Thursday, April 2, 2015

Miscellaneous Musings - On Academy Award Nominations and the True Value of "Best of" Lists

April 2, 2015

On Academy Award Nominations and the True Value of “Best of” Lists

Contrary to what many would have you believe, there is no “best film” of 2014. For that matter, there is no best film of any year. What there are in any given year are lists of movies that individuals liked more than others. It seems only natural that some of these lists reveal an interest (some would say bias) in smaller, more independent films and that others skew in the direction of films that were popular at the box office. However, at the end of the year, one particular list is given much more importance than it probably deserves. I am referring of course to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s annual list of nominations, from which one film is selected as the best picture of the year. The thing is this list is no different that any other. It is not more accurate that Peter Travers’s or Leonard Martin’s, and it is not superior to one found on a popular movie blog or on your best friend’s Facebook page. All of these lists are variations of the same thing, a list of personal favorites, and as the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste.

This year the nominations for Best Picture of the Year created quite a stir, and yet what the argument essentially came down to was this: A film that many people liked was not nominated in as many categories as people thought it should have been. It even inspired a rather telling hashtag, oscarsowhite. This isn’t a new occurrence. People have made the same argument over the years about countless films. In fact, it was the snubbing of The Dark Knight that made the Academy decide to nominate up to ten films instead of the five it had been nominating since 1944. (The hope was also that the inclusion of more mainstream films would lead to higher ratings.) What made this year stand out to many people was the selective nature of the uproar. People seemed to be focusing on the exclusion of a single film and not a number of them. Yet based on their reviews and/or popularity, it seems that a case could also have been made for many other films from 2014, films such as The Lego Movie, Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive, Chef, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Obvious Child, Cavalry, Gone Girl, Goodbye to Language, Dear White People, Beyond the Lights, and Top Five. Many of these films were either critical or commercial hits; some were both. However, the argument over snubs was focused almost exclusively on one film, Ava DuVernay’s Selma.  

Like many of the films I have just listed, I have not seen Selma (It has not opened in Taiwan yet.), so I cannot say whether I would have included it among my favorite films of 2014 or not. However, the fact that it was nominated has ensured that I will eventually see it, just as I will one day watch the rest of films nominated for Best Picture of 2014. I say this because the Academy Award’s list of nominees did for me what I believe all such lists are supposed to do – to generate interest. Still, all too often these days we look for people who confirm what we already think and we dismiss or ignore the opinions of those who disagree with us. This is true in both politics and religion, and it is true in movies. Sadly, many people dismiss “best-of” lists if they don’t contain their favorite films.

Truth be told, I have my own list of Oscar grievances. For example, I have no great love for Titanic or Gladiator, preferring instead As Good As It Gets, Traffic, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and I consider the Academy’s treatment of The Ice Storm and Letters from Iwo Jima to be nothing short of criminal. I have also never forgotten that the far superior Farewell My Concubine lost out to Belle Epoque. However, I must also say that I am grateful to the Academy for bringing the latter film to my attention in the first place. Had it not been nominated, it is highly unlikely that I would ever have heard about it.

And that to me is the point of a list, be it a list of the best 100 films of all time, the ten best films of the year, or the top ten comedies or dramas. A list should inspire; it should pique interest. It should say to people, “These are films that we liked a lot and that we think are worthy of your time.” We won’t all agree of course, and ten years later, a film that resonated with viewers may seem cold or insignificant. However, what determines whether a film continues to be seen has little to do with how many nominations or awards it received. What matters is the quality of the film, and it is this that will ultimately determine whether films like Selma, Lincoln, and Brokeback Mountain continue to find audiences in the future.

On the day the Academy Award nominations were announced, one of my childhood friends expressed his disappointment on Facebook, saying that none of the films that were nominated were movies that he had seen or wanted to see. I find this comment sad, for it suggests a disinterest in new and different things. It also reminds me of the numerous comments online that justify indifference to a particular film by saying that not everyone is looking for Citizen Kane when they go to the movies. Sometimes, they argue, people just want to see things blow up for two hours. I get this. I do. However, a list should be a starting point, a beginning to a conversation. It should not be the final verdict or an affirmation of what one already thinks. After all, what exactly can be gained by that? 

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