Oscars’ Moment of Truth: Whatever Wins, It’ll Be Good for the Movies

The two frontrunners, “Birdman” and “Boyhood,” are the kind of challenging films that are too seldom recognized by AMPAS

A funny thing happened on the way to our annual dismissal of Oscar voters as being old, out of touch and oblivious to the best of current cinema: They picked two damn good movies to be the standard-bearers at the 87th Academy Awards.

And two movies that aren’t supposed to be the kind of movies that Academy voters embrace.

“Birdman” and “Boyhood” appear, by most reckonings, to be the two likeliest names to be in the final envelope on Sunday night at the Dolby Theatre. Sure, “American Sniper” or “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or “The Imitation Game” could pull a shocker, but those are longshots.

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Even in a weird, confusing year, all signs point to “Birdman” or “Boyhood.” To directors Alejandro G. Inarritu or Richard Linklater (pictured at top). To the top Oscar going to the kind of bolder, odder movie that in the past has most often lost to something more conventional.

You remember those years, right? “The Social Network” losing to “The King’s Speech,” “The Descendants” losing to “The Artist,” “Traffic” losing to “Gladiator,” “L.A. Confidential” losing to “Titanic.”

But a “Birdman”/”Boyhood” showdown takes us back to that string of more adventurous Oscar winners that happened around the end of the last decade: “The Departed,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Hurt Locker” were small movies or dark movies or weird movies or some combination thereof, and they all won.

This year, “Birdman” is weird and fresh and exhilarating and gimmicky, but who cares that it’s gimmicky when it’s this weird and fresh and exhilarating? “Boyhood” is slow and long and languid and so understated that it can drive you crazy, but you don’t mind because it feels so true.

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Meanwhile, the films that feel like more conventional Oscar-style movies, “The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game,” are off to the side. Centerstage, we’ve got the movie that tries to take you inside the head of a crazy, desperate guy with a pounding drum score and a shooting style that looks like one continuous shot, and the experiment that took 12 years to film and puts all of life’s big benchmarks offscreen, daring to fashion an entire life out of small moments.

At the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday afternoon, I talked to Inarritu a few minutes after his film had been named best picture, and he wanted to salute other films. After seeing “Boyhood,” he said, he’d written Linklater a letter to tell him how much he loved the film.

“I loved ‘Foxcatcher,’ too,” he said. “I loved ‘Ida.’ There are great, passionate films this year. This competition thing is bulls—. The important thing is that there are movies out there by directors who had a vision.”

I would have asked Linklater about the competition, too — but the director, an ardent film aficionado who I ran into at a public showing of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” on probably his only afternoon off in recent weeks, is so casual about the race that he opted to skip the Spirit Awards to spend time with his family.

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So at the end of the long, grueling race, six months after “Birdman” premiered at the Venice Film Festival and more than a year since “Boyhood” debuted at Sundance, it should feel faintly miraculous and thoroughly satisfying that those two films are Oscar favorites.

Whether they’ll coax enough viewers to watch the Oscar show is another matter, but maybe “American Sniper” and Kevin Hart and Jack Black will take care of that.

And anyway, that should be secondary if you’re talking about the Oscars’ goal of honoring challenging artistry. If you had told me that “Boyhood” was going to win Best Picture back in July, I would have thought you were nuts but I would have been delighted at the prospect. (I wrote that it could win in August, but I didn’t really think it would happen.) If you had told me that “Birdman” would win after I first saw it in September, I would have said it was too weird to win – but again, the idea would have been delightful.

And now, as Academy Awards day dawns and the answer awaits, if you tell me that one of those daring, unlikely achievements is going to be the last film standing at the end of the night, I’ll say this:

I’ll take it.

Well done, Oscar.