I have always had an ambiguous attitude to the Oscars. The Academy’s track record over the past almost 90 years has not been good. The judgement has too often favoured the big over the great, the shallow over the profound and the mawkish over the moving. Then, in my more generous moments, I have thought that they, at least, provide a carrot for filmmakers to elevate their work over the lowest common denominator level that seems to be the norm for much of Hollywood’s output.
I don’t even want to get into the question of non-English language cinema except to say that how Almodovar’s Talk to Her (Hable con Ella) failed to be nominated for Best Picture, which it most certainly deserved to win, I fail to understand, especially as Almodovar himself won most deservedly for Best Original Screenplay, and it was a year of relative midgets won by Chicago. But there are just too many voters who can’t be bothered to read the subtitles (even in Spanish, which is the second language of California!!).
This is not to say that I am making my remarks primarily on the basis of my own likes and enthusiasms. But one looks for the winners of the past to be the most admired classics of today. But no, Citizen Kane regarded as inferior to How Green was my Valley, Vertigo wasn’t nominated in any category! No Best Director Oscar for Hitchcock, Welles, Lubitsch, Chaplin… I could go on and on. Nor do less ‘intellectual’ categories fare very well. No best actor for Cary Grant, nor best actress for Marlene Dietrich, or Jean Arthur, whom James Stewart described as “the best actress I ever worked with.”
Perhaps even worse than this is the way that, over the last decade or so, the marketing departments have gone bananas with carefully crafted ‘Oscar-ready’ productions. Thematic threads abound with Good Things – tolerance of a host of minorities, battling against injustice, and, bizarrely, the British Royal Family! Then there are the equally obligatory Bad Things to be roundly condemned – slavery, war, social prejudices, as if art is disguised sociology, and this decade’s social obsessions will last as long as Shakespeare’s plays.
But hey, there must be some good things in the Oscars, even for a Grumpy Old Film Critic like me. Well, at least once in the last decade and a half, they made an heroic and great choice – Million Dollar Baby. But, as I pass backwards in time, I can’t understand how they chose Birdman over Boyhood, 12 Years a Slave to virtually anything and certainly Her and Nebraska, etc., etc.
And, of course, there are years like 2009 when nothing deserved an Oscar and like 2008 when nearly all those nominated (except, possibly, Michael Clayton), were better than most of the winners in surrounding years. I well recognise that the Best Picture Oscar is not meant to be a foolproof value judgement for the future, but couldn’t they “get it right” once in three years rather than once in ten, as, approximately, at present.
Here is my list of Best Picture Oscar “should have beens” since 2000.
2000 – Requiem for a Dream
2001 – Mulholland Dr
2002 – Hable con Ella
2003 – Goodbye Lenin
2004 – Million Dollar Baby
2005 – The New World*
2006 – Letters from Iwo-Jima
2007 – Atonement
2008 – In Bruges
2009 – Fantastic Mr Fox
2010 – Inception (with reservations)
2011 – The Tree of Life
2012 – To the WONDER
2013 – Her
2014 – Boyhood.
* In fairness, The New World was excluded from consideration as Malick re-edited the film after poor audience response to its US release.
So, what should win this year – I don’t know because, regrettably, I have only seen one nominated film – that is Carol, which, in spite of its Good Thing leanings, is full of classical filmic qualities and makes a fascinating companion piece to Far From Heaven. If it wins, which I doubt, I won’t be rejoicing, but at least I won’t be tearing my hair out.