Whether it’s the new voting rules, or tastes affected by the dismal state of affairs at home or abroad, or Harvey Weinstein’s best efforts to rig the system, it’s hard to look at this year’s Oscar ballot and not feel like something went horribly wrong somewhere along the line. Drive, the best movie of the year, got almost completely shut out – it was always a hard sell for Best Picture, but omitting Albert Brooks from the list of Supporting Actor nominees amounted to a slap in the face – while War Horse and, most especially (or offensively, if you want to be extreme), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close were tapped for the top prize. Hugo, meanwhile, pulled in eleven nominations, which is pretty significant when you consider, first, the general apathy of the public to a film that should have been a blockbuster, and second, that the movie was merely decent.
Clearly, it wouldn’t be that hard for me to turn this piece into a litany of the Academy’s sins. I don’t want to do that, though, for two main reasons. First of all, to do so would be to overlook the things they did get right: Gary Oldman’s nomination for Best Actor, for instance, was richly deserved and at least a small acknowledgment of a film that, though among the best of the year, was probably a bit too dark and a bit too British to register in a year when voters just wanted to feel good. More importantly, though, it’s because contrary to the reams of paper that will be produced this week on the injustices perpetrated and how AMPAS has lost its way, I believe that the Oscars do matter, more than any of the other awards shows and committees that dot the prestige season landscape.
I don’t mean to say by this that winning an Oscar, or even being nominated, necessarily means that a film or performance or technical achievement is the best of the year, or even among the best: film aficionados can always point to instances where a deserving film or performance was overlooked. Again, we live in a world where Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could be nominated for Best Picture and where The Artist, this year’s front-runner, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay despite having only two lines of dialogue. Should Roberto Benigni really have won Best Actor in 1998? Of course he shouldn’t. Is it embarrassing that Titanic, Crash, and Chicago are among our recent Best Picture winners? Of course it is. But all of that is beside the point: while it’s nice to see great movies and great performances receive validation in the moment, the stuff that’s really good will still be around in twenty years, when The Artist is a historical footnote. (I’m not sure what the shelf life is of a black-and-white silent made in 2011, but my money is on ‘brief.’)
What I do mean to say is that the existence of AMPAS, and of the Academy Awards that are its calling card, is important in establishing and maintaining the idea of film as an art form, that can be good or bad and that must be addressed on its own merits. In theory, that’s a role that film criticism should play. But criticism, especially in this country, is a marginal and self-marginalizing field, restricted to one of two avenues: either you get the sorts of weekly reviews that emerge in daily papers, where films are broken down into component parts and a verdict is ultimately given (‘the actors are great, I didn’t like the story,’ etc), or one finds highly academic articles that talk about such-and-such director’s importance as an explorer of social themes of the 1970s without any consideration for why or how that director’s films are any good. Critics also sometimes seem to be almost willfully uninterested in film as a storytelling medium: keep in mind, as one friend of mine pointed out, that American film critics thought that Melancholia was the best movie of the year. (Readers of this blog, of course, are aware that it was in fact the worst.)
There is not, in other words, a real and developed dialogue in this country about movies, either as our most significant shared cultural experience or as a legitimate form of art. What the Oscars above all, and the awards season in general, do is to create a context in which people can actually talk about the movies in a context beyond “I liked it.” What else is a statement about what should win Best Picture, or what should have been nominated, or what a travesty it is that such-and-such a picture won some award or another, than a realized aesthetic judgment? We go to movies to be entertained, to be moved, to be told something, to be surprised, but rarely do we have an obvious reason to think about what makes one film better than another.
When Oscar nominations came out on Tuesday, however, the Internet was ablaze with, alternately, rage and delight over how things had gone. If nothing else, the Oscars create a cultural moment in which it is in some way necessary to have an opinion about the movies, in the same way that the Super Bowl creates a moment in which you’re almost not allowed to not have an opinion about football. Even if that opinion doesn’t go beyond, “Oh, I don’t care for it,” you’re still forced to acknowledge what it is and how it’s culturally significant, how you have in some way chosen a point of view that runs counter to the ongoing discourse. Similarly, when my friend tells me that he enjoyed The Artist more than any other movie this year and that it should win Best Picture, the fact that I know that he’s wrong isn’t enough: I have to justify why he’s wrong. By forcing us to compare films against one another, we also have to ask questions about what a movie should do and why one is more successful than another.
Even more important than that, though, is the fact that the Oscars – and only the Oscars, since all those other shows only matter because of what they tell us about the shape of the Oscar race – legitimate the pursuit of excellence in filmmaking. For most of the year, the success of a movie is defined not by how good it is but by how much it made: Michael Bay will continue to get work because, no matter how spectacularly uninteresting Transformers 3 might have been, his movies can be relied on to make bucketloads of cash. The Academy Awards, however, are dedicated to recognizing and rewarding excellence in cinema: for one night, at least, cinema culture is centered on the question of what is the best. In making that kind of excellence mean something, the Oscars give filmmakers – producers, directors, writers, actors – legitimacy in pursuing projects not because they think they’ll be big hits but because they want to make good movies.
Cynics will point out that the Oscars are used as another marketing ploy, that the notion of campaigning for awards – as all the studios do – negates the idea that the Academy Awards are really about honoring excellence, and that there is a discernible formula for what an ‘Academy Award nominee’ looks like. But however tempting it is to complain about how out-of-step the Academy is with contemporary taste, it’s worth pointing out that some of the greatest and most commercially successful films of all time were multiple Oscar nominees. Star Wars, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Shakespeare in Love – all were big hits, all were great films, and all were Oscar winners (okay, Star Wars only won an Oscar in my revisionist imaginary history, I admit). As much as we like to point to the omission of The Dark Knight from the list of nominees in 2008 as an example of voter snobbery (and justly so – does anyone really believe that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a better movie?), the fact is that the Academy has historically been pretty open to popular movies – really, to movies of all types – as long as they’re actually good. Even Avatar, which I didn’t really like, got a nod back in 2009. Dispiriting as it is that Bridesmaids couldn’t pick up a Best Picture nomination this year, it says something negative about the state of popular filmmaking in this country that, beyond that film, the best blockbuster that anyone could offer up for awards consideration was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.
There’s no denying, also, that the Oscars are used as a marketing tool, and that one reason that they’re so coveted by studio types is that they bring a certain bump in box office receipts and DVD sales. The only reason that works, though, is that we accept that winning an Oscar means that a movie is good: Oscars and Oscar nominations raise our interest in a movie because we have some voucher for its quality, from people who should know. And while it’s true that the Oscar ‘formula’ exists – it’s the reason that War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could be nominated for Best Picture – the Academy also found room on its slate for The Tree of Life, a movie that couldn’t be further from any sort of formula whatsoever.
I didn’t love that film, but for once that’s not the point. The point is that there is a place for movies like it, just as there is a place for movies like The Artist and The Descendants and Drive, and just as there is a place for that enormous, great movie that didn’t get made this year but which we will see again. The point is that it matters whether or not a movie is any good – and that though not every story will be good, there’s a good story to be told in every style and genre. Without the Oscars, we’re a bunch of cinephiles moaning about how no one tries to make good movies anymore. With them, we get to moan instead about how no one’s paying attention to the movies that are actually good. That may not seem like a very significant difference — but it is.