We Need More Special Achievement Oscars to Honor What Is Interesting In Cinema

By  · Published on February 23rd, 2014

Every year that goes by without a Special Achievement Academy Award given out at the Oscars is another year where it feels like cinema isn’t moving forward. Of course, cinema is moving forward. The last such award was received way back in 1996 by John Lasseter for making the first feature-length computer-animated film (Toy Story), yet things have changed and progressed in those 18 years in a multitude of ways, just maybe nothing so noticeably groundbreaking as that. Animation has instead improved gradually. So have computer-generated visual effects, and the truly important advances of the latter do tend to get recognized with the Scientific & Technical Academy Awards. Plus, unlike the early years of the Special Achievement Award, there’s actually a permanent visual effects category again.

In fact, most of the areas that the award has honored in the past now have their own category. But the special Oscar doesn’t have to be just for visual effects, sound effects and sound editing, as it mostly has been. The purpose of the award is, according to the Academy, “for an outstanding contribution to a particular movie when there is no annual award category that applies to the contribution.” That can be any number of elements that go into moviemaking, from stunts to casting to catering. And the “outstanding contribution” doesn’t need to be anything game-changing. The three “unsung heroes” spotlighted this week by VarietyLone Survivor stunt coordinator Kevin Scott, Inside Llewyn Davis animal trainer Dawn Barkan and Her video game designer David O’Reilly ‐ all fit the bill just fine.

Prior to the existence of the Special Achievement Academy Award, the acknowledgement of merit outside the official categories came about with the Honorary Award, formerly called the Special Award. Now it’s primarily about honoring lifetime achievement rather than something specifically from the past year, but for a while this award was where we’d see immediate recognition of pioneering techniques in cinematography and choreography and comedic performance or for the creation of new icons of cinema, like Mickey Mouse. It’s where you’d see specifying notes celebrating an honoree for “widening the scope of the motion picture as entertainment and as an art form” and “novel and entertaining use of the medium of motion pictures.”

Maybe it’s not that a Special Achievement Academy Award has to be given out to make us see how cinema is evolving but to remind us how it is still interesting. Perhaps I should rethink what I wrote in the past about novelty and Scarlett Johansson’s vocal performance in Her, then. It doesn’t need to be innovative or unique. If James Baskett can earn a special Oscar in 1948 for “his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world in Walt Disney’s Song of the South,” then why not let Johansson (maybe shared with Samantha Morton) get one for “[developing] a fully realized character just through voice work” in her performance as Samantha, which proved audiences ‐ not just Theodore Twombly ‐ could fall for an operating system.

And while we’re thinking about performances that were too outside the box to be nominated in the four acting categories, there’s no reason not to give a Special Achievement Academy Award to James Franco for his immediately iconic characterization of Alien, friend and story teller to the children of the world in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. But he could also be recognized for his whole year’s work, a scope that equals some lifetime achievements in only a matter of 12 months playing everyone from the Wizard of Oz to Hugh Hefner to “himself.” The specifying note for the award could be “for all his ‘shit’ done in 2013.” He can be good, bad and annoying at different points of any year in his career, but he definitely helps keep both Hollywood and independent film from being boring.

The Academy used to give Special Awards almost every year to a juvenile performance. For 2013, that might be Onata Aprile (“the least precocious or annoying child actor of all time”) in What Maisie Knew or a tie with Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland in Mud. As for the occasional honoring of choreography, while we do still have dance movies today, the more relevant achievements now are in fight choreography. This year that would have to go to Yuen Woo-ping, action director/choreographer for Man of Tai Chi. As for cinematography, there’s a whole category for that, but there should still be a Special Achievement Award for what Lucien Castaign-Taylor and Verena Paravel accomplished for their documentary Leviathan.

Even if you don’t make the case for the cinematography achievement, which could seem odd given the already existing distinction for that craft, Leviathan might instead be recognized as the best thing of last year to fit the “widening the scope of the motion picture as entertainment and as an art form” and “novel and entertaining use of the medium of motion pictures” ideas. I’m told by fellow FSR writer Daniel Walber to also include for these designations Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways for “opening up transgender narrative on the scale of an epic romance.”

To ensure that the nominees for regular Academy Awards don’t feel slighted by all these special Oscars, these additionally recognized achievements don’t even have to get a statuette. Maybe not even a plaque. The main point for why we need the acknowledgment is to, simply, give acknowledgement. There will probably be some reference to Spring Breakers and Alien during next week’s Oscar ceremony, but I guarantee only in the form of a joke or lampooning skit. Same goes for the Samantha character from Her, which is at least up for a number of actual Oscars. The rest mentioned here and any other deserving performance or category-less effort (I invite you to suggest more below) is sure to go completely unaddressed. As if this wasn’t the time to showcase and celebrate all that was great about the movies last year.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.