So we’re approaching the 2019 Oscars (sorry, the 91st Academy Awards), and this is the time when various entertainment journalists post their Oscar picks. I’m not going to do that because I haven’t seen enough of the movies, and I would either choose only the safe bets or only the long shots. Instead, we’re going to talk about why and how none of this matters in the long run.
Part of the reason that none of this matters is because the films that get major awards show campaigns are designed to fit the tastes of the Academy voters, and those tastes overlap with the tastes of many critics pretty often (though critically reviled films like Crash and Green Book creep through every once in a while). While it’s true that almost all films made for the masses rely heavily on marketing and formulas nowadays, I’d argue that the same is true for awards-show-centric films. That’s why we have the term “Oscar Bait.” Here’s a quick history of how Oscar Bait came to be, and it’s very enlightening. One of my favorite parts of that video is when Lindsay Ellis starts listing off the different Oscar Bait tropes, including the Holocaust, Meryl Streep being in a film, the Weinsteins’ involvement, Hollywood as the setting, etc. We can rail all we want about popular films being nothing but formulas these days, but we have to admit that the same is true for the fiction that we consider to be High Art or True Art. Generally, these works have to be serious and dramatic, often based on a true story, and they must somehow hew towards the status quo in terms of storytelling. That’s why the Academy likes films like Crash and Green Book: they take difficult and complicated subjects like racism and race relations and water them down so that older folks like the Academy voters can feel good about them without having to think too hard. The Oscars aren’t about which films are truly great because that can’t be determined in the first few months after a films released. With the exception of cinematic landmarks like Black Panther and the original Star Wars, a film’s legacy can take years to determine, partly because films that may seem edgy and topical when they were first made may come across as hopelessly dated years or decades later.
By the same token, a film’s immediate critical reception doesn’t necessarily affect its cultural impact. For instance, here are some excerpts of Star Wars reviews from 1977. As you’ll see, that film, which is now considered a cinematic landmark, was treated by critics as lesser-than, a movie made for children and immature adults. Except for the reviews written by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, those excerpts sound like they come from people who care a lot about feeling superior to other people when it comes to the fiction they consume. And that’s one of my biggest problems with film criticism that’s published in/on mainstream publications and websites: so many critics and reviewers are looking down their noses at the rest of us. They don’t enjoy Star Wars because they know better than the rest of us. This is true for the cinephiles that pop up in internet comment sections, too, and for the fanboys that obsess over modern blockbusters: these different groups of people all share the need to feel superior to other people because of what they consume and how they consume it. In fact, it feels like a sense of moral superiority, when in reality, that sort of condescension is borne out of insecurity more than anything else. At the end of the day, Star Wars has effected far more people on an emotional level than any of those reviews ever will. Also, for anyone who thinks it’s childish, that may be one of its strengths: its stories are simple enough for kids to understand, so it makes for a great introduction to speculative fiction. I know it was for me.
That’s the thing that I think both critics and the Academy fail to understand: great storytelling doesn’t necessarily have to do with thinking on the very highest levels of human intellect or telling the most complex narrative. Great storytelling hits people on both emotional and intellectual levels, and it either perpetuates or challenges the values of the society in which it was made. Or it can perpetuate some values while challenging others.
With all that said, here’s what I want to win Best Picture: Black Panther. That probably won’t happen, but I don’t care. None of it really matters to me.