An Analysis – Best Picture Academy Awards and the Test of Time
There are also the years where we debate what should have won when there’s an embarrassment of riches. The biggest historical example was 1939. The nominees that year that didn’t win were Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights. While the award went to Gone With The Wind (and a pretty great movie that is), many an impassioned debate could be had over how most of those nominees deserved to win. There are other years as well: All About Eve beat Sunset Boulevard; many complain about Goodfellas losing to Dances With Wolves or Pulp Fiction losing to Forrest Gump or E.T. losing to Gandhi.
Another one of those years that really sticks out is 1999. Look at a list of movies that came out in just that one year: Being John Malkovich, The Insider, The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, Three Kings, Magnolia, The Straight Story, Toy Story 2, The Blair Witch Project, Fight Club, Election, Boys Don’t Cry, The Iron Giant, Eyes Wide Shut, The Hurricane, The Green Mile, Buena Vista Social Club, South Park, Office Space, American Pie. It just so happens that American Beauty won that year. But that is a hell of a good year at the movies. All those films and still others just from 1999 are movies people still remember and talk about. So when the Academy has to sift through tough choices like that, where they basically have choose which child is their favorite, we can debate the choices, but at least there’s quality to choose from.
The problem is, the academy and we as audience members keep trying to chase that dragon. We want every year’s Best Picture race to resonate like that. In our heads and hearts we want a year at the movies where we all were moved and dazzled by 20 or 30 great choices that we’ll talk about fondly forever, and then pick the best one. Instead, the really memorable pickings seem harder to come by. I’m not trying to do the cranky old man “They don’t make ’em like they used to” thing. That’s pointless and dumb. What I am saying is for the Oscars to truly matter, we want them to reward true excellence. And I want them to matter.
Please provide feedback. Try to think of the last time the Best Picture winner was really for a film that was worth all the fuss. For example, last year’s winner, The King’s Speech, is a truly quality film with some top-notch acting. I enjoy it immensely and will re-watch it several times. But I don’t find it any more important to myself or society than, say, the recently finished season of Downton Abbey. No disparaging of quality intended; I’m simply saying that The King’s Speech doesn’t necessarily rise above other quality work. The Hurt Locker was an impressive and tense thriller. It did help at least partially incite discussion about the war in Iraq. But over time, I don’t think it will be seen as a shining beacon of art. We have some serious love for Slumdog Millionaire in my household. But does it “feel” like an Oscar winner? I honestly don’t know.
In fact, looking at the Best Picture winners of the new millennium, A Beautiful Mind was overpraised and unworthy; Chicago was boisterous fun that brought back musicals as a viable medium, but was not one of the best musicals of all time; and Crash is hotly contested for being a winner over Brokeback Mountain (I don’t mind Crash winning, but I can see the debate). Personally, I truly think they got it right with The Lord of the Rings: The Return Of The King, Million Dollar Baby, The Departed, and No Country For Old Men.
So that brings us to this year. The Artist will probably win. And I like it a bunch. Jean Dujardin is amazingly charming and the film is delightful. But ask yourself, since it would only be the second silent movie to ever win the top prize, is it one of the two best silent films ever? My answer is no. I’m also a big booster of Hugo. It’s about the love of films past. But if we go strictly by award winners, is it one of Scorcese’s two best movies ever? Again, no. But neither was The Departed (I love it, but he’s made even better). Most of the nominees this year are quality films. (For the record, I like War Horse more than most people; I like The Help less than most people; and I think Moneyball and Midnight in Paris are quality films.)
Yes, this is all highly subjective. People can and will argue those judgements with me. Cool; that’s fun. And others may say that this is a ridiculous standard I’m asking for here. One of the reasons Great Art is Great is because it’s rare. But with all of the attention this thing gets every year, it’s important to think of what the Oscars CAN be: a celebration of an incredibly powerful form of art and communication.