Lots of people love to hate on the Academy Awards — and the outpouring of criticism each year from all sides is as telling an indicator of their continued cultural significance as anything.
Nothing, of course, like the significance the Oscars had a lifetime ago, when critically acclaimed, popular films like All About Eve, The Apartment and Patton — the best picture winners from, respectively, 1950, 1960 and 1970, each among the top 10 films at the box office in those years — were the pride and joy of Hollywood studios.
That was before the advent of blockbuster culture and especially the cataract of branded IP (intellectual property) flooding cineplexes with ubiquitous superheroes, sequels, remakes and reboots.
In this assembly-line market, best picture material is more common among smaller films seen by relatively few. (Over half of the 15 lowest-grossing best picture winners, including The Hurt Locker, Moonlight and Birdman, are from the last 15 Academy Awards.)
At times the Academy’s growing preference for smaller fare has seemed downright perverse, perhaps most notoriously in 2008, when the Academy overlooked the critically acclaimed box-office hits The Dark Knight and Wall-E in favor of an uneven lineup of boutique films.
Best picture winners, though, have continued to be smaller films. In the last 10 years only a single winner for best picture, Argo, has been among the top 80 films domestically of its year. (Argo was 25 for 2012, with just over $136 million in the U.S. Most of the others haven’t been among the top 100.)
Concern in Hollywood over this stubborn disconnect led to widely ridiculed reflections on the condescending, desperate possibility of a “best popular film” category — a far cry from the old days when the best films, by and large, were popular films.
Small wonder ratings for the Academy Awards have declined steadily over the years — though viewership actually rose last year, powered in part by nominations for A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody and Black Panther. (This year only Joker is in that league, though Little Women and Parasite qualify as art-house hits.)
It’s not just the films. The sheer length of the Oscar broadcast, the self-indulgence of yet another dubious movie-history montage or high-concept dance sequence, and constant anxious efforts to revamp the format are all favorite targets of criticism and complaints.
In these increasingly partisan times, the Oscars draw fire from both the right and the left. Conservatives decry what they see as liberal Hollywood’s politically correct virtue signaling and subversion of traditional values. Progressives criticize what they see as shallow posturing of rich, older white men and the lack of diversity among the talent being honored. (These critiques, notably, are not entirely incompatible.)
Who’s still watching the Oscars? My generation (Gen X) is less likely to tune into the Oscars than my parents’ generation (baby boomers). But my generation’s children — millennials and Gen Z — are more interested, with the highest interest among the youngest viewers.
For all their problems, yes, the Academy Awards still matter.
As a snapshot of what Hollywood professes to value at any given moment, the Oscars help to shape future movies and careers. Sure, it’s maddening that the Academy overlooked Lupita Nyong’o’s extraordinary double performance in Jordan Peele’s Us, but would we necessarily even have that performance without Nyong’o’s best supporting actress win for 12 Years a Slave? (The various nominations for Peele’s debut film Get Out, and his best original screenplay win, didn’t hurt either.)
Oscar nominations and wins continue to bring worthwhile films to the attention of viewers who otherwise might overlook them. Over the years I’ve heard from fans of Yojiro Takita’s Departures, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu and Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap who discovered those films thanks to the Academy Awards.
What about this year?
As usual, the year’s biggest blockbusters — Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, The Rise of Skywalker — were mostly relegated to craft awards, with the exception of Toy Story 4, which got a nod in the animated feature category. (Frozen II did not.)
My own favorite film of 2019 (and a film picked as one of the year’s best by scores of critics), Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, was omitted, alas, from the Academy’s calculations.
Of the nine best picture nominees, my favorite, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, has no serious chance of winning. (Gerwig wasn’t nominated for director, though she did get an adapted screenplay nod, and it wasn’t nominated for cinematography or editing.)
The front-runner seems to be 1917, Sam Mendes’ “unbroken shot” World War I drama, a tour de force of craft filmed and edited to appear to a single extended take broken only once, when the protagonist loses consciousness. (It won top awards from the Directors and Producers Guilds, the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, and it has 10 Oscar nominations, including director, screenplay and cinematography. On the other hand, it was ignored in the acting and editing categories, a significant warning sign.)
A kind of formal and thematic inversion of Saving Private Ryan, which used handheld cameras and quick edits to convey the chaos of war, 1917 features intricately choreographed tracking shots and an elaborate dance of camera and actors in the service of a vision of the inexorability of war and the necessity of continuing to put one boot in front of the other.
Dismissed by many as a gimmick, this formal approach has been controversial among critics, many of whom see it as a negation of the crucial role of editing in cinematic grammar — not unlike trying to give a lengthy speech consisting of a single sentence. (Editing as a cinematic technique is certainly present; the film was constructed, like Birdman, out of lengthy, carefully rehearsed shots joined together as invisibly as possible. But these hidden edits are grammatically irrelevant.)
While some viewers were drawn in by the sustained camerawork, others (like me) found ourselves distanced by the evidently rehearsed choreography and the hidden edits. Still others complained that it made the film play like a first-person shooter video game (a charge often made, it must be said, of conventionally edited films).
None of this, in my book, makes 1917 a bad film. All films are works of artifice, and, while 1917 flaunts that artifice in a particular way, it’s still a mesmerizing spectacle set in a past so remote, and lacking in the present-day moral urgency of a World War II film, that it plays almost as mythology. (Ironically, it played on American screens in the same year as Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary with its own miraculous display of craft that brought British soldiers of the First World War back to life with stunning immediacy.)
More exciting to me, on a number of levels, is the dark horse with the best chance of upsetting 1917, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite.
The first Korean film nominated for best international feature (what used to be the foreign language feature award), Parasite also earned nominations for director, screenplay, editing and production design as well as best picture.
While the largely unfamiliar cast earned no acting nominations, the Screen Actors Guild awarded the entire cast its top prize for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
Parasite is a gleefully intricate, meticulously structured parable-like tale about two families, the poverty-stricken Kims and the extravagantly affluent Parks, and the convoluted intrigues by which their lives become entangled with one another.
Unfolding with ruthless precision and relentlessly rising suspense, the film avoids the expected Hollywood move of making the wealthy Parks merely superficial and unlikable and the struggling Kims scrappy and sympathetic. Instead, no one is really likable, though we have some sympathetic understanding of the flawed humanity of every character and of the choices they make, however indefensible they may be.
A savage satire of haves and have-nots, Parasite highlights the soul-killing effects not only of poverty but of the shame and social non-status that goes with it. It’s a more important film than 1917, and its cultural footprint will likely be deeper and longer lasting — but, as with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma last year, enough Academy voters will probably deem its inevitable international film win sufficient reward and give the top prize to 1917.
Perhaps surprisingly, two valedictory films from legendary directors, once expected to be leading contenders, are running as dark horses: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.
If there’s anything the Academy likes, it’s movies that hold up a mirror to itself. (Recent best picture winners Birdman, Argo, The Artist and Crash all had a moviemaking/show-business angle, an L.A. setting, or both.)
Tarantino’s lovingly crafted, nostalgic if typically foul-mouthed ode to the end of the Golden Age and the rise of New Hollywood — with his characteristic extreme violence kept in check until the end — seems made to order, and Brad Pitt in particular seems a shoo-in for supporting actor. Certainly as a film lover I enjoyed the bulk of Once Upon a Time more than most Tarantino films, although the controversial, historically revisionist ending doesn’t work for me.
Why have its best picture odds faded? Perhaps it’s caution, in the midst of ongoing outrage regarding the lack of diversity in this year’s nominees, over the film’s overwhelming whiteness and maleness, sharpened in particular by concerns over Margot Robbie’s lack of dialogue as Sharon Tate and Pitt’s two-fisted macho man humiliating a trash-talking Bruce Lee in a fight scene.
Minute for minute, I enjoyed watching Once Upon a Time more than The Irishman, although the cumulative effect of the latter far outweighs the former for me. I can understand Academy viewers deeming Scorsese’s 209-minute opus too long and too familiar to crown as the year’s best film, although the last 45 minutes for me subvert and reinterpret everything that’s come before in a way I find transforming and fascinating.
Meanwhile, we’ll continue to debate The Joker and Jojo Rabbit, and feel all the feelings from Little Women and Marriage Story. Even Ford v Ferrari, while I found it the most disposable of this year’s best picture nominees, is a solidly crafted entertainment of a type increasingly rare in today’s movie ecosystem. (I would have liked to see Knives Out! nominated, but them’s the breaks.)
Perhaps the nominations matter more than the actual awards, the debate and discussion more than the outcome.
I love The King’s Speech and I was glad when it won for 2010. But does its win detract from True Grit? Would it matter if The Social Network or Inception had won instead?
I don’t think so. Art is not a competition, and lists are more important than “winners.” No list is perfect, just as no winner is unimpeachable, but lists offer more chances to honor something deserving.
Not all of this year’s nominees are equally deserving, of course, and deserving candidates are left out of almost every list. That’s why lists are worth debating, and why movie fans will continue to follow, and hate on, the Academy Awards.