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Hindsight is 2020: In Defense of the Best Picture Nominations…

It’s a strange position to be in, to mount a radical argument that the Best Picture race is actually fairly solid this year.

To be fair, there are legitimate grievances to be had. The Academy went with old favourites in several of the acting categories, overlooking amazing work. The Best Actress category would be stronger if the voters opted for Lupita Nyong’o for Us over than Charlize Theron for Bombshell. The Best Supporting Actress race would have been more interesting had Kathy Bates for Richard Jewell been replaced by Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers. The all-male Best Director category is also frustrating, considering the fine work done by directors like Olivia Wilde, Lulu Wang, Céline Sciamma, Lorene Scafaria, and more over the past year.

However, there is also something inevitable about the tone of the debate over the Best Picture race. The Academy Awards is never going to actually please everybody. There are several hundred films released every year that meet the criteria for eligibility. Taste is inherently subjective. Everybody likes different things. More than that, the Academy is a large body comprised of a variety of different voices, especially after recent diversity pushes to modernise the membership. Even if there was a list of (up to) ten films that would satisfy everybody, the Academy would never be the body to produce it. And that is okay.

Instead, the Best Picture nominees this year offer a snapshot of cinema as it was in 2019. They offer a glimpse of the breadth and the depth of mainstream movie-watching, a list of nine very distinct films that offer nine very distinct perspectives on where the medium is and where it might be going. The beauty of the Best Picture nominees this year is that there’s something for everyone, but nobody gets everything. This seems fair, even if the impulse is to want an entire slate that reflects personal taste.

There is a larger debate to be had about the purpose of the Academy Awards, what they should represent and to what they should aspire. There is a mythology around the awards, reflected by their prominence in popular culture. They exist at the end of an awards season that features countless bodies giving out countless prices. The Academy Awards are the alpha and the omega. They are the endpoint of awards season, but also the target towards which it inexorably builds. Indeed, it’s notable that other ceremonies like the Golden Globes or the BAFTAs are often quantified in terms of their capacity to predict the Oscars.

The Oscars play into this mythology. The night is treated as a very dignified and celebratory affair, with Hollywood effectively throwing a party for itself. This sense of self-importance is reflected in the ceremony’s tendency to honour movies that flatter not only the artform but the industry – the twenty-first century has seen victories for films like The Artist and Argo, but even more indirect celebrations of movie-making like The Shape of Water. The awards are broadcast on network television. Although the importance of networks like ABC has diminished in recent decades, that is still a big deal.

All of this covers up the crass reality of the function of the Academy Awards. For all the history, for all the glitz, for all the glamour, the Academy Awards serve primarily as a fundraiser for the Academy. The advertising revenue from the telecast serves to fund an incredibly large proportion of the rest of the Academy’s activities. This gets at the paradox of the Academy Awards. They do not reflect the popular taste so much as they chase it. This is why things like the failure to nominate The Dark Knight led to such radical reforms as the expansion of the Best Picture category and why they’ve mooted things like Best Popular Film.

If one were to offer a justification for the Academy Awards, it would be that their platform allows them to shine a light on films that might otherwise fly under the radar. After all, there is a well-documented bump in earnings following an Oscar nomination and even an Oscar win. This is why producers like Harvey Weinstein chased these awards so cravenly, because they understood that for a low-budget film, winning a major award couple double or even triple the box office. There was no love of art, but a profit motive.

This cravenness might be excused if it helps convince mainstream audiences to cast their eyes towards films like The Favourite or Phantom Thread or Call Me By Your Name. However, as with everything, there is a compromise involved in this transaction. These smaller films only receive a bump if mainstream audiences believe in the value of the Academy Awards. The Academy Awards only convince these audiences by nominating films that these audiences have seen and enjoyed. There is a balance to all of this horse-trading, effectively the classic Hollywood “one for you, one for me”, but between awards body and audience.

Personally, I joke that the purpose of the Academy Awards is to convince my parents to watch Parasite. Bong Joon Ho has spent much of awards season (rightly) criticising the “one-inch” barrier of subtitles, but they remain a barrier for audiences who just want to sit down in front of a screen after a long day and passively absorb a film. An Oscar nomination gives Parasite a lot more leverage with my parents, but it’s leverage that is earned by their affection for films like Marriage Story, Joker1917, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and The Irishman. The logic is simple: “if you liked these films, you might like this one too.”

The Academy Awards are highly unlikely to ever be one thing or the other, but will always exist as a compromise between various competing tastes. They will never be dominated entirely by any individual marker of a film’s success – the highest grossing films of the year, the best-reviewed films of the year, the most progressive, or the most traditional. Instead, they exist as a compromise between all of those competing impulses. To the organisation’s credit, this year strikes a fine compromise indeed.

The Best Picture list does not correspond to my own favourite films of the year. It probably doesn’t correspond to yours. However, there is probably some overlap between them, with each of the nominees appealing to different demographics and tastes. The nominees each speak to a different facet of modern cinema, offering something of a collage of where film is at this precise moment in time. There’s a lot of debate to be had around what “reflective” actually means – in the sense of debating what is actually worth reflecting – but there is a sense of this year’s nominees offering a snapshot of modern cinema.

The Irishman and Marriage Story illustrate the influence of streaming services, radically altering the landscape. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and 1917 offer a more traditional model of cinema, celebrating the medium’s history and its technical capacity. Parasite shows that mainstream cinema has become truly global and accessible. Little Women offers a feminist revision of a classic narrative. Ford v. Ferrari is a metaphor for a studio system rattled by changing markets. Joker is a crowd-pleasing smash that provides an intersection of Hollywood’s past and present. JoJo Rabbit is a “quirky” and “irreverent” indie.

This is where the “something for everyone, but nobody gets everything” approach comes in. Cinephiles horrified by the elevation of crass populist art like Joker might find comfort in the traditional actor-driven drama of Marriage Story. Younger film fans who find Ford v. Ferrari to be a lifeless “dad movie” might be drawn to the more playful postmodern feminism of Little Women. Those audiences who find The Irishman to be an exercise in self-indulgence might find something exciting in the elevation of Parasite. Audience members who groan at the antics of JoJo Rabbit might appreciate the straightforwardness of 1917.

Each of these films speaks to a different archetype, and each fills that role reasonably well. Joker is the populist titan, like Titanic or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Little Women is the quirky low-budget period piece like The King’s Speech or The English Patient. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is the celebration of Hollywood like Argo or The Artist. Parasite is the arthouse hit from a beloved non-American director, like Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Marriage Story is the low-budget semi-autobiographical performance-driven film that they don’t make the much anymore.

Of course, there are always corrections and revisions that might be made. The Best Picture race would probably be much more interesting if the broad crowd-pleasing box office success of Ford v. Ferrari were swapped out with another movie that fills that particular archetype, like Jordan Peele’s Us or Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. Similarly, there might perhaps be a lot to be said for swapping out the low-budget indie “quirk” of JoJo Rabbit for a similarly niche film like The Farewell, Portrait of a Woman on Fire, Waves, Uncut Gems or even The Nightingale. That’s all just a matter of taste.

Much has been written about the long-rumoured and oft-exaggerated “death of cinema.” That fear permeates this year’s awards season, ironically running the gamut from Martin Scorsese’s criticism of Marvel movies through to the manner in which The Irishman has largely been locked out of the major awards. That fear is reflected in how 1917 has pushed its way to the front of the pack, with the bulk of its populist appeal built on nothing more than than the premise of a thrilling theatrical experience – its immersive one-take approach to war demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible with the best sound system.

Of course, this fear is overblown. Cinema is actually thriving. If one looks past the presumed front runner and to the rest of the field behind it, that reality shines through. The box office success of films like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood shows that there is a market for adult-skewing movie-star driven entertainment. Netflix not only produced films like Marriage Story and The Irishman, it found a way to help them breakout with diverse and young online audiences. Joker allowed comic fans and blockbuster audiences to sample an homage to films like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy or film makers like Chantal Akerman.

It should be noted that online factionalism plays a part here, with audiences constructing their own narratives of what films were elevated and dismissed for what reasons. It’s notable that the success of Joker is largely down to the diversity of its appeal; its fans include members like Greta Gerwig and Michael Moore, its opening weekend audience was only 42% white, and earned about two-thirds of its box office abroad. Joker earned the most nominations because it spoke to the broadest demographics. (In contrast, the opening weekend audience of Little Women was 73% white and only a third of its box office is international.)

Cinema is a very vibrant medium at the moment, practically bursting at seams. To pick an example, last week alone saw the release of Uncut Gems on international Netflix, along with The Lighthouse, Queen & SlimA Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, The Rhythm Section and Richard Jewell into Irish and British cinemas. There is simply too much good cinema for a nine- (or even ten-) film field to fully capture of convey it. Any attempt to whittle down an end-of-year list to the ten best films will inevitably disappoint. (Personally, it’s the relatively exclusion of Knives Out this awards season that cuts deepest.)

However, as an impressionistic snapshot of what modern cinema looks like – the low-budget artisanal indies alongside the blockbuster behemoths, the streaming giant features alongside the more traditional allegories for studio film making, the foreign language film that taps into truly global anxieties alongside a revisionist feminist take – this slate of Best Picture nominees does a better job than most. The Best Picture nominees may not capture cinema at its very best in 2019 and 2020, as much as such a thing can be quantified or measured. However, it does offer a sense of the scale and scope of the medium.

That’s truly something.

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