Monday, July 16, 2012

Best Picture...or not




Summer is generally when studios release their big blockbusters. Fall, all the way into December, studios began slowly trickling out “award movies,” the kind of movies that feature either great directing, great acting, a great script, or some combination of all those things. “The English Patient” was released in November. “Dances with Wolves” was released in November, too. “The King’s Speech” and “Chicago” got rolled out in December. All of those films ultimately went on to win Best Picture and, as it turns out, none of those films deserved it.

Many months ago, ESPN writer/podcaster Bill Simmons floated the idea on a podcast that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should hold their annual award show with a five year delay, much like sports do with Hall of Fame voting. That way, voters have time to digest the material and films will have time to age either gracefully or not so gracefully. After all, films are meant to be watched forever and the great ones are.

For example, “Citizen Kane” came out more than 70 years ago and people still watch and dissect it. It is looked back on with reverence.  Whenever great films are discussed, the conversation usually starts with “Citizen Kane.” This is the type of reverence that Best Pictures should get, although Citizen Kane is probably not the best example because it was a colossal failure at the time it was released (William Randolph Hearst, who basically owned all media at the time, was not pleased with the fact that the movie was basically a loose portrayal of his life and did not portray him kindly).  

It does not happen that often but the Academy does get the Best Picture wrong more than it probably should, considering the fact that the most noteworthy piece of business that the Academy engages in is the celebration of cinema. Starting in 1990, which is an arbitrarily chosen time but a nice, round starting point, the following films won Best Picture: “Dances with Wolves,” “Forrest Gump,” “The English Patient,” Shakespeare in Love,” “Chicago,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash,” and “The King’s Speech.”

The above does not include every winner of Best Picture winner of the past 20 or so years, only the some of the more obviously poor choices. In 1990, for example, “Dances with Wolves” defeated “Goodfellas.” In hindsight, that choice looks terrible. “Dances with Wolves” is a nice film but does not offer the timelessness that people have come to expect out of a Best Picture winner (although a reimagined version of the film recently proved successful, when it was released under the title “Avatar”) “Goodfellas,”on the other hand, redefined the mob movie genre and is often mentioned in conversation with “The Godfather,” another revolutionary film that defined the genre originally. Ultimately, though, every one of those selections was in direct competition with at least one superior film, some with multiple better options. At the time, this vote did not look so egregious. “Dances with Wolves” was immensely popular and there was a legitimate possibility that it would end up as a timeless work. It took several years for the error of the pick to become apparent.

Like in 1990, some films needed a few years of digestion in order for the viewer to fully see its flaws and strength. However, some poor selections were apparent immediately. As recently as 2006, a terrible selection was made and immediately noticeable. “Brokeback Mountain” was a game-changing movie that was beloved by both critics and audiences and helped legitimize the careers of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. “Crash,” on the other hand, was a movie that featured an ensemble cast and a number of converging storylines about race and tolerance. One film featured great performances and ultimately a very touching story about lost love. The other featured Ludacris using a wide variety of racial slurs. When it came time to announce Best Picture, in an ironic twist, the film that spoke about tolerance by displaying basically every stereotype imaginable defeated the film that showcased the negative effects that intolerance has. Basically, the voters went with Ludacris and his racial slurs.

Films are made to endure. People look back to films and remember the time in their life the first time they saw it. Great films have profound impact on everyone who views them. Heck, the two frontrunners for Best Picture in 2012, “Hugo” and “The Artist,” were basically tributes to the film industry from years gone by. Ultimately, awards and accolades do not matter to the overall legacy of a film. People will still watch classic movies over and over again, if it that film, much like “Citizen Kane,” did not win Best Picture. However, wouldn’t be it look good for the Academy if the consensus best film of the year was recognized as such. Movies don’t need the validation but the awards sure do. 

By Tony Fioriglio
afioriglio@timesherald.com

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