Best Picture? According to Whom?
Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Have you seen any of these films? They rank among the best films produced this year, according to David Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. And none are on the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences’ nomination list for this year’s Academy Awards.
The first is a Turkish art film, the second an American independent romantic comedy, the third a black-and-white Portuguese film with a limited U.S. release, and the last one an American documentary that brought in $82,100.
Every year, a number of critics will come out against certain picks and winners. Some will criticize the Academy Awards for misrepresenting of the world of cinema by leaving out worthy independent films, art house films and foreign films.
Sterritt’s list of the best films includes some crossovers with the Academy’s, like Michael Haneke’s “Amour” and Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina.” But the majority of Sterritt’s top films were produced with small budgets and seen by a small audience.
“Any responsible critic wouldn’t dismiss the Oscars,” said film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon. “It’s an important part of American history, but in the public’s mind it is emblematic of all American film history — and that’s not the case. The Academy is a closed set, a deceptively small selection of films.”
With the world’s massive output of films each year, the Oscars primarily recognize a select few Hollywood films.
“The Oscars presents itself as the be-all end-all of cinema. It perpetuates the notion that Hollywood is American Cinema, and American cinema is cinema,” said Max Dawson, assistant professor of radio, film and television at Northwestern University
The Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences is made up of 6,000 professionals in the film industry. The members are divided into subsets of editors, cinematographers, actors, directors, producer, animators and screenwriters who nominate films in their area of expertise.
But according to Sterritt, their most important criteria is entertainment value and popularity. Then comes prestige.
Another factor: Every year, the big studios wage heavy promotional campaigns on behalf of their big budget films to ensure every voter watches them. And because the big advertising dollars are going to a select number of films, smaller independent films are often squeezed out of sight of voters.
Sterritt says the nomination list can be broken up into audience-pleasers like “Django Unchained” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” fringe art films like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and films that are both accessible to mass audiences and preserve the prestige of Hollywood — “Argo,” “Life of Pi” and “Les Miserables.”
“They don’t want people to forget for a single moment that they are in touch with the taste of the American public,” Sterritt said.
Dawson classifies the tastes of the Academy as “middlebrow,” saying its members consist of educated, upper-middle class, predominantly white male voters who don’t want to alienate the average movie goer. He explains that films that challenge the conventions of cinema, experiment with the boundaries of film, or those dramatically out of line with the values of the middle class will not be chosen.
“Oscar-nominated films have middlebrow bias toward films that have closures and leave us feeling, if not better, than better with ourselves for having watched it,” Dawson said.
“Lincoln” is an example of a film that makes audiences feel good by appealing to their better nature, Dixon said. “By giving ‘Lincoln’ 12 nominations, they’re saying, we hear you, we know you want a film that is reassuring, that convinces you that in this time of difficulty, like during the Civil War, we are going to get through it,” he said.
“It’s about how it can take us away to a 120-minute journey where we can experience something through these technical proficiencies,” said Dawson. “They want to promote films that promote Hollywood and make Hollywood the most legitimate and rightful source of entertainment.” In other words, the Academy Awards show is a big advertisement for the movies.
“There are film journals, universities and institutions that compile lists of noteworthy films with serious critiques if one wants film evaluations,” said Dawson. “If one wants to see Robert Downey Jr. and Julia Roberts hand a trophy to Daniel Day Lewis, one watches the Oscars.”