I have always been curious about the process of how a film is ultimately awarded the Best Picture tag. While I usually watch the Oscars and cheer for my personal picks to win, there is something really disturbing about the whole thing. I always feel it when I ask myself the question: what does it mean to be Best Picture? What is the formula that a Best Picture must execute more efficiently than all of the other American theatrical releases this year? While I have examined the dangers of awards and top ten lists - notably how they influence perception and intepretation of individual films as well as sustain views of film art which aren't exactly healthy - I'm more interested here in the elusive question of how a Best Picture actually wins the award and what this means for the discussion and understanding of cinema.
The immediate question that arises from awards discussion is how can some individual or organization label anything "the best," especially considering the subjective experience of perception and interpretation that guides one's view of a film. Because some experts vote on which is the best, and film X wins, does that make it the best film of that year? The short answer is no. But I cannot help but remain fascinated by the whole thing and why people love to argue about it. A great way to identify some of these questions and issues is to looking back at all of the previous winners and identifying thematic and/or structural patterns. One can then begin to piece together what the Academy values most in a film and learn how they measure "quality."
Kristin Thompson over at Observations of film art and Film Art has put together a fascinating entry concerning her own views of what should have won the Best Picture Oscar over the years. For each year until 2000, Thompson cites the winner from a given year as well as the film she thinks should have won. Her selections are fascinating because she seems to follow her own individual beliefs in naming what should have won. On her list are some critical darlings such as Fargo, Pulp Fiction, Psycho, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but also among her choices are some unexpected films (at least in terms of a more "serious" crtical approach, one I believe to be a fallacy and both she and David Bordwell have revealed as such in their work). These include Beetlejuice, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Chicken Run.
I know that the Contrarianism blog-a-thon just ended, but I cannot help but think about dominant attitudes and practices in criticism which dictate that only films that are "serious" should win awards. And by serious I mean "important" subject matters, like those explored in films such as Babel or Crash. That is the major problem I have with the Oscars. Although they have gone against type and embraced films that on the surface didn't deal with important/serious subject matters (e.g. Silence of the Lambs), they tend to follow a very predictable pattern of choosing all-encompassing, life contemplating films with big thematic ideas. Even darker films like American Beauty adhere to this pattern.
What I admire about Thompson's selections is that she is unafraid to fly against the critical mainstream, risking being labelled as a contrarian, when in fact she and her husband, David Bordwell, are simply more free-thinking about criticism and film interpretation rather than simply being contrary to popular belief. Thompson's selections show her embrace of a wide range of films including Hollywood filmmaking, critical tradition, as well as seemingly unnoticed films not on critics' or Hollywood's radar. Her choices are incredibly varied. Although she provides no reasoning for her choices (which logically would have been rather cumbersome, taking her weeks to put together), the listing of the choices themselves speaks volumes to her openness to the film vieweing experience as a critic.
I mention this because I think that it's in the best interest of all critics and voters in film organizations such as the Academy to adopt such an open attitude when it comes to understanding film images and the meaning they create, as well as assessing their quality. I admire someone who is unafraid to embrace a film that is not deemed acceptable to like by whatever dominant institution or ideology of which the film is part or to which it is relevant. This doesn't mean that we should think anything dominant or mainstream is suspect and try to be rebels or contrarians, because ultimately they're no different than the ones they claim to rebel against.
Critics are often pinned as being cranky, predictable, and out-of-touch. While this isn't true of all or even most critics, there are a chosen few popular ones and a wealth of journalistic critics who emobody a naturally contrarian approach to cinema, as if nothing will please them and that good films mean "interesting characters, crisp dialogue, and a well structured plot." These critics have bought into their own empty rhetoric and don't think to question their own practices for one moment before employing them to deems films as worthy or unworthy. That's why I always find it refreshing and inspiring (especially as somebody hoping to make my own contribution to criticism someday) to see some critics embody everything good about criticism by effectivelly capturing their personal experiences with the cinema, in so doing evoking thought and discussion about the magic, artifice, pleasure, and anything else associated with experiencing moving images.
It's not always easy to "do your own thing," since every critic has been influenced by popular approaches to criticism, both good and bad, as well as several critics who serve as unofficial mentors and models for structuring one's own criticism as one ventures into it for the first time. As hard as it is to find one's own voice, it's so crucial to the overall discussion and state of cinema to be unafraid to state one's opinions while balancing those opinions with a continued pursuit of education. One's learning never stops, and that should be reflected in their ideas and writing.
To re-focus this post back to the original point of the Oscars and predicting the winners, I would hope that voters and contributors to the discussion of cinema on all levels - even the highest - don't promote static criticism, and are instead willing to challenge, question, and ponder commonly held notions of what constitutes film quality. In doing so, the critical community can therby address the relevant concepts of thought and discussion as they emerge from cinema as a personal and collective experience.
This more open and inquisitive perspective of cinema which Thompson evokes is often reflected in many Oscar nominations. But in terms of the winners, we still have a long way to go. Last year, for example, four of the five films nominated for Best Picture were provocative and uniquely nuanced in their own ways, yet the film that won, Crash, was a pastiche of popular network narrative styles cloaked in a facade of so-called ambiguity. This year, the Best Picture nominees as a collection are quite interesting, but perhaps not as much as last year, in which the nominees were fascinating more for their quiet instrospection rather than "big" ideas. Several of them dealt with important issues facing us today as citizens of a nation and as social beings in a culture. Some criticized the films as being "issue" pieces, but the only nominee guilty of this would be the eventual winner, Crash, which exploited popular contemporary stylistic devices to create an in-your-face examination of important issues. Babel is scarily similar to Crash in some ways in its use of the network narrative and thematic similarities of communication, culture, and social identity, but I think that actually hurts its chances since that was the trendy thing last year. I have written about both The Queen and Letters From Iwo Jima in my Cinema 2006 series, and I stand by my beliefs that they are both brilliant films. The other two films nominated, The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine, I enjoyed immensely but would hesitate to call them great. I didn't feel the emotional connection to The Departed that seemed to be brewing underneath its surface and despite it being very absorbing and exciting, it felt too concocted to me, the events too convenient. At times, the film felt like a blatent result of screenwriting structure. Little Miss Sunshine, one of the more charming films of last year, overcame a premise and stylistic execution that were both very traditional in their rebelling against classical tradition. But the film slowly found a really strong rhythm and offered a subtle examination of a family dynamic without being overly insistent on its themes of the broken American dream. I liked both of these films very much on first viewings and intend to view them again as in the near future. Neither of them left the impression on me that Letters From Iwo Jima and The Queen did.
To me, it's not about agreeing or disagreeing with what wins, since everything comes down to personal experience and interpretation. More interesting is the study of films that have won and identifying patterns of what the dominant institutions consider film quality, because it is absolutely essential that this perspective never remains static or complacent. No formula should determine Best Picture winners. Any film should be capable of garnering the award, not just "serious" or "important" films. Critics and awards committees now need to be confident enough to contemplate the medium itself and what constitutes quality; there is no set answers, because the idea of film quality like many other ideas associated with interpretation should be fluid and ever-expanding, along with our understanding of the film as an art form and a medium of communication.
In a sense, the Oscars are meant to represent the pinnacle of American film from year to year. Thompson observes that it's hard to really know how certain films will be remembered over time, which is why she doesn't choose her winners beyond 2000. The beauty of the Oscars in an American film history sense is that they represent cinema through the years. One film from a particular year is chosen to represent that year cinematically; and what it says about that year or that time is fascinating to study. It's really quite impossible to somehow know what will be revolutionary or important in the now; it can really only be determined in retrospect. This view of the Oscars sees the term, "best," not so much as best as most influential or most interesting that will someday transcend the present and be remembered. The fun of it is that we don't know what will be remembered once the now becomes the then. It's one big guessing game, and looking back on winners is an exciting exercise to see what has molded itself in our collective memory and what hasn't; what has really contributed to the American film experience and what hasn't.
I think this perspective of the Oscars is more fruitful than merely trying to pinpoint which film supposedly objectively embodies our collective notion of film quality. There can never be an objective understanding of "best" when we discuss these issues. But in order for that term to represent more than a failed attempt for objectivity and sustaining a facile and destructive notion of quality, we the critics, the bloggers, the lovers of film everywhere need to understand the term as not quality and objectivity, but a one word summation for which film stands out in our own individual perspectives as being the most noteworthy, stimulating, contributory to the advancement and discussion of cinema. While I value personal perspective in discussion rather than collective voting, I still think there is a place for almost mythical ceremonies like the Oscars. Some shun them and laugh at them, some live and breathe them. I am probably somewhere in the middle in that I value its place in our collective consciousness regarding cinema, but I also acknowledge its potential dangers and weaknesses that call for improvement (notably the compartmentalizing of the film experience and the notions of quality which are imposed on others' views of film). Nevertheless, the Oscars, in particular the Best Picture awards, are a fascinating staple in our film culture.
Later in the week, I will unveil my official predictions for Oscar night. But right now, in the spirit of Kristin Thompson, I now present my own list of my choices for Best Picture nominees and winners:
* denotes my choice for the winner
[Note: Since my quest to see as many theatrical releases as possible each year started roughly in 1999, it would only be appropriate that I started there.]
Being John Malkovich
Boys Don't Cry
Eyes Wide Shut *
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon *
A.I. Artificial Intelligence *
In the Bedroom
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Lost in Translation *
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Kill Bill Volume 2
A History of Violence *
Children of Men
Letters From Iwo Jima
Pan's Labyrinth *
I'm interested in your feedback on who will win and who should win/be nominated.