Are the Oscars Really Doing Their Job?

By Miriam Trujillo

There can only be ten films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar every year.  The award will only go to one of the potential ten. These factors of cinema’s awards season will not change.  Yet, so much of the Academy’s criteria could change. Perhaps, the presuppositions that this prestigious body of experts have regarding what makes a good movie may be getting in the way of their ability to recognize and reward innovative art. 

Recently, Emerald Fennell, a showrunner of Killing Eve and director of the up and coming movie Promising Young Woman, had a few remarks relevant to this problem in the film industry

“The Academy and, I suppose, all of these institutions have members who are incredibly busy.” Fennell said, “It’s difficult to make sure people have seen everything and necessarily the way humans are, they prioritize things they are comfortable with or they think they’ll like. They’ll go with the established filmmakers.”

This suggestion, that the Academy sticks with content that already feels familiar, is troubling.  If the Academy has fallen into the rut of recognizing only “Spielberg good” or “Tarantino good” but cannot recognize the equally artistic vision of unknowns, how are they possibly relevant to the cutting edge of cinema?  If they are able to identify a good drama, but fail to see the artistry in other genres, do they really have a wide enough perspective on the film industry to crown a “Best Picture of the Year”?

Like any art form, cinema is a wonderful thing because all of its sub-genres have a shot at producing truly innovative art. Directors can tell horror stories, comedies, or action adventures.  They can tell these tales in any language or no language at all. They can use an exclusively blue color palette, they can shoot from angles where we never typically see a human face, or they can tell their story backwards.  Yet, all these eccentric filmmaking styles can easily become conduits for a transcendental vision. Any technique can become a means to show its audience something beautiful, something thought provoking, something that speaks to our very essence as human beings.  The most ordinary objects, the most humdrum people can be transformed into something that speaks to the extraordinary. If we look at the trends in Best Picture victories, however, it is the painful case that only obvious “art” films get recognized as art. Let’s take a look at the Best Picture Winners of the last decade:  The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),  Spotlight, Moonlight, The Shape of Water, and Green Book.  All of these movies, are dramas.  The plots are all high stakes stories, dealing with real world issues.  For the most part, these films are linearly told and use fairly conventional yet powerful filming techniques.  They all star well known actors. Obviously, a solid, gritty drama full of proven talent and told by easily followed images is a great method of storytelling, but it is not the only one.  

The movies of 2019 were exceptional in their unconventional approach to their craft. While many of the best films of the year were indeed recognized by the Academy, one snub stuck out in particular: Knives Out.  Knives Out certainly doesn’t appear to fit the usual Best Picture criteria.  The stakes of the story don’t feel particularly high, the plot and the setting are so surreal that it barely feels as if we are dealing with the real, gritty world.  It doesn’t appear to deliver a timely message that marks it out as relevant to 2019. The director is best known for his directorial work in Star Wars, an action franchise.  Action franchises don’t impress the Academy. Perhaps most importantly, the movie doesn’t take itself seriously. Every dramatic moment is undercut with some ridiculous joke.  Every character, except, the heroine, is such a buffoon that all we really want to do is laugh at them. The Oscar’s don’t like movies that poke fun of themselves. The Academy is built on prestige.  They want their movies to be elevated, elite entertainment, constructed with the dignity that befits their station as elevated, elite consumers.

But art is supposed to imitate life.  Life doesn’t take itself seriously. The world we live in is full of clownish moments of irony that never should have happened, and buffoons who don’t realize how ridiculous they sound.  Knives Out captures the exquisite absurdity of life so well.  It’s screenplay (incidentally one of the tightest, most original screenplays to come out of 2019) is so full of the unexpected twists and heinous accidents that happen all around us all the time.  The story’s setting, that fantastic house were every knick-nac, every grotesque statue is shot with so much emphasis they feel like characters in the story, savours of the oddity that exists in the world around us if we just look.  True, Knives Out is not a searing drama with a monumental impact, but it still has the potential to be art.  Art can be wild as well as serious.

And art can be found in the most unexpected genres, even pop-genres like action franchises.  Avengers Endgame showed some of the world’s most loved heroes at their weakest moments. In the culmination of their story, the untouchable Avengers finally felt vulnerable.  Their sacrifices felt real and their struggles truly heroic. The character arcs of these colorful superheroes were as poignant as any struggle found in a Best Picture film, and a good character arc is a great artistic achievement.

It’s 2020 now, and the future of film has never looked brighter.  The frankly absurd amount of streaming sites has upped the competition, forcing these companies to come out with increasingly better original content.  The nine films nominated for Best Picture are truly incredible and innovative. The win will almost definitely go to a film that deserves it. Yet, the Academy still isn’t thinking big enough.  It’s mindset still isn’t mirroring the vast and varied world of films we are experiencing. It will take a good deal of thinking outside the box, but it will be a wonderful win for art when the Academy starts to recognize beauty in all its shapes and forms.

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