Many thanks to Simon Wardell, one of our guest bloggers for this thought provoking piece on award ceremonies.
Who won the Best Picture Oscar 10 years ago? Five years ago? Who even won it last year? If you’re having difficulty answering those questions (it’s The Departed, The Artist and Spotlight, respectively) you’re not the only one. For all the pizazz and publicity enveloping the Academy Awards each year, most of films that have won the ultimate – at least in Hollywood terms – accolade have vanished from public and critical consciousness by the time the stars’ rented gowns and tuxedos are returned from the dry cleaners. This year’s organisers even had trouble remembering which movie had won during the event itself.
Great store is set by victory within the US film industry, with some justification. A Best Picture win can boost box office takings by around $14million, according to one analysis. The awards are also a significant career leg-up for the cast and crew: Emma Stone will be promoted into the acting A-list as a result of her lovely performance in La La Land, while Moonlight’s writer-director, Barry Jenkins, should have his pick of projects – and budgets.
The problem for everyone else, however, is that the Oscars have never been a guarantee of quality. The Guardian recently did a series in which writers chose their favourite Best Picture winner from history. For my own amusement, I had a look down the list and could only find a handful that are stone-cold classics. You’ve got Casablanca and An American In Paris in the early years, and a strong run in the early 1970s: The French Connection, The Godfather I and II, Annie Hall. But since the turn of the century it has been very patchy. Anyone fancy watching Crash again, or Argo, or Million Dollar Baby? These are not bad films, far from it, but they don’t have the whiff of greatness about them (I’ll give a pass to 12 Years A Slave, which will surely enter the canon soon). Infamously, Crash wasn’t even the best film on the 2005 shortlist – the shunning of Brokeback Mountain being an egregious, if not uncommon, slight.
The Academy has expanded the shortlist from five to up to 10 in recent years, hoping to trawl for every good film around and keep things fresh. Unfortunately, and this is the crux of the problem, they are only fishing for films in English, and mainstream ones at that. It’s like the American baseball league calling its season-ending tournament the World Series, even though it’s restricted to teams from the US and Canada.
Michael Haneke’s Amour was nominated in 2012, one of only nine foreign-language films in its history that Oscar has nodded towards (not including the likes of District 9, which boasted five African tongues, plus an extraterrestrial one, along with English). There is, admittedly, the Best Foreign Language Film Award, created in 1956 and boasting a fine crop of winners, including 8½, Fanny and Alexander, and Son Of Saul last year. However, you’re only allowed one entry per nation, and it feels like a sop – a little ghetto of brilliance that shows up the paucity of originality in the main category.
Until the Academy members learn to read subtitles better, why not try other ceremonies for guidance to cinematic splendour? The European Film Awards has its biases but the shortlists are packed with quality. Competitive film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin and Venice, selected by international juries who can look beyond the language barrier, usually honour a few gems. Even the Baftas, despite its recent transformation into a clickbait-worthy warm-up act for the Oscars, throws up a few leftfield selections. So, let the Academy have their fun once a year and, like me, indulge in a splurge of cinema-going in January and February to catch the nominees, but don’t think for a minute that you’re seeing the cream of the crop.