault, and came out last March — but it gets nine nominations while Selma hits all the Oscar notes and gets two,” Byrd said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.” 

Apart from potential race, sex, and national biases, Byrd and Brodie pondered whether the Academy may be trying to award Anderson’s and even Linklater’s body of work more than their individual films, a salute that leaves up-and-coming directors such as DuVernay — and British Selma star David Oyelowo  — unrecognized. 

But despite his belief that 2015 spells “one of the worst awards seasons in a decade in terms of snubs,” Byrd said Iowa City and the University of Iowa foster a discerning film community that “thirsts” for profound cinematic experiences, whether they be supporting free speech, critiquing popular culture, or praising groundbreaking art. 

“Film is a mosaic, like the culture of this country: it is so big it’s hard to understand,” Byrd said. “You just have to find what captures you. If a film captures you, it says more about you than the film.”


SIDEBAR:
Beyond the Oscars

Tired of Academy politics and snubs? Find your next favorite film outside of the nominees list.

1. Check out other award shows that honor a wider selection of films, including the London Critics Circle Film Awards, the Film Independent Spirit Awards, and the Cinema Eye Honors.

2. Start with an old favorite and explore other work by the director. Then, figure out the director’s favorite films and view those. Your Watch List will be full in no time. 

3. Visit a film festival to enjoy next year’s hottest films before the Oscar hype, or discover up-and-coming filmmakers at Sundance, Telluride, or Iowa City’s own Mission Creek Festival.

4. Attend an unusual screening at FilmScene, the Englert Theater, or beyond. You may develop a newfound love of edgy documentaries, short films, or B-horror flicks.

5. Browse for art, not plot. Try out films with interesting visuals, music, performances, or other aesthetics rather than Netflixing another action or romance tale.

Source: Andy Brodie and Matthew Byrd


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