Friday, January 25, 2013

A Calm, Rational Look at This Year's Oscar Nominees Part 1: The Recent Past

Now that the dust has settled on 2012’s crop of Oscar nominees, I thought I’d look at them in a calmer, more rational manor than many pundits have so far. Unlike many, I don’t get heavily invested in who is going to win the Oscars each year – I used to, but 2005 and 2006 pretty much took it out of me. The reasons are varied, but relatively simple to explain. 2005 was the year of the great debate between Crash and Brokeback Mountain. That year, my favorite film was David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, which wasn’t nominated, and my favorite of the nominees was Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which had no chance to win. There were only two films that did – Crash and Brokeback. Out of those two, I clearly favored Brokeback Mountain. It was in my top five for the year, and Crash didn’t break my top 30 – although I do not hate it as much as some do. I think it’s a fairly average film, with some fine performances. Yet, all season long, whenever I read about the Oscars, I read hyperbolic and vitriol filled pieces by Brokeback supporters. Ironically, while both Crash and Brokeback Mountain addressed social issues – race and homosexuality – and Brokeback did so in a subtle, humanist way that didn’t beat you over the head with its points, which is precisely what Crash did, the supporters of the two films were the exact opposite. “Team Crash” was just trying to make a case for the film that they loved. “Team Brokeback Mountain” pretty much threatened and bullied their way through the season, talking about how important the film was, and how “it had better not lose, or else you’re all homophobes”. It was an irrational response born out of passion, but still I was sick of it by the end of the season.

Yet, in 2006, I was back for more. This year there was no great debate between two films, no real backbiting and name calling, and The Departed ended up winning, almost by default. Before the nominations, everyone assumed Dreamgirls would win – and then shockingly, it didn’t even get nominated. This led to everyone scrambling, and while there were some who thought the other nominees – The Queen, Babel, Little Miss Sunshine or Letters from Iwo Jima – could pull it off, most correctly saw The Departed as the winner. This was a calm year – the kind I like – but it also fulfilled one of my greatest Oscar wishes – seeing my favorite director of all time, Martin Scorsese, finally win his Oscar. Since I became an avid film buff and Oscar watcher in the late 1990s, I had seen Scorsese come close to winning twice – in 2002 for Gangs of New York and 2004 for The Aviator – and he went home empty handed. Seeing him win made me indescribably happy – and took away one of my reasons for becoming so invested in the process.

The next few years I still followed the Oscars – hell I still follow them WAY more closely than any rational person does - but the passion for them just wasn’t there. I was happy in 2007 to see far and away the two best films of the year – There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men – dominate the awards, and again the season was fairly rational, and I liked that. 2008 was a cluster fuck though. Inarguably, no matter what system you use to judge these things, the two most acclaimed films of the year were The Dark Knight and Wall-E – which were also two HUGE box office hits. And yet, the Academy in their infinite wisdom went with a fairly standard, ho-hum Best Picture lineup – eventual winner Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader, Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Milk. The outcry that followed is pretty much the reason why we now have more than 5 nominees for Best Picture, to allow different types of films and not just typical “Oscar bait” to get nominated.

And the next two years, the process pretty much worked. 2009 had a fascinating mixture of 10 nominees – from the biggest blockbuster ever in Avatar, to other audience friendly films like The Blind Side, Up and District 9, to critically acclaimed box office hits like Inglorious Basterds and Up in the Air, to small indies like An Education, Precious, A Serious Man and your eventual winner The Hurt Locker. The system worked! You may not be a fan of all of these films (I’m certainly not), but the new system of 10 nominees was designed to get a more varied lineup, and that worked. 2010 played out much the same way. Blockbusters like Toy Story 3 and Inception, alongside critically acclaimed mainstream hits like your winner The King’s Speech, The Social Network, True Grit, The Fighter and Black Swan, and smaller films like 127 Hours, The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone. The system was working – about the only thing you didn’t get was a foreign film in the lineup, but you knew if the right one came along, it could get in. The one problem with the system is that with 10 films nominated (or at least more than 5), they went with a preferential ballot system – meaning it wasn’t just vote for one film and whoever has the most votes win. It is a long, drawn out process, and usually leads to the most popular, consensus choice to win – even if it doesn’t have the most passionate supporters. You can argue that’s either a good thing or a bad one.

Last year though, in response to criticism that 10 films was too many and “diluted” the honor of being nominated (an idiotic notion), the Academy changed their rules once again. Now, there would be a “floating” number of nominees – no more than 10, and no less than 5. To get in, not only did you have to meet the same voting standards as before, but you also needed to secure 5% of the total #1 votes in the Academy. The result was certainly a mixed bag, and ended up being precisely what many feared the nominee slate would look like when they expanded for 5 to 10 nominees – that is, instead of just five typical “Oscar bait” movies being nominated, we’d get 10 (or is this case 9). The point of expanding the field, even if they never admitted I, was casting a wider net – getting a more varied slate of nominees.

2011 was certainly not the kind of year with varied nominees. The nominees included The Help, Hugo, your winner The Artist, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, The Descendants, Moneyball, War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Gone were the mainstream blockbusters (although, to be fair, looking at the biggest money makers of 2011, it’s hard to imagine what they could have nominated. Rise of the Planet of the Apes?), and also gone were the kind of small indies that had squeezed in the past two years. As good as the 9 films nominated may well be, it is hard to deny that they all fit the typical formula for an “Oscar bait” movie – yes, even The Tree of Life, although it was more daringly done, thematically it fit in nicely with the rest. It’s hard to argue that some of the Academy’s more daring choices in the two years before this – films like District 9, A Serious Man or Winter’s Bone – were hurt this year by the insistence of getting 5% of #1 votes. Oscar voters like what they like, and this year like every other, they liked “Oscar bait” movies. In order for non-typical films to get in, you need to allow films that showed up on a lot of ballots, but lowered down the list, to get in.

I now find that I have gone far too much into the recent history of the Oscars than I planned to. So I will ended this post here, and come back later with a look at the 2012 nominees.

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