The YouTube video ‘A Trailer for Every Oscar-Winning Movie Ever’ summarises why many film fans have such mixed feelings about the biggest night in the film calendar. The parody has characters declaring lines like “Also, I’ve got to use tough love to help this Latin American teenager believe in himself!” over saccharine background music, fulfilling the common perception of the sort of film that gets nominated for Oscars – a vaguely politically liberal, conservatively made drama that people watch because they think it will make them a better person, not because it’s entertaining or challenging. Any film fan can rattle off a list of brilliant directors, including Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, who have never won the Best Director award, whilst categories such as comedy, sci-fi and world cinema are chronically snubbed come awards time. A 2012 survey revealed just 14% of Academy voters are under 50, painting the picture of a group who are too stuck in their way to embrace what’s new and bold in film.
However, in the past few years, the Academy nominations have been slowly and painfully reinventing themselves as something still relevant to twenty-first century cinema. The decision, in 2010, to open the Best Picture shortlist from five slots to ten has been crucial, allowing for a more diverse range of nominees. Since then, the Best Picture nominees’ list has featured films which push the limits of special effects technology, such as Avatar, Inception and Life of Pi, Pixar masterpieces Up and Toy Story 3, indie outsiders such as Winter’s Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild, and terrific new films from acclaimed directors like David Fincher, Michael Haneke, Darren Aronofsky and the Coen brothers.
This year’s Best Picture shortlist has an average Rotten Tomatoes rating of 91.7%, the highest in the past decade, and includes critically acclaimed films which take a bold look at themes such as the horrors of slavery (12 Years a Slave), our growing dependency on technology (Her) and the complexities of parent-child relationships (Nebraska). Of course, there are still things to hate about the Oscars, not least the excruciatingly self-congratulatory awards ceremony. But their very flaws are what continue to make them a hub for an ongoing and fierce debate about the films we see and what they say about us, and as such, there’s plenty of life in them yet.
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”
“It came true” Anne Hathaway mewled, as she won best supporting actress last year at the Oscars. And with three magnificently poorly chosen words the whole audience cringed, the dreams of dying French Prostitutes were trivialised and the rehearsed illusions of the Oscars reached a new height of pomposity and self-congratulation.
The fixation upon the Academy Awards always seems a perplexing one as, despite its prestige, every year the cinephilia community cry out at the unjust snubbing of popular iconic pieces of cinema in favour of a movie which is unlikely to be remembered just a few years down the line (anyone still fervently rewatching The Artist?). But when the Academy does go for the populist choice and declare a widely-loved box-office smash such as Return of the King to be the best of the year, it feels as unnecessary a declaration as the York Award.
To be fair, the broader nominations are vaguely interesting to skimread, with the expansion of the best film category from five to ten nominations being a skilful move to appear to widen the range of films technically in competition. Despite this, the favourites in with a chance of snatching the top prize are still those primarily moulded into existence in order to compete for awards and appeal to this narrow demographic (Hello, Harvey Weinstein).
Why do we value the views of this committee of mainly old white men above all others? The expertise argument seems to falter when any member can vote for Best Cinematography, meaning clueless actors choose the prettiest film, snubbing the god-given gifts of Roger Deakins again and again. Even when the Oscars shine the spotlight is on under-appreciated talent such as the many talented VFX artists who worked on the innovative Life of Pi, they are quickly ushered off-stage to the sound of the Jaws theme before anyone points out that most of the people who worked on that film are now unemployed due to the unsustainability of the current Hollywood system.
Ultimately, the awards only function as an accolade of the most tightly engineered ‘For your Consideration’ campaign, a reminder of the overhyped current flavour of the month with a sour aftertaste and an excuse to have a ceremony which celebrates studio politics, dresses and Jennifer Lawrence GIFS far more than the cinema it is supposed to be upholding.