Another year, another Academy Awards. No, I didn’t watch it this time, so I can’t comment on the ceremony itself; but I can never the less reflect on the nominees, winners, and losers for at least some of these awards.
First of all, I was glad to see that Mad Max: Fury Road got nominated in ten categories, from Best Sound Editing all the way up to Best Director and Best Picture. I think it brought a good amount of attention to a film that was critically praised and adored by geek culture but didn’t seem to break out into a broader public recognition. And it did win in six of the categories it was nominated in, albeit all technical ones rather than artistic. Hopefully being able to include six Oscar wins in the marketing will help reel a few more people in to see this worthwhile movie.
It was also interesting to see Leonardo DiCaprio finally get his Oscar after being snubbed for so many years. Granted, I’m not sure I would have picked his performance in The Revenant as the one to give him the award for (personally, I think his best acting was in The Departed); but at the same time, I do think his work in Alejandro Iñárritu’s film should be recognized for its intensity. DiCaprio really ate an animal’s liver in that movie, and that’s worth something.
Speaking of The Revenant, Iñárritu won Best Director for that movie. However, having seen both The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, while I respect Iñárritu’s style and sense of scope, I honestly believe that George Miller deserved it more.
Ennio Morricone managed to win Best Original Score for his work in The Hateful Eight. I was really quite surprised when I heard that he was nominated for this film–it’s a good score, but nothing amazing; and some of the music in it wasn’t even written for the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I love Morricone’s work in Sergio Leone’s Westerns and on The Thing, I just didn’t feel like this was a particularly award-deserving score. In my opinion, this win is a Lifetime Achievement Award thinly disguised as an ordinary Oscar. That said, there have certainly been worse reasons to give someone the award.
Mark Rylance probably does deserve his Best Supporting Actor win for Bridge of Spies–he did a good job in that picture. Still, I was really hoping that Sylvester Stallone would get it for Creed. Apart from Rocky Balboa being an American icon on par with Superman and Paul Bunyan, Stallone’s performance was the only one in 2015 that moved me to tears. Evidently it didn’t have the same effect on the Academy voters.
Inside Out won Best Animated Feature…it didn’t exactly have tough competition.
I really need to check out Room and The Danish Girl to see the performances of the actresses who won for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. I’ll get back to you on this later.
And last, but not least, Spotlight won Best Picture (as well as Best Original Screenplay). All I can say is that I called this. That’s not because I believed Spotlight was the best film of 2015–I don’t think it was–but it’s the exact kind of movie that the Academy has picked for the last several years. It’s mid-budget, it touches on a topical historical or current issue*, and it was not the biggest grossing of the nominees. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who has paid attention to the patterns of the Best Picture winners of late could see this one coming from a mile away. I’m not saying it’s bad that Spotlight won, I’m just saying that it’s clear that the Academy’s views have been skewed towards a certain type of movie as of late, and Spotlight’s win does little to buck that trend.
Personally, I think the Academy does this on purpose as a way of giving attention to smaller films that might not otherwise get it. They seem to believe that the bigger movies will take care of themselves, and that they are in fact looking out for the “little guys” by awarding them Best Picture. That being said, though, as I think about these recent Best Picture winners, I keep noticing that after receiving the top award, some of these films wind up being more or less forgotten. To the best of my knowledge, few people have brought up The King’s Speech or The Artist or even 12 Years a Slave after those films won. Their status as Best Picture of their respective years now seems to exist mostly as a trivia question, or as a line on the resumes of one of the people working on one of those movies; in other words, the kind of recognition brought to them by a Best Picture win was short lived. I don’t know if this is going to be the case with Spotlight, but my suspicion is that it will be. I contrast that with Citizen Kane and The Shawshank Redemption, movies that didn’t win Best Picture in their respective years, but have gone on to be better regarded than the pictures that did. Perhaps that should put the Best Picture award in perspective.
With that in mind, when thinking about what films will probably stick with us the longest, I would have had Mad Max: Fury Road win Best Picture (and Best Director). I think that is a movie that we’ll be talking about for years to come. While I’m on the topic of picking my own winners, Matt Damon would have won for Best Actor for his charismatic and endearing performance in The Martian (DiCaprio would have gotten his Oscar a long time ago). I’d have given Morricone an honorary Oscar, and handed the real thing over to John Williams for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’d still have Best Original Screenplay given to Spotlight (it probably deserves that much), while old Sly would be walking away with Best Supporting Actor.
It’s clear that my tastes don’t align with those of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And I know I’m not alone. There was a huge outcry this year over the lack of diversity in nominations. Most of those getting a nod were white, while acclaimed work from other ethnic groups got snubbed. Some accused the Academy–infamous for a dearth of transparency– of hidden biases and agendas to keep minorities off the nominees list; and notable filmmakers, such as director Spike Lee, boycotted the Oscars over this very issue.
For what it’s worth, these kinds of accusations aren’t exactly unfounded. In a well documented scandal in the mid-90s (detailed here on Siskel and Ebert), it was revealed that Hoop Dreams, a critically acclaimed documentary that somehow didn’t get nominated for Best Documentary, was intentionally shut out from consideration for the Academy Awards, the victim of an inside conspiracy.
That incident later forced changes amongst Oscar voters. Many have hoped for a similar shift in regards to the lack of diversity at this year’s Academy Awards. And it looks like there may be: after a wave of media pressure, the Academy announced plans for revisions in membership and voting requirements set to take place in the future, with the aim of avoiding an All White Oscars again. Whether or not it will have the desired effect is anyone’s guess.
Really, though, I don’t think it’s going to wind up mattering. I don’t believe that the Oscars ever will represent everyone fairly. More importantly, I don’t think they even can represent everyone fairly. The fundamental problem with film–one we all struggle with at awards time–is that, as an artistic medium, there’s simply no shared consensus on what motion pictures are supposed to do for us. What constitutes greatness for movies? What makes one deserve an award more than another? Everyone has an answer; no one knows for sure.
Compare that to something like football. There are disagreements and arguments to be had about the sport, but we can all at least agree on the point of the game, which is to score touchdowns and to keep the other team from scoring touchdowns. That’s the metric by which teams are compared with each other. We can declare confidently, for example, that the Broncos were better than the Panthers (even if Peyton Manning was terrible) in the Super Bowl a few weeks ago because they scored more and stopped the Panthers from scoring more. But no such objective measuring stick exists for the celluloid medium.
Put another way, we can enjoy the Academy Awards as a nice night of television with elegant pageantry and above average commercials, and we can even like it when films that we believe deserve recognition actually do win the awards we want them to. But as an institution, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really is devoid of meaning; or, at the very least, the kind of meaning necessary to give the final word on the standing of films.
And frankly, I think it’s getting to be time that we start acting more like that’s the case. Instead of complaining that a monolithic, mysterious institution–one that is filled with people who don’t seem to truly represent large parts of the movie-going world–doesn’t match our tastes; instead of hoping that media attention and outward social outcry might cause changes within the Academy, maybe we should just stop looking at the Oscars as any kind of definitive end-all-be-all on film. We can merely view it as one of many takes on the standings of films; we can stop discussing the results like they have any true significance; or, going further, we can just ignore it altogether.
We are, after all, living in the age of the Internet. We have the ability to network with others, expose ourselves to new ideas, and collectively weigh in on films in ways never previously thought possible–the exact kind of ways that, in some sense, curtail the importance of an archaic institution like The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We can recognize what we believe were great pictures; and we can share those recognitions with others. In effect, we can create our own standards for cinematic greatness, make our own awards, and present them to the rest of the world with as much authority as The Academy. We no longer need an outside party to do this for us. We don’t need to be told what is great; we can make those decisions for ourselves.
I suggest that we embrace a world like that, a world where artistic taste need not be centralized, a world where we can be as qualified as any Academy voter in deciding what we like out of film, a world where technology has allowed for organization and communication that effectively eliminates the dependency people used to have on the Academy. Let’s enter a new age where the Oscars don’t have the final say; and the only winners that really matter are those movies that win us over.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the kind of world I’d like to live in.
*Admittedly, last year’s Birdman slightly went against the grain, but only slightly.