First and foremost, I love predicting the Oscar winners—of course, I also hate the fact that they are so predictable. (As for the rare exceptions: nothing gets me more excited than a shocker like Crash’s Best Picture win last year; but the shockers also irritate me immensely, upsetting my nigh-perfect list of predictions and reminding me that the only way the Oscars can truly shock anyone anymore is by making their decisions completely arbitrary.) It thrills me that I can say with a great deal of confidence that Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy will take this year’s four acting awards—it pains me that it’s an almost unthinkable occurrence that those same awards could be given to anyone else, justified as it may be.
I love it when truly astounding films outside of the mainstream like Pan’s Labyrinth, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon get the nominations they so richly deserve, and I hate it that they invariably get shut out of any big awards after being placated with a Best Art Direction nod here and a Best Original Screenplay nod there. (A tradition since Citizen Kane—nine nominations, one win for the latter of the two aforementioned categories.) I love how the Academy Awards have a kind of conscience to them, where big snubs of the past get rewarded in later years (see Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, James Stewart, and possibly Scorsese this year); I also hate how this same “conscience” reminds me that the Oscar decisions are not in fact made by impartial judges, and that the best achievement may not always get the statue. I love how feature-length animated films have finally gotten the respect they deserve and have been given their own category—I hate how this means that never again will an animated film be nominated for Best Picture, as Beauty and the Beast was in 1992.
I love it when Canadian films like Water get nominated and give me something to root for.
I hated Water.
My point is, for me and plenty of others, the broadcast of the Academy Awards is much more than a mind-numbingly long annual television event. It’s a game. It’s a culture. It’s a cause for celebration, or for despair. It fills up “to watch” lists or serves as an indication of which movies to actively avoid. It’s a time to ooh and aah at $70,000 dresses, to judge celebrities with every step they take on the red carpet, to see how Joan Rivers’ face is holding up. It’s a great homage to the artform that is cinema, or a testament to the deterioration of the quality of contemporary films. Most of all, it is a mind-numbingly long annual television event, and one listened to and talked about like no other—the television audience for it is truly immense (last year drew nearly 40 million viewers in America alone).
That’s the crux of the matter. I love watching and talking about the Oscars, and I hate that they are so watched and talked about. This is not because of elitism on my part—it’s not as if the Oscars are high-brow entertainment, though they may aspire to be as much—but because I’m afraid that they have become the be-all-end-all arbiters of taste for far too many people. The fact is, only certain kinds of films get recognition at the Academy Awards—films by respected (old) directors, films that have made some kind of a “splash,” token “indie” underdog films, and almost exclusively films in the English language. As I have realized again and again, the Oscars are the results of a completely subjective judging process that’s nevertheless treated as an objective mark of quality by the movie-watching public. The Oscars are the most fun when you’re emotionally invested in them, but it’s nigh impossible to be both invested and still take the final results with a grain of salt. Almost every year, the very best films made don’t even get mentioned—they’re foreign, or too local, or (actually) controversial, or animated, or a slew of other factors that don’t make them Academy Award-fodder (like this year’s The Descent, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Three Times, Blood Tea and Red String, 13 Tzameti, Drawing Restraint 9, and the rereleases of Army of Shadows and The Passenger). These are the films that you have to seek out yourself, which takes work; the Oscars have become just another way to avoid any real effort, a shorthand that determines the four or five films that a given person will rent in the next little while. Sometimes it works out, like when Spirited Away won an award and prompted a wider release in theatres. Mostly, however, it doesn’t, and the stacks of Gladiator, Titanic and A Beautiful Mind DVDs become an impenetrable wall, on the other side of which lie films that may not have won anything but which you may end up liking a whole lot more.