The Fox and the Mouse – The Twilight of a Once Legendary Studio and it’s Future With Disney

It’s been a long, brutal process to get here, but something monumental has gone down in Hollywood.  As of last  Wednesday, March 20, 2019, one of the most legendary film studios ceased to exist as an independent entity.  20th Century Fox, once one of the “Big Six” of Hollywood powerhouses, is now a part of The Walt Disney Company in a record breaking merger that has created the single largest media company that has ever existed.  It’s hard to believe, given the long and storied history that Fox has had in Hollywood that is suddenly no longer independent, and this has both created much excitement within the industry as well as a whole lot of anxiety.  The ripples of this merger will be far and wide, and will no doubt change the face of not just the Fox brand, but also that of Disney as well.  But what is most interesting about this news of the Disney/Fox merger is how it’s sparked speculation about what’s coming next.  For one thing, it brings all of the remaining Marvel characters under the same roof, as Fox was the last holdout refusing to play along with the Cinematic Universe that Marvel Studios had been putting together.  There is also the speculation as to how this will affect the lineup of content on the upcoming Disney+ streaming service that launches later this year.  Now Disney has two studios worth of films to put on their channel, which could easily put them in better standing when competing with Netflix.  There is also a lot of people out there who are mourning the loss of another studio that was in charge of it’s own destiny and some see this as a severe blow to creative experimentation as fewer competition exists within the market now.  No doubt this is a major deal in the entertainment industry, but it more than anything allows us to contemplate 20th Century Fox’s place in the history of Hollywood as a whole.  The conclusion of this merger opens up discussion about what this means for the industry today, allows us to think nostalgically about what led this studio to become what it became, and think deeply about what the future will hold for Fox, Disney, and Hollywood in general.

To begin with, it helps to understand exactly how this merger came about.  Since 1985, Fox has been a part of the News Corporation conglomerate owned by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch.  Murdoch oversaw the studio during it’s largest expansion as it launched the Fox Television Network, as well as numerous cable TV stations like FX and NatGeo, plus news outlets like Fox News and Fox Sports, which were closer to Murdoch’s own long term interests.  In time, Murdoch turned what was once valued at $700 million into a company now worth north of $50 billion.  But, his time as head of the company was not without controversies.  Murdoch’s tactics of expanding his media empire have run into numerous federal roadblocks, both in America and in his holdings around the world, with some saying they are borderline illegal.  Plus there are the complaints that he’s responsible for inflaming tabloid journalism which many say has disgraced the integrity of the news.  And then you have the complaint that Murdoch has used his media empire as a propaganda machine to promote his own right wing politics.  It’s safe to say that this in particular has made the alliance between Fox and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. a tumultuous one, especially when 20th Century Fox has always considered itself a fairly progressive studio, even back in it’s early days.  But, in December of 2017, things were about to significantly change.  Murdoch, who now is in his late 80’s, believed that it was time to sell off his holdings in the studio that he had run for the last 30 years, and thus began one of the most contentious bidding wars in media history.  Five years prior, Murdoch had already split his company into two halves, one focused on the news side which included the Fox News and Sports networks bundled in with Murdoch’s numerous publications, and the other focused on entertainment which included the Fox Studio, the network and all the subsidiary production companies.  This was the big piece put up for sale, as Murdoch and his family would maintain the other division, which is honestly closer to his own interests, and for Hollywood, it immediately became the hottest property perhaps ever put up for sale they’ve ever seen.

But, the question became, was Fox too big for anyone to invest in; at least in the state it was.  Some worried that the studio as a whole would be stripped apart into smaller bits to be sold out to various buyers, in effect spelling the end for the studio completely.  But, two interested parties stepped forward to put up the money for the entire thing, all in one package; Comcast and Disney.  Disney, which has been on a shopping spree for the last decade, acquiring high profile assets like Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars, put in the first bid of $50 billion to buy Fox, which was well-received by many fans of Disney’s properties.  Fox retained film rights to several Marvel characters like the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Deadpool, all based on decades old contracts that predate Disney’s purchase of Marvel.  Not only that, but Fox also held onto the original, un-altered cuts of the Star Wars movies.  So, by buying Fox, Disney would have the means to finally give the fans what they wanted, though that of course is not entirely the reason behind Disney’s move.  Comcast, likewise, wanted Fox as a means of expanding their own media influence, as the cable giant wanted more exclusive properties under their own tent as more and more people are leaving cable in favor of streaming content.  The bidding grew more competitive as Comcast upped their offer to $60 billion (in cash), which seemed to be more favorable to the Murdoch family as it would close the deal quicker.  Then Disney made the risky choice of counter-bidding a combined cash and stock $73 billion offer, which eventually made Comcast buckle and withdraw.  To many Disney fans, the choice seemed obvious, because of Disney’s holdings of Marvel and Star Wars, both of which had deep ties with Fox in the past, but for Fox it was never a simple choice.  From the moment Murdoch made his choice to sell, the options for the studio remained between tolerable to outright destructive.  No matter who ended up owning them, they were never going to be they way they were ever again.

And I think that’s where a lot of the worry about Fox’s future lies for people now that the purchase has been set in stone.  Fox had no other choice but to lose it’s independence as a studio in order to survive in the years ahead.  In the end, aligning with Disney was probably the least awful out of all the options, but it’s not without it’s consequences either.  In the months ahead, as many as 5,000 or more jobs will be cut in the transition as Disney works to clear the redundancy that will inevitably occur with the purchase of a competing studio.  Because Fox and Disney have pretty much identical units operating within their company, like their own marketing and distribution wings, you can see how much of the company will have to downsize in order to form a cohesive solitary branch within the new studio.  And that means layoffs at both Fox and Disney, as the top brass are going to be picking out the best from the litter in order to maintain the quality of their corporate body.  Other casualties will be movies that were in the pipeline at Fox that no longer make sense in the calendar that Disney has prepared over the next few years, which includes several planned X-Men films that will be scrapped so they can reboot the entire franchise.  Still, the options wouldn’t have been much better for Fox under Comcast.  Comcast already owns Universal Pictures, and it’s safe to say that the same corporate restructuring would’ve occurred there too to reduce redundancy.  And the other option of selling off many pieces of the company to various buyers would’ve destroyed the Fox brand as a whole, so there were no positive options where Fox would have come out better than it went in.  Perhaps they believed it was better to be bought out by another studio who understood the entertainment business as well as they did than to be owned by another media conglomerate like they had previously been a part of, intent only on gaining a brand rather than helping them continue to function as a studio.  For years, Fox had tried to set itself a part as a trusted name in entertainment, and perhaps under Disney, they see their best avenue towards maintaining some of that trust.

Looking at how Fox got to this point seems to make a lot of sense when you look at their history as a whole.  20th Century Fox’s has lived a tumultuous life of ups and downs, booms and busts, and in spite of many troubles along the way had still managed to maintain it’s status as one of Hollywood’s grandest institutions.  The name 20th Century Fox today seems fortuitous, because it was formed out of a merger itself, way back in the 1930’s.  Fox Pictures was a small, financially struggling independent producer and it was saved by combining it’s forces with Twentieth Century Pictures, which was just started up by two former United Artist executives, Joseph Schenck and Daryl F. Zanuck.  So, if you’re wondering why the company had that peculiar, nonsensical name, it’s because of this deal over 80 years ago.  Under the guidance of creative executive Zanuck, 20th Century Fox steadily rose in influence in Hollywood, garnering a stable of contracted movie stars like Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power, Carmen Miranda, Don Ameche, and Shirley Temple.  And though Zanuck was a life-long Republican, his studio championed progressive, left-leaning movies that pushed the envelope, spotlighted the underdog and challenged the establishment, more than any of the other studios at the time, with films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Pinky (1949).  Zanuck was often seen as a transitional movie mogul for the film industry, as he modernized his studio in ways that many of the older studio founders had not done and eventually did end up falling in suit.  But, as Zanuck passed on his duties as the head of the studio to others in order to focus on more personal projects, that’s when the consistency of Fox’s output began to fluctuate.

Under the new regime of president Spyros Skouras, Fox entered Hollywood’s golden age with bold plans, but also bigger financial risks.  One of Fox’s most lasting legacies for Hollywood in general was it’s implementation of the widescreen Cinemascope process, which helped to standardize widescreen across the entire industry.  Cinemascope helped major studios compete against the rise of television and they put it to good use with their Rogers and Hammerstein musical productions.  Unfortunately, widescreen spectacles were becoming more expensive, and one production in particular nearly brought Fox to the brink of bankruptcy.  1963’s Cleopatra was a nightmarishly over-budgeted production that didn’t nearly recoup any of it’s costs, and many wondered if Fox’s big gamble had led to it’s own ruin.  Only a few short years later, they bounced back with the phenomena that was The Sound of Music (1965).  But, even with Music’s success, big flops like Star! (1968) and Hello, Dolly (1969) put them right back in the red.  Throughout the 70’s, it was a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, as every hit was followed with a flop.  And then, in 1977, a little science fantasy film from an ambitious young filmmaker named George Lucas put them right back on top; that film of course being Star Wars.  With Star Wars, Fox managed to stay afloat, though never quite at the top like they were during the Zanuck years.  Even if they remained afloat, their output still reflected their spend big in the hopes of winning big mentality, something that continued in the Murdoch years.  One famous gamble included the $200 million behemoth known as Titanic, which Fox regrettably had to sell off domestic rights to Paramount, believing that the film was likely to flop.  It didn’t, and Fox had to share the profits as a result for a movie they once fully owned at one point.  The same mistake was not repeated when James Cameron came to them again with Avatar (2009).

It’s that history of aiming high and taking chances that many people are worried will disappear once Disney takes full control of the company.  Creative risks in general are on the decline across the industry and removing one of the major Hollywood players from the equation is leading many people to believe that things are going to be further homogenized.  That is of course contingent on what Disney plans to do in the years ahead.  Disney CEO Bob Iger has assured several people that some things will remain the same after the merger.  He has stated that the Fox brand itself will not be dissolved and it will still exist as the 21st Century Fox moniker that it adopted a few years ago, retaining the same IP’s that it has built up over so many years across film and television.  The studio lot in Century City, California itself will remain open and functioning, and shows like The Simpsons, Empire, American Horror Story, and Fargo will all still run on Fox’s broadcast networks like they have for years.  And, to relieve anxious fans everywhere, Iger also stated that Deadpool will be the one character returning to Marvel that will not rebooted, retaining fan favorite Ryan Reynolds in the role.  But, in the short hours following the closing of the merger, Disney made swift changes that left a severe blow already in the industry.  One of the more surprising casualties turned out to be Fox 2000, a mid-tier division of 21st Century Fox that produced movies like Fight Club, The Devil Wears Prada, Life of Pi, and more recently Hidden Figures, Love, Simon and The Hate You Give.  Considering that Fox 2000’s slate of movies were often ones that were meant to stand on their own, independent of franchise building, and usually have something important to say, this loss seems especially hurtful because they made the types of movies that few others do in Hollywood.  It’s speculated that Disney found the necessity of Fox 2000 redundant and that the more prestigious Fox Searchlight was more deserving of preservation.  Regardless of what the reason is, this sudden closure will no doubt leave a lasting affect on the Fox brand, which has used their Fox 2000 label to beef up their catalog with some beloved classics.  Fox 2000 may be the biggest casualty of the entire merger, but it’s also a symbol of the cost that spreads through every department of the studio and the industry when deals like this are made.

Does all this make Fox a failed studio in the end?  Far from it.  20th Century Fox has one of the most storied histories in Hollywood, and it’s name will still live on through the movies that it has made over the years.  If Fox had never existed, we would have never had the introduction of Cinemascope, nor the wild conviction it took to make Star Wars a reality, or to create a hit movie about a planet run by “damn dirty apes.”  Their legacy is as integral to the growth of the medium of film as any other, and it would be foolish of Disney to not honor that long history.  And though Fox has had it’s many ups and downs, they’ve always managed to pick themselves up and continue to prosper.  It must be noted; financial problems are not what’s led Fox to this point.  Fox was put on the market by a billionaire ready to cash in a business that he’s helped grow for over 30 years.  At the end of Murdoch’s reign, Fox’s value has increased 700%, making it one of the richest studios in Hollywood.  It’s just unfortunate that, like Fox, most of the studios in Hollywood are owned by larger corporations and that they are often put up for sale whether they are profitable or not.  It’s only this time that we are seeing one of those “big six” buy up the other.  Fox has done well, but Disney’s growth is unprecedented, and that’s what’s put them in the position to have the capital needed to make a deal like this happen.  Fox shouldn’t worry about disappearing into the background.  MGM famously bought out once mighty United Artists after it went under, and for years they were both known as MGM/UA, until of course MGM hit it’s own slide.  Columbia purchased struggling Tri-Star as well and incorporated it into it’s own brand, ultimately before their own purchase by Sony.  Hollywood sees these kinds of mergers all the time; it’s just that Disney and Fox have taken it to a whole new level.  Fox will change, but perhaps their future is better guarded in the hands of Disney than it would have been under Comcast.  After all, Disney’s first and foremost a movie studio, so they know the value of what a studio is supposed to be.  One hopes that the good that Fox represented in the film industry rubs off on Disney, and that it’s influence may help the media giant take more creative risks that preserve the ideal that Fox strived for.  In the end, we can hopefully hear that triumphant Alfred Newman fanfare ring out just as strong as we “wish upon a star” as a part of our continued cinematic experiences.

Top Ten Movie Musical Themes of the 2010’s

As I have been writing this blog for nearly the last six years, I’ve observed many different changes going on in and around the film industry that have certainly made the last decade a largely transitional one for film as a whole.  The rise of streaming content, the growing international film market, the Me Too movement, and so on.  As we make our way through the year 2019, we are now coming to a point of looking back at the decade that was the 2010’s and seeing how it shaped our world and what is likely to come in the decade ahead.  With regards to cinema, I think that it’s time to look back at the last 10 years to see what left the most impact on the films we watch today.  Starting with this article, all my top ten lists this year will be ones related to the 2010’s, all culminating in a list early in 2020 when I list the Top 10 movies of the decade.  Each one will cover a different subject that I think helped mark the 2010’s as a defining decade in the history of cinema.  To start off, I decided to look at my personal picks for the best musical themes from movies of the last 10 years.  The list, like the others will span the years between 2010-2019, and will cover a wide variety of genres.  But one thing that will stand out about this list is the way that I’ve observed some trends in music having a more defining impact as one movie’s soundtrack becomes so influential that it spawns many more like it.  There are music tracks on this list that do indeed fall within the same soundscape, while there are also others that really do feel outside of their time.  In any case, apart from personal tastes, I do feel that these were the music tracks that left the most impact on the decade and are the ones that will continue to have a rippling effect on the music of the future.

Like many of my other music centric lists, I have provided embedded video of each theme found on YouTube, so that you can have clear context of what each musical piece sounds like.  Every composer will be listed, and hopefully I don’t stack the list with too many familiar names, because some of these composers stand amongst the greatest of all time, while some may be unknown to some of you and only got their fresh start more recently.  Also, this is a list of purely orchestral music, and no songs are included (sorry Frozen and A Star is Born).  Anyway, let’s take a look at my picks for the best musical themes from movies of the 2010’s.

10.

GEORGE VALENTIN THEME from THE ARTIST (2011)

Composed by Ludovic Bource

Here we start off with one of the common themes you’ll see about the music of the 2010’s, which is new music that draws heavy inspiration from the past.  In this case, we get a throwback to the distant past; one that goes all the way back to Hollywood’s infancy.  French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius sought out to do the unthinkable in the 21st century, which was to make a non-cynical, highly detailed replication of the kind of silent film made before the advent of synchronized sound; relying entire on the things we take for granted in cinema to drive the emotion of the story: the visuals, the actor’s gestures, and of course, the music.  And what he ended up with was a surprise Oscar winner, taking home the coveted Best Picture for that year.  The musical score in particular is quite extraordinary, because not only does it feel like a product of the period the film dramatizes, but it also captures the imagination of the modern listener, being both catchy and powerfully evocative at times.  Of course, composer Ludovic Bource (who also won an Oscar) benefits from the greatly improved technology of our times.  The score never sounds like it was recorded on warped and decaying magnetic tape like other music of that era.  It’s clear as a bell and invokes how the movie would sound if it were played with a live orchestra in front of the screen, which is I’m sure how some lucky viewer might have seen the movie during it’s early roll-out in film festivals before it hit cinemas worldwide.  The entire score has many lovely original melodies, like the “Peppy Waltz” or the “Grande Finale.”  But the main theme, devoted to the main protagonist, dashing movie star George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), is the one that leaves the best impression, and displays the all the best elements of the score; playful, nostalgic, and just pleasent to listen to.  It’s a score that tries it’s best to invoke a time when music was central to a movie’s character, and it succeeds in every way.

9.

REY’S THEME from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

Composed by John Williams

Arguably the greatest film composer who’s ever lived, John Williams is not entering his twilight years quietly.  In his mid 80’s, he is continuing to compose new original music for a variety of films, including those for his longtime collaborator Steven Spielberg as well as for the film series that put him on the map to begin with; Star Wars.  After it was announced following the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney that a new trilogy of Star Wars films were going to be made, many had hoped that John Williams would return to compose the scores as he had for all 6 previous films in the series.  And to many fans delight, he did.  Though no longer under the guidance of George Lucas, John Williams set out to create a musical score that would feel in line with all the past films in the series, while at the same time allowing him to branch out and try new things.  It’s hard to think of how he could add anything new to the Star Wars musical soundscape.  His Oscar-winning Star Wars (1977) score is considered by many to be the greatest ever written, and since then he’s added numerous icon pieces to this long running franchise.  So, nearly 40 years later, could he still match what had come before.  The answer was yes, but not in the way you’d expect.  The power of The Force Awakens score is that it combines the bombastic themes we all know and love with new themes that return the series to what it was best at before; building character.  Admidst powerful pieces like “The Resistance Theme” and “The Jedi Steps,” there are subtler pieces like “Rey’s Theme” that really show of his talent as a composer.  In Rey’s Theme, we get a wonderful underscore to the film’s main heroine, sounding like a small flame caught in the wind before it bellows into a bright inferno.  It’s here that Williams found something new to add to the music of Star Wars and show that he indeed could still leave his mark so many years into an already legendary career.  Rey’s Theme, more than anything, shows that even the familiar can evolve and show us new things that will only continue to grow over time.

8.

MAIN THEME from PACIFIC RIM (2013)

Composed by Ramin Djawadi

Now we come to a theme that feels more at home in the present.  One of the rising stars in the world of film composing from the last decade was undoubtedly Iranian-German composer Ramin Djawadi.  A protegee of Hans Zimmer, Djawadi cut his teeth by providing original music for numerous TV shows as well as many action films.  Carrying a talent for bombastic sound in his scores, he was very much sought after to give many projects a more epic feel.  He’s probably best known today for creating the Game of Thrones theme, which is just as recognizable to audiences as any epic movie score of the last half century.  But, he was also responsible for some incredible movie scores as well, the best of which being the one that he wrote for Guillermo Del Toro’s blockbuster Pacific Rim.  Collaborating with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who provided the guitar riffs for much of the score’s most incredible bits, Djwadi created a wonderfully energized score that fits very well with Del Toro’s earnest but also cheeky homage to the monster movie genre.  The main theme in particular evokes the larger than life clash between monsters and men that the movie presents, but also presents the same never taking itself too seriously attitude that permeates the rest of the movie.  It’s meant to be evocative and triumphant, but also at the same time a lot of fun to listen to.  The Morello riffs in particular sell that point, counterbalancing the bigger orchestral sweeps with a little rock and roll.  It’s a multifaceted showcase that works as a great pick me up (especially for those who like something to pump them up for a workout) and it helps to present Ramin Djwadi as a talent who is likely going to continue growing as an artist in the decades ahead.

7.

PLANETARIUM from LA LA LAND (2016)

Composed by Justin Hurwitz

Much like The ArtistLa La Land’s score draws heavy inspiration from the past, only this time a little closer to the present.  The movie is a wonderfully constructed send-up of musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when pageantry ruled.  And though it’s ambitious in it’s score, it’s centered around a story that’s intimately centered around two people in a very contemporary fashion.  What is remarkable is that a score of this type came from a composer as young as Justin Hurwitz, whose career in Hollywood is still relatively young.  Having come up in the business with his former classmate and best friend Damien Chazelle, who directed La La Land, Hurwitz is still fairly new to Hollywood, and yet has this incredible ear for the way movie musicals used to sound like.  Though the film has standout song and dance numbers, it’s the completely orchestral piece called “Planetarium” that really shows Hurwitz’s talents as a composer and it’s also the movie’s most incredible use of music in general.  Orchestrating to a a scene where the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone go on a date to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles seems simple enough, and it does indeed start with simple piano and woodwinds in the early moments.  But once the scene takes off into flights of fantasy, then the full might of the orchestra comes to life, creating a wonderfully out of this world rendition of the love theme.  No words are sung, only music, and it invokes some of the great ballet sequences of movie musicals like An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) which also relied on completely orchestral movements.  In a movie that I don’t think gets enough credit for it’s purely musical moments, and one that shows an incredible showcase for an enormously talented newcomer, Planetarium is one of the decades most incredible single pieces of music composition.

6.

RECOGNIZER from TRON LEGACY (2010)

Composed by Daft Punk

If you’re looking for a musical score that left a heavy influence on the decade after it’s premiere, the last one you would expect would be the one from a sequel to a cult sci-fi action film from Disney.  Disney really went outside of the box to come up with the music for it’s follow up to the movie Tron (1982).  The original itself was a oddity for the company, utilizing the synth melodies of pioneer composer Wendy Carlos, who also scored A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining for Stanley Kubrick.  In order to match that kind of soundscape, Disney looked into the EDM field of modern music, which uses the electronic synth as a major part of it’s character, and recruited two of the biggest names from that genre to put together this new score; those being the groundbreaking French DJ’s known as Daft Punk.  A Daft Punk scored Disney film seems like a weird congruence of events on the surface, but it is exactly the ideal combination that made the incredible score for Tron Legacy work.  Regarded more highly than the film it was made for, the Tron Legacy is epic in all the right ways, while never straying too far from the Daft Punk style.   And it blends perfectly into the cyber world that provides the movie’s setting.  The whole score is full of incredible tracks, but the best one would probably be the theme “Recognizer” because it’s the introduction to the World of The Grid that provides the movie’s setting.  Dark, foreboding, and sweeping, it sets the perfect tone for the rest of the movie, and shows that Daft Punk has more up their sleeves than just club music.  The Tron Legacy soundtrack itself went on to influence a electronic enhanced sound that permeated into the scores of many films from the last decade, and that is a real testament to it’s actual “legacy.”  So many movies have tried to sound just like it, mostly in the action adventure genre, so you have to respect the ones who pioneered it here first and showed just how well this kind of music could be used in film.

5.

EDEN from IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)

Composed by Nicholas Britell

The most recent film score to make this list is also one that draws heavily from the past.  The inspiration however comes less from Hollywood, and more from the cultural movements that sprung out of the African American community, particularly in the Harlem Renaissance that this Barry Jenkin’s film celebrates.  Nicholas Britell’s deeply emotional score, which is brimming with nods to classic jazz and afro-centric melodies that flourished during the period of the movie’s setting, is one of the most beautiful scores that I can recall in recent memory.  The love theme in particular called “Eden” is the beating heart of the movie.  It’s a beautiful composition that embodies a strong sense of the feeling of bonding love, which is what the movie is all about as we follow a young couple growing deeply in love even while society keeps pulling them apart.  It’s melancholy to be sure, but with an undercurrent of hopefulness to it.  The movie lost out in the Oscar race for best score to Ludwig Goransson’s Black Panther (2018) soundtrack, which itself was quite good, but If Beale Streets score is so much more transcendent and in my opinion will probably be remembered long after.  Britell, who also scored the music for Barry Jenkin’s Oscar winner Moonlight (2016), went above and beyond with his work in this film.  The music is just as much a character itself, being the pillar of support for a community that often has so much taken away from it.  It’s a celebration of a people and a place, and illustrates that the music of Harlem is just as important to the character of America as any other.  As a way of giving music to an adaptation of legendary writer James Baldwin’s work, the music here just sounds so perfectly matched.  And it also shows that amongst all the heavy handed bombastic music of Hollywood, it’s something small and poetic that delights the soul in the end.

4.

THE BEAST from SICARIO (2015)

Composed by Johann Johannsson

From something heartwarming to something utterly terrifying.  This piece of music is really unlike any other from the decade, and is perfectly in character with the movie that it comes from.  Composer Johann Johannsson, whose life was tragically cut short last year, was given the special task of scoring a movie about the Drug Wars on the Mexican/ American border that completely subverted what you’d expect.  Never bombastic, the score he wrote instead reinforces this continuing sense of dread that will never let up, much like the conflict that the movie dramatizes.  That is reflected most effectively in the centerpiece composition called “The Beast.”  When given the assignment by director Denis Villeneuve, he was told to write something akin to John Williams “shark” theme from the movie Jaws (1975).  And indeed, much like how the Jaws theme captured this perfect sense of a growing threat, Johannsson’s “The Beast” has this unsettling growing tension that builds as the music continues to swell, very much conveying the feeling of entering the belly of the so-called Beast.  Only the Beast in Sicario is no monster, nor a villainous presence.  It’s a city; Juarez, Mexico to be exact.  When we hear this theme in the film, it underscores a raid by joint American and Mexican forces who enter the city under heavy guard in order to extract an informant involved in the drug cartel.  Juarez is known throughout the world as one of it’s most dangerous cities in real life, and this musical theme really emphasizes the descent into hell on earth that this moment in the movie represents.  Quite literally, it begins with a flyover of the heavily fortified border between Juarez and El Paso and the music continues to build as the convoy of armored vehicles heads across the border crossing and deeper into the city.  It’s an unforgettable sequence made even more memorable by Johannsson’s music.  It’s too bad that his career ended so abruptly because pieces of music like “The Beast” show that Johann had enormous talent in finding the operatic within the contemporary.

3.

THE AVENGERS THEME from THE AVENGERS (2012)

Composed by Alan Silvestri

Now if there was anything that defined the 2010’s cinematically, it would probably be the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The incredible achievement by Marvel Studios to create a multi-franchise, serialized narrative across all their films will no doubt stand as the biggest thing to ever come out of this last decade.  But if there is one thing that has been Marvel’s Achilles Heel, it’s been their lack of memorable music.  Their musical scores are serviceable, but don’t have the iconic status that John Williams Superman theme does, nor Danny Elfman’s Batman theme.  You couldn’t pull any single track from one of their movies and have anyone instantly say “oh that’s Captain America’s theme.”  But, the clear exception no doubt is conveniently the main theme for the entire team itself; that of the Avengers.  The Avengers theme, first used in the original 2012 film has in a way become the main theme for the MCU as a whole, and it fits perfectly.  Who better to create this triumphant, unifying piece of music to symbolize all of Marvel’s heroes as a whole than the man who created one of the most triumphant musical scores ever for Back to the Future (1985).  Alan Silvestri, a longtime veteran within the industry, seemed to find the essence of what makes Marvel what it is, which is super heroism infused with personality.  The Avengers theme certainly takes center stage within the film franchise itself, but can be heard subtly in every other Marvel film as well, acting as a connective tissue for the whole thing.  It’s also versatile as well, carrying moments of levity, as well as triumph, but also can be used to underscore solemn moments as well, which was especially evident in the final moments of Avengers: Infinity War (2018).  It’s fitting that the central theme for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole is one that feels so exhilarating and like it’s contemporaries from DC movies of the past, it creates immediate excitement every time you hear it.  And given how important the MCU has been to cinema in the last decade, it’s only fitting that it’s main musical theme has left a similar impact on audiences as well.

2.

BROTHERS IN ARMS from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Composed by Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL

Tron Legacy may have opened the door for “rave” style electronic music to become part of cinematic scores, but Mad Max: Fury Road kicked that door right off of it’s hinges. To create the soundscape for his long awaited new chapter into the Mad Max franchise, director George Miller called upon famed dutch progressive artist and DJ Junkie XL to compose the score for his post-apocalyptic vision.  And boy did he deliver an assault on the senses.  Junkie XL, or Tom Holkenborg as he’s credited, throws everything into the mix; electronic synth, heavy percussion, and even a little opera into the blender and creates on of the most original scores of not just this decade, but probably ever.  And you couldn’t expect any less from a movie where a manic rocker is shown strapped to the top of a truck playing a flame-throwing guitar.  The entire score is an insane piece of work, but probably the standout would be this particular tune called “Brothers in Arms.”  Inspired by the vehicle obsessed cult that chases after Mad Max throughout the film, the music underscores the insane road chase that comes to a climax at the end of the film.  It’s here that Holkenborg really lets loose and throws caution to the wind, allowing the score to hit it’s epic highs.  It’s unmistakably modern in sound, but has this strangely appropriate infusion of classical music as well, taking cues from Wagnerian operas.  It’s an appropriately used, as there is something almost “viking” and barbarian-like about the villainous gang in pursuit of the film’s heroes.  It wouldn’t be that shocking if the music of a post-apocalyptic world did sound this way.  By being so original, and unafraid of what it could be, “Brothers in Arms” stands as the single most epic piece of music from the 2010’s.  Holkenborg has gone on to score many more like-minded action films, no doubt because he garnered so much attention for his work here, but his score for Mad Max is still his best to date and “Brothers in Arms” his masterpiece.

1.

TIME from INCEPTION (2010)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

All of the musical pieces on this list represent different trends that have left an impact on cinematic scores throughout the decade, but the single very best piece of music comes from a composer who delivered something so otherworldly of it’s own kind that it stands on another level entirely.  Hans Zimmer is a composer at the peak of his craft, and has delivered some of the most memorable pieces of music for the last 30 years.  Though reliably inventive and impactful on countless films, he always seems to save his “A” material for only a certain handful of directors, and one of those happens to be Christopher Nolan.  The scores to Nolan’s movies are among the most ambitious and epic you’ll ever hear, and Hans Zimmer is responsible for the majority of them.  Whether it’s the agressive character themes for the Dark Knight trilogy, or the 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired organ-enhanced tunes of Interstellar (2014), or the ticking clock motif of Dunkirk (2017), Zimmer seems to be continually pushing the bar higher every time he collaborates on Nolan’s films.  But, it’s with Inception that Hans Zimmer delivered probably his most incredible score yet, and probably the single best piece of music from the 2010’s.  The entire score has incredible themes, but it’s the one called “Time” that stays with you long after seeing the movie.  Carrying over the motif of living in between dreams and reality, “Time” embodies the ethereal sense of waking into a new life, where time literally changes before you.  It’s used periodically throughout the film, but hits it’s high point at the finale of the movie.  And I dare anyone to listen to the final part of this piece of music and not visualize that spinning top that gives the movie it’s perfectly ambiguous ending.  For a musical score that for the most part includes some pretty aggressive elements, like the now notorious low note (“BWAAAMMMHH”) sound that became especially copycatted throughout the decade, “Time” is a beautifully noble piece to close the movie on, and it encapsulates the incredible journey that leads up to it.  It’s Hans Zimmer’s greatest work in a career that already includes some of the greatest pieces of music ever composed.

And there you have my choices for the best pieces of music from the 2010’s in cinema.  Sure, there are 9 months left to go in this decade, and one more could end up surprising and take it’s place among the movies that I picked here, but as it stands, I’m pretty sure that these will still be the best pieces of music from the last decade.  I found it fascinating how the musical scores of this decade split between looking back into the past and those looking into the future.  There were some amazing throwbacks like La La Land, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Artist that held their own throughout the decade, but we also saw the infusion of electronic dance music come into the mix in Tron Legacy and Fury Road which gave their movies a decidedly ahead of their time sound.  Even with all that, stalwarts like Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Alan Silvestri continued to deliver musical compositions that stood up strongly with anything else they have written in their storied careers.  If there was anything that really defined the music of the movies from the 2010’s, it was the common theme of experimentation.  There was no real standard to how movies should sound during this time; composers were free to deliver music that were really meant to set their movies apart, and sound like nothing heard before.  That wasn’t always true across the board (case in point, the Marvel film’s lack of diversity) but the movies that did make an impact had scores that really challenged their audiences and made them reconsider what they like to hear when they go to the movies.  Who would have thought that the most popular movie musicals of the decade sounded closer to musicals of the past and less like the pop music of the present.  With this, I started my look back at the decade that was, and I hope many of you who read through this will continue to follow the other lists I put forward in the future.  It was a wild decade in Hollywood, and I’m interested in seeing how the closing of the 2010’s will leave it’s mark on the next ten years that follow.  At least when it comes to the music, the ones that stood out the most provided the most ideal of playlists.

Captain Marvel – Review

When Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige announced the ambitious plans for the third phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2014, a few of the titles that stood out were ones that many people were hoping would change the field of Super hero movies forever, and as it turns out, they did.  Last year’s Black Panther broke new ground on so many levels, becoming the studio’s highest grossing movie to date while also breaking down so many barriers for black filmmakers, and it even became the first Super Hero film to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  In addition, you also saw other risks taken by Marvel in Phase 3 that established the order within their already established franchises, like Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017).  And then came the mind-blowing conclusion of Avengers: Infinity War, which is one of the boldest moves ever taken by multi-billion dollar franchise and one that showed that the people at Marvel were not afraid to go to dark places with their movies.  Now, as the Phase 3 plans begin to wrap themselves up, and lay the foundation for what comes next, we are now being given yet another important move on the part of Marvel to break new ground in both the MCU as well as in cinema in general.  One of the many complaints that has come Marvel’s way throughout the year’s is the fact that up to now, none of their movies put the spotlight on a female super hero.  Sure, there are characters like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Elizabeth Olson’s Scarlet Witch who are part of the Avengers team, but they’ve never had their own movie that focused just on them.  But, now Marvel hopes to rectify this by bringing to the big screen their first Super Hero movie based around not just one of their most important heroines, but perhaps on of the most powerful characters in their entire gallery of heroes; the intergalactic Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel has one of the more complicated origins in comic book history.  Created by Stan Lee and Gene Colon back in 1967, the character’s first incarnation was actually male; an alien Kree soldier named Mar-Vell who was exiled to Earth after being branded a traitor by his home planet, and would later ally himself with the Avengers in their eventual battles against the Kree Empire.  Mar-Vell’s origins would eventually be ret-conned many times, and the identity of Captain Marvel would actually pass on to many other people over the years.  Eventually, the character of Carol Danvers was given the identity of Captain Marvel starting in 2012.  Danvers, a Chuck Yaeger-style test pilot born and raised on Planet Earth, gave the character a distinctly feminine identity while still maintaining all the previous qualities that the character had established for itself over the decades prior.  And with that, Marvel finally had an established character that could help give them the chance to finally have that long awaited film centered on a female super hero.  Unfortunately, the movie has become the unfair target of online bigotry because of it’s intention to spotlight the character’s historic significance within the MCU.  A coordinated attack on the film’s Rottentomatoes.com rating by many anti-feminist trolls tried to bring the overall score down by many false negative reviews, and it feels very reminiscent of a similar preemptive attack to undermine Black Panther’s  chances of success from last year (which of course didn’t work and actually backfired).  Actress Brie Larson has tried to stay above the noise surrounding this, though her dismissive comment about the opinions of “white male critics”, regardless of whether she’s right or not, was effectively like kicking a hornets nest, and has unfortunately cast a dark cloud of controversy over a movie that should have been judged without the taint of taking a side on the so-called “culture war.”  Despite all what is going on outside of the movie itself, we now have a film that introduces this very important character to Marvel’s incredible universe, and it’s time to see once and for all if the wait was worth it, or if it’s a whole lot to do about nothing.

For the first time since Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the MCU has rolled back the clock to a time in the past as the setting for it’s introduction of it’s hero.  Although, this time, we are only going back 20 years, to the mid-1990’s.  Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) lives on the Kree home planet of Hala, where she lives and trains with an elite band of inter-planetary special forces.  She has no memory of her past life before her six years living with the Kree, nor how she gained her immense powers, and goes only by the name Vers.  Her commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) trains her to keep her powers and emotions in check, which she believes is essential to becoming a better fighter against the Kree’s mortal enemy; the shape-shifting Skrulls.  Vers’ team travels on a mission to a Skrull home base, where they are to retrieve one of their spies before an air bombardment is deployed by Kree battleships, commanded by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).  However, they are ambushed and Vers is captured.  The Skrulls use a machine to investigate Vers buried memories, where they discover the identity of a Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Benning), which is the same face that’s presented to Vers whenever she is communing with Supreme Intelligence, the AI commander of all Kree civilization.  After Vers escapes the Skrulls, she ends up crash-landing on the nearby planet the Kree classify as C-35, known to us as Earth.  There, she is intercepted by agents from S.H.I.E.L.D., including a still fresh on assignment Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his new cadet Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg).  After the Kree find her and attempt to kill her, she teams up with a compliant Fury and the two set out to uncover what’s really going on regarding Dr. Lawson, her Project Pegasus, and how Vers is somehow connected to all that, with their only lead being a friend from Vers’ past life she can’t remember; Maria Lambeau (Lashana Lynch).  All the while, they are still hunted by the Skrulls, lead by their General Talos (Ben Mendelsohn).

Taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in time to a different era I think was a smart move on the movies part, because it frees up the story to have it’s own identity seperate from what else is going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  There are brief references to other elements of the universe (Guardians of the Galaxy villain Ronan making an appearance for example) but for the most part, this is a story that stands on it’s own and for the most part, it works really well.  I’ll say this, it’s not a particularly ground-breaking film in the way that Black Panther was, nor a game changer like Infinity War.  It’s an origin story first and foremost and as far as those go within the MCU, this one is extremely effective.  I especially like the fact that the movie doesn’t busy itself with having to watch Captain Marvel learn the ropes of Super Hero-dom in order to become who she was meant to be.  From the moment the movie opens, she is already an established fighter who already is aware of the limits of her incredible powers.  Instead, the movie works as an investigation into what she has lost in the process of gaining her powers, and how the things that are buried deep down inside of her is what really makes her a super hero, and not the cosmic energy that flows through her.  The movie does a very fine job of unraveling this part of her story and it helps to break the film away from other like-minded Marvel origin stories.   It also wisely avoids the fish-out-of-water trope that’s already been done before in other Marvel films, as Captain Marvel finds herself perfectly adept at carrying out her mission no matter what planet or time period she’s in.  And this really helps to make it work on it’s own as a stand alone story.  There’s no need to read up on tons of pre-established Marvel lore, or re-watch all the MCU movies to understand what’s going on.  It’s all very simple; she’s Captain Marvel, she’s immensely powerful, and it’s all about piecing together the reason why deep down this is the person she is.

The main complaint that I can lay upon the movie is that it perhaps doesn’t quite feel as revolutionary as a part of the MCU as one would like.  The aspect of having a female super hero at it’s center is historic enough, but in terms of theme, tone, and visualization, the movie doesn’t really push the medium to anything really different.  It doesn’t have the wildly bold choices of something like Ragnarok or Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), where tone took a complete u-turn in those franchises from what we’ve seen in the past.  And of course, Black Panther challenged so many cinematic norms in both it’s characterizations as well as with the visuals, all helping to bring the Kingdom of Wakanda to spectacular life.  Captain Marvel by contrast feels more generic visually and formulaic in it’s plot.  Though still engaging, the movie doesn’t offer too many surprises.  You know the plot twists before they happen, and character motivations all come together in unfortunately expected ways.  I would have like to have maybe seen a little more doubt cast in the character of Captain Marvel, especially when she grapples with the reality of her identity and how that contrasts with the lies she has been told for years.  Essentially, the movie brushes too quickly over some of that, and though I understand why the movie does some of that, it still feels like the movie lacks a bit of something that could have helped to elevate it a little further.  Also, the movie has the unfortunate timing of coming to theaters after Wonder Woman (2017), a rare case where DC has actually beaten Marvel at the movies.  Wonder Woman was such a groundbreaking film in terms of female empowerment and representation within this genre, and Captain Marvel unfortunately lacks the same kind of inspirational impact that it’s predecessor did.  Young female audiences will still no doubt appreciate Captain Marvel as a character, but her impact on the big screen feels lessened because Wonder Woman got there first.  In the end, it feels unwarranted for this movie to have carried all the controversy, because it is neither a pro-feminist battle cry that trolls claim it to be, nor a let down that reflects badly on super heroines everywhere.  The movie does it’s job of establishing her presence, and little else.

The thing that I appreciate about the movie more than anything is the great comradery that it builds between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury.  Fury is a very different character here than we’ve seen before in past Marvel films, and it’s great to see Sam Jackson finally be able to cut loose as the character.  This is a version of Nick Fury that is less cynical, more compassionate, and with both eyes intact.  Even more amazing is the sophistication that Marvel has been able to achieve with it’s de-aging visual effect, which is used through most of the movie to make Nick Fury appear twenty years younger.  Now, it helps that Jackson doesn’t look too much older today than he did back in his 90’s heydays, but the de-aging which has been used to make everyone from Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer in the Ant-Man movies to Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) all look like their younger selves almost looks seamless at this point, and Captain Marvel showcases the most extensive use of it to date.  And the inclusion of Nick Fury as a part of this story is another great aspect of the movie, because it allows for us to learn more about his story just as well.  Nick Fury has always been a part of the MCU from the very beginning, since his first appearance in Iron Man (2008) a decade ago, telling Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark that he was part of a larger universe that he didn’t know about yet, which laid the groundwork for the Avengers Initiative.  Here, we see exactly what brought Nick Fury to become a part of this larger universe and the movie is just as much an origin story for him as it is for Captain Marvel.  Given that up to now, Nick Fury has been more of a connecting thread rather than the focus of attention, it’s really gratifying to see him fill a much more important and central role in one of these films finally, and giving Sam Jackson more screen time is always a good idea.

It’s also a great thing for the movie because both Jackson and Brie Larson have unbelievable chemistry on screen together.  The film basically turns into a buddy cop movie halfway through, and that made it much more entertaining.  In many ways, Nick Fury brings out the more playful side of Captain Marvel, as she grows more comfortable as she finally realizes she’s got a partner and not a fellow soldier on her side, telling her to follow orders.  Some may find Brie Larson’s performance perhaps a little distant and wooden compared to other super heroes in the MCU, but given the context of the story, I feel that her performance served the character just find.  She lacks emotion early on because she was conditioned that way when she became a Kree soldier.  Through her teamwork with Nick Fury and the discovery of her true self, she opens up as the movie goes along and it helps to leave more character development open for later on in future films.  The movie smartly focuses on these two characters and it helps to give the movie a nice humorous tone as they work off of each other.  Some of the other performance offer an interesting range, especially when perceptions of good versus evil begins to change as the movie goes along.  Ben Mendelsohn’s casting as Skrull leader Talos offers a nice little misdirection given the actor’s body of work so far on film.  I also really appreciate that the Skrulls were brought to life through prosthetic make-up and not as CGI animations, which really helps to give them more personality, especially when the actors work so hard to act through the layers of masking.  Annette Benning’s casting in multiple parts also givens the movie an elevated sense of ethereal class, and it’s great seeing her present in a movie like this.  Returning actors like Lee Pace and Djimon Hounsou from the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t given much to do, but it’s still nice to see them return so that they can help give more continuity to the MCU, and Captain Marvel’s place in it.  A solid and engaged cast really helps to give the movie the personality it needs, and it’s especially welcome given the importance that some of the characters have with the complete Marvel story-line overall.

Captain Marvel comes to theaters amid controversy, which I hope dies a quick death so that the movie itself can stand on it’s own merits and free of petty politics that are trying to destroy it.  Is it Marvel at it’s absolute best; no, but I don’t think it really needs to be.  Captain Marvel is a starting point for something else; a cinematic beginning for a character who is going to play an important part of the future of the MCU.  Sure, it would have been nice to see Marvel attempt to exceed expectations rather than just merely meet them, but I can’t complain too much when the movie is still a fun romp with great character and interesting ideas.  The movie is absolutely worth seeing for the Captain Marvel and Nick Fury moments alone, and they make one of the most charming pairs we’ve seen from Marvel yet.  It would have been interesting to see how different the reception to this movie would’ve been had it come out before Wonder Woman; would we be talking more about how groundbreaking this movie was instead.  It’s too bad that Marvel had to take this long to finally make a movie centered around one of their most important heroines.  Regardless, she is here now and the MCU is the better for her inclusion.  My hope is that this opens the floodgates for all the other heroines in the Marvel canon to finally have their own movies.  Apparently, rumors are that a Black Widow movie is in the works, as well as a mini-series on the Disney+ app that focuses on Scarlet Witch; and those are just the already established characters.  There are literally hundreds more just waiting in the wings, and if Captain Marvel does well, hopefully it’ll convince the top brass at Marvel and Disney to invest more broadly into this market.  Some are trying to knock these kinds of stories down, but like Carol Danvers in the movie, they keep rising back up and press on undaunted, and that’s the important lesson that a movie like this offers.  There’s nothing that a movie like this has to prove other than to be a good story and an inspiration for people looking for hope, and the politics of it all doesn’t matter in the end.  It doesn’t need to be earth-shattering to get that point across.  Captain Marvel is a welcome addition to the pantheon of cinematic super heroes, and by just being true to itself as the character it’s centered on, the movie will undoubtedly stand strong for years to come.

Rating: 8/10

The Problem With Green Book – How the Way the Academy Votes Leads to Unpopular Choices

In the wake of last week’s Academy Awards, there’s a strong impulse to shrug of the disappointment and look ahead to next year, because obviously not everyone’s picks are going to be the same and many people everywhere understand that the Academy doesn’t always get it right.  But, this year in particular, there seemed to be a much louder outcry than normal in response to the results of the 91st Academy Awards, and it’s one that in many ways exposes the true disconnect between audiences and the industry.  And it’s all in response to a little movie called Green Book (2018).  Immediately upon the announcement from actress Julia Roberts as she opened up the envelope up and read the movies name, there was a visceral negative response across the internet.  I myself was caught up in it, as you’d expect from my feelings on the movie from my Oscar picks last week right here.  The consensus generally came down to Academy having made the worst choice for Best Picture since the movie Crash (2005) won the award over the heavily favored Brokeback Mountain (2005).  Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang had a lengthy rebuke of the Oscars written up in almost lightning speed a mere hour after the ceremony ended, and he thoroughly dismantled the decision with a special emphasis on how the movie represented a much larger trend of the Academy loosing touch with it’s audience.  It almost seemed like a fitting end to such a troubled lead up to the Oscars that the aftermath would spark it’s own level of controversy.  But what the Best Picture win for Green Book illustrated the most about the Oscars is the still unfortunate draw backs that the Academy continues to struggle with in a changing world, and how much of it stems from the archaic and largely antiquated way that the awards are voted upon; particularly for Best Picture.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, founded by MGM Mogul Louis B. Meyer in 1927, has always put itself forward as the supreme authority within the industry when it comes to preserving the works of the past, establishing a level of quality within the market, as well as brokering good relations amongst all branches working across the industry.  As part of the establishment of the Academy, the board of Governors invites members from across the five branches (since expanded to 20) of the industry (Actors, Directors, Producers, Writers, and Technicians, etc.) and helps to mediate among other things labor standards, codes of conduct, and awards of merit.  This last aspect of the Academy’s purpose has evolved into their most primary of functions, being the distribution of an annual Academy Award.  Categories exist upon each branch, which gets to select a winner based solely on their discipline within the industry like Actors voting for actors and Directors voting for directors, and so on.  And then the Academy membership as a whole, which is now 6,000 strong, collectively votes together on the Award for Best Picture; the highest honor given out each year.  Now, with a large deliberative body like the Academy, you would think that a straight forward popular vote is what actually determines the winner for each category; but it’s not that simple.  A popular vote is best used when it’s between two choices, but most categories at the Oscars consists of 5 or more; with Best Picture reaching as many as 10.  What happens is that in many cases, the votes come down to each movie receiving less than 50% of the total vote, with the one in the lead sometimes even reaching as low as just a quarter of total votes, which makes it hard for the Academy to determine if that really makes it the Best Picture when it’s not even the favorite by a majority.  So, in addition to determining the Oscars by popular choice, they have also instituted another factor into their voting system and it’s something that in many ways just causing even more headaches for the Academy.

What the Academy uses to determine the winners of their categories, in particular the Best Picture category, is a weighted system.  In this, they allow Academy voters not only to select their favorite choice for the Award, but also their runner up choice as well on the ballot.  From this, the Academy’s accounting firm of PricwaterhouseCoopers tallies not just the results of the initial first choice vote, but also the one for the second choice.  When the initial vote for the category doesn’t result in a consensus winner that achieves the necessary percentage needed, the second choice factor is weighed in as an extra boost, and when everyone’s second choice ends up being the same, that could potentially earn the movie enough points to push it over the top.  This usually doesn’t become a problem when the races are far less competitive, but in a year like this one, where there was no clear front runner for the race for Best Picture, this weighed voting system starts to become a little problematic.  In the past the Academy has had to face questions over their voting systems before, particularly when it came to the acting categories.  Before, the Academy had a consensus vote determine the winners of it’s Leading and Supporting performances categories, which was the result of an unfortunate accounting anomaly in the 1931 where actors Fredrich March and Wallace Berry ended up in a statistical tie, despite an approximately 50 vote margin between them.  To avoid such an incident again, the Academy opted for the weighted system for many years to avoid another tie.  That was until then Academy President Gregory Peck instituted a change where a straight popular vote would determine the acting choices, even if it resulted in a statistical tie.  Now only the final tally would matter, and wouldn’t you know it, the first time this was put into place, it resulted in an exact tie between Kathrine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter (1968) and Barbara Streisand for Funny Girl (1968).  That’s the risk the Academy took, but in the end, they knew that the vote decided upon without question of validity.

Which is where the problem arises for the Academy today.  Do they continue to tally their votes in the same way, using their weighted system to avoid the potential of a statistically unpopular Best Picture winner, or do they actually go with the base number of votes like any normal democratic system uses.  This is not a new problem today, and in fact has plagued the Academy for several years now.  In many cases like Green Book, it seems like the movie that is generally liked but not quite universally loved is the one that benefits the most from the Academy’s voting system.  Green Book may not have come out as the first choice for perhaps the majority of the Academy’s voters, but it more than likely picked up the majority of the second choices on people’s ballots, and that in itself is what probably propelled it to the top.  In a field where the vote was split, the one that had the most second place votes gets the victory, and that’s the simple way of explaining how what happened, happened.  It wouldn’t surprise me that a similar thing happened with Moonlight’s surprise win over La La Land in 2017.  The vote came pretty close to begin with, and then Moonlight swept up the most second choices to put it over the top, despite the heavily favored La La Land likely being the winner of the first vote.  It’s a result that I’m sure most people didn’t expect would happen, and indeed no one balked at first when La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner.  But, people are balking now because of Green Book, because it became clear to many that the system in which the Academy uses to determine Best Picture didn’t result in a choice that upset the order in a good way, but instead threw the Academy backwards in terms of progress, revealing more of the insulated, safe, down the middle of the road attitude that has put the Academy out of touch with the rest of the industry as well as most audiences who have long been watching the Academy Awards.

And why was Green Book the movie to inspire such a backlash.  The movie itself is a feel-good, harmonious look at race relations in America during the 1960’s, where a slick-talking and racist Italian-American played by Viggo Mortenson is shown the error of his feelings when he befriends the cultured African-American musician played by Mahershala Ali, and in turn helps that same musician find confidence in himself to embrace his own cultural identity.  In other words, it takes on a tough subject and presents it in an easily digestible way that offends nobody and only reaffirms the target audience’s own perceived progressive attitudes.  In many ways, Green Book feels very old-fashioned, like something that would have easily won the award 30 years ago, and you could argue that it actually did, given it’s many thematic similarities to Driving Miss Daisy (1989), another movie that distilled racial tensions down to a quaint difference of character; only it’s the white person driving the car this time.  Had there been no discussion of Best Picture surrounding it, as well as the politics that surround the Academy, Green Book might not have become this lightning rod post Awards and could have just been treated as a naive but unoffensive film that would have just existed on it’s own.  But, in a year that was in many ways seen as a breakthrough for African-American film-making, honoring Green Book above all others just did not fit the narrative that Hollywood had carved out for itself this year.  Here we were given a movie written and directed by white men that was telling a story about racial prejudice in America, and it did so through the eyes of it’s white protagonist, who I might add is depicted as a racist and is never really brought to task over his behavior in the movie.  Now, I’m not saying that the people involved with this movie should be condemned for making it the way they did, and there is nothing innately racist about their film either (quite the opposite).  But, when you stack it’s sugar-coated presentation against some of the more pointed and challenging films this year regarding race, the fact that the Academy awarded it above the others really shows how much they really didn’t get it this year.

For one thing, the Academy should have really taken into account how it’s newly admitted members of color felt about such a movie.  The Academy has made significant strides in improving diversity within it’s membership it should be noted, but it’s still a predominately white and male dominated collection of voters.  Many of the voting body of the Academy likes to think of themselves as progressive, forward thinking individuals, but their attitudes towards issues is often clouded by their own regards for their self worth and value for their own values.  This often leads to unfortunate self-serving injections of themselves as part of the solution to the world’s problems.  You could see this in past Best Picture winners like Argo (2012), where the Academy voters favored it not because it was a taught, well made thriller, but because it showed the film industry in a heroic light.  The same kind of out of touch, self-posturing can even be seen in the speeches given by winners as well, like George Clooney’s cringy Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech in 2006 where he stated that Hollywood was at the forefront of civil rights when it gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar for Gone With the Wind (1939) long before the Civil Rights movement even began.  Right George; forget Dr. King.  Hollywood should take credit for stopping segregation in America (facepalm).  Essentially, the way the Academy votes is reflective of how they view themselves, and the voting body of the Academy is made up of privileged, well-meaning liberals who want their self-righteousness to be applauded and reinforced in a very public way.  They are attracted to movies that show the redemptive arcs of flawed characters, like the one in Green Book that delivers the obvious statement that “racism is bad” and celebrates the transformation of it’s “enlightened” white protagonist.  But, there is a problem with voting in a way that reaffirms one’s perceived progressive attitudes on important issues; it doesn’t allow for an outside perspective to have it’s say in the matter.

A lot of the outcry over Green Book‘s Best Picture win is coming from the industry’s representatives of color, who feel that the movie doesn’t come even close to accurately portraying the real situation in America with regards to race.  In particular, a large amount of criticism has come from the fact that the movie seemed to have been made with little regards to the African-American perspective that could have helped to make it more authentic.  The movie was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the real life son of the character Viggo Mortenson plays in the movie; Tony Lip.  The film was meant to be a celebration of Lip’s long time friendship with Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, and how their friendship became a bridge between racial divisions that was reflective of those across America over the years.  Unfortunately, Vallelonga wrote the screenplay without the consent of Dr. Shirley’s own family, and it’s clear that the script was more or less self-serving in presenting a more rosy picture of his own father rather than making about the friendship between the two.  The Shirley family has since disavowed the movie, saying that it is not true to what actually happened and that it especially takes too many liberties with regards to how both men approached racial divides.  What it essentially says is that the African-American experience did not matter in the making of this movie; all that mattered was that it was going to be this universal story about understanding that made it easily digestible for older Academy members.  And it’s that lack of regard for the Black perspective that really rubbed people the wrong way.  You could especially see that in Spike Lee’s own reaction during and after the awards, where he turned his back to the stage and even attempted to walk out after Green Book was announced as the winner.  Many other African-American representatives within the industry also voiced their doubts about the validity of Green Book’s nomination, rightly pointing out that their voice was not considered as part of the discussion, and this is the thing that has especially fuel the backlash against the movie.

So, with the combination of an absurdly complicated voting system and a voting block of privileged, out-of-touch Academy members who have no real experience with the actual issues that they are judging these on, you get the result of what is now the least liked Best Picture winner in over a decade, and maybe even ever.  Green Book‘s win is a perfect storm of all the bad things that the Academy is known for and it shows just how little their well meaning attempts at becoming more in touch with the times have actually not come to fruition.  It’s hard to get really angry at the Academy most of the time, considering their noble attempts to diversify the Academy and also the fact that an Oscar win means very little in the long run.  But, this year’s result is particularly troubling given the fact that it seems to intentionally ignore the concerns of people out there whose voices have long been overlooked, especially in a benchmark year like this one for filmmakers of color in the industry.  It’s particularly insulting in a year where movies made by black filmmakers, telling uniquely afro-centric stories that spoke to their own experiences, made such incredible progress in gaining mainstream success still ended up losing to a movie made by white filmmakers that tried to lecture us all on race, from a white liberal point of view.  Spike Lee was justified in his disgust, because it showed him that the Academy still wanted to address the evils of racism in America, but on their own terms.  Considering that movies like BlacKkKlansmanIf Beale Street Could Talk and Black Panther could be uncompromising in presenting a defiant African-American perspective and still succeed with mainstream audiences shows that the Academy’s position is greatly out of touch with contemporary tastes.  Hell, Black Panther was the year’s highest grossing movie; how can the Academy ignore those numbers.  That, above everything else, is what left a sour taste in people’s mouths over this years Oscars, regardless of race; that a powerful, insulated body of industry elitists still showed it’s unwillingness to hear from outside voices.  Even if consolations were given out in many of the other categories, the fact that Green Book, a deeply flawed portrayal of a very important subject, was given the highest honor the industry can bestow shows that the Academy’s problems extend far beyond just low ratings.