Aspen Film’s Laura Thielen on the year in film, Academy Awards, benefit | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Film’s Laura Thielen on the year in film, Academy Awards, benefit

For the film industry's bottom line, 2014 was something of a bomb. The year brought in the lowest domestic gross since 1995, a disappointment that's been chalked up to the rise in quality of television programming and the ease of pirating films and watching them on a tablet or phone, among other factors. But for lovers of film as an art form, it was a year to celebrate, as independently minded directors such as Richard Linklater, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Wes Anderson made boldly unconventional movies that broke new ground.

The fact that the Academy Awards is celebrating those films ("Boyhood," "Birdman" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel," respectively) is an acknowledgment of mainstream Hollywood embracing some unique, character-driven stories from idiosyncratic filmmakers who honed their visions outside of the big studio system and haven't compromised to land Oscar nominations.

"That, to me, is an exciting transformation," said Laura Thielen, co-director of Aspen Film. "They're not studio voices. They're auteur voices. It seems there's a more auteur sensibility that's moving into the mainstream consciousness, as opposed to a studio sensibility."

Another fiercely independent director, Ava DuVernay, made her most conventional film to date in the triumphant Martin Luther King biopic "Selma," but its inclusion among the Best Picture nominees signals her ascension into the ranks of our most respected filmmakers. Her baffling exclusion from the Best Director category, sadly, signals how difficult it remains for a woman to be accepted into that club.

The Best Picture nominees also include "Whiplash," the music school thriller and Sundance favorite from director Damien Chazelle, making just his second feature-length film, which includes a terrifying, pitch-perfect turn from J.K. Simmons (nominated for Best Supporting Actor).

The other three Best Picture contenders — "American Sniper," "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory of Everything" — are all acclaimed biographical stories, and the kind of Oscar bait one would normally expect to win out on the big night.

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No matter what film does win the top prize Feb. 22, the movement of the Academy establishment toward celebrating more off-kilter stories from independent directors looks like a win for film.

"That's exciting to me, to see these directors now becoming our masters," Thielen said.

Looking over the rest of the major categories, Thielen noted the strength of performances in 2014, particularly Michael Keaton in "Birdman" and Eddie Redmayne in "The Theory of Everything" (both up for Best Actor), Juliane Moore in "Still Alice" (up for Best Actress), along with Patricia Arquette in "Boyhood" and Emma Stone in "Birdman" (nominated for Best Supporting Actress).

For Aspen Film — the nonprofit behind Aspen Filmfest, Shortsfest, Academy Screenings and local film series — the awards ceremony is an occasion for a party: its annual winter fundraiser. Titled "Hollywood's Big Night," the annual event at the Caribou Club features a live broadcast of the Academy Awards, silent auction and dinner by Chef Miles Angelo.

"I think it's really important to have things like the Oscars, and not just because it creates an opportunity for us to throw a winter benefit," Thielen said. "It is an industry that is not always particularly self-reflective. And it's an opportunity to really think about the achievements of the year. So what do you champion? What do you award? What do you celebrate? And the fact that 'Boyhood' is in there is very healthy to me. And that 'Whiplash' could be included is really healthy."

atravers@aspentimes.com

If You Go …

What: ‘Hollywood’s Big Night’ Oscar Party, a benefit for Aspen Film

Where: Caribou Club

When: Sunday, Feb. 22, 5 p.m.

Cost: $300

RSVP: rsvp@aspenfilm.org; 970-372-2883