On the 2014 Academy Awards (Or the Vice of Intended Ignorance)

I do love the Oscars. As long as I can remember, I’ve watched them. The first ceremony I have any memory of was the one held in 1982, just days shy of my sixth birthday. I had only seen one of the films in contention, Raiders of the Lost Ark, of course, but all I really remember is the theme song from Chariots of Fire. We watched the show every year, whether we’d seen any of the movies or not (my mom would race home from work to catch the beginning (back when the show used to be on a Monday so that it wouldn’t compete with weekend theatrical movie business, remember when that was a thing that mattered?) and I’d have to fill her in on any awards she’d just missed (Supporting Actor or Actress, always). I remember ET inexplicably losing to Gandhi (though mom raved about Ben Kingsley’s performance). I remember The Right Stuff (a very popular film among the grown-ups I knew; though I’d seen it, it was too slow and boring for me at that point) being upset by Terms of Endearment and mom’s love of Out of Africa (big Redford fan) and Amadeus. I remember someone on television claiming that Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man was one of the best performances ever. I remember rooting for Dead Poets Society or Field of Dreams and being as baffled as anyone by Driving Miss Daisy‘s win.

1990, when I was 14, was the first time I saw all of the nominees for Best Picture. I can’t say if I saw them all before the ceremony, but I made the effort to see them as soon as possible (Goodfellas had to wait until HBO, for sure). I loved Dances with Wolves that year, and Silence of the Lambs the next (HBO again, I read the book too), though I was rooting for JFK. Unforgiven was my favorite in 1992, a movie I saw multiple times, once in a drive-in even, on a double bill with Terminator 2. Schindler’s List I saw three times in the theatre, I was convinced that, as I kept hearing, it was indeed the greatest movie ever made. The Oscars, as long as I could remember, were for big movies, important movies, great movies. And then, in 1994, the year I started college, Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction and the Academy Awards, or at least, my relation to them, have never been the same.

I’ve often referred to 1994 as Year Zero for cinephiles of my generation. Growing up in the hinterlands, a world of chain video stores and zero repertory film, our exposure to the films of the past, especially foreign and art films, was severely limited. Every video store had a foreign film section, of course, but those usually consisted of a few Kurosawa epics and a handful of Gerard Depardieu spectacles. The classic film sections were better stocked, but without a reliable guide, no one knew where to begin. The film sections of the local bookstores mostly consisted of Leonard Maltin and his imitators, and when I was in college my friends and I would spend hours pouring through his guides along with the Video Hound Golden Movie Retriever (which rated everything on a scale of “Woof” to “Four Bones”). So we had a passing familiarity with Hitchcock, Welles, Scorsese, and the Best Picture Oscar winners, but not much else. But then Quentin Tarantino came along, bursting with big city video store knowledge, urging, demanding that the kids like us who loved his movies seek out in turn the films he loved. (An example, in June 1995 Tarantino presented Jackie Chan with the Lifetime Achievement MTV Movie Award, which was accompanied by a greatest hits reel of Chan stunts. I had never seen a Hong Kong movie, I’d never heard of Jackie Chan. But that award led to a wide US release for Rumble in the Bronx, so wide it even played Spokane. I saw that and the few other Chans I could find on video (dubbed, badly, of course), and when I moved to Seattle, I dived headfirst into Hong Kong cinema, an obsession that has yet to subside.)  Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and Pulp Fiction (the first two I watched back to back one weekend afternoon, after my friends learned I’d never seen a Tarantino film; I had heard he’d won the Palme d’Or, but didn’t know he’d made any other movies) demanded we familiarize ourselves with their influences: film noir, Howard Hawks, Jean-Luc Godard (one of our favorite pass-times was driving around to all the video stores in town looking for a copy of Breathless. After years of searching, when finally found it for a $10 rental at a short-lived Jazz record store downtown). Movies with Christopher Walken and John Travolta and Harvey Keitel. We sought them all out, and each new discovery led to three more must-see films. Around the same time, Turner Classic Movies launched, opening a whole new front in the war on limited distribution. I’d always been a movie fan, going to the theatre was the one thing my mom, my sister and I ever did as a family, but 1994 was the year I became a cinephile, and Pulp Fiction was the spark.

And then it lost Best Picture to Forrest Gump. A fine movie, sure, one we’d all liked when it came out that summer. But it looked positively ⃞  next to Pulp Fiction. The divide was cultural, political, generational. That was their movie and this was ours, and we’d been robbed. The pattern continued, year after year: our favorites always just losing to something bigger, blander, more mainstream. I don’t know if that was new, I suspect it wasn’t, but it seemed like a new development. Like there really was a generational war at play in Hollywood, between the old guard of respectable spectacle and a new wave of independent, Alternative to use the word of the times, cinema. The consensus of the 1980s, where every couple of years it seemed everyone agreed that the Best Picture really was The Best, and would therefore reward it with a multi-Oscar sweep, were gone. But it would take a few years for this split to play itself out, the big sweeps would continue for the rest of the 90s, though the rhetoric around the Oscars and their wrongness would grow with each middlebrow choice.

Here are the Best Picture winners from 1980-1993, along with their total number of Oscars won:

1980: Ordinary People – 4
1981: Chariots of Fire – 4
1982: Ghandi – 8
1983: Terms of Endearment – 5
1984: Amadeus – 8
1985: Out of Africa – 7
1986: Platoon – 4
1987: The Last Emperor – 9
1988: Rain Man – 4
1989: Driving Miss Daisy – 4
1990: Dances with Wolves – 7
1991: Silence of the Lambs – 5
1992: Unforgiven – 4
1993: Schindler’s List – 7

That’s an average of 5.7 Oscars per winner, with 6 films out of 14 winning 7 or more awards. The average would actually go up over the next 10 years, with 4 big sweeps leading to 6.9 Oscars per winner:

1994: Forrest Gump – 6
1995: Braveheart – 5
1996: The English Patient – 9
1997: Titanic – 11
1998: Shakespeare in Love – 7
1999: American Beauty – 5
2000: Gladiator – 5
2001: A Beautiful Mind – 4
2002: Chicago – 6
2003: Return of the King – 11

But that was the last time there was any real consensus, and one could argue the Return of the King number is a fluke, driven by three years of wonder at Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy. The next 11 years show a striking break with tradition, with an average of only 4.3 Oscars per Best Picture winner:

2004: Million Dollar Baby – 4
2005: Crash – 3
2006: The Departed – 4
2007: No Country for Old Men – 4
2008: Slumdog Millionaire – 8
2009: The Hurt Locker – 6
2010: The King’s Speech – 4
2011: The Artist – 5
2012: Argo – 3
2013: 12 Years a Slave – 3
2014: Birdman – 4

There are any number of possible explanations for this trend, most probable simply being the increasing split between blockbuster “entertainment” films that dominate the technical categories while low-budget (in)dependent films, driven by strong acting, directing and writing, dominate the more prestigious awards, making a 7 Oscar win relatively rare (in order to reach that number, a film has to do well in either the effects or design categories, areas which favor big-budget spectacle). But is there in fact some more ideological, something like my (perceived) generational split at work?

Oscar season has increasingly come to be defined as a race, with the contenders and dark horses defined long before any of the films in question have been seen, and then adjusted up and down the odds tables throughout the fall festival season and into the end-of-the-year awards deluge, with critics’ groups routinely seen as mere precursors to the main events, and therefore their relevance defined by their relation to the established narrative (thus the cries of anguish from the awards bloggers when the National Society of Film Critics awarded Adieu au langage their Best Picture this past year: the Godard film wasn’t part of the defined race, and therefore the group was marginalizing themselves by choosing to acknowledge its existence, a decision that could only be made by obstinate refusal to play the game by the rules, or, in other words, snobbery). The Race is good for business: people like gossip and they like competition, awards commentary provides both in spades. Driven in no small part from the ad revenue from studio’s Oscar campaigns (the ubiquitous FYC ads you see on every major film site during voting season), there’s a vested interest in heightening the controversy, in making a compelling story out of a bunch of people getting together and voting on their favorite movies of the year.

The awards season is now a narrative-driven event, and the simplest narratives put two things in opposition to each other, thus most years, the Oscar race seems to come down to two films, and everyone is encouraged to align themselves with one camp or another. These are the years 1994-2003 of the Best Picture race, the years of heavy consensus, with the winner and the runner-up listed. Note that some years there wasn’t a clear runner-up, in which case I’ve picked the film that seemed like the #2 to me at the time. I could have been wrong. We’ll never know for sure as the Academy doesn’t release voting results.

Year Oscar Winner Runner-Up
1994 Forrest Gump Pulp Fiction
1995 Braveheart Sense & Sensibility
1996 The English Patient Fargo
1997 Titanic LA Confidential
1998 Shakespeare in Love Saving Private Ryan
1999 American Beauty The Insider
2000 Gladiator Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2001 A Beautiful Mind The Fellowship of the Ring
2002 Chicago The Pianist
2003 Return of the King Master and Commander
It looks to me like in most of these years, the race has been defined by a choice between one traditional Hollywood film and one “edgy” independent. Love stories are pitted against violent dramas, serious melodramas against genre fare, big-budget spectacle against intimate character stories. One could debate the details, but it looks to me like in every year but (possibly) one from 1994 until 2003, the Academy chose the more traditionally appealing film at the expense of the artier, hipper movie. The outlier is 1995, but I’d argue that Ang Lee’s Jane Austen film is much more modern than Mel Gibson’s war epic, though obviously far less violent. Anyway, a reasonable case could be made that the runner-up that year was actually Apollo 13, which is the most traditional of the three, but I think it and Braveheart appealed to the same core audience and was thus unlikely to have been the second-place finisher. Regardless, even with that one outlier, the trend is fairly clear. (A personal note that not every one of the winners this year was my least favorite, I would have made the same choice in three of these years (96, 97 and 98) and am fairly ambivalent about a fourth (2003)).
Now let’s look at the same chart for 2004-2014:

Year Oscar Winner Runner-Up
2004 Million Dollar Baby The Aviator
2005 Crash Brokeback Mountain
2006 The Departed Little Miss Sunshine
2007 No Country for Old Men There Will Be Blood
2008 Slumdog Millionaire The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2009 The Hurt Locker Avatar
2010 The King’s Speech The Social Network
2011 The Artist The Tree of Life
2012 Argo Lincoln
2013 12 Years a Slave Gravity
2014 Birdman Boyhood
Here we have chaos. The “edgy” film wins in 2004, 2006-09 and 2013-14, while the more traditionally appealing film wins in 2005 and 2010-12. Though the distinctions between camps are harder than ever to define. Take this past year for example. Boyhood was the consensus critics choice, which would lead one to assume it was the “artier” movie. But its style, aside from the unique method of production, is resolutely traditional, a coming of age story/family drama of the type that has broad mainstream appeal. Birdman, on the other hand, declares itself Edgy with an ostentatious pseudeo-single-take visual style, jarring tonal swings and a deeply cynical screenplay. It is most certainly a film descended from Pulp Fiction (though, I’d argue, one that learned all the wrong lessons from its forebears, but that’s not relevant here). If there is a generational war at play within the Academy, this is what one would expect the Oscar results to look like: pendulum swings back and forth, with neither side gaining enough momentum to push the consensus in one unified direction. Thus we have the significantly lower average totals of wins by Best Picture winners. Whether that represents an actual conflict or one manufactured by journalists pushing a story, I can’t say: the two feed off themselves in such a way that one can only expect further polarization and less consensus as time goes on, absent structural change of some kind.
Looking at these lists, I can’t help but compare them to my own personal award winners. Here’s the full chart for 1994-2014, with the Best Picture Endys added into the mix:

Year Oscar Winner Runner-Up Endy Winner
1994 Forrest Gump Pulp Fiction Chungking Express
1995 Braveheart Sense & Sensibility Dead Man
1996 The English Patient Fargo Comrades, Almost a Love Story
1997 Titanic LA Confidential Boogie Nights
1998 Shakespeare in Love Saving Private Ryan The Big Lebowski
1999 American Beauty The Insider Beau travail
2000 Gladiator Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon La Commune (Paris 1871)
2001 A Beautiful Mind The Fellowship of the Ring Millennium Mambo
2002 Chicago The Pianist Punch-Drunk Love
2003 Return of the King Master and Commander Running on Karma
2004 Million Dollar Baby The Aviator Tropical Malady
2005 Crash Brokeback Mountain The New World
2006 The Departed Little Miss Sunshine The Wind that Shakes the Barley
2007 No Country for Old Men There Will Be Blood Flight of the Red Balloon
2008 Slumdog Millionaire The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Sparrow
2009 The Hurt Locker Avatar Oxhide II
2010 The King’s Speech The Social Network Oki’s Movie
2011 The Artist The Tree of Life The Tree of Life
2012 Argo Lincoln Moonrise Kingdom
2013 12 Years a Slave Gravity La última película
2014 Birdman Boyhood The Midnight After

A few obvious things jump out. Only in one case does my winner match one of the top two Oscar films (though Pulp Fiction is my #2 film of 1994). As they should in comparing a consensus vote to an individual one, my choices are personal and idiosyncratic. This will happen when you compare anyone’s picks to that of a large body: the larger the voting pool, the less unique the winner. My particular idiosyncrasy appears in two forms on this list. Most obvious is the large number of Asian films, 9 out of 21, from China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan (and a 10th that’s a French film made by a Taiwanese director). But also apparent, and more important, are the large number of films that never received wide distribution in the United States (that Asian films are less likely to receive US distribution than comparable European films is a (debatable) issue for another time). Only 10 of my 21 winners had even a reasonably-sized art house run in American theatres, a few have never even qualified for major critics awards, almost all of which tie their eligibility rules to week-long theatrical runs in New York City. Instead I’ve had to seek these films out at festivals or on imported video, bypassing the establishment distribution channels entirely. Critics groups can’t and won’t do this because they are inextricably tied into the distribution system: they depend on studios for screeners and local theatrical audiences for readership.

This raises the question of the purpose of awards. Is it to raise awareness of excellence in motion pictures, to record for posterity the movies we think are great, the ones we recommend viewers of the future to seek out? Or is it a matter of marketing? Do awards matter because, as we hear every year as a justification for the countless words printed on the subject, an Oscar win significantly increases a film’s total gross, in theatrical revenue and on video, for years and decades to come? One may as well ask what is the function of film criticism: to guide the prospective viewer into places they might not go on their own, or to confirm for them what they already believe? If a critic is a guide, then it doesn’t matter whether a film they recommend is immediately available or not: it’s their job to instill the desire to seek in the audience. I think most critics would aspire to that ideal, see for example the flabbergasted responses to this week’s New York Times column lambasting the Oscars for failing to be relevant because they didn’t give awards to the highest-grossing films. Of course, the idea is absurd on its face, but the critical response is telling: to them, the Oscars, in choosing Birdman are not only not elitist, but are resolutely middle of the road. To the critical community, Birdman‘s win is a sign of the Academy’s bowing to the mainstream, of a failure to be sufficiently elite. (I’m speaking in general terms here: there is no “critical community”, there is instead a collection of individuals who disagree with each other as a matter of principle, that is part of their charm. This is, however, the reaction as I understand it in a broad sense).

Why then should critics, critics who travel the festival circuit year-round, who make yearly pilgrimages to Sundance, Locarno, Cannes, Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Berlin, Austin, Venice, Vienna and more, tie themselves to an awards model that narrowly defines what counts as a film in any given year. If awards are a snapshot, preserving the consensus thoughts about cinema at a given time for the sake of posterity, a report from a group of passionate lovers of film about what they believe is great in the present moment, then why should they define that snapshot by the parameters of an industry that views their efforts only in the crudest terms? Should critics not be in opposition to the forces that drive the awards industry, that attempt to limit what we can see? Strong reviews at film festivals can and have led to otherwise invisible films being picked up for US release by adventurous distributors, why does that noble mission stop when awards season begins? The awards bloggers want to limit our conversation to a simple narrative, they want a few, clearly defined poles: good and bad, liberal and conservative, traditional and arty, edgy and populist. The major distributors want to limit our conversation to the films they own and make available to the public: criticism is advertising, no more, no less. We shouldn’t let them. We can’t let every year come down to Forrest Gump vs. Pulp Fiction, that’s not how cinema works and it’s not how history will remember it. It has to be about Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction and Chungking Express (a film many of us only saw because Quentin Tarantino forced Harvey Weinstein to release it uncut and in its original language, something Weinstein is loathe to do with his Hong Kong properties to this day), not to mention Sátántangó and Ed Wood and Pom Poko and Exotica and The Shawshank Redemption and He’s a Woman, She’s a Man and Three Colors: Red and Drunken Master II and I Can’t Sleep and Hoop Dreams and Clerks and Speed and In the Mouth of Madness and and and.

One thought on “On the 2014 Academy Awards (Or the Vice of Intended Ignorance)

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