For the first time in recent memory, I’m going into Oscar Sunday having no idea who is likely to take home many of the major awards. I’m sure there are entire websites out there devoted to an accurate prediction of who and what will take home the gold on Sunday, but there seems something a bit different about this year. Of the nine films nominated, I don’t have a clear sense of what would be the top five had AMPAS not changed the number of entries in the top category. While The Artist may clearly have more of a chance than, say, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, there’s no grand battle between likely leads like there was between The King’s Speech and The Social Network last year. And I don’t think I’m alone in stating that this year’s uninspiring list of nominees seems to reflect a growing indifference against the ceremony itself.
Sure, on Sunday, like I have every year since I was eleven years old, I’ll watch the entire ceremony from beginning to end. And, like every year since I was twenty-one years old, I’ll make fun of the pompous and excessive self-congratulatory nature of the proceedings. But while in most years I have had some skin in the game, besides the two nominations afforded to the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the presence of the transcendentally excellent Pina in the Best Documentary Feature category, this year I didn’t even get a sense that the Academy was awarding quality filmmaking, even if it’s of a quality that I don’t gravitate toward (had The King’s Speech not been an Oscar winner, it would have been a perfectly fine little film). While last year’s nominees were accompanied by loud advocates (specifically for those outside the “big two” like The Fighter, Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, and Inception), with the exception of the aw-shucks modesty of Moneyball, no Best Picture nominee this year is without its fervent backlash.
It’s not that 2011 was a bad year. There was plenty of interesting and even great work that made it to theaters in the mainstream (Contagion, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 50/50), in the arthouse (Meek’s Cutoff, Take Shelter, Weekend), in between (Drive), and the many great titles that emerged from the world of nonfiction (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Bill Cunningham: New York), but you wouldn’t know it from the Oscars themselves. I’m not attempting here to resurrect the tired “snubs” conversation (as a friend of mine says, anytime someone says that a film or person was “snubbed,” they must identify which nominee they’d remove in turn), but simply stating what I’m sure the producers of the Oscars know all too well in their fledgling attempts to reconnect with an audience: the awards as of late, for the most part, reflect neither the interests of mainstream audiences nor the interests of cinephiles and critics.
In the face of sagging ratings, a recent history of awards hosts who irreverently put the silly excess of the ceremony front-and-center, and a growing sense that many Best Pictures of past and present haven’t and won’t age well (American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, mandatory Crash mention), it’s easy to say that the Oscars simply don’t matter. But, for worse and for better, they do.
Why It Sucks That the Oscars Matter
The Academy Awards are an active project of canonization and history-making. And, as with any canon and historiography, they engage in a practice of selection. There comes a point in the life of a cinephile in which they look toward canons in order to broaden their knowledge of and exposure to film. One of the most authoritative resources the American filmgoer has in this regard is the list of Best Picture winners. Such a list indicates to someone interested in film that Lawrence of Arabia, Midnight Cowboy, Annie Hall, All About Eve, and The Silence of the Lambs are films worth seeing. Now, perhaps this is giving the academy too much credit as these films are also canonized elsewhere, but the Academy Awards represent a forum that maintains a certain degree of authority.
That titles like Cave of Forgotten Dreams or performances like Michael Shannon’s in Take Shelter have been overlooked does carry with it certain consequences. I’m not talking about snubs, but about the reality of selection: certain films and people are automatically preserved by the authority of the nomination (and the win), while others are not. This provides a distinct advantage or disadvantage for the subsequent lives of certain films. I don’t mean the pragmatics of preservation, like that these rather accessible films will go out of print otherwise, but canonization preserves films discursively. Yes, some films do maintain their toehold in the zeitgeist otherwise, but an Academy Award nomination does preserve a powerful index for historical importance that outlives its moment. This isn’t a new or particularly revelatory point by any means, but it does contradict the increasingly accepted idea that the Oscars don’t matter.
Then there’s the other side of the debate – the gold-plated lining.
Why It’s Good That the Oscars Matter
The Oscars may often overlook the innovative mainstream, the best of the arthouse, genre fare, and innovative non-fiction, but on the flip side of this coin we may need the Oscars now more than ever. There was a time when mass audiences were invested in the Academy Awards, hoping that their favorite film of the year would win. Mainstream American cinema mostly aligned with cultivated audience interests. But somewhere down the line, producers got the impression that their “quality” release films couldn’t compete with the life-or-death-opening-weekend blockbuster mentality. So with the platform release they distributed awards hopefuls in the exact opposite fashion, saturating the limited release market every November and December. Many of these titles reach wider markets after the awards and buzz machine has made several rounds. Many audiences see nominated films because of the nomination, critical reviews, and buzz, and thus don’t go into the ceremony with a film they’ve already advocated for and invested in independently.
Look at the top 10 highest grossing films of 2011: all are entries in franchises (with one . Without the Oscars, this is the extent of the mainstream cinematic landscape.
Certain types of films have become critic-proof. Audiences seem to want to see the same film, or some version of it, time and again. But the Oscars are still broadcast to around 40 million households in our country alone. While the ratings have declined in recent years, it’s still a socially shared televised event in an era in which fewer and fewer people actually watch live TV. In many ways, the Oscars represent one of the very few bulwarks against an even more ubiquitous franchise-driven Hollywood economy.
Beyond cultural capital, there are clear economic benefits of an Oscar nomination or win. Just ask the Weinsteins, or the producers of any of the films that get a bump after nominations and later winners are announced. The Oscars do not make a blockbuster from thin air (e.g., The Hurt Locker), but there is a reason that studios whose bottom line is profit spend so much money campaigning their films every winter.
Even more importantly, the Academy Awards do have secondary categories that – let’s leave cynicism aside for a second – actually do celebrate the art of film in a substantive way. Yes, it looks pretty awful when the show’s producers have forced Best Documentary winners in the past to give their speeches from the aisle, and yes it’s unfair that clips are rarely shown of the Best Foreign Language film nominees, but the fact that these non-fiction films and foreign films are, at least for a moment, on the radar of all the homes who primarily tuned in to see Angelina Jolie’s dress is a testament to the Awards ceremony. Tom Shone at Slate recently argued that the Golden Globes has a better track record in terms of major nominations and wins, but the Globes don’t honor documentaries or short films, and their Foreign Language category (which includes any film in a foreign language, like Apocalypto) is readily capable of not actually honoring films produced abroad.
The Oscars’s Foreign Language category has become notably less conservative in recent years. Instead of simply honoring the latest European movie about a historical war, they’ve recognized innovative, strange, challenging, and great works from around the world like Dogtooth, A Prophet, The White Ribbon, and Waltz with Bashir. This year, the nominee pool couldn’t be more inspiring and varied, with the first Iranian nominee in thirteen years (A Separation), an Israeli comedy about competing father-son academics (Footnote), and, most surprisingly, a gritty, dark, and strangely brilliant movie about the illegal world of beef hormone trading (Bullhead).
Yes, even the Best Foreign Language film category is riddled with political problems. But somewhere between a boring montage and wealthy actors clapping for each other, it’s good to remember that, amidst the excess, there’s something nice, even important, about a mainstream Hollywood institution in which Twilight is nowhere to be seen.
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