Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Are the Oscars Broken?

The Oscars are this Sunday – I’ll post my predictions later this week – but for weeks we’ve been reading opinion pieces about what is wrong with the Oscars, or calling this the most boring slate of nominees ever, calls to change the system yet again, and people wondering why the critics, the Academy and the public seemingly disagree so much on what constitutes the best in film every single year. I agree with some of the complaints, but not all of them.
No, this year’s slate of 9 nominees is not the most exciting the Academy has ever put forth – but taken as individual films, I understand why all 9 were nominated – even if I didn’t think much at all of The Help, have very mixed feelings on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and don’t think War Horse or The Artist were among the very best films of the year. But looking at the Academy to reflect your own personal taste is a recipe for disappointment – they never will. Remember back in 2007 when people complained that Zodiac or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford were infinitely better than Juno or Atonement. I agree with that, but the truth of the matter is that neither of those films were ever in competition with Juno or Atonement – they were in competition with No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. People have different definitions of what great films really are, and those who want darker, more complex films, went with No Country and Blood instead of Zodiac and Jesse James. Those who like light comedies went with Juno, those who like old fashioned period pieces when with Atonement. No one was deciding between Jesse James and Juno – they were deciding between No Country and Jesse James.
But I think the real reason why people are disappointed with this lineup is not the individual films themselves, but what they mean taken as a whole. There is very little darkness at all in the 9 films nominated. Midnight in Paris, Hugo, The Artist look at past artistic generations with nostalgia, War Horse was a throwback to the studio era epics; The Help was a 1960s style look at racial relations; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close milked the emotions of 9/11 without really dealing with that day, but the emotional journey of a young boy. The Descendants is a feel good comedy/drama about a man reconnecting with his kids. Moneyball was built around an old school movie star performance by Brad Pitt. Even The Tree of Life, the one film in competition not like the rest in terms of being Oscar bait, really is a nostalgic look back at childhood, and an epic look at our place in the world, that ultimately ends being fairly uplifting. If you liked the films, you left the theater feeling good about life.

This lineup I think really is the nightmare lineup that people had in mind when the Academy went from 5 to 10 nominees for Best Picture. That happened in 2008 when the two most acclaimed films of the year, The Dark Knight and Wall-E, also happened to be two of the biggest hits. Instead of going to the genre comic book film or the animated throwback to the silent cinema, the Academy nominated what they always do – biopics (Milk, Frost/Nixon), WWII Nazi drama (The Reader), epic length, movie star filled film about aging (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and the feel good underdog story (Slumdog Millionaire – your winner). The hope was that by expanding to 10 films, it would allow a more eclectic mix of films to be nominated. And the following year, I think they actually succeeded. Normally, a small, quirky, non-violent Coen film like A Serious Man would not have had a chance, and neither would an animated film (Up), an action filled, sci-fi blockbuster (District 9) or a true word of mouth hit (The Blind Side) never would have been nominated. But they were. The next year (last year), Winters Bone didn’t get left behind in the indie ghetto, neither did an animated sequel (Toy Story 3), a high concept sci-fi film (Inception) or an audience friendly Western (True Grit). Things were going well.
But the rules changed again this year – now there would a floating number of nominees, anywhere between 5 and 10, and to qualify, you needed to get a certain number of #1 votes. The object of the rule change was to appease those who felt that getting nominated had become too easy – and to add more prestige to it. They shouldn’t have bothered. Because these 9 films, no matter what you think of them individually, all are fairly typical Oscar bait – yes, even The Tree of Life. No, I do not believe, as some have claimed, that the directors went out of their way to make an Oscar film (after all, Woody Allen thinks so little of the Academy, he refuses to join, Terrence Malick won’t even do interviews to support his film, let alone show up, if Martin Scorsese wanted to win another Oscar, he would not have made a children’s film, the films of Spielberg and Daldry are perfectly in keeping with their bodies of work, Brad Pitt fired an Oscar winning director on Moneyball – Steven Soderberg – to get the film he wanted, Alexander Payne doesn’t seem to care that much about awards, Tate Taylor was an unknown writer/director writing an adaptation of a then unpublished book and Michel Hazanviscious could not imagine that the way for a largely unknown French filmmaker to get to the Oscars would be to make a silent, black and white film). Next year, I think they should go back to either of the old systems – five or ten nominees – and drop the whole benchmark of #1 vote’s thing. Either way is preferable to this.
As to why critics, audiences and the Academy disagree on what the best films of the year are, I think the truth is that the Academy’s taste has not changed in decades. I have been going back and watching some best picture nominees I had never before in the last few weeks – The Dresser, An Unmarried Woman, The Turning Point, The Towering Inferno, A Touch of Class, Sounder, The Emigrants, Fiddler on the Roof, Nicholas and Alexandria, Airport, Hello Dolly, Rachel, Rachel, Romeo and Juliet, Alfie, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming – and have to say that while I mixed feelings on many of those films (truly, I have only loved An Unmarried Woman, Rachel, Rachel and Alfie), none of them would look out of place in the current lineup. Audiences have abandoned these types of films mostly, and critics have never really agreed with the Academy. Instead of asking why the Academy doesn’t agree with the public, perhaps we should ask why audiences prefer Twilight or Transformers over The Descendants and Moneyball.
I will be an Oscar devotee until the day I die. Why? Because even if I do not agree with many of their choices, it sets the debate in motion every year about what the best films of the year are – which no matter how close or far away from the Academy’s tastes your movie tastes are, is a valuable exercise. None of the other movie awards shows, none of the critics top 10 lists or critics surveys would exist without the Oscars. Besides, isn’t half the fun of the Oscars bitching about what they chose?

The Oscars are what they are. They always have been. Unless you want to take up the cause of Wings being better than The Crowd or Sunrise in the first awards 84 years ago or argue that The Broadway Melody, Cimarron, Cavalcade, The Great Ziegfeld, The Life of Emile Zola, Mrs. Miniver, Going My Way, Hamlet, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, Gigi, Ben-Hur, Tom Jones, Oliver, Chariots of Fire, Braveheart, The English Patient, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind or Crash represent the best that cinema has to offer, than I don’t understand what people expect. The Oscars have always been this way. So why does it seem like every year, so many people seem so shocked by what they choose.

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