Friday, March 18, 2016

Are the Oscar Best Picture Picks Duds? Defending the Academy

As long as there are movie fans and those movie fans have access to the internet, you will always hear complaining that the Oscars get it wrong. I'm not sure if it's a non-conformist streak in my character or a love for playing devil's advocate, but I often like to take the opposite point of view that by golly, those Oscars often get it right like no one else!
One thing people need to acknowledge by the very nature of its large membership, a voting  body like AMPAS will naturally veer more towards some kind of consensus with few extremes. If you put the 1,000 most vocal critics of the Oscars in a room and asked them to vote for their Best Pictures of the year, I would bet money that their most idiosyncratic choices would cancel each other out and you would be left with the commonalities like The Martian, The Revenant, and Spotlight. 
When we look at the main criticisms leveled at the Academy, the same contradictory criticisms often pop up: They either don't reflect the views of the public, or they don't acknowledge the more experimental fare below-the-radar. Otherwise, everyone points to a few bad choices over the years and just uses that as proof that the Academy is terrible.
Personally, I think the Best Picture nominees in the past few years do a good job of balancing populist picks, artier films, ambitious experimental stuff, and straight genre stuff that's done well. I wouldn't want them to go too indie because I feel like films should resonate with the public and even if the best film by critics' views was something that screened for two weeks in Toronto and Tribeca, it's not something the public will enjoy being a part of on Oscar night.
So here's my expanded case:
For the Populists:
  • Avatar is the highest grossing film ever and it got nominated, and ET, Exorcist, Sound of Music, Godfather, and Titanic were all box office record breakers of some sort.
  • Nominees Rain Man, Forrest Gump, ET, Saving Private Ryan, Avatar, Toy Story 3 and American Sniper were all the top grossing film of their year
  • Nominees Martian, American Sniper, Gravity, Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, The Help, True Grit, Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Inception, District 9, Up, Blind Side, Avatar, and Ingloruious Basterds all won their opening weekends in the 10-picture era
  • Among others that haven't made any of those lists list Mad Max: Fury Road, Spielberg's films (War Horse, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies), Wolf of Wall Street, The Artist, and The Fighter have all been crowd-pleasers
For the art house crowd:
  • Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amor, District 9, Brooklyn, Winter's Bone and Room were all films that had very, very little chance at finding a widespread audience before Awards Season boosted them.
  • Nearly every popular visionary film director out there: Michelle Haneke, Wes Anderson, Thomas McCarthy, Richard Linklater, Steve McQueen, Kathryn Bigelow, Lisa Cholodenko, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, the Coen brothers (4 times) and Neil Blokamp have all gotten a turn at the bat with Best Picture nominations. A few years ago, you could have said, some of the more interesting film directors like Wes Anderson or Alfonso Cuaron or Richard Linklater have never been nominated. But no longer.
  • Last year, you two films that had never been done before stylistically in Boyhood and Birdman and this year Revenant and Room were both stylistically very original.
For the socially-conscious crowd:
  • Six films in the expanded BP era-Selma, Precious, Help, 12 Years a Slave, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Blind Side- have had black narratives and black casts and the majority of those have had a black director. Each of those black directors got a major boost that allowed them greater creative freedom on their next projects.  While one can conceded that  Blind Side might be geared toward glorification of the white protagonist in the story at expense of the black protagonist, that is not the case with the other five films. I would also argue that Blind Side does teach us  something about the black experience. After all, Michael Oher (the film's subject) is a real person.
  • Another nominee, Life of Pi, tells a story set in another 3rd world region: South Asia.
  • Three of this year's eight films feature a woman protagonist
  • Spotlight is about a struggle against the ultimate patriarchal society. Big Short is about the uneven distribution of wealth and economically disadvantaged.
  • Last year, we had a film about a physically disabled person, a film about a gay person, a film with a black theme, and a film about a broken family
  • The year before, we had a feminist film (Philomena), a film about transgender righs (DBC), a film with a black narrative, an action film with a female protagonist (Gravity), a film taking place in the 3rd world with an illuminating look of the struggles of people in the Global South (Captain Phillips), and another film about the effects of the rich on the financially disadvantaged (Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Of the last six Oscar-winning directors, one has been a woman, four have come from a non-English speaking country, one has been East Asian, two have been Mexican

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